When I woke up on December 29th and looked out the window I couldn't help but smile; winter had finally arrived.
Many people in New England despise snow, as it makes for cold and wet commutes as well as frozen toes and sore backs from shoveling. I am not one of those people.
As kids, my sister and I would rise from our beds in the early morning hours to see the new snow falling outside. We would eagerly watch the TV, cheer happily when the local news channel would report school closed for the day, then don our jackets and snow pants to spend the entire day playing outside. Not much has changed since those days. I still take as many opportunities as I can get to go outside and enjoy the fluffy powder, and this day would be no exception.
The plan for the 29th was a Willey Range Traverse with my friend Amanda and her friend Lexi. The route would involve spotting a car in Crawford Notch then driving to the Willey Station Trailhead and completing Willey, Field, and Tom, in that order. I had finished an uneventful Osceloa and East Osceola just three days prior, so the traverse would knock off numbers 11, 12, and 13 before a week-long break in Iceland.
Despite the snowy forecast, Amanda and Lexi hadn’t blinked an eye at driving North to complete the 9-mile hike, despite Amanda still recovering from a slightly injured ankle and Lexi being self-confessedly “sedentary” for the past few months.
I pulled my gear together and got in the car. As soon as my tires hit the street I knew it would be a slow morning. Much like a baby deer stumbling around until it can gain composure and understanding of how its awkward legs work, NH drivers (myself included) use the first snowfall to re-learn how the car’s pedals work amidst squirrely tires and locked up brakes.
The plan was to meet at 8:45am at the AMC Highland Center, but half an hour into the drive I got a call from Amanda and Lexi saying they were running late. I assured them that I was moving quite slowly myself. The multiple cars in ditches along route 16 served as a great reminder that it’s not worth rushing on a snowy day.
I arrived at the Highland Center in Crawford Notch around 9:45am, an hour behind schedule. As I opened my door and took a step out of the car I was nearly blown off my feet. The wind funnels directly through the notch, and as I struggled towards the front door of AMC center I was very relieved we would be spending the entire day below tree-line.
I began to stretch my legs and review the plan for our traverse. Most of the people who hike the range start from the North and skip out on the additional 450 feet of elevation gain you get from hiking up into the notch, but my knee had been bothering me since the Osceolas so I opted to start in the South for a shorter descent from Mt. Tom and get most of the elevation gain out of the way in the first section.
Amanda and Lexi soon arrived and we piled in Amanda’s car to drive to the Willey Station Trailhead. The girls were admittedly a little nervous about the route, having just encountered the same winds that I had faced, but as we drove South both the wind-speeds and their concerns lessened.
When we arrived at Willey Station Rd. we found it untouched by plows. Rather than trying to get the Subaru up this steep snowy section we parked at the bottom, donned our cold-weather gear, and headed up the road towards the trailhead and onto the Ethan Pond Trail. The gradual uphill in the first couple miles of trail allowed us the opportunity to gaze around and appreciate the beauty of the newly fallen snow. We chatted about miscellaneous topics related to winter sports, climbing, the fact that Lexi was wearing 4 pairs of pants, and life in general. Before we knew it we had reached the intersection with the Willey Range Trail.
The start of this trail marked the end of the gradual uphill. As we trudged forward the pitch began to increase and our pace predictably slowed. The snow hadn’t yet settled or compacted, so we were frequently hitting the ice under the powder, and we were soon affixing our microspikes to our boots.
Before long we came across the nine ladders leading up some of the steepest sections of Mt. Willey. The slippery snow on the wet and icy wooden steps made for a nerve-wracking climb, but we were soon at the top of the ladders and were met with a lookout that provides great views on most clear days. We couldn’t see anything but snow and clouds.
At this point Amanda was becoming quite cold. We had started the day from a low elevation with temps in the teens and a lot of tree-cover. While the range is protected throughout the entire traverse, the trees had started to thin as we drew closer to the summit. The wind at our backs was helping propel us forward but also sucking some of our heat. Our desire to stop and try to warm up was combated by the desire to continue moving forward so we could reach the summit and start speeding up. Amanda cracked open some hand warmers, threw them in her mitts, and kept moving like a champ. The trees thinned out more and eventually the trail leveled out as we reached the first rock pile. I tapped the top of the pile with my index finger as I moved past it, not even stopping to grab a photo.
Mere minutes after reaching the summit of Willey we were moving quickly again, Amanda’s hands had warmed up, and everyone’s mood was beginning to improve. Butt-sliding commenced on any trail that was steep enough to allow it. We were chatting again, and I became more confident that Amanda and Lexi would still be my friends when this adventure concluded.
The iced-up trees were beautiful through the section between Willey and Field, and we admired the fluffy white snow that was surrounding us and continuing to fall as we softly treaded along in the silent woods. Even though there was a heavy cloud cover, we could often look out to see frost and snow-encrusted evergreens. When we reached the summit of Field we were greeted with a beautiful view North along the ridge towards Tom.
We tagged Field, admired the sights, noted that this marked the 12th summit and the ¼ completion of the 48, and headed downwards once again. Since we had started after 11am I knew we would be running out of daylight soon, but a check of the watch showed that it was even later than any of us imagined, and the sun would be setting within a half hour. There was nothing that could be done besides powering on, knowing that we had headlamps to illuminate the trail ahead.
We reached the intersection with the A-Z Trail that connects the Mt. Tom Spur Trail and the Willey Range Trail as the light began to disappear. The spur trail diverges from the A-Z and runs .6 miles up to the summit of Tom, our last peak of the day and 4000 footer #13 for me. Normally I would drop my pack for an out-and-back of this length, but the thought of digging through my bag and pulling out emergency gear didn’t appeal to me, so I kept my pack on and we began to power up the last incline.
There’s a curious phenomenon that I’ve noticed when hiking: the longer the section of trail you have left, the less time it seems to take, and vice versa. This .6 miles was no exception. It dragged on and on. We were gassed. Lexi made it about halfway before dropping her pack in the middle of the trail, and Amanda made it about 2/3 of the way before following suit. Now moving much lighter, we hustled up to the top of Tom and collapsed near the rock pile.
After an obligatory summit selfie we began the descent to the Highland Center. As we retraced our steps down the spur trail Amanda and Lexi picked up their packs and we all switched on our headlamps.
As soon as we met up with the A-Z trail we were met with a steep descent, but once we made it past the technical section and onto the Avalon trail we began moving quickly. Motivated by the thought of a Coke and Italian sausages, Lexi was really cranking at the front and she was soon out of sight. Amanda and I hung out at the back; her previously sprained ankle was bothering her and my knee was reminding me it wasn’t operating at 100%.
We soon regrouped, singing commenced, and to the tune of belted-out 90s throwback songs we sped downwards. The snow coverage wasn’t quite sufficient enough to provide butt-sliding opportunities, but it didn’t stop us from attempting it whenever we found a steep enough pitch.
As we neared the Highland Center we began to encounter icy river crossings. Luckily other groups had hiked up the Avalon Trail since the freshly fallen snow; following their tracks made it easy to spot the safest path across the rocks.
Around 6:30pm we walked out of the woods adjacent to the Crawford Railroad Station and gave a cheer. The wind had died down from the morning’s speeds but was still blowing strong so we hustled across the field towards the main doors of the Highland Center. The restaurant-goers inside the lodge all pointed as they watched the light from our headlamps drawing closer and closer, likely wondering why anyone would be hiking in such conditions. It wasn’t the first time I had been met with such stares, and it certainly won’t be the last this winter.