HIKERS, BE SMART: IT'S STILL WINTER IN THE MOUNTAINS
CONCORD, N.H. -- With the arrival of April, many outdoor enthusiasts may think that winter is over, and surely spring is here in earnest. While that may be the case in some places, hikers, climbers and skiers should be aware that winter conditions can linger well into May in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. With sometimes challenging backcountry conditions in mind, outdoors authorities are advising the Granite State's springtime visitors to "Hike Safe."
"New Hampshire's woods and mountains are a great place for spring recreation - for those who are prepared for it," says New Hampshire Fish and Game Conservation Officer Lieutenant Todd Bogardus. "Hikers and backcountry skiers know there's a lot of fun to be had here - but the mountain environment has to be respected. If you're planning an outdoor adventure, you have to realize that spring can be very slow in coming, and winter conditions can persist here long after springtime appears further south." According to Bogardus, the lingering high-mountain snowpack means that hikers and others need to take special precautions to enjoy their adventures safely.
"At higher elevations in the White Mountains, hikers should expect to find deep and sometimes soft snows that make traveling and trail-finding difficult well into April - maybe even into early May," notes Bogardus, "so don't put away those snowshoes just yet." He also advises that as conditions cause ice or icy snow on trails, crampons (ice spikes, strapped to sturdy boots) or similar equipment will be needed for safe footing. Hikers should plan for extra time to find snow-covered paths, and also to negotiate the snowy and icy trails.
While the eventually diminishing snow levels will make high-country travel a bit easier in time, there'll then be another spring hazard: challenging stream crossings. "Most backcountry river crossings are not bridged, and require care to cross safely even with low water levels," warns Bogardus. "With the extra water of snowmelt, plus more water from time to time due to spring rains, some stream crossings may be very difficult, or even impossible, to negotiate safely. Hikers definitely need to be ready to change their plans if such obstacles are present."
Another prominent hazard, according to Bogardus, is that mountain weather in springtime is often much more severe than most people expect. "High in the White Mountains, temperatures can get below zero even in May, winds are often strong and chilling, visibility can be very poor in low clouds, and snow can fall at any time. Hikers can be fooled by the weather; we can have a balmy spring day followed by a cold wintry one." Dressing in layers (to suit varying conditions), and including warm clothing and raingear, are essential for comfort and survival.
Some locations in the White Mountains have added hazards. "Avalanche conditions can exist on Mount Washington well into spring," says Rebecca Oreskes, of the White Mountain National Forest, "and similar hazards can be found in other areas, especially those with steep, open slopes. We've had several avalanche incidents over the last few weeks, with some real close calls involving skiers and climbers. Avalanche awareness is needed by all backcountry travelers, plus recognition of other hazards, such as falling ice and "undermined" areas, where there may be thin and weak snowcover over frigid streams." Oreskes notes that any climber venturing onto steep snow slopes also has to have appropriate equipment, such as an ice ax and crampons, and must be skilled in climbing techniques such as "self arrest."
Some guidelines for enjoyable and safe hiking are contained in the principles of "hikeSafe," a joint New Hampshire Fish and Game Department-White Mountain National Forest initiative to promote safe and responsible hiking.
Oreskes says that the hikeSafe Hiker Responsibility Code sums up the basic tenets of backcountry safety. "Spring hiking has great rewards, but it also comes with innate challenges and dangers. Being aware of and following the Code are important first steps toward an enjoyable and safe journey."
There are six tenets of the code: 1) Be prepared with appropriate knowledge and gear; 2) Let someone else know your plans; 3) Hiking groups should stick together, and not let themselves become separated; 4) Hikers should always be ready to turn back if circumstances, such as changing weather, dictate; 5) Hikers should be ready for emergencies, and, ideally, be set to effect "self rescue"; and 6) Those who know the code should share its lessons with others.
"In spite of the challenges, most springtime visitors to our state's forests and mountains have great experiences," says Bogardus, "and there's a better chance of having a memorable and satisfying trip if hikers follow the hikeSafe principles."
For more information about the hikeSafe program, visit hikesafe.com.
PO Box 157
Kearsarge, NH 03847-0157
nhocsecretary at nhoutdoorcouncil dot org