Mt. Starr King

December is tough when you’re a White Mountain hiker. The average hiker travels at a pace of 1 mile per hour when ascending a mountain. Descending is of course a different story, I generally run/slide down in half that time or less. The sun rises around 7am and sets around 4pm this time of year. If it isn’t too cold and you’re carrying a headlamp then night hiking is always fun, but remember, once the sun is down it is going to get colder. Hiking from the end of November through mid January is like walking a tight rope.

We just couldn’t motivate ourselves to get out of bed. It was 4:30am when my first alarm went off. I suppose if we stuck with the plan to climb Washington I would have been a little more excited, but I truthfully I was sad we weren’t hiking Mt. Washington. It was simply too cold and too exposed up there. They predicted 90 MPH gusts with 60 MPH sustained winds and a -30 degree Fahrenheit windchill. I am great about bundling up, but I know I don’t have to gear to sustain myself in those temperatures.

We went back to bed and woke at 6:15am… We rushed to get our things together, eat breakfast then get out the door by 8am. We didn’t arrive at the Starr King/Waumbek trailhead until almost 11am. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on how horrible of an idea that is. The goal was to climb Waumbek, a 4,000 footer, but first we had to get to Starr King.

The trail? Easy peasy, and very well maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club. It was a gradual incline all the way. Of course, Anton and I are out of shape because we’re now too busy to exercise during the week so keeping up with that 1 mile per hour uphill goal wasn’t easy. I kept a slow, even pace in order to help us. As we climbed the snow began to sparkle. White Mountain magic.

Finally at 1:30pm we reached the summit of Starr King. Hardly any wind would make it easy for us to boil water for our lunch, but the temperature was easily below 0. The moment I took my mittens off the air felt like knives. My sweat quickly cooled and my feet were freezing within 10 minutes. I can safely say I never felt that cold in all my life and I was grateful for a hot meal and tea. I was excited to get moving again, and also aware that I couldn’t attempt a hike in this kind of cold again without proper gear. Movement was the only thing keeping me from certain hypothermia.

Going down a mountain in the winter is easy. No rocks or roots to go around as long as the snow covers them. I was able to run for the most part. I had to run, I was so cold that walking wouldn’t get me warm again. My water was frozen inside my hydration pack tube. I like the convenience of a hydration pack, but dehydration is far more inconvenient.

The run down was quick. We left summit at 2:15pm and we were at the car driving off by 3:30pm. It was depressing not being able to hike that last mile along the ridge to Waumbek, but I did complete yet another 52 With a View hike and learned some valuable lessons:

  1. Gear is important. I like going minimalist with one coat and one pair of boots, but it’s worth investing in mountaineering boots for winter hiking. Even Anton was getting cold in his insulated boots. A heavy parka is also now on the Amazon wish list. Single digits at the base means negative temps at the summit. I’m lucky there wasn’t any wind.
  2. Insulated water bottles are essential if the temperatures fall below 32. I said it last year and now I am repeating myself again. Don’t force yourself to eat snow.
  3. Pack the night before. That could have saved us an hour in the morning. Would you pack your luggage 4 hours before your flight?

After our hike we went to Rek Lis Brewing Company in Bethlehem to reflect and indulge. It’s okay to relearn old lessons once and a while. It teaches us that we don’t know everything. Thank you Mt. Starr King for reminding me that I’m still a beginner and a life-long learner.