I added the copyright notice to the page a couple of weeks ago so I could post things that I may or may not submit (again) for publication somewhere. Here is the winter hiking article I wrote with the Appalachian Mountain Club's (AMC) magazine Outdoors. They never replied. I can only imagine some intern steaming the postage stamp off the self-addressed stamp envelope I sent. I fixed them, though. I let my membership lapse. Really guys, it's okay to reject me but like Glenn Close told Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, "I will not be ignored, Dan." Stay out of the bath tub.
Here it is, comments are more than welcome:
They had my attention when one of the instructors walked into the conference room wearing nothing but polypro briefs and a natural hair shirt, full pack on his back, and trekking poles in his hands. I hadn’t expected this when I signed up for the AMC New Hampshire chapter’s annual Winter Hiking Series.
Not to worry, though; the demonstration was actually a very effective one on heat management through clothing layering. Like the rest of the presentations in the day long seminar, it taught me what I had hoped to learn when I registered. Sitting in the Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinhkam Notch in the shadow of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, I was learning how to hike safely in the winter time.
I hoped so, anyway. It’s easy to feel competent seated indoors in a climate controlled room with someone else doing the talking (or dressing), relating stories of hiking in twenty degree below zero weather with wind chills somewhere south of sanity. At least here my feet were warm.
The seminar was led by AMC trip leader Bob Humphrey, at once both gruff and personable, and leader of the program for the past eight years. The manual he and his co-instructors had written and assembled highlighted not only the individual concepts presented during the lecture but also mentioned specific brands and models of much of the recommended gear. This was a huge boon to me not just as a relatively new hiker but as a recently ex- Floridian. I knew winter as the season where we opened our windows and turned off the air conditioning. Obtaining gear to trudge through snow to the tops of the White Mountains was something completely new.
A key concept was the getting over of past textile prejudices. I grew up in the seventies disco age and lived to survive its inevitable cultural backlash. In college, natural fibers were the rule. Cotton was always good, wool was good but scratchy, and clearly nothing added class like a touch of linen. Now I’m introduced to epithets like “Cotton Kills” and shown the absolute importance of fabrics that wick rather than merely absorb. We used to mock people clothed in artificial fibers, demanding to know if said wearers were aware of how many polyesters had to die in order to make their pants. Without such gear, it appears, my safety during winter hikes could be in jeopardy.
The day following the lecture saw us head to the nearby 19 Mile Brook Trailhead where, dressed out in our three season gear and split up in two groups, we hiked up to Carter Dome and Mt. Hight. Along the way we’d stop for some in the field training as well as lunch at the summit as the thirty odd of us got to know each other better. It was a diverse group, including folks not only from New Hampshire but also from Maine and parts of Massachusetts, and spanning a few decades of different ages. What we had in common, of course, was a love of hiking and the White Mountains and a desire to keep the backpacks out when the snow started to fall.
Then it was back home and time for the gear acquisition phase. Humphrey had repeatedly told us that winter hiking wasn’t cheap, and he was right, especially when starting with almost nothing. He also made the point that hiking light was a concept that could get you killed in the volatile weather up here. Being prepared could save your life and I spent the two weeks leading up to the next hike figuring how to pack, carry and use my new gear.
Coming from Florida I didn’t even have long underwear let alone know what my size should be. Charts on the internet told me to order several pairs of mediums but starting with the next hike (up North and South Kinsman) I discovered that with each step advancing up any kind of grade the crotch of the long underwear was pulled uncomfortably lower. And lower. This resulted in a condition I came to know as “penguin crotch.”
One of my fellow hikers recommended L. L. Bean as a clothing source so off I went to their store in North Conway. In the Men’s section I picked up a new pair of size large polypropylene bottoms. I didn’t try them on until after I got home and the first thing I noticed was that they didn’t seem much different from the mediums. Then I went to pack for the Franconia Ridge hike. At the last minute I checked the label to make sure I was taking the right pair. Next to the word “Large” was a very distinct and discernible “Ladies.” I realized I had almost hiked up Mt. Lafayette wearing ladies’ underwear. Fortunately Christmas was coming up and I needed something for my wife.
We lost about a third of the class over the course of the program, which included hikes up Moosilauke and an Eisenhower/Clinton double header, mostly due to issues with pacing. Another valuable lesson was how much more work and time consuming hiking was in snowy and icy conditions and some folks just didn’t want to keep up. It wasn’t until the very last hike that we all would go as one group.
Periodically we’d stop for layering up or layering down breaks. We’d take this time to compare notes on gear and where we purchased it, learn where each other was from, and listen to Humphrey recite stanzas from “Alice’s Restaurant,” or how, rather than get married again he’ll just find a woman he doesn’t like and buy her a house. Sometimes, at these moments, the hikes seemed more like high school field trips than wilderness excursions. But that was okay; we never stopped learning.
There were many new sights and sounds among these winter postcard settings. Gray jays, seemingly always in pairs, would sing and entice us to offer trail mix from the convenient perches of our outstretched hands. Freezing trees made ominous cracking sounds, like glacial seracs in the Himalaya, under the gentle pressure of the lightest of breezes. Rabbit or perhaps fox tracks scored the snow in the lower elevations from spruce to downed tree, disappearing into the tangles of branches.
Somewhere over the course of the series the line between hiking in different seasons changed, or at least strongly blurred. What was undertaken as a means to safely prolong the time outdoors, in the mountains, became instead a means to a new end. Strapping on crampons and stepping into snowshoes, venturing out into the bug-less, crowd free wilderness became something more than the usual hiking only with more equipment. It became a thing unto itself, similar yet very much different. It leads me to a feeling I was never able to achieve as a lad growing up in Minnesota: there’s really no hurry for spring to arrive. I can do just fine in the winter.