Thursday, February 23, 2012

Carter Dome

I had my first hike with snow shoes up another one of the 4000ft peaks in New Hampshire.  This one was Carter Dome, one of the peaks about 2hours north of Concord.  All told it was 7 hours of driving on this day, the hour and half to Einstein Bros for breakfast and the two hours North of that (Carters Dome is very close to the Wildcat ski resort) and then back again.

This was also one of the easier 4000ft ascents with a really gentle walk to start and even though we chose the harder option to go up a secondary peak I found it easier going than I expected.  The secondary peak (Mnt Height) is also over 4000 ft but doesn’t count as one of the 49 because the dip in the saddle between it and Carter Dome is too little to qualify it as a separate peak.

Driving into the region earlier in the day (we arrived at the trail head at 9:30 am), we didn’t see much snow - but from previous hikes (and because John just knows these things) we elected to take snow shoes and micro spikes with us.

The first section of the hike was along a swollen stream with some really cool rapids and pools.  The water was white with some of the pools in various hues of green, rimmed in snow and ice.  I regretted the fact that we had to keep a steady pace because I would have liked to have gone down to the water level and taken many photographs.  I consoled myself that I’d take pictures on the way back (which I did).  I think that these streams justify a separate trip here just to take pictures though.

The snow and ice appeared after about an hour of walking and we were able to navigate around it - walking on the side of the path and on uncovered rocks until we were pretty close to the summit of the first peak where we decided to start with the micro spikes because it was mostly ice.

You have to be pretty trusting of the spikes and really stand down hard on them when you cross ice - but in this case the places we needed to cross directly were not too bad.  As we got closer to the top, though, the evidence of earlier hikers “posting” through the snow became more common place and I started doing the same.

John explained that there is about a 6 inch section in the middle of the path that is pretty hard and after trying to step on it and failing a few times I realized that I more or less had to place one foot in front of the other to stay on this harder ridge.

I mentioned before that posting through the snow is exhausting.  When I hike with John and Bruce I usually go in front because I set the slowest pace - but I pace myself at what I consider to be the quickest I can walk without overdoing it.  My breathing and fatigue are kept just at the point where I can sustain the pace.  For this hike - probably because I have been able to maintain at least a once a week visit to the gym - I was feeling a lot stronger than I did on the previous hike, but as soon as I started posting through the snow it pushed me to the point where I really felt I’d need to stop to catch my breath.  I slowed down a little more and as I got better at placing my feet on that narrow strip things improved.

I wondered why we didn’t put the snow shoes on (I’d find out later what a pain they are) as we slid and slipped in places where the hard ridge simply didn’t hold out at all.

Before I knew it we were at the top of Mnt Height - which is quite exposed!  The wind was pumping really hard.  It almost knocked me over a couple of times before I got my footing.  It reminded me of the way the Cape Town South Easter gets channeled in the Foreshore down alleys and blows people across the street.

Fortunately the wind was not very cold.  The temperature at the top was probably above freezing - still cold enough that when we stopped I’d feel my hands start to go numb, but not cold enough that I had any distress about it.

We fought our way off the exposed top and down into the fairly shallow saddle between Mnt Height and Carter Dome where we found that even walking on the narrow harder ridge of snow in the middle of the path was not enough.  I started slipping and posting and fell a good few times as my leg went through the snow and off to the side.

The snow shoes are pretty easy to walk in - the strap tightly over your hiking boots and have a hinge near your toes so that there is some mobility in the shoe.  I expected them to be heavier on my feet, but they were actually fine.

What wasn’t fine was that even with the shoes on I was posting through soft sections of the snow in any case and putting one foot in front of the other with these long snow shoes is harder than you might think.

One side effect of this hard ridge of compacted snow in the middle of the path is that it is like a peak so if you do post through you would more often than not have considerable lateral movement which was making me fall and (in case you have not tried this before) it is pretty hard to get back up again if one foot is buried three feet down, you are twisted and lying on your back and the other foot is on the hard ridge of snow a foot or so higher than where you are lying.  One one occasion I felt like an upended tortoise and John and Bruce had to help me up.

Although I seemed to be the one who went down most often, neither Bruce nor John were immune to this and both of them landed on their backs at least once on the ice and I think John fell on the snow as well.

The Carter Dome peak is not very auspicious, but we stopped at the sign for lunch.  I had brought some granola bars that I’d eaten on the way up and I had some jerky for the summit.  A little dry, but worth it anyway.

My pack was a little heavier than the last trek because I had run out of water the last time so I carried an extra liter this time and ended up needing it so I didn’t regret it either.

With all of the posting and changing from mircro spikes to snow shoes we ended up taking a fair amount longer than we had anticipated.  We got back to the car at 6pm and after telling Anne that I’d be done walking at 3pm I had a worried text message from her waiting for me.

I was pretty happy with how I did on this hike.  I look forward to getting in shape for these a little more aggressively.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Epic Hikes: Cederberg Cracks

[In loving memory of my mother who passed away on Jan 11, 2012.

We went to South Africa in December to visit my family and rounded the trip off in the Cederberg.

This is an account of another great hike.  This one in a remote area Northwest of Cape Town in the Cederberg mountains.  We got the news about my mother as we were leaving Cape Town and after some phone calls to family members and rearranging flights to get back to Limpopo we decided not to change our plans for these two days but to have me get back early the next day for a flight and for Anne and boys to follow the next night.

The drive was surreal.  A desolate landscape in the Western Cape off the road to Namibia with a long stretch of dirt road and dry grasslands.  Feeling sad about the long stretches away from home and our all too brief time with my mother in December when all of her family were able to spend a day with her.

Our friends, who traveled ahead of us, had told us of some walks that we could do while we were out there.  The one was intriguing - a hike called The Cracks which, if you are fit, is 3 hours long and takes you into some narrow gorges at the top of the mountain.  This is one approach that hikers use to get to the Wolfberg Arch - a well known prominent arch in the Cederberg mountains - a round trip of 8 hours.

The landscape is very dry and it can get hot here at this time of year so we were very lucky that the day was fairly mild.

We left in time to get to the start of the hike at around 9am.  We had to stop at the resort nearby to pay a fee to access this hike (the fee gives you a combination for a lock on the gate leading to this parking place near the trail-head).

A fairly gentle start with switchbacks taking you up a relatively steep mountainside.  Anne and Jess are both asthmatics and although Anne has become pretty fit with her running they both find these uphill walks hard.  We still did pretty good time, despite this - taking around 4 hours for the round trip.  Some of the guides say that this should be about 2 and a half hours if you don't stop but that was out of the question.

I am pretty unfit at the moment to so welcomed the slower pace as well.

Looking back down from around halfway up across the valley, the clump of trees off to the right is where we parked, near a resort. 
 As you get closer to the top, the narrow cleft in the prominent cliffs that you are walking towards comes into view.  Sweeping off the cliffs in these suicide-like dives, the red-winged starlings put up a show for us as we got closer to the cliffs and the bright orange and yellow rock stood stark against the bright blue African sky.

These cliffs look like a rock-climber's dream and I wondered where my climbing friends come when they visit the Cederberg.  I suspect that there are some here although these are not mentioned specifically in the descriptions of climbing around this area.

Once you reach the foot of the cliff, the path leads to what looks like a blank wall with a ledge to the right.  It looked like a fairly tough scramble to get on the ledge, but our friends just walked around into the dark behind the rock in front of us and climbed up a narrow chute to the ledge through a hidden entrance.

From there along a narrow path - with large bucket holds to keep you comfortable (no chains and barriers here) - around a corner into this world of chambers, narrow slots and tight corners.

The colors and the vertical height of the walls around you are breathtaking.  We all scrambled up over these huge boulders into an open area beyond where we looked back on a large arch and these teetering high cliffs, seemingly made of stacks of rocks piled up one on another like the wooden block towers that children build.

From here another short hike up to the actual cracks.

And an array of chambers with beautiful shapes and colors,

a long natural bridge
and the most beautiful setting with a shaft of light coming down onto a flattened surface.

I deeply regret that I didn't have my tripod - though I have learned that hiking and photography do not really work well together unless you hike with other photographers.

Walking through these cracks I found myself wishing I had hours more to spend working on the photographically rich scenes.  As it was I had to push the ISO up and make the best of large contrasts in light with little time to experiment.  Still I was able to capture some that are satisfying despite the standard problems with hiking with a camera.

The hike through the cracks includes a high bouldering problem, a section where you have to slide through on your back, head first into a right-angled turn that forces you to sit and then hug an egg-shaped rock to pull yourself up and out the other side.  At this section, if you are too wide of girth you would be forced to climb up a much harder bouldering problem to get over the obstacle.

Once we came out the other side, we stopped for a snack and then walked around the top to another rather wider canyon which brought us back to more or less where we came in at the bottom of the cliff.

The sky, bright blue and an interesting fish-shaped cloud greeted us on the back side.

In the exit canyon we came across some beautiful erosion holes

and a butterfly - surprisingly still on a branch as I passed.

It sat so still despite me getting pretty close to it with my camera - a beautiful orange winged creature.

The walk down was uneventful - surprisingly quick considering how long it had taken us to get up.

Anne and Jess (dubbed the "half-lungs" for the hike) posed at the end, rather proud of their achievement with the cracks in the background.

Friday, February 3, 2012


Another hike in the white mountains, this time one of the gentlest 4000ft peaks in NH:  Waumbek.
It is always an early start from Essex to get to Einstein Bros. in Concord NH in time for a short breakfast at 7am.  The ride from Essex is a little over an hour and a half and I usually aim to get there about 20min early so the alarm is set for 4:45 for safe measure.

I have written before about hiking in winter and it is not without some trepidation that I packed the night before.  The problems I’d had before with cold - in particular my hands - had prompted me to stop at REI on the way home to buy some new gloves with fleece linings to replace the inadequate over-sized gloves I wore last winter.

We were not sure how much snow and ice there would be.  The winter has been very mild here and although there had been snow in the White Mountains we had also had some unseasonable warm weather.  As a precaution (always in winter) I packed my down sleeping back and brought along micro-spikes for ice and the snow shoes that John has loaned me.

The night before I took a photo of myself with the facial protection that I had decided to bring (remembering how brutal the cold wind was on my face when we walked up Mnt Moosilauke in January 2011).

Not long into the hike we were treated to some beautiful, peaceful views of the path ahead.  Being (usually) the least fit and slowest hiker, my companions allow me to set the pace so I was up front breaking the trail with some delicate sunlight filtering through the trees.

It was cold to start - we had parked the car on some frozen ground at the entrance to a golf course across from the road leading to the trailhead - and although it didn’t take long to warm up enough to start removing layers, it was also evident as we walked through some of the deep shade that the temperature was well below zero in some places.
Fortunately, the snow was mostly compacted and we didn’t need to use the snow shoes - though the micro-spikes came in very handy.

I have this excuse to stop every now and again for a photo, but in the cold this is a double edged sword.  It gives you that breather you are looking for, but your hands and body can easily start to get that numb tingling that warns of bad things to come.

I have described before that feeling I get in my chest as my core temperature starts to fall below comfort level.  There is plenty of warning for this because your body stops taking care of your extremities first and my hands and feet start to get cold and numb before the odd chest discomfort kicks in.

So for some reason, walking up the hill, I ignored the deep cold in the shadows when I should have taken the cue to start adding my fleece and coat layers back on.  By the time we reached the summit, my hands were already pretty cold.

I fumbled around in my pack for my hand warmers - these awesome chemical packs that generate some heat on their own once you expose them to air.  The cold had made me feel a little nauseous so the Einstein Bros. Power bagel didn’t hold much appeal for me and I was more or less ready to head back as soon as we saw the grimed frozen sign near the peak.

The beginning of the hike back down was a little concerning to start with because my thighs and calves were starting to cramp. I suspect that this was partly a combination of not exercising enough between hikes and the effect of letting my body get a little too cold while I was rooting around in my pack for the hand warmers and food.

We stopped once or twice for more photographs on the way down and as my muscles warmed again the cramping receded.

Some short tree stumps with a mushroom snow-cones made for an interesting image.
We made it back down as the shadows lengthened on the ground.  A well on the path caught my eye with the shadows all radiating from it.

Another great hike.