So there I was….
Just kidding, but that is how every good story starts. Except if you are in South Carolina, then the preferred story intro is “Hey y’all, watch this!” or the ever popular “Hold my beer….” Without further ado, here is the grand finale of my winter school experience.
This is it. The time has come to hike out into the woods for 3 nights of winter camping. After struggling for much longer than I care to admit to get all of the essentials loaded into (or on the outside of) my pack, we had a weigh-in. Old Ethel (my newly baptized backpack) tipped the scales at 43 pounds. An elite few had packs lighter than mine, but by and large most folks were carrying a lot more weight.
We hit the trail at the Round Pond parking area, and hiked 4.2 miles to the Boquet River lean-to. Okay, don’t roll your eyes here, but pretty much every step was total agony. I have never carried a pack that heavy, and the trail is a pretty steep uphill right from the parking area. Eventually my legs gave up their whining, and I was able to plod slowly along in relative peace. My journey was fueled with my homemade trail-mix concoction (crackers, cheese, almonds, beef jerky, and beef sticks – awesome!) and candy. It’s crazy how you can literally feel your legs losing their steam once you’ve depleted any caloric intake. I had been getting better about staying on top of layering changes, food, and water so that helped me keeping taking my one slow step at a time. I heard hooting and hollering up ahead (not an unusual occurrence for our group), and I saw the shape of a lean to with relief. Setting up the tents was not as bad as I thought it would be in the cold temperatures. I had a mountain hardware Trango 2 from about 15 years ago that I brought. It was probably a little heavier than the new models but still is a bomb-proof tent. And my awesome tent-mate, Michele, worked hard at creating our own little homestead. I don’t know if a re-hydrated freeze dried meal has ever tasted as good as that first evening. Every night we would boil a ton of water in order to make Nalgene hot water bottles for the sleeping bags. I’ll tell you what, a toasty Nalgene in my big red sleeping bag was just about as good as it gets. What’s not as good as it gets is having to get out of the tent in the middle of the night to pee. As my nephew would say, it was “not even good.”
Our crew at the onset of our journey. L to R at trailhead sign: Jeremy, Todd, Jon, Aimee, Amy, David with Michele and Steve up front.
We woke up to the inside of our tent being covered in snow and ice crystals. And the outside of the tent was piled with about 5 inches of fresh snow. We enjoyed hot food and beverages for breakfast. The plan today is to hike to the top of Dial Mountain. This was to be another bush-whack. We set a turn-around time of 12:30, and started hiking. The bush-whack was actually really fun. There were a lot of places where the snow was up to my waist. I felt bad for the bigger guys behind me since I wasn’t doing much to break trail for them. Later one of our group members admitted to slightly hating me as he watched me float on the surface of the snow while he sank down to his armpits with each step. The group stayed close together during this hike, and there was a lot of joyous belting out of old 90’s rap songs. I had a blast. It got really steep and thick with trees as we neared our turn-around time. The decision was made to turn back shy of reaching the summit. It turns out after 4 hours of sweating and struggling, we had gone less than a mile. Oh well. What was disheartening though was to see several hours of hard work turn into about 25 minutes of sliding down the mountain on your rear-end. We got to camp in the early afternoon, and started to boil water again. It was a struggle to stay warm as the temperatures continued to drop. We hit between -15 and -20 this night. The group’s spirits stayed high though, and it was a relief to climb into Roxanne, my newly minted sleeping bag. Throughout our boisterous and off-tune singing, someone let fly the old Sting song, Roxanne. So that became my big girl’s name. Although ironically, I did need her to turn on the red light each night. Or didn’t I? Whatever, even I don’t know where I am going with this analogy.
It was cooooooold this morning. The thermometer stayed around -15 while we prepared to leave camp. This day’s objective: Dix Mountain. It felt good to hike with a significantly lighter pack. And I was finally starting to get my legs back. There were a lot of really steep sections, and at some points you would be sliding backwards on your snowshoes more than you were propelling yourself forward. The views from mid-way up the mountain were absolutely gorgeous. As we got even higher, we ascended above the level of the clouds. Which obviously cut off some of the view, but was also incredibly cool in my mind. As we made the final bit of our climb over exposed granite, the wind was whipping pretty good. I happened to be the lucky first person to clamber onto the highest point of Dix Mountain. It felt like a big achievement. Our whole team assembled for a few quick photos. Our time management was spot-on as we made the summit just a few minutes before our predetermined turnaround time. The way down was long and steep. Most attempts at a graceful glissade turned into a decidedly ungraceful butt slide. But that was probably more fun anyways. There were a few spectacular wipe-outs but thankfully no one got hurt (and I didn’t have to work). Dinner once again tasted amazing, and Roxanne had left the (red) light on. (I know, not that funny, but I just can’t stop myself. ) I have been really nervous about trying to take down the tents and pack up the gear in sub-zero temperatures. Putting on my boots is a several step process because of the cold. After tying one boot, it’s time to do anything possible to warm up my fingers before attempting to fiddle with the next boot. What will an entire re-pack be like? By the way, here’s a little known tidbit about trying to stay warm in the cold: It can actually be too cold for hand warmers to work. Trust me, I found out the hard way. How crummy is that???
No rest for the weary – O’dark thirty came early this morning. Like most things in life, worrying about having to pack up our gear in the cold was much worse than just actually doing it. It always helps that your motivation is to get back to civilization where simple things like hot showers, food other than Mountain (Out-)House, and not having to strap 40+ pounds to your back actually exist. In no time, we were on the trail with headlamps to light our way out of the woods. Sadly, my pack did not really seem that lighter despite eating the majority of my food. The tent and rainfly had a good amount of ice and frost on them when we packed them which negated any pack weight loss I was hoping to benefit from. The miles seemed to fly by for me, and I could absolutely not believe it when I began to hear the sounds of cars on the road below. This was one of the sweetest sounds that I have heard, even better than our group’s terrible singing…. I also could not believe how much uphill hiking we did on the way out. WTF, I do NOT remember walking downhill on the way in. I felt weightless after throwing my pack to the ground in the parking lot. We got back to the Adirondack Loj where I took one of the best showers in recent memory. And also started a new battle royale with trying to untangle my hair. After a little graduation ceremony, I was on my way home to Syracuse. Hard to believe that the trip was already behind me. All I could think of was “I did it!” We all did it. What a great group of people I got to share my experience with. I am very thankful for everyone’s supportive words and bad jokes. I was also very thankful for the Auntie Anne’s pretzel that I cookie-monstered on my ride home!
To recap…. Winter Mountaineering School 2015: miles and miles of hiking in 2 feet of snow, in -20 degree weather, in snowshoes with heavy packs, up hill both ways. And I’m not even joking.
Wish I had more photos to share from the backpacking experience but most electronics get a little cranky in the cold weather. If I get my hands on some of the pics, I will gladly post them.