Lt. Todd Bogardus, NHFG, (603) 271-3361
Rebecca Oreskes,WMNF, (603) 528-8721
April 2, 2010
Hikers, Be Smart: It's Still Winter in the Mountains
CONCORD, N.H. -- With the arrival of April, many outdoor enthusiasts are thinking that winter is over, and surely spring is finally here in earnest. While that may be the case in some places, hikers, climbers, and skiers out to enjoy spring activities in New Hampshire's woods and mountains should be aware that winter conditions can linger well into May in the White Mountains. With challenging backcountry conditions in mind, outdoors authorities are advising the Granite State’s springtime visitors to “Hike Safe.”
“Whether you're hiking or backcountry skiing this spring, the mountain environment has to be respected," says New Hampshire Fish and Game Conservation Officer Lieutenant Todd Bogardus. "Visitors planning an outdoor adventure have to realize that spring can be very slow in coming, and winter conditions can persist here long after springtime appears further south.”
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 -- even into early May,” says Bogardus. “That can even mean bringing along snowshoes for springtime hikes.”
Bringing the right equipment is key. Bogardus 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. In addition, hikers should anticipate that extra time will be needed to locate snow-covered paths, and also to negotiate the snowy and icy trails.
While diminishing snow levels will eventually make high-country travel a bit easier, snow melt can cause another spring hazard: challenging stream crossings. “Many 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 from 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 they encounter such obstacles.”
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,” says Bogardus. His advice: Dress in layers (to suit varying conditions), and always bring warm clothing and raingear.
In some parts of the White Mountains, such as Mount Washington, potential avalanche conditions can exist well into spring, according to Rebecca Oreskes of the White Mountain National Forest. Similar hazards can be found in other areas, especially those with steep open slopes. All backcountry hikers, climbers, and skiers should be aware of avalanche danger and be able to recognize other hazards such as falling ice and “undermined” areas, where there may be thin and weak snowcover over frigid streams.
“We’ve recently had a few close calls where hikers apparently lacked the equipment or the skills needed on steep, icy areas above treeline,” says Oreskes. She advises that climbers venturing onto steep snow slopes must have appropriate equipment, such as an ice ax and crampons, and must be skilled in climbing techniques such as “self arrest.”
The basic principles of backcountry safety are summarized in the hikeSafe “Hiker Responsibility Code,” which contains important guidelines for anyone heading out to enjoy New Hampshire's outdoors. "hikeSafe” is a joint initiative of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and White Mountain National Forest to promote safe and responsible hiking.
The hikeSafe 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.”
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