When Katelyn Michaud went hiking in the mountains in New Hampshire, it wasn’t her first time doing something like this. She could have anticipated inclement weather, but she could have never expected that it would end with a case of frostbite that almost caused her to lose her toe.
What inspired you to do this trip? Have you been backpacking before? If so, where?
I’ve always been an outdoorsy person. Both my parents, especially my mom, were avid backpackers and skiers. You can say it’s in my blood. I’ve always been intrigued by mountaineering and winter hiking so I jumped at a chance for a weekend hike in the Presidential Mountains of New Hampshire with my local outdoor adventure club. I was with two other people from the club, who each had decades worth of experience in the outdoors.
How did you choose this destination? What attracted you to it? Tell me a little about the trail and the place.
My local outdoor adventure club was sponsoring the event and I decided it would be a great introduction to winter hiking and camping. The Presidential Mountains are a very popular year round hiking spot, but as you can imagine, wintertime offers a whole another level of experience. Mount Washington is the highest peak in the region and is often used by outdoor gear companies for testing products as it experiences some of the worst weather experienced by mankind.
Our goal was to transverse about 19 miles of trail from the base of Mount Adams over 8 peaks to Mount Eisenhower. The total elevation gain is about 9,000 feet. Most of the trail is covered with trees and of course ice and snow during January. Unfortunately, due to whiteout conditions, we had to bail early just below Mount Washington because the remaining hike would be unsafe.
What were you most excited about before you went?
I was excited to prove to myself that I had the physical and mental strength to complete this rigorous hike. Someday soon, I hope to cross the Everest Base Camp trek and Mount Kilimanjaro off my bucket list. This hike gave me a taste of what it might be like.
Did you have any concerns before going?
Weather is always a concern in the White Mountains, especially on top of Mount Washington. The weather can turn in a nanosecond as it did for us. The forecast prior to our departure predicted it would be sunny and the low 20s over the weekend. Saturday was a picture-perfect bluebird day, but Sunday turned out to be nasty.
What happened that you almost got frostbite?
On Sunday, after waking up in whiteout conditions and high winds, we had to bail quickly. We couldn’t find the marked trail so we ended up breaking our own trail in about 3 feet of fresh powder. While we all had snowshoes, the snow amount was difficult. Eventually, we headed down the mountain and some kind strangers drove us the 5 miles back to our base lodge. When I took off my right boot and sock I noticed I had a dark purple spot about the size of a nickel on my big toe.
I started to freak out. During college I volunteered as a ski patroller at my local ski mountain and images of severe frostbite in my training textbook flashed through my eyes. I hoped that it was just a blood blister as my boots were still fairly new. Over the course of the next week I experienced some of the worst pain in my entire life. Frostbite is no joke!
During the whole hike I never once felt that my feet were cold. I wore heavy winter socks with mountaineering boots. Prior to sliding into my sleeping bag at night I changed my socks and didn’t notice anything strange. My only guess is that my right big toe found a cold spot in my sleeping bag at night.
What did you do once you found out you might be in danger of losing a toe?
I spent the following day resting and keeping my foot elevated in hopes that the spot would go away. Eventually, the purple color started to dissipate, but soon a giant blister formed. I couldn’t even fit my shoes on for work so I had to wear my slippers to work. At the time I worked in a research laboratory so I was constantly on my feet. At one point during the day I remember keeling over in pain from my frostbite. The tissue and nerve endings on my toe were thawing out and it felt like someone was stabbing me in the foot with a thousand knives.
That night I went to the quick care center where the on call doctor looked at my foot. No one at the clinic had ever seen frostbite before so they suggested that I go to the wound clinic at the hospital, where they could manage the situation better; perhaps by taking off my toe. Yikes! The wound clinic was closed, so I waited to see my primary doctor the following day.
Later that evening, I did what you’re not supposed to do and popped my blister as the pressure was killing me. I’ll save you the details, but it was pretty gross. My primary care doctor, who had never seen frostbite before either, said that I had third degree frostbite meaning that the damage reached all the way to my bone, but thankfully did not affect it. She told me to rest on the couch for a couple of days and it should get better. For the next week, I watched my toe turn every shade of color in the rainbow as it bruised and eventually recovered. It took well over 6 months for my toe to return to “normal.” But, I still have some issues even today. My toe is definitely more sensitive to the cold and I have to be careful with it during the winter months. I’m just glad that I still have all 10 toes!
What were you thinking while all this was going on?
My first thought when the doctor told me they might have to cut my toe off was “how am I going to run?” I’m an avid tri-athlete and losing a toe, especially a big toe, is pretty important for running. I was certainly nervous as one might expect, but I tried to stay positive. I was very lucky in the end. It could have been much worst.
After going through it all, is there any advice you have for someone else who might come here?
I always tell people that I would 100% do it again, despite what happened. I love the outdoors and pushing myself to new limits. I think winter hiking and camping is a unique way to experience Mother Nature. While it is certainly challenging, it is a peaceful time to explore the outdoors.
Besides the frostbite happening, did you have a favorite part?
I loved reaching the top of the first peak and seeing the White Mountains and the region in a new light. Everything was white for miles to see. It was totally serene and beautiful.