Christmas morning at the Stewart home was, for many years, almost the same routine.  My younger brother and I would get up with the sunrise and then immediately wake up my even younger sister.  Before we could tell time, we would go romping into my parent’s bedroom and jump all over the bed to wake them and tell them that Christmas morning had arrived.  Once we could tell time, we were told that we had to wait until 7:00 before waking them, and so we would, “quietly” sit outside their closed bedroom door until the appointed hour, then charge into their room and romp all over the bed like we had in years previous.  Of course, quiet is a relative term and there is only so quiet that elementary school age children can be.

My mother would be the first to get up and she would go downstairs without us and start the coffee.  As the smell of the brewing coffee would waft up to the second floor, we children would stand at the top of the stairs and call down to her, “Is it ready yet, is it time?”

Eventually Mom would cave, and, with a cup of coffee in hand for my father, she would call us down to the living room where stockings were hung over the fireplace, oversized presents from Santa were stacked below each stocking, and gifts from everyone other than Santa were piled under the tree.  We would find a place in the living room to sit and mom would take down the stockings and pass them over to each of us and, in a somewhat measured manner, we would being to unwrap the trinkets in the stockings and the gifts that were below, waiting, as much as we could, for “turns”, rather than all at once in a frenzy of shredded wrapping paper and ribbon. 

Once the Santa gifts were done, my mother would dole out, one at a time so that we could all see what the others were receiving, the bigger presents from under the tree.  It was a measured unwrapping experience and respectful of everyone’s turn.  The result of this practice was that it turned Christmas morning gift giving into a much longer and protracted experience than it otherwise would have been had we children been left to just tear into the presents at our own pace, and the joy of Christmas morning lasted that much longer.

For all but those who hike in the winter, spring in the White Mountains is much like Christmas morning.  We find the hills and valleys wrapped in the bright yellow-greens of leaves budding out, the dappled whites and pinks of flowering trees blooming, and wildflowers like trillium and azalea are all coming into bloom on the forest floor.  Hikers are all waiting at the top of the stair for the signal to run down and open this present that is spring.

This winter, however, like a few before, has been an unusual winter in that we received significant snow late in the season.  This snow has clung to the woods and much of the White Mountain National Forest is still covered by several feet of snow.  By this time in the season, in years past, there were only small patches of snow and it was a novelty to come across them on the trail, but this year the snow is deep, the spring has been cool, and spring thaw has been a very slow process.

Last year there was an astounding 245 search and rescues in the White Mountains; an incredible number when you consider that almost all of these occur on the weekends and the vast majority of those weekends during the summer.  Many of the rescues are of people who were hiking trails that exceed their skill level, or hikers who were ill equipped to deal with changing weather or conditions. What is even more remarkable than the number of rescues last year, however, is that this year we have already had more than 170 search and rescues callouts and summer has not yet arrived.  Just this last week, there were 5 rescues of individuals caught waist deep in snow; one with a leg broken from “postholing” through the hardened layer of snow and ice we call the monorail and one by National Guard helicopter on the side of Mt. Lincoln, three days after getting lost, off the trail, and calling for help.

Hikers, at this time of the year, need someone like my mother to keep them at the top of the stair for a bit and then to dole out the presents of spring in a measured fashion.  Soon enough we will all be able to climb whatever we like without fear of rotten snow or icy monorail, but for now, the elevations above 3000 feet are dangerous without proper training, equipment and guiding.  Please, everyone, the warm weather will be here soon, but for now, listen to “Mom” and keep your hikes below 3000 feet for a few more weeks and revel in a longer, more rewarding, Christmas morning this year.