Jacobs Ladder – 3/06/2017

It was a beautiful day on the Westside of Mount Washington, but not for skiing down! The snow never softened up, though it was sunny, 30F degrees, with only a light breeze. The 12 point crampons and ice axe in my pack would have been more appropriate than skis and poles, but my legs got a great workout! I’m glad I took Rocket, he had a great walk.

I did not plan on skiing down the Cog. Closer inspection revealed what seemed obvious from Base Station Road. The Cog right-of-way had lost most of the snow cover, and what remained was a rough, refrozen surface of hikers footprints and postholes.

The power line trail above Upper Waumbek Switch had thin cover, mixed rock and ice.

I stopped at Jacob’s Ladder to consider my options.
Although there are substantial snowfields remaining above treeline in in Ammonoosuc Ravine, I could not get there from here. There was a forest of krumholtz below Jacobs Ladder, impossible to ski, and impenetrable on foot, especially with my canine companion. No matter how much new snow falls during March, the krumholtz will not fill-in again this year.

SNOWBOARDERS: While I debated what I could do with the dog, a couple descending the Cog from the summit, in boot crampons with ice axes, stopped at Jacobs Ladder, where they had cached their splitboards earlier. They hoped it would soften up, while they tagged the summit, but were now considering hiking down, carrying their boards. I encouraged them to try riding their boards down, for which they never thanked me. I passed them later, resting their legs at the Waumbek Tank.

HIKERS: As I donned my brain bucket, tightened my boot buckles, and stepped into my ski bindings, I watched four young women with 3 dogs descending Long Trestle and Short Trestle very slowly from the summit. These hikers made it to the power line trail below Jacobs Ladder, just as I skied – more accurately, side-slipped – past them. Their difficulty descending was immediately obvious: microspikes are no substitute for 12-point crampons. They were not adequately prepared for the icy conditions, having succumbed to our shared fantasy of snow softening up in the bright sunshine. The Jewell Trail would have been longer in miles, but a safer hike down, and probably quicker. Hikers seem to have abandoned the classic loop hike up ART and down the Jewell, in favor of descending via the Cog right-of-way. On a good day, of course, a quick and safe descent is possible, even for first-timers without technical footwear.

Hiking down the Cog seems easy, at first, following the power-line work road as you leave the Gulfside & Westside Trails junction. At 5000 feet, as you approach Long Trestle, the grade quickly steepens. From there, it is no walk-in-the-park, if you are exposed to the risk of long-sliding-falls into Burt Ravine. Staying on skiers-left of the tracks, keeping Long Trestle between you and Burt Ravine seems a good idea, until you realize the creosote timbers and steel supports that will break your fall are no more forgiving than sliding into rocks in the Ravine. Walking on top of a mountain railway trestle is not an easy alternative. The cross-ties are angled slightly, and covered with slippery grease or ice, which makes descending more difficult than ascending. The random spacing of Cog railway ties makes establishing any rhythm difficult, compared to walking on ordinary railroad tracks. When spring conditions come to the Rock Pile, hikers often underestimate the hazards of postholing in isothermic snow next to the tracks, breakable crust, and undermined snow. The power line work road was not built for hiking – it has undergone several washouts, damaging the fiber optic cables buried there. Over the years, I’ve watched many people climb and descend the thousand vertical feet above Jacobs Ladder.   From a distance, I can usually judge how high their level of experience and how icy the surface is.

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