Outdoor Stories: The Curse of Owl’s Head

Most everyone I know who hikes and climbs is haunted by a particular mountain, the one they’ve tried—and failed—to climb multiple times. Among my friends, I’ve heard Rainier, Denali, Shuksan, and Glacier Peak.

My haunted peak doesn’t have near the cachet (or height) of the aforementioned peaks. Instead, I was haunted by Owl’s Head.

For those who don’t clamber up mountains in New England, especially in the winter (aka normal people), Owl’s Head is one of 48 mountains in New Hampshire over 4,000’ in elevation. At 4,025′, it barely makes the club. And there actually is a club for those who’ve climbed all of them.

Now 4,000′ doesn’t seem like much compared to the much taller mountains in the West. But the weather in the White Mountains is justly (and proudly) proclaimed “the worst in the world.” This is particularly true in the winter when temperatures plummet and winds howl. How brutal are the winters? Let’s put it this way: as of the date of this post, 14,413 people have officlally completed the 4,000 footers in spring, summer and/or fall—while only 843 have completed them all in winter.

I’m somewhere in the 600s in the winter club—but it was a painful journey—entirely due to Owl’s Head. What made it particularly galling is that Owl Head is one of the mountains that demonstrates the dubiousness of checking off lists: it’s not too bad in the summer as the route follows a rock slide for half the actual summit climb, but it’s a slog with no great views, especially in the winter when most people skip the slide via a bushwhack.  

Such exciting views from the summit

On my first winter attempt, we went up the slide as I didn’t know about the bushwhack. There was just enough snow to hide a layer of verglas on the rocks, and our attempt ended when I slipped off a rock and hurt my left leg catching a crampon point.

The second time I ran out of steam on the first day, and decided to try the next morning. (I’ve backpacked it every time as it’s a long day hike: 18 miles.) It started raining during the night, however (yep, in March!), which produced a mushy mess by morning (snow sticking to the snowshoes so we had to clean them off every few steps) so we just hiked out.

The third time, things looked promising. We made it to the start of the winter bushwhack in four hours, set up a perfect campsite, and relaxed for the afternoon and evening with the goal of tackling the remaining 2 miles (and most of the climb) in the morning when the trail was hard-packed (it was very cold overnight) and we were fresh. But in the morning, the stove crapped out (because I was using old, and therefore inefficient, fuel) after we’d had breakfast, but before we’d boiled sufficient water for the day. With only a liter and a half, we didn’t have near enough to summit and hike out. So once again (after hurling some curses into the sky), I headed out without bagging Owl’s Head.  

The fourth time was the charm. Perfect conditions and we were never more than five minutes off the rough schedule I’d composed in my head. And when we finally reached the summit (a pile of snow in the woods that was a little higher than, but otherwise identical to, the surrounding piles of snow), I felt no triumph, only relief that this ugly ass mountain was now behind me.

For the record, I was smart enough to avoid making Owl’s Head my final winter 4000 footer. I wisely reserved Madison for that.

Now if only someone would take some gelignite up there and remove the top 26′ feet of Owl’s Head so it’s no longer a 4000 footer…

At least I saved Madison for the end

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