Be prepared for unpredictable, changing conditions
With the amount of time I spend in the woods, I get to see a lot of preventable errors and mistakes wrought of inexperience or oversight. Because so much more goes into planning and preparation during the colder months of the year, those mistakes can be much more consequential. It’s not only that there is more to forget about as you get ready — it’s that the environment is also that much less forgiving.
Last week, as I watched a young man go gliding, against his will, down an icy slope and almost faceplant into a tree because he didn’t take traction devices seriously, I got to thinking about some of these little errors from my past and the ones I encounter most frequently on trail. As I continued my hike, I made a mental list of some mistakes I’ve made or seen that can hopefully help someone down the line avoid running into the same situation. What follows is the product of the remainder of that hike: Number one — Microspikes are great, but sometimes you still need more. The invention and popularization of Microspikes and other similar easy-to-use traction devices changed winter hiking for many people, myself included. Suddenly, rather than having to strap on a bulky trail crampons and try your best not to put holes in your pants or ankles, you could just pull a piece of rubber over your boot and walk with relative security on icy trails. It took a few years for me to discover that they’re not a panacea for icy conditions, however. When the angle of the ice you’re trying to step on raises above about 30 degrees, they become much less secure, as I discovered on a hike up Algonquin several years ago. On my final approach to the summit, I took high step onto angled ice. As I shifted my weight to that leg, the short points of the microspikes sheared out of the ice and I began a very unpleasant spread-eagled slide down the exposed summit. After 30 feet, as I approached a 15 foot drop-off, I was very fortunate that my hiking partner was able to stop my slide by stepping firmly in between my legs and acting as a sort of back-stop. Since then, I’ve made sure to include sturdier trail crampons in my winter kit for High Peaks.
Number two — it’s critical to remember that conditions vary wildly from the trailhead to the summit. If you’re getting into any other sport than hiking, the likelihood is that you’re ready for whatever might lie ahead. Alpine ascents, ice climbing and backcountry skiing are gear-heavy pursuits that rely on the assumption that conditions are going to be good enough for your sport once you reach the objective. Hiking, on the other hand, has a tendency to lull folks into a false sense of security. After all, it’s just going for a walk, right? And you’ve done this hike in the summer a half dozen times! Plus, it’s been raining and in the high 40’s F at your house for the past couple days. This is certainly how I felt the first time I went to hike Colden in the late fall. By the time I was above 3,500 ft, however, there was 10 inches of fresh snow, at least. The microspikes I’d brought along (just in case) were barely more than useless because the thin ice near the summit was delaminating underfoot. Luckily, I had brough enough warm, dry layers, but I hadn’t even considered snowshoes. In certain little cols and at where the wind eddied on the ridgeline, I was leaving knee-deep post holes that would soon freeze and set up, creating a serious hazard for future hikers.
This leads me to point 2a — Bring snowshoes. They may be inconvenient to carry, but one of the worst things you can do as a winter hiker is leave postholes for other people to deal with. It’s not just a pain for you to struggle against the weight of the snow, it’s also really inconvenient and dangerous for other recreators. Once a fresh coat of snow hides old postholes, they become a hard-to-notice ankle or knee-breaker. Anyone who has ever unexpectedly plunged into one knows exactly what I mean.
Snowshoes can also save you from frostbitten toes if you do run into deeper snow than expected. Trudging through deep stuff without them can lead to your pants and feet getting completely soaked, which has the chance to freeze once exposed to wind and cold when you stop.
Number three — don’t rely on having a broken trail to follow in the snow. As you know, if you’ve ever broken trail in winter, finding the way often requires some serious searching. Markers, familiar landmarks, scratches on exposed rock from microspikes and poles from the past are little gifts that show you you’re on the right path. When you miss the old, packed trail, you can plunge down pretty deeply. I’ve become completely buried in snow, having stepped just off of the trail, even with snowshoes on. It can be pretty alarming. That said, when you’re following boot pack, it’s easy to just set your eyes just in front of your feet and go. It seems plenty logical to assume that the packed down trail you’re following will be there just as plainly when you’re returning by the same way later on. But because of how swiftly conditions can change in the winter, this can be a very dangerous way of traveling. On one trip up McNaughton, I let myself get lulled into this false sense of security, assuming that I’d just have my own broken trail to follow on the way back. However, as the sun set and my friend and I turned to head home, the blowing snow had completely obscured our track. We were lucky to have a stream to follow back to the main trail, but stories like this don’t always turn out as smoothly. Consider the couple that got stuck on top of Algonquin in the winter of 2016. They did a lot right, packed appropriately, and were prepared for winter conditions, but when a storm blew in and obscured their tracks (along with all other obvious markers on the summit), they wound up in a pretty scary situation for days on end. Always keep your head up, notice landmarks, and make sure you’re proficient with a map and compass before heading out into winter conditions.
Number four is less of an error or mistake but deserves mention because it became pertinent over the past weekend. In the winter, many of us who enjoy more than one cold weather sport leave expensive gear in our vehicles. It’s great to have your skis at the ready for a pre-work scoot on the toll road, or your ice climbing kit for an headlamp-powered climb after a day at Whiteface. Sadly and very frustratingly, we can’t trust that these items won’t be a target for theft. Stealing from cars at trailheads is vile and cowardly but is a reality — one that has become more common lately along state Route 73. Over the past year, there have been plenty of stories about things being taken — from a climbing rack at the pull-off near exit 30 on I87 (while it’s rightful owner was mere meters away) to roof racks from the Roaring Brook parking lot. Evidently, over the last weekend, there were additional break-ins in the Keene Valley area, according to folks on Adirondack outdoor Facebook groups. Since this is opportunistic behavior, we can dissuade break-ins by keeping valuables at home but that’s extra hard to do for folks who are traveling or who live out of vehicles while on adventures, so we should all do our best to keep our eyes out for our fellow outdoor enthusiasts.
In fact, if there’s one universal take-away from all of this, it’s that we should extend the principle of keeping our eyes out for each other beyond preventing parking lot theft. Its from these mistakes that we can learn valuable lessons, and hopefully by sharing them that we can prevent others from experiencing the same situations.