winter hiking

All posts tagged winter hiking

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.

Last weekend had much better conditions than the previous one, so I tried to make up for the few days I’d taken off in the poorer conditions by doing two great day hikes. The first was a late start to the iconic (and difficult to pronounce) Mt Chocorua. Chocorua is one of the southernmost peaks in the White Mountains, and not particularly tall at only 3500 feet, but it has one of the most distinctive shapes in the area, with a snaggle-tooth rocky peak jutting up from the ridge. That rocky peak, battered by high winds and totally exposed, is similar to many much higher summits, which makes it a great place for epic views and some exciting scrambles.

The first open ledge with a clear view to the summit.

The first open ledge with a clear view to the summit.

Hiker Box, Badass, Siren and I set out late in the morning on the Piper Trail, which is one of the more popular trails up the mountain. For winter, the trailhead isn’t plowed, but an old couple who share a driveway with the trailhead allow hikers to park in their yard for $3 per car. I’m happy to pay the small price, since they’re friendly folks and seem perpetually amused by the crazy people walking up the mountain behind their home.

Arriving at tree line, with North Conway in the background (Cranmore ski area is an easily visible landmark)

Arriving at tree line, with North Conway in the background (Cranmore ski area is an easily visible landmark)

Despite the clearly broken-out trail, the low temperatures and frequent powdery snow from this winter kept the ground soft, making snowshoes a must for the entire ascent. In most winters, microspikes would have been more than sufficient, but they work best after a few freeze/thaw cycles turn the packed trail into something between ice and snow. There hasn’t been any thawing this winter, which is just the way I like it.

Epic climbs! (photo by Hiker Box)

Epic climbs! (photo by Hiker Box)

Walking through the woods for most of the approach, we could see the jagged summit through the trees most of the way. The sky was mostly overcast, but once we broke above tree line the clouds proved to be just high enough to allow some grey views of several mountain ranges, from the Sandwich Range to the Presidentials.

Beginning the walk along the cliffs and ledges near the summit.

Beginning the walk along the cliffs and ledges near the summit.

The last half mile to the summit is entirely exposed ridgeline, walking on rock and ice. We probably should have switched to microspikes or crampons for this section, but rugged snowshoes worked well enough if we slowed down and took care in our footing. There were plenty of other hikers out this day, though no one spent more than a few minutes getting buffeted by wind on the summit.

From the summit, looking north to the Presidential Range and Carter-Moriah Range.

From the summit, looking north to the Presidential Range and Carter-Moriah Range.

We snapped a few pictures, then booked it down the trail for dinner at the Yankee Smokehouse in West Ossipee. It was a late night once we included the drive back from the trail, but even with a 11 AM start on the trail, we managed not to hike in the dark at all. A great start to a great weekend!

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?

My childhood friend, Jeremy, was back in Maine for a long weekend, so we decided to bring back an old tradition– “Let’s do something stupid.” Jeremy and I have a long history of coming up with hiking plans that are way too ambitious, and failing spectacularly. The plan I came up with this time was to walk from the village green of Bar Harbor to the marina in Northeast Harbor, summiting each of the six 1000-foot peaks in between (about 18 miles of rugged, rocky, steep trail).

Starting out at the village green in Bar Harbor, though it's not so green right now.

Starting out at the village green in Bar Harbor, though it’s not so green right now.

We probably could have succeeded handily if not for the snow that fell on Friday, but November is a rough time for hiking in New England; you never know exactly what you’ll get for conditions. On Saturday morning, as I got in my car in Belfast (only 40 miles from Bar Harbor) there was a dusting of snow left on the ground. But those few miles made a big difference in snow levels, with up to six inches in some places by the time I arrived on the island. Neither Jeremy nor I was prepared for serious snow, but we figured we’d give it a shot anyway.

The Park Loop Road is definitely shut for the season.

The Park Loop Road is definitely shut for the season.

After about three miles on roads from downtown Bar Harbor to the Orange & Black Path, we started wading through the snow in earnest. By stepping carefully, we were able to climb at a decent pace onto Champlain Mountain, with only a few detours off trail since blazes and cairns were buried. We also had to make a few slight adjustments to the trail since Kacey, my parents’ dog, was along (this was a last minute decision, since she had insisted on joining us. She’s a mighty resilient animal, but slick ice on steep rock can be tricky for her). By the time we arrived at the summit of Champlain, it was already 11 AM, which didn’t bode so well for our 18-mile challenge.

Kacey seemed a little confused about why we weren't just staying indoors by the fire today.

Kacey seemed a little confused about why we weren’t just staying indoors by the fire today.

As we walked across the summit in the snow, I heard Jeremy say “I think we lost a dog”. I turned around and saw that there was a hole in the snow where Kacey had been. Uh oh! The snow had been deep enough to cover a six-foot deep crevice like an old-school booby trap, and Kacey had vanished without a sound. When I looked down in to see her staring bug-eyed up at me, she seemed more confused than hurt (“what the hell happened?”), which was a good sign. I threw off my pack and squeezed down into the hole to wrestle her out while Jeremy lifted from the top. The whole process took about five minutes, after which Kacey did a little sprint around the summit, almost falling into the pit again, but ultimately calming down after a big handful of treats.

The crevice on Champlain Mountain.

The crevice on Champlain Mountain.

We continued down Champlain Mountain by the Beachcroft Trail, which took longer to descend than our ascent from the east side of the mountain, owing to slick, wet snow. By the time we arrived at The Tarn between Champlain and Dorr, it was clear we probably wouldn’t hit all six summits, but we still might walk to Northeast Harbor and at least get to two more summits. The temperature was on the rise, though there was still plenty of snow. The ascent along the Schiff Path turned out to be much easier than either the ascent or descent of Champlain Mountain, so our optimism came back once again.

Champlain Mountain in the morning. A classic, clear winter day in Maine.

Champlain Mountain in the morning. A classic, clear winter day in Maine.

The gorge between Dorr Mountain and Cadillac Mountain is pretty shallow, so it was a quick descent from Dorr, though still pretty tricky. With many steep, rocky sections still covered in deep snow, we had to lead Kacey around in several places where in summer she could have easily leaped from rock to rock. It was still fairly early in the day when we reached the bottom, then made our way to the ascent. Not more than a hundred feet into the climb, however, we were thwarted by a heavily snow-covered boulder field. There was no good way around for Kacey to get up, and we decided that this would be our last good opportunity to bail out and walk back to Bar Harbor.

It might as well be winter on Dorr Mountain.

It might as well be winter on Dorr Mountain.

So out we walked via the Gorge Trail, not the least bit disappointed in only completing two of the intended six summits. We still ended up with ten miles of hiking through deeper snow than anticipated, and fully succeeded in our goal of trying to do something stupid. And we could be happy in the knowledge that we would have made the goal easily if not for the snow conditions. No loss of pride, no damage to reputation, no serious injury. I’d say that’s a good outcome all around.

Calling it a day early, Kacey decided a nap was in order.

Calling it a day early, Kacey decided a nap was in order.

No more doom and gloom here– Winter finally arrived in New England over the last week, and I’m determined to make up for how little snowshoeing I did last winter. Yvonne and I returned to Keene on the evening of January first, and gathered our equipment for the year’s first winter hike the next morning. Neither of us had ever been to Ludlow Mountain, home of the Okemo Ski Resort in Vermont, but it seemed like a good choice for our hike. Lots of snow (as Vermont mountains tend to have), new territory, not too far away. Good enough for me!

This isn’t a road for cars, fool!

Since neither of us had been to the trail before, there was some question as to whether the trail head would be accessible in winter. We turned onto the last road to access the trail, and just past the “Healdville Trail Parking 100 yards” sign, I got my car stuck in the snow. After half an hour or so of digging out underneath the car and showing off my car-extracting skills to Yvonne, I got the car unstuck, and backed up to near that sign. Apparently, the area just past the railroad tracks was plowed out as a parking area, but the actual parking lot and the road to it were a snowmobile trail. Sorry, snowmobilers. I tried not to damage the track too much.

Down low, there’s more snow than we had all last winter.

As soon as I parked, I looked back down the snowmobile trail in the opposite direction to see another car stuck in the snow. I think there was another access point to the trail head parking area in summer, but the road wasn’t plowed and became a snowmobile trail in winter. Whatever the case, the timing was just right. We spent the next hour helping a fellow hiker dig her car out of the rut she was in. Unfortunately, she was stuck much worse than we had been. She eventually decided to phone for help, just before a plow truck stopped to offer some assistance, so we bade her good luck and hit the trail a few hours later than intended. No foul, though. It was a fun adventure.

Up high, more reasons to love cold weather.

Once on the trail, I was excited just to have my snowshoes on again. There was a good trail broken out, but it wasn’t packed down to a solid highway. The sky was full of low clouds, and a biting wind chapped our faces. It’s been a while since I’ve been in sustained cold temperatures like that, and it was great!

Getting lost in the winter forest.

As we climbed higher up the 3300 foot mountain, the effects of the elevation were easy to see and hear. Trees, barely more than tall blobs of snow, creaked painfully in the wind. The trail became obscured in places where wind blew over previous snowshoe tracks, or where smaller trees had become weighed down by the snow. As we climbed into the clouds, the only way to tell when we were near the top was by the density of the snow clinging to the trees. There were no long views, even from the fire tower atop the mountain, but any good winter wonderland makes those views unnecessary.

The fire tower on Ludlow Mountain had a bit more rime ice than usual.

I later found that the high temperature for the day was a brisk 19 degrees, although I think that may have been at the base of the ski resort, which means it was probably closer to 10 on the mountain, minus wind chill. With that in mind, Yvonne and I didn’t stick around the summit for very long. We had our lunch, then rushed back down the mountain, gliding along on soft, powdery snow. It was a fine start to the real winter, although it also reminded me just how much more of this I need to do. By the time we arrived back home in Keene, my body was a bundle of soreness and aches– a hefty workout on the lower body, plus the unexpected one for the upper body, laid me out pretty well.

A fine view just as far as the Okemo chair lift.

Here’s hoping for a lot more playing in the snow over the next few months, and exploring many new places. See you on the trail.