winter camping

All posts tagged winter camping

Last week seemed like a good time to take an alternative weekend and head to the mountains, so on Thursday morning I took off for the town of Weld, not knowing exactly what I was getting into. The plan: hike up to Tumbledown Pond and camp for the night by myself. The difficulty: there’s no winter trailhead for Tumbledown, since the Byron Road isn’t plowed in winter. Even more difficult: almost nobody attempts Tumbledown in winter, so there’s no info online about parking or attempting the hike.

The Tumbledown-Jackson ridge from a farm on the north shore of Webb Lake.

The Tumbledown-Jackson ridge from a farm on the north shore of Webb Lake.

After calling Mt Blue State Park, I knew it was possible to reach the trail, although parking was still unknown. Once I arrived in Weld, I stopped at the General Store and found a trove of information from Jerry, the owner. He and another local there at the time were both on the area’s Search And Rescue team, so they were happy that I stopped in to let them know my plans. If you want to try a winter attempt at Tumbledown like this, I’d highly recommend letting Jerry know your plans, just in case he has any local news about parking, or in case anything goes wrong on your hike.

Parking at the east end of Byron Road might have been possible with a high-clearance vehicle, but I wasn’t going to chance it in my Jetta, so Jerry’s other suggestion was parking on the West Brook Road, where the town snow plows turn around at the end of the last driveway, just after crossing West Brook on a small bridge. This isn’t a trailhead parking area, just a space where one or two cars could pull off, and it wouldn’t be a good place to park if snow is coming, since it would block the plow truck. I chose a day with a clear forecast, and parked as far into the corner of the turnaround as possible.

From where I parked, I had about three miles of walking along snowmobile trail, first on West Brook Road, and then on Byron Road. This was easy going on icy, packed crust. I tuned out for most of this section, although near the junction of the two roads is a large gravel pit that has some nice views of the Tumbledown-Jackson ridge and the Walker-Whaleback ridge across the valley.

Busting through the snow.

Busting through the snow.

Once at the Brook Trail, it was much slower going. There was a very old set of snowshoe tracks ahead of me, but it was old enough that I had to break my own trail. The snow had melted and refrozen in the past few days, so there was about an inch of crust on top of loose sugary snow, which makes for some painful postholing, even in snowshoes. It wasn’t too bad until about halfway up the Brook Trail, when the trail begins to climb steeply. This last three-quarters of a mile took almost two hours to climb, with every step twisting my ankles and punching through mostly solid ice.

All the postholing slowed the hike down considerably. This little bit took almost five minutes to walk.

All the postholing slowed the hike down considerably. This little bit took almost five minutes to walk.

Finally up top, I found the pond frozen solid as expected, and a stiff wind kept me hunkered down in the trees most of the afternoon. As with my other overnight trips this winter, there was no liquid water anywhere, so I would have to melt snow for drinking and cooking. I busied myself with building a home for the night, complete with a small kitchen outside my tent, and a wind-break wall. I had planned to climb the high point of the ridge, but the wind and cold convinced me to take the more cautious approach and enjoy the views from the pond itself.

Finally at Tumbledown Pond, wind-blasted and frozen.

Finally at Tumbledown Pond, wind-blasted and frozen.

The view from my tent. Tumbledown Mountain and Pond.

The view from my tent. Tumbledown Mountain and Pond.

It was a long night, but the wind finally calmed and the clouds cleared after the sun went down in a spectacular sunset. The near-full moon lit up the night enough that I could read a book without any artificial light, had I remembered my book. Instead, I holed up in my sleeping bag and stayed warm. It was hard to stay warm, though. The evening’s low temperature was predicted to be around 4 degrees, which shouldn’t have felt as cold as it did.

Clouds cleared after the sun was below the mountains, and I was treated to this at dinner time.

Clouds cleared after the sun was below the mountains, and I was treated to this at dinner time.

Early morning sunlight over the West Brook valley.

Early morning sunlight over the West Brook valley.

When I got back into town the next morning, I spoke with Jerry and some other locals again, and discovered that the temperature in the valley had been measured between -9 and -20, and that was about 2000 feet lower than where I had been camped. Maybe taking this trip as a solo wasn’t the smartest decision, but it turned out well and turned out to be a highlight of an already stellar winter.

Mt Washington, the Mahoosuc Range, and Baldpate in the morning from the outlet of Tumbledown Pond.

Mt Washington, the Mahoosuc Range, and Baldpate in the morning from the outlet of Tumbledown Pond.

Yesterday's tracks still well-defined. The wind must have been non-existent at the bottom of the mountain.

Yesterday’s tracks still well-defined. The wind must have been non-existent at the bottom of the mountain.

Clear skies and another view of the ridge from where I parked.

Clear skies and another view of the ridge from where I parked.

Philip starts the day with a climb into the new powder.

Philip starts the day with a climb into the new powder.

Another week of heavy snow in New England meant the mountains were ripe for exploration. My friend, Hikerbox, had one 4000 Footer left on his peakbagging list before he heads out west, so he proposed an overnight hike to Mt Moriah for last weekend. Philip and I gladly joined in for the opportunity to do some alpine snow camping.

Entering the Wild River Wilderness, the trail disappeared into the snow within 100 feet.

Entering the Wild River Wilderness, the trail disappeared into the snow within 100 feet.

Though the trail up to the Carter-Moriah Range’s ridge was broken out by a few sets of snowshoes before us, the snow was still so fresh and fluffy that we needed snowshoes the entire way. I find this to be a rare luxury in the White Mountains, where for the past several winters I’ve seen only snow that’s so packed down by hundreds of pairs of feet that snowshoes become nearly useless. Once the snow falls in the Whites, the trails get packed so quickly that most people leave their snowshoes in the car and go out with just Microspikes or similar light traction.

Squint real hard and you can imagine granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.

Squint real hard and you can imagine granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.

With a couple hours listening to the soft swishing of our snowshoes, we were at the top of the Stony Brook Trail, where all previous tracks turned north toward Mt Moriah. Instead, we took the path not traveled at all, and dropped down the Moriah Brook Trail, wading through several feet of soft powder until we decided we’d had enough and stopped to make camp. This was only around 12:30 in the afternoon, so we used the time to dig a kitchen pit, gather firewood, and build ourselves a nice home for the afternoon and evening.

Home sweet home for the night.

Home sweet home for the night.

One of many great things about winter camping is that you can build as elaborate a camp as you like without as much worry about Leave No Trace as summer. We dug down close to five feet into the snow to make a fire pit, added benches, a counter, and a wind wall before we were finished. When we left camp the next morning, we knocked much of the snow wall down into the pit, and by summertime there will be no evidence we were ever there.

Beginning the ridgewalk along the Carter-Moriah Range.

Beginning the ridgewalk along the Carter-Moriah Range.

We had a long, relaxing evening with plenty of hot cocoa and snow melting, and a late winter bedtime of 8 PM. I especially love backpacking in winter with fresh snow because of how wild and lonely the world becomes. The snow mutes all sound, and the blackness of the forest closes in around you in ways that you don’t get in other environments. It’s as peaceful as can be, and in many ways the most remote you can get.

Sheltered below the summit of Moriah.

Sheltered below the summit of Moriah.

In the morning, with a few new inches of snow and more coming down, we met the rest of our group back at the trail junction, and proceeded to hike through the snow and clouds to Moriah. There were few, if any, views from the open ledges on the way up the mountain, but that didn’t make the trek any less delightful. We pushed through deep snow drifts, and into marshmallow forests, occasionally blasted by a bitter east wind. The summit was too windy for lengthy celebrations when Hikerbox finished his final NH4K summit, but the trudge back to the cars was reward enough.

Hikerbox celebrates quickly on the summit.

Hikerbox celebrates quickly on the summit.

With more snow falling throughout the week, it looks like this delightful winter will continue. I’m hoping for many more overnight trips in the near future.

Descending into the ice and fog.

Descending into the ice and fog.

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?

The Megunticook Ski Shelter, a home away from home.

The Megunticook Ski Shelter, a home away from home.

Winter in Maine this year started with a bang– first there was a big dumping of snow, then one of the worst ice storms in years, followed by more snow. All along, I’d been planning a relaxed winter camping trip for the last weekend of the year with several friends from the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. Most were coming to Maine from down south, so I was even more proud than usual about my home state being a winter wonderland.

A homey wood stove in the winter cabin.

A homey wood stove in the winter cabin.

After picking up most of the group in Portland, we gathered in Rockland for a spectacular seafood dinner at Conte’s, a restaurant that seems perfectly suited to a bunch of hikers. Big portions, rowdy atmosphere, and quirky staff add up to something that wouldn’t be out of place in a trail town. We filled up with seafood and wine, then drove the last few miles to the trailhead at Camden Hills State Park.

Ice coatings on everything.

Ice coatings on everything.

The Camden Hills are home to some rugged and wild hiking trails, but our first goal was something a little more posh than we were all used to. Several years ago, the park rebuilt an old CCC cabin in the heart of the hills, which can be rented out for overnight use. In winter, it’s especially nice, with a big wood stove and no traffic nearby to disturb the peace. So we hit the trail at 9 PM, hiking three miles by starlight before reaching the cabin, already warmed up by my PCT buddy, Tom. After a few months of living in the city, I cherish every moment of clear night sky I can get, and this particular hike was beyond words. There was no moon, but the stars reflected off the ice-coated branches like an enchanted forest.

Ocean Lookout cliffs, overlooking Mt Battie and Camden.

Ocean Lookout cliffs, overlooking Mt Battie and Camden.

In the morning, we left most of our overnight gear in the cabin and started hiking up Mount Megunticook, the highest peak in the region. The peak is less than a mile and a half from the coastline, and stands 1385 feet above sea level, giving it a unique vantage point over the Atlantic Ocean. We climbed steeply, marveling the whole way at the scenery. The trees were coated with half an inch of ice and then up to two inches of snow, weighing them down into the trail and making for difficult travel. The ice formations on the trees were pretty amazing. Icicles coated just about everything; dead beech leaves were stuck in gravity-defying positions; fir boughs had turned to ice tubes; whole saplings were bent over to the ground.

Lunch on Maiden Cliff, overlooking Lake Megunticook and Ragged Mountain.

Lunch on Maiden Cliff, overlooking Lake Megunticook and Ragged Mountain.

The first big view of the day was Ocean Lookout, a tall cliff on the eastern end of the Megunticook ridge. With a fine view over the town of Camden, the mouth of Penobscot Bay, and the shorter peak of Mount Battie just below, this is usually one of my favorite spots to have a little picnic in the Hills. This time, though, a biting wind off the ocean convinced us to get out of the way in a hurry.

Sunshine sparkling on the ice coated brush.

Sunshine sparkling on the ice coated brush.

From Ocean Lookout, we headed back along the Megunticook ridge toward Maiden Cliff, probably the most popular spot for day-hikers in Camden Hills. Sometime after noon, we ran into the only other hikers we saw all day, just before arriving at the scenic ledges. The hike was much longer than I’d remembered, possibly because it was my first time on snowshoes this season, so when the sky started to clear when we got to the cliff, it seemed like a perfect time for a long lunch break. We enjoyed a big lunch with views of Ragged Mountain and Lake Megunticook– some of the finest views to be had in the state.

Tramping over Millerite Ledges above Maiden Cliff.

Tramping over Millerite Ledges above Maiden Cliff.

After lunch, with the sky still clearing, we headed back over Millerite Ledges on the aptly named Scenic Trail, then through the dimming twilight back to the cabin. When we arrived, we were happy to see that someone had been there during the day, probably to use it as a warming hut, and the stove had been stoked just in time for us to return. With the cabin already warm, we had a relaxing evening by the wood stove, and a proper hiker bedtime of 7:30 PM.

Early sunset through the forest.

Early sunset through the forest.

On Sunday, the weather warmed, and ice finally began to fall out of the trees, just in time for more snow to fall in the evening. By then, we were out of the park and looking forward to the rest of winter. If the new year is as gorgeous as the previous has been, I’m anticipating some great hiking in the coming months. For now, it’s back to work and waiting for the next trip into the mountains.