Monday, March 8, 2010

3-7-10 Mt. Washington & Lakes of the Clouds

Finally, finally a weekend arrived with decent weather. Yesterday (3-6-10) I made a quick visit to Lakes of the Clouds to see first hand the enormous amount of snow around the hut and across the whole range. It's exciting to see the mountain completely covered. From the perspective of natural history, it's interesting to see this amount of snow and compare it to other years and other seasons. It's a first hand look at one of the more prevalent of the many variables, call it energy or a 'force of nature' or simply 'weather', that shapes these mountains and impacts the natural history ubiquitously.

I made an early start as I had to be back to the car and driving home by noon. This photo shows some of the results of a recent avalanche in Ammonoosuc Ravine that was a major event. It was huge! It took out 16 acres of trees and opened up this huge bowl. I explored it on Friday (3-5-10) and have more photos that you'll find below.

The summit from tree line on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. The snow at this point is 6-7 feet deep! Compare this photo to the one below which is the way the same scene looked in early June of last year (2009).

It's a bit daunting when you actually realize how much snow there is on the mountain now.

I was being followed. This hiker was part of a group of three who were working on their winter 4,000 footers. A young woman in the group had completed her winter 4,000 footers in the Adirondacks (where there are 46) the day before, then drove most of the night, and was starting immediately to try and complete as many of the 48 New Hampshire 4,000 footers that she could before winter ends on March 20th. The hiker in the photo was, until fairly recently, a USAF pilot who just completed two tours of duty flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and he said hiking was a good way to normalize his life again.

He headed off trail to make a bee-line for the Crawford Path and the summit taking advantage of the deep snow (that buried the trees) and the hard-packed surface that offered secure footing.

This is a close up of the wind packed and sculpted snow we were walking on.

It's a wind-compressed crust three or four inches thick and most of the time you can walk effortlessly on the surface. Occasionally it breaks and you go in up to your hip. When it's solid it's squeaks as you walk on it. It's perfect snow for making an igloo.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut!

Rime ice coats the windward wall of the hut.

while a deep drift of wind blown snow practically buries the front, or east side, of the hut.

Remember, this is what the hut looked like six months ago in mid-October.

It looked like another world, stark and beautiful.

It was an exceptionally lovely day as you can see and not cold. It was above 0 degrees F and the wind was gentle gusting only to about 30 mph at the hut and a little stronger on top of Mt. Monroe.

I made a giant circle starting first by going over to Monroe Flats.

The clouds, the shadows, and the light were breath taking.

It was enough just to sit and watch the clouds as they quickly came from the west at about 5,000 feet, and gained speed as they vaulted gracefully up and over the summit, and changed shape continuously while they sped off to the east. These were early morning clouds that formed as a layer of warm air was forced upwards by the mountains. It looked as though the clouds would lift off the summit by noon.

This looks a bit like something from another planet. A cloud had just past across the sun and changed the light dramatically so that this drift has a menacing look. Actually it's a sarcophagus of snow built up over a dense mat of balsam firs and black spruce underneath.

The same spot looked like this in mid-October.

The drift has been shaped by the wind and as I stood there the wind was forming more rime crystals as I watched. It was lovely. This amount of snow is an anomaly in the sense that in this location, close to Monroe Flats and in the col between Mt. Monroe to the west and the uplands forming the ridge ascending towards the summit of Mt. Washington to the east the wind here is usually extreme and most of the time there's little snow cover. I've seen bare ground here in the middle of the winter. So, with this deep snow cover the trees have a reprieve, at least until it melts and exposes them to the elements once more.

This is the ridge to the east of Monroe Flats with a comparison photo below I took in October.

The slight depression in the center of the photo is the small "tarn" I've photographed often with varying amounts of water in it.

And this is the northwest edge of the alluvial plateau called Monroe Flats where a large percentage of the alpine flowers found on Mt. Washington and a few other of the Presidental Range peaks grow and thrive.

The flats are actually dome shaped and on the southeast edge they tip slightly towards the Dry River watershed. This is the view across the Dry River towards the Montalban Ridge and, further in the background, is Mt. Kearsarge to the left and in the middle distance and center of the photo is Mt. Cranmore where I was skiing the day before (Saturday, 3-5-10).

Close to this southern most edge of the flats and slightly off the Crawford Path is a protected niche where several Potentilla robbinsiana, the famous dwarf cinquefoil, thrive (see photo below) and for the moment, at least, the ground is well protected by this thick crust of windpacked snow.

This is one of the P. robbinsiana plants as it emerged in this spot last June.

From Monroe Flats I literally had to scamper on all fours, using my hands and feet, to crampon up the thick water ice that glazed the southeast flank of Mt. Monroe. Interestingly the east and north flanks were free of ice except in a few spots.

Mt. Washington from the north summit of Mt. Monroe. It's really hard to believe the amount of snow. It covers everything. It poses interesting questions about when it will melt, how fast it will melt and what will happen when it does melt. It's snow now but when the temperature rises above 35-40 degrees (F) it will quickly change back into water with noteworthy results. The thaw may set off a number of different scenarios including down slope flooding, and dramatic down wasting in the form of landslides, etc.

The larger of the two Lakes of the Clouds is filled beyond capacity and before the torrential rain that fell about a month ago turned to ice the water level rose high enough to cause a water fall to form at the northwest end of the lake where it normally drains under the rocks into the Ammonoosuc River. On this occasion the lake became a river.

Water flooding out of the lake flowed towards the hut covering the ground there before freezing so that there's a skating rink from the lake to the back door of the hut. This is the north end of the hut and obviously free of snow. The pattern of drifts indicate that the storm that brought all the snow came in, at least initially, from the southeast. I took this picture at just 11 o'clock, the time i set for heading down. Hikers were beginning to appear in droves.

I said goodbye to Mt. Monroe and headed back down the 'Ammy'. With the thick windslab it was possible to run at a good clip all the way to the softer snow just below the tree line and I've probably said it several times that running down a mountain is sheer bliss. It's exhilirating. Once in the trees, in the deep powder, it's wise to slow down and stay on the packed trail or else, if you waver off the trail or stumble, you might 'post hole' and sink down to your hips or shoulders in the deep snow.

I helped break some of the trail coming up on Friday but someone finished it on Saturday and followed the line of least resistance with the result that the 'line' is pretty much straight up and far off the actual trail. Not that it makes any difference as long as there's a trail to follow. There's so much snow that the official blue paint blazes on the trees are a foot below the snow so are not much help.

This pair camped at the hut the night before. They were confused when they found two trails leading up the mountain and followed one up a brook bed that became quite steep and slippery. They came down the same way to be safe and slid most of the way down on their butts. They're seen here peeling off some layers as the temperature began to climb into the 40s in the mid-day sun.

Ski traffic in Ammonoosuc Ravine looks as though it increased a lot Saturday and Sunday. On my way down from Lakes I passed 20-23 people "skinning up" meaning climbing up on AT (alpine touring) skis who were planning on skiing out via Ammonoosuc Ravine.

Continue reading to see pictures of the damage done by a massive avalanche that occurred in Ammonoosuc Ravine sometime in the last four weeks.

On Friday I got to the section of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail (Ammy) that's close to the river and noticed with some astonishment that the whole bottom half of the ravine was opened up into an enormous bowl and it took me a few minutes to figure out that a huge avalanche had come down from just below the headwall of the ravine and cleared out several acres of trees. In terms of down wasting it was a major event.

I snow shoed up into this huge amphitheater and climbed over this mound of avalanche debris, mostly pieces of trees and whole trees that were both packed in and covered by the ice and snow.

These two guys skied down through the middle gully from the summit of Mt. Washington on their Alpine Touring skis ('ATs') and were eating their lunch before heading back up for another run. Local, from Franconia, they ski the backcountry often and said the avalanche occurred after heavy rains lashed the mountains at the end of January causing major flooding and ice jams in local rivers across the northern part of the state. Alpine Touring, a form of 'back country' skiing has been catching on in the White Mountains for a decade and even though it requires climbing to otherwise inaccessible ravines and gullies it's a fast-growing sport here.

Trees were bent down or snapped off by the avalanche.

The area deforested by the avalanche was about the size of 20 football fields.

I climbed up into the ravine following the central most gully, the one the skiers had just descended, as far as I thought it was safe. It was apparent that the slide started high up but, true to form, caused the most damage towards the bottom of the chute as it gained speed and mass.

The central gully of Ammonoosuc Ravine is straight ahead with a consistent pitch of about 50 degrees that is good for climbing and skiing.

I followed the right had gully and at this point I was half way up the ravine. I climbed 200 more feet thinking it would be an easy push to the top and a quick way to get to Lakes of the Clouds but my time was running out and I regretted not having skis to ski out with and save time that I could use for climbing.

From here you get a feel of the power of the avalanche as it tore down the mountain roaring through this bottle neck, spreading out and riding up around the corners like a toboggan. It must have made an impressive noise!.

It must have taken this corner at a significant rate of speed as it swept uphill for a good distance before it lost momentum and returned to the river channel.

This shows how wide the head of the avalanche was and how extensive the damage. It will be interesting to explore this track after the snow melts. Judging by the area cleared of trees there must be a huge amount of debris hidden beneath the snow. I'm planning to come back in a month to see what the slide track looks like then.


Andrew Riely said...


Philip Werner said...

Really great photos and annual comparisons. Thank you.

Could you turn on comments for non-google accounts and open ID? I'm a frequent reader...thx!

Alex MacPhail said...

Andrew, it really was awesome! Thought of you several times. How's teaching in DC? What are you doing this summer? Get in touch if you're coming North. Best, Alex

Alex MacPhail said...

Hi Phil, thanks for reminding me. I wish I was more computer literate, or capable at some level. Anyway, I've asked some folks if they can help and there are, apparently, several ways to open the blog to non-google users. I'll post a comment when it's been resolved. Best, Alex

Douglas said...

Not bad Alex.

imzadi said...

Hi there...

We did the "ammy" on Saturday...well, we got to the bowl where you have your pictures and just LOST the trail. There were no trees to HAVE a trail.

The snow has melted quite a bit and the devistation under the snow in your picture is quite something. I DO have pictures and will try to post a few tomorrow. Nature truly IS awesome!!

Jonathan said...

So glad I stumbled on your blog! We met you March 5 in Ammomoosuc Ravine, as we ate our lunch. I'm the skier in black. My theory about end-of-January thaw has been blown away. Bill O, moderator at Obs forums, posted before & after photos of the ravine from BW webcam that proves it occurred after Feb 16, and I skied across the debris field on Feb 28.