winter

More Light Pillars!

Thirty-two years on this planet and I’ve only seen this phenomenon three times, and all three times were since moving to the Upper Valley. Light pillars are formed when city lights, or any bright lights I suppose, shine through tiny ice crystals called “diamond dust.” These ice crystals need very cold temperatures, below zero, and require still nights with calm or no wind so they remain suspended in the air. If there’s wind, the crystals get blown around, disrupting the light pillars. They also need enough moisture to form ice crystals, so there needs to be a sufficient source of humidity. All three times we’ve witnessed the light pillars, it has been on relatively early winter nights when the rivers running through town aren’t yet frozen over, so there’s steam rising up from the open, flowing water. We also live near a small ski hill, and it would appear that overnight snow-making contributes to the formation of light pillars nearby.

Usually if I’m awake before sunrise on a weekend, it’s because I’m traveling up to a trailhead somewhere for a day in the mountains. This morning, it was for a very cold (-18F) walk around Lebanon, New Hampshire. While looking at model data and forecast temperatures Friday evening, Ted mentioned it might be a “light pillar night.” We had friends coming to visit and plans to do the ice skating trail on Lake Morey in Vermont, which meant for once we weren’t going to be heading out early to hike, making this the perfect morning to set a 4am alarm and wander the streets until dawn.

Our alarm went off, current conditions indicated cold temperatures and calm wind, so we suited up and started the car. First we scouted lights along the Connecticut River, but didn’t have any luck. Part of the problem too is the lack of good open spaces for views, even in town, since buildings, hills, and trees become barriers to good compositions. Ted continued driving, while I watched out all windows for signs of those elusive beams of light. Finally, through the trees, I got a glimpse of one, so we headed in that direction, hoping for a more open view and to get closer to the action.

After a few shots along the Mascoma River, we decided to see if we could find a better vantage. We drove through some fog and took note of where it was congregating, and started heading out of town. Eventually, we ended up getting a few nice shots from the fields by the high school, just before they started fading out with the approaching sunrise. We stopped for coffee on the way home, and kept the momentum up by processing up these photos, getting laundry done, ice skating several miles and stopping by Storrs Hill for the evening, followed by a late night of catching up with our visiting friends. No wonder I’m so tired.

Tuckerman Ravine Hike

Wow, it sure doesn't look or feel much like spring on Mount Washington right now! You'd think we were back in Colorado, but this is New Hampshire, I swear!

Ted & I hiked up to Tuckerman Ravine yesterday to check out the new snow that fell over the last few days, and to scout it out for a future ski date. The trail up to Hermit Lake is still completely snow-covered, but in good shape with all the heavy use (and since they essentially groom it). Tons of people were hanging out on the deck enjoying the gorgeous sunny weather and the dramatic view, but not as many were actually skiing due to moderate to considerable avalanche risk in the ravine. Several rangers and rescue personnel were on duty, interviewing skiers about their skiing plans, and ensuring only those with appropriate backcountry equipment and experience were heading up into the ravine.  Ted talked to one of them to find out how far it was safe for us to hike, but unfortunately the landmark they provided was buried, so it was way too easy to go too far. We soon found ourselves alongside the flattened trees from an earlier avalanche this winter, and backtracked to a safer spot to watch the brave souls skiing Left Gully. The temperature stayed in the 30s with a pretty steady wind, so it still felt a lot like winter up there. We passed a pit dug in the snow that proved there was at least a good 6 feet of snow on the ground. The wildest thing was after playing in all that deep snow, it was a sunny 60 degrees as we ate dinner outdoors beside the Mascoma River last night. Nothing like experiencing two seasons in the same day! 

Volcan Iztaccihuatl

WE SUMMITED IZTACCIHUATL!!!! :)

I think when we booked our trip to climb Mount Rainier, some part of us thought it would likely be the first and only mountaineering trip of its kind. We knew we wanted to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone and try something new, to take on a roped up, crevassed glacier adventure. With so many unknowns going into the trip, not knowing what to expect, I think we half expected to be terrified by the steep terrain and exposure, the deep crevasses with ladder crossings, and the elevated risks that come with such an endeavor. I remember trying not to look around too much in the dark on the way up, focusing on every step and breath, anxious about what the sunrise would reveal about my surroundings – but when the sun finally did come up, I was mesmerized and in complete awe of what I saw. The glacier was so beautiful and so grand, and I was so, so small. It was like being on another planet, and rather than feeling fear, I felt excited, amazed, and addicted. WE. MUST. DO. THIS. AGAIN.

So we booked another trip with RMI, this time to climb Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl, Mexico’s 1st and 3rd highest peaks, and spent the year in between training and learning Spanish. The inspiration for this trip came from the Banff Mountain Film Festival film, “55 Hours in Mexico,” which informed us of Orizaba’s existence, and depicted it as something we might be able to do. We read that the glacier was less crevassed and technical than Rainier, but with an altitude over 18k feet, we’d be climbing to new heights.

We flew into Mexico City from essentially sea level, and the next day, started our acclimatization on La Malinche. I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy trip right from the start, as I found myself getting tired, lightheaded, and even heaving at times before we reached 13k feet. We slept at 10k feet that night, and the next day drove to Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park. We walked the dirt road to the Altzomoni Hut at 13k feet and prepped for the climb ahead. The mountains were in the clouds when we arrived, and while setting up for the night, checking our tents, and packing for high camp, the clouds cleared and we could finally see both Iztaccihuatl and Popcatepetl. That evening, Popocatepetl even let off some steam for us, and it was amazing to watch the sunset while that massive volcano puffed out smoke.

Morning always comes way too soon on mountaineering trips, but we woke up to a hot scrambled egg breakfast that was easier to eat at altitude than the usual oatmeal. We didn’t have a lot of elevation gain to do to get to high camp, but with carrying estimated 50+ pound packs, we knew we wouldn’t be fast. Thankfully, our porters shuttled a few jugs of water to high camp so we could save ourselves a few pounds. The trail was a mix of gradual and steeper terrain, and higher up was steep, loose dirt and rocky.

We reached high camp at 15k feet around mid-afternoon, set up our tents, and then spent a little time relaxing in them. Dinner consisted of Ramen, which I’d never eaten before, and thankfully I tried Ted’s before putting the spice packet in mine. Way too salty, I ended up just eating the plain noodles. We reviewed the gear list for summit day, topped off water and packed up, took some acetazolamide and went to bed before sunset. I woke up around 8:30pm, insanely frustrated that I had to pee and had to get out of my sleeping bag, but immediately forgot I had to go upon stepping out of the tent and seeing the view. A sky of stars, a few distant clouds with lightning flashes, and surrounded by the bright lights of the huge cities way down below, it was incredible. After staring in awe for way too long, I remembered I’d stepped out here for a reason, and needed to get back to sleep. Our wake-up call was at 1am, which consisted of layering up, forcing as much oatmeal and hot chocolate down as possible without throwing it up, and being ready to hit the trail by 2am. 

Izta is a very steep and rocky mountain, with everything from scrambling to steep, loose stuff, to sad glacier crossings. Apparently this year is very different than most years, as it’s been extremely dry and hasn’t snowed, so what is typically snow-covered was mostly just bare rock/dirt. This was not at all what I expected, as I do very well on the snow and glaciated terrain, and I’m not so fond of steep, loose rocks/dirt. There were only two relatively short sections where crampons were necessary, but otherwise it was bare ground the whole way.  We roped up for a good portion of it, not so much because we really need to, but more for the comfort of knowing we wouldn’t go far if we did fall. From 2am til sunrise, we hiked, often in silence outside structured breaks, focusing hard on each step and pressure breath. If I got out of rhythm, it was obvious, as I’d immediately get the lightheaded and nauseous feeling, heaving here and there, feeling like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen (because I wasn’t). Then I’d push out a few good pressure breaths and work back into a rhythm.

Izta isn’t your typical climb to the top and go back down kind of deal. She is a ridge with many summits, which was immensely taxing, both physically and in terms of morale. But then, the sun comes up, and it's all worth it. We were treated to a gorgeous sunrise, complete with an undercast, and Popocatepetl continuing to puff out smoke pretty consistently. It was PERFECT. 

After a good, long break in the sunshine, we started the descent. There seemed to be more breaks on the way down than on the way up, and it felt like it was taking forever going over all the bumps along the Ridge of the Sun. On Rainier, my emotional moment was upon seeing the sunrise and the top at the same time, knowing I was going to summit. This time, my emotional moment came when I finally crested a hill and could see high camp again, knowing I was going to make it out of there! As usual, Ted and I had our tent down and stuff packed in no time, and we hung out for quite a while waiting for everyone else to be packed up. My calf started to cramp a few times, so I used that time to stretch and hydrate. Our porters surprised us by meeting us at high camp and helping with not only taking down tents, but also by carrying the tents down for us. Ted was excited because everything finally fit in his 65L backpack (it was tight with half the tent in it on the way up). At this point, my feet were starting to hurt in my mountaineering boots, so my pace slowed a bit more, at least until there was lightning! Ted said when someone asked our local guide if lightning might be a problem, he said, “Only in July.” First there was graupel, then some snow, then bigger graupel, followed by a few loud clashes of thunder. I think that motivated everyone to not want to be 14k feet up anymore, so we didn’t take any breaks heading down from high camp. We were met at the trailhead by the local staff who provided sandwiches, beer, and sodas for us to enjoy while loading up the van. We now have a down day in the city to rest and explore Puebla, before heading to Tlachichuca and up to Orizaba high camp. 

Wednesday in the Whites

Ted's in Texas for the AMS conference and the weather in the northeast is finally above zero. With nothing else to do and blue sky all around, off to the mountains I went! 

I left before sunrise and drove two hours to Crawford Notch, and spent way too much time climbing up the taller-than-me snowbank looking for where the trail starts. After a series of postholes to the trail sign, I found myself enjoying a freshly packed snowshoe trench all the way up to Jackson. I'd hoped to loop over Webster too, but opted against it because it wasn't packed out, but also because I was solo and way too eager to get to a view. All through the woods, the fresh snow was piled on every tree, and every now and then I'd get a glimpse of the sun rising on the other side. I finally climbed the last pitch to the summit and an expansive winter wonderland of mountains unfolded before me. Mount Washington was as white as it could be, and with no wind, I considered extending my hike heading toward it, until I ran into someone who had turned around from the ridge and said breaking it out alone just wasn't worth it. I ended up having the summit to myself for almost two hours, with the exception of the shadows that came from behind me as soon as I settled in. THE GRAY JAYS! 

A pair of gray jays, clearly used to being fed by hikers, landed on a treetop behind me. The longer I sat there, the closer and closer they hopped, until they were sitting next to me, then on my backpack, looking for a peak treat. When they hear wrappers crinkle, they perk right up, and they sat still hoping for a handout, long enough for me to have a mini photo shoot with them. It was cool to sit quietly in nature and have these birds come hang out with me, but was sad to consider the real reason they were so friendly is because people had conditioned them to associate humans with food. It reminded me of a hike I did one winter, on a popular Rocky Mountain National Park trail, where a squirrel actually ran up my leg and down my arm trying to get what it thought was food in my hand. When animals are fed human food, it not only puts their health at risk since what we eat isn't always nutritious for them, it also puts us at risk. Wild animals stop being afraid of people, and we often think it's exciting to have an animal eat from our hands, but what about the risk of getting bitten, or the risk of them spreading disease to you? There's also the risk of having animals destroy your personal property, such as mice or martens ripping into your backpack for any snacks or even crumbs they smell in there when you leave your pack or campsite unattended. I know it's extremely exciting to have encounters with wildlife, but next time you have the choice, remember you can help keep birds and animals healthy (and yourself safe) by not feeding them. 

To learn more about how you can protect yourself, wildlife, and the landscape while exploring, visit LNT.org.

Light Pillars

You know it's cold outside when you see this amazing phenomenon. 

The morning of December 17, 2017, Ted and I loaded up the car for a day of ice climbing and hit the road well before daylight. As we drove around the green at the center of town, I noticed beams of light reaching toward the sky, rising from each of the streetlights. After pointing this out, we stared out the car windows in awe at this peculiar sight. They were EVERYWHERE, and SO BRIGHT! Ted snapped this low quality photo with his phone as we approached the interstate, and that was it. They were gone. We hoped to see them as we drove over the bridge in West Lebanon, since it overlooked more lights, but sadly, they seemed to only be in one small isolated area further east. 

The first half of our drive to the mountains involved me asking questions and trying to understand what we just saw. They were light pillars, which form on REALLY cold, calm nights, when there's enough humidity for the creation of "diamond dust," or tiny ice crystals suspended in the air. It's pretty cool, since it's like having precipitation that forms near the ground on a clear night, rather than falling from clouds. The light pillars are seen when light refracts off the tiny ice crystals, creating a beautiful display. Needless to say, I was pretty intrigued and welcomed the cold air heading our way. 

Usually I'm not happy about waking up in the middle of the night if it's not to go hiking, but yesterday morning around 3am, I woke up to see the elusive pillars yet again. Ted mentioned the night before that conditions were optimal for them, having fresh snow on the ground, light wind, and nighttime temperatures below zero. That knowledge is what prompted me to look out the window in the first place. I probably scared the crap out of Ted when I screamed "BEAMS!" out of excitement, and then dragged him out of bed and into the -14 degree night with my camera. At first it looked like they faded away, but we drove around a bit, keeping an eye out for pillars and an open enough view in their direction. We ended up at the Howard Logan Field in Lebanon, NH, and trudged through the new foot of snow for a less obstructed view. Ted set up the tripod while I worked on camera settings with my numb hands, and we were blown away by what we captured. Often, photos don't do things justice, but this time, I feel like it was just as pretty in real life as the photos depict. The pillars were more transient than we expected them to be. They were really good for only a short period of time, and seemed to fade in and out, but mostly out after the first few minutes in the baseball field. But just like undercasts and auroras, it was alluring enough to keep me up again last night, hoping for their return. 

A New Kind of Adventure

I've hiked to the summit of Cascade Mountain too many times to count, and started avoiding hiking it in recent years as hiker traffic there has increased so drastically. What do you do when the trails are too crowded? Find a less crowded route. 

In order to keep expanding your comfort zone, and perhaps to prevent boredom, you have to keep pushing your limits and challenging yourself. Keep trying new things, harder things. So this month, I somehow allowed Ted and Joe to talk me into my first multi-pitch climb, and an ice/mixed/slide climb at that! I haven't climbed ice in two years, and I'm kind of terrible at rock climbing. I haven't been on a rope since a harness fiasco at the rock gym a while back, and a winter day with a single-digit high was less than appealing. But! The weather was otherwise sunny, no snow moving in, the roads were clear, and the nighttime temperatures well below zero in the Adirondacks would keep other climbers from getting an early start, allowing us time to take our time. Ted once said I shouldn't be afraid of the Trap Dike on Mount Colden because he felt it was well within my comfort zone, and he turned out to be right that I'd find it "a delightful playground of rocks." So when he insisted I'd enjoy this climb, I decided to give it a shot. 

One thing you learn about ice climbing as a party of three is that it's not fast ascent. Not in the way hiking or trail running is. The concept is straightforward; lead the first pitch, build your anchor, belay everyone up, repeat.  The reality is not as clean. It takes a good chunk of time to get your gear sorted out and your equipment on.  Ropes drag, get stuck or frozen, anchor building can get interesting, communication isn't always easy, plus there's the fact that everything just seems to move more slowly in the winter. The result is that much of your time is spent waiting.  Unlike summer rock climbing, during the winter, you feel every minute when you're not moving if you're not properly dressed. Early on, I made the mistake of looking down at Ted at the base of the falls, and in that moment, I realized how high I'd climbed already. I decided then that if I was going to make it up, I'd need to focus on what was right in front of me, and avoid looking up or down. It's way too easy to psych yourself out when you're hanging from a rope on an ice cliff. With the encouragement of my fearless leaders and an unexpected friend, Andy, who climbed up behind me with another group, I muscled up the technical part of the climb. 

Above the waterfall, we stowed one of the ropes and roped together to simul-climb a couple shorter, easier ice obstacles interspersed with hiking.  Even this was slow-going, as the terrain was uneven, filled with buried rocks, ledges, downed trees, and often deep snow. 

As we reached the bottom of the slide, it was becoming clear that we weren’t hiking out in daylight, and that this would end up being one of the most physically challenging ascents of my life.  In the summer, the slide is a steep, gritty, and often wet, rock slab with numerous loose rocks.  In the winter, it is about 400-450 feet of glorious low-angle ice with a good rest ledge near the middle.  Despite the good shape it was in, it still took nearly the last bit of my strength to get up it, with my calves borderline cramping with every step, my arms exhausted from swinging those axes. 

There was no real time for celebration though, the sun was setting fast and we still had a solid bushwhack to reach the summit. Only one other group followed this route all the way to the summit, as most people just rappel after the technical ice. It appeared that their group must have split up at some point, as the tracks in the snow diverged. Joe took what ended up being the easier, faster route to the summit, and of course, Ted and I chose the more convoluted path. When we finally reached the top, it was just dark enough to dig out the headlamps, and the wind was picking up, giving me brain freeze as it hit the side of my head. We hurried down off the rocks and into the trees on the hard-packed, maintained trail for a quick snack before half jogging our way back to the trailhead. A two hour drive home, and our adventure was complete. 

Calendar Feature!

Lake George from Black Mountain.

Taking photos from mountain summits and backcountry locations is never easy. It often involves early mornings or late nights, heavy backpacks, steep terrain, multiple miles, lots of sweat, and of course, the ever-changing weather. There's the frustration from poor trail conditions, and Ted's "It's right around the corner, you're almost there!" encouragement on repeat when we're nowhere near the top.  Sometimes, we work hard to reach the viewpoint, and there is no view. That was almost the case on this winter ascent of Black Mountain, near Whitehall, NY. 

It was mid-December, right after a big snowfall, and apparently before anyone had really snowshoed or snowmobiled into the area that season. Four of us set out to do what we thought would be a quick, 5-mile half day hike, but we faced issues right from the gate. There was between 2 and 3 feet of freshly fallen snow blanketing everything, weighing the trees and branches down so much they leaned over the trail, making it difficult to find and follow. With every step, we were sinking to our knees or more -- with snowshoes on. I don't know why we kept going, if we thought maybe there'd be less snow later on or what, but it never got better. If "Tough Terrain Ted" weren't there breaking trail, the girls most certainly would have turned around and ventured off to find some hot cocoa instead. On we pressed, for hours, flattening the snow beneath us, creating a packed trail that would make the hike out less work later. At one point, I sunk waist deep and struggled to get out.

Eventually though, we made it! In the time we thought it'd take to do the round trip hike, we were just barely reaching the summit. A bit disheartening, a look around presented nothing but shades of white and gray, and clouds swirled around the summit. All that work, and no view?! It happens, more than you'd think, which makes the summits with views that much more appreciated. Exhausted and in no hurry to head back down, we hung out for a bit, and waited out the clouds. Sometimes, they never clear, and sometimes, they open up the perfect window that makes it all worth the effort, and hopefully the camera is ready. Slowly, the sun tried to shine down through the clouds. As the clouds lifted slowly and swirled around us, we got short glimpses of the big, blue lake below. Realizing this trend, I got the camera out and ready. 

Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK)'s 2018 calendar is now available at  www.ADK.org .

Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK)'s 2018 calendar is now available at www.ADK.org.

The above photo was featured in a hiking piece in Adirondac magazine last year, and I'm excited to announce that it's now the December image in the Adirondack Mountain Club's 2018 wall calendar! In addition, an image of three-toothed cinquefoil from the Cascade summit is also included in the calendar's sub-theme on alpine vegetation. Sales from these calendars help support ADK's mission and programs, which aim to protect and preserve wild lands and waters throughout New York State. ADK builds and maintains trails, educates the public, and works to keep views like this accessible to the public. Pick one up today at ADK.org!

A Presidential President's Day (Ted's Account)

The forecast as we pulled into the trailhead.

Five friends set out to tackle the highest summit in the northeast, home of the “world’s worst weather” in the dead of winter. The forecast called for clearing skies; but upon departure, the winds at the summit were howling at hurricane force with temperatures in the lower single digits and zero visibility. A little while later, hunkered down just above the tree line, the frigid winds ripped in from the west and the blowing fog and snow made it difficult to distinguish up from down. Alone and fighting the cold, the group faced the decision of whether press on, or retreat back down the mountain to warmer climes.

Prologue:

A winter ascent of Mt. Washington has been on my radar for quite a while, but it’s a long drive, life gets busy, and my car is, well, not all that reliable. However, a recent move has substantially shortened the drive to the Whites. Things came together once I spotted a good weather forecast for the long weekend (good by Mt. Washington in February standards), and we called up some friends in NY who were eager to make the trip. Originally, we planned to climb via the classic Lions Head route, but while hiking the Osceolas on Saturday I chatted with another hiker who recommended going up from the west via the Ammonoosuc Ravine. After reading a bit more about Ammonoosuc, I settled on this. Game on.

The Approach:

We arrived at the cog base station trailhead around 7am under mostly cloudy skies and intermittent flurries. We suited up in the parking lot and talked briefly with a few other hikers and skiers heading up for the day. After a few minutes we started out in snowshoes, following a well-packed trench through the woods. The trail was probably hard packed enough to lose the snowshoes, but occasional knee (waist!?) deep post holes on the periphery seemed a good reminder to stick with the floatation. We came to a small pool labeled on the map as Gem Pool, the trail climbed steeply above this. In no time, we left the hardwoods below us and continued into a mix of firs and scrub. The higher we climbed, the deeper and more impressive the snow became. Near the tree line we ran into a solo hiker on his way down, having turned back due to poor visibility.  He joined us in hopes that he’d have better luck with a group, and shared stories of his climbs up Denali and Aconcagua. We continued up in snowshoes until just above tree line where a flow of thick glare ice warranted a switch to crampons. During this time we took stock of the weather. It was not good. The visibility was limited to maybe 100 feet, and without trees or rocks to stand out, the ground and sky merged into one. Another group coming up behind us reached tree line and abruptly made the decision to turn back, and the solo hiker who joined us earlier turned with them. Yelling back and forth to each other over the wind, we strongly considered following suit. I mean, the mountaineer who’s climbed Denali just turned around. Would we be stupid to try to continue?

Then, for a very brief moment, the fog thinned enough to see that ahead maybe 200 yards was the Lakes the Clouds Hut, covered with rime and tucked into the snow, offering us a break from the wind to collect our thoughts and weigh our options. Then, as soon as it appeared, the view was gone, but now we knew the direction, so we headed up. We got into the lee of the hut where it was calm and rested, sipping hot chocolate.

The Climb:

Hiking/climbing is a constant struggle to find the line between fear that’s just in your head, and legitimate danger. Today was one of those days where we had to bring all of our focus to ensure we stayed on the right side of that line. At the hut we tried to acclimate to let the initial fear of the poor conditions subside and consider the situation. The visibility was BAD. It wasn’t that the fog itself was terribly thick, it’s that the ground was completely white with snow and rime. This fact made the ground the same color as the sky, which reduced visibility from what may have been a couple hundred feet to less than fifty. Walk 100 feet away from the hut, and it would be invisible. With the signs and cairns all rimed over, they would provide little help. All that said, by objective metrics, the weather wasn’t THAT bad. It was cold, though not too cold (10 degrees), and while the wind was strong, it wasn’t knocking us off balance. I put it at a stout 35mph with occasional gusts to near 50mph. This was much better than this morning’s higher summits forecast suggested we might encounter. Add that to the fact that it was early and the weather was forecast to improve throughout the day, and I wasn’t quite ready to call it. After a few minutes and some coaxing, I convinced our group to head the 0.4 miles over to Monroe and see how that went. We developed a plan in which we would try to cairn hop up the slope using each other as visual markers to make sure we didn’t get lost along the way. I planted a snowshoe within visual range of the hut to make it easier to find our way back, and off we went. We started off towards Monroe, keenly aware of how easily we could get disoriented and wander off into the abyss. The cairn hopping kind of worked for a bit, but we pretty rapidly lost the cairns. No matter, as long as we were still going up, we were going the right way. But it wasn’t finding our way up I was concerned about, it was finding our way back down. Even with compass bearings and good route finding, it was pretty disorienting. It is abundantly clear how people routinely get lost up there in the fog. However, on the way up, I came up with a plan to chisel out rocks from the ice, providing a black marker to stick out against white backdrop. This actually worked pretty well, and I was confident we’d be able to use these breadcrumbs to help find our back to the hut.

After a little wandering around the summit ridge we did eventually find the true summit, then headed back down following our markers and compass bearing until we reached the base of the mountain where the trail splits off in multiple directions. Looking around, we noted that the only thing visible in the “distance” was a small red snow shoe sticking out of the snow, confirming the way to go. Soon we were back at the hut, only now there were a number of hikers there all taking shelter deciding whether to keep climbing or turn around. A few headed off toward Monroe, a few others remained at the hut, and others simply headed back down the mountain. From what we gathered from the folks at the hut, no one could remember seeing anyone head off toward Washington, perhaps one group of two? So here we were, and now we had to decide whether to forge on and give Washington a shot, or quit while we were ahead.

After about 15 minutes of contemplation and rest, we decided to go for Washington. At this point, the visibility had improved slightly (or maybe I was seeing things), and I was still holding out hope that it would clear up. We got a couple of skeptical looks from people at the hut … and at least one lecture, before heading off, but shortly after heading towards Washington we were joined first by a solo skier, and then another hiker, who didn’t want to make the trek alone. Shortly after leaving the hut we came across a sign encased in snow and ice. I used my ice axe to knock off the ice and snow, and the sign was the infamous “STOP: world’s worst weather…” sign… an ominous sign in the swirling fog and snow.

As we made our way up, following a compass bearing (and cairns when we could find them), we chiseled out rocks and cairns from the ice to help us find the way back if the visibility didn’t clear. But as we climbed, we first started to get short breaks in the clouds, then some patches of blue sky, and finally a little direct sun. As we climbed higher, the visibility continued to gradually improve, and soon we could see the broad slopes of the summit cone looming ahead. As we made the final approach to the summit, the skies cleared, and the few remaining clouds broke around and below us. We continued to chip the occasional cairn out of the ice just in case, but route finding was easy now. Then we were on top. We walked over and hid out in the lee of the wind with a couple of other groups who came up from Lions Head and dropped pack. We wandered around the summit for a little while taking pictures, eating, drinking, etc. The winds were quite strong and it was quite cold, but with the improved visibility and sun in and out, we didn’t care. We ran all over the summit, taking in the views, ducking in and out of the wind, and snapping photos.

Then it was time to pack up and head back down the mountain. With any remaining clouds above the summit and with gravity on our side, we made our way back to the Lakes of the Clouds hut pretty quickly. The ridge was amazingly white, nothing penetrated through the snow and rime, no rocks, no signs, only the trail of black dots that we chipped out of the ice to lead us back. We snacked at the hut and then proceeded back down the mountain, butt sliding and laughing all the way back to the car.

Epilogue:

Given its notoriety, I was happy to have to work for a winter ascent of this peak, and I feel as though it would have been a disappointment had it been a straightforward and mellow ascent. And I’m not exaggerating about the visibility, I’ve seen it bad on Marcy and Algonquin, but here I felt swallowed up like I never have before. At times I started to get paranoid and I would wonder if my compass was telling me the right direction, or if there was iron in the rocks messing with the needle. I’ve hiked the ridge between Washington and Monroe probably half a dozen or more, and in that fog I could barely tell up from down.  All in all, a great and challenging experience, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. 

Creating Clouds

Living with an atmospheric scientist, there is a lot of nerding out about weather happening on a daily basis as each new model run comes out. Imagine the excitement when this arctic air mass moved through and dropped the temperature to -40 degrees F (not counting the windchill) on the summit of Mount Washington last night. Given the dangerously cold forecast this weekend, we opted to stay inside and enjoy a warm fire and a relaxing weekend of catching up on things. Of course, though, Ted was watching the weather observations all day, and at times worrying about the groups who ventured out to higher summits and exposed ridges above treeline. When we went to bed last night, the ASRC summit observation on Whiteface was -38 degrees F with 50mph wind gusts, amounting to a windchill of -85F! I can’t even imagine what that must feel like.

In Mayfield this morning, it was -16F (not counting windchill), which Ted deemed cold enough to try the “boiling water trick,” which we may have done 3 or so times for fun. This consists of boiling a pan of water, which brings it close to the evaporation point, and then tossing it into very cold, dry air where it instantly evaporates. The water vapor then undergoes rapid deposition to become the tiny ice crystals that make up the cloud you see rise into the air.  Check out the video! 

warming hut weekend

On winter weekends, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Winter Host Program stations volunteers in a backcountry cabin to provide trail and weather information, hot chocolate, and more to hikers in the Johns Brook Valley. Hikers are given the opportunity to come in from the cold and warm up with a hot beverage on their way to the peaks or before making the last 3.5 mile trek back to the trailhead.  

Seven winters ago, I participated in my first outing with ADK, stood on the summit of my first winter high peak, and made my first visit to the “warming hut” on our way out. I was new to winter hiking back then, and didn’t have the best gear or knowledge of what hiking up steep terrain after a big snowfall might entail. It didn’t take long before I realized my water had frozen in my pack and I was carrying useless bricks of ice that offered no hydration. When the group decided to make a loop by descending to Johns Brook Lodge to stop by the warming hut on the way out, I experienced a huge morale boost as I drank hot chocolate and ate M&Ms. Who would have thought there was a HEATED place in the woods where people could stop for a break in the winter, get out of the cold, have hot chocolate, coffee, or tea served to them, and meet some really cool people?! What an amazing idea! That day provided just a small glimpse into the wide range of programs and fun opportunities offered by ADK.

Since then, I have continued to become more involved with different aspects of ADK, from leading outings to summit stewarding to serving on various committees. This year, Ted and I became Winter Host Program volunteers, and we returned to the “warming hut” at the Henry Young Cabin to provide the same enthusiasm and motivation that we’ve received as hikers in the past. Remembering my first visit to the hut, I even brought M&Ms and assorted candy to share with hikers.

We were paired with a couple from Canada, who were also new to the WHP, so we took turns with making the rounds and checking on the property and learned together.  They enjoyed a relaxing weekend in the cabin, and since we had sunny weather, Ted and I went for a quick hike up Big Slide one morning for some exercise. We broke trail up the same trail I descended seven years ago, which I haven’t been on since. The fresh, untouched snow on the summit glittered in the sunlight, and with the trees blocking the wind behind us, we enjoyed looking out at the Great Range for a while before descending.

We often find ourselves leaving the Albany area at 3 or 4am to make the drive up north to get on the trail around 6 or 7am and spend anywhere from 6 to 10 hours in the cold before making the two hour drive home at night. This was such a treat to do something different; to do a day hike up a high peak that only took 4 hours total, to spend a weekend in a heated cabin in the woods, and to be an exciting part of other hikers’ adventures. I love seeing the smiles as people discover the cabin and hear we have heat and hot beverages inside. Though we didn’t see a lot of people this weekend, we did see a few people we knew, which is always a nice surprise, and perhaps we even inspired a few younger folks to consider joining ADK.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to give back, to share my passion for the wilderness with new people, and to spend time in such a beautiful place. To learn more about the Adirondack Mountain Club, visit www.adk.org