A Burning Shelter, a Goal Completed, and a Stunning February Day

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Raven

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I have been working on a long term goal for about 14 years now and yesterday ended up being an absolutely perfect day to make an attempt at its completion.

In January of 2002, I did a solo winter hike of Mount Madison. It was an otherworldly day: deep snow, very low visibility, windy....not extremely cold but it was the kind of day people describe as being inside a milk jug. As I looked behind me, the wind was filling in my tracks nearly as fast as I made them. I could make out the last four our five steps, but the rest were already erased in the field of blowing snow.

I got a sense that day. I felt that "feeling" I think many of us get from confronting nature in its raw, pure form...not as a battle of man versus nature, but as man within nature. It was humbling and awe inspiring at the same time. The magnitude of the wind, the landscape, and the solitude were intoxicating.

Since that time, I have slowly worked on hiking the New Hamshire 4,000 footers in winter solo. For the past 14 winters, I have been fortunate enough to do at least one mountain in this way yearly. Yesterday was the 48th and final solo winter hike I had left to complete and had a stunning day to do it.

I left the Rocky Branch Trailhead at 9 AM, the only other vehicle in the lot a USFS truck. I came across the two men near the height of land of the side of Engine Hill. They were loaded for bear with what looked like a big flame thrower. Today was the day the remains of Rocky Branch shelter #2 would be burned! Excitement was clear all around. I continued along the trails until crossing #1 which was relatively solid. No one had been on the Isolation Trail in a while but with a solid pack under 3-6 inches of snow, the going was easy enough with microspikes. The crossings were all still fine but are definitely in transition. They could break up with a rain event or some snow may solidify them. I was comfortable on them, but there is plenty of open water in view so took care to test my footing and choose my steps very carefully. The area where Isolation Trail meets the Davis Path was confusing as usual, but it was clear when I was on Davis Path and headed South. I was soon atop Isolation amid a sea of mountains with gorgeous blue skies, low winds, and seemingly the whole of the Dry River Wilderness to myself. I had a lot of gratitude.

On the return trip, I waited for the scent of smoke which I eventually hit and stopped at the shelter to warm myself by the glowing embers of the remaining shelter. A few boards still burned and a good amount of heat came off the coals to provide a quick burst of warmth. I found it an interesting event to occur simultaneously with my hike.

Over the last 14 years, I had some really fun hikes, some great solitude, had some incredible challenges, and was granted some easier days on mountains not having that reputation. I wrote periodically after some of the hikes. Here are a few of my thoughts from the times as well as some reflections.


The Coldest (Liberty and Flume)

10 January 2004, 12 winters ago

This was the coldest day I’ve ever felt in the mountains. Mount Washington set a record with a real temperature of -34 F. A heat-stealing, gusty wind infiltrated the woods and mocked the highly technical layers I was wearing. I was stunned when, on removing an inner glove for no more than a few moments, it hardened into a twisted mass. Sounds were different. The crusty snow squeaked with an unfamiliar pitch under my plastic double boots. I heard a warning in these new sounds. It was reminding me that the mountain is dynamic; conditions are always changing. Be observant. Stay aware. And by God, stay warm. Cold is a complicating factor. Small errors in judgment, mistakes not needing a second thought on most days can have much more severe consequences below zero.
I spent little time on the rocky summit of Liberty before continuing along the ridge and dropping down into the col approaching Mount Flume. As I passed through the low point along the ridge midway between the two summits, I groaned as both quads locked into knots at the same time. My water had frozen past the point of usefulness a while back and the resulting mild dehydration combined with the cold set me up for cramping issues. With both summits now equally distant and standing shakily in the col, I was going up 500 feet regardless, so I opted to keep moving on. My legs cramped in the first few steps as I started the ascent toward Flume’s summit cone. I bent my right leg and pulled it up behind me to try to stretch and then my calf locked up. The muscles were set like traps, ready to go off any second if I wasn’t ever so careful in my step. This was not going to be an easy 500 feet. After a few more failed attempts, I found that lifting up on the balls of my feet and climbing on my toes kept my legs from cramping. My calves calmed. My legs warmed and the muscles became pliable again. That was a little close. I was relieved to make it to the summit of Flume and enjoyed a few moments looking down Flume Slide, the rocky face that drops steeply away to the west. I moved on quickly to keep what warmth I had. Before long, I began descending the Osseo Trail, thankfully one very forgiving on the legs. The day turned out a good one, a unique one for me. I’ve always been fascinated by the cold, compelled by it. I spent the day in the mountains at temperatures far below what I’ve experienced before. I also learned a few valuable things about the cold. Even anticipating many more years in the mountains, I recognize this as an experience I may only get once, whether by chance or by choice.


The Most Elusive (West Bond):

23 February 2011 (5 winters ago)

In 2011, when I finished the W48, I called West Bond my hundred mile mountain. The reason was that it had taken me five attempts in winter before I stood atop this summit. Each of those attempts had netted me close to a twenty mile hike as they ended either in a turnaround point of Zealand Mountain or Bond. The fifth time was a truly spiritual experience however as I stayed overnight at Guyot shelter after laying on Guyot's summit in light wind and watching the sun set over Franconia Ridge. When I headed out the next morning, the predawn twilight was just beginning to appear on one side of the ridge as a perfect crescent moon sat directly over Bondcliff's summit. It was the trip that completed my W48 and to have had the opportunity to spend a solo night at Guyot shelter on such a beautiful winter night was truly incredible.


The Windiest (Mount Monroe)

23 February 2007 (9 winters ago)

I had come up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail on a blustery day. I didn't know at the time I would later become the trail adopter for this trail. It was a relatively basic winter day hiking up to the Presidential Ridge. It was cold; the trail was windswept, clouds moved in and out in dramatic form, but all was good. From the hut up to the summit of Monroe, however, I truly felt the exponential force of wind power. I moved up the first hundred feet or so fine with strong but manageable winds. The next hundred vertical feet though saw a marked increase in the power of the wind and by the time I was on the summit itself, it was all I could do to move in the direction I wanted. On the return, I was forced to duck behind boulders and move in short bursts getting really moved around quite a bit. It was one of the few times where I felt I was just on the verge of the wind speed I was comfortable with. By my best estimation, I would say it was hitting 70 mph on the summit based on how it affected my movement.


Biggest Physical Challenge (Jefferson)

6 January 2007 (9 winters ago) Jefferson is never easy, not even in June. This day saw me moving between bare boots, crampons, and snowshoes. There were deep drifts to plow through and long sections of ice. It was a day that took all the energy I could muster. Not many views, lots of clouds and wind, but manageable winter conditions.

Some added thoughts: I did a headstand on Jackson before sunset. Washington was fortunately a breeze, literally, with temps in the low 20's, light wind, and a quick ascent up Lion's Head. I hiked Adams and Tecumseh on two different Christmas days (years when I did not have my daughter with me). I broke a snowshoe on the snowfields near Lafayette's summit and descended in a hopping-like fashion with one foot catching and one sliding. Odd fatigue in one leg later. I broke out significant amounts of trail on Middle Carter, Wildcat D, and Zealand and earned the heck out of each of them, but stole Owl's Head on the shoulders of a group who had broken it all out earlier in the day. Sometimes you're the windshield; sometimes you're the bug. The night before the Hancocks, I had slept in my Pathfinder at the Oliverian Brook lot. The wind had taken down a 30 foot spruce across the lot exit which I had to strap up and pull out of the way with the vehicle before heading out and down to the trailhead I was actually using that day. There were also many good walks in the forests among the cold, pure winter air and snow. Thanks for reading.

My Rules: A solo winter hike was defined for my purposes as any hike in calendar winter for which I left the trailhead as a solo hiker and continued to hike solo for the remainder of the hike. If I met another hiker along the way and continued to hike with that person, it was no longer a solo hike. This happened on a winter ascent of Isolation when another hiker who had turned back after not finding the Engine Hill BW, joined me and together we managed both bushwhacks and a successful summit together. Merely coming across other hikers did not negate the solo status of the hike however. On many hikes I encountered no one else or just a small group or two.




 
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summitseeker

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I have been working on a long term goal for about 14 years now and yesterday ended up being an absolutely perfect day to make an attempt at its completion.

In February of 2002, I did a solo winter hike of Mount Madison. It was an otherworldly day: deep snow, very low visibility, windy....not extremely cold but it was the kind of day people describe as being inside a milk jug. As I looked behind me, the wind was filling in my tracks nearly as fast as I made them. I could make out the last four our five steps, but the rest were already erased in the field of blowing snow.

I got a sense that day. I felt that "feeling" I think many of us get from confronting nature in its raw, pure form...not as a battle of man versus nature, but as man within nature. It was humbling and awe inspiring at the same time. The magnitude of the wind, the landscape, and the solitude were intoxicating.

Since that time, I have slowly worked on hiking the New Hamshire 4,000 footers in winter solo. For the past 14 winters, I have been fortunate enough to do at least one mountain in this way yearly. Yesterday was the 48th and final solo winter hike I had left to complete and had a stunning day to do it.

I left the Rocky Branch Trailhead at 9 AM, the only other vehicle in the lot a USFS truck. I came across the two men near the height of land of the side of Engine Hill. They were loaded for bear with what looked like a big flame thrower. Today was the day the remains of Rocky Branch shelter #2 would be burned! Excitement was clear all around. I continued along the trails until crossing #1 which was relatively solid. No one had been on the Isolation Trail in a while but with a solid pack under 3-6 inches of snow, the going was easy enough with microspikes. The crossings were all still fine but are definitely in transition. They could break up with a rain event or some snow may solidify them. I was comfortable on them, but there is plenty of open water in view so took care to test my footing and choose my steps very carefully. The area where Isolation Trail meets the Davis Path was confusing as usual, but it was clear when I was on Davis Path and headed South. I was soon atop Isolation amid a sea of mountains with gorgeous blue skies, low winds, and seemingly the whole of the Dry River Wilderness to myself. I had a lot of gratitude.

On the return trip, I waited for the scent of smoke which I eventually hit and stopped at the shelter to warm myself by the glowing embers of the remaining shelter. A few boards still burned and a good amount of heat came off the coals to provide a quick burst of warmth. I found it an interesting event to occur simultaneously with my hike.

Over the last 14 years, I had some really fun hikes, some great solitude, had some incredible challenges, and was granted some easier days on mountains not having that reputation. I may edit and add some details to each of these hikes later but for now.

The coldest ones: Liberty and Flume in 2004 near -20, Kinsmans last year -10 ish.

The hardest ones: West Bond in 2010 after 5 attempts, Jefferson in 2007 was just a long, hard, cold climb, breaking out the Kinsmans, most of the Carters in 2012...

Monroe in 2007 was the windiest, Washington was a bluebird day up Lions Head in 2006...

And there were so many great days, but for now, that is all...

Congratulations, Scott. The feeling of a difficult, but successful solo ascent is something very special indeed.

I hope to see you out there,

Z :D
 

Raven

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Thank you Zac, MTNRUNR, and Sabrina.

Zac - hope to see you out there soon and hope you are near fully recovered!

Sabrina - I know what you mean about goals - I tend to have multiple goals going on at the same time, so sometimes I actually complete one of them, but rarely do I ever get hyper-focused on one thing for too long. Thus the 14 year span for this one - I finally decided I should take a look at the three or four I had left and see if I could complete them this year.

MTRRUNR - that first solo trip up Madison cannot be put into words; it's everything I love about the Northern Presidentials, the raw power, the mystique and spirituality, the purity. What a place that day!

As far as pictures go, that's interesting when looking at a 14 year journey. Since I have been doing many hikes through the years not related to this goal, I never really set aside pictures from solo winter trips specifically, but what is funny is this if you think about the last 14 years:

I have pictures in a three ring binder with that clear contact photo paper!! I believe they were developed by Seattle Film Works by sending the film roll which had to be removed from the camera BTW back to Seattle to develop. They then sent me hard copies of the pictures. This was only 14 years ago, folks. So, yes I have pics of the tree I dragged out of the way at Oliverian Brook, and good ones from the Hancocks, the Willey Range, Carter Dome and the Wildcats, Waumbek, Lincoln and Lafayette...to see those you'll have to join me for a coffee and flip through actual pages! Then sometime around 2004-2006 or so, I began saving pictures electronically. I put together a few pics from some of the solo hikes in particular since then. The first five are an overnight trip to the Bond Range from February 2011 when I finished the W48. The next three are from Adams this past Christmas at the lowest snow and ice levels I've seen up there in winter. Five after that are from a blustery day on Garfield in 2014 and I end with a pic from near the summit of Jackson on a lovely later afternoon also in 2014. Funny, I left the page in my photo album from the first trip up Madison without any pictures, just a white page - that was by design. It's all I saw up there. White and socked in. These days I carry a camera less than half the time (I don't have a good one) and tend to record trips in writing as much as with pictures now. I took a lot of pictures for years, but now tend to bring it only periodically or if with other people or if I have a specific destination like a cave, waterfall, etc. I wish I had thought to bring it Friday though just to mark the final solo 48 and grab a picture of the burning embers from the old shelter.

Here's a link to a rather random selection of pictures from a few of these hikes.

https://goo.gl/photos/FUYi5HkHctqm8MGVA
 
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Raven

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Note on Safety:

I think it would be responsible of me to make a note on safety. I do not take hiking in winter lightly (solo or otherwise). I do not condone nor condemn solo hiking for others; only you can determine if you are within your own margin of safety. In the event anyone is interested though, I am copying my typical gear list below. Please realize, I have turned back many, many times on days when I felt I was pushing my limits too much or when I got the sense it was not the right day, whether too cold, too fatigued, too late, or simply a sixth sense which suggested I come back another time. I am very comfortable hiking and backpacking solo. I pack to spend the night at a moment's notice in relative warmth if needed and am trained as a wilderness first responder. Most importantly, I try to not make poor decisions and am constantly assessing the environmental conditions as well as my own state of being. I don't put myself in positions where one bad move will get me killed. In short, I try to carry what I need and know how to use it to keep out of trouble. That attitude and some luck has allowed me to gain a working amount of experience.

Please note: I tend to carry more than most in winter, less than most in summer.

Typical Gear List for Solo Winter Hikes (It doesn’t change in groups)

2 fleece hats
Fleece liner gloves
Fleece 200W gloves
Expedition mitts (waterproof, well-insulated fatties)
Long sleeve wicking tee (one extra)
Fleece jacket
Waterproof parka
Mid weight Bergelene tights
Heavy fleece pants
Winter down puffy jacket
Rain pants
Thick socks (and extra pair)
Sock liners
Waterproof, insulated, winter boots
Backpack
Stuff sack
Winter bivy sack
Rain cover for pack
2 1-liter water bottles in insulated sleeves
Headlamps (2)
Extra batteries (1-2 sets)
Whistle
Map
Compass
Lighter/Matches
First Aid Kit
Multi-tool with knife
Cord and carabiners
Food (trail mix, protein bars, jerky are the staples)
20 degree sleeping bag
Balaclava (optional)
Goggles (optional)
1 Liter Thermos (optional)
Water tabs (optional)
Ice axe (optional)
Gaiters (optional)
Crampons (optional)
Microspikes (optional)
Snowshoes (optional)
Stove (optional)
Fuel (optional)
Thermarest or equivalent (optional)
 
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