Over the past few weeks I’ve been getting more and more stir crazy as the snow refused to fall and my schedule kept me indoors and inactive for weeks on end. All that changed this past weekend when I had a flurry of hiking to belatedly start out the new year. The first step was a sequel to the Backpackinglight.com New England Get-Together from October– this time a smaller group gathered at Glastenbury Mountain in Southern Vermont (where I’d also hiked in October) for a winter wonderland weekend.
|Barely enough snow at the beginning to wear snowshoes, but plenty of wind.|
As the weekend drew near, our group watched the forecasts like hawks, wondering just what would happen over the weekend. No significant snow had fallen yet this winter, the temperature was predicted to fall like a rock, and few of us had taken training hikes to get in shape. It was bound to be an interesting weekend, regardless. As I drove to the trail head with Clint, precipitation changed from rain at lower elevations to light snow in the mountains, all mixed with a bitter cold wind. I started to wonder if this really was the best idea.
|My trusty tarp, good in all seasons!|
Just as Clint and I were about to put our snowshoes on at the trail head, the second car showed up and the party began. Bryce, Seth, and Dan showed up right on time from Connecticut and began to excitedly get the show on the road. We all hit the trail a few minutes later, decked out with snowshoes, heavy winter packs (heavy by BPL standards– around 30 pounds for the weekend), and nervous anticipation.
We slowly made our way to the Melville-Nauheim Shelter, stumbling along the way because of the painfully light snow cover on the ground. It was just enough to hide the rocks and roots, but not enough to let us walk over them without care. Wind blasted us from the side and new snow flurried around, but the conditions were still relatively mild. We arrived at camp just before dark and set up in the snow as fast as we could, then started our stoves for a long night of hot drinks and good cheer. We expected several more people to show up late at night, but we were all in our sleeping bags by 8 PM, hoping the others could follow our tracks before they were obscured by the heavy wind throughout the night. The temperature bottomed out at 10 degrees, and we felt pretty good about our ability to withstand the winter conditions.
|Dan climbing in the late afternoon light up to Glastenbury Mountain.|
We found the others about half a mile past us in the morning, having missed the turn-off for the shelter in the night, but only one of them and his dog joined us for the rest of the hike. Now there were six of us and a dog, with eight miles to go for the day. As we climbed further into the mountains the snow got deeper and fluffier, slowing our progress as we broke trail. There was no sign of humanity out here– we were in true wilderness.
The last few miles to Glastenbury were a death march. Everyone was exhausted from the long day of plowing through deep drifts, especially without much in the way of exercise through the winter so far. The last miles dragged on seemingly forever, so when we finally spotted the shelter there was a tremendous cheer. We shoveled snow out of the sleeping area and set up camp with a crystal-clear view toward Bennington, fifteen miles away. But the challenges weren’t over yet.
|Glastenbury Mountain’s fire tower with a fine layer of rime ice.|
The forecast for the evening was for bitter cold, which had us more nervous than anything on the trip. We’d arrived at the shelter exhausted, but couldn’t let our guard down yet. We boiled gallons of water, ate huge dinners, bundled up, set an alarm for sunrise, and bedded down for the night wondering what the morning would be like. The only sounds throughout the night, aside from the oddly synchronized snorchestra, were the popping of the shelter beams as the temperature dropped like a rock.
|Mount Snow and Haystack early in the morning.|
I awoke at 6 AM, and my thermometer showed an almost unbelievable -18 degrees. As soon as I unzipped my sleeping bag and touched my sneakers I wondered if the thermometer was reading a bit high. Everything was so cold that touching anything with bare fingers felt like touching a lit stove– it was so cold that you could get frostbite just as fast as you could get a burn from grabbing a hot coal.
|No windows in this fire tower. We were completely exposed to the wind.|
We jumped out of our sleeping bags and ran around camp to warm up, then up to the fire tower for a cloudy sunrise. After cooking breakfast and seeing the sky turn blue, we ran back to the fire tower for a few more views, and then we hurried back the ten miles to the cars. The going was much easier on Sunday, since the trail was packed out from the previous two days of hiking, but we still had something of a death march the whole way. We doubled our hiking pace, not just because the going was easier but because we also had to move quickly to stay warm– the highest temperature we recorded that day was 2 degrees. Water bottles froze, noses got frost nip, eyes stung from the icy wind.
|My eyelash icicles lasted all day, with no heat to melt them.|
After arriving at our cars, we took a quick trip into Bennington for pizza before heading home. We were all pretty catatonic at the restaurant, exhausted and happy. We’d just survived a grueling winter backpacking trip that was a first for most of the group. I’d been on winter backpacking trips before, but none so impromptu and informal as this, and none so ambitious for such a short time span. Saying that we did a 20 mile trip over two nights doesn’t sound all that impressive for summer conditions, but put snowshoes and frigid temperatures in there, and it becomes an epic journey.