5.2 miles round trip
Ben and I pulled off Rt. 302 just south of the AMC Highland Center at 9:45 am. Even in the dead of February with a winter storm watch going into effect later in the day, there was a surprisingly long line of cars jammed up against the side of the highway. I’m still recovering from nightmares brought on by hiking Franconia Ridge in early September, when the trail was so crowded that the only way to move was in a single-file trudge with 20 or 30 other hikers at a time, and the thought of doing the same on Mt. Jackson induced a couple of groans. However, it’s the Whites and we were 3.5 hours from home. We got out of the car.
The trailhead was literally right across the highway; a quick roll over a chest-high pile of plowed snow and we were headed up the mountain. It was a welcome change from nearly all of our winter hikes in Vermont, where our Chevy Cobalt slips and slides on the lightly maintained backroads leading up to various trailheads until it eventually refuses to crest another hill. We’ve often had to add a mile or so onto our hikes because it’s impossible to drive to the designated parking lot, so the highway parking for many of the trails in the Whites is much appreciated.
It’s 2.6 miles to Mt. Jackson’s summit via the Webster-Jackson trail. I came equipped with trekking poles, microspikes, and a mandated four layers of insulation. (“That seems excessive,” I casually pointed out to Ben while he was packing the night before. His only reply: “Do you want to end up like one of those dumb people in a Backpacker survival story?” Point taken.) Within the first 20 minutes, though, I had ditched the poles and outer shell and we were heavily engaged in a snowshoe-buying discussion. The microspikes had served us well for all winter hikes up to this point, but one slip outside of the 16” wide footpath of crushed snow and we were sinking into powder up to our thighs. As long as we stayed in our lane, the hike wasn’t too much trouble but only because of the path cut by every snowshoe-wearing hiker who had decided to take on Mt. Jackson before 9:45 am that morning. Thanks, guys.
Despite the long line of cars back at the highway, we saw maybe ten other hikers during the course of the climb. The trail inclines steadily from the very beginning, which gave the impression that we were traveling up a lot faster than we actually were. About half a mile into the trek, there’s a lookout point called Bugle Cliff. (It wasn’t the only side show available: early on there’s a spur trail to a lookout point called Elephant’s Head. Someone had carved “Help” on the sign—we collectively deemed it sarcastic and pressed on.) At Bugle Cliff, we got a clear view of several mountains across Crawford Notch to the northwest and could just barely pick out our speck of a car back at the trailhead. “We’re climbing so fast,” I puffed, clearly impressed with myself. “We’ll probably be summiting soon.”
I was, of course, dead wrong. The last 4,000 footer we had summitted was Vermont’s Mt. Mansfield back in November. Since then, we’ve been tooling around on Mt. Monadnock and Mt. Cardigan, both 3,000 footers where the trails to the top were each less than two miles. I had, in my humble opinion, been flying up those peaks. After those summits, I may have thought to myself that I had flipped from hiking novice to hiking prodigy overnight. Mt. Jackson reminded me that I was, in fact, not a prodigy, and Ben was quick to point out that this particular hike was one of the smallest 4,000 footers in the Whites. I tried to internalize my wheezing for as long as possible.
Burning legs aside, I had to admit that the trail itself was one of the most beautiful that we’ve been on since we started winter hiking this year. The trees sealed out the wind, the sun managed to cut through the clouds every so often, and there were occasional partial views of the taller mountains across the valley. The trail itself was a smooth climb from start to finish, marking the first time we’ve never had to hoist ourselves over ice-crusted rocks and boulders at any point in the hike.
After 1.4 miles the trail split left to Mt. Jackson and right to Mt. Webster. At one point after the split (when I thought we were pretty far up) we passed a group of four or five people headed down. The last guy in the pack mentioned to us in passing that it was “a little breezy up there.” This gave me the impression that a) the summit was just around the corner, and b) we were going to be dealing with 40 to 50 mph gusts once we got above the treeline. Both of these assumptions were wrong.
A half a mile later, while we were still waiting for the summit to appear, two Grey Jays started tailing our hike. Apparently, the bird species is known for living near the summit and being super weirdly accustomed to people. Whenever we stopped, they stopped, and whenever we walked, they flew right behind us. I could almost hear them egging us on.
When we finally emerged above the treeline and started putting our microspikes to work in the last 100 feet of the exposed climb, the wind was hardly an issue. That guy hadn’t been messing around: there was literally just a little bit of a balmy breeze at the top. The summit itself was pretty small and shrubby, but provided great views of the neighboring peaks including the southern Presidentials and the Pemi Wilderness. I was able to walk around fully upright and take pictures with Ben’s phone without it freezing up, both high accomplishments considering some of our past summit encounters. After a few minutes of taking in the views from all angles, we headed back down, making the most of all the butt sliding—excuse me, glissading—opportunities available.