Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mnt Moosilauke in Winter

This is an after the fact account of a hike (well two hikes, actually) up Mnt Moosilauke in the White Mountains in the dead of winter.

For those of you who, like me, have not experienced snow for almost their entire life, here are a few tips on hiking in winter.

First: even if you have been into a walk-in freezer at a meat packaging factory, you can't begin to describe the cold (unless you were locked in there for at least an hour). Second: snow piles up on the trail to varying depths and if you don't have the right gear on your feet you "post" through the snow to shin, knee or thigh-high depths. If there has been a little packing of the snow, posting happens haphazardly rather than consistently. There is nothing quite like posting to exhaust a hiker. Third: the tube from your water hydration bladder will freeze as you walk, making it hard to get new water. Fourth: once you are hiking (and assuming the wind isn't blowing) you actually can get very warm. Fifth: you should not (under any circumstances) allow your feet or any other part of you body to get wet. This includes getting snow into your boots from repeatedly "posting" through the snow. Sixth: at the temperatures of an average day in the winter mountains, you will die if you decide that enough is enough and you sit or lie down and try to go to sleep.

So John, Angelika and Bruce planned a day trip up Moosilauke on Dec 30, 2010 and they invited me and I invited Anne. Anne has been running almost daily - an amazing feat considering her life-long battle with Asthma - and had been up most of the way of a 4000 footer a few weeks previously so was in good shape to make this trip.

John did some research on trail conditions and it looked as though (despite recent snow storms in the area) the snow on the trail would most likely be pretty well packed. We decided to take a shot at the hike with "micro-spikes" - these rubber overlays with little metal spikes under them that you can stretch over your boots to help prevent slipping on ice.

We drove up early in the morning and met at our favorite spot for pre-hike breakfast (Einstein Bros. Bagels) and to buy their stunning lunch snack - the Powerbagel (a bagel loaf packed with energy).   From there to the trail head by about 9:00am and out of the car to get ready.

The gear for a trip like this includes: headlamp, sleeping bag, windbreaker, warm fleece hat, balaclava, inner liner gloves, thick gloves, fleece, thick mid-layer, inner wicking layer, wicking long underwear, two pairs of socks, boots, hydration bladder, protein bars, gators (they slide over your boots to keep snow or wet out - more on this later because neither Anne nor I had gators that day).  You should also have a ski mask or something to keep the wind off your face.  With the windchill, frostbite can set in within about 10-15min on exposed skin.

Getting ready for the hike involves getting the microspikes on and setting up the hiking poles - all of which took about 10 min.  Anne, without thinking took her gloves off to do this and by the time we set off her hands were cold beyond recovery.  We stopped after a few minutes to have Anne warm her hands under my coat and then headed out again.

It didn't take much hiking to get us all warm.  The trail winds up the hill in the trees for 90% of the hike before exiting into a bald summit that is completely exposed to the elements.  The recent snow storm had left the trees with clumps of snow blown hard.  They looked like monsters on either side of the trail.

One huge advantage of winter hiking is how the snow evens out the ground.  In summer the rocky paths are hard to navigate and in winter with enough snow the effect is to flatten the path.

Unfortunately about 500ft from the summit we realized that the deep drifts were not compact enough and despite some manful groundbreaking by John and Bruce we soon realized that we would not be able to make the summit and get back before dark so we turned around.

Anne and I led the downhill walk at a brisk pace.  The snow, poles and general evenness of the ground lulled us to believe that we could walk really quickly - not without cost.   I think that we fell about 5 times each on the way down - in each case completely painlessly because of the soft undercover of snow.  I suspect, though that walking really quickly in snow that you are posting through could be very dangerous if you happen to step into a hole between two rocks and then move quickly past.  Luckily this did not happen to us.

What did happen was that our socks got sopping wet on the way down.  Fortunately the weather was still and our speed kept our feet warm all the way to the car.  I would hate to have found out what would have happened if we had been forced to stop for an extended time.


Bruce, John and I went up again on the 6th of January to make the summit.  This time the snow was properly packed and we brought snow shoes for good measure (even though we didn't use them).  The conditions were similar to the previous trip but when we broke through on to the exposed section of the summit (probably a 20min round trip) an icy blast of wind met us.

We stopped to put on an extra layer - having taken our coats off in the trees and I quicky realized that I should have done that before stepping out into the wind.  It was bitter.  I felt as though my eyeballs we starting to freeze and my hands became painfully cold, numb even.

We reached the summit and I stared at the briny snow-beaten signs at the top.  I had not brought my camera up with me.  Bruce had his but the pain in my hands and face and the prospect of staying even longer to get a photograph were too much for me.  I said:  "Is this the summit?  Good, let's go!" and turned around and headed back towards the treeline.

Hypothermia is a dangerous condition, the early stages of which are violent shivering.  I haven't had this before but I know the feeling that precedes this - it is a sickened feeling, almost like pressure on your chest - and I have felt it when out photographing in 20degree F temperatures in the pre-dawn and I felt it again on this mountain.

Once we were back in the treeline our body temperature started to return to normal but my fingers were numb for at least another 30-45min.   Someone had kindly supplied some chemical hand-warmers but even those didn't seem to have any effect.  It was only after walking in pain for those 45 min that I started to get feeling back in my hands and then began again to feel comfortable.

I have to figure out better hand protection for the next trip out!