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Snow melt leads to unusual White Mountain conditions

Special to the Union Leader

February 03. 2013 9:20PM
The day after losing its winter ice to warm temperatures and rain, ice builds up again on the Swift River at Rocky Gorge Scenic Area. (SARA YOUNG-KNOX PHOTO)

If January's unusual weather pattern of historically warm thaws persists through February, those who enjoy late winter and early spring outdoor activities in the White Mountains could be in for another disappointing season.

While winter made a comeback for the weekend - on Saturday the parking lot at Attitash was full, and farther up Route 302, cross-country skiers glided along the trails at Bear Notch Ski Touring Center - the warm weather earlier in the week did a number on the snowpack. When the snowpack melts, kayakers get terrific whitewater runs down normally shallow, rocky mountain rivers.

On Thursday, the Swift River, among other waterways, was swept free of ice. It was the second time this year that the temperatures climbed high enough to wear away and blow out the ice, with the water level high enough to float most of the ice chunks downstream.

Temperatures in the 50s had help clearing the rivers. Around 2 inches of rain fell Thursday, filling seasonal streams and pushing major watersheds, like the Saco River and the Pemigewasset River, to near flood stage.

On Mount Washington, the high for the day was 43 degrees, besting the previous record high for the day of 35 degrees, set in 1947. During a thaw on Jan. 14, observers at the Mount Washington Observatory recorded a high of 48 degrees, which broke the previous record daily high of 43 degrees, set in 2005, and also broke the previous record for the month, which was set in 1995 at 47 degrees.

Snow rangers with the Mount Washington Avalanche Center reported wall-to-wall frozen slush on Hillman's Highway. The slush froze in time for the weekend, but the damage was done.

"The Sherburne trail is better suited to a bobsled than skis," reported Forest Service ranger Frank Carus on Sunday morning, "so don't bother with your boards. It does have decent coverage from top to bottom still, but it is very icy and choppy. There are numerous patches of blue water ice, some exposed rocks, and some areas where slush has run over the trail."

There was also less snowfall than normal.

The White Mountains got 35 inches in January, compared to an average snowfall of 52.80 for the month.

There is time for a fix of snow, as the summits usually get about 40 inches of frozen precipitation in February and 45 inches in March.

Already, the ice on the rocky cliffs in Crawford Notch is building up again, and on Saturday, climbers with the annual Mount Washington Ice Fest made their way up the eastern facing ice falls in the notch.

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