No matter how many years pass or how many trips I make up north, the arrival of winter in New Hampshire still always sneaks up on me. More often than not, this sudden arrival throws a hitch in an otherwise simple plan and makes for an uncomfortable outing. Either the rock is cold and wet, the trail is covered in snow, or I have found myself grossly under-prepared for the day’s undertaking. These are the days that we could be bouldering in short sleeves at Lincoln Woods, but instead are running through a couple inches of surprise snow in New Hampshire’s mountains. The thing that always makes winter’s appearance so surprising, though, isn’t how rapidly it comes to the mountains, but rather, how delayed that appearance is at home.
This annual phenomenon happened again this past weekend as Doug and I headed north to climb at Rumney. With ski season not quite here yet (we were not prepared to hit up the few ski areas that had managed to open a few trails), Rumney seemed like a fun, low-stress way to end climbing season in New Hampshire. Furthermore, with some cold, damp weather in the forecast, we figured Rumney would probably be fairly low on climber traffic. As I packed the night before, I made sure to throw a winter hat, some gloves, hand-warmers, and my biggest belay parka into my pack. This year, I was ready and was sure I would not spend the day cold, shivering, and despondent thinking to myself, “if only I remembered…” Stepping out of my front door in the morning, it was clear that it rained hard all night. Quickly remembering past mistakes, I went back inside and chose a few more things to add to my pack: softshell pants, a rain coat, and a pair of hiking boots. I’ve been burned too many times in the past, and I promised this year it would not happen–even if it meant I had to pack every piece of gear I own.
The further north we drove, the more obvious it became that we would not climb. As we edged toward the mountains, the signs of rain disappeared, only to be replaced with snow. Nearing the Rumney exit on the highway, we made the decision to at least procrastinate on climbing by hiking Mount Tecumseh. We assumed that by hiking Mount Tecumseh, we could scout one of our favorite early-season ski trips while giving the rock at Rumney a chance to dry. Pulling into the Waterville Valley parking lot (the Mount Tecumseh trail departs from the parking lot), we learned that winter was no longer coming; it had arrived. The mountain–while not quite ready to serve the masses seeking lift-served skiing–was blanketed in a layer of snow.
I was instantly grateful for the softshell pants and hiking boots. While hiking in my approach shoes would have been doable, there was enough snow that it would have made for a long and uncomfortable day. Similarly, the softshell pants proved to be an enormous upgrade over the heavy cotton pants that I was planning on climbing in. Judging by conditions in the parking lot, I knew I would also soon be grateful for all of the rest of the gear I had grabbed at the last minute. Hitting the trail, I was confident that I was prepared for anything.
As we ascended Mount Tecumseh, the reality of winter became more and more apparent: not only with snow on the ground, but also hanging in the pine boughs that line the trail, and a distinctive wintry chill in the air. At the summit of Mount Tecumseh, the weather shifted again and it began to lightly rain (good thing I packed that rain coat), and sounded the death knell for climbing that day. With the afternoon freed from climbing, Doug and I followed the Sosman Trail to the top of Waterville Valley ski area, allowing us to both extend our trip and to descend the not-yet-open ski trails. Arriving at the top of the ski area, I began to wish I had made good on the thought of bringing every piece of gear I owned along. While the conditions were far from stellar, a ski descent would have been a real possibility had I brought my skis along (to clarify…if I had brought my “rock skis” along). Without my skis, I was left to wonder what could have been as I descended the empty ski slopes in my hiking boots.
While this is far from the normal shoulder season mistakes I’ve made in the past and I am grateful to not have epic-ed, froze, or been generally miserable, I do feel as if I missed a golden opportunity to score some early season turns. Also, I’m glad I grabbed hiking stuff at the last moment because climbing at Rumney would not have made for a great outing. While skiing Waterville would have been far from fantastic, it would have been nice to sneak some early season turns in, and have some bragging rights with my ski buddies. (As an aside, I found myself climbing at Lincoln Woods in a lightweight long underwear top the following day at Lincoln Woods.)