Friday, February 8, 2013

Osceolas - February 2, 2013

In planning out my winter, I did a hard search for AMC and Meetup hikes heading to peaks I needed to finish my New Hampshire Winter 4000-footer list. This was really the only one I found thus far, and to top it all off, one of the co-leaders was Pam, who I've hiked with a couple times before. To top it off, when the whole crew met together in Lincoln prior to this hike, Chris and Bill were also there, who I hiked with in Maine this past summer. Cool!

Just a couple days prior to this hike, the NorthEast got hit with a SECOND freak warm spell in the month of January, only this time it was accompanied by over 1" of rain on Thursday, even as high up as Mount Washington's 6288' summit! This dramatically reduced the snowpack in the mountains (and essentially eliminated it in low elevations). And immediately following this, there were several very cold days. Thus, I was expecting, and found, very hard-packed snow and ice. In fact, none of our group of 13 even bothered to bring our snowshoes, and we never missed them at all.

For this hike, we were using the normal winter route to these 2 peaks, which entails using Greeley Ponds Trail from the Kancamagus Highway, to the Mount Osceola Trail over East Osceola and to the main peak, then returning the same way. Tripoli Road is closed and gated in winter, and so using the other, more moderate, end of the Mount Osceola Trail, as is common in summer, means a roughly 3-mile road walk each way. This side of the Mount Osceola Trail (as far as East Osceola at least) was brand-new to me (yeay for a little red-lining!), but I knew from reports that it is quite steep (the AMC's White Mountain Guide describes it as "one of the steepest and roughest in the [White] Mountains"). It did not disappoint.

But first we had to hike the 1.3 mild miles from the Kancamagus Highway. We started off right from the icy parking lot in microspikes, and roughly 1/4 mile in we came to 2 crossings of the North Fork of the Hancock Branch. The heavy rain just days before coupled with the melting of 1-2 FEET (or more?!) of snow had resulted in very swollen river crossings. And only about 36 hours of cold meant that the snow and ice bridges had not reformed. And so these crossings were a little tricky.

Crossing Number 1
The first one we managed to find a decent rock-hop site about 50 feet upstream, and the second one we managed a few feet from the trail too. From there, it was a pretty easy and straight-forward walk on hard-packed trails to the junction at the height-of-land in Mad River Notch.

Now for the fun part. We all switched to crampons here, and started on our way. While the trail began climbing here, it was not overly steep as it passed beneath some impressive cliffs on the side of East Osceola. But soon enough the climbing began as it had to (from the junction to the summit is only 1.5 miles and gains 1900 feet in all). And boy was it steep! And icy! But we all had on our crampons and made our way slowly but steadily up the trail. Partway up it skims the edge of a rock slide, and near the top it actually climbs up the slide for a short distance (it really crosses it diagonally). These spots were the iciest, and in the case of the upper one, a slip would have resulted in one sliding a fair way, but we made it up without incident. The nice thing was that there were some nice views off the slide, as the morning was nice and sunny with blue skies.


Mount Kancamagus

Hancocks (see Arrow Slide on left), Carrigain behind the tree in the center
After the slide crossing, the trail continues its climb, though soon moderates (relatively speaking), reaching an outlook a few feet to the right looking towards Scar Ridge.

Mount Osceola from the outlook shortly below the East Osceola summit

East Osceola from the outlook
And at last we reached the summit (viewless) of East Osceola, where we had a nice break. Winter summit #38! After our break, we began our way over to the main summit of Osceola, still in crampons as we were anticipating more ice and a tricky ascent of the chimney that is at the col.

Mount Osceola from a little below East Osceola
The descent to the col is simple enough, not overly steep or rough. But right in the col there is a chimney that climbs up to Osceola itself, which in summer is a fun and pretty easy scramble. This time, it was full of ice, so we used the bypass to the right, which was almost completely clear of ice, so was actually a little tricky climbing in crampons (rock-hopping on pointy stilts!).

The bottom of the chimney in summer - the scramble section is straight between the trees

Tripyramids from the top of the chimney
From the top of the chimney, the trail alternates short steep sections with moderate ones, but soon enough reaches the open ledges near the summit of Osceola. A short trip further up-trail to the treed-in ledge where another old firetower used to be, and the summit is along a herd path to the North, which has a great view towards the Pemi Wilderness.
Pemi Wilderness from Mount Osceola's summit
We all took a nice long break at the ledge near the summit, which has fantastic views towards the Tripyramids, Waterville Valley, and more.

Tripyramids dead center, Sandwich Dome on the right


Tecumseh's ski slopes (Waterville Valley) from Mount Osceola

Mount Chocorua in the distance

Carrigain, East Osceola on left from Mount Osceola

Sandwich Dome over Waterville Valley

The group eating on the view ledges of Mount Osceola
Now all we had to do was retrace our steps. The return to East Osceola was easy enough aside from having to down-climb the chimney bypass. In hindsight, Crampons were really not the best footware in here, since there was no snow or ice for them to grab, but we all made it down without incident.  From East Osceola, we took a short break then began our descent, taking it very slowly and carefully on the slide section and any other steep icy spots.

During this time, we saw several people both ascending and descending in nothing more than microspikes. Let me just say, that was a very poor choice of traction. The ice was hard, and microspikes do not bite well enough nor are they long enough to provide safe purchase on such steep and icy terrain. This was the first time I really felt crampons were a necessary thing (even snowshoes with good crampons would have been overmatched) in my winter 4000-footer quest thus far, and watching these people skid and slip everywhere made me cringe constantly. I can only hope they all made it out OK.

We made it down in one piece to the junction with Greeley Ponds, switched back to microspikes for the trip out, navigated the stream crossings with little trouble (they had iced up a bit more since the morning, though we crossed in the same spots we had found in the morning), and made it back to the parking lot without incident. A quick load up, a return to the cars we had left behind in Lincoln, and we all went to have a great meal at the Woodstock Inn.

This was probably my most challenging Winter 4000-footer hike thus far in my quest, but it was still a fun and enjoyable hike. Getting to see several familiar faces was great too.

39 down, 9 to go!

Peaks: East Osceola (4156', NH4K), Mount Osceola (4340', NH4K)
Trails: Greeley Ponds Trail, Mount Osceola Trail
Mileage: 7.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 3200 feet
Book Time: 5.5 hours

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