I knew when I started this adventure in May that I would end up in Northern New England in the fall and that it would get cold… Especially in the mountains. I prepared for the cold by switching from a thirty degree sleeping bag to a zero degree sleeping bag, by adding a nice warm hat, gloves, insulated pants, and an incredibly warm jacket.
Even though I was technically prepared for the cold, and am from hearty New England stock, I don’t think I was prepared for the emotional impact of the freezing temperatures.
As the temperatures began to plummet we’d huddle around the campfire while we ate our dinners and then dive into our tents and sleeping bags as soon as the sun set. My zero degree sleeping bag was fluffy, cozy, and awesome, but it still took a couple of hours all snuggled up in it before my fingers and toes would feel comfortably warm.
For some people the cold temperatures meant later starts in the morning as they were reluctant to leave the comfort of their nice warm sleeping bags. For me, the cold temperatures meant that I was anxious to get moving and get warmed up. I also find that I don’t want to stop and take breaks during the day because when you stop you get cold, so I tend to hike more miles on cold days.
The cold alone is one thing, but when the cold comes with rain it turns into misery. I hate the combination of cold and wet, especially when backpacking. Raining with temperatures in the 40s is just plain awful. Back in civilization when it’s cold and wet it isn’t so bad because you know you can easily get warm again: you can take a shower, you can turn the heat up, you can sit by the fire. On the trail when it’s cold and wet your options for getting warm require more work or more time: you can hike more, you can curl up in your sleeping bag and wait, you can try to get to civilization, or you can wait for the weather to get better. I hate being cold and wet and the thought that at least the cold is likely to linger until the end of the trail is hard to wrap my head around sometimes. Hopefully the beauty of the fall foliage will make up for the low temperatures.
Another downside to cold and wet is ice. The first time I encountered ice on the trail was hiking up Mahoosuc Arm and Old Speck. A thin coating of black ice on some of the rocks added to the rock scrambling adventure. I tested each step… Is that rock coated with water or ice? It definitely made for slower going, but the ice didn’t last for long.
Heading up the Bigelows I was in for a real surprise. The weather forecast had said that it was going to be partly sunny and cool and I was looking forward to seeing some sun and finally warming up a bit. The forecast was, however, wrong… very wrong. It was cloudy, cold, wet, and overcast as I started hiking in the morning. As I got to higher elevations it got colder, cloudier, and wetter.
As I neared the summit I was completely enveloped in a cold grey cloud. I figured that I was just going to get the typical 4000 footer view of the inside of a cloud and wasn’t too worried about it. The cloud then started doing what clouds do best… It started raining on me. I sighed and kept climbing higher and higher and it kept getting colder and colder. Cold and wet, my favorite combination (note a sarcastic tone of voice in that sentence), but at least the rain was intermittent.
Ping. Ping. Bounce. It wasn’t rain anymore. The stuff falling from the sky was pinging and bouncing and definitely white. I studied it as it collected on the ground in the contours of the mud and rocks. Little white balls of frozen yuck.
I tried to remember the distinctions between sleet, hail, and freezing rain. Let’s see… Sleet starts as snow and tries to turn into rain, but gets trapped somewhere in between… These pellets didn’t seem to be attempting to turn into rain at all. Hail is layered balls or lumps of ice associated with thunderstorms… Definitely no thunderstorms here though. Freezing rain is rain that freezes as soon as it contacts any surface… It seems like there was some freezing rain at lower elevations with ice coated trees, but these pellets were already frozen as they pinged and bounced around me.
I wasn’t quite sure what to call it, but it was definitely cold and it wasn’t melting when it hit the ground, which meant that I was just going to see more and more ice on the trail as I ascended.
Sure enough, as I got to the summit the rocks in the trail were coated with ice, rime ice coated the trees and signs, and the frozen fog continued to shower me with pellets of ice. The 40-50 mph winds at the summit also contributed to the impression that I was stumbling through a winter wonderland. It was, however, stunningly beautiful!
I had all of the gear that I needed to stay warm as I hiked, so I lingered for a minute on the summit. The snow and ice is incredibly beautiful and in that moment, all that existed was me, the mountain, the ice, and the cloud. I soaked it all in and then kept moving. Even with all the right gear, if you stay still for too long you’ll get cold… You just won’t get frostbite or hypothermia.
I appreciated each ice coated trees and berries as I descended… If it had to be cold at least it could be full of the ice and snow and the beautiful parts of winter. Unfortunately the beautiful part of the cold didn’t last long. As soon as I got down to lower elevations it went back to being just cold and wet.
Hopefully the rest of the fall won’t be this cold and wet.