Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Alright folks, confession time. Despite the fact that I have always lived in areas of extreme winter. I hate it. Like, REALLY hate it. It is cold. It is wet. It is annoying. Did I mention that it’s cold. I never got into skiing, snowboarding, or even snow shoeing. Again, cold. This is problematic for me because I really like being outside. Specifically, I like rangering around climbing mountains and seeing cool sites. I like walking out into the wilderness so far I can’t hear traffic noise.

I’ve already said “CrossFit Is My Church”, but it bears mentioning that the White Mountains of New Hampshire are my version of Mecca or Rome. They are such holy places that calling them mere churches is an insult. They recharge me, they heal me, they make me content and happy. I love pushing my body to the point of exhaustion then tightening the shoulder straps and going further. In short, despite the fact that I hate winter, I need to be outside during winter months just as much as I do during summer.

What I recently found is that with the right gear, the right planning, and the right attitude, winter adventuring can be a blast. This post will be about my first winter rangering adventure, how I went about planning it, and what I brought with me.

The Plan

As a teacher I have a week off in February. One of my favorite hiking partners works a job where his days off are during the week. I don’t really get to see him unless I’m on break so I always make a point to try and get out into the woods with him when we both have time off. Winter came really early in New England this year, and as such I was ready for a pilgrimage by mid December. We couldn’t make a hike work over Christmas break so we decided  to do a February hike. Initially we were going to try to bag a 4,000 footer like we did in “Adventure 2”, but luckily we remembered the first rule of planning a winter hike:

All Difficulty Levels Increase By an Order of Magnitude

Longer hikes take much longer, harder hikes are much harder, dangerous hikes are much more dangerous, and remote hikes are much more remote. Winter complicates all things. Weather in the White Mountains is unpredictable at the best of times, but in the winter it is down right vindictive. The king of the Whites, Mount Washington is commonly the coldest place on the planet, and has winds strong enough to pick up a grown man and throw him like a leaf on the wind. It’s serious business walking out your door into the White Mountains National Forest, Frodo.

Instead of trying to bag Cabot which was our initial plan we decided to take it easy and just try one of the easier 52 With a View hikes. We settled on Mount Pemigewasset, also known as Indian Head. Our first plan was to hike the Indian Head Trail, but the parking area for that trail had not been plowed out so we embraced the second rule of planning a winter hike:

Be Flexible

Winter hiking is unpredictable, incredibly unpredictable. Parking areas don’t get plowed out, trails become inaccessible, weather changes rapidly, gear fails. Most of this can happen during fair weather hikes as well, but in the winter changes are more common and more dangerous. When our first trail option didn’t pan out we decided on taking the Mount Pemigewasset Trail instead. This didn’t bother us in the least because we take the third rule of planning a winter hike seriously:

Be Prepared

Again, this rule applies to any adventure, but for winter adventures doubly so. Make sure you read any recent comments for the trail on a site like AllTrails.com, review the routes, try to anticipate any problems that could come up and plan your packing carefully. My load out for this trip was a bit different from my other trips like “The Lonesome Lake Trail”, and “Eisenhower”, but not terribly so. I still had my go to supplies in my pack. These are the don’t leave home without them things I carry on any adventure, and include the following: Source Hydration Pack, First Aid Kit, Tourniquet,  Water Filtration System, Nalgene Bottle, Paracord, Compass, Leatherman, Fire Starter, White Mountains Guide, White Mountains Trail Maps, a cheap Bic lighter, some dryer lint in an empty pill bottle, and a tarp (no bigger than 7 or 8 feet).

I also had some special winter time gear for this trip: An under-layer of polypropylene top and bottom, a winter hat, winter gloves, insulated boots, an Interchange Jacketsnow pants, hiking spikes, snow shoes, and super warm socks.

In addition, I was trying out my new Fitbit, and Convertible Pants. Food is important to have along as well and I brought about 1,000 Calories of Clif Bars.

It all seems like a lot, but as you’ll find out if you pack it, it really isn’t, you’re wearing most of it, and you want to save room in the backpack for your layers where possible as you will likely be shedding clothes as you go.

A Quick note on the FitBit: This thing is a real game changer for fitness. It is great at logging exercise, and I will likely write a whole review on it soon. Suffice it to say, if you don’t have one you need to get one. And it NEEDS to be the FitBit. Spend the extra money. The imitators are simply not as good.

Onward and Upward

The Flume Visitor Center parking lot had been plowed and we could certainly get in and park. We were in a truck, but a car with winter tires driven by a brave individual could have done it as well. Here’s where we made our first decision. In looking at the trailhead we opted to put on our hiking spikes, but leave the snow shoes in the truck. We’d read comments for both possible trails, and the one we were about to take was listed as being well packed down. It worked out great, and we didn’t have any problems, but bringing the snow shoes would have been wiser.

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The first bit of this trail runs over a snowmobiles trail. Logic would seem to dictate that the walking would be easy on the snowmobile trail. This is NOT the case. Where the trail groomer ran was good walking, but where the snowmobiles ran, we sunk. We almost turned back to get the snowshoes, but knew that the trail we were hiking was not open to snowmobiles so we pushed on.

The first interesting feature we ran into was that the trail ran under the highway. It really showed how deep the snow was. I had on way more clothes than I needed, it was very early on that I stripped off my coat, fleece, and gloves. Those got stowed in the pack. I’m still glad I brought them, but I was overheating quickly. As mentioned above, I keep my packing minimal so I can fit my layers into the pack as I heat up.

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The grade is steady, but not terribly steep. There are a good number of switchbacks, and as such in the summer time this would really be an easy hike. In winter, if you step off the hard pack, you sink in the unpacked snow to the side of the trail. Try to steer close to the uphill side, as if you do “post hole” you won’t also fall down the mountain.

It was not easy in winter. Hiking in full cold weather gear is hard. Hiking even on packed snow is hard. We were both very glad we decided to take an easier trail. It was pretty though. I love the woods any time, but the quiet beauty of winter is even better.

After about 2 hours of hiking we broke through the trees and got to see the huge expanse of the White Mountains Nation forest spread out in front of us. There is a reason this hike is one of the 52 With a View. Standing on the rocky prominence just before the summit is easily one of the better views I’ve seen hiking in the Whites.

 

 

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We stopped at the top for a Clif Bar, and headed back down. Going down was the one part of this trip that was astronomically easier than fair weather hiking. Essentially the snow is like a great big blanket, you sort of step slide down in a controlled fall. It only took us about 45 minutes.

It made me seriously consider the value of skiboarding. I think I might try some sort of down hill winter sport next winter. I tried snowboarding once in my 20’s and hated it, so I’m not overly optimistic, but based on how much fun I’ve been having hiking and snow shoeing this year it might be worth a go. The one issue I found with going down the mountain was that as temp warmed to a balmy 35 Degrees Fahrenheit I started to get a good deal of snow buildup on my spikes. Knocking my boots against trees every hundred yards or so soon got annoying, but I am certain there is a better method.

At the end it was an incredibly fun, moderately taxing hike, with great company and some amazing views. As long as you plan, prepare, and think before acting you shouldn’t be afraid of winter outdoors.

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