Matthew Provencher was terrified digging the body from the snowbound devastation wrought by an avalanche in Tuckerman Ravine. Provencher was on winter mountain patrol for the US Forest Service in New Hampshire when disaster struck a hiker in near-whiteout conditions on one of the most dangerous peaks east of the Mississippi River.
Mount Washington is famous in the hiking world for its unpredictable weather. The peak’s reputation as the world’s most dangerous small mountain has been earned by more than 140 deaths above and below its ridges.
Those fatalities are often related to sheer exhaustion and hikers going unprepared to face the mountain’s highly changeable microclimate, especially in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. One small but hardcore group of hikers knows these risks all too well, and the group is growing in spite of the danger. They are members of the winter 4K Footer club, hikers who climb New England’s tallest peaks not when conditions are optimal, but when they are most dangerous.
In the shoulder seasons, it could be a warm, sunny day starting out at the trailhead, but once you get above treeline and are exposed to the elements, the temperature drops precipitously and freezing rain pelts your skimpy jacket, if you brought one. That’s a recipe for hypothermia.
But in winter, New England’s tallest summit takes on a far different appearance, along with a whole new catalog of risks. One of the most heart-pounding of those is the threat of an avalanche.
With easy access to affordable gear and courses teaching the skills required to survive the elements, ‘winter really isn’t the barrier it used to be,’ says Eric Savage, of the 4K Footer Club.
Mount Washington typically receives between 40 and 55 inches of new snowfall each month of winter; the record snow season of 1968-69 left more than 565 inches of snow on its slopes. Arctic temperatures, hurricane-force winds, icing, and snow can occur any month of the year.
On the day Provencher, now the chief of sports medicine for Massachusetts General Hospital, was sent to search for a hiker swept down Tuckerman, a storm left about 10 feet of snow in the ravine. The hiker had been making his way up the mountain when something triggered the slide. There was no time to escape the rushing white wave that carried him down the mountain and left him buried. But despite the potential for death, the man survived.
“We didn’t find him until we were looking through the debris,” said Provencher, a New Hampshire native. “You know, you find ski poles, a winter hat, and when we found a glove there was a hand in it. But the death count there is a very real thing.”
That may be. But it certainly hasn’t stopped Provencher and a growing number of others from heading into the northern forests each winter to ascend the area’s toughest peaks. The number of applicants to the winter club has doubled in the last five years. In 2008, 24 hikers applied for membership; that number jumped to 48 this year.
In most cases, the toughest peaks also turn out to be the tallest, and for many, the tallest summits are the most desirable, sometimes the only ones to climb.
This is often where the Four Thousand Footer Club comes in. Technically a committee of the Appalachian Mountain Club, the 4K Footer Club is only loosely affiliated at this point, said Eric Savage, who chairs the committee.
“We’re something of a lost piece,” he jokes. “We’ve never had any type of formal reporting relationship with the AMC, at least not that I know of.”
The 4K Footer betClub started in 1957 to urge exploration of lesser-known summits and mitigate impact on the heavily traveled Presidential Range and Franconia Ridge. While that mission still stands, the committee is essentially just a big group of avid hikers — 10,860 of them — who have summited the 48 tallest White Mountains.
A much smaller number — just over 600 — are members of the winter 4K Footer Club, one of a small group of lists the club recognizes. To achieve winter status, hikers must ascend and descend on foot each mountain deemed an official 4,000-footer (there are rules specifying what accounts for a true 4K footer) in winter, and not one minute before or after.
In the past only the most diehard adventurers would brave the mountains in the coldest months. Now, with easy access to affordable gear and courses teaching the skills required to survive the elements, “winter really isn’t the barrier it used to be,” Savage says. It’s especially true for new hikers that fall in love with bagging challenging peaks and who are undaunted by acquiring that extra knowledge and equipment.
Many new hikers jump into the hobby to get into better physical shape, but often find they were harboring an inner outdoorsman — or woman — they never knew was there, or that was hibernating. For some, though, it can also be to prove a point.
For Anne Jarek, rekindling her passion for the outdoors turned out to be both. Jarek, 37, grew up exploring the woods around her home in Barre, N.H., but had gotten out of the habit as an adult. Back in 2009, she was dating someone who loved spending time in the mountains. Being overweight, she says, hiking was also a means to an end. Then the relationship fizzled.
“He told me I was useless in the mountains and that I would never hike again without him,” Jarek remembers. “It really sparked this whole, ‘I’ll show you I can do this on my own’ idea in me.”
Not confident enough to strike out alone, she joined an AMC hiking group and set a goal to traverse all 48 four-thousand footers in a calendar year. That meant she would need to hike some of those toughest peaks in winter. She blew through the first 48 with a week to spare, and is now working on her winter list. She also dropped about 75 pounds.
Some might wonder if it’s safe for a woman out in the woods alone, or in a group of men. And Jarek acknowledges she does occasionally encounter someone on a hike that doesn’t have “good boundaries.”
“You get men that, like at the gym, might think you’re the weaker sex, or try to take advantage of being in the woods, and it empowers them to make more sly comments about how you look or how fit you are,” she said. “It just teaches you that the mountains are like anywhere else.”
And just like anywhere else, nature calls at inopportune times. For a woman wearing multiple layers, “bio breaks,” as they are affectionately known in hiker parlance, can be tricky. Experienced female hikers have developed some interesting techniques for such times, such as wearing a sanitary pad or panty liner so they don’t have to carry toilet paper or take off their mittens, says Betsy Whitmore, who moved with her husband to Holderness, N.H., to be closer to hiking opportunities.
“You wear it all day and train your body that you won’t do a number two during the day,” said the 64-year-old grandmother. “You really can train your body that you will only urinate all day.”
That’s right – she’s 64, a grandmother, and an avid winter hiker. For one thing, it keeps her fit year-round.
“When I would start hiking in May or June, I’d be terribly out of shape,” she admits. “My knees would hurt and I’d be generally achy. But now that I’ve been winter hiking, I’m always in shape. Plus it’s breathtaking and beautiful . . . when the sky is perfectly blue, that cerulean blue. It’s an incredible feeling being on the top of these remote peaks in the middle of winter.”
James Cronin can be reached at @james