Choosing the Right Outdoor Adventure…

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Spring is here! It’s time to go outside, explore new places, and find new adventures… but how do you decide which adventure is right for you? Here are some things to consider before you go:

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  • Timing: How much time can you spend out on your adventure? Don’t forget to factor in the transit time to- and from- your destination! Usually I plan to spend at least as much time adventuring as I spend in transit. Another thing I’ve learned the hard way? Double-check what time the sun rises and sets before you go… the number of daylight hours varies seasonally and has taken me by surprise more than once (now I always take a headlamp along just in case!).

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  • People: How many people are likely to join you on your adventure? Some destinations are better for groups, others for solitude… Remember that popular destinations frequently get crowded, especially during peak-season and on weekends! Often when I got to popular places at popular times, I avoid the throngs by choosing one of the less common, less crowded trails.

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  • Background: What is your level of experience, and that of your group? If you jump in too far over your head the fun factor suddenly plummets. Also, take into consideration the health constraints and current level of fitness of each member of your group (including yourself) before choosing your adventure… I find that when things are too physically strenuous the complaining goes up, and the fun goes down.

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Join me this summer as I introduce new people to the outdoor trails and adventures that I love… Whether I’m going out for a day hike with my 4-year old niece, going camping with friends, or heading off on another solo backpacking adventure, I’ll be sharing my favorite tips, trips, trails, and tales here on this blog!

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Oh, and I almost forgot… pictures… I love taking pictures! I post to Instagram and Facebook between blog posts!

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P.S. Do you have questions about hiking? Camping? Backpacking? Gear? Getting outside? New England trails? Thru-hikes? Leave a comment below!

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Ode to Insomnia

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There are rumors and even scientific studies that say that backpacking cures insomnia… It’s true that when I’m on the trail I go to bed earlier, and get up earlier, but my sleep issues persist… I still have trouble falling asleep, and I still have trouble staying asleep, but I hold onto the hope that someday sweet sleep will come to visit me and stay for a while…

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Close my eyes now
All dark skies now
Count the lambs
as they fly by now

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it!

But my Thoughts
They keep on coming
And my mind
It keeps on humming…

Go to Sleep now!
You can do it,
You can sleep,
There’s nothing to it!

But you see
There is this question
And then there
Is this hankering…

But, I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

At lest that’s what
they tell me…
So why won’t sleep
Bespell me?

I should be sleeping
Yes there’s sleeping
But ’round here
There’s only bleeping

Bleep you sleep!!!
Where are you hiding
With my pillow
I am colliding

But your mystery
Still evades me
Surely my textbooks
They shall save me…

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Wide awake I
Lay here thinking
As my eyes
Continue bliking

Everyone else
They seem to do it
Close their eyes
There’s nothing to it

But I lay here
In dismay here
I fear there is
No sleep here…

Meditation,
My Salvation?
Mind and body
Join one nation

There’s one goal now
Body ‘n soul now
Surely this’ll
Take control now…

We can do it,
We can do it!
We can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Close our eyes,
We are united!
No, we will not
Be excited

In the calmness
In the stillness
In the darkness
In the chillness

My mind it keeps
Reflecting
On these things I’m not
Expecting

I still have hope
that we can do it,
That We can sleep,
And that we’ll do it…

But the secret
It alludes me
Why must it
Thus exclude me?

Everyone else that is
Around me…
I hear them
sleeping soundly…

I can do it?
I can do it!
I can sleep…
There’s nothing to it…

Close my eyes now
With a sigh now
I’ll feign hope and say
Good-bye now…

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Only Fools…

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Suddenly it hit me like a ton of bricks… April 1… Tomorrow… is… April… First… “IshouldbehikingIshouldbehikingIshouldbehiking… I need to go hiking!”

I forced myself to take a deep breath… Yes, I should be hiking, and I should go hiking, but not tomorrow…. Tomorrow I should go to my job, pay my rent, and visit my friends… Returning to society after two thru-hikes isn’t easy… I’m still struggling with returning to the city and integrating back into ‘normal’ life…

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But… my mind was still racing… Last year… last year on April first I was just beginning my PCT thru-hike… last year on April first I was setting off on a long, amazing, incredible hike… a journey of a lifetime… That’s what I should be doing this year too!!!

Well… maybe I could sneak in a hike either before or after work tomorrow? Surely a small mountain before breakfast would be enough, right? Just a little hike to keep the trail from slipping away from me forever… just a little hike to keep me from completely rebelling against the bonds of civilization!

Hiking helps… I’ve been hiking/walking a 2-mile trail through the ‘urban wilderness’ on my way to and from work each day… It isn’t enough, but it helps… The birdsong in the air, the wind on my face, the crunch of snow beneath my feet, the squish of mud oozing into my boots, and the occasional wildlife… they remind me of the trail… they remind me of home…

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I try to remind myself that the trail isn’t my only home… I’m enjoying my new job as a science writer… It’s feels great to exercise my brain again… To fill my head with math, science, engineering, and experiments… the ideas in the air, the proofs in the equations, the beauty in the logic, the joy of the research, and the overwhelming moments of clarity… the trail isn’t my only home, this is home too… Remembering this world helps… So does spending time with my friends and family and the people that reach out to me… trying to lure me back into civilization or offering to learn more about my other world out there in the woods… they remind me that there are things tethering me here to this life and not just to my life on the trail…

I check the forecast again… tomorrow is going to be a beautiful sunny day… Sunrise at 6:28 am and sunset is at 7:08 pm… Perhaps I can find a way to exist in both worlds… Hmmm… How do I maximize the number of daylight hours I spend hiking in the mountains tomorrow while still being in my cubicle and ready to work for 8 hrs starting sometime between 8 am and 10 am?? Gotta run… I need to do some research and then some math and then get ready to  go hiking tomorrow!

Blizzard of 2015: A Vignette

“Noooo… Please, no,” I plead as I watch the people around me hack and cough and imagine the aerosolized particles of disease permeating the air… As an asthmatic, there is nothing I loathe more than a respiratory track infection…

I try to reassure myself. I’m much better now… I’m strong, my lungs are strong! Heck, I’ve hiked 5000 miles in the last 2 years… But I take extra precautions anyway… I take vitamins, I wash my hands, I get plenty of sleep…

My lungs… They try… They try really hard… I exercise them, I treat them right, and they allow me to do amazing things… Most of the time…

But the Creeping Crud of 2015 went straight for my lungs as the blizzard of 2015 and subsequent storm dumped ~4 feet of fresh powder… I desperately want to go outside and play in the fluffy, beautiful, glittery white snow… but my lungs… They doth protest…

Part 2 – A Solo Winter Mount Washington Ascent

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Was I really going to set off to climb Mt. Washington (the mountain with the worst weather in the world) when the temperature in the parking lot was -16F? No, I was not! (See Part 1- To Hike or Not to Hike). I was going to wait… at least for a little while… It was -4F when I left Carter Notch and that had seemed like a perfectly reasonable temperature for a hike, but -16F? No way!… That settled it, I was going to wait until the temperatures got up to at least -5F before I left the warmth and safety of my car…

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Temperature in the valley the morning of Feb. 28

How cold is too cold? I have trouble conceptualizing subzero temperatures, so -5F was an arbitrary threshold. However, if -5F was too cold I had no problem with turning around and hiking right back to my car (a big advantage of day hikes relative to thru-hikes). As I waited for the temperature to rise I double-checked my gear and re-packed everything… I was over-packed for this hike, but in light of the recent tragedy (the death of a solo hiker from exposure in the Whites), it seemed like a small price to pay to know that I could be warm if I needed to be.

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Looking out at the valley from the steep section of the Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail.

“ALERT: Wind Chill Advisory in Effect,” I read from the Mount Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast as I sat in the parking lot waiting, “wind chills -25F to -35F.” Brrrrrr… Just thinking about it made me cold!

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Mt. Washington via the Ammonoosuk Trail plotted using the tracking function of my SPOT locator.

Mount Washington via the Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail (White Mountains, NH)

  • Date: February 28, 2014
  • Total Mileage (out and back): 9 miles, 3,800 ft of elevation gain
    • Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail ~ 3 miles each way
    • Appalachian Trail (Crawford Path) ~1.5 miles each way
  • Mount Washington forecast the morning of  Feb. 28, 2015:
    • Sunny, highs near 0F, westerly winds 25-40 mph, wind chills of -25F to -35F.
  • Total Duration: 8 am – 4:30 pm, 8 hrs 30 minutes
  • Trailhead Parking: Cog Railway Base Station. Base Station Road and hiker area were plowed.
  • Base Pack Weight: 21 lbs, 28 lbs with food and 3L of water. Pack contents include: ice axe, snow shoes, crampons, expedition parka, zero degree sleeping bag, emergency bivy, SPOT etc.

By 8 am my car registered the requisite (and oh so balmy) -4F degrees, so I hefted my pack onto my back and headed towards the trail… Loaded up with all of my winter gear my pack was heavy! The base weight of this day-pack was heavier than the base weight for my PCT thru-hike!

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“Hmmmmm…” Just out of the gate and I was already feeling like a noob… Where exactly did the trail start? Why was everyone leaving the parking lot and hiking up the road? I’d hiked this trail in the summer and had scouted out the winter trailhead last night, but as far as I knew, the trail left from the backside of the parking lot… That trail, however, was largely untracked and I really didn’t want to start my Mt. Washington ascent by breaking trail if I didn’t have to… The next time I saw someone pull into the parking lot and start gearing up I wandered over and asked, “Is there a second trailhead up by the station? Everyone seems to be heading up there, but then some of them turn around and then veer off to the left… Are those the folks going up the Jewell trail?”

“Yeah,” he replied as he strapped his snowshoes to his pack, “if you veer to the left on the road before the station that’ll bring you to the Jewell trail, but if you keep going passed the station, veering to the right through the cabins, that’ll take you to the Ammo.” I hesitated, but he continued reassuringly, “Don’t worry, it’ll be obvious.”

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Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail: 3.1 miles, 2,500′ elevation gain

  • Difficulty level: Strenuous. Trails in New England are famous for their steep grades, and the Ammonoosuk (Ammo), despite it’s gentle start, is no different with an average grade of 15%.
  • Special Equipment: Snowshoes/traction. Most hikers were using snowshoes, but some, like me, started in boots and used full crampons as necessary. (I brought my snowshoes with me, but didn’t use them).
  • Trail Conditions (9/10): Well-tracked, mostly hard-packed powder, small section of ice flows immediately below Lakes of the Clouds Hut.
  • Vistas (9/10): The views of the Northern Presidentials from the parking lot and as you head into the ravine are stunning… and before long you start getting views of Washington that are spectacular.
  • Duration: 8:00 am – 10:40 am (2:40); Summertime ‘Book’ estimate (2:50)

I headed up the road in awe of the mountain that I was about to climb, but the closer I got to the base station, the more tracks I saw… there were ski and snowshoe tracks veering off in almost every imaginable direction. Eventually, however, I saw the well-tracked path the guy in the parking lot was talking about… It wove between the cabins and headed off into the woods right where I would imagine it to be from the map… I was shocked to discover that there were even some trail signs perched there at the edge of my winter wonderland!

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Because of the subzero temperatures I started off wearing more layers than I usually do, figuring that I would peel them off as I warmed up, but the outside temperatures dropped as I tucked into the ravine by the water… I didn’t need to add any layers but I certainly wasn’t going to take any off! About 10 minutes into the hike, however, my eyes started feeling a little bit gummy… my eyelids were sticking together and it was getting harder and harder to open them… I took off my gloves and reached up to touch them and discovered that my eyelashes were glued together with ice! The heat from my fingers quickly melted the ice from my eyes and I continued hiking…

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Within minutes my eyes started to freeze shut again… I took out my camera so that I could see what they looked like (and have a better sense of what I was dealing with), and was entertained to find that my eyelashes were crusted with a beautiful frosty mascara! Despite the ease of application of this ‘mascara’ (the first make-up I’ve applied in years), and my fondness for my new “Frozen” look, I decided that I needed to add another layer to my ensemble afterall… it was time to put my ski goggles on and eliminate every last bit of exposed skin!

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Just above Gem Pool (~2.1 miles, elev. 3522′) the trail got significantly steeper, and I stopped to put on my crampons. In the summertime, I love the waterfalls scattered along the Ammo, and I had hoped that I’d get to see them in all of their frozen glory on this winter hike. Unfortunately, the icy cascades were buried under the snow and largely indistinguishable from the rest of the blanket of white.

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There was a lot more snow on Washington now than there had been on Lafayette just a month before… It was beautiful… I just wished that the sun would finally peak around the Presidential summits and make all of the snow in my ravine sparkle!

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Climbing the last mile (1,528′ of elevation gain, 29% grade) from the pool up to the hut, I couldn’t help but contemplate the difference between the designed trails of the PCT with all of their switchbacks and moderate to low grades and the direct (fall-line) trails of New England that I’ve grown up with… None of the PCT was this steep, unless you count the snow-covered sections in the High Sierra where there was no trail (Mather and Pinchot Passes immediately came to mind, though there was a small stretch towards the base of Forester that probably would count to.).

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I stopped to enjoy the view… Not a cloud in the sky… the stark contrast between the snowy mountains and the deep blue sky was breathtaking… or maybe that was just all of the exertion with a side of asthma? It was true that it was time for me to use my inhaler again so I caught my breath, took a puff, and continued onwards and upwards… The views were still breathtaking!

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As I made the final approach to Lakes of the Clouds, I left the last of the trees behind and a starkly beautiful landscape of snow, rock, and ice opened up before me…

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“Wow, just wow!” In all the times I’ve climbed Mt. Washington I’d rarely (if ever) seen it this calm and clear. I could see the evidence of strong winds all around me in the beautifully sculpted sastrugi

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I made a mental note of these areas since the forecast predicted increasing westerly winds throughout the day… These would be the trouble spots when the winds picked up, but for now, they were quiet, calm, and eerily beautiful.

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Just above the first round of sastrugi, the trail opened up into a field of ice that made me glad that I was wearing crampons. I traversed it easily and found myself at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut.

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I wasn’t hungry (a common problem when winter hiking), but Lakes of the Clouds was a pre-designated break point for eating and for re-evaluating the weather, how I was doing, and for forcing myself to eat my second breakfast! It didn’t matter how unappealing food was, I had to make sure to eat, drink, and adjust my layers before making a decision about whether or not I should push for the summit of Washington! (Note: If you are too cold to eat, you are too cold to go above treeline. If you don’t want to bother with hydrating, you don’t want to bother with going above treeline. If you are too cold to stop and take a break, you are too cold to go above treeline.)

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Appalachian Trail (Crawford Path): 1.5 miles, 1300′ elevation gain

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous. After finishing the final steep ascent to Lakes of the Clouds, the bid for the summit seems tame , but it is still steep with a lot of exposure and always feels longer to me than I think it will.
  • Special Equipment: Snowshoes/crampons. Most people switched from snowshoes to crampons for this final stretch, though either would work. I used crampons.
  • Trail Conditions (8/10): Hard, wind-swept snow, sastrugi, interspersed with occasional ice flows.
  • Vistas (10/10): Completely exposed and above treeline the whole way… views of the valley and of both the Northern and Southern Presidentials. It was 100% clear, not a cloud in the sky… a 1 in a million day on top of Mt. Washington.
  • Duration: 11:10 am – 12:40 pm (1:30); summertime book estimate (1:25)

The back side of Lakes of the Clouds Hut (Lakes) was glare ice, so I circled around to the front where the snow had drifted up and over the roof. I found a nice, dry, sunny spot on the roof to take a break, eat my second breakfast, and watch my fellow hikers. The majority of them were popping over to Mt. Monroe (a short hike from Lakes), but a few were returning from sumitting Mt. Washington so I asked them about current conditions up there, “Clear, calm, and absolutely beautiful,” was invariable the response. The sun was shining, it was early in the day, my belly was full, and I was nice and warm… Everything was looking good for a summit bid!

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The temperatures were still subzero, but I was confident that my gear was up to the challenge (the warmest of it was still in my pack)… The only thing I was still nervous about was the strengthening westerly wind, which was predicted to top out at ~40 mph, which by Mt. Washington standards that wasn’t too bad (the last time I was on top of Washington they were predicting 80 mph winds!).

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Since it was a westerly wind, I’d be facing into it for the 1.5 mile return trip to the hut, but even if the winds picked up to 65 mph (25 mph above anything predicted in the next two days), I would still be well within my comfort zone. If, for some reason, the conditions changed wildly and unpredictably (the Whites are famous for that) and were so extreme that I couldn’t return to the hut, my back up plan would be to head to Pinkham Notch via the Lions Head Trail with everyone else… After eating my second breakfast and going through all of my checks and double-checks I made the call (literally called my parents to let them know)… I was going to give the summit of Mt. Washington a go!

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On the AT, looking back at Lakes of the Clouds and Mt. Monroe.

As I left the hut, I was once again on my beloved Appalachian trail. I was stuck by the stark beauty of the wind-swept landscape… I’d never been up here in the winter before. The elegant sastrugi pointed out the areas where the winds funneled up from the western ravines… I noted them not only for their beauty, but because I figured these would be the trouble spots if the winds picked up later. For now, however, everything was still quiet and calm (~10-15 mph winds).

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As I continued to ascend the winds started picking up… barely breaking ~20 mph, but a sign of what was to come. Knowing how exciting the tippy-top of Mt. Washington can be, I decided to stop at the intersection between Crawford Path and Davis Path to layer up… fighting high winds to add warm layers at the summit of Mt. Washington is a challenge at best!

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On the AT, looking ahead towards Mt. Washington!

On my last hike up Mt. Washington (AT, September 2013) I was within 10 feet of the towers on top and had no idea that they were there! I had stopped, confused at the edge of the building with absolutely no idea which way to go to get to the summit which was less than 100 ft away…Needless to say, the view was less than stellar…

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The summit of Mt. Washington on my AT thru-hike! (September 2013)

That view, the view of the inside of a cloud, is the view from Mt. Washington that I remember from my childhood. In the 25 years that I’ve been climbing Mt. Washington it is, by far, the most common view I’ve encountered from the summit!

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My first hike to the summit of Mt. Washington (summer 1990) with my family (mom and brothers in photo).

So for me, the crystal clear views were unusual and I was savoring every minute of them! It was so clear that I’d been able to see the towers at the summit from the parking lot! I had had them in sight from the moment that I left Lakes, and now they were finally in reach…

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As I approached the first tower and the snow-covered parking lot it boggled my mind that the last time I was there I hadn’t known how to get to the summit… It was so close!

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I smiled and approached the final heap of rocks that sported the summit sign… Here I was, on top of Mt. Washington, on the Appalachian Trail, in the middle of winter… the temperature was around 0F, and I guessed that the winds were gusting to 35 mph, but hidden beneath my nice warm ski-mask was a great big smile… the same smile I always wear when I’m climbing mountains… the smile that comes with knowing that you are exactly where you are supposed to be!

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Photo actually from down by Lakes after summitting :)

I pulled my camera out of its warm inner pocket to document my final steps to the summit and managed to get one picture before the screen said, “power exhausted” and shut down. I tried for a cell phone photo, but the cell phone wouldn’t even bother to turn on… My electronics found the cold weather to be exhausting even if I didn’t!

I took another couple of steps towards the summit. It would be a shame not to have any summit photos, but wow… It was beautiful… I turned to fully appreciate the view and saw two people emerge from behind a building… I pulled my mask down and yelled over the wind, “Hi! Could you take a picture of me and mail it to me? My electronics are rebelling and refusing to work!”

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I spotted a couple of people leaving the summit and convinced them to take a quick photo and email it to me.

“Sure,” they replied quickly snapping a picture of me before I even got the chance to pull my hands out of my pockets where I was placing my cell phone hoping to warm it up. I hurriedly gave them one of my cards saying, “Thanks! This has my contact information on it. It would be awesome if you could email me a copy of that photo.”

“I’ll get the picture to you… You can count on it!” he said determinedly as he and his hiking partner hurried off, leaving me alone on the summit… (he emailed me the photo a couple of days later… Thanks again Andy!)

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The summit of Mt. Washington, all to myself?! How cool is that? -1F with a -30ish wind chill, that’s how cool! I took the last few steps to the summit and plunked my pack down… Wow! I’d made it, and it was absolutely awesome! There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and as long as I kept my back to the wind, I was perfectly comfortable relaxing there at the summit sign.

The Summit of Mount Washington!

  • Duration: 12:40pm – 1:20 pm (30 minutes)
  • Official Summit Conditions @ 12:47 pm:
    • Temperature: -0F
    • Winds: W 35 mph
    • Wind chill: -27F
    • Visibility: 100 miles
  • Number of people at the summit between 12:40 and 1:20 pm: ~10-15

I sat at the summit for a while soaking in the view and trying to coax my electronics into working again… It’d be nice to get one or two photos! I had the summit to myself for the first five minutes or so, but before long there was a steady stream of people coming up to summit, snapping quick pictures and heading off in search of some shelter from the wind… It was kind of fun watching them scurry around the summit buildings trying to find windows or door jams to crouch in, desperately hoping to find some shelter from the wind… There was none.

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After snapping a few pictures for other folks I pulled my cell phone out and managed to get another photo or two before it turned itself off… Fivish minutes of warm pocket time meant two pictures… This called for strategic picture taking… If I played my cards right, I might be able to get a picture of me at the summit itself! I set my camera warming in my pants pocket again and waited for the next group… I didn’t have to wait long before the next group of guys came up from the Lions Head (there was a steady stream of guys coming up from the Lions Head Trail) and I was able to get them to take a photo for me!

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I was reluctant to leave the summit because it was so beautiful up there, but what goes up must come down… Besides, I wanted to get back to Lakes of the Clouds before the winds picked up too much!

The Descent

  • Crawford Path to Ammonoosuk ~ 4.6 miles
  • Duration: 1:10 pm – 4:30 pm (3:20) including 30 minute break at Lakes.

With winds gusting to almost 40 mph, I definitely needed to use my goggles and a face mask as I descended down towards Lakes. By the time I got to the lower sections, however, the winds weren’t too bad (~20 mph). I took my time as I descended, enjoying the expansive views of the valley with both the northern and southern presidentials stretching out before me… It was amazing! If my electronics had been happier, I’d have taken hundreds of pictures and gone even slower,  but they continued to rebel against the cold. I only managed to get one or two photos every five minutes or so from the summit until I returned to the car.

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For the last snow field before Lakes of the Clouds I decided to pull out my ice axe… the footing was easy and good, but I I was getting tired and there was enough exposure that if I fell I’d go for more of a slide than I wanted to. Per usual, I crossed it with no problem and didn’t really need the ice axe. I was relaxing at Lakes of the Clouds and eating my next enforced meal before I knew it! I still wasn’t hungry, but on winter hikes I schedule food breaks where I force myself to stop, take a break, and eat because I know that I need the calories!

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Though glissading all the way from Lakes of the Clouds to the parking lot seemed like it was the way to go, I decided to hike it instead. I try to be more cautious when I’m hiking solo, and I know that glissading has a higher risk of injury than hiking…. Having done accidental glissades on similar slopes, and knowing that I was tired, I decided to keep my ice axe out just in case (especially since I still had my crampons on… stopping a glissade with crampons is a great way to break a leg).

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For the most part it was a long, beautiful, snowy, uneventful descent… I postholed once or twice, but not enough to make the snowshoes seem worthwhile, so I stuck with the crampons…

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It wasn’t until I was about 0.5 miles from the parking lot that things suddenly got exciting. I was just traipsing down the relatively flat trail as it followed along the Ammonoosuk River when suddenly my right leg went out from under me, postholing through the snow and then sliding down a steep embankment, my left leg quickly following behind it.

“Holy sh**!” I hadn’t left the trail, but the trail had left me! Before I knew what was happening my ice axe was buried to it’s hilt in the snow and my face was at eye level with the trail. I had reflexively plunged my ice axe into the snowy bank creating an impressively, awesomely stable anchor, and now there was nothing keeping me from tumbling 6-10 ft down into the Ammonoosuk (and getting sopping wet) except for my trusty ice axe… I looked at it, surprised (and very pleased) by its sudden usefulness as I pulled myself back up and onto the trail with its aid.

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The terrain was flat, easy, and had seemed very stable… Normally, I would have long since put my ice axe away in favor of my trekking poles, but I’d been feeling lazy… to lazy to take the time to stop and put it away… I looked back at the river… Though the tumble wouldn’t have killed me, the surprise icy plunge would have been incredibly unpleasant, and the 0.5 miles back to the car would be a really nasty hike if you were sopping wet after a full day out in the cold and with temperatures well below freezing! Yup, I was suddenly very fond of my ice axe indeed!

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When I finally made it back to the car I was both happy and exhausted… The sun was low in the sky, the afternoon was warmish (18F), and the skies were still perfectly clear. My hike up Mt. Washington had been everything I’d hoped for and more… I hesitated, standing there beside my car… I didn’t want the day to be over… I didn’t want my amazing hike to be over… I wanted to stay outside in the sun, enjoying the amazingly clear and beautiful afternoon… I have to admit, I didn’t hesitate for too long though… A nice warm car, a hot meal, and a soft bed sounded awfully nice!

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Official Summit Weather Summary for February 28, 2015

  • Temperature: 4F to -11F, avg. -3F
  • Precipitation: 0.00
  • Summit snow depth: 14 inches
  • Wind: avg. 30.8 mph, 46 mph gusts, 310 NW
  • Total sunshine: 680 minutes, 100% of possible minutes

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P.S. Know before you go!!! Mount Washington is known for having some of the worst weather in the world… Weather in the mountains (especially on Mt. Washington) can change quickly and with deadly consequence… In preparing for my trip I frequently checked weather conditions and trip reports and had an exit strategy (or two or three) at all times. These are some of the online resources that I found most helpful:

Part 1 – A Solo Winter Mount Washington Ascent: To Hike or Not to Hike?

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I hate being cold, which is why I was sitting in my car questioning my sanity. I’d pulled over to take a picture of the sun cresting over the top of the Presidential Range on my way to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire when I made the mistake of looking at the temperature gauge on my car… “Holy sh**! It’s -16F (-27C) out there?!” Was I really going to set off to climb Mt. Washington, solo, at the end of February in subzero temperatures?

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To be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure… Mount Washington has a reputation for having the worst weather in the world, and for being one of world’s deadliest mountains! So, even though I’ve climbed Mt. Washington many times (most recently on my 2013 AT Thru-Hike) and have done winter hiking and mountaineering around the Whites (e.g. Mt. Lafayette last month), around the country, and around the world, I was a little bit nervous about my first winter ascent of Mt. Washington… especially since I was going to be doing it solo…

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I checked the summit forecast for Mt. Washington for what must have been the zillionth time… they were predicting a beautiful, cloudless day with highs near 0F (-18C) and westerly wind gusts of 20 – 45 mph (32 kph – 72 kph), and valley highs in the upper 20s F… All in all it sounded pretty good for Mt. Washington in the winter, but pretty good for Mt. Washington was still pretty dang cold! Especially since the national weather service had posted windchill advisories and was predicting windchills of -25F (-32C) to -35F (-37C) for the summit.

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I thought about all of the coldest hiking experiences I’d had… were they colder than what they were predicting for the summit of Washington that day? I wasn’t sure… It had definitely been cold as I climbed Mt. Whitney in the predawn hours of May last year (I remember someone at the summit saying that after sunrise the temperatures were in the single digits)… Taking a break near Disappointment Cleaver on Mt. Rainier had been impressively cold, even in my expedition jacket, but I have no idea what the actual temperatures were… Approaching the summit of Kilimanjaro in the middle of the night had also been extremely cold, but I didn’t know exactly how cold… There was just one time that I knew for sure that I’d set off in temperatures colder than the -16F my car was currently reading, and that was also in the White Mountains… Our intrepid family had done some winter camping (overnight lows in the -20s) and set off to climb Mt. Lafayette after a ranger told us that the current temperature was -18F… We had a great hike, but decided not to go above treeline that day because it was too cold. Brrrrrr….

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When I’d left the parking lot at Carter Notch 10 minutes earlier my car had registered a balmy -4F… For some reason -4F seemed like a perfectly fine temperature to set off hiking into, but -16F? I thought about it for a few minutes and decided, “Nope, no way, no how”… I would continue driving over to the trailhead parking area, but I vowed that I was not going to leave my car until the temperature was at least -5F (-21C)!

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Stay tuned for “Part 2 – A Solo Winter Mt. Washington Ascent!”

Tragedy in the Whites

I plan to climb Mt. Washington this winter, and I expect to survive the attempt…but I recognize that not everybody does. New Hampshire’s White Mountains, though beautiful, can be dangerous, especially during the winter. Yesterday the hiking community received a painful reminder of this truth when we learned of the tragic death of fellow hiker and adventurer Kate Matrosova. Though I did not know Kate Matrosova we have some things in common… We are both women in our 30s that enjoy hiking and mountaineering, we’ve both climbed Kilimajaro, we’ve both gone on solo winter hikes in the White Mountains, and we both hoped to climb Mt. Washington this winter…

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

There are people that think that I am crazy… crazy for hiking, crazy for backpacking, crazy for going on solo adventures in the woods, crazy for going outside during the wintertime… When the snow begins to fall most people head home to curl up beside the hearth, drink a cup of hot cocoa, and read a book or watch a movie… some people head to the hills to ski, but a small number of us head to the mountains to hike and soak in the spectaular snow-covered views. When I learned that someone that shared my passion for the outdoors died doing the thing I love, I felt compelled to learn more about what happened… partly from a morbid sense of curiosity, partly to reassure myself that I wouldn’t end up in a similar situation, and partly to learn from the tragedy to try to avoid ending up in a similar situation.

So, What happened? Matrosova was attempting a winter traverse of the Northern Presidentials: Mt. Madison, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Washington. This day-hike is 13.5 to 17.5 miles long and is one of the most challenging hikes in the White Mountains.* She began at 5 am on Sunday morning, but by 3:30 in afternoon she’d activated her personal locator beacon initiating rescue efforts. Even though rescuers were deployed Sunday evening, they were unable to locate Matrosova and deteriorating weather conditions forced them to postpone their search until morning. At 2 pm on Monday her body was located near Star Lake, not far from Madison Spring Hut (which is closed during the winter).

Could/would the same thing happen to me? I tried to reassure myself that the same thing wouldn’t have happened to me. After all, I’d made a different decision than Kate did when it came to attempting a Mt. Washington climb on that Sunday… I decided not to hike and she decided to hike. Despite the fact that I’ve been checking the weather and looking for a viable window of opportunity to climb Mt. Washington since my successful Mt. Lafayette ascent in January . I decided that the forecast high temperature of 0F degrees was too low for me, that the forecast low of -30F was way too low for me, the predicted wind speeds of 80 mph were too high, and the weather pattern was too unstable (tail end/after effects of the blizzaed) for me to even consider making a Mt. Washington attempt…. Brrrrrr!!!! But I have to admit that I spent most of the day Sunday and Monday looking out my window at the beautifully sunny skies wishing that I was out hiking, seriously contemplating going for a quick hike up Mt. Monadnock (which is closer to home for me), and grumbling about the cruelty of winter when it feels like you should be outside enjoying the sun, but are trapped inside.

It bothers me that the initial reaction of the hiking community to the death of an adventurer is to assume that they must have been inexperienced, cocky, or reckless. From the little information that is publicly available, it looks to me like Kate Matrosova had more mountaineering experience than I do… If I assume that she was more comfortable with winter mountaineering than I am, her decisions begin to make more sense, not less… Perhaps she felt like she was equipped to deal with those temperatures and wind speeds? It’s hard for me to imagine, but certainly possible… She probably had a number of bail out options and plans (I always do), and the fact that she used her locator beacon before it started to get dark suggests to me that she realized when she got in over her head that she needed help and called for it.

It is a classic stage of grief to try to isolate ourselves and reassure ourselves that we would have responded differently and that we would have survived, but as I watched the online forums explode with commentary about Kate’s death I found it upsetting… Was this the kind of commentary that people would make about me if, god-forbid, something happened to me on one of my solo hikes? I knew that the answer was yes because some variant of the same conversation seems to unfold every time a hiker meets an untimely death, but I didn’t like it…

As hikers, backpackpers, and mountaineers we acknowledge that risk is a part of our sport, a part of our community, and a part of our lives… and that sometimes death is the cost of living. Everyone that has done extensive hiking and backpacking has made bad decisions, has been cocky, and has been inexperienced. The thing that really makes us different from those that have perished is that we have had the privilege of living through our mistakes and learning from them… Not everyone is that lucky. I fully intend to survive my Mt. Washington attempt! But then again, I have no doubt that Kate Matrosova did as well.

 

*The Northern Presidentials: The typical route starts at the Appalachia parking lot off of Highway 2 (where she was dropped off at 5 am on Sunday), follows the Valley-Way trail to Madison Spring Hut, and then follows the Appalachian Trail across a beautiful and exposed ridge to Mount Washington and Lakes of the Clouds Hut (the Gulfside Trail to Crawford Path with optional side-trips to the summits of Madison, Adams, and Jefferson) before descending via the Amanoosuk Trail to the Base Road Parking lot (off of 302, where she was planning on meeting her husband later that day)

This post by a White Mountain guide gives another interesting perspective.

Mount Lafayette, NH: A Solo Winter Ascent

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Looking back at the summit of Mt. Lafayette from Franconia Ridge.

What is your favorite day-hike in the White Mountains? For me, the answer is Mt. Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge, which is why I set my alarm for 6 am and headed for the Lafayette trailhead early last week.

Franconia Ridge Loop (White Mountains, NH):

  • Date: January 22, 2014
  • Activity: Winter Hiking/Day Hike
  • Total Mileage: 8.9 miles
    • Old Bridle Path – 2.9 miles
    • Greenleaf Trail – 1.1 miles
    • Appalachian Trail – 1.7 miles
    • Falling Waters Trail – 3.2 miles
  • Duration: 9:30 am to 4:00 pm, 6 hours 30 minutes
  • Parking: Lafayette Place Trailhead Parking (just off of I-93), 2 privies available at trailhead, open year-round.

Although I’ve hiked the Franconia Loop dozens of times, most of those times have been during the summer or fall when the days are longer and the temperatures warmer. Of the handful of times I’ve hiked it during the winter, the day it was -20F at the base really stands out in my memory… that was the day I decided that there really was such a thing as too cold!!! By comparison, the 14F temperatures that greeted me at the trailhead parking lot last week seemed downright balmy!

The first view of Franconia Ridge from the Old Bridle path... If that's not motivation I don't know what is!

The first view of Franconia Ridge from the Old Bridle path… If that’s not motivation I don’t know what is!

The Old Bridle Path (Lafayette Place Parking to Greenleaf Hut) – 2.9 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous. The trail gains 2,450 ft in 2.9 miles… anything approaching 1000 ft of elevation gain per mile qualifies as strenuous in my book.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons, snowshoes (optional)…
  • Trail Conditions (9/10): Well-tracked, soft-packed powder. Occasional icy spots, easily avoidable.
  • Vistas (8/10): After 1.5 to 2 miles, amazing views of Franconia Ridge ahead and the valley behind are common.
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Greenleaf Hut and the Franconia Ridge as viewed from the Old Bridle Path.

I donned my microspikes and set off, alone, into the quiet, snowy, New Hampshire morning. After two solo thru-hikes it felt both strange and incredibly normal to be heading off into the snow-covered mountains by myself, but mostly it just felt great to be moving in the mountains I loved with beautiful blue skies above and sparkling white snow below. The only thing that dampened my spirit was that I couldn’t find my ‘good’ camera when I stopped to take pictures at the first overlook. I assumed I must have forgotten it back at the car in my excitement to get out on the trail… My iPhone 5 would have to serve as my camera for the day!

On the Old Bridle Path looking ahead towards Mt. Lafayette.

On the Old Bridle Path looking ahead towards Mt. Lafayette.

The trail all the way up to Greenleaf hut was beautifully snow-covered. Even though extra gear and precautions are necessary for winter hiking, one of my favorite things about the snow is that it covers and smooths out the normal rocky backbone of the trail and creates a strangely uniform hiking surface… The nice, stumble-free, snow-covered terrain reminded me of the PCT, but the grade of the Old Bridle Path was way too steep for that! I gained 2,450 ft in the 2.9 miles it took me to get up to Greenleaf Hut (closed & boarded up in the winter), and I still had a mile to go to get the the summit of Lafayette!

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Greenleaf Trail and the summit of Mt. Lafayette as viewed from the trail. How many cairns can you count in frame?

Greenleaf Trail (Greanleaf Hut to Mt. Lafayette Summit) – 1.1 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous, the trail gains ~1000 ft in 1.1 miles
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons recommended. Snow shoes optional
  • Trail Conditions (8/10): partially-tracked, lightly-packed wind-swept snow, some possibility for postholing. Windy!
  • Vistas (9/10): Primarily above treeline with sweeping vistas.

Near Greenleaf Hut I ran into a couple of people on their way down. They assured me that the trail conditions at the summit, along the ridge, and on Falling waters were great… Our excitement about the unusually warm, clear White Mountain weather was almost palpable… and it was certainly visible on all of our smiling faces.

Not long after leaving the hut I left the scrubby treeline entirely behind me, and embraced the blinding sun and whipping winds characteristic of Greenleaf trail in the wintertime.

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The sandy snow made that final mile to the summit of Mt. Lafayette seem to go on forever… I wasn’t postholing, but I could feel myself backsliding a little bit with each step… It didn’t help that I was almost 5000 ft above the elevation I’d slept at the previous night!

Looking across the windswept snow to the rest of Franconia Ridge.

Looking across the windswept snow to the rest of Franconia Ridge.

Either way, I didn’t hesitate to take a break when I encountered a rare site on Mt. Lafayette… a group of 5 skiers struggling up the slope. Sure they were struggling on the uphill, but they were going to have it made on the way down!

The steep, windswept approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette from the Greenleaf Trail.

The steep, windswept approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette from the Greenleaf Trail.

After a few more photo breaks than were probably absolutely necessary, I made it to the windy summit of Lafayette! As I looked around I couldn’t help but smile… There’s nothing better than a beautiful clear day on the summit of Mt. Lafayette. I was kind of curious though, where exactly were those skiers going to go from the summit?

The summit of Mt. Lafayette!

The summit of Mt. Lafayette!

Appalachian Trail (AT/Franconia Ridge Trail – Mt. Lafayette Summit to Little Haystack) – 1.7 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Moderate, some ups and downs with drifting snow.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons
  • Trail conditions (9/10): well-tracked, windswept powder. Windy!
  • Vistas (10/10): Completely above treeline. Amazing views of the ridge you’re on (Franconia Ridge) and of the Presidential range… Absolutely phenomenal!

It felt good to be back on the Appalachian Trail (AT)… The last time I’d stood on the summit of Mt. Lafayette looking out at Mt. Washington was on my 2013 AT thru-hike… The sense of accomplishment I felt standing at the summit was for more than just climbing the mountain that day, but for the incredibly journeys of the last two years… It was a beautiful moment full of memories of the past and excitement about the new memories that I was creating right then and there.

Obligatory summit selfie with Franconia Ridge in the background. Hello AT!

Obligatory summit selfie with Franconia Ridge in the background. Hello AT!

Franconia Ridge is one of my favorite stretches of trail. It is incredibly beautiful, but it is also incredibly exposed… definitely not to undertaken lightly when hiking solo in the wintertime. I scrutinized the distant clouds… the weather was still miraculously clear, which was good, and I did a time check. It wasn’t even 1pm yet, but since it was the middle of the winter sunset would be come early, ~5pm… did I have enough time to do the ridge and descend to my car before dark? Yes. Plenty. If I got caught out after dark was I prepared? Yes. Were there any suggestions of iffy weather? No. Since I was winter-hiking solo, I did a quadruple check… Would another hiker with my level of skill and preparation think that this was a risky decision? No. Phew… Safety checks passed, I texted my parents, “heading across Franconia Ridge now, will descend via Falling Waters.” I’d given them an itinerary before I left, but sending them time-stamped updates seemed prudent.

Patches happily visiting the AT on Franconia Ridge near the Summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Patches happily visiting the AT on Franconia Ridge near the Summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Every fiber of my being rejoiced at the opportunity to prolong my time on Franconia Ridge. It was such a gorgeous day, and as winter weather goes, it was as good as it gets! The winds weren’t too strong, the temperatures (in the teens) were moderate, and I had plenty of gear to keep me warm. I also discovered that as soon as I wasn’t going uphill anymore my toes completely warmed up!!! I was definitely excited about that!

The Appalachian Trail's familiar white blaze looking South down Franconia Ridge

The Appalachian Trail’s familiar white blaze looking South down Franconia Ridge.

About halfway across the ridge I encountered a northbound hiker, “How’s the trail ahead?” I queried. “Well, the ridge isn’t bad, but Falling Waters Trail is Icy… It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it! It was so bad I had to use my ice axe to get up it!” he replied sounding slightly rattled… “Hmmm…” This was directly at odds with the trail report I’d gotten from the last person I talked to!

Looking back at Lafayette and the way I'd come.

Looking back at Lafayette and the way I’d come.

After some contemplation, I continued hiking South along the AT.  I remembered the sweeping vistas from my Northbound AT thru-hike, but somehow the snow made it all feel more magical!

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The windswept rocks of Franconia Ridge iced with snow! (On the AT, looking South).

As I neared the end of the ridge and headed up Little Haystack I ran into one final group of people (total number of people encountered: 9). I asked the group of 3 guys how the trail had been. “It was great,” said one guy. “No Problem,” smiled one of the other guys.

“That’s good to hear,” I said feeling relieved, “there have been conflicting reports about Falling Waters trail.”

Standing on the AT in the middle of Franconia Ridge.

Standing on the AT in the middle of Franconia Ridge.

“Oh?” replied the third guy, curiously. “Well… the last guy I talked to said it was the worst he’d ever seen it and that he’d had to use his ice axe.” Almost immediately they chimed in and admitted that they’d used their ice axes too, but assured me, “it’s not that bad, you won’t have any problems with it.” I looked at them kind of skeptically before quizzing them a bit more about where they’d used their axes… I tried to picture the trail ahead and the spot that they were talking about..but I had trouble imagining a spot where I’d need my ice axe… Well, I’d find out when I got there!

One last glance at the ridge before heading down the Falling Waters Trail.

One last glance at the ridge before heading down the Falling Waters Trail.

Falling Waters Trail (Little Haystack to Lafayette Place Parking) – 3.2 miles

  • Difficultly Level: Strenuous, steep downhill descending 2800 ft in 3.2 miles. Snow-cover decreases impact on knees compared to summertime conditions.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons. 3/4 people ascending cited use of ice axe on one section. I did not use an ice axe nor did I feel the need to.
  • Trail Conditions (6/10): mostly well-tracked powder, however, some extremely icy sections are present on the lower 1/3 of the trail… Confidence traversing ice flows a must on this section.
  • Vistas (7/10): The majority of the trail is below treeline. However, the views from Shining Rock are worthwhile and the ice formations and flows of the ‘falling waters’ make up for the lack of more sweeping views.

Sometimes the trail seems even steeper when you are going down than when you are going up, and this definitely felt true as I headed down the Falling Waters Trail. It was steep, well-tracked powder, and it would have been a lot of fun to do some glissading… Unfortunately, I was below treeline and would have to navigate around a lot of trees in order to safely glissade… I was also afraid that I would end up going faster than I wanted to, so I decided to play it safe and stay on my feet.

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When I reached the falling waters section of the Falling Waters Trail I was fascinated by all the different ice formations in and around the stream. They were absolutely beautiful!

Icy Waters on Falling Waters Trail.

Icy Waters on Falling Waters Trail.

The ice formations were so beautiful that I couldn’t help but stop and take pictures of all of the the different kinds of ice… The feathery plumes were something that didn’t remember ever seeing before!

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Despite discovering lots of beautiful ice and water as I descended, the trail had remained nicely packed powder…

About halfway down the Falling Waters Trail.

About halfway down the Falling Waters Trail.

… until all the powder disappeared and was replaced with a wall of ice. There was no doubt… the wall of ice below me was where everyone had used their ice axes. I stood at the top of the steep ice flows contemplating my options for a couple of minutes.

Ice chute/trail on Falling Waters

Ice chute/trail on Falling Waters

It was clear that most people had used the ~5-6 ft long ice chute (pictured above) to my right instead of following the main trail with it’s steep 20-30 ft long ice flow (pictured below)… I continued contemplating my options… I didn’t like either of them, but eventually decided on the ice chute/glissade… once I was sitting down with my legs extended I’d be most of the way to the soft powdery snow below.

The iciest portion of the Falling Waters trail where people had been using their ice axes... though I'm not sure how.

The iciest portion of the Falling Waters trail where people had been using their ice axes… though I’m not sure how. Check out that blue blaze up there? The trail is somewhere underneath the beautiful blue ice.

Sure enough, the powder cushioned my short slide, no problem. Despite the icy trail conditions, the thing that was really slowing me down wasn’t my footing… it was all the time I was taking to admire and take pictures of the cool ice formations along the way!

A different kind of icicle… ice sheets maybe? near Falling Waters trail

Luckily for me, the icy section of the trail… the section where the trail held more ice than snow, was relatively short… about 1/4 mile, but I treated that section with extreme caution!

One of the icy sections of the Falling Waters trail.

One of the icy sections of the Falling Waters trail.

Even though I wanted to linger on the icy sections of the trail taking pictures and enjoying my hike for as long as possible, the magical low-angle light that was making everything extremely photogenic also signaled the fast approaching sunset.

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I reluctantly put my phone camera away and continued towards my car.

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Back at the car I searched for my ‘good’ camera, which I’d assumed I’d forgotten in the car during the hub-bub that morning… It wasn’t there… Doh! Was it possible that it was somewhere in my pack and I’d just missed it? I frantically emptied all of the contents of my pack out into my car… Still no camera… Oh sh**! My camera really was lost… My beautiful Sony Nex was somewhere between the car and the first overlook where I’d first noticed that it was missing.

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I took a deep breath… at least 5 people had descended that trail, maybe one of them found it and left it or a note about it for me somewhere… I circled the parking lot looking for clues… Nothing… My heart sank as I contemplated retracing my steps from that morning to look for it… Somewhat exasperated I decided a bathroom break, a snack, and some more water were in order before making any decisions…

As I rounded the corner to the women’s privy I saw it, right in front of the privy, lying on the snow… my camera!!! It must have fallen out when I stopped there before my hike. Since I was the only woman on the trail that day, nobody else had ventured over to the women’s privy, and nobody else had seen it! Phew!

With my camera in hand, and the sun beginning to set, I returned to my car and headed home… I was definitely a happy hiker! It had been an amazing day and the hike up Mt. Lafayette and across Franconia ridge kept its place as one of my favorite hikes of all time.

Note:

  • Consider checking out trip reports and forecasts here before heading up Lafayette.
  • The weather in the White Mountains is notoriously bad (even in the summer), so when planning a winter hike in the Whites finding a good weather window is my primary concern… If I’m considering a climb of Mt. Lafayetter (5250 ft) I check the Mt. Washington summit forecast and look for a day with high temperatures > 5-10 degrees F, wind speeds < 30 mph, and no measurable precipitation predicted for that day or the next… Even with appropriate gear, low temperatures and high windchills significantly reduce the fun factor of the hike for me… been there, done that (like the day it was -20 degrees F at the base… brrrrrrrr!!!).
Up next, Mt. Washington?!

Up next, Mt. Washington?!

Thru-hike Trekking Pole Review: Leki Carbon Titaniums

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Trekking poles have been an indispensable part of my hiking and backpacking gear for over a decade, so when I set off to hike the Appalachian Trail (2013), and then the Pacific Crest Trail (2014) there was never a question… I was going to bring trekking poles with me. I chose the Leki Carbon Titaniums for my adventures:

  • Purchased: Fall 2012
  • Weight: 16.6 oz/pair
  • Length: 62-135 cm
  • MSR: $199.95

I started using the Leki Carbon Ti trekking poles in the fall of 2012 and I am still using them today (two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles later).

  • Functionality (10/10): I use my trekking poles for additional stability (I have a history of spraining my ankles without them) and to reduce the stress on my knees (especially going downhill). During the last 2 years (and ~5000 miles of backpacking through some of the most rugged terrain in the United States) my knees and ankles have remained sprain free! I love my trekking poles and found them to be incredibly useful during both of my thru-hikes… especially in rocky, sandy, and snowy terrain.
  • Fitness (9/10): Most people lose upper body strength during their thru-hikes, but I rely so heavily on my trekking poles that I actually gained upper body strength! I use my trekking poles for more than just passive stabilization, I use them to actively propel myself forward (similar to the way cross-country skiers use their poles), which engages the muscles of my upper body and turns hiking/backpacking into a full-body workout.
  • Comfort (8/10): The grips are comfortable and the adjustable height allows me to set my poles to the length that works best for me (I’m 5’10, have a 35 inch inseam, and have had trouble finding fixed length poles that were long enough for me in the past). During thru-hikes I build up callouses on my palms from heavy trekking pole use, but the poles remain comfortable even in hot, sweaty weather.
    • Note: I get rashes on my hands when I use poles with cork handles, so I stay away from the cork handles!
  • Locking Mechanism (8/10): The clip locks are much easier to deal with, and more convenient than the older twist-style locking mechanisms. I usually use my poles at a fixed length and only collapse them to their minimum size for transportation in cars or when I’m in town (even fully collapsed I wish they were shorter and more stowable than they are). The only time I intentionally adjusted the length of my poles was on the steep, snowy slopes of the High Sierra when I wasn’t using my ice axe. For the most part I didn’t have any trouble with the locks loosening as I hiked, but during the the last ~500 miles of the PCT (after ~4000 miles of use) the lower locks seemed to loosen occasionally. Even then I only needed to re-tighten them once or twice.
    • Pro-tip: Carry a quarter or a dime in your repair/emergency kit so that you can tighten the locks if they loosen over time. It’s much easier/better to mechanically tighten them with a coin than to do it by hand.
    • Pro-tip: When traversing steep snowfields you can shorten the up-slope pole and use both poles in the snow if you don’t have an ice axe or for some reason don’t think an ice axe is necessary.
    • Pro-tip: Your ice axe is only useful if you have it out! When in doubt, take it out!!! Trekking poles are not good ice axe replacements… Having attempted to self-arrest with a trekking pole I can strongly recommend against it (1/10)… Know when to use your ice axe, know how to use it, and take it out of your pack before you need it. Repeat after me, “When in doubt, take it out!!!”

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  • Durability (8/10): I am not gentle with my gear, and that is certainly true when it comes to my trekking poles. I have used my Leki Crabon Ti trekking poles on every hike and backpacking trip that I’ve been on since I purchased them in the fall of 2012 and have been impressed with their overall ruggedness and durability.

Even though I love my trekking poles, over the course of ~5000 miles of use they’ve accumulated some damage…

  • Repairs:
    • Carbon Fiber Shaft (8/10): I didn’t have any trouble with the poles during the ~2200 miles of my 2013 AT thru-hike. However, crossing through the High Sierras (PCT 2014) the middle section of one of my trekking poles sheered in half! I was able to remove that section and fully extend and lock together the remaining sections for a mostly functional pole until Leki sent me a replacement section (no questions asked) in my next mail drop.
      • Leki offers a 1 year warranty on carbon fiber pole segments.
      • Pro tip: Call Leki directly… I had hoped that the folks at Mammoth Mountaineering (4/10) in Mammoth Lakes would help me out, but they don’t help thru-hikers with warranty issues of any kind (I was hoping for Leki and Big Agnes help at the time).pole
    • Carbide Tips (6/10): They are reasonably durable, but replacing them is a challenge. It is hard (as in nearly impossible) to remove the old, overused tips to install the new tips.
      • The original pair of carbide tips saw me through the entire AT (~2200 miles) and the first section of the PCT (from Campo to Idyllwild, CA).
      • I purchased a new pair of tips at Nomad Ventures (10/10), but the old tips were so impacted that I couldn’t remove them. I ended up enlisting the aid of the store owner, a table vice, and some pliers before we finally managed to get them off…
      • The second pair was worn out by the time I got to Ashland, OR. Once again, I needed to enlist a store employee to remove the old tips, which he wasn’t able to do successfully (even using the appropriate tools), so he just fitted the new tips over them.
      • Carbide tips are not covered by Leki’s warranty and they told me on the phone that they expect each pair of tips to last about 500 miles though they were reluctant to give an exact mileage or duration.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would put a thin silicone or rubber coating over the carbide tips to reduce the noise of the poles on rocky surfaces… Wildlife and other hikers can hear you coming from a mile away as you click across the rocks with your trekking poles.
      • Pro-tip: If you want to see more bears, put your trekking poles away :-P
    • Wrist Strap (8/10): After more than 3000 miles of use, one of the wrist straps broke. The people at the Ashland Outdoor Store (10/10) replaced the wrist strap for me with one they had lying around.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would add a quick release to the wrist straps. I like hiking with the straps, and it helps make sure I don’t accidentally lose them down steep slopes, but the physics involved in some falls (especially on slippery, muddy down-slopes) mean having your wrists locked into the straps in a way that may contribute to severe wrist injuries or stress fractures (see below).20140507-223445.jpg
  • Injuries:

Despite the damages, I would give the Leki Carbon Titanium trekking polls a very good overall rating (8/10) and would recommend them to other hikers, backpackers, and thru-hikers. If I were to purchase new trekking poles I would get these unless I found something just as rugged and durable, but lighter weight, and with a more packable profile. Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts, questions, and/or trekking pole experiences!

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Even after two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles of heavy use my leki carbon ti trekking poles are my constant companions! (McAffee Knob, VA – AT section hike fall 2014).

 

 

The Gear That Got Me Thru (PCT Gear List)

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As I tracked down the gear that I actually carried on the PCT to weigh it and write up my final gear list, I tallied up the number of miles I’d carried each item with me… The miles added up quickly… in the last two years I’ve hiked ~5000 miles (AT 2013, PCT 2014 et al.) and some of my gear has been with me that entire time!!!

As my gear list grew, however, I noticed another thing that was quickly adding up… the weight of my pack! My pack was on the heavy side. When I was backpacking on the AT in the early 1990’s carrying a heavy pack was something that people boasted about; it was a point of pride. Back then my pack was lighter than most of my peers, and people gave me sh** about it because a lighter pack meant that I wasn’t working as hard as they were. Since the ’90s, however, there’s been a cultural revolution in the world of backpacking, and the lightest packs are now the packs that people admire and boast about…

“With a pack that small you’ve gotta be ultralight… You must be a PCT thru-hiker!” exclaimed a southbound John Muir Trail (JMT) hiker admiringly.

“Me? Ultralight? I’m a thru-hiker, but I’m definitely not ultralight,” I laughed. Many of the PCT thru-hikers I knew were striving to be ultralight (they’d reduced their packs to a minimum and they used all of the latest, greatest, lightweight gear), but I wasn’t one of them. On the contrary, I had gotten so used to being razzed about my ‘big’ pack that after ~1000 miles of hiking amongst fellow PCT thru-hikers I’d embraced the idea that my pack was ‘big,’ which is why I was surprised when the JMT hiker commented on the petite size of my pack… I was also surprised that he’d picked me out as a PCT thru-hiker since I was on the JMT (headed to Half Dome and Yosemite Valley) and not the PCT at the time. He was partly right though, compared to the JMT hikers I’d seen, my pack was small.

“Not ultralight?!” he re-iterated with surprise as he shifted his 60+ lb pack around uncomfortably. He eyed my pack, which weighed ~30 lbs less than his, suspiciously. “Nope,” I assured him, “not ultralight.” In the High Sierra I had all of my heaviest gear, but even in the desert when my pack had been at its lightest, with a base weight (the weight of my pack and everything in it except for food and water) of ~17 lbs, my pack was ‘light’ (< 20 lbs) and not ‘ultralight’ (< 10 lbs). “Well,” I conceded, “I have a lot of lightweight gear, and I try lighten my load when I can, but I don’t want to be ultralight. People that are ultralight tend to have different goals than I do… they are usually trying to cover as many miles as they can, as quickly as they can. Me? I’m on Vacation! My goal is to take my time, to relax, and to enjoy my PCT thru-hike… To that end: I started almost a month early, I carry ‘luxury’ items (like my Patches, my camp shoes, and my camera), I go sightseeing, I take a lot of photos, and I hike a lot of side trails… It’s a different backpacking philosophy.”

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As I tallied up the weight of my ‘luxury’ items for my gear list, it was clear that I wouldn’t be winning any ‘ultralight’ backpacking awards. On the trail, people frequently talked about their base weight… bandying around numbers between 12 and 15 pounds, but my cold weather base weight for the North Cascades was going to a lot higher than that… closer to 23 lbs… I carefully scrutinized my gear… I’d love to have a lighter pack, but what was I willing to sacrifice to get there? There were a lot of painless upgrades (except in terms of $$) and small sacrifices that I could (and would) gladly make to decrease my base weight in the future… Changes that would drop my cold weather base weight (to <20 lbs), but that wouldn’t alter the vacation-like nature of my thru-hike.

But what about my camera? That was my biggest luxury item, weighing in at ~ 2 lbs. If I were to do another solo PCT thru-hike would I leave my camera behind? No. Would I be willing to trade it for a point and shoot? No. I loved standing alone in the middle of the trail with my camera capturing bits and pieces of its ephemeral beauty as I hiked… My camera gave me an excuse to linger and interact with the beauty of the trail and its inhabitants… It enhanced my appreciation of my hike, and it was worth it… It was worth the weight… all two pounds of it…

Throughout my 2013 AT thru-hike and my 2014 PCT thru-hike, my gear was constantly evolving as I tried to maximize my enjoyment of the trail and minimize my pack weight. So, what did I have in my pack at the end of the PCT? Was any of it the same as what I started with at the beginning of my 2013 thru-hike? How many miles did my gear last? If I were to do the PCT again, which gear would I change/upgrade? What follows is the answer to these questions and a bit of gear geekery: first my comments on the gear that’s gotten me through between 1000 and 5000 miles of thru-hiking, then a detailed list of all of the gear I carried on my PCT thru-hike and the upgrades that I would make.

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5000 mile club: This is the gear that I carried from start to finish on both my AT and PCT thru-hikes!

  • Patches (3.8 oz.)
    • My patches are the source of my trail name and are full of memories of the people I’ve known and the places I’ve been… I’ve had them for over a decade.
  • Tent (9/10): Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent (1 lb, 15 oz.)
    • I purchased the Fly Creek UL2 in 2013 for my AT thru-hike. I loved the UL2
    • After  ~3000 miles of use, the zipper on the body of my tent ran off of it’s track. I called Big Agnes from Mammoth Lakes (mile 907) and they sent me a replacement tent body in my next mail drop. Check out the full tent review that I did after the AT! The tent fly and stakes are still the originals I started out with in GA.
    • Upgrade: Z Packs Splash Bivy (6.4 oz., $225) with the Hexamid Solo-Plus Tarp w/ beak (7.4 oz, $280). Even though I loved the UL2, I would consider switching to a bivy/tarp setup. I discovered the joy of cowboy camping on the PCT, and cowboy camped whenever I could. This meant that I didn’t use my tent as often on the PCT as I had on the AT, and switching to the lighter weight bivy/tarp combination might better suit my PCT/CDT needs in the future.
  • Spork (10/10): Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Synthetic Insulated Jacket (9/10): MontBel Thermawrap Sports Jacket (10.2 oz.)
    • I love this jacket as a good basic layer that will keep me warm even when wet.
    • Upgrade: If I had it to do over again, I’d switch to the version without pockets to save 1.8 oz: Montbel UL Thermawrap Jacket (8.4 oz., $145).
  • Gloves (8/10): Manzella wind stop gloves (1.4 oz.)
    • The gloves were great, but sometimes I wished I had something a little warmer and that I could leave on while using my phone.
    • Upgrade to: Brooks adapt gloves (2 oz., $20)
  • Headlamp (10/10): Princeton Tec Byte (2.4 oz.)
    • I ended up changing the batteries about once a month.
  • Trowel (9/10): REI Snow Stake (1 oz).
    • My 9.6 inch long snow stake worked as well as any camp trowel I’ve used for digging cat holes.
  • Camera (10/10): Sony NEX-5N (1 lb, 15.8 oz including all lenses, cables, batteries, and chargers)
  • Trekking Poles (9/10): Leki Carbon Titanium Trekking Poles (16.7 oz.)
    • I love hiking with trekking poles… The middle segment of one of the poles sheared as I was coming down Glen Pass in the High Sierra, I called Leki from Mammoth Lakes and they mailed a replacement to Tuolumme Meadows for me.
    • The original trekking pole tips got me from GA to ME, and then from the Mexican Border to Idyllwild. A second pair of tips got me from Idyllwild, CA to Ashland, OR. I’m on the third pair now (I was told to expect ~500 miles per $20 pair of tips).

4000+ mile club:

  • Sleeping Pad (10/10): Thermarest NeoAir Women’s Xlite (12 oz.)
    • ~4400 miles: PCT Thru + 1700 AT miles. It’s made it through with no leaks so far! Blowing it up is currently my least favorite camp chore though.
  • Sleeping bag liner (10/10): Western Mountaineering Whisper (4 oz.)
    • ~4400 miles: PCT Thru + 1700 AT miles. I used my sleeping bag liner as a sheet on hot nights. I also slipped my sleeping pad into it whenever I was cowboy camping (PCT) or sleeping in a shelter (AT) to protect it.
    • Upgrade: If I get the ZPacks bivy I will eliminate my sleeping bag liner.

3000+ mile club:

  • Hydration reservoir (10/10): Hydrapak 3L Hydration System (6.9 oz).
    • ~ 3750 miles: PCT Thru & ½ AT. I borrowed it from my mom when she visited me on the AT in Virginia… I wonder if she wants it back now?
  • Knife (10/10): Randall (10.4 oz. with sheath)
    • ~3750 miles: PCT thru & 1/2 AT. I love having my Randall at my hip. I started the AT with a couple of small, ultralite blades, but I got tired of every single person I met asking me if I was armed. After I started carrying the Randall on my belt people stopped asking me if I was armed. Mission accomplished.
  • Emergency beacon (9/10): Spot Locator Beacon (4.4 oz)
    • ~3700 miles: PCT Thru & ~1000 AT miles. As a solo backpacker, I try not to leave home without it.
  • Synthetic Insulated Pants (9/10): Backpacking Light Pertex Insulated Pants (11.8 oz)
    • ~3000 miles: PCT Thru and ~600AT miles. I’ve had these pants since my Kilimanjaro ascent in 2010… they double as my hiking pillow.
    • Upgrading to the newer version would save 3.5 oz.: Montbel U.L. Thermwrap pants (8.3 oz., $145).

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2000+ mile club:

  • Sleeping bag (10/10): Marmot Lithium Zero Degree Bag (2 lb, 15 oz.)
  • Ground cloth (10/10): Tyvek Sheet (5 oz.)
    • 2665 PCT thru: I absolutely loved cowboy camping on my ground cloth. I also kept the ground cloth handy to sit on during breaks during the day… (If I upgrade to a bivy/tarp combination I would leave out the tyvek sheet).
  • Cook Stove (8/10): Jetboil Sol Titanium (8.5 oz.)
    • ~2665 PCT thru! The only trouble I had with it was that the piezo-starter was unreliable.
  • Raincoat (2/10): Outdoor Research Helium II (6.2 oz.)
    • ~2665 PCT thru: I had a Helium II for the ~2200 miles of the AT, but it wasn’t waterproof so I returned it. They sent me a new one for the PCT, but it wasn’t waterproof either!
    • Upgrade: The ZPacks  Challenger Rain Jacket Large (5.8 oz., $260)
  • External battery (8/10): Anker Astro E5 15000 mAh (11.8 oz with cable)
    • ~2665 miles: PCT thru. It worked great, but it was more than I needed
    • Upgrade to the Anker 2nd Gen Astro E3 10000mAh (8.1 oz).
  • Camp shoes (9/10): New Balance Minimus (9.2 oz)
    • ~2665 miles: PCT thru. I used them for river crossing, and around camp every night.
  • Sun hat (10/10): MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat (1.4 oz.)
    • Mt. Laguna to Canada

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1000+ mile club:

  • Backpack (8/10): Osprey Exos 58 Backpack (2 lbs, 8 oz.)
    • ~1700 PCT miles. I used an Osprey Exos 58 on the AT and loved it to pieces, so Osprey replaced it and I started the PCT with a brand new Exos 58. At Kennedy Meadows, I switched to the ULA Catalyst (2 lbs, rating: 4/10) because my bear canister (required for the High Sierras) didn’t fit into the Exos very well. I told myself that I wasn’t allowed to hate the Catalyst until I’d hiked at least 100 miles in it. After hiking ~900 miles in it I was still grumbling, so I switched back to my beloved Exos. My dream pack upgrade would be to a 62L Arc Blast from Z-Packs (1 lb, 4 oz., $320) with a custom torso length (my torso is short: 15.5 inches).
  • Rain Pants (8/10): Go-lite rain pants (5.6 oz.)
    • ~1000 PCT miles: I’ve had them for about 10 years, but they need to be replaced now.
    • Upgrade: ZPacks Challenger Rain Pants (3.8 oz., $165).

****

When I finished my PCT thru-hike in the North Cascades, Washington I was carrying most of my cold weather gear and the total base weight for my pack (everything except the loophole weight*, food, and water) was 23.4 lbs. If money were no object, and I could convince myself to leave my ‘good’ camera behind, I would spend $1529 and make all of the upgrades I list above (and in my detailed gear list below), and I’d drop my cold weather base weight down to 16 lbs… But who am I kidding? I wouldn’t leave the camera behind…

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***

Detailed PCT Gear List:

The Big Three (8 lbs, 11 oz):

Cook System (1 lb, 3.5 oz.):

  • Jetboil Sol Titanium (8.5 oz.)
  • Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Mini Bic Lighter (~1 oz, I used 3 on the PCT)
  • Fuel canister (11.8 oz): I cooked 1 hot meal a day and a canister would last me ~3 weeks.

Wearables:

  • Outerwear (2 lb, 4.6 oz.):
    • Raincoat: Outdoor Research Helium II (6.2 oz.)
    • Rain Pants: Go-lite rain pants (5.6 oz.)
      • Upgrade: ZPacks Challenger Rain Pants (3.8 oz., $165).
    • Waterproof gloves: 1 pair vinyl gloves (0.2 oz.)
      • Upgrade? ZPacks™  Challenger Rain Mitts (1 oz., $65)
    • Synthetic Insulated Jacket: MontBel Thermawrap Sports Jacket (10.2 oz.)
    • Synthetic Insulated Pants: Backpacking Light Pertex Insulated Pants (11.8 oz)
      • Upgrade: Montbel U.L. Thermwrap pants (8.3 oz., $145).
    • Rock On Fleece hat (1.4 oz)
    • Manzella wind stop gloves (1.4 oz.)
      • Upgrade: Brooks adapt gloves (2 oz., $20)
  • Camp shoes: New Balance Minimus (9.2 oz) – luxury item
  • Clothing (1 lb, 8.6 oz.):
    • 2 – Ex Officio underwear (2 oz., 1 oz/pair)
    • 2 – Wright Sock Cool Mesh II (3.2 oz., 1.6 oz/pair)
    • Mountain Hardware Hiking Pants (10.4 oz.)
      • Upgrade: Montane Featherweight Wind Pants (3.8oz., $84.95) or Montbel Dynamo Wind Pants (2.6 oz, $69). This is the first pack upgrade that I would make!
    • Women’s Capilene 1 Silkweight Bottoms (5.2 oz.): Pajamas
    • Women’s Capilene 1 Silkweight Long-Sleeve Crew (3.8 oz.): Pajamas

Technology (4 lbs, 10.2 oz):

  • Headlamp: Princeton Tec Byte (2.4 oz.)
    • lighter weight headlamps are an option.
  • Verizon iPhone 5 ( 7.8 oz. with cable and charger)
    • 679 miles: Bend, OR to Canada. My iPhone 4 made it ~4000 miles, through most of the AT and the PCT, before it decided it had had enough rough treatment and took a forbidden swim in Obsidian Creek.
  • Sony NEX-5N (1 lb, 15.8 oz including all lenses, cables, batteries, and chargers) – luxury item
  • External battery: Anker Astro E5 15000 mAh (11.8 oz with cable) – luxury item
  • Spot Locator Beacon ( 4.4 oz)

Extreme Weather Gear:

  • Desert (8 oz.):
    • Chrome Dome (8 oz.): 942.5 miles, I shipped it home with my ice axe. – luxury item
  • High Sierra (5 lbs, 4.8 oz): I wrote a review of my high sierra gear from the trail
    • BV500 Bear Vault (2lbs, 9 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
    • Kahtoola Microspikes (13.6 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
    • Hanz Waterproof Calf – Length Socks (3.2 oz.): 318.5 miles, Lone Pine to Kennedy Meadows North
    • CAMP Corsa Ice Axe (7.2 oz.): 290 miles, Lone Pine to Tuolumme Meadows
    • Montbel Plasma 1000 Down Jacket (4.8 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
      • Upgrade? Montbel XLite Down Anarak (6.2 oz., $219)
    • Sunglasses (?): Necessary in the High Sierra. I went through ~3pair on the PCT because I kept losting them. I’d put them on my hat, forget about them, and then, at some point, I’d take off the hat and I wouldn’t notice that the sunglasses had gone flying until the next time I wanted to use them… I didn’t use any sunglasses in Oregon or Washington.

Health & Hygiene:

  • Water (11.7 oz.):
    • Aquamira (2 oz.). ~5 aquamira kits for total PCT thru.
    • Sawyer Squeeze Mini (2 oz.).
    • Hydrapak 3L Hydration System (6.9 oz).
    • 3 – 1L Water bladders (0.8 oz. each). 6L capacity thru the desert, dropped to five later
  • Trowel: REI Snow Stake (1 oz).
  • First Aid kit (1 lb, 2.4 oz.):
    • includes emergency asthma medications, sunscreen, compass, bear bag rope, 2 epi-pens, 2 spare AAA batteries etc (Most people can drop this down to < 6 oz.).
  • Daily med kit (1 lb, 1.4 oz.):
    • includes one month of daily prescription medications, inhalers, contacts, toothbrush, toothpaste etc. (Most people can drop this down to < 4 oz.)
  • DEET & Headnet (~2 oz.):
    • Critically important during bug season in the High Sierra! Pick them up in Kennedy Meadows if you don’t have them before.

Loophole Weight (3 lbs, 6.6 oz.): *The stuff that didn’t go into my pack (or on it), and isn’t included in the base weight of my pack.

  • Daily Clothing (1 lb, 1.6 oz):
    • MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat (1.4 oz.)
    • Long-sleeve yellow Saucony shirt (4.8 oz.)
    • Rab t-shirt (2.4 oz.)
    • Arc Teryx hiking skirt (4.4 oz.)
    • Ex Officio sports bra (1.8 oz.) – doubled as bathing suit top.
    • Ex Officio underwear (1 oz.)
    • Wright Sock Cool Mesh II (1.6 oz.)
  • Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 1.5 ( 9.9 oz.). 4 pair of shoes total for PCT:
    • Altra ~850 miles. Truckee, CA – Bend, OR
    • Altra ~600 miles. Bend, Or to Canada
    • Check out my AT shoe review and my thoughts on shoes from the PCT!
    • Other  PCT Shoes:
      • Merril Moab Ventilator’s (1 lb, 8 oz.): ~700 miles, Campo – Kennedy Meadows, CA
      • Oboz Traverse Low (16.6 oz.). ~450 miles, Kennedy Meadows – Truckee, CA
  • Randall Knife (10.4 oz. with sheath) – luxury item
  • Leki Carbon Titanium Trekking Poles (16.7 oz.)

Questions about my PCT gear? Leave a comment below. I’m hoping to write full gear reviews for some of the things I carried in the upcoming weeks.

Thru-hikers: What was your favorite luxury item on the trail?

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