The Six Summits of New England in The Depths of Winter. Real Adventure Close to Home?

When looking for adventure in your own back yard, you need to be creative. And sometimes you will find more excitement than you might expect.

With the 7 summits you get a great sense of anticipation, you travel the world, you meet fascinating people and the climbing is interesting and varied. But all we had was a short winter holiday in the Northeast and we had but 10 days.

Was there something anywhere near as fun as the 7 summits and yet right on our doorstep?

Less than 8 hour days – starting in the dark, finishing in the dark and a whole lot colder, just a bit more adventurous than your average summer holiday. 

New England has the 6 Summits, the high points of each of its 6 states. It was the dead of winter. With just over a week to spare, we would have no opportunity for weather days, icy road closures or sleeping in.

In winter in New England, the sun doesn’t come up until after 7 a.m. and it sets before 4 p.m. Strong headlamps would be rather important. But how hard could it be?

 

Six summits, 1320 miles of driving, from Westport, Connecticut, in a big circle, and back again, starting on the shortest day of the year. Here we go…starting low, and with little anticipation we headed boldly north.

  1. Jerimoth Hill, Rhode Island 

There were four fears. It was dark. It was raining. It was windy. It was day one and we already seemed to be running late.

And some information talked of private property, of barbed wire fences (perhaps dogs with big teeth and small brains?). That was the real fear.

The depths of winter, the first of the notorious six summits. A highway sign marking the departure point, a rainy night, ascending under cover of darkness. 

The rain slashed highway still revealed a Jerimoth Hill sign and an elevation, which could only bold well. The trail was cut through the woods. A darkened farm house on the right, a wilderness of Rhode Island brush and trees on the left.

The trail was deceptively flat. Had we arrived? Could we have driven all this way to miss the summit?

A few additonal minutes along, a small boulder poked out of the earth, revealing itself as standing inches above all of the rest of Rhode Island. Mounted on a granite knob was the official plinth.

The six summits in winter were truly underway. One down, five to go.

We retreated down the road to the Budget Inn. The owner and his father had been there 28 years. Rooms were available by the day, or, in reading the smaller print, ‘ask about our friendly hourly rates?’ The key word was Budget, with big trucks and small cars parked outside. Next door to our room a woman intoned loudly ‘can I have a cigarette.’

We didn’t notice the mirrors on the ceiling until in bed, and turned the lights off quickly. There was a fug of winter and too many people. The smell of bleach, perhaps a good thing, also tainted the air.

We were away at dawn with our sights set on Maine, a mere 300 plus miles away. The required stop for large fluffy pancakes, eggs, slabs of bacon was called for en-route.

2. Mount Katahdin, Maine

There was a rime of ice around the top of the sleeping bag. Sitting up dislodged ice crystals from the roof of the tent. The pot atop the stove was filled with a brick of ice.

Baxter State Park ‘It’s another world up their in winter you know.’ The Ranger did everything she could to dissuade us from a day climb. She was pretty much right.

I’d called up the Rangers at Baxter State Park a week before. They asked difficult questions ‘had I been in cold climates before, like really cold? Did I have really warm boots? Did I know it would be very icy? Did I have spikes for my feet?’

They wouldn’t give me a permit quickly unless it was only for a day. I took it. How hard could it be? I’d been stumped by suddenly discovering Baxter State Park required a permit at all. I didn’t mention Everest, I didn’t mention 10 expeditions into Tibet dealing with Chinese bureaucracy, I didn’t mention the year before I’d been in Antarctica. Low profile, always a good thing.

We slept in our tent on the side of the road by the Abol Pond Road. There was no-one about. The previous summer when we had climbed the well known and properly spectacular Knife Edge Ridge, the area had been swimming with people. Complete with mosquitoes, with Appalachian trail walkers milling about excitedly, with bears following in our footsteps. Now the entire area was empty.

A large pick-up with a lone woodsy man with a beard drove past slowly and disappeared around the corner, still looking over his shoulder. We had a big bowl of pasta in the tent and I put the rest of the food securely back in the Cruiser. Bears. Everywhere. Though maybe they were hibernating, I hoped so.

It would rain, it would snow, the wind would blow, and it would still look like heaven below. Looking south over the woods of Maine.

The usual approach road is closed in winter, which meant we got to do an extra 5 miles walking to the start of the climb. I woke up at 3:45 a.m. just to make sure. Oatmeal and Expressos, then a long walk in the cold and the dark. It may have been scenic, we wouldn’t know.

The summer trail goes around the side of the mountain and a direct loose gully is a faster winter option. A fairy tale forest track leads to it, but it was soon evident why it is so unpopular. Loose boulders jumbled the stream. Ice bulges had formed over boulders as we got higher. The Ranger was right, we needed spiky things on our boots.

Looking up the gully, clouds wreathed the summit plateau and uncertainty was rife. Loose stones clattered off below us and snow swirled lightly from above. Defeat was in the air, it really was, and the gully seemed to go on forever. Time was passing quickly, the sun would set at 4 p.m.

From the summit rim, heading onto the plateau from the top of the icy gully.

At the crest the weather broke, wind faded, shafts of sun shot through the clouds and soon the top arrived, so sheathed in ice that scrapping the summit sign clean was confirmation we had arrived.

‘Is this really the top? I guess so?’ Mist and fog, clearing and then clouds with a steady wind whipping over the heights.

 

We summited at 1:30 p.m. and went for a rapid descent, the weather as variable as winter weather can be in New England. We had taken a GPS reading at the top of the gully and as we came across the summit plateau the clouds washed over us and we were very glad we had taken our exit with a touch of seriousness.

We reached the regular starting point, and yet have that final 5 mile hike in the very, very, darkness. The GPS says we have already done 13 miles and counting, seems as if both the walk in and the walk out will be covered in total night.

We toss the tent up again in the car park, rewarm the pasta and crawl into our sleeping bags. Not quite an Everest day, but perhaps just a bit tiring. We squeaked through and we know it.

I think I hear coyotes howling that night, or wolves? Maybe dogs with big teeth. I’m too tired to care.

The infamous knife edge ridge leading to the summit. We had done it in the summer, skipped it in the winter for an icy gully climb of ill repute.

We have double breakfasts at the Appalachian Trail Cafe and a whole pot of coffee. The GPS is set for the Nerelodge, the climbers B&B of choice in North Conway.

3. Mount Washington, New Hampshire

A group of us have done Mount Washington every winter for years – as a prelude to going to climb new routes on Vinson in Antarctica, to test out gear before skiing in Greenland, or with no other objective than because it is always changing, always fun, and never fails to be windy.

The final slopes of Mount Washington, just a bit wind-blasted.

The sharpness of the wind always hits at Lion Rock, the velocity magnifying to a point where tacking into it is preferred, shielding the face with a flapping hood and stepping from ice patch to ice patch to shield the crampons from completely dulling the points on the rocky trail.

A hand rail rather well ice blasted in the summit parking lot.

At the final ridge, sheltered by the top, the wind abates to a gentle roar, but cairns marking the way are encased in ice tentacles to create the new frozen world.

The weather station at the summit of Mt. Washington – about as wonderful a day as can be imagined. If we climb slowly up its takes 7 – 8 hours roundtrip. If we climb quickly it takes 7 – 8 hours. 

The summit parking lot is skittered across, tarmac sheathed in an inch of ice. The sign at the top is as much a marker as something to hang onto and not fall over in the wind.

We retreat to the big bath tub at the Nerelodge to warm up, then to North Conway for pizzas, and for the essential stop by International Mountain Equipment to talk to Rick Wilcox who I’d first met in Kathmandu after he climbed Everest.

Then another reset on the GPS, Stowe, Vermont, just 120 miles away, including stops for food, for coffee, for American fine dining at every town along the way.

Mount Washington on about as beautiful a winter day as one ever gets. 

4. Mount Mansfield, Vermont

The ski lift at Stowe will take you close to the summit, but that just didn’t seem appropriate, and the trail through the forest close by an intermediate ski run can only be classed as a snow slope of equally intermediate difficulty and a good warm up to the final ridge.

A lone ski lodge at Stowe had a last toasty room for us and one of the few indoor swimming pools in town, just too good to pass up. Down the street is a very good Sushi Restaurant – this is a ski resort first and a mountain town a distant second we are reminded.

The real hazards of winter climbing. 

The forest quickly turns from dense deep green with a tight path cut through the trees, to wind blasted granite.

Ice fills the cracks, ice cuts through the jacket, ice axes suddenly become relevant and shielding ourselves like beetles the only strategy for advancement to the top of Vermont as the wind blasts over the top.

High above Stowe and the closest we came to actually getting a hint of frostbite. 

At the summit, wind turned our cheeks white in seconds and we scrambled down for the cover of the forest. For a short time it is more harrowing than Katahdin or Washington, a quick blast of unexpected brutality.

Time to head south, for warmer climes hopefully.

5. Mount Greylock, Massachusetts 

Thinking the major challenges behind us, we debate running shoes or boots for Greylock, choosing the latter. An hour later as frozen ground turned to ice sheets, just leaving the crampons behind begins to seem an oversight. These six summits just don’t seem to relent all that easily.

A combination of brush grappling and tree clutching soon got us over the crux, and after navigating the ubiquitous ice sheathed parking lot, arrived in blue sky brilliance atop Massachusetts.

Mount Greylock, the actual top high above. 

The plinth at the summit belies our lonely struggle, the facilities boarded over and closed for the season. We switched from tree grabbing to tree rappelling for a rapid descent back to the valley.

6. Mount Frissell, Connecticut 

The tallest Peak in Connecticut is Bear Mountain. But the tallest point is on a ridge leading out of the state into Massachusetts, so point it must be.

Intesar Haider joins us for this ascent, my climbing companion from Greenland to Antarctica, all good training for New England in winter it seems. As the finale to the six summits we are expecting yet another easy ascent, something we really should of known better by now.

The fact the road from the south is closed for the winter by a gate and we need another 20 mile detour around to the North sets us off rather slowly on our ultimate ascent.

Finally arriving at a tiny parking area, we discover a skating rink slick patch of ice under the snow we skid across, nearly dropping the cars into the woods before we even start.

Intesar, my climbing partner from Antarctica to Greenland ascending the slopes of Frissell.

Reaching the ridge while still in Massachusetts, we then descend, making this the first mountain we climbed where you had to climb down to reach the high point.

Intesar (left) Josephine, tall orange man. Highest point in Connecticut, the slopes of Mount Frissell. 

Six summits, 10 days, in winter. And the distinct advantage of a good adventure just out the front door.

The illustrious high-point of Mount Frissell – we really need to take up a collection for an improvement – just look at Jerimoth. 

 

An excellent article in the New York Times by Mark Aiken, 6 Days, 6 States, 6 Peaks. covers his own fair weather climbs with good background and detail on the peaks in a bit finer weather over the summer season.

 

Trying to fly?