Wednesday, March 8, the weather forecast had about a 4 hour window of opportunity for mild temperatures and sunshine on the Westside, after the overnight rain and snow showers cleared, before the next line of rain and snow showers marching our way from Vermont. Only a few hardy souls were optimistic enough to take advantage of this possibility: the usual suspects.
That morning, I repeatedly checked the online MWObs Mesonet weather stations to confirm temperatures were above freezing at the trailhead and up to treeline, and the NWS satellite loop confirmed the back edge of the departing front was clearly advancing across Vermont. Splashes of sunshine had begun illuminating the Western White Mountains, through occasional breaks in the clouds, as I approached the Presidential Range.
However, when I arrived at the trailhead, it was a dismal scene. Inch-deep puddles of water remained from Tuesday night’s rain. Temperatures were in the low- to mid-30s F, but a steady West-Northwest breeze threatened to send the mercury plummeting. The summits were in the clouds, and trees at upper elevations showed a rain-snow line, where rime had accumulated above 4000 feet. I briefly saw Jefferson Notch and Mount Deception in bright sunlight, as I put ski boots on my feet and climbing skins on my skis, before gusty winds and a snow squall of big, fat, wet snowflakes forced a hasty retreat inside my car. One last check of the satellite loop confirmed the clear skies had crossed the Connecticut River, and it was time to go. I carried my skis across the wet parking lot, until I was at the trailhead kiosk, in the forest. There I saw the telltale sign of three skiers tracks heading up the ART – a local guide with two Canadian clients, I later learned.
The ART still has a snowbridge across Monroe Brook, though there are a couple open water holes.
Plan A was to finish what I started Monday, and determine if the skiers exit from South Ammonoosuc Ravine was possible. One of my partners, Logger Ben, had descended South Ammonoosuc in icy conditions, late Monday, and hiked out in boot crampons, declaring it unskiable, and “blown out” at the bottom.
Well, that hasn’t stopped me before, and based on only one picture he sent me of washed-out Central Ammonoosuc Ravine, I planned to follow his boot track up from the bottom, and see how badly the South end looked. It was a fools errand. In the floor of Ammonoosuc Ravine, all three branches of the river had opened up: from the Gem Pool, from Central, and from North (“Little Ammo”).
I found a couple small low-angle snowfields in the floor of the ravine that I could have skied out, but I had to cross three rivers to get there and back. The snow was just soft enough at that elevation to be supportive, and would have been fun to ski, especially now that the sun began shining, and the clouds were breaking up. When I came upon Ben’s boot track, I skinned as far as I could go, then threw my skis over one shoulder, and started hiking up his path. Eventually, just below the last cascade in Central Ammonoosuc Ravine, where the south branch drains into central gully, Ben’s boot track disappeared, and it became too treacherous to proceed.
Faced with retreat, I opted to bushwack straight up through the dense brush and trees, knowing that eventually I would reach the mature softwoods on the ridge, north of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, above Gem Pool. The snow was still in the shade, and firm enough to prevent postholing on the northwest aspect above the river. It was a struggle, carrying skis, to make a rabbit-path through the thicket, but eventually I popped out from the understory, into familiar terrain that I’ve explored in years past, off the ART. I was able to put the skis back on, and begin skinning up through the forest, towards the ART.
Upon reaching the ART at 3800 feet, it was already after 2:30PM. I had to make a turn-around decision. The clock was ticking, and I had wasted 3 hours getting useless beta, confirming what Ben had told me – Ammonoosuc Ravine was not skiable. I transitioned into boot crampons, helmet, and mounted the skis on my pack. The sun was shining, but I could see the advancing cloud front, over Vermont. I could barely see the ski trails at Stowe, on Mount Mansfield, 80 miles away; figuring the winds at the summit were about 60 miles-per-hour, that gave me an hour and twenty minutes to get off the mountain. I still had to climb a thousand vertical feet to reach Lakes of the Clouds at 5000, then almost a mile above treeline, traversing across the western slope of Mount Monroe on skis (?), before I would reach Monroe Brook, and begin my descent. That could easily take an hour and a quarter, if nothing went wrong, but I decided not to turnaround and hike down. I started hiking up, enjoying the beautiful views of the cascades and waterfall at 4000 feet, but not stopping to take pictures. I snapped a few photos above treeline, then left the ART and took a familiar short-cut, towards Mount Monroe.
Below Lakes of the Clouds hut, I transitioned back into skis, packed my skins and crampons, snapped a few more photos of the beautiful view (and approaching clouds!), and began skiing towards Monroe Brook.
Right away, I could see that the snowfields between Lakes and MB were no longer continuous, and I had to make my way through a maze of krumholtz, bridging a few gaps, stepping across moss and rocks (forgive me, Guy Waterman!), skis chattering across the frozen suncups (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suncup_(snow)), until I reached the goal. There was an occasional inch of new snow & graupel in the lee of krumholtz, but it did little to dampen the chattering. My edges were sharp, but weren’t making much contact with the “snow”. A few turns in the sun, and then I descended into flat light with a mix of icy suncups, and a thin breakable windslab on skiers-left. Just brutal, survival skiing.
Below the lower little headwall, I came upon a group of skiers, clustered above the open water hazards – a local guide with two clients, and beyond them, a fourth local who was on a solo tour, like me. I got a laugh out of Alex referring to the Monroe Brook descent as the “New Hampshire foot massage”. It was not much different for his 2 backcountry skiing clients than it had been two days earlier, with an ice climbing client. We were all right about one thing: the sun did come out.
The good news from Monroe Brook is that the open water hazards were still avoidable without much trouble, cold weather should slow down the undermining, and prevent the holes from getting wider for another week, before all bets are off.
The Lower Monroe Brook exit glade was the best snow of the whole tour, with an inch or more of new snow, and rime off the trees, that had softened. I enjoyed making turns, for the first time all day. Even the ART was enjoyable skiing, in spite of the craters left by hikers and snowshoers. It was still soft on top, it hadn’t set-up yet, and we still had nice afternoon sunlight.
The clouds arrived on schedule, bringing scattered rain showers as I was leaving, glad to be off the mountain.