The Crux: The NE 115's Toughest Winter Climbs

Climbing all of the Northeast’s 115 4,000-footers is a serious challenge on its own, even for the region’s most experienced hikers. But, how can you take it to the extreme? Simple: Do them all in winter. Joining that elite (and very short) list of hardy hikers requires a special skill set, gear closet, and determination that many lack. Depending on the weather, trail conditions, and other factors, any of these peaks can be perilous to climb in winter. So, here are a few of the biggest challenges, and some tips to make it to the top.

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Katahdin

Baxter State Park, Maine

Katahdin is a steep granite cirque in Maine’s Baxter State Park that includes a few different summits, the highest of which is Baxter Peak. Tagging Maine’s highest peak in winter means slogging through a grueling two-day, 13-mile approach across the park’s closed access roads (typically with expedition sleds) to Roaring Brook, and then another 3.3 miles uphill to Chimney Pond. Be prepared for consistent sub-zero temperatures and frequent avalanche danger.

To increase your chance of success, plan early to obtain reservations at the bunkhouses in Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond, rather than tenting. Have a strong group, and give yourself enough time in the park to wait for a favorable weather window to attack the summit. Use the Saddle Trail or the more challenging Cathedral Trail to ascend from Chimney Pond. If your endurance and the weather allow you to summit, you will reach one of the East Coast’s most beautiful mountains.

Courtesy: Matt's Hikes
Courtesy: Matt’s Hikes

Mount Redington

Carrabassett Valley, Maine

Home to one of the least-traveled of the Northeast’s unmarked trails, Redington is a difficult enough climb in the summer. While not especially challenging in terms of bushwhacking, reaching the summit involves a few key unmarked turns and forks on old logging roads. In the winter, you should bring a GPS or a friend who has climbed it before.

The closure of Caribou Valley Road to cars in winter means you should either ski to the crossing of the Appalachian Trail or start where the AT meets Route 16. Either way, you will travel the AT to South Crocker Mountain before beginning the 1.2-mile unmarked trek off the AT to Redington’s summit. Read the stretch’s description carefully in the AMC’s Maine Mountain Guide. To make sure you have arrived, look for an old white canister strapped to a tree on the summit.

Trail signs on the top of Mount Adams. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Trail signs on the top of Mount Adams. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Mount Adams

White Mountains, New Hampshire

While Mount Washington is the King of the Presidential Range and home to some of the nation’s worst weather, its neighbor to the north, Mount Adams, is another worthy challenge. And, in winter, climbing the exposed summit requires the same precautions and gear. You will ascend nearly 4,500 feet, with almost 1,000 feet of that above treeline. Climb the steeper Air Line Trail from the AT in order to take in the majestic views of King Ravine. Then, descend using the easier Valley Way Trail.

Courtesy: Wayfarer
Courtesy: Wayfarer

Owl’s Head Mountain

White Mountains, New Hampshire

A trip to this peak involves over 18 miles of travel. This trek may include sometimes-dangerous water crossings, unmarked bushwhack approaches, and a slide climb, so make sure river conditions are good and you’re comfortable on steep and icy terrain. Many prefer to utilize the Black Pond bushwhack route on their approach. Be sure to proceed the additional 0.2 miles north from the old summit clearing to the new summit proper to make it official.

The one saving grace here is the flat and very well maintained (but rather boring) 2.6-mile section of the Lincoln Woods Trail. You’ll pass through when you start and finish your journey from the trailhead at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Information Center. Overall, Owl’s Head has a very remote wilderness feel to it that makes the long day worthwhile.

Courtesy: LakePlacid.com
Courtesy: LakePlacid.com

Allen Mountain

Adirondack Mountains, New York

Allen offers a little bit of everything. There are several river crossings, winding meadows, woods climbing opportunities, and a steep slide climb finale. Due to its roughly 18-mile round-trip distance, it’s sometimes confusing to approach. As well, because of the deep snow often faced on Allen Brook’s final, very steep slabs, this one can be challenging. Luckily, the DEC recently replaced a long-destroyed bridge over the Opalescent River, alleviating a fording concern.

In addition, the state purchased new lands surrounding the peak. So, future hikers should stay tuned to new routes potentially opening up. For now, start at a trailhead located a mile from the end of Upper Works Road, off Tahawus Road. Follow the trail to Flowed Lands via Hanging Spear Falls for just under four miles. Soon, break right onto the unmarked but well-traveled and obvious herd path to the base of the slide and straight up to the summit ridge. Enjoy the beautiful views of Panther Gorge and the High Peaks to the north from a lookout located just beyond the formal summit.

Courtesy: LakePlacid.com
Courtesy: LakePlacid.com

Seward Range

Adirondack Mountains, New York

Any time of the year, the Sewards are a challenging hike, but the closure of Corey’s Road adds 3.5 miles each way. Depending on conditions, consider skiing this long stretch in and out. Added to this are the Western Adirondacks’ deep snows and some sparsely marked trails, and these peaks, as a result, become a major challenge. You should plan an early start, use the Calkins Brook approach, and be sure to research the route.

The Calkins Brook approach will bring you to the ridge near Mount Donaldson. This path allows you to “T” the ridge, tagging Emmons to the right (south), and Seward to the left (north). The range’s isolation and remoteness have a wonderful feel in winter, but their rewards demand a long day of effort. Unless you are exceptionally fit or planning an overnight, avoid the temptation to add nearby Seymour Mountain.

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Basin Mountain

Adirondacks, New York

Basin lies deep in the Eastern High Peaks’ Great Range. This means there are only a few ways up, and all involve long approaches and very rugged terrain. In addition, several steep ledges, frozen ladders, and frequent ice bulges make this trek particularly difficult in winter. As with many of these peaks, it’s valuable to carry a general mountaineering ice axe to assist with some tricky sections.

For a greater challenge, consider adding Saddleback Mountain to create a larger loop hike. Or, for the expert HaBaSa route, include Haystack within your itinerary. Be aware, though, that this will add obstacles to an already-difficult trek up Basin Mountain: for instance, Saddleback’s cliffs and Little Haystack’s icy ledges. Typically, an approach starts from the Garden Trailhead, travels past Johns Brook Lodge, and then climbs past Slant Rock, and on up the Great Range Trail. If the skies are clear, some wonderful views of the likely-more-crowded Mount Haystack and Mount Marcy, along with many other High Peaks, are yours for the taking.

 

Do you have another peak that you think is even harder? Let us know in the comments!


8 Tips to Prep for Ice Climbing Season

With temperatures dropping across the Northeast, the ice is starting to form, and ice climbing season is kicking into gear. To get you going, here are eight tips to help you sharpen everything from your tools to your skills for sending that perfect pitch or goal gully this season.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

1. Sharpen your picks

Nothing takes the fun out of ice climbing more than dull tools. The inability to sink a stick melts stoke faster than the mid-winter thaw. If you’ve never sharpened your tools or it’s just been awhile since the last time you did, now’s a great time.

The goal of sharpening is to replicate your tools’ original shape. Doing so only requires a mill bastard file. Begin by filing off the rounded point at your pick’s end, and then, put the bevel back on the pick by filing outwards on each side, following the factory grind. When you’re done sharpening, use a hex wrench to make sure your picks are tight. Check out this fantastic video from the AMGA to see the process in action.

Pro tip: Use a vice when sharpening your tools instead of balancing them in your hands to save yourself the embarrassment of a season-stalling puncture wound or stitches.

Courtesy: @jamisonknowlton
Courtesy: @jamisonknowlton

2. Add some grip

After perfecting your picks, add some grip tape to your axe shafts. A layer of tape improves grip and helps insulate your hands from the cold. Furthermore, it makes it easier to distinguish your tools from your partner’s and protects against the scratches that come with use. Depending on how much grip they want, climbers use everything from electrical tape to skateboard deck tape.

3. Sharpen your crampons

Although most associate ice climbing with axes and upper-body muscles, the real magic happens with your feet. Because of this, you’ll want to sharpen your crampons before jumping on the sharp end this season. In fact, because crampons often get used to approach climbs and descend them, they typically dull faster than tools. As such, it’s a good idea to give them a quick sharpening after every ice outing.

If you have crampons with vertical front points, like the Black Diamond Cyborgs do, use the mill bastard file as you did for your ice tools to sharpen your crampons’ front points along the factory bevel. And, don’t forget about your crampons’ secondary points. It’s recommended to file the secondary points on their backside, so as to not change their length and affect performance.

Pro tip: Once again, use a vice. With all those points, a mid-sharpening slip with your crampons can be even more hazardous than with your ice axes.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

4. Dial in the fit

Getting to a climb, only to realize you haven’t sized your crampons to your boots, is no way to start a day, much less a season, of ice climbing. Adjusting crampon length is most often done with a pin-lock system on the center bar, and while making adjustments is easy, it’s finicky work best done at home, without gloves. Doing this at the base of the cliff will leave you with cold hands before you even start climbing.

When adjusting, you want to achieve a tight fit without the boot overhanging the front or back of the crampons’ frame. As a good at-home test to tell if you’ve adjusted correctly, put your boot in the crampon. If you pick the boot up and the crampon comes up with it, without being formally attached to the boot, you are on the right track.

5. Protect your protection

Dull ice screws can put a damper on an ice climbing outing. At best, they’ll be hard to sink into the ice; at worst, they won’t thread into the ice, leaving climbers in a treacherous situation. To make matters worse, it seems you always come across the dull screw on your rack when you’re most desperate for protection.

Until recently, most ice climbers sent their screws out to be sharpened. Then, Petzl unveiled the LIM’Ice, a device that makes sharpening ice screws straightforward and easy. Of course, if you’ve had your ice screws for a few years, it might be time to upgrade. Newer ones like the Black Diamond Turbo Express have speed knobs for easy placement; light-colored hangers instead of black, which speeds up melting out; and two places to clip ‘biners, which help to declutter busy belays.

Courtesy: @claireebruce
Courtesy: @claireebruce

6. Get your head in the game

Before going out to make your first climb of the season, it’s worthwhile to brush up on your mental game. Spend some time reading up on technique, thinking about movement, and practicing the requisite rope work to get your mind in mid-season form.

If you’re planning on climbing alpine gullies, refresh your avalanche awareness, and refamiliarize yourself with your beacon, probe, and snow safety kit. Not confident in your skills? Consider taking an early season avalanche class or ice climbing lesson with the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. Whether you’re looking to get up to date with the latest in snow safety or just pick up a few pointers, an early season class gives you knowledge you can use all season.

Pro tip: Practicing companion rescue with your avalanche beacon is a great way to pass the time in between those too-cold-for-rock-climbing and no-climbable-ice-yet weekend days.

7. Tune up your body

Doing some sport-specific exercises before your first outing will pay big dividends. Even better, you don’t need a fancy gym to get yourself into ice climbing shape.

For your upper body, simply hanging from your tools on a pull-up bar or hangboard is a great way to build grip strength and prepare for what is coming. Mix some pull-ups using your tools in with the hangs to further build upper-body strength.

Of course, ice climbing requires a fair amount of heavy gear, and less-crowded climbing is often away from the road. For lower body fitness, consider hiking your favorite 4,000-footer with a weighted pack. Can’t make it to the mountains? A favorite workout of ours involves laps up the local ski hill with a weighted pack.

Courtesy: @peterkbrandon
Courtesy: @peterkbrandon

8. Make a tick list

A great way to get psyched about ice climbing season is to make a tick list. Whether it’s a local test piece or a dream line, having a goal in mind makes hanging from your tools in the basement a little more bearable, and looking at and reading about those lines will have you stoked to start the season. Start picking out your next route in the ADK Blue Lines, or get inspired by the guys and girls putting up the Northeast’s classic ice climbs before Gore-Tex, Schoeller, or PrimaLoft while using straight-shafted ice tools in Yankee Rock and Ice.

 

At the beginning of every ice climbing season, you’re sure to see someone at the base of the climb fiddling with their gear and mumbling, “I wish I had…adjusted these, trained, practiced, etc.” Avoid these common pitfalls, and nail the approach—to the season, that is—by following these simple steps.