The first view of Cabot, from down near the Berlin Fish Hatchery.

The first view of Cabot, from down near the Berlin Fish Hatchery.

Not long after the balmy 50 degree days in Utah, I ventured into the northernmost part of the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire for a weekend of serious winter backpacking. This would be a practice run, since I hadn’t been on a winter overnight trip in a few years, so we picked something moderately difficult– First, climbing to Mt Cabot via Bunnell Notch Trail, where many peak-bagging day-hikers go, then continuing along the Kilkenny Ridge Trail to Unknown Pond, and down the Unknown Pond Trail to complete the loop. Everything after Mt Cabot was barely traveled, and would be much more difficult.

Getting into the thicker snow near the summit.

Getting into the thicker snow near the summit.

Since Cabot is the most remote of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers (at least the furthest in driving time from Boston), I wasn’t sure how well-traveled the trail would be. It turned out to be packed into the snow pretty well, but since it was so far north the snow still had the texture of freshly trod powder rather than a solid crust highway. We had easy walking on snowshoes up to Bunnell Notch, then a steeper climb along the south slope of Cabot to reach the old fire warden’s cabin near the summit.

Camped near the Cabot Cabin, with a good view into Vermont.

Camped near the Cabot Cabin, with a good view into Vermont.

There were five of us, plus one dog, with varying degrees of winter backpacking experience, so camping accommodations varied as well. Steve, whose first deep-winter overnighter was with me a few years ago, had a new single-wall tent, and I had a new Black Diamond Firstlight tent, so we set up nearby. The others occupied the bunks in the little cabin, and we all gathered inside for dinner and sunset. There was no liquid water near the cabin, so we had two MSR Whisperlite stoves running full force for over three hours to melt snow, boil water, and cook dinner.

Sunset from the front porch of the cabin.

Sunset from the front porch of the cabin.

The daytime temperatures on Saturday were balmy mid-20s, so we had to be careful not to sweat too much on the hike up. We knew the nighttime temperatures were supposed to be quite low, with extra wind chill to boot. And boy, did the mountains deliver. High winds blasted all night, coating the tents and cabin with new rime ice. We forgot to check the thermometer when we left the cabin in the morning, but by noon the temperature had dropped down to -10F, while the wind continued to blow a steady 10 to 20 mph.

A frosty morning at Cabot Cabin.

A frosty morning at Cabot Cabin.

After leaving the cabin, it was a short trek to the top of Cabot, then the trail got a little sketchy. The day before, six Canadians had continued past Cabot (according to day-hikers heading back down the Bunnell Notch Trail), but other than that group I doubt anybody had traveled the ridge for many months. The Canadian Trail, as we began to call the snowshoe path we followed most of the day, shifted in and out of existence depending on how wind-sheltered the area was. Often, the track would split into many tracks that spiraled and circled, trying to find the Kilkenny Ridge Trail amid the deep snow. At one point, the Canadian Trail headed off into a long bushwhack near Unknown Pond that seemed to reach a dead end. We searched for a good half hour to find the actual trail, which the Canadians had found almost half a mile later at the end of their epic bushwhack. This was not easy going. We pushed to make a one mile per hour pace.

Gian tags the summit for one of his NH 4K's.

Gian tags the summit for one of his NH 4K’s.

With the temperature as low as it was, we could barely stop for more than a few minutes at a time, and nobody wanted to stop walking any longer than was necessary, so eating and bathroom breaks took a backseat to just getting off the mountain. Steve and the rest of the crew had to be back in Boston that night, but even without the long drive we were battling exhaustion all the way down to the car. Keeping your body warm in such cold conditions, breaking trail through deep snow, and carrying a heavier-than-usual pack load will beat you down fast.

The sun finally comes out in the midafternoon, but it's still too cold to stop moving.

The sun finally comes out in the midafternoon, but it’s still too cold to stop moving.

Once we finally arrived at the car we rejoiced a little, then got moving as quickly as we could for home. We stopped for burgers in Bethel, where we learned that the Northeast will soon be demolished by a “crippling and potentially historic” blizzard (according to CNN), so we kept ourselves awake by debating who gets to decide what is “potentially historic”, and “shouldn’t ‘potentially’ be applied to crippling as well as historic?” Very important things to think about. I was asleep by 8 PM, while the others had their drive further to Boston. A successful weekend indeed!

Unknown Pond. Why isn't anybody following me out here?

Unknown Pond. Why isn’t anybody following me out here?

Last week, I joined a group of Gossamer Gear’s Trail Ambassadors for a retreat to the canyons of southeast Utah. Many of these Trail Ambassadors are currently schmoozing it up at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Show in Salt Lake City, but I only stuck around for the less overwhelming group activities with an amazing bunch of hikers.

Twinkle, showing off a new Kumo in Canyonlands National Park.

Twinkle, showing off a new Kumo in Canyonlands National Park.

After an evening visiting one of my co-instructors from NOLS, I met Glen Van Peski, the founder of Gossamer Gear, in Salt Lake City, then drove four hours to Moab, passing mountains, mesas, and canyons along the way. We arrived at a house that Grant, the president of the company, had rented for the occasion. I was originally pretty hesitant to join the event because I can’t stand being put in close quarters with people I’ve never met before (and sometimes even with people I have met), but the opportunity to meet many of the people on the guest list was too enticing. Luckily, after the first night, when everyone was so excited to meet each other, the night owls and the morning people separated the sleeping quarters well enough to make everybody happy.

Hikers acting like normal people in a house.

Hikers acting like normal people in a house.

And what a crew it was! We had AT and PCT record-setting hikers Snorkel and Anish, writer and podcaster Disco, BackpackingLight guru Will Rietveld, Arizona Trail gateway communities ambassador Sirena, The Real Hiking Viking, and many more. Most of the ambassadors, in fact, are not superhuman hikers– they’re just people who really love to hike, and love to do it with light packs. They’re all super enthusiastic, and all love to hear about each other’s stories and lives. This is the kind of group that makes me very happy to be a part of a hiking community.

Grant watches sunset from Grand View Lookout.

Grant watches sunset from Grand View Lookout.

Several of us (mostly those I mentioned in the previous paragraph) are what I like to call “Trail Famous”, which generated some entertaining discussion. Trail Fame is very different from Actual Fame, because it’s a vague kind of notoriety among a small group of people. For instance, a good bunch of Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail hikers know my name, and know that I make apps for them, but they don’t have any clue who I am. Even at the Trail Ambassador retreat, I heard from a few people, “I thought you’d be a lot older”. (On the AT last summer, I also heard, “I envisioned you as a middle-aged, overweight guy with Doritos stains on your shirt”. Sorry to disappoint!) But along the same line, it was great to be able to put a face with each name I’d heard so often before, and, not surprisingly, find that all of these hikers are just normal people who do what they do really well because they love to do it.

Jan photo bombs Barefoot Jake and Will Rietveld.

Jan photo bombs Barefoot Jake and Will Rietveld.

Will planned and led each of the four day-hikes, which allowed most of us to relax our brains and follow his route-finding through the canyons. There’s quite a bit to say about the alien landscape of the Utah canyons, but I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. In the meantime, hanging out with all these passionate hikers has made me itch to get on a long trail again.

The La Sal Mountains, and a 1000 foot cliff over Arches National Park.

The La Sal Mountains, and a 1000 foot cliff over Arches National Park.

Allison looking off into the canyons.

Allison ponders the canyons.

Another clifftop view over Moab.

Another clifftop view over Moab.

Going down into the Canyonlands.

Going down into the Canyonlands.

At the rim of the canyons in Canyonlands.

At the rim of the canyons in Canyonlands.

Sunset colors in Arches National Park

Sunset colors in Arches National Park

Across Pinkham Notch to the Presidential Range.

Across Pinkham Notch to the Presidential Range.

By the time I wrote about the Steepest Climbs on the PCT and AT last week, I already had plans to hike across the Wildcat Ridge in the White Mountains. It just so happened that part of that trek is the steepest climb on the Appalachian Trail. Though I figured we would take the normal winter route of climbing the ski trails at Wildcat Resort, my partner for the day and I egged each other on to try the Lost Pond Trail, ascending over 2000 feet in less than a mile and a half of trail.

Shimmying along the ledge sections of the Lost Pond Trail.

Shimmying along the ledge sections of the Lost Pond Trail.

Though we got a late start (entirely my fault due to a few senior moments), Mike and I were soon trudging up the seemingly vertical climbs on the Lost Pond Trail, with ice axes at the ready and televators up on our MSR snowshoes. From several ledges on the way up, we could see the car down below at Pinkham Notch.

This looks an awful lot like the steepest climb on the AT.

This looks an awful lot like the steepest climb on the AT.

There was one set of footprints on the Lost Pond Trail, but it was clear that this was not the common route for hikers heading up Wildcat. While the ski trails are certainly not easy, they are a much safer alternative to the usually summer-only route. This being a snowy Monday, we saw no one on the trail until we popped out of the trees to the top of the ski resort’s chair lifts. Skiers and snowboarders skidded by, giving us baffled sidelong glances, as if wondering how we planned on getting down the slopes with such strange footwear and fairly large packs.

Over an hour ago, we left the car right down where Mike is pointing.

Over an hour ago, we left the car right down where Mike is pointing.

After Wildcat D, just beyond the ski patrol shack, the trail became a fairly straightforward ridge walk, with some short, steep descents and ascents. It was funny to notice that the first two miles of hiking took over two hours to finish, while the remaining six miles took just over three hours. Of course, the Ridge Trail wasn’t easy by normal standards, but after sweating up the climb from Pinkham Notch, almost any trail would seem easy in comparison.

Televators and ice axes got more use on this trip than any other trail I hike.

Televators and ice axes got more use on this trip than any other trail I hike.

With the mountaintops shrouded in clouds all day, and a light dusting of snow sprinkling around, there were few views to be had. I’ve always thought that the solid greys and whites of the cloudy, snowed-in peaks of New England in winter are about as beautiful as you could desire. Even though the snow was pretty sparse compared to usual for this time of year, the scenery was exactly what I had hoped for, and the physical exertion of a long hike burned off all the tension and stress from the previous weeks of work.

At the top of the Wildcat Ski Resort's chair lifts, just beginning the easy part of the hike.

At the top of the Wildcat Ski Resort’s chair lifts, just beginning the easy part of the hike.

I haven’t been in the mountains nearly as much as I’d like this winter. The snow conditions haven’t been great, and there’s been plenty of work to keep me occupied in the meantime, but there’s no substitute for a good self-inflicted beating on a rugged mountain. Here’s hoping the conditions improve as does my scheduling.

It’s not exactly new technology, but the best new piece of electronic backpacking equipment I picked up last summer was an Amazon Kindle eReader. Despite the fact that it only serves one purpose, and can easily be replaced by my iPhone with the Kindle app, the Kindle fit into a very valuable niche for certain trips.

The Kindle, the trash case, and my morning tea with a little Maine Woods by Thoreau.

The Kindle, the trash case, and my morning tea with a little Maine Woods by Thoreau.

The reason I bought the Kindle was for the NOLS courses I was working on– each NOLS course often brings several books into the field for natural history, science, leadership, and history curriculum, and most of the NOLS curriculum is available in Kindle format. Rather than carrying a large, heavy stack of books into the backcountry for two weeks at a time, I packed a 5.9 oz Kindle, with a 0.7 oz home-made cushioned case (the newer version of the basic Kindle weighs about 1 ounce more than my older version, which I bought refurbished from Amazon for about $70).

On those NOLS courses, I left my iPhone at home and only brought the Kindle. Why? Mainly because I wanted no possible connection to the outside world during the courses, so the iPhone would have been an inappropriate accessory. But there are also some benefits to reading books on the Kindle over the Kindle App on the iPhone. First, the battery in the Kindle lasts seemingly forever– I read about an hour or two each day for 15 days, and still had three days worth of charge in the Kindle when I returned from the field. To get that kind of battery life from the iPhone, even in airplane mode, I would have had to carry spare batteries or a solar charger, which means more weight and stuff to manage. Also, the unlit screen in the Kindle is much easier on the eyes than reading a back-lit screen in the dark. Anyone who spends way too much time at a computer (like me!) knows that it can burn your eyes over time. Reading something more like a book feels like a vacation for your retinas.

For a long-term wilderness excursion like a NOLS course, the Kindle makes a lot of sense. But would I bring the Kindle on a personal backpacking trip? That depends on how much time I think I’ll spend at camp, how long I’ll be away from wall outlets, and how much time I have to relax. If I’m trying to go as light as possible and hike fast, I’ll leave the Kindle at home, since I probably won’t be reading very much in camp. If I’m going for a more relaxed hike and want to hang out in camp for a few hours each night, or if I might get holed up in camp during bad weather for a day or two, the Kindle is a very light and efficient way to access a lot of reading material without any worries about battery life or weight.

I’ve ended up using the Kindle at home more than on the trail by now, but I’ll admit that I’m beginning to enjoy having the small, convenient alternative to a full-sized book even at home where space isn’t as much of an issue. It certainly beats reading books on a lit screen, which is hard on the eyes. And I’ll definitely be bringing this thing on every NOLS course I teach from now on.

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The most difficult part of making a detailed guide and map of the Appalachian Trail is being able to keep the trail info up to date. Especially since I live in Maine, while most of the changes to the trail happen in the southern states. People will often email to tell me there’s a new shelter here, or a new set of switchbacks there, but with the level of detail in the apps I need a lot more than most people can give– GPS coordinates, detailed information, a track file, photos.

Last year, I spent a good chunk of time and energy mapping the trail through Virginia, and figured I might go down south for a month every year to update a section of the trail, but that’s not entirely realistic. So this year I’m trying a new experiment. I’m going to try hiring a few section hikers (or maybe through-hikers) to do detailed data gathering for a few of the most outdated sections in the AT Hiker app.

This year, the priorities are the Smokey Mountains, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, since those are the sections with the oldest data sets so far. I’m hoping to find a few section-hikers to do this, since section hikers are generally less Katahdin-focused than through-hikers, and can take the time to explore side trails. Also, if I can get a section-hiker to update the trail data before most through-hikers hit the area, the through-hikers will have updated trail info by the time they get there.

So please check out this page if you’re interested, and share this post with any experienced section-hikers you may know who could use a few bucks to fund their hiking adventure.