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Time to prepare for all kinds of conditions

‘Tis the season of icy, crusty, wet conditions, as seen at a trailhead parking area. (Photo provided by Zack Floss)

As much as I hate to admit it, this spectacular winter is starting to wind down. Last week’s warmer weather marked the first major thaw of a season that has held out admirably for those of us who like to play in the snow.

While we hopefully have plenty of winter fun to look forward to, it’s important to remember that we’re moving into the late winter season in the Adirondacks, which brings with it some significant considerations when we think about heading into the mountains.

1. Remember that slowly melting snow makes for difficult trail conditions. This year’s snow load was impressive and largely uninterrupted from January until last week. As we move towards more spring weather, the snow will get heavier and harder to move through. After a couple months of beautiful trail conditions, with packed snow from trailhead to summit, we’ll soon be seeing the return of crusted snow and icy flows that require the use of crampons instead of just snowshoes. Exposed mountain tops will be considerably less hospitable, with popular peaks like Algonquin or Marcy becoming increasingly iced over and more difficult to navigate. The takeaway here is that you should pack both snowshoes and crampons if you plan to hike up high in the near future. Microspikes are nice to have and can come in very handy, but they are inadequate for steeper hiking.

2. The temperature difference from trailhead to summit will become more impactful. While the degree range of temperature difference will stay fairly even (most often losing about 10 degrees per 1,000 vertical feet gained), its impact will be more acutely felt as weather in the valleys gets better. When 40 to 50 degree Fahrenheit weather prevails in the parking lot, people forget to pack still-necessary cold weather gear for higher up.

The dry cold of winter also gives way to the damp cold of late winter and early spring, making packs heavier and layering more challenging. Failing to come prepared can have dire consequences — if you’re curious, I can certainly attest to the unpleasantness of becoming hypothermic in damp cold — so take the time to carefully review what you’ve packed before heading out. Though it will mean a heavier load, consider redundancies in layering if possible. Remember to pack waterproof layers as well as insulation, and make sure to come with a contingency plan in case the trail you wanted to hike becomes too difficult or dangerous to continue on. If you’re new to the concept of layering, take some time to study this as well. There are plenty of great local and digital resources that can help explain the concept and process clearly.

3. If you plan on traveling by ski rather than walking, be aware that trail conditions are going to vary widely as temperatures fluctuate. Without fresh snowpack on the surface, trails can alternate between ice slicks, slushy pools and perfect spring conditions, making ski travel a bit more challenging to predict. Be considerate of this especially if you’re planning a ski somewhere you haven’t been before or are going to be on a trail shared with hikers.

For those who plan to head further into the backcountry, be sure you know how to read snow conditions for avalanche risk. While they’re not particularly common in the Adirondacks, the amount of snow and its layering are causes for constant consideration if you plan on chasing some good runs on steeper or more exposed terrain.

With all this talk of thawing, by the time this is printed it will likely be back in the negative degrees. Tuesday’s forecast in the High Peaks is calling for 80-plus mph winds with a standing temperature before wind chill near minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter conditions are by no means past for the next month or so; they’ll just be more tempestuous and difficult to predict.

To some folks reading this, I’m sure it sounds like a broken record. Warnings about conditions certainly start to feel hollow and cliched if you encounter them often. Despite weekly repetition across multiple platforms, signage at trailheads and a significant base of local knowledge, some people continue to fall victim to what others find to be fairly well expected, though. A short hike on Mount Jo will generally spell this lesson out plainly for anyone interested. In one mid-week morning, despite feet of snow and freezing conditions, I still saw at least two parties clad in jean jackets and sneakers, sliding miserably back down the short trail. Given the number of people still coming to recreate in our region, many for the first time, this remains an important message to spread. So even if it feels redundant, if you’re so inclined, take the time to make more people aware of this message. It will certainly help some folks have a better experience in these mountains, and it just might save someone’s life.

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