Winter isn’t so much of a season in the White Mountains as an altitude. The onset of winter always starts at the higher elevations first with freezing rain and snow before the snow line drops into the mountain passes and valleys below. In other words, it might be winter on the higher peaks, but autumn in the valleys below. It’s just like spring when the lower elevations warm faster and winter lingers on the high peaks.
For day hikers or backpackers, winter effectively begins when you start having to carry microspikes for extra traction on hikes. That can happen as early as October 1 on the higher peaks, especially on Mt Washington and the Northern Presidentials where the average temperate is below freezing from October through April. Eventually, you’ll need to carry snowshoes too, but early on, microspikes are usually sufficient until December, when we start to get larger quantities of snow.
This state of seasonal “in-between-ness” means you must carefully plan hikes by tracking weather forecasts several days in advance to determine if they’re safe and what gear you need to bring. Checking trail condition reports from other hikers on NewEnglandTrailConditions.com is also very helpful.
Come October 1, I usually switch to my winter backpack which is better suited to carrying sharp traction, like microspikes and crampons, and start carrying a lot more cold-weather clothing layers and gloves on hikes. I pack away my water filter since it’s likely to break if it gets frozen and start carrying Katadyn Micropur tablets for water purification since they work in cold water. Eventually, I’ll even start to carry hot water in wide-mouth bottles instead of cold water on hikes, so it doesn’t freeze. I’ve found myself hiking in several inches of snow on 4000 footers by November 1st, but it’s hard to know exactly when autumn surface conditions will give way to snow and ice.
For peakbaggers working on the AMC Winter 4000 footer peakbagging list, ‘calendar’ winter begins on December 21, 2022 and ends on March 20, 2023 (the days vary from year-to-year). The rules for completing this list are rather strict: “Trips must begin after the hour and minute of the beginning of winter (winter solstice), and end before the hour and minute of the end of winter (spring equinox). For example, to count as an AMC Winter 4000 hike for the 2022-2023 season, you must not start your hike before the winter solstice at 4:48 PM EST Wednesday, Dec 21, and you must end a hike (all the way back at the trailhead/car) before the vernal equinox 5:24 AM EDT Monday, Mar 20.
You can read all about the winter rules on the AMC4000 Footer website. They may seem strict, but you have to realize that bagging Winter 4000-footers is a game, and games have rules.
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