Winter Backpacking Gear: Light Weight Gear for Temperatures < 32F/0C

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The  extreme air temperatures on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire can range from the 40°s (F) to the -40°s (F) during the winter months.

Before I delve into the details of my winter backpacking gearlist, I want to start by defining ‘winter backpacking’. Although most people define winter backpacking as backpacking between the first day of winter and the first day of spring (eg,  December 21 to March 20), the definition of winter backpacking that I use to guide my gear decisions is more accurately reflected by the lowest temperatures (as well as snow/ice conditions) that I am expecting to encounter on my backpacking trip. The rough definitions of backpacking seasons that I use are:

  • Summer Backpacking (lows ≥ 45°F)
  • 3-Season Backpacking (lows: 30°F to 45°F)
  • Shoulder-Season Backpacking (lows: 20°F to 30°F)
  • Winter Backpacking (lows: 0°F  to 20°F)
  • Expedition Backpacking (lows: -40°F to 0°F)
    • Winter Alpine Backpacking (lows: -20°F to 0°F)
    • Extreme Cold Backpacking (lows: -40°F to -20°F)
  • Arctic Backpacking (lows ≤ -40°F)

In this post I’m going to describe the gear that I use for ‘winter’ and ‘expedition’ backpacking (primarily) in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

If you do a lot of hiking/backpacking in the White Mountains I highly recommend purchasing a 2017 New Hampshire Voluntary Hike Safe Card for $25; it helps cover the cost of search and rescue because sh** happens!

¡DISCLAIMER! The following descriptions of the way I use and/or am considering using gear are NOT indicative of safe or manufacturer approved uses; winter backpacking is inherently dangerous and you are responsible for any/all risks that you assume when heading into the backcountry.

Sleep System

My winter backpacking sleep system consists of my tent (Nallo 2), sleeping bag (Marmot Lithium 0° F ), sleeping pad (NeoAir XLite), an emergency bivvy, and an extra insulated foam pad. The combined weight of my winter sleep system is: 8 lbs 2 oz (3.7 kg).

Shelter/Tent:

  • ≥20°F: Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 ( 1 lb, 15 oz)
    • 3-Season Tent: acceptable for minimal snow load, can feel draft at temperatures below 30F due to large % of mesh
  • ≤20°F: Hilleberg Nallo 2 (4 lbs 7 oz/2.0 kg)
    • 4-Season Tent: Easy to pitch alone, and spacious for solo adventures. Cozy (but workable) for 2 people winter backpacking trips. I would opt for a larger tent for winter car camping trips.
  • Emergency Bivvy: SOL Emergency Bivvy (3.8 oz /107 g)
    • I bring an emergency bivvy on all winter hiking/backpacking trips, especially since they are cheap ($16.95), light, and warm, and the cold can kill you very quickly when the temperatures start dipping near (and especially below) zero.I’m considering the SOL thermal bivvy (8.9 oz) as a replacement for adventures in the extreme cold (≤ 0°F to -40° F).

Sleeping bag

  • ≥35°F: Marmot Hydrogen 30°F Bag (1 lb 7.3 oz)
  • ≥0°F: Marmot Lithium 0°F Bag ( 2lbs 9.5oz /1176g)
    • Temperature Rating (EN Rating)
      • Comfort (9°F / -12.8°C): the temperature at which a typical woman can sleep comfortably in a relaxed position
      • Lower Limit (-4.5°F /-20.8°C): the temperature at which a typical man can comfortable sleep curled up for 8 hrs
      • Extreme (-45.2°F /-42.9°C): the minimum temperature at which a typical woman can sleep for 6 hrs without dying from hypothermia
    • Comment: I love this sleeping bag. Even after ~3000 miles use (purchased in 2013) it is still cozy for me down to temperatures in the teens and single digits (°F); the EN comfort rating is consistent with my personal experience with the bag.
      • ≤10°F, I start getting cold and need to wear additional layers (eg jackets, slippers, insulating pants inside the sleeping bag). I’m considering purchasing a vapor barrier liner (VPL) for use inside my sleeping bag (eg. the Western Mountaineering HotSac Vapor Barrier Liner [4.5 oz])
  • ≤ 0°F to -40° F: Currently considering acquiring a -40° F sleeping bag

Sleeping pad

  • ≤ 0°F to -40°F: NeoAir® XLite XTherm (15 oz)
    • Thickness (2.5 inches/6.3 cm); Length (72 inches/183 cm)
    • R-Value (5.7)
    • Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm mattress R-value chart
    • This was a Christmas 2016 gift, that I’m looking forward to trying out!
  • NeoAir Mini Pump (weight: 2.3 oz / 65 g)
    • Comment: a worthwhile addition especially for winter backpacking so you don’t get moisture from breath freezing inside mattress

Backpack

For winter backpacking I need a larger pack to accommodate the extra weight and volume of my winter gear; I also want larger buckles so that I can take my backpack on and off without removing my gloves (NOTE: I keep an emergency knife attached to front of my pack so that if my hands no longer have the dexterity to unclip my pack I can cut the straps to gain access to the lifesaving gear I’m carrying).

  • ≥0°F: ULA Catalyst (3 lbs)
    • Total Volume: 4,600 cu in (~75 liters)
      • Total volume includes the volume of the side and mesh pockets
      • Internal volume: 2,600 cu it (~42 liters)
    • Recommended max load: 40 lbs
      • I’ve definitely stretched this to 45-50 lbs without any trouble
    • Pack Cover: Large Etowah Pack Cover (3.8 oz)
    • Comment: this pack works for me for winter, but is a bit small for extreme backpacking (the internal volume is low); the buckles are also too small for me to easily use when wearing bulky gloves or mittens
  •  ≤0°F: Wishlist? Hyperlite 4400 Ice Pack (2.56 lbs)
    • Load capacity: 30 to 65 lbs
    • Interior Volume: 4400 cu. in. (70L)
    • Waterproof

Specialized Snow/Ice Gear


For winter backpacking trips I usually carry light traction (ie microspikes), ultralight (UL) snow shoes, and my ice axe, for a combined weight of 3.7 lbs (1,677 grams). Although I always use trekking poles, I don’t count them towards my pack weight since they never end up in my pack (I’m going to continue claiming this loophole).

  • Light Traction: Kahtoola Microspikes (13.5 oz/ 383 grams)
    • Indispensable for winter hiking/backpacking; allow me to leave my crampons at home in most winter conditions. Crampons still required for anything that requires kicking steps or climbing ice flows at steeper grades.
  • Crampons: Grivel 12-Point Crampons (31.1 oz)
    • These crampons clip onto my mountaineering boots (C2)/plastic boots; I have been using them for over a decade and I still love them. In conditions where I’m need to kick steps, or will be traversing steep ice flows I bring my crampons instead of my microspikes
    • To review proper crampon use check out:
  • Gaitors: Men’s Crocodile Knee-high Goretex Gaitors (10.2 oz)
    • Comment: These gaitors are useful for keeping the snow out of my boots (keeping my feet dry), and are also critical when using crampons to help prevent accidentally shredding my waterproof pants/insulated pants
  • UL Snowshoes: Louis Garneau Women’s Transition Boa (2.4 lbs /1089 g)
    • Length: 23 inches long, 7 inches wide
    • Load: 100 to 220 lbs
    • Notes: I love these snowshoes, they are light and easy to to put on/take-off on the trail. For winter backpacking, as long as I remain below their max load, I enjoy them. They have 360 degree crampon traction, lightweight decking flexible to -40°F, awesome foot clasp system.
  •  Ice axe: CAMP Corsa (7.2 oz /205 grams)
    • Length: 70 cm
    • Uses: Probing terrain, self-arrest, snow anchor, chipping out ice/snow for water. It’s not as rugged as a heavier ice axe, but it works well for my needs.
    • Before taking your ice axe into the mountains make sure you know how to use it. The following links have some useful reminders for ice axe use:
  •  Trekking Poles: Leki Carbon Ti (14.9 oz/pair)
  •  Snow/Avalanche Shovel: Snow Claw Backcountry Shovel & Multi-tool (6 oz)
    • A lightweight, easy-to-pack snow shovel for clearing campsites and digging snow caves; I only bring it when I anticipate deep snow
  • Avalanche Safety Gear (Transceiver/Probe)
    • Always check with the local avalanche center (for the White Mountains in NH: The Mount Washington Avalanche Center) for snow conditions and warnings prior to winter treks, avoid avalanche prone areas, and carefully monitor snow conditions. Prior to venturing into avalanche terrain I’m considering purchasing:

Emergency Locator Devices

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  • Personal locator beacon (PLB): ACR ResQLink+
    • If I get lost or seriously injured I want to be found, so I carry this PLB. It doesn’t have lots of whiz-bangs of the satellite communicators, but the engineering is better, it doesn’t require the purchase of a contract, the battery life if guaranteed to last five years (not rechargeable), the power output of its frequency beacon is higher than any other backpacking locator device I’ve found, it broadcasts at multiple frequency, uses the government/military satellite systems, and is registered with NOAA.
  • Satellite communicator: Delorme InReach SE+
    • This device allows two-way satellite communication with family, friends, and rescue services. It also allows you to post/track your routes and location online; in addition to purchasing the device you must also purchase a service contract, and you need to be mindful of battery use (the more you use it for tracking/messenging, the less you’ll be able to use it for emergency rescue)
  • Map and Compass: Don’t leave home without them

Footwear


For winter backpacking, I always bring a pair of knee-high waterproof gaitors and a pair of ultralight down booties to use as camp camp shoes. I keep using my trail shoes (waterproof trail shoes, or a thru-hiker hack with waterproof socks) into the early winter backpacking season when snowshoeing or when minimal/light traction (microspikes) is required, but I’ve learned the hard way (multiple toenails sacrificed) that my trail shoes (eg, Altras, Oboz, and Merrell Moab’s) don’t have rigid enough soles for heavy microspike/crampon use, especially on uneven terrain. For colder, more rugged conditions I switch to my mountaineering boots, or the dreaded plastic boots.

  • Camp Shoes/Booties
    • ≤30°F: Western Mountaineering Flash Down Booties (3 oz/pair)
      • Comment: As somebody that frequently has cold feet, these down booties are one of my favorite pieces of winter UL gear; I’ve backpacked over 1000 miles with these booties, and can’t complain about their durability ;) They do have some drawbacks for winter use though: they’re not waterproof and they don’t have much traction. I’m considering purchasing:
  • Socks

Additional Personal Items

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  • Water
    • 32 oz Nalgene wide-mouth bottles (2)
      • CAUTION: Not all 32 oz wide mouth Nalgene’s are created equal!!! I will be replacing my old Lexan Nalgene’s (which may contain BPA) with the lightweight HDPE Nalgenes (3.75 oz) and NOT the new Tritan Nalgenes (6.25 oz) because the Tritan Nalgenes are not rated to handle boiling water and they are brittle in extreme cold. Detailed explanations of the plastics used for each of the Nalgenes is available online (click here for the pdf); below I’ve listed the max use temp (Max), the heat distortion temp (HDT), the brittleness temp (Low), the chemical resistance (CR), and the recycling symbol (♻) for bottle identification.
        • HDPE (high-density polyethylene) Nalgene:
          • Max (120°C), HDT (65°C), Low (-100°C); CR (g00d), ♻ 2
        • Lexan (PC-polycarbonate) Nalgene: 
          • Max (135°C), HDT (138°C), Low (-135°C), CR (minimal), ♻ 7
        • Tritan (PETG-polyethylene terephthalate glycol) Nalgene:
          • High (70°C), HDT (70°C), Low (-40°C), CR (minimal), ♻ 1
    • Insulated bottle holders (2): Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka (~1 oz each)
    • Purification: Boiling
      • Caution: Water filters are typically ineffective if they’ve been frozen and chemical water treatment methods are highly depend on the temperature of the water being treated
  • Food: a subject of a post of its own
  • Cooking/Stove
    • ≥20°F:  Jetboil Sol Ti Cook System
      • Jetboil Sol Ti (8.5 oz)
      • Winter Blend Canister Fuel:
        • Winter canister fuels I’ve had good luck with (≥20°F):
          • MSR IsoPro Fuel Canister: 80/20 blend of isobutane/propane
          • Snow Peak GigaPower: 85/15 blend of isobutane/propane
            • lowest working temp according to manufacturer: 15°F
          • For winter use I keep my fuel canisters warm (sleep with them and/or put them in a pocket before use), shake them, and place them on a foam pad to isolate them from the ground.
        • NOTE: For canister fuels to function, the ambient temperature must be above the boiling temperature of the fuel mixture. Higher percentages of low boiling point fuels will lead to lower boiling point mixtures. For reference, canister fuels are a blend of:
          • isobutane (boiling point:11°F)
          • propane (boiling point: -44°F)
          • n-butane (boiling point: 31°F)
    • <20°F: Whisperlite (11.2 oz)
      • Titanium pot
      • Comment: a classic that I’ve had forever
    • Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Fire Starters (cooking/emergency):
    • Emergency Stormproof Matches
      • Waterproof matches are notoriously hard to light; I’m considering upgrading my emergency matches to:Titan Stormproof Matches
    • ≥20°F: Mini Bic Lighter (~1 oz)
      • Bic pocket lighters use isobutane as fuel (boiling point:11°F), but I find that below 30°F they don’t keep a flame very long unless I’ve kept them warm in a pocket close to my body; their safety mechanisms and flicking mechanism are also challenging to use with gloves on, making them a poor choice for cold weather conditions
    •  <20°F: flint/steel fire-starter
  • Sun protection
    • Sunglasses/glacier glasses
    • Sunscreen
    • Lip balm containing sunscreen
  • Additional Emergency Gear
    • First-aid kit
      • Pills/Capsules:
        • aleve (6), tylenol (4), 12-hour sudafed (2),  Nyquil capsules (2), benadryl (4), 12-hour immodium (2), nuun electrolyte tablets (4)
      • Asthma/Allergy
        • Epi-pens (2), Inhaler
      • Wound management
        • Bandages: Duct tape, 2 gauze pads, 2 maxi pads, 6 steri-strips, 3 tega-derm dressings
        • Triple antibiotic ointment
        • Alcohol wipes
      • Survival
        • Length of Rope/cord
        • Matches/Mini-lighter/Flint&Steel fire starter as described above
        • Knife
      • Hand/Foot Warmers (2)
      • Water purification: Aqua Mira/Iodine Tabs
      • Additional items that described elsewhere that reside in my first aid kit include:
        • sunscreen, lip balm with sunscreen, compass, PLB, ultralight headlamp, emergency bivvy
  • Headlamp with spare batteries
    • All season: Petzl e+LITE (< 1 oz)
      • Spare batteries (2x CR2032 Lithium)
      • Max lumens: 26
      • Comments: It doesn’t through much light, but it’s more than enough to hike with and set up camp with. Down to temperatures in the teens it continues to perform well.
    • ≥20°F: Nitecore Headlamp Series HC60 (3.47 oz)
      • Battery (1 × 18650 lithium ion, micro-USB rechargeable)
      • Max lumens: 1000
      • Comments: This isn’t the lightest headlamp on the market, but it’s bright, its rechargeable, and it generates enough heat on its own that it seems to do better in harsh winter conditions than in summer conditions. I love this headlamp for winter backpacking/nighthiking; I wish that it had a red light mode, but otherwise I can’t complain about this headlamp
  • Hip pouch: to keep inhaler/cell phone etc close to body and warm
  • Bandana/hankerchief: the only cotton items I carry while backpacking

Clothing Layers

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If you have any questions about my gear choices, or if you have a favorite piece of winter gear that you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments below! If there’s sufficient interest in any particular gear item let me know, and I can work on writing up a more detailed review in a separate post.

Happy hiking!!

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A fellow winter hiker descending from Mt. Lafayette and enjoying a phenomenal January sunset in the White Mountains of NH


Additional Links

For other gearlists/reviews that I’ve published check out:

Links to other winter gearlists you might find interesting:

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Appalachian Trail selfie in low visibility conditions above treeline in the White Mountains in January (temp 5F, windchill -30F)

Mount Lafayette, NH: A Solo Winter Ascent

Mt. Lafayette

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-Hiker Power! (PCT Days 163-165)

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Little white plumes of moisture puff up into the air in front of me as I hike… It makes me think that I’m like a train, like the little engine that could, as I hike through the mountains of the North Cascades in Washington.

It’s the first hard frost that we’ve had since June, a clear indicator that fall is on its way… Before long, snow will blanket these mountains, but I’ll be gone by then… I’m less than 70 miles away from the Canadian border… I’m almost there!

I take a big sip of water, but the water feels thick as it hits my tongue and it crunches as I roll it around in my mouth… It isn’t until that crunch that I figure it out… The water in my water hose is beginning to freeze! The last time this happened was when I was on top of Mount Whitney!

Despite the cold, or perhaps because of it, I feel great. I have always loved the fall… the crisp, cool air… the changing colors of the leaves… the art that Jack Frost leaves behind… every step I take this morning reminds me of how much I love this life!

After hiking 2600 miles, I am in the best shape of my life… The trails from Stehekin to Hart’s Pass are well designed and graded, so I lengthen my stride on the uphills and the downhills and the miles just fly by… I feel powerful, I feel strong, and I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be… Here, in the mountains, on the trail, where my body and my mind are at peace with each other and with the rest of the world. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling…

I remember feeling this same way at the end of my AT thru-hike… A kind of thru-hiker confidence… Knowing that your body can just do it… You look at a trail, you look at a mountain, and there is never a doubt… your body will allow you to do amazing things and to go to amazing places! It has been a miraculous transformation for me… a transformation that was more than I’d dared to imagine when I set out for my first thru-hike in the spring of 2013.

At the beginning of my AT thru-hike I’d been sick for so long that I’d stopped trusting my body, and my body had stopped trusting me… Asthma had slowly, insidiously, crept into my world, and over the course of five years it felt like it had stolen my body and my life away from me. I fought it every step of the way, but my body and my lungs wouldn’t let me do the things that I wanted to do anymore. When I discovered that the job I loved was the source of the problem, that I had occupational asthma, I was heartbroken. I knew that I had to leave my job, but I just couldn’t do it… It had been my dream for so long, and I’d invested so much into it… how could I just leave? Besides, I wasn’t a quitter! Every fiber of my body rebelled against the inevitable truth… I was going to have to walk away from everything if I wanted to get my health back… Was I strong enough to do that?

Eventually, I figured out a way… I would exchange the old dream for a new dream. I’d always wanted to do a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail… Sure, it was a non-traditional approach for dealing with asthma, but I was confident that I could make it work. Knowing that I was going to live my dream of hiking the AT gave me the strength to do the impossible, to leave my job and my old life behind. My doctors had been skeptical (and so had everyone else), but I had faith… I had faith that I could do it… I had faith that I would get better… I had to!

I had started slowly, but over time my lungs had gotten stronger, and a new relationship was forged between my body and my mind as they learned to operate as one… It was the best feeling in the world! Standing on top of Katahdin last October I was filled with elation, it had worked! I’d let go of the fear that had consumed me for so long, the fear that my body, my lungs, and my asthma would prevent me from living my dreams. I thought that I had vanquished asthma from my life. I was powerful! I was strong! I was a thru-hiker!

Here, on the PCT, I had to come to terms with the fact that my asthma wasn’t completely gone, that I was an asthmatic. It was a rude awakening at first, but I gained a new respect for my body… I learned that I could manage my asthma, and that when I did, I could still trust my body to do amazing things and to take me to amazing places. I could be an asthmatic and still live my dreams!

A cold wind brings me back to the present as I climb the next hill. Thinking about how my thru-hikes have transformed my body and my life brings tears to my eyes. It’s been an incredible journey. Even though I feel great, I don’t want the miles to fly by… I want time to slow down… I want to take it all in, to savor it all, to catalog these happy thoughts, these happy moments… I want to stay here forever… I’m like Peter Pan, I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to leave the tail!

When I get to the top of the hill I stop and look around. It’s beautiful here in the Cascades. I take a deep breath of the cold morning air and smile as I let it out. Even though I’m asthmatic, even though I’ve been hiking uphill all morning and it’s cold, I can still take a full, chest-expanding breath of the fresh air! I can breath! I can hike! I can dream! These are the memories that I’ll keep for the rest of my life… 10 years from now, 30 years from now, 60 years from now, I’ll be able to come back here… to these powerful and happy memories… These happy thoughts, they’re going to help me to fly, and to keep flying, as I head into an uncertain future!

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Mount Whitney (PCT Days 52-54)

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“Wooooah!” I was on a steep incline trying to traverse a snowy slope in the dark when the snow beneath my right foot collapsed and skittered down the slope leaving my foot dangling without the foothold I’d hoped for.

Up until then the snow had been moderately firm, and each foothold had been secure, but beneath an icy crust my foot had just discovered a foot and a half of light, fluffy, non-load-bearing powdery snow. A wave of adrenaline surged through my body as I took a deep breath and tried to find another foothold… It was a long way down…

Anytime I’m on terrain that feels sketchy or exposed I pretend that I’m rock climbing and make sure that I have three good, solid points of contact at all times before I try to move forward. In this case I was very thankful for that instinct. I could afford to replace my floundering foot without panicking.

I reseated my foot and this time it held. “Phew!” But my relief didn’t last long, my second foot didn’t hold either. The snow beaneath me was skittering to a stop somewhere at the base of the cliff… Not exactly reassuring, but my pervious foothold was solid and once again I was able to recover and find better footing.

It was just those two steps that stood out as hair raising moments as I night hiked Mount Whitney so that I could watch the sunrise from it’s summit. The rest of the climb was just hard work and beauty.

As we set off from camp at midnight the sky was clear and amazingly beautiful. There were so many stars that you couldn’t count them and the Milky Way was awesomely obvious. We knew if nothing else, we would remember the stars of this night.

As we ascended the mountain the snow got deeper and the temperatures dropped. We donned our microspikes to help with traction and additional warm layers of clothing. Before long the water in our water bottles had frozen and we were wiggling our toes trying to remember what they felt like. At that point I switched to my neoprene socks, which definitely kept my feet warmer.

As I hiked the tune from the Christmas sing “silver and gold” got stuck in my head, but I replaced the lyrics with “fingers and toes, fingers and toes, everyone wishes for warm fingers and toes.” I had plenty of warm clothes, but my fingers and toes were definitely cold. Though it was a hard, slow climb, we made it through the snow and up to the summit of Mount Whitney for sunrise. It was a truly spectacular experience!

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As dawn broke on top of Mount Whitney the temperatures were in the teens… It was definitely cold up there! 10 PCT hikers curled up in sleeping bags and crammed into the tiny shelter on top of Mount Whitney. We were all anxious to warm up our poor fingers and toes before spending more time outside enjoying the amazing vistas.

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As soon as my fingers and toes warmed up I was anxious to go back out and enjoy the views. I had insulated pants and an insulated jacket (or two) on so that I could stay warm out on the summit. In many ways, the scariest part of the day was when the door to the shelter jammed and I thought we were all going to be trapped in the shelter at the summit of Whitney!!

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Lucky for me, the jam was only temporary and I was able to escape the shelter and get outside to enjoy the impressive vistas! After soaking in the views I was actually both excited and impatient about heading down. Since our entire climb had been in the dark (literally), everything was going to seem new as we descended.

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Somehow in the daylight it seemed like there was even more snow than we’d realized as we were going up. Lots and lots of snow. We were amazed that we’d gone through so much snow during our night hike! On the way down I pulled out my ice and used it as I traversed the sketchier sections that we’d come up over. With ice axe in hand I tried to cut better, more stable steps into the snow/ice. I didn’t want to have any of those adrenaline inducing steps on the way down… The two steps of that going up had been more than enough for me!

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After I got through the short, sketchy part, I relaxed and enjoyed the stunning views around me. People had been telling me for months about how amazing the Sierras are and now I was finally there. It would be hard to be more Sierra than this and it would be hard to be more spectacular than this.

When asthma forced me to leave my job, I never would have imagined that a year later I would be standing on the summit of Mount Whitney in May with a bunch of my fellow thru-hikers! Sure, at below freezingf temperatures at 14,000ft I’d had to warm up my inhaler so that I could use it, but I was there… Doing amazing things… Doing things that I hadn’t even dared imagine a year ago!

I’m looking forward to the rest of the Sierras and to what my future holds!

(Rumor has it that I’ve gone through the scariest part of the Sierra, so now I get to sit back and enjoy the snow and the stunning scenery.)

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Brrrr…eautiful (Days 137-141)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.