“Wow!!” I grinned, ear to ear, as I gazed up at the sparkling white, snow-covered summit of Mount Washington, set against the most amazingly clear bluebird sky I’ve ever seen in the White Mountains. It was hard to believe that just a few days before the winds had been blasting across the mountains at 171 mph with temperatures dipping down to -13F (-25C) since today the sun was shining, temperatures were rising into the teens, the winds were calm, and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. Not a single one!! I couldn’t have asked for better weather for me first winter overnight on Mt. Washington! (Trip report and gear list below)
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:
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.
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!
“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!
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.
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!!
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.
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!
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.)
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.