Mount Pierce

  • Elevation: 4,310 Feet
  • Location: Caroll, NH
  • Date Hiked: January 25, 2018
  • Companions: Stud
  • Trails: Crawford Path, Appalachian Trail

The -30º windchill that hits us as we exit the car onto the icy parking lot takes my breath.  It hurts and as I fumble through my pack and try to get myself organized I am aware of how much I am struggling to function and we haven’t even started hiking.  We run inside the Highland Center which is this fancy shmancy AMC lodge conveniently located in Crawford Notch at the base of many trails.  This place is a hub for day hikers, backpackers, climbers, bicyclists, skiers and  tourists.  They run a shuttle, they sell and rent all kinds of gear, last minute snacks, and they have lodging, a cafe, and host various programming.  I always stop in before and after a hike when I’m in this area and use the bathroom and check in with the AMC folks and sign the hiker log so that someone knows where I am.  I tend to get shy and paranoid that the AMC folks are going to discourage us from our plans so while I dodge eye contact, Stud locks in with this very friendly woman who is not at all overly excited about our plan to hike up Mt Pierce on such a cold blustery day.  She is encouraging and positive and expresses no concern so this puts us at ease and we end up having a really nice chat with her.

We head back outside and pull on our micro spikes and quickly run across the windswept highway scaling the icy snow banks to the trailhead.  It all feels very real very fast.  It is too cold to stop and get situated so we just trudge ahead up the Crawford Path which is claimed to be the oldest hiking trail in continuous use in the United States.  Lots of history on this trail and in these woods.  The spirits are VERY present.  Lots of strange sounds.  Between the cold affecting our brains and the frozen trees, we hear lots of creaking and ghostly sounds that mimic children yelling and cats screaming…but we are the only ones out there.  We shake our heads “no” a lot.

Hiking in this kind of cold does things to a body that are counterproductive.  Unlike say… hot yoga (for example) where heat is used to softens things, in below zero tempts everything seizes up and within 10 minutes my hip flexers feel like frozen elastics and my legs are like lead.  I am confused by what is happening to my body and taken back by how incredibly hard this hike is feeling so far.  20 minutes in, I am relieved to find myself finally warming up and I begin the delayering process.  After a handful of costume changes and stops and starts we finally find our groove and fall into rhythm stopping to eat and drink every 20-30 minutes.  Our water bottles keep freezing shut even though we keep them upside down in our packs but the ice keeps forming around the top so every time I manage to just barely get mine open I drink a little extra just in case I won’t get it open the next time.

We reach the final cut-off and cross through a very cold steep section.  There are some snow drifts but nothing too deep that requires more than our spikes.  It was here that I have my first thoughts of turning around.  I can’t remember the last time I considered turning around but I am just so cold we are headed towards an exposed ridge line where things will only get colder and more windy.  I am concerned so I let go of the expectation that we will summit anything today and I shift my focus to simply taking in the frozen forest atmosphere.  It is truly magnificent and I relax into it all.

We start to see some blue through the trees.  The frosty moss glistens and we begin to bliss out.  There is this magic that happens when the trail starts to shift from a constant steep grade into a mellow foot path.  We have reached the ridge and we are now comfortably walking thru an eerily quiet alpine forest just before we will soon reach the tree line and cross this threshold onto a new planet.  Our endorphins are pumping and we know we are close but not sure how close.  We pause a few times to look at each other and smile and we suddenly know why we are here and what this is all about.  Its not about the summit anymore, its ALL about this last bit of alpine forest before the alpine zone.

As we come around a last corner of scraggly snow caked trees, I pull on my shell, tighten up my straps and we head up and out onto the exposed ridge.  This is my first time above tree line in winter in the White Mountains and my mind is blown.  With each step forward I remind myself where I am.  I am following Studs footsteps when she suddenly stops and turns around to ask if we are still on the trail.  I glance around and say yes.  We go a little further and realize we are not on the trail, have not been on the trail and are not sure where the even trail is.

This is how things can start to go downhill.  This is how the infamous stories start.  There are no blazes because its winter and they are covered.  All you have are footsteps which can quickly disappear if the wind were to blow a snow drift over them.  A compass can help if you have taken the time to set that up before being exposed.

We pause, we look around, we take note of where we came from.  We both realize we need to climb to higher ground to see where we are but we aren’t sure.  We both have the same thought that one of us should stay put while the other goes up a little ways to take a look around when Stud says it aloud and asks if I will stay where I am while she climbs ahead.  I say yes.  Stud hesitates and we process this for a second and debate if this is the right thing to do.  I announce that I feel good and that I have all my faculties and it makes sense and I am clear on where we came in from and that she should go up and look while I stay here so we don’t both get lost.  I watch her climb up ahead and then she keeps going a little further until just like that,  she’s out of my sight.  We hadn’t processed this possibility.  And now I am alone.  My stomach drops and I can feel the invitation to panic but I don’t.  I look around and I say a little prayer and I think about my girlfriend and I decide that I will stay safe, be smart and not do anything too stupid.  I want to run after Stud but I don’t.  I decide that if I don’t see Stud’s head pop back into view in about 30 seconds that I will run after her.  Meanwhile Stud realizes that she has gone farther then she intended and turns around only to realize she can’t see me.  She races back into view and waves for me to come up.  I run towards her up the rime ice digging my micro spikes in as my adrenaline is shooting through the roof.  We find the trail and charge towards the summit.  Stud says she too freaked out when she realized she had gone just beyond being able to see me. We acknowledge this two minute moment of terror and we hug.  We are relieved to be okay and we’ve made it to the top.  We’ve summitted Pierce and its so dang beautiful!  We look across the ridge at Mount Eisenhower. Originally we had planned on trying to summit this today as well.  But this ridge is way too intense to hang out on for any longer so we snap some pics and then run back down towards the shelter of the trees.

Once we are below tree line we are high on adrenaline and we can not stop screaming. We half jog down the mountain for maybe two miles before finally collapsing on the trail for a break.  Stud’s water bottle is now completely frozen at the top and I can just barely get mine open but I have plenty to share and we take turns chugging the icy water.   I take my gloves off for about two seconds to open a bar and just like that I can feel the threat of frostbite grazing my finger tips and quickly put my gloves back on.  I lay down in the middle of the trail letting my legs recharge before we continue down.  We pass a total of 4 hikers by the time we reach the windswept parking lot of the Highland Center where we are so grateful head inside to a heated shelter to change.  Cotton has never felt so good.



6 thoughts on “Mount Pierce

  1. Omg! Please don’t take risks that might lead to us losing you, Tam! You have been an inspiration to me and if I lost you I might start to doubt the wisdom of being courageous myself. I was wondering whether this story would end with a helicopter ride or an injury. My partners boss lost all of his fingertips on a climb! I love you too much to ever read that you are lost to us. Mike

    • oh Mike…you KNOW I have to dramatize this story to make it worth writing!!! Trust me, it sounds more intense than it was. Mt Pierce is the most popular winter hike on the NH48 list. Groves of hikers go up and down it all winter long. Just so you know, I draw a hard line against anything that requires ice axes, crampons, or ropes. AND I learned some things on this hike that I promise I will not repeat. I love you too!

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