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The coolest climb

Winter conditions add to the risk and the exhilaration of hiking in the high mountains

The windblown snow plastered on rocky Mount Lafayette seems part of the cloud cover, at least to a hiker who has left the trees behind en route to the 5,260-foot summit. The windblown snow plastered on rocky Mount Lafayette seems part of the cloud cover, at least to a hiker who has left the trees behind en route to the 5,260-foot summit. (Photos By Mark Arsenault/For The Boston Globe)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Correspondent / December 27, 2009

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MOUNT LAFAYETTE - We hiked on packed snow inside thick gray clouds for most of the morning. At around 5,000 feet elevation, the milky fog brightened for a moment, then the clouds suddenly parted to reveal the entire mountain.

Far below, ski trails across Franconia Notch looked like white scuffs down the flank of neighboring Cannon Mountain.

Just above us, the peak of Lafayette, at 5,260 feet, lay up a trail of blown snow, deep drifts, blue ice, and bare rock.

After giving us time for a few photographs, the hole in the clouds quickly closed, and my wife, Jennifer, and I were back in the mist.

Lafayette is an old friend I’ve summited many times in summer and fall, usually in a conga line of other hikers. The 9-mile loop hike on part of the Franconia Ridge Trail, over the tops of Mounts Lafayette, Lincoln (5,089 feet), and Little Haystack (4,780) is one of the most popular day hikes in New England.

But in winter conditions - this was the last weekend in November - Lafayette was mostly abandoned, and the up-and-back slog to its summit presented all the risks and thrills of winter hiking in the alpine zone.

Winter mountain climbing is not for everybody. There’s plenty not to like about it: icicles on your eyebrows, stepping into snow drifts and sinking to your zipper (known as post-holing because your leg leaves a hole you could plant a post in), extreme wind chills above treeline, and hydration bladders clogged by ice. After a few hours in your backpack an energy bar can be too stiff to eat.

And there is more danger in winter. In March 2004, an Andover woman died on Lafayette after taking a wrong turn in bad weather on what was supposed to be a day hike.

“The edge you’re balancing survival on is a little bit tighter in the winter,’’ says Bob Manley, 45, a photographer and experienced winter hiker from Sanbornton, near Lake Winnipesaukee.

The risk associated with winter mountain hiking, which can be reduced by proper planning, though never entirely eliminated, is part of the appeal. The winter makes everything more difficult. It can turn an old friend like Lafayette into a challenging climb, through scenery that is unrecognizable.

“It’s just spectacular some of the things snow and ice will do when blowing around the top of a mountain,’’ says Manley. “There are times when it’s like being literally on another planet. The conditions are so harsh and so violent and so strange and unfamiliar, and the gear you have on to protect yourself from those violent conditions is akin to a space suit.’’

Manley and hiking partner Gordon DuBois, 63, from New Hampton, have completed winter climbs up all 48 White Mountain peaks higher than 4,000 feet. They intend to summit the 100 highest peaks in New England - yes, all of them in winter. They have completed more than 60 and plan to climb about 10 more this season, says DuBois. Manley hikes only in winter.

Jennifer and I had chosen Lafayette because of my familiarity with the mountain, including a winter solo hike several years ago. The mountain is an easy, 2 1/2-hour drive from Boston, just north of the Loon Mountain ski area in Lincoln.

Trailhead parking is right off Interstate 93, across from the Lafayette Campground. Once on foot, we followed Old Bridle Path, which was packed hard with snow and ice from the first step.

Less than a mile from the trailhead I realized I had left behind my favorite piece of winter hiking gear: a steel vacuum thermos full of fresh hot coffee, an alpine zone delicacy. Everything tastes better on the top of a mountain. “It’ll taste good when we get back down to the car,’’ said Jennifer, still an optimist early in the hike.

The right gear is the key to comfort and survival in the mountains, says Brad White, owner and director of the International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway. “Clothing is your number one concern,’’ he says. He recommends a skin-tight synthetic base layer, several midweight layers, a wind-proof shell with a hood, mountaineering socks, stiff boots, a hat, lightweight gloves beneath waterproof mountaineering gloves, and a pair of emergency mittens.

“Have a set of chemical heat packs in the mittens,’’ White advises. “So if things become desperate and your hands are going wooden on you, you can rip them open with your teeth, drop them in the mittens and stuff your hands in there.’’ A thick goose down parka, a headlamp, Neoprene face mask, eye goggles, and a spare layer of long underwear should also be in your backpack for emergencies. Even on a day hike, it’s smart to pack enough gear to survive in case you have to spend the night.

If you forget one item, better the coffee than the headlamp. “It’s amazing, the number of people we have to help out there because they didn’t bring a headlamp,’’ White says. “It gets dark so early in the mountains, and it comes on so fast - black within 15 to 20 minutes.’’

With gear, snacks, and 100 ounces of water, my pack weighed about 20 pounds. The weather forecast put the daytime high temperature on the White Mountain peaks in the mid-20s. With frozen trails I knew we would want some kind of traction gear.

I own stiff, 12-point mountaineering crampons. Nothing gives more confidence on ice. But they’re awkward on bare rock, and not the best gear for early-season mixed conditions, snow and windswept granite.

White recommended elastic microspikes by Kahtoola. My set was $59 at REI. Out of the box they look like punk rock jellyfish in spikes and chains, but they stretched comfortably over our boots and provided good traction. If you’re between sizes, buy the smaller pair.

We decided to save weight by leaving our snowshoes, which I briefly regretted at 4,000 feet. Snow drifts were belt-buckle deep. Post-holing for several hundred yards of steep mountainside is exhausting. But then we got above the treeline, where the wind had stripped off the deep stuff. Much of the snow that remained had been windblown onto boulders in delicate feather patterns, as if we were hiking among giant hibernating birds.

The wind beat relentlessly the last half-mile to the peak. “That wind’s incredible,’’ I shouted to Jennifer. She replied that she couldn’t believe I had forgotten the coffee.

The clouds began to break up. I snapped a bunch of pictures and had to remind myself to look around, too. You can’t appreciate the frozen alpine zone through a 2-inch viewfinder.

At the summit, every surface was encrusted in blown snow that bubbled like white coral. The wind hissed and tried to push us around until we huddled behind a boulder. The PowerBar I had warmed all day inside my clothes tasted as fine as filet mignon. After spending most of the day in fog, we finally could look down on the clouds.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark0079@comcast.net.

If You Go

What to do

Lincoln Woods Trail

White Mountain National Forest

Route 112, Lincoln, about 5 miles east of Interstate 93

Break into winter hiking on popular cross-country ski and snowshoe trails with great views to the mountains.

New England Ski Museum

Exit 34B off I-93, next to Cannon Mountain Tramway

603-823-7177

www.skimuseum.org

Explore the history of skiing and snow sports; free.

Where to stay

Sugar Hill Inn

116 Route 117, Sugar Hill

800-548-4748

www.sugarhillinn.com

Country inn north of Franconia Notch, from $125.

Where to eat

Dad’s Restaurant

Beacon Resort

557 US Route 3, Lincoln

800-258-8934

www.beaconresort.com

A big, busy family restaurant. Prime rib special every night, $18.50-$23.99.

Vita Café and Wine Bar

123 Main St., Lincoln

603-745-2554

www.vitanh.com

Try the short ribs, $18.