When to Walk Away From a Winter Hike

Outdoor Adventure (Unique lifestyle/travel/personal experience)
When to Walk Away From a Winter Hike

Summiting Mt. Washington in the winter has been a goal for a long time. My dad and I were supposed to do it last year, but then I dislocated my shoulder and tore my labrum and shoulder capsule. This past weekend we were finally ready to do it, until we  we saw the Mount Washington Observatory higher summit forecast: winds 80-100mph in the morning, 60-80mph midday, and 50-60mph in the afternoon. Plus, it was suppose to be cloudy until the afternoon. Despite the overwhelming odds against us getting to the summit of Washington, we still decided to head out and get a taste of “The World’s Worst Weather” at its best.

In the morning when I went downstairs I saw that my mother had left a note saying Ammonoosuc Ravine on it. We always tell her what trails we are taking but I guess this time she needed to write it down. I decided to add to the note for her saying we were going to Mt. Washington. I also added Plan B: Mt. Monroe and Plan C: Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Once we left the trailhead, it didn’t take too long to realize that Plan C was becoming Plan A. It was snowing at the base of Ammonoosuc Ravine and we were breaking trail in a whole lot of powder.

Gem Pool

I had hoped that the trail would be broken out for us, but no such luck. I powered through the best I could in my MSR Evo Ascent snowshoes. It wasn’t bad until after we got past the Gem Pool. Then things got much steeper and very slippery. To make matters worse, I had forgotten my trekking poles so I was relying on my ice axe to help me out. Despite the tough circumstances, the clouds were clearing up some in the distance and we started to get sneak peeks of some nice views behind us.

Dad coming up

The higher we got, the shorter the trees became. The shorter the trees became, the more exposed to the wind we got. The thermometer on my bag read 10degrees which is being generous since it is right near my body. We also appeared to be nearing the clouds. There were no views ahead of us. At this point, I just wanted to get to the hut to hide from the wind and eat some lunch, but I couldn’t see it and didn’t quite remember how much further we needed to go. As much as I wanted to keep going, I needed to get more clothes on. Balaclava and goggles were long overdue to be put on.

While I was layering, up dad caught up to me and we had ourselves a chat about the conditions. While I’d told my mom that we’d be following Plan A, B, or C, as it turned out, we ended up going with the plan no hiker wants to to think about, but always has to be ready for: in the interest of our own safety, we decided to turn back. The wind was easily nearing hurricane strength and visibility was terrible–a dangerous combination for anyone.

A slice of blue sky on the way down

Heading down was quite enjoyable. There was a lot of butt sliding and snowshoe “skiing.” I took more time to get pictures and just take in the winter beauty. Thank goodness for my new Nikon waterproof/freeze resistant camera. Dad’s batteries died pretty quickly in the weather but I was good to go the whole time. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about it getting wet from the snow.

Heading home

While I was disappointed we weren’t able to summit Mount Washington, I was happy that we made it to 5000 feet on a nasty day in the Presidential Range and got a solid taste of “The World’s Worst Weather.” It was a great hike with some serious exercise. Most important, we got home safely to talk about it. Dad and I might be crazy, but we aren’t stupid.

Have you ever had to bail on a hike when the conditions were too harsh to push though? Leave a comment and tell me about it!

Playing in the snow

Amy Parulis


A former Strength and Conditioning Specialist and captain of the University of North Carolina track team, Amy now looks for her next mountain to climb or mud run to take part in to keep in shape. Her favorite hike was to the crater rim of Mt. St. Helens where she witnessed a steaming lava dome and she some day hopes to summit Mt. Rainier. In the meantime she can be found helping customers at the Waterford EMS. You can follow her adventures on Twitter @amyparulis

6 Comments

  1. January 8, 2013, 10:06 pm

    GOOD CALL AMY ! my big turnaround was mt. elbrus, russia, aug 2012. we had four summit shots from the diesel hut at approx 14,000′. first two were scrubbed due to bad weather. we thought we had a window on the third shot. we know the fourth shot would be hopeless. so went on the third shot. you never know ! but got to 17,600′ and that was it. our guide called it due to white out, wind and cold.. but we enjoyed the shish kebabs in town the next day in Cheget ! in 2008 we tried Mt Washington for a mt. washington overnight at the summit, but i conked out at top of that steep headwall and turned around. (couldnt handle getting thru the drifts.) my buddies carried on another ten minutes into the screeching wind, but then also retreated due to blowing snow and loss of visibility. better to return with all fingers and toes. (not to mention a beating heart…) EMS Guide Toby Savage put it best:.. it was still an exhilarating alping adventure! and so it was !

  2. Geoff
    January 8, 2013, 7:58 am

    Good article. Years ago my young son and I did a hike in the Catskills (Panther Mtn for those curious) in the winter. Coming up the trail we got to a saddle point where the trail turned to go up to the summit. A bright blue sky changed to grey clouds, the wind picked up and it started snowing hard. Suddenly we were in whiteout conditions. We did have the right clothing and I had brought snow goggles, but in spite of that we couldn’t move because it was impossible to see more than a foot or two — couldn’t see the trail markers on the trees. We ended up hunkering down behind a giant snow swirl that was out of the wind. I pulled out a space blanket and tried to show my son a little positive spirit, even though I was panicking. After 20 minutes the snow stopped, the winds died and blue sky came out again. Back to sun glasses. I guess I should have bailed at this point, but we ended up summiting, which was only 1/2 hour away and making it out without further weather interference. Gotta be careful in the winter!!

  3. CJ Mauger
    January 8, 2013, 6:21 am

    Of course! And we count ourselves wise. We have made three attempts to gain the peaks of Bond and W. Bond. Twice we had to turn back because we simply could not find the trail. We had summited Bondcliff on one of those hiking ventures but could not see the peak of Bond or any indication of the trail up. Plus we were falling into small but constant spruce traps that sapped our energy. We hiked 22 miles that day in our attempt, way too many miles for us, but we knew that it was the right thing to do. Another time, we lost the trail from Zeacliff and had to turn around. Our third attempt was simply a matter of running out of steam after breaking trail in deep snows up N. Twin and South.
    Sometimes, it is not the conditions that have caused a bail. We have turned back because one of us has gotten too cold (Tripyriamids, VERY close to the summit) or too tired to continue (Jefferson). If you are out there enough, physical limitations arise even in those who are conditioned and prepared hikers. It never occurred to the other member(s) of the hiking party NOT to turn around in any of the cases I mentioned. As my boyfriend wisely notes, once you reach the peak, you’re only halfway there. The mountains will always be there.
    I am happy to read your post and know that you chose not to risk being a headline. Additionally, it’s a responsible and unselfish choice not to put the member of rescue teams into harm’s way when there is any question at all about whether to continue or not.
    We listen to out instincts and our bodies and try very hard to keep our egos and adventurous tendencies out of the decision making process. Apparently, you did the same. And enjoyed the hiking that you did get in that day. Bravo!

  4. Casey
    January 7, 2013, 3:36 pm

    I am glad to read that these people returned home safe. It looks nice in the winter. I think I’ll wait until summer to try the Ammonusuc Trail. Sounds like a nice trp.

  5. January 7, 2013, 2:21 pm

    Thanks for the great trip report Amy.

    I’ve bailed on a Mt Kinsmans to Mt Wolf traverse in early winter. Didn’t expect to find deep unbroken snow up there which made for slow travel. It was starting to get late, and temps were dropping (headed for 10 below I think). We bailed down the Real Brook Trail and had to hitch hike to the car in the dark.

    Another time bailed on Mt Moriah in Spring. The snow turned out to be real deep above 3000′ and we had left the snowshoes at home where the grass had already started to come up. When the post holes were reaching above our knees we turned around.

    Oh, and one more time. Met Ed Hawkins (48×12) at Appalachia TH in early January. The winds sounded like a freight train over head that morning. Ed had the smarts to say “We’re not going up there today”. We went straight for the plan-B hike from there.

    -Kimball

  6. January 7, 2013, 1:42 pm

    Nice write up, good call to head down, we were on Isolation and winds were really whipping there Saturday we could on stay exposed for a minute or two.

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