How-to: Pitch a Tent in Snow

The first time I pitched my tent in snow was January 2014 when I experimented with winter camping in my three-season gear. Things went well and I made it through the night in temperatures in the single digits without freezing. I’ve learned a little bit since then and I had the chance to put my learnings to practice this March the night before I hiked Mount Tom. I wanted to share the experience here to help anyone else interested in camping in the snow.

Disclaimer: I’m no expert, use your own judgement when camping in potentially dangerous temperatures and weather.

Though I lived through my first winter camping experience, I woke up quite cold and I partially attribute that to not being able to pitch my tent properly. I love my L.L.Bean Microlight FS tent, I’ve slept in it under juniper trees on a Texas ranch and just below tree-line in the northern Presidentials. The inner mesh wall is freestanding, but the fly requires staking out the tent. That meant the fly was hanging loose on that first winter night, allowing cold air to blow in under the fly.

Winter camping in 2014, fly hanging loose

Winter camping in 2014, fly hanging loose

I have since learned about making a deadman and realized that I could apply that technique to pitching my tent. Here’s what I did:

First I chose my tent site and prepared it for the tent. I chose a spot near the trees and beside a snow bank created from plowing the campsite. This gave me nearly 180 degrees worth of protection from wind before I even started. Then using my snowshoes I packed a path to my tent site from the kitchen (a picnic table and the fire pit that I dug out with the shovel I keep in my car) and packed down an area I deemed large enough for my tent.

Prep tent area

Prep tent area

When I was clearing out the kitchen I snowshoed through the surrounding trees collecting twigs and branches to start a fire. The thickest of those I reserved to make my deadmen and broke into 5 sticks of about 8 inches in length. When I set up my tent I placed it in the location I wanted it and marked the placement of the deadmen sticks. I moved my tent aside and let the packed snow set for a while so it would refreeze packed and flat before actually securing my tent. While I waited I prepped another tent site for my friend who would be joining me that evening.

Mark snow anchor holes with sticks

Mark deadman holes with sticks

Once enough time had passed for my site to refreeze, I started preparing the guylines I would need to affix my tent to the deadmen. I cut 5 pieces of 505 cord a few feet long and tied a bowline on one end.

Tie a bowline on one end

Tie a bowline on one end

Next I dug each of the holes for my deadmen. I dug the holes perpendicular to the angle the guyline would run to the corners of the tent. Once the hole was dug I roughly measured the depth of the hole and tied the guyline to the deadman with a clove hitch. This would place the bowline closer to the deadman than the tent, giving me plenty of room to adjust the tautness of each guyline.

Clove hitch on stick at depth of hole

Clove hitch on the deadman at depth of hole

I placed the deadman in the hole and buried it, leaving both ends of the guyline sticking out of the snow. I made sure to pack down the snow so that the deadman would properly secure the guyline once it refroze.

Snow anchor set

Deadman set

After setting all the deadmen I placed the tent back in the site and began anchoring it with the guylines. I went around in the same order I dug them, diagonally from corner to corner and the fly entrance loop last, making sure each deadman had a few minutes to refreeze before I put tension on them. To tie down, I used my typical tarp tie-down approach. I put the end of the guyline through the loop in the tent and then fed it through the bowline on the other end of the guyline. After drawing some tension on the guyline I tied a slippery half hitch to secure it. Once I secured my tent to each deadman I went back around to put a good amount of tension on each guyline making the fly taut.

Anchor down tent

Anchor down tent

My last order of business outside the tent was to pile snow around it to make sure wind wouldn’t blow under the fly. I did this on four sides of the tent. The fifth side of the tent was the fly entrance and since it wasn’t stationary I had a fleece blanket rolled up to block the underside of the tarp from within.

Crude snow walls to block wind

Crude snow walls to block wind

Inside, to make sure I would be warm, I had many, many layers. I placed my closed-cell foam (CCF) pad on the floor. On top of it I had a fleece blanket, then my air pad, then fleece bag, then 20 degree down bag and finally a quilt.

Many, many layers

Many, many layers

My final defense against the cold was two water bottles filled with hot water, which I placed in my down bag about an hour before hitting the sack (needless to say, I made sure they didn’t leak). When I crawled into my bag at 11pm it was toasty warm. I slept with one water bottle between my feet and the other in the space between my abdomen and legs (I’m a fetal-position, side-sleeper).

The temperature dropped to 10 degrees and once again I made it through a winter night in three-season gear. This time was a little easier as I was car camping and could carry two bags and extra blankets. Regardless, I think I would have been fine without those extra layers. I even slept with my head outside of my mummy bag’s hood all night.

What went well:

  • There was a noticeable difference in temperature within the tent from properly securing the fly and building snow walls around the tent
  • Hot water bottles in the sleeping bag were very cozy, especially near my feet where I don’t generate much heat
  • Blanket covering my sleeping bag was encrusted with frost in the morning which would have otherwise been covering my bag and likely reducing my overall temperature

What I would change:

  • Clove hitches on the deadmen were a mistake as I was unable to dig up my deadmen in the morning and retrieve my 505 cord
  • Dig deadmen further from tent to allow me more room to adjust fly tautness and to keep slippery half hitch further from snow so my fingers don’t freeze when untying
  • Dig a mudroom inside the entrance of my fly to make it easier to get dressed and in and out of the tent as well as work as a cold trench (holding the colder air inside the tent below my level and bringing up the temperature where I was sleeping)

I highly encourage everyone to experiment with their gear and refine their hiking and camping practices. I’ve acquired priceless knowledge from my experiments and reading up on related subjects. I now have a better understanding of my limits and my gear’s limits which gives me greater confidence when I wander into the mountains and better prepares me for emergencies. I would suggest starting in your backyard and reading any of the books referenced below, especially Andrew Skurka’s The Ultimate HIker’s Gear Guide (no affiliation, just one of my favorite reads on gear). Or, hit me up with questions.

I’ve learned that my ability to enjoy—and to succeed in—an ambitious hike is a function of…my knowledge of the gear, supplies and skills needed for the trip.
—Andrew Skurka

References:
Appalachian Mountain Club. AMC Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping: Everything You Need to Plan Your Next Cold-Weather Adventure. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2009. Print.
Canterbury, Dave. Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival. Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media, 2014. Print.
How To.” andrewskurka.com. Andrew Skurka. Web. 21 March 2014.
Microlight FS 1-Person Tent“. llbean.com. L.L.Bean Inc. Web. 21 March 2014.
Skurka, Andrew. The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools & Techniques to Hit the Trail. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2012. Print.

Best Gear Purchase of 2014

As I mentioned in my post where I detailed out the contents of my daypack, I’m not your typical Gearhead. I like going light (who doesn’t?), but I wouldn’t consider myself ultralight. Comfort and functionality are very important to me, but I can’t afford to dump a paycheck into a new piece of gear. I like the balance between quality and affordability.

With those parameters in mind, my favorite gear purchase of the year was an EMS Drool Pillow.

EMS Drool Pillow

EMS Drool Pillow

This pillow weighs 8oz, so an ultralight might not consider carrying it, but for me it is worth its weight. Before purchasing this pillow I would use the dry sack holding my clothes as a pillow. While this technically worked, it was not much better than sleeping on my arm or a medium-sized rock. Once I started carrying this pillow with me on overnight trips I began getting more hours of sleep, which provided the necessary boost to carry the extra weight on my back.

The pillow comes with a stuff sack which allows it to be packed down to a much smaller size, this is as important as weight to me. My favorite feature with this pillow is the pocket on the back side of the pillow, into which clothing can be stuffed in order to increase the pillow’s size while keeping the loft against my head.

For the budget-minded, this pillow goes from good to great. When I purchased the pillow in the spring it cost a little over $6. I now see it online for $12, but that is still pretty inexpensive.

If you find it difficult to sleep on the ground and have already tried a few different pads, I’d suggest trying out this pillow or another like it. It definitely made a difference in my multi-day hiking trips.

References:
EMS Drool Pillow.” ems.com. Eastern Mountain Sports, Inc. Web. 23 December 2014.

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Hike: Monroe Skyline

Date hiked: 08-10 August 2014

THURSDAY

My brother, two friends from work and I spent 3 days hiking the Monroe Skyline, a stretch of the Long Trail in Vermont from Lincoln Gap to the Winooski River. This was our second-annual backcountry, multi-day summer hike, the previous year we did the Pemi Loop in New Hampshire. We left Maine on Thursday afternoon and drove to the northern terminus of our planned hike in order to leave a vehicle there.

We found the first parking lot on Duxbury Road in Waterbury alongside some farms, between the Winooski River and the shoulder of Camels Hump. Unfortunately, we did not pay attention to signage, a mistake we would pay for at the end of the hike.

Parking on Duxbury Road in Waterbury, VT

Parking on Duxbury Road in Waterbury, VT

My brother showed up shortly thereafter, and we left my friend’s truck at the parking lot (it having four seats and truck bed to hold all of our gear when returning to the other vehicles).

We stopped in Waterbury to taste some of the local beer, easily some of the best in the country. We found what we were looking for at The Reservoir: The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead and Lawson’s Finest Liquids all on tap at the same place. After a game of pool we stopped at American Flatbread at Lareau Farms in Waitsville, the original Flatbread restaurant. We enjoyed some more Lawson’s Finest Liquids and a game of Cornhole while we waited for our table. We were at Flatbread later than we anticipated but after leaving we drove through Appalachian Gap in order to plant 3 gallons of water in woods for a refill on Saturday morning. Finally, our non-hiking adventures concluded by camping at the privately owned Maple Hill Campsites, the closest campground we could find to the southern terminus of our hike. We stayed up until after 2am drinking beer by the campfire and arguing about the supermoon.

FRIDAY

Friday morning I woke with sunrise, had breakfast, meditated and watched the shade creep across the nearby field while the sun rose. Three hours later everyone else woke up. We had plenty of daylight, and were in no hurry. The morning had rolled in with low lying mists so our gear was soaked. We attempted to dry out in the sun and then packed up and took the short drive to our starting point, Lincoln Gap.

We started off the day at 10:45am with one of our steepest hikes of the trip. The weather was warm and everything was damp from the thunderstorms the previous afternoon, so the sweat came easily and I had to proceed with caution as from my experience on the Carter Loop I knew my shoes had no traction on wet rocks. Regardless, I slipped and fell two times during the day.

I finally invested in some trekking poles for this trip and was working on getting used to them. After much online research I landed on Leki Corklite. I chose them for their light weight, their locking system and their cork grip, which is supposed to improve with use rather than rubber handles which degrade. I found that one of the locks was not tight enough and would slide shorter when I put weight on the pole. Luckily, adjusting it was as simple as adjusting a quick release bike tire’s lock, since it was the same device. Overall I was very impressed with the poles, the only downside was that my hands became sweaty very easily, even though the handles were vented.

The climb up Mount Abraham was not too bad, as it approached the summit the trail became rocky and eventually went above the tree line. We made the climb in less than two hours and stopped briefly on the summit where we got our first good look of the Green Mountains, including the mountains we would be climbing that afternoon.

View from Mount Abraham

View from Mount Abraham

Shortly after the summit, we saw a narrow spur trail marked with a small cairn. We decided to follow it, expecting to find an overlook to the west, but instead found the wreckage of a small plane. Apparently the Cessna was left there from a non-fatal crash in 1973. I found it peculiar that both Maine and Vermont have a 4000′ mountain named Abraham with a plane wreckage on it.

Plane crash on Mount Abraham

Plane crash on Mount Abraham

After Abraham we followed the ridge line to Little Abe and Lincoln Peak. There was a viewing platform on the summit of Lincoln that afforded views of the surrounding mountains, including Sunday’s destination, Camels Hump. It looked very far away. The ski resort Sugarbush is located on Lincoln Peak and just below the summit we stopped at the top of the slopes to peer down into the valley below.

Big sky at Mount Lincoln

Big sky at Lincoln Peak

We continued along the ridge past Nancy Hanks Peak and got to Ellen Peak by 3pm. Ellen was a wooded peak without a view, but just below it was another Sugarbush ski lift which afforded views. We stopped for a late lunch. At one point a cloud in the shape of a sea monster floated over Lake Champlain and I took a photo of it, convinced that it was Champ.

Champ cloud over Lake Champlain

Champ cloud over Lake Champlain

Once we were ready to move on we followed a ski trail for a short while and then continued along the wooded ridge line. By late afternoon we hit General Stark’s Peak and continued on to Stark’s Nest, a small peak with a ski lift (the nation’s last single-chair) and shelter on Mad River Glen (ski it if you can). The goal for the day had been to get to Theron Dean shelter, but it was another 1.3 miles, and a fairly steep descent. It was almost 6pm and we were all pretty beat, so we decided to camp out near Stark’s Nest.

We talked with a guy with a hurt ankle who had been staying inside the Stark’s Nest shelter for the last couple of days and it sounded like there would be no problem if we camped nearby. We found a really sweet spot with a partial view west for sunset and an uninterrupted view east for sunrise. We set up our tents and a group of scouts hiked by and also set up camp near Stark’s Nest. We had dinner and watched the sun set with the scouts’ leaders. As the air cooled we retired to the area near our tents. I drank the one beer I lugged with me and we watched satellites burn through the stars and tracked airplanes flying overhead with an iOS app, trying to guess their departures and destinations.

SATURDAY

In the morning I woke with the rising sun. I watched it rise over the purple shadows of Moosilauke, Franconia Ridge and the Presidentials on the horizon and meditated at the top of the Catamount Bowl slope.

Sunrise from Stark's Nest

Sunrise from Stark’s Nest

As I was drying my tent fly and preparing breakfast the others got up, starting brewing coffee and preparing breakfast as well. Right in the middle of eating, someone from Mad River Glen drove by on an ATV but all he said was “good morning.” By 8:45am we were ready to go and started the descent down to Appalachian Gap. On the way down we crawled through the cave near Theron Dean shelter and talked with a mother/daughter pair who were thru-hiking the Long Trail.

After Theron Dean the terrain became interesting, with a couple of steep climbs with ladders. We stopped for a moment at the last ski lift we would see during the trip and I took a photo of fitting graffiti in the nearby shelter.

We're all mad here

We’re all mad here

By 10:45am we had descended the rest of the way down to Appalachian Gap and to our water stash. The parking area was crowded with vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles. We refilled our water and my brother convinced a road biker to take our empty bottles so we wouldn’t have to return for them. After a short break we slogged up the Stark peaks on the north side of the gap. Baby Stark was the first stop and was a pretty demanding climb. From the nearby overlook we could see Stark’s Nest and the ski slopes which marked our day’s starting point.

View from Baby Stark

View from Baby Stark

We hit Molly Stark peak and Molly Stark’s Balcony in quick succession and stumbled upon a woman peeing right next to the trail and facing the trail! I think we were more embarrassed than she was. Molly Stark’s Balcony afforded a view north all the way to Camels Hump and the notch between it and Mount Ethan Allen where we would be ending our day. It looked forever away.

Camels Hump from Molly Stark's Balcony

Camels Hump from Molly Stark’s Balcony

We slipped over the edge of Molly Stark’s Balcony just after noon and started some of the lowest altitude hiking we would do the whole trip. It also marked the point where my brother saw new trail for the first time. An hour or so later we stopped at the peaceful Birch Glen shelter and had a snack and soon after that hit Huntington Gap, the mid-point of our trip by mileage. We made it to Cowles Cove shelter sometime around 3pm where we had a late lunch and were able to top off our water for the rest of the day.

As we approached Burnt Rock Mountain me made up the elevation that we lost at Huntington Gap. We passed the first and only person we saw that afternoon since the squatting lady. Burnt Rock was definitely the highlight of the day. The trail zig-zagged around exposed ledge and we had many excellent views to the east and south, where we could see the amazing distance we had hiked that day.

Panorama from Burnt Rock

Panorama from Burnt Rock

I think it was after our short break on Burnt Rock peak that we all realized how exhausted we were. The pace lagged and we all grew quiet as we focused on churning up miles of trail and ignoring our sore joints and muscles. On the climb past Mount Ira Allen and to Mount Ethan Allen I took up the lead for the first and only time during the trip. I often hesitate being the lead hiker as I tend to push a challenging pace, which is habit from worrying about making the boat back to my island when doing day hikes. But, I was pretty sure that we would not make Montclair Glen by sundown if the pace was not increased. There was also the risk that it would be full and we would have hike another mile or more to the Hump Brook tent sites.

We had picked our way through the moose droppings to the peak of Mount Ethan Allen by 6:30pm. I had never seen so much moose scat scattered about in my life. By the time we made Montclair Glen it was clearly full and the caretaker confirmed that we would have to hike to Hump Brook to find camping spots for the night. We staggered into Hump Brook at 8:30pm like zombies and found only one test platform available, which would only hold two of our four tents.

The caretaker, Greenlight, led us past tent platform 8 to the overflow area. We settled in quietly and quickly and started making dinner. As we were sitting around eating, Greenlight swung by to collect our dues. He entertained us with his story of thruhiking the entire Appalachian Trail in his Teva sandals and his dream to open an erotic ice cream shop in New York City called Hitchhiker.

Once we finished dinner and hung our food we crashed. We had hiked around 15 miles that day, nearly half our entire trip, and were exhausted.

SUNDAY

I woke a little later on Sunday morning as we were in a low point between Camels Hump and Mount Ethan Allen and it stayed dark enough to sleep well after sunrise. We were all up and packed by 8:30am and hit the trail. We decided to not retrace our steps up Dean Trail to the Long Trail, but to hike a short distance down to Dean Trail and then up Monroe Trail and Alpine Trail back to the Long Trail. We would miss Wind Gap, but would still approach Camels Hump from the south.

On Alpine Trail we kept our eyes out for a side trail to the wreckage of a B-24 bomber on the side of the mountain. My brother and I thought we had found it, but it turned out to be a game trail. Upon turning back, a branch caught in my pack as I ducked under it, causing the branch to scrape the side of my head deeply. I bled for a while but kept pressure on it while hiking until it stopped.

Soon after we found the wreckage. Only a wing was left of the plane. The fuselage was top secret at the time, so the military cut it up and dragged it off the mountain.

B-24 Bomber wing on Camels Hump

B-24 Bomber wing on Camels Hump

Soon after the bomber we came out of the woods and rejoined the Long Trail. The view south, the direction from which we had come, was expansive and amazing. We could just see Mount Ellen and Mount Abraham on the horizon.

Looking back on Monroe Skyline

Looking back on Monroe Skyline

The rocky summit of Camels Hump towered over us and the trail skirting up its side was the most interesting of the trip. We took our time, stopping and enjoying the view often.

Ascending Camels Hump

Ascending Camels Hump

video-icon Video of Camels Hump ascent

We climbed up to the rocky summit and took in the 360 degree view. The White Mountains to the east, the Monroe Skyline to the South, Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west and the impressive peak of Mount Mansfield to the north.

Camels Hump panorama

Camels Hump panorama

We posed for a celebratory photo, had a snack and spent some time wandering the peak and talking with the small crowd on the summit.

Celebratory photo on Camels Hump

Celebratory photo on Camels Hump

It was all downhill from that point, but it was a long, 4000 feet worth of downhill. The hike down Bamforth Ridge was nice. It would be a long climb up but definitely worth the views of Camels Hump as one approached it. Going down it I was more concerned with climbing down the rocks with the least amount of impact to my knees and ankles as possible.

After Duxbury Window, a vista looking down on I-89, the trail widened and dove through the pine forest at a perilous pitch. It was quite exciting to hike down until I twisted my ankle about a mile from the parking lot. The twist was not serious and I had walked it off by the time we made it to the parking lot and our finish line.

Except, it was not. The parking lot we exited onto was clearly not the same one where we left our vehicle. We had ignored the signage which clearly state that we were not at the Long Trail.

This is NOT the Long Trail

This is NOT the Long Trail

Technically, we were parked on the Long Trail, just not the closest parking lot to where it hit the Winooski River valley. We yellow-blazed the mile to our vehicle, which was almost worth it when a couple of cars went by and the passangers honked and raised their fists out their windows, clearly mistaking us for Long Trail thruhikers.

Though I got a little banged up and we had some parking issues, the trip was unforgettable. The weather was absolutely perfect, the trail was beautiful and challenging, and the company was irreplaceable. It was like what John Muir said, the time we spent hiking in the woods did not subtract from our lives but added to it.

Wander here a whole summer, if you can… The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.
—John Muir

Map of Hike - Day 3

Map of Hike – Sunday

Map of Hike - Day 2

Map of Hike – Saturday

Map of Hike - Day 1

Map of Hike – Friday

Stats:
Highest Elevation: 4083′
Elevation Gain: 5500′
Distance: 33.6 miles
Book Time: 19:35
Actual Time: 21:40
Temperature: 60°s
Weather: sunny and breezy

References:
American Flatbread.” americanflatbread.com. American Flatbread. Web 26 August 2014.
ASN Aircraft accident 28-JUN-1973 Cessna 182N N92431.” aviation-safety.net. Aviation Safety Network (ASN). Web. 25 August 2014.
Champ Lake Champlain Monster.” lakechamplainregion.com. Lake Champlain Region. Web. 7 September 2014.
Corklite.” shop.leki.com. LEKI Lenhart GmbH. Web. 2 September 2014.
Mad River Glen.” madriverglen.com. Mad River Glen Cooperative. Web. 7 September 2014.
Maple Hill Campsites.” maplehill.com. Maple Hill Campsites. Web. 26 August 2014.
Remembering Camels Hump plane crash.” archive.burlingtonfreepress.com. archive.burlingtonfreepress.com. Web. 22 August 2014.
Sugarbush Resort.” sugarbush.com. Sugarbush Resort. Web. 7 September 2014.
The Reservoir.” waterburyreservoir.com. The Reservoir. Web. 26 August 2014.

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Hike: Baxter Peak

Hike Date: 21 June 2014

My family has a goal of reaching the high point in every state in the U.S. So far we’ve only done Mount Mansfield in Vermont (and we hiked from the visitor center, so we’ll have to do it again). This summer’s goal was to do our home state, Maine. Baxter Peak is the highest point in Maine, the 22nd highest state high point and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It sits in one of my favorite parks, Baxter State Park, which is the largest state park in New England and 4th largest in the country. The park was established with a goal of preserving the land in a natural state, so the trails are minimally maintained and there is a daily limit to the number of vehicles allowed in the park.

We arrived Friday afternoon and camped at a site we reserved at Roaring Brook Campground. This was the best way to guarantee getting into the park and having enough daylight to hike the mountain, which can easily take a seasoned hiker 8 hours so we knew we would need plenty of daylight. It also helped that we were hiking on the summer solstice. While checking in I heard other hikers discussing the snow that had fallen on the summit that day.

Always be prepared for winter-like weather when hiking above tree-line, no matter the time of year.

We had dinner and turned in early, so that we could wake up and get going early. The next morning I was up before the rest of the family so I got firewood and had a morning fire by which to stay warm.

Morning camp fire

Morning camp fire

We packed up camp and moved our vehicle to the day-use area. We started our big hike heading up Chimney Pond Trail. The trail was a moderate hike to Chimney Pond, a small pond that formed in the center of the horseshoe-shaped ridge of Mount Katahdin. About halfway up the trail there was a spur trail that led to a nice vista of the mountain.

Chimney Pond Trail vista

Chimney Pond Trail vista

We continued up the trail at a decent pace and took our next break at Middle Basin Pond. From the pond we had our first view of the saddle between Baxter Peak and Hamlin Peak, where the Saddle Trail exited the treeline and the ridge climbing up to Baxter Peak. After some trail mix and water we continued on.

First sight of Baxter Peak and the saddle from Middle Basin Pond

First sight of Baxter Peak and the saddle from Middle Basin Pond

We concluded the hike up to Chimney Pond and took a break in the day shelter. After the short rest we headed down to the pond for a view of it and Mount Katahdin. Chimney Pond is one of my favorite secluded locations. The pond is wrapped in an embrace by the mountain and across the pond you can see a small flat field (it is probably marsh). It would be the ultimate location for a log cabin (if not for being in the middle of a state park and visited by dozens of people a day). Unfortunately, panorama photos have a way of taking away the feeling of being surrounded and presenting the view at a distance. It is a must see in person.

Chimney Pond

Chimney Pond

We signed in at the ranger station and then began our slog up Saddle Trail. About a mile from the upper terminus of Saddle Trail we hit the Saddle slide. Saddle Trail is the easiest route up to Baxter Peak, but it is by no means easy. The slide is a mass of boulders with loose gravel between. Earlier that year a refrigerator-sized boulder slid loose on the Abol slide, closing the Abol Trail on its approach to Baxter for at least the rest of 2014. You could easily see the same thing happening on Saddle Trail. After many breaks and a whole bunch of sweat we made it to the top of Saddle trail.

Top of Saddle Trail

Top of Saddle Trail

So far the boys had done well. My older son led the charge and was often sitting on a rock waiting for us to catch up. My younger son was slow climbing over the rocks twice his size, but he had not complained yet and seemed determined to make it to the top (a huge improvement from last year when we climbed 3000′ Mount Blue and he said it was the worst day of his life). I was pretty tired but also determined to see my boys make it to the top of Baxter Peak. Unfortunately, my wife was exhausted and was feeling light-headed, so she stopped her hike near the Saddle Trail junction. She insisted that we continue to the peak, so I left her with her jacket, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and water.

We set up the one mile hike to the top of Baxter Peak. The trail was very rugged and continued over many false peaks before we got our view of the summit. Along the way people coming down from the peak congratulated me on bringing my sons all the way to the peak and even took pictures of my 7-year-old, amazed that he hiked all the way up himself. One large group even clapped and patted me on the back as we passed them.

We reached the chilly and breezy top and had our photo taken by the famous Katahdin sign.

Baxter Peak

Baxter Peak

We spent a few minutes taking in the view spread out around us, like the ragged ridge line of The Knife Edge:

Knife's Edge

The Knife Edge

And the expansive and water strewn Allagash Wilderness to the north:

Allagash Wilderness

Allagash Wilderness

We were soon chilly and found some shelter below large boulders and ate our lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. While we were eating we saw a young man complete his hike of the Appalachian Trail. Being only June he was very early. He said that he started in March. I didn’t ask, but considering that it was the Summer Solstice, I had the feeling that had began on the Vernal Equinox. 2180 miles in 3 months, that is fast.

Once we finished our lunch we headed down to meet back up with my wife. This began the slowest slog of the hike; waiting for my 7-year-old to navigate the tough terrain from the summit to the bottom of the Saddle slide. My older son went ahead to reach his mom at his own pace and I took in the view of the Baxter tableau.

Baxter Tableau

Baxter saddle

We reached my wife and stopped for a break before descending Saddle slide. My younger son had worked very hard to hike down the mile of rugged trail from the peak without a break, so we figured he deserved one.

Getting ready to descend Saddle

Getting ready to descend Saddle

For me, descending the Saddle slide was the most nerve-wracking part of the hike. I basically hiked down it backwards with my arms out, waiting for my younger son to stumble. If we hadn’t spent so much time climbing the rocks on the back shore of our island and I hadn’t known how well he climbed rocks, we probably would have waited a few more years to do this hike.

Descending

Descending

The hike back to Roaring Brook Campground was long and uneventful. We stopped once again at Chimney Pond for our final snack and then made good time the rest of the way down. We got back to our car in just under 12 hours with plenty of daylight to drive out to another campground and set up camp. It was a long and arduous but total worth it. I could not have been more proud of my whole family and I look forward to more state high points in the future.

The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.
—George Santayana

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Stats:
Elevation: 5267′
Elevation Gain: 3778′
Distance: 11 miles
Book Time: 7:25
Actual Time: 11:45
Temperature: 50°s
Wind: 10mph NW
Weather: Partly Sunny

References:
About the Trail.” appalachiantrail.org. Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Web. 30 July 2014.
Facts About Mount Katahdin.” about.com. About.com. Web. 25 July 2014.
Hiking Katahdin.” baxterstateparkauthority.com. Baxter State Park Authority. Web. 31 July 2014.

Hike: Carter Loop

Date Hiked: 31 May 2014

The planned route was to hike up Nineteen Mile Brook Trail to Carter Notch, take the Carter-Moriah Trail over Carter Dome, Mount Hight, South Carter, Mount Lethe and Middle Carter, descend North Carter Trail to Imp Trail, take the south end of Imp Trail to where is bends right near Cowboy Brook and then bushwhack back to Nineteen Mile Brook Trail and follow it out. Worse case scenario I would wimp out of the bushwhack and hoof it out via Imp Trail and then yellow blaze it back to the parking lot or possibly follow Cowboy Brook to Camp Dodge and yellow blaze from there.

It was the last day of May and I was finally ready to hike my first New England 4000 Footer of the year. I camped overnight at one of the Brook Loop sites at Dolly Copp Campground, just up Route 16 from the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail parking lot, in Pinkham Notch. It was a short drive and nothing was preventing me from starting early. But, the weather was supposed to be overcast until the afternoon, so I wanted to start late to take advantage of the weather. I love the tent sites at Dolly Copp on the Brook Loop. They are set back in the woods and the Culhane Brook runs right behind them. Despite their allure and even though I didn’t want to start hiking until 10am, by 8:30am I had had enough sitting around my campsite and headed for the trail.

I arrived at the parking lot along Route 16 to find it containing a dozen cars. I saw a lady with a dog heading up the highway, presumably to Imp Trail to follow the same loop of the Carters I was planning, but in the opposite direction. I recently listened to a backlog episode of Dirtbag Diaries where they discussed the different types of people you’ll find at trailhead parking lots. There’s the person who can’t decided what gear to bring, the one who wants to tailgate and brag. I happen to be the type who prepared before driving to the parking lot and takes off for the trail as soon as the car is locked. That was what I did.

I hiked Nineteen Mile Brook Trail three different times over the weekend, luckily it was a beautiful trail with an easy to moderate grade. It followed the north side of the Nineteen Mile Brook for about two miles and (at least that time of year) was festooned with slick river rocks and copious amounts of mud and wet leaves. The brook was running hard and I stopped to scramble over some rocks to take a photo. That’s when I discovered that my new Brooks Cascadia 8 trail running shoes that I love so much have absolutely terrible traction on wet surfaces. Both of my feet slipped out from underneath me, I twisted and landed hard on my right hip and started to slide toward the brook. Luckily, I was able to create enough traction with my hands to prevent a cold dip in the brook. I gingerly stood up and took my photo.

Nineteen Mile Brook running hard

Nineteen Mile Brook running hard

1.9 miles up the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail I came to the junction with the Carter Dome Trail. My plan was to continue on the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail to Carter Notch and take the Carter-Moriah Trail to Carter Dome. Standing there at the trail sign it occurred to me that if I took the Carter Dome Trail to Zeta Pass and then on to Carter Dome that I would reduce the amount of trail I would repeat the next day. I could also take the Carter-Moriah Trail via Mount Hight back to Zeta Pass, doing a small loop and preventing repeating trail on the ridge as well.

The only downsides that I could think of were if I got hurt I would be off my planned route, and I hadn’t read any trail reports or descriptions on the Carter Dome trail to know whether or not there were difficult water crossings. I decided that the pros outweighed the cons and headed up Carter Dome Trail.

The Carter Dome Trail turned out to be a pretty moderate jaunt up to Zeta Pass. There were a few water crossings, but like the ones on the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail, they were easily crossed. I really enjoyed one section where the brook split into several tributaries and then came together again. The trail crossed where they separated and re-joined, making its way between several different subsections of the brook.

At Zeta Pass the trail hooked right and climbed easily to Carter Dome. The weather was still overcast, which was a shame because I passed the one location where I would have had a clear view of the northern Presidentials all weekend. Just below the summit of Carter Dome I came across some snow and ice in the trail, but it was of no concern. It was easy to walk over without traction.

Still some snow near Carter Dome

Still some snow near Carter Dome

There were three men at the Carter Dome summit when I got there, the first people I saw since the lady in the parking lot. I greeted them but sat apart as they had stopped talking when I approached and didn’t seem very welcoming. I sat on a rock for a few minutes, eating a Clif Bar and wondering what the deal was with all of the broken Plexiglas on the ground. While sitting there the three men descended toward Carter Notch.

I saw my first bit of blue sky while walking down the Carter-Moriah Trail toward Mount Hight.

Hight, South and Middle Carter peaking out of clouds

Hight, South and Middle Carter peaking out of clouds

Mount Hight was one of the many mountains that were over 4000 feet, but not considered 4000 Footers because of their prominence over surrounding peaks. Basically, if you found the low point below two peaks and there wasn’t a 200 foot climb to the next peak, then it was considered a sub-peak of the other and didn’t qualify for the 4000 Footer list. While Mount Hight wasn’t marked with a red triangle on my map, it was the highlight of the hike.

Mount Hight stood high to the east of the Carter ridge line, towering over the Wild River Wilderness, one of glorious areas in the White Mountains that was highly protected due to its importance as a watershed. The Carter ridge was blocking the encroaching clouds, allowing a clear view into the Wild River Wilderness and the distant mountains to the east and south.

Wild River Wilderness from Mount Hight

Wild River Wilderness from Mount Hight

It was closing on lunch time, so I took the opportunity of a great view and scattered sunshine to take a break from hiking. I switched out my upper layers and laid the wet ones out on rocks to dry. I took off my shoes and socks to allow them to dry as well. I quickly boiled some water with my JetBoil and set some soup to re-hydrate. I sat facing the Wild River and meditated. The only sounds that I could hear were the river a few thousand feet below and the occasional bird tweet. I sat for 40 minutes and enjoyed my lunch and the view, truly appreciating the lack of noise and deadlines, and basked in the solitude. It was one of the many reasons that I hike every opportunity that I get.

Eventually dark clouds started to roll over South Carter and head toward Mount Hight. I re-shoed and dressed and headed down the the Carter-Moriah Trail toward South Carter.

For those that find themselves on the Mount Hight summit, be aware that the trail heads back toward Zeta Pass on the Carter Dome side of it, it doesn’t head directly toward the pass or South Carter, even though it looks like a trail leads in that direction. Luckily I left before the clouds rolled in and was aware of the direction of the trail from my White Mountains guide book.

Soon after I descended Mount Hight it began to rain. I started seeing groups of people on the trail, including the lady I saw leaving the parking lot in the morning. At first her dog scared the crap out of me. I looked up to see a dog standing in front of me with a muzzle on, but for a split second I saw a bear.

She asked if I had a dog, as her dog was not good with other dogs but was fine with humans.

I replied that I did not, held my hand out for the dog to sniff (I imagine it sensed my sudden apprehension at imagining a bear and I wanted it to know I was cool with it) and I asked her if she came up via Imp Trail, mentioning I had seen her as I pulled in to the parking lot. The dog apparently approved of me and started to excitedly rub up against my legs, a behavior I recognized as a request to have its rump scratched.

The lady confirmed that she was hiking the same loop as I and said she hiked in that direction as she was afraid she wouldn’t find that cut-over trail from Imp to Camp Dodge, but it was in fact very hard to miss.

I told her that I was planning on going that way and internally made a note that I wouldn’t have to bushwhack to Nineteen Mile Brook Trail or Camp Dodge as there was apparently a trail.

I continued on to South Carter and Middle Carter. Both were 4000 Footers, but both were also forested summits. On the summit of Middle Carter there was a partial view toward the Wild River Wilderness. There I met a guy from the Boston area who was trying to wrap up his New Hampshire 48 before moving back to California in two weeks. He was on number 43. He had come up Carter Dome Trail like I had, but had headed to South and Middle Carter first. He was heading to Carter Dome and then down to Carter Notch Hut for the night and getting Wildcat A in the morning. Like myself, he had attempted the Wildcats before but had only gotten Wildcat D.

Shortly after Middle Carter was a small peak called Mount Lethe. Its summit was also forested but just beyond it, toward North Carter, it had a view of Mount Madison across Pinkham Notch. The clouds were still clearing, but I still got a sense of the size of Madison and could see Barnes Field campground sitting low on its shoulder and creases in the forest south of the field which were Dolly Copp’s roads and sites.

Madison shaking off the clouds

Madison in the clouds with Barnes Field and Dolly Copp campgrounds below

In the col between Lethe and North Carter was the junction with the North Carter Trail. Since I was all the way up on the ridge and had plenty of daylight I continued on the 0.25 miles to North Carter. It was yet another forested summit, but I got a glimpse of the Presidentials through the trees and saw that the clouds were completely gone. I lectured myself for not taking a break at the view on Mount Lethe and headed down to the North Carter Trail.

North Carter and the southern end of Imp Trail were very wet, in places the trail might as well have been a brook. On North Carter my new shoes’ treads once again failed me. While descending I planted my right foot on a damp rock and the tread failed to hold the pressure from my weight. My leg shot forward and I came down hard, my left knee slammed against the rock I had attempted to step on and I rolled off the trail.

I lay there for a moment in a pile of frustration, pain and cuss words. I slowly stood to assess my knee. My new Columbia pants were torn and blood was starting to seep through the pant leg. It was just an abrasion but my patella felt badly bruised. I said screw it and continued down the trail.

The North Carter intersected with the Imp Trail and I followed it to the left. I eventually got to where I could hear Route 16 ahead and Cowboy Brook to my left. I started to wonder just how obvious the cut-over trail to Camp Dodge was. Assessing my map I decided that a button-hook turn in the trail just ahead was the closest point to Camp Dodge. If I didn’t see the trail there I would pick up the pace and follow the Imp Trail out. Alas, the very obvious side trail appeared, following an old logging road. As the lady said, it was hard to miss.

Along that trail I saw some very fresh moose tracks, but I did not see any other sign of the beast.

Fresh moose tracks

Fresh moose tracks

I finished my hike by walking down the dirt road at Camp Dodge to Route 16 and then yellow blazing it back to the parking lot. I got back to my car at 4:45pm with plenty of daylight remaining. My original plan was to leave at 10am and return by 8:30pm to maximize the clear weather prior to sundown. I didn’t have many views, but I ended up having plenty of time to start a campfire back at Dolly Copp before it got dark.

In all, I enjoyed the hike despite the overcast weather. I didn’t realize that the Carters had so many forested views, but Nineteen Mile Brook Trail was a real nice hike and the Carter-Moriah Trail was interesting with its many ups and down and couple of nice views to the east. Mount Hight was definitely the highlight of the hike for me and would have been even if I had clear views across Pinkham Notch from the other summits. My only disappointment was the traction on my new shoes. I guess in the end it forced me to slow down and be more mindful of my foot placement, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately off the trail. Slowing down and being more mindful.

Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.
—Thích Nhất Hạnh

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Stats:
Elevation: 4832′
Elevation Gain: 3900′
Distance: 15.0 miles
Book Time: 8:15
Actual Time: 7:15
Temperature: 54° F
Wind: 2 mph E
Weather: overcast, showers, scattered sunshine

References:
Appalachian Mountain Club. White Mountain Guide: 28th Edition. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2007. Print.
Brooks Cascadia 8.” brooksrunning.com. Brooks Sports Inc. Web. 05 June 2014.
Camp Dodge Volunteer Center.” outdoors.org. Appalachian Mountain Club. Web. 06 June 2014.
Dolly Copp Campground.” http://www.fs.usda.gov. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Web. 04 June 2014.
The Shorts–Parking Lot Players.” dirtbagdiaries.com. The Dirtbag Diaries. Web. 04 June 2014

Hike: Dickey and Welch Mountain Loop

Hike date: 3 May 2014

Last year for Mother’s Day I took the boys camping and gave my wife a nice quiet house for the weekend. I know, it sounds selfish, but she loved it and we loved it, so I planned to do it again this year. As it turned out, she had classes the weekend of Mother’s Day, so I wouldn’t have a vehicle to take the boys camping. We went a week early instead.

The boys, my friend John and I went camping at my favorite spot, Hancock Campground on the Kancamangus Highway, which happens to be open year-round. I have camped at site 12 on the Pemigewasset River at least 5 times, and we camped there again. We left after work and we got to the campground as it was getting dark, but that didn’t diminish our moods. The boys were excited for the campfire and sleeping in the tent, and we got to see a moose shortly before the Kancamangus Pass.

After the boys had dinner, s’mores and went to bed, John and I stayed up drinking beer by the fire and gazing at the stars. John had forgotten one of his tent poles, but the weather was mild, the stars were out and it was far too early for bugs, so he settled out under the stars. As I headed into the tent I decided that there weren’t too many opportunities to sleep under the stars these days, so I dragged out my pad and bag and joined him. As I fell asleep staring at the stars, I thought of what Neil DeGrasse Tyson had said about man and stars:

Man is the only creature comfortable sleeping on his back. If you lay on your back and look up, what do you see? You see the cosmos.

In the morning I got up and meditated on a large rock in the river and then brewed up some coffee as everyone else rolled out of their sleeping bags. I underestimated how long it would take to pack up camp and we left for our hike a bit late. By the time we got to the trailhead my other friend Mike was waiting for us with his two boys. The parking lot was filling up and there was a large group just hitting the trail. We hesitated in the parking lot so we wouldn’t be right on their tails and then headed up the trail.

Pemigewasset River, looking up to Lincoln Woods

Pemigewasset River, looking up to Lincoln Woods

We hiked toward Welch Mountain first, approaching the loop counter-clock-wise. The climb was easy, which was good for the boys. At one point John said: “Oh, snake,” and reached into the brush to pull out a snake by its neck and tail. Mike and I looked at each other and decided that it was good that we hadn’t seen any rattlesnakes on adventures in Texas. John showed the boys how to handle a snake and then released it back into the woods.

Fun with snakes

Fun with snakes

Soon after, we broke out of the woods and onto a large, rounded ledge that sat below the hump of Welch Mountain. We had a clear view to the east of Sandwich Mountain and to the northeast we could see the peaks of the Tripyramids. We checked out the scenery with John’s binoculars and our different photo-taking devices and watched people hike where the ledges poked out of the trees further up Welch’s peak.

Looking up at Welch

Looking up at Welch

When it started to get crowded on the ledge we packed up and continued to hike up Welch. The hike grew more interesting the higher we got. It picked its way across bald ledge among the sparse trees. There was quite a bit of friction climbing and in a few places were we had to hand-over-hand up large rocks. The views of the surrounding mountains jumped out between trees everywhere.

Climbing up to Welch summit

Climbing up to Welch summit

As we closed in on the summit we came to a narrow crack in the rock where we had to squeeze our pack through and then climb up on top of the rock to continue. A hiker behind us told his friend that it was The Bottleneck, like on Everest (I think he meant K2).

Squeezing through the bottleneck

Squeezing through the bottleneck

We got to the summit of Welch a few hours after setting off, right about noon-time. There were a few other people on the summit, but we settled down in a bowl cut into the peak of the summit where the kids could keep out of the breeze. It had clouded up and was cool, so Mike and I pulled out our stoves. He heated up some hot chocolate for his boys, and I cooked some mac and cheese for my boys and vegan Pad Thai for myself. As we ate our lunch we gazed out at the scenery. To the northeast were the Tripyramids again and to the northwest stood the large dome of Moosilauke.

Tripyramids from Welch

Tripyramids from Welch

Moosilauke from Welch

Moosilauke from Welch

Once we had cleaned up our lunch and packed up (and I picked up some trash I saw another person throw into nearby trees), we started on our way to Dickey Mountain. The trail dropped down some ledges and into a col between the two mountains. At the low point was a six or seven foot cairn standing over a great view to the east.

Cairn in Welch and Dickey col

Cairn in Welch and Dickey col

The hike up to Dickey from the col was short. Occasionally we had a view back of Welch Mountain. I particularly liked one view I had while my youngest was using the little boy’s room. Welch Mountain was standing over the dense pine trees and the trail could be seen meandering down the slope of the mountain and again coming out of cavernous gap in the forest.

The path to Welch

The path to Welch

We reached Dickey summit but did not stay long as it was apparent that the weather was taking a turn for the worse. The rain was supposed to hold off until 4:00pm, and it was only 1:30pm, but we could see it rolling in from the west.

Rain starting to roll in

Rain starting to roll in

We headed down the trail from Dickey summit and had a view to the north of Cannon Mountain and Franconia Ridge. The arrangement of the mountains had me boggled while we were hiking. I guess I had been so enamored by Moosilauke that I had pictured us to the west of Franconia. I could definitely pick out the Cannon Balls and the cliffs of Cannon, so I couldn’t figure out why Franconia Ridge looked closer than Cannon and why Lincoln looked taller than Lafayette. Somehow it hadn’t donned on me that we were to the east of I-93 which runs down the center of Franconia Notch, even considering we arrived at the trailhead by heading east from the I-93 exit.

Cannon and Franconia ridge from Dickey

Cannon and Franconia ridge from Dickey

As we made our way down the ledges on the Dickey side of the loop it began to rain. It never rained hard, but the rocks below our feet quickly grew slick. We slowed down our pace and made sure the kids were leading by the safest route. At one point it was pretty sketchy, the top of the rounded ledge was only a few feet wide and to our left the ledge sloped down at a steep angle before dropping off a cliff. The boys didn’t seem to notice, they continued to walk and talk as we pointed them to the far right side of the ledge, but I must admit I held my breath. It would have been a non-issue in good weather but my imagination took off with the worse possible scenario in the rain.

Descending Dickey ledges in the rain

Descending Dickey ledges in the rain

Soon after the ledges the trail entered the forest and climbed easily down to the parking lot.

It was one of my favorite day hikes in the White Mountains, even considering the low elevation and high crowds. The views were amazing for 2000 footers and the variable terrain kept it interesting. More importantly, I was glad to give my wife a nice quiet weekend and the boys had a blast in the outdoors. If I pass anything on to them, I hope it is the love and respect that I have for nature.

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.
—E.B. White

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Stats:
Elevation: 2734′
Elevation Gain: 1650′
Distance: 4.4 miles
Book Time: 3:00
Actual Time: 5:00
Temperature: 54° F
Wind: 2 mph N
Weather: mostly cloudy, scattered showers

References:
Hancock Campground.” http://www.fs.usda.gov. United States Department of Agriculture: Forest Service. Web. 8 May 2014.
K2: The Killing Peak.” mensjournal.com. Men’s Journal LLC. Web. 13 May 2014.
Welch Mountain and Dickey Mountain Loop.” hikenewengland.com. Hike-NewEngland.com. Web. 4 May 2014.

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Backyard Adventure: First Adventure of 2014

Backyard Adventures are small adventures that I set upon to soothe my wanderlust when I cannot afford (with time or money) to take on larger adventures. Some will be done with my sons (under the guise of “just playing with the boys”), and some will just be flat out crazy to the normal (read sheltered) human and I’ll have no real excuse for my behavior except that I wanted to see what it was like. This was one of the latter. 

It’s the dead of winter and you don’t have the gear for camping overnight, what do you do? Me, I camp out overnight anyway.

I have a L.L. Bean Microlight FS tent, an EMS Mountain Light 20° sleeping bag and a Big Agnes Air Core sleeping pad. Great, 3-season, light gear. But, I have dreams of hiking my first winter 4000 footer. Unfortunately, since I live on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine, it requires an overnight camp to have enough daylight to hike a 4000 footer. My goal this winter is to find the perfect weekend where it’s not snowing on a Friday or Saturday night so I can drive up to the White Mountains, where the temperature doesn’t drop below 20°F at night (okay, I could take low teens) and the weather on the following day is below freezing but sunny and with as little wind as possible.

I know, impossible, right?

In order to prepare for the camping-overnight-bit of my dream weekend, I decided to try camping out overnight on the island in the middle of January.  I didn’t want to find myself out in the middle of the White Mountains in some of the “worst weather in the world” without knowing my gear’s capabilities. When a weekend came around where I wasn’t doing anything and the weather was looking optimal for my test scenario (low wind, temperature in the 20s) I decided to take my gear for a test run.

Yes, my wife told me I was nuts as well.

bya-first-2014-tent

Settled down for a cozy night

I packed up my gear and headed out into the forest near my house. I brought my headlamp with me but found it wonderous to wander the forest by moonlight. It transformed the woods that I grew up exploring into an unknown landscape. I made my way generally toward the middle of the woods, hoping to find a location that was far enough from houses and streets as to not hear any cars or see any lights.

I found a spot sheltered by a small copse of pine trees but with a clear view of the stars overhead. I stamped out a flat area with my snowshoes and set up my tent. I realized I didn’t know how to stake out my tent in snow, which I needed to do in order to properly utilize the fly, so I hoped that the wind wouldn’t pick up overnight. I fired up my new Jetboil Flash, cooked some dinner and cracked open a Maine Beer Co. Lunch. I spent a little while enjoying some hot food, great beer and staring at the stars, but it was time to get to business. The reason I was here was to test out my gear, so I hit the sack.

bya-first-2014-temp

I later discovered that the temperature dropped a lot lower than forecasted

I spent the night trying to keep warm. The weak point in my protection from the cold was my air pad. Any part of my body touching the pad slowly had the heat sapped out of it. After a while I would wake up and need to turn over to warm that side of my body. My feet were also cold, but not cold enough to interrupt my sleep. Several times I considered packing up and snowshoeing back home, but I did not relish crawling out of my warm(ish) sleeping bag into the frigid winter night.

After enough time had passed that I deemed it not insane to get up (4:30am), I quickly made my way out of my sleeping bag and into my clothes. My boots were ice-cold and my toes were soon numb. I fired up my Jetboil to make some coffee. I was lucky that I had the Jetboil running because my tent poles turned my fingers instantly into ice and I was able to warm them over the flame. I found that many of the tent pole sections were frozen together and I had hold them between my fingers until my body heat thawed them. Shortly I had my camp broken down and I enjoyed my coffee by the flame of the Jetboil.

I headed home in the early morning darkness, following the same meandering route I took into the forest. By the time I made it home the eastern sky had begun to lighten, so I dropped my pack and made my way to the south shore of the island. I ended my backyard adventure snapping some shots of ice and sunrise.

bya-first-2014-sunrise

Sunrise and icicles

My takeaway from this experience was that I didn’t have the gear for single digit temperatures, but I think I could have made it through a night in the high teens and twenties. I’m pretty sure that wind would make even the twenties hard to bear as there was space between the ground and the bottom of the fly. Possibly I could have figured out how to stake out or tie down my fly and then pile up snow around it to prevent wind from entering the tent.

Sounds like something to test out on another cold and windy night this winter.

A few tips and realizations I’ve discovered since that night:

  • I have a fleece sleeping bag liner
  • I could try placing my old foam pad under my air pad for added insulation
  • I can heat water and put it in water bottles. Placing these bottles in the bottom of my sleeping bag and in my boots keep them from freezing over night and I would have water that wasn’t frozen in the morning as a bonus
  • I should have a towel ready for when I open my sleeping bag. Body heat escaping will thaw the frost built up on the inside of the tent, wiping it off will prevent the tent from getting wet

A career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night.
—Marilyn Monroe

References:
Big Agnes Air Core Sleeping Pad.” backcountry.com. Backcountry.com. Web. 23 February 2014.
White, Carol Stone. Peak Experiences: Danger, Death, and Daring in the Mountains of the Northeast. UPNE, 2012. Print.
EMS Mountain Light 15° Sleeping Bag, Long.” ems.com. Eastern Mountain Sports, inc. Web. 23 February 2014.
It’s Official—Australia has the Worst Weather in the World.” theaposition.com. The A Position. Web. 17 March 2014.
Jetboil Flash Cooking System.” rei.com. Recreational Equipment, Inc. Web. 16 March 2014.
Lunch.” mainebeercompany.com. Maine Beer Company. Web. 16 March 2014.
Microlight FS 1-Person Tent.” llbean.com. L.L. Bean, inc. Web. 23 February 2014.

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Hike: Guadalupe Peak

Hike date: 13 March 2014

When an opportunity arises, you must seize it. That was the idea when a few friends of mine (John and Mike) and I realized that the highest point in Texas was not too far away from a conference we were scheduled to attend. “Not too far” is probably a relative term as most people wouldn’t be willing to tack on an eight hour drive to the end of a crazy week and a half of conferences. Yet that is exactly what we did.

When our conference ended, rather than flying directly back to Maine we rented a car and drove from Austin to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, stopping at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area,  Orla (a ghost town in western Texas), and Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, on the way. I had done a bunch of research prior to our trip (many thanks to the Redditors on /r/campingandhiking) and discovered that Guadalupe is one of the least visited national parks and its peak season is in October when the leaves change colors. The weather was supposed to be wonderful in March, as long as the wind holds out, and the park would be pretty empty.

Ghost Town

Orla, a ghost town on the drive west

Unfortunately, the week we were in Texas was spring break for seemingly the entire state. When we arrived at Pine Spring Campground, the campground nearest the Guadalupe Peak trailehead, we found it full. We talked to the ranger on duty and he informed us that our only available option was the BLM camping. His instructions were straight out of an episode of Breaking Bad:

Drive north on the highway until you hit the New Mexico border. At mile marker 5 you will see a dirt road on the right, pay attention or you’ll miss it. Take this road and pay attention to which way the wind is blowing. You can camp anywhere off the road but you don’t want the dust from the road falling on your tents as trucks will be using the road all night.

By trucks I think he meant RV meth labs.

Luck was in our favor as a nearby camper heard our plight and offered up his site. The night was cold for him and he would rather just sleep in his car. I think he heard that we were from Maine and figured that the winter night in Texas would be no colder than summer nights way up in Maine. He was mostly right. We set up camp, cooked some dinner, passed around some beer and wine and looked at the stars and moon with binoculars. We hit the sack a hour or so after dark, excited for the next morning.

Pine Springs

Our campsite at Pine Springs

We awoke to sunrise over the Chihuahuan desert and the howl of coyotes. It was the stuff of dreams. Except, that it was colder than most dreams. While filling water bottles, spilled water was freezing to the metal picnic table. It was a frosty cold morning, but not too cold for a bunch of Mainers.

Sunrise

Sunrise and coyote howls

video-icon Video of coyotes at sunrise

We got packed up for the hike and headed to the trailhead. On the way I noticed water was dripping from Mike’s backpack. We stopped so he could check his bladder and realized that the cover was no longer holding its seal. He headed back to the campsite to fill a couple of spare bottles. It is so dry in the desert that it is suggested that you carry at least 1 gallon of water per day. That is twice what I would normally carry for a dayhike, but it proved to be appropriate.

Starting the hike

Heading to the trailhead

Even though I did a bunch of winter hikes in February, I quickly realized how out of shape I was. These were not New England trails, they didn’t shoot straight to the summit following a ridge. The trails were nicely packed dirt and they switchbacked the entire way to the summit. The elevation gain was about 750′ per mile, but I was still out of breath pretty quickly.

I soon shed my fleece and sweatshirt as the temperature quickly rose out of the 30s. Even though the hike had just begun, the views were already incredible. Without the deep forests of the north and with the surrounding desert and prairies, there was little to obscure the view besides other mountains.

Posing on a precarious perch

Posing on a precarious perch

About a mile and half into the hike we had switchbacked up a face of the mountain and cut north of a ridge line. At that point we entered a small bowl on the northern face of the ridge and the trail dove into some pinyon pine trees. Though we lost the wondrous views for a while, this was one of the more interesting stretches of the hike. All along the side of the trail were large gray stones, and searching them carefully would reveal fossils. Here we were 7000′ above sea level and there were ancient reefs with fossils embedded on the side of the mountain. It was hard to believe that the mountain we were hiking was part if a massive reef system in the Delaware Ocean 300 million years ago.

Fossils

Fossils

The trail continued to follow the ridge line toward the peak, but on the slope rather than the peak of the ridge. A few more switchback brought us around a corner where we saw a small flat peak to the right which soon proved to be the location of the Guadalupe Peak back country campground. We had considered getting up early and waiting in line at the visitor center in hopes of getting one of five available daily permits that would have allowed us to camp there that night. Instead we had opted to hit the trail early so we would have a better chance of having enough time to bushwhack to El Capitan.

After the campground a sign stood telling horseback riders to walk their horses through the next section. To the right of the path a cliff dropped several hundred feet down and up ahead there was a small bridge over a gap in the trail. We stopped to take some photos of the bridge and risk a look over the edge of the cliff.

Bridge on Guadalupe Peak Trail

Bridge on Guadalupe Peak Trail

Soon after the bridge the trail moved over to the south side of the ridge and we got our first sight of El Capitan. The slope of Guadalupe dove down nearly 1000′ to a ravine deep between the two mountains. Slides of white stone stood out starkly against the tans and greens of short vegetation. On the other side of the ravine the slope of El Capitan rose 800′. The mountain itself was queer to the eye, the western side being much higher than the eastern and both sides dropped shockingly to the desert below. We all knew at once that we must climb it.

El Capitan from Guadalupe

El Capitan from Guadalupe

We climbed the remaining half mile to the top of Texas. I don’t recall if this portion was tough or not, only that it continued the switchbacked pattern of the rest of the trail. My mind was on El Capitan.

The view from the summit was amazing. To the north and northeast was the rest of the Guadalupe Mountains range. To the east was the flat peak of the back country campground and the rest of the ridge that we climbed to get to the peak. To the south was El Capitan and to the west was the white flatness of the Chihuahua Desert.

Chihuahua Desert

Chihuahua Desert

video-icon Video of Guapalupe Peak

Despite the haze in the distance, I felt that I could see farther than I had ever before. It was truly incredible. We sat, surrounded by a dozen other people who made the trip up that morning, and cooked some lunch. We signed the summit register and had our photos taken at the stainless steel pyramid that American Airlines had installed on the summit in 1958 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. In the 1930s American Airlines received a government contract for air mail between St. Louis and San Francisco, the same route that Butterfield Overland Mail Company had serviced. One of their stops were at the stage station near what is now the Pine Springs campground.

While John and Mike explored the summit, I stood at the south side looking down at El Capitan. Man, it was a long way down and back up to the peak, and it was looking really far away. I started considering whether we would have enough daylight. Then there were the rattlesnakes that the guy at REI in Austin warned us about. They were starting to come out of hibernation in March and were more aggressive when they did. So far we had been on trail the whole way, if we bushwhacked over to El Capitan we would certainly have to step through bushes and over dead logs. I expressed my concerns to John and he replied: “You only live once.” He was right, we would probably never have the opportunity to hike that crazy looking mountain again, we better just do it. We did a little research and planned our route and then headed down the trail to the point where we would start bushwhacking toward El Capitan.

After the hike over to El Capitan we were pretty much beat and looking forward to making it back to the campsite. Luckily the path was flat and not too steep all of the way to the trailhead. We made good time and got back to our campsite before sun had set.

Sun starting to set over Guadalupe Mountains

Sun starting to set over Guadalupe Mountains

The combination of Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan is probably my favorite dayhike I have done to date. It was totally worth the eight hour drive across western Texas. I had my doubts about doing El Capitan, but my hiking mates’ enthusiasm easily outweighed my doubts. If I had done this hike solo I probably would have skipped El Capitan, so I was very thankful to have John and Mike with me to ensure that I seized the moment.

I will seize fate by the throat; it shall certainly never wholly overcome me.
—Ludwig van Beethoven

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Stats:
Elevation: 8749′
Elevation Gain: 2927′
Distance:  8.2 miles
Book Time: 5:40
Actual Time: 5:40
Temperature: 34° F (start)
Wind: 0 mph
Weather: sunny

References:
Camping.” nps.gov. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 27 March 2014
Camping and Hiking.” reddit.com. reddit inc. Web. 27 March 2014.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park.” nps.gov. National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 29 March 2014.
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.” tpwd.state.tx.us. Texas Park and Wildlife Department. Web. 29 March 2014.
Geologic Formations.” nps.gov. National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 29 March 2014.
Guadalupe Mountains, An Administrative History.” nps.gov. National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 29 March 2014.
Viewing Guadalupe Peak.” mapmyhike.com. Map My Hike. Web. 29 March 2014.

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