Greetings! I am sitting here with a hot tea thinking about how to begin describing my recent winter adventure hiking in the Adirondacks last weekend. The purpose of the trip was to make my first attempt at winter hiking with the objective of having fun :), being healthy, and building up my skills and knowledge for a much more difficult eventual winter-time summit of Mt Washington later this season. So let me give you my trip report: the background, my preparation, my experience, and some photos. I hope this information can help someone else with their first winter hike!
The story begins during the summer of 2016 when I hiked Mt Washington in New Hampshire with friends Vince, Melissa, and Michel. As we hiked, enjoying the physical challenge and camaraderie, Michel was telling us about his exciting experiences back-country hiking in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Meanwhile, Vince mentioned a friend who had summited Mt Washington with a snowboard on his back so that he could ride the whole way down. We looked at each other with a gleam in our eyes and wondered aloud – could we … should we … hike Mt Washington in wintertime? And so, an idea was born for an adventure …
Hiking a mountain in pleasant summer weather can be taxing enough and it is not recommended to try winter hiking unless you have prior experience under the best of conditions! Indeed, the idea of traipsing over snow-covered ground, up steep and icy inclines, and scrambling over boulders with a pack full of supplies and emergency gear seemed a much more formidable test of our physical abilities. After all, Mt Washington is the highest peak in the north-eastern United States and presents unusual risks due to its spontaneous inclement weather patterns. Practice and preparation in similar conditions would be needed!
Cascade and Porter Mountain:
For my first practice hike, I selected Cascade Mountain in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State on the advice of my friend Sonia. Cascade reaches a height of 1290m and involves at least a 4.8 mile (7.7km) round-trip hike from the trailhead to the summit and back with an elevation gain of 606 meters. The hike can be longer if one decides to detour off the main trail and hike adjacent Porter Mountain as well (summit at 1237m and an additional 0.8 miles on the round-trip). Sonia suggested it as a relatively straightforward route that would allow me to test out my gear and my limitations. The same is suggested on the mountaineering website SummitPost. It is also an easy two-and-a-half hour drive from my city of Montreal, meaning that I could complete the hike and be back home on the same day. Thanks Sonia for the great suggestion!
As a 4000+ foot mountain, Cascade belongs to the Adirondack 46, a group of 46 mountains within the range whose summits surpass that threshold and which attracts hikers from all over Canada and the United States who want to belong to the ADK 46 “Winter” and “Summer” clubs. Some of these mountains can even generate their own weather conditions. In winter, it is not uncommon for snow-storms or whiteout conditions to surprise hikers at the top, and reduce visibility to no more than 20 or 30 feet. Still, Cascade and Porter are considered among the easiest of the ADK 46 for a first hike. As a bonus, an enthusiastic hiker doing both Cascade and Porter gets to complete 2 of the 46 ADK summits in a single day. Efficient! :)
Ahead of time, the weather forecast looked frightening. Extremely frigid temperatures called for a wind chill of about -30 deg Celsius at the summit, which was quite daunting. All the more reason to be prepared and ready with the proper gear. And good practice.
On the day of, temperatures ranged between -11 degree Celsius and -30 deg Celsius at the summit. It was so cold that my iPhone battery died after just a few hours of use.
In preparation, I conducted an inventory of my gear, purchased missing items at local outdoor equipment stores in Montreal (La Cordée and Mountain Equipment Co-op), and assembled my backpack with essentials. What I was most concerned with was eating well to manage my blood sugars as a diabetic, keeping my toes toasty warm, and not getting lost. :)
- Nature Valley protein granola bars
- Prosciutto, salami, and cheese
- 2 x multi-grain bagels with peanut butter & jelly
- Dried fruit
- Dark chocolate
- 2L of hot water (this is a nice treat on extremely cold days)
Note: As I am Type II diabetic I watch my diet very carefully when engaging in strenuous exercise to make sure I don’t have a sugar crash, therefore I tend to be more prudent with bringing extra provisions – emphasizing a balance of foods with simple sugars, dietary fibre content, and rich in protein. The night prior to a hike I recommend carb-loading, and in the morning before setting off, be sure to have a nice hearty breakfast. I also made sure to hydrate myself well starting at least 24 hours in advance, and I drank a litre of water in the 60 minutes before the hike began. I also avoided coffee as that can dehydrate the system.
My pack gear:
- Trail and topographical map by National Geographic
- Emergency bivouac (shelter)
- Sleeping bag liner
- First-aid kit
- Insulated containers to keep water from freezing
- AquaOvo Alter Ego water filter
- Toilet paper
- Aquatabs water purification tablets
- Extra pair of Thinsulate gloves
- Extra pair of wool mittens
- Two extra pairs of wool socks
- Fleece balaclava
- Waterproof pants
- Extra wool hat
- Feet: Four layers consisting of two pairs of thin merino wool socks, well-insulated waterproof/windproof winter boots, and gaiters. As my boots are a bit tight, I layer high-quality thin socks to ensure enough room for my toes to wiggle about, have circulation, and stay warm. The gaiters on each ankle prevent snow from getting down into my boots.
- Legs: Three layers consisting of a pair of polyester/spandex long underwear, polyester/spandex sweat pants on top of that, and water-resistant snow pants.
- Upper Body: Merino wool long-sleeved sweater, polyester/spandex jacket, fleece jacket with hoodie, down jacket, and hard-shell winter jacket.
- Head: A tight-fitting tuque covering my ears with my fleece hoodie, and my hard-shell winter jacket hoodie on top of that.
- Hands: Thin glove liners inside warm mittens.
Note: The above layering worked well. Despite the frigid temperatures, I was always comfortably warm. When I completed the hike, most of my clothes were soaking wet due to perspiration. I would highly recommend hikers to bring a second set of clothes to change into afterwards to ensure a comfortable, warm, and dry trip home.
- Retractable trekking poles and baskets to prevent them from sinking into the snow
- Micro-spikes (I was able to reach the summit without these but was grateful to have them for my descent)
- Snowshoes (which I did not use)
Note: I did not bring full crampons on this trip and they were not necessary. Micro-spikes were sufficient.
Things I forgot to bring on my trip:
- A belt for my pants (they kept falling down) :)
- Waterproof matches and candle
- Nylon cord
Additional precautions for hiking alone:
- Studied relevant maps to familiarize myself with the route
- Monitored forecast weather conditions
- Shared my itinerary with a couple of friends/family
- Consulted experienced hikers for trip tips and tricks
- Mentally prepared myself to abandon the hike in the event of unsafe conditions.
Note: While some of this may seem like overkill for a simple hike, for me taking all of these precautions amounted to good practice for future hikes, and a better understanding of my own limitations. I felt well-prepared – food in my belly and extra food in my pack, warmly dressed with extra or emergency layers and gear available if I needed, high levels of energy and enthusiasm, and a whole day ahead of me. :) So I felt comfortable and ready to go.
I departed early Sunday morning around 6:30am from Montreal heading toward the US on a highway that was nearly empty.
Crossing the American border, I continued south on Interstate 87, through Plattsburgh and Au Sable, connecting to Route 9N through Jay and the town of Keene, at which point I veered off onto Route 73 for my final approach to the trailhead. As I drove, the sun rose over the emerging relief of the Adirondack mountains and idyllic rural scenes greeted me along the way, for which I stopped to take a few photos.
Nearing my destination, storm clouds rolled into the sky and it began to snow. Exciting!
There are several parking areas within a 500m walk of the trailhead and there were only a few cars there at 9:30am. As you start out on the trail, you are greeted by a wooden board with a strong recommendation to sign into the register, so that park officials can monitor who has gone in (and who has not come out).
Trail conditions, environment, and weather:
As I began my hike, I felt grateful for how seemingly perfect the conditions were for my first adventure of this sort. Although extremely cold, the air was crisp and not uncomfortable. Snow was lightly falling and there was no wind.
The trail was well beaten down. Although snow shoes are required, I was a bit naughty and decided to bare-boot it in order to keep a good pace, being mindful to avoid postholing and digging my boots into the path (both of which would ruin the trail for others). My alternatives were to put on micro-spikes or snowshoes, both of which didn’t seem necessary at the outset.
Initially, the forest was mainly deciduous, and the trees were bare of foliage, providing a view of the surrounding landscape.
The dominant tree that I saw was the yellow birch tree. Here is an example:
Although there were a few icy patches along the trail I navigated them successfully.
The deciduous tree cover eventually gave way to spruce, fir, and pine trees. As these trees don’t lose their leaves, they were much more capable of supporting freshly fallen snow and the resulting scene was absolutely gorgeous.
In some cases they made for interesting looking snowman-like figures. :)
In some cases the branches/leaves seemed to be frozen. I am not sure what kind of tree this is.
The snow was delicious and cold.
During my hike, the trails were clear and well-beaten all the way to the summits of both and I experienced no challenges with my footing.
There were a 3-4 steep points, complicated a little bit by icy patches, but these were easily navigated.
There were not many other hikers on the trail, perhaps 20 at the most – one large group of 7 or 8, a few groups of two, and one other solo hiker, whose journey overlapped with mine for a little while, and we accompanied each other mostly in silence. As usual, I tend to enjoy these experiences most when I am alone or with someone else who can appreciate and welcomes the stillness and the opportunity for reflection and gratitude.
At about 2.1 miles from the trailhead, I came across a junction for paths to Cascade Mountain and Porter Mountain.
Go left and you’ll reach Cascade Mountain in about 0.3 miles. Before you reach the summit, you’ll come across a couple of clearings . The sun was coming out and the scenery was beautiful.
From here the terrain changed to bare rock and very icy. I was forced to put on my micro-spikes in order to ascend to the summit.
As I crested the ridge, I came upon the summit. Finally, at 1290m! I was quite exposed and the wind was quite a bit stronger. I had to avoid exposing any bare skin to the harsh effect of the wind chill.
The accomplishment felt good. But I did not get to savour it for too long as the wind was bitterly cold and it was cutting through my multiple layers of clothing already. After a quick bite to eat and a few sips of still-very-hot water, I headed back down again, ready to tackle Porter Mountain.
I reached the junction again and followed the path for Porter Mountain, about 0.4 miles further on. The path was still beaten but not as packed as the trail for Cascade. It was also quite a bit more narrow and on a few occasions I had to dodge tree branches as I walked through the forest.
It did not take me long to reach the summit which was nothing more than a simple clearing in the forest, with a view of Cascade Mountain.
In the other direction, a gorgeous view of the sun over the trees with a somewhat ominous tone to the clouds.
Descending back down the mountain again was much quicker than the ascent, as one might expect. Still, the footing was a bit treacherous and I had to watch my step. I reached the trailhead in about half the time it had taken me to hike up the mountain.
Reaching the bottom of the mountain again, I was ravenous to have a proper meal and felt no desire to eat more trail snacks. Tradition calls for a stop at a restaurant named the “ADK Cafe” at the intersection of Route 9N and Route 73 in the town of Keene. There, I sipped on a delicious hot soup, gobbled down a hearty club sandwich and french fries, and guzzled a cold beer. The ADK Cafe is also well known for its coffee and I took a cup with me to go for the drive home.
These adventures, especially when practiced alone, are a wonderful way for me to reflect on recent life experiences, commune with nature, and get to know myself better – in other words, to Live Passionately. As I reflect on my accomplishment at attempting a new experience, independently and successfully, I feel a high degree of satisfaction and quite proud of myself. But more importantly, beyond being a winter adventure, taking on physical challenges such as these is part of my larger life strategy to beat diabetes. I intend to make personal fitness, good nutrition, and regular and intense exercise a staple feature for the rest of my life, and these adventures keep me in shape and train my body to be stronger and more resilient!
Having completed this challenge on my own, and having a much better sense of what winter hiking is all about, I now plan to embark on two more practice hikes with a group of three friends before we attempt Mt Washington together. Our first of the series is this coming weekend (January 13-14) where we will hike Mt Mansfield in Vermont’s Green Mountains near the ski town of Stowe. Stay tuned for a (probably much more brief) trip report!