I consider both Yvonne and myself to be pretty strong and competent hikers. We spend a lot of time in the mountains, and sometimes forget that something like a hike up one of New Hampshire’s 4000 footers can be a pretty big deal. It’s always good to be reminded that getting too comfortable can be a bad thing. So on Sunday, after Yvonne and I got a late start for our hike, we had a very long and difficult hike that reminded us to be a little more careful.
We left Keene at 8 (compare that to the hike a few weeks ago on Passaconaway, where we started hiking at 7), with clear blue skies and a gorgeous day. We made good time to Waterville Valley, where we loaded up our packs in no time, and started off on the Greeley Ponds Trail. That trail, unbeknownst to us, was still closed due to damage from Irene in 2011. Poor planning on our parts, again. But with good snow pack and frozen river crossings, bushwhacking around the damaged trail wasn’t so bad. Still, we had almost four miles of trail behind us before we even started the hard stuff.
After walking across the frozen and beautiful Greeley Ponds, stopping for a quick lunch, and making our way to the Osceola Trail, it was already noon, and we had a hell of a climb ahead of us. From the junction of the Greeley Ponds Trail, the Osceola Trail climbs 1.5 miles to East Peak, an elevation gain of about 1900 feet. I was surprised to find the trail packed out into a near highway, but luckily we had opted to bring snowshoes instead of just microspikes. The grade of the trail was so steep that microspikes just didn’t cut it. The heel-lift on my snowshoes got more use that day than the last several years combined.
Everyone else on the trail seemed to be coming from the Kancamagus Highway, which meant a much shorter hike to the Osceolas for them. A start from the north would make for a round trip of nine miles, taking both peaks of Osceola, so a nice, early 7 AM start would make for a pretty leisurely day, not counting the hairy ascent. I imagine if Yvonne and I had done that, we’d have been finished with the hike by early afternoon.
Instead, we rushed to the top of East Osceola, burning up our thighs the whole way with the stairmaster of a trail. With the cold wind at the top and the sun already sinking quickly, we just hurried on across the peak. We had some fine views along the way, though. The Osceolas don’t have any 360 degree views, but you can see most of the White Mountains from the variety of vistas between the two peaks.
We had a rare treat on the summit of Osceola– a completely deserted summit. Osceola’s wide, open cliffs are one of the more spectacular views in the White Mountains, and the climb from the more popular trail head on the west side of the mountain is relatively easy for a 4000 footer. In the summer, you can expect a crowd.
Once we started down the trail, though, we realized the summer trail isn’t quite so popular in the winter. The trail was covered in unbroken, fluffy snow, with a layer of harder stuff underneath. Someone had come up here before the last snow (not too recently) without snowshoes, making for really awful footing for us, since the boot prints had solidified into deep ruts. Still, we made it down to the road before dark, and began the three-mile walk along the Tripoli Road back to the car.
Maybe that’s why the summer trail isn’t as popular in the winter– three miles of flat walking on unplowed road isn’t all that fun, especially as night sets in and all you can think about is a big, fat sandwich. By the time we arrived at the car, it was fully dark, and my car was the last one in the parking lot. Twelve miles of rushed hiking, trying to beat dark, and we were thoroughly exhausted. On the other hand, it was a pretty wonderful day.
Next time, we’re getting an earlier start. I’m not so much a fan of rushing to beat nightfall, and there’s no need to push our luck that way. Lesson learned! No more carelessness with late starts on winter hiking!