It was on a magical Saturday morning, with my five companions, three hours of sleep, and only a fun-size 3 Musketeers bar for breakfast, that I would undergo my first true winter climb of a 4000'er in the Northeast.
Perhaps I should explain: I'm a student at Dartmouth, and a member of the Dartmouth Outing Club (hereafter DOC), and its subdivision, Cabin & Trail (hereafter CnT). Though I had climbed Camels Hump the previous weekend, the hiking was almost ridiculously easy, with only one or two slick spots near the summit which necessitated the use of the trekking poles I had brought. Mount Osceola would prove to be a much tougher challenge.
Saturday, I woke up bright and early from a shallow sleep (due to having to work until 3:30 in the morning) and headed across the Green to meet my fellow hikers; most were '09s like myself, but the trip leaders were '06s. Our drive up into the Whites was beautiful in the early morning sunlight, and I could tell an unusually clear day awaited us. As we passed through Warren--with its obligatory rocket in the middle of town--our trip leaders lamented the lack of snow atop Moosilauke (it's been an almost obscenely warm winter). We soon reached Lincoln, and proceeded east on the Kanc, which until now, I had never seen. We soon reached the parking lot for the Greeley Ponds trail, found it to be full, and parked at the turnout 1/4 miles down the road.
The first 1.5 miles were relatively uneventful and flat, though the trip leaders took us at a rigorous pace which quickly drained the little energy I'd had. At the intersection with the trail up E. Osceola, we stopped and (attempted to) put on our mini-crampons. Though they had been brought on last week's hike, they had never been needed; looking up the impossibly steep slopes that awaited, I knew today would be a different story. Soon enough, we began what would be one of the most intense 1.5 miles of my life.
The trail began climbing steeply, but nothing to the extent that would have tired me with more sleep and less speed. I spent much of this part of the hike lagging toward the rear of the group, wishing I could keep up like I normally did. As my calfs began to burn, the trail, impossibly enough, became steeper--and icier! At this point, I came to greatly appreciate my crampons, and the fact that the terrain required a ritard in our vigorous pace! We struggled up slopes that must've exceeded 45 degrees and were covered with ice; this kept up for around 1,000 vertical feet. At one point, we reached a wide clearing on mountainside, and I began to seriously worry about falling. A careful negotiation brought me back into the trees.
Just when I thought my legs couldn't take any more, we topped out on a ridgeline leading to the summit of East Osceola. A short--and much easier--climb later, we were at the nondescript, wooded summit. To my surprise, a trip leader suggested removing our crampons at this point, which I ended up not wearing again for the duration of the hike. My inward question of how we would travel downhill without them was soon answered when a few of our group began sliding downhill on the trail by, literally, the seat of their pants! I followed suit, and was immediately hooked! In this manner, our party reached the saddle between E. Osceola and Osceola within a matter of minutes, passing a decent view of the Pemi wilderness on the way down.
Shortly thereafter, we reached the infamous chimney along the trail, which we widely avoided with the bypass. This was not as tricky as I'd been told, given that flat surfaces on the rocks and decent handholds abounded; it can't have been much easier in the summer months. The relative lack of snow probably helped as well. In any case, we all were soon past the bypass, and began the last climb upward to the summit of Mount Osceola.
At times, I found myself missing my crampons; nevertheless, I managed to successfully negotiate the trickiest spots along the trail, which was admittedly not as intense as the majority of the climb. Two of the last steep, icy spots required some tree-grabbing, under-the-breath cursing, and luck, but I finally walked out atop the bizarrely snow-free summit ledge of Mount Osceola.
It was here we decided to break for lunch; despite the moderate winds, it was relatively warm. I was wearing only a shirt, windbreaker and gloves quite comfortably. Some of my energy was restored with the Nutella-and-bagels we ate, and my spirit was lifted by the wonderful views. The Presis were, like the black lands of Mordor, shrouded in cloud, but the rest of the Whites were more-or-less visible from the summit area. I wandered off-trail looking for the highest point(s), one of which had waist-deep snow.
After a few shots of us pretending to cling for dear life to the cliffs at the rim of the summit ledge, we made our way down, butt-sliding almost the entirety of the drop to the saddle, minus the bypass. A short climb back over E. Osceola, and the fun was about to begin!
Thus began my discovery of what made steep winter hikes such a blast. In sections of perhaps 50-100 vertical feet, we slid down our butts along the trail, whizzing by (and sometimes into) rocks and trees, rounding curves, and screaming like ninnies. I often found myself using my hands to slow my speed, lest I become acquainted with the trunk of a fir tree at full speed with my face! One memorable "run" had us sliding uncontrollably down the mountain sideways and going 20 feet off the trail; one student was only stopped when his boot caught on a tree branch!
Somehow, we all made it down in one piece, and I joined the ranks of the group Butt & Snow (hereafter BnS). The last stretch of hike was unremarkable, and we were soon back at the van after six hours of trekking, climbing, and butt-sliding. Upon my return to campus, I hung out at Milque and Cookies, then crashed back in my dorm and awoke fifteen hours later. I must've been tired!
Where will I climb next? Only time, and the CnT council, will tell...