Trip Report: A Rambunctious Return to Madison

Mt Madison (5,366 feet). Randolph, NH. 2020-12-26 (Saturday.)

Via Valley Way, Osgood Trail. 8.6 miles round-trip. 4,100 feet elevation gain. 

18 dF at the trailhead, 5 dF at the summit. Winds were negligible in the trees, about 40 very solid knots at the summit, with gusts in the 50-60 knot range. Cloudy/overcast throughout. Light flakes were falling throughout the day, with trace accumulations noted.

Trailhead: 1130. Madison Springs Hut: 1445. Summit: 1515. Madison Springs Hut: 1545. Car: 1800. 

Hardly a Hurricane, However, Still Hard Hiking.

For the past few weeks — that amount of time where it made sense to more seriously think about it — I’d been planning on this hike. By dint of luck, my work schedule made it possible to hike on the very same day this year that I broke my ankle last year. And the astute reader might recall that at the hut last year, I briefly pondered the idea of bagging Madison while I was there, but ditched the idea owing to the lateness of the day. Anyone thinks that last point hasn’t been duly noted by me practically every. single. day of the last year is a bit mistaken. 

I’d actually been thinking of hiking Madison on Thursday, but they forecast insane wind gusts (180 MPH!) which didn’t strike me as a smart idea to go playing in. By my luck, I’d be blown so far into the Great Gulf that they wouldn’t find me until after the next ice age. Not how I’d prefer to go out, thanks. But it’s also my luck that tomorrow is supposed to be quite nice, with a bit of sun expected, even. Too bad I’ll be back at work. Story of my life… 

I’m a bit reluctant to hand out the nuts and bolts on this hike, except as an object lesson that you really need to expect the truly weird in these mountains. And that expectation should be in force during the shoulder seasons, defined as those times when only a fool would expect conditions to have settled into a routine. I’d probably follow that with “which is to say, never” except you can count on gobs of snow and ice in mid-late winter, persisting into early-mid spring. And summer into early-mid autumn is generally devoid of the white stuff. As they say, past performance is no guarantee of what you can reasonably expect in the future. 

As an aside… I *heart* science. I spent seven years in the ivory tower studying art, of all things. But a big part of me is a scientist, and that is how it’s been ever since I was a kid. No-one has to convince me that climate change is a thing. I have fond memories of winter showing up with gobs of glorious snow that my father dealt with while I went sledding. (In my teenage years, that calculus obviously changed for the worse.) These days, my childhood sledding hills are typically bereft of the white stuff within days of a storm. Anyone without a Ph.D would tell you that things have changed. 

However, I feel compelled to remind people that climate and weather are two related, yet distinctly different things. One moves on a more glacial time scale, whereas the other can be fickle. 

We’re having an odd spell of weather this week, that’s for sure. But I was often given to think about conditions on this trail last year, when I was hiking on a couple feet of snow. Anyone who’s lived in New England for a decent amount of time knows that we get a thaw, generally starting a few weeks from now. After a few days where we can catch up on clearing the snow from the driveways and sidewalks, Jack Frost comes back from holiday and makes up for lost time until the crocuses and snowdrops decide it’s time to make a showing. That’s just the way it is. 

So while I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to take climate change very seriously, and to act accordingly, remember that this week is just odd weather. Don’t count on trails sporting bare earth for much more than this weekend. Dickie, Al Kaprelian, or even Harvey Leonard will all tell you that the forecasts are unreliable past the 72nd hour. Watch the forecasts with all due care. Mark Twain wasn’t just whistling Dixie when he uttered his famous quote. 

Today was the object lesson of object lessons. On Boxing Day, not even a full week into winter, I bare booted up Valley Way to just about the spur trail for the tentsite. To be fair, that was pushing it, but also to be fair, footing was pretty straightforward on at least half the distance to the hut. As in “bare earth.” Little to no snow, easily manageable ice at the various drainages. If you don’t like the weather in New England… 

My estimation is that Valley Way is a fine route in the snow. All those rocks, dealt with by a sturdy monorail, would make for some easy travel. Heck, that’s entirely how I managed to make my way down to the car last year. I honestly don’t recall much stumbling and bumbling over rocks, that’s for sure. Today, on the other hand, that’s all I did, and I was reminded many times of the trip down when I did it in Spring of 2018, capping a long, hot day. 

Sometimes, hiking a trail is just putting in mileage. Sad, but true. Today, the wildflowers were not to be found. The butterflies took wing for warmer climes long ago, as did most of the songbirds. I set out from the trailhead, about an hour-plus later than I’d have preferred. I decided early on to keep expectations low. The summit wasn’t my objective. Rather, just being outside, away from work, was everything I wanted. 

I’d taken the tack that I’d hike to the hut, and likely turn around. I’d gotten a late start, and was very prepared to come back another day for the summit. But around the spur trail for the tentsite, I’d put on my crampons (my Grivel G-10s this time, with the “serious” spikes) and the footing had gotten much better with them. And that changed things, just slightly. 

Getting to the hut, I looked up. It’s a neat thing, being there, because Madison’s peak is so darn close. And I thought “screw it, I’ve got a headlamp.” Coming off the trail by headlamp I don’t know how many times this summer, coupled with this being my third time on this trail gave me the sense of familiarity I needed to be comfortable with that decision. Visibility was decent, and expected to stay so. Temps were manageable. It was just the wind, and even that wasn’t impossible. Experience said go for it. 

But that aside, just being there, seeing the massive cone in front of me. Wow! I couldn’t *not* have summited at that point. (I mean, yep, had the conditions been truly horrific, I’d have turned on my heel and beat feet for the trailhead in a hot second.) The wind was spirited, for sure. And so I paused for a moment to reflect and consider. Pattern-matching, I thought of my time on Katahdin, and it dovetailed pretty well. I thought of my time on Moosilauke, and it sized up pretty well there, too. Were the conditions sub-optimal? Yes. At the same time, are they ever optimal? On Monadnock, you can easily pick and choose. In the Whites, it’s a different game. I weighed everything, considered safety factors, and decided the odds were good. I went for it.

The wind was a bit sporty near the base of the cone, and it became an absolute beast by the time I got on top. This was real. Making precise pole plants was problematic — I’d go to stick my pole, and the wind would shove it away. At one point on top, hands on rock became involved. I traversed the summit, and those 20-30 or so yards felt like a mile. Foremost on my mind was everything I’d hiked, ever, continuously evaluating, always asking whether it was safe to keep going. But then there I was, at the summit pin. Victory. I slapped it, took a selfie, measured the wind (40 MPH steady, gusting to at least 50-60 as I headed back down) and that was it. Back at the hut, I turned for the trailhead, already noting the light was significantly dimmer. In the trees, it was darker yet, but wow, those black spruces certainly wrangled the wind to a slight breeze. 

As an aside… on that wind measurement. I had to take my hand out of my mitten to do that. Probably all of about 15 seconds. A quarter of a minute. And yet, in those conditions, my hand got cold. Excruciatingly cold. Like “don’t do that again, m’kay?” COLD. Consider every little thing you can do with your hands. Everything you could do that could bail you out of a tough spot. Now imagine losing your mitten. Thankfully, mine were tied to my wrists, so that didn’t happen. But it underscored something important: backups. Losing a mitten in those conditions could have been life threatening. Try lighting a match if your hands are popsicles. Making shelter. Any of a bevy of self-rescue tasks… yeah, no, ain’t gonna happen. And so, spares in your pack could be a life-saver — and maybe not even your own bacon, but someone in your party. Warm hands can be the difference between getting back to the trailhead, and… well, let’s not go there. Nuff said on that.

Back on Valley Way, again, a long slog down to the car. I had bagged the summit, but foremost in my mind was the fact that it was this stage of the hike where I got hurt last year. I won’t say I scientifically examined every footfall. I’d still be on the mountain, pondering steps were that so, and that’s just stupid. I did, however, think a lot about what the ground looked like just about every bit of the way. It wasn’t scary per se, but certainly thought-provoking. Be careful on the way down. Your destination is your safe return to the trailhead. All else be damned.

With all that, and totally in spite of the weather, I summited today because I had to. My first experience here was tough, and it left hard feelings. Breaking my ankle didn’t help that (and to be clear, that day was going swimmingly until that moment, and even so, I have fond memories of the day in general.) I spent this summer reconciling, and coming to peace with Adams and Madison. Today got me just a little bit closer. I won’t say the mountain whispered “welcome home” but at the same time, it didn’t holler “take off, eh!” either. But more than ever before, it felt like coming home.

As always, stay safe out there.

Nuts and Bolts: Coming from 93, head to Twin Mountain, and then some amount of time after you go past Ya-Ya’s, turn right on 115. Follow that to Route 2, and turn right (east) again. The Appalachia trailhead is just a bit after Lowe’s Mobil station, on the right (south) of the road. In summer, forget parking in the lot if you get there around mid-morning. But today, mine was one of about 10 or 12 cars in the lot, and there was plenty of space for about that many more. 

Trailhead will be “right there.” You’ll cross the Presidential Rail Trail, and go under some high tension lines. As of this writing, Eversource is doing some maintenance in the area, so keep your plans flexible. Blazes are blue to the hut, white while you’re on the Osgood Trail (which is the AT in that area.) 

Just as I was about to head out the door, an unexpected gift graced the feeder: bluebirds! Mr has “brighter” color, whereas the missus has more subdued plumage. But wow, what a treat! This set the tone for the day, easily. I don’t normally get them, so this was quite exciting. At least in literal translation, it was a bluebird day!
Starting out, this was an autumn hike, post-solstice. A bit creepy, actually, because where’s the snow we’re supposed to have?
The rains from the past few days? Yeah, the mountains are shedding a lot of water right now. Forget the Twins, and probably a few others. Anything with a significant water-crossing? The crossing will be significant, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine how I’d get past this, except “wait for it to abate.”
This was a hard photo to take. But the icicles mimicked the movement of the water. Maybe camera of the mind stuff. Go see it for yourself!
Another “hard photo” example, but wow! Such beauty. So ephemeral.
This was around the tent site spur. Things got snowy, and the transition was oddly abrupt. Be ready for your plans to change on a dime.
Summit in view! And yeah, fuggedaboudit. It was crummy visibility all day long. Not the least, flakes were flying. But at least I got this moment.
That view, by the way, was right by the last reminder. If the winds are howling, now is a good time to reconsider your plans for the day. I promise, if you come back on a day with abundant sunshine, you’ll be absolutely gobsmacked by the views. Your life will never be the same.
Heading up Osgood. This wasn’t easy. In fact, it sucked. It was totally worth it, but it sucked. Also, and apropos of nothing at all, but I just love that green on all the rocks.
The summit pin behind me, a look back to where I should be going, pronto. (As you can imagine, the views to the Great Gulf were… “New England Classics.”) Note the far cairn is a wee bit hazy at the moment.
Madison Hut. Closed for the season. (Boo!) A bit icy, but really, for the season, it’s pretty tame.
Looking from the other direction from the hut. On the right, the eponymous Madison Spring. Footing was a bit sporty.

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