Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Vermont 4000-Footers in Winter - January 2014

Originally, I had planned to climb the five VT 4000-footers in a day starting at the minute of the winter solstice, but rainy weather changed that plan, immediately throwing my winter hiking plans a curve ball.  Instead, the Vermont peaks waited until after the New Year.  They would be my first five 4000-footers in 2014, and they were all exciting for one reason or another.

Killington - January 2
After a few days at home for the New Year, I had two more vacation days at the end of a week, so it was a Thursday and I was headed to Vermont.  If you remember January 2nd this year, it was Blizzard Hercules arriving to the Northeast.  Well I arrived at the Bucklin trail head pretty late and I was dealing with some work matters - someones major water leak, for about a half hour before I could settle and prepare to head out into the snowstorm.  The parking lot was untouched, but for a good portion of the lower trail there were some very very faint steps on the trail, but I broke trail for the entire hike.  It got dark quickly, and from then on it became a pretty difficult hike, but I focused on the goal, and getting it done as quickly as possible.  I thought in advance of my descent, and I decided to clear many of the blazes in the opposite direction because the snow was blasted to all sides of the trunks, and who knows how quickly my tracks might fill in when its snowing multiple inches an hour.  With the wind through the trees I had to listen at all times.  When I got to the top, I unintentionally did a little loop around the actual trail, and I came out towards the ski side of the summit.  This wasn't a big deal, though, because I knew where I was.  I couldn't see much up there.  The snowflakes were enormous, and the wind seemed to be blowing in many directions, and I couldn't see anything beyond a few feet in front of my headlamp.  All I know is I stood in the same spot when I finished the VT 4Ks all-season, sipping a beer.  This time it was a raging blizzard at night. #54 will be one to remember!
Bucklin Trail head
A blurry lower part of the Bucklin Trail
Near the summit, the blizzard raged
And there I was for #54 in winter!
Hike Stats
Trails: Bucklin Trail
Distance: 7.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,700 ft.
Actual Book Time: 3:39
GPS Track: Garmin Adventures

Mt. Mansfield - January 3
After my late start blizzard adventure to Killington, I was basically winging my VT plan at this point as I decided my next move, which was driving north in the blizzard, about 30 mph or less the whole way to Stowe, where I'd hit Mansfield in the morning.  Trust me, I feel much safer hiking in a raging blizzard than I do driving in one.  Sprawled out in my sleeping bag in the jeep, I braced myself for record-setting lows overnight and for the next day.  I fared perfectly fine overnight and was plenty comfortable, but it was -11 outside when awoke.  It took me a good long while after waking up before I did anything.  Finally, and finally, I mustered up motivation that I had to get at least one more.  There was no way I was going to get another hike in after this one with it -11 outside, but I had to get one.
Long Trail just up the road from the closed gate at the entrance to Stowe
It was beautiful outside, except arctic-ly frigid.  I walked up the road to the trail head, and I saw some fresh snow over a few foot prints from yesterday.  Up went the televators (heel lift) on the MSRs, and I motored up the mountain, trying to keep my body warm constantly.  It was hard, and there was no question I had to add another layer before going any higher.  I stopped near the outhouse and trail junction and did just that, but when I did, I remember it being so strikingly cold, it almost hurt as I did it.  I got my thermal fleece on, my 3rd layer under my shell, and had to get going fast in order to get back to normal.  I opted for the main route on the Long Trail instead of the Profanity Trail (aka "Badweather Bypass") and continued on.  Either way, it didn't look like it was going to be easy after what Hercules did to Mansfield's alpine zone.

Welcome to the Alpine Zone
Looking up to the summit of Mt. Mansfield
It sure was pretty, but then I came to the steep chimney area, which was filled with powder and ice. I was able to shimmy my way up using opposing force and keeping my snow shoes on.  After that, there was a lot of powder on the ledges above, but it was very loose and there was ice underneath so I remember every step on this section was very calculated, and I had to smoothly double check the footing of each one, almost slow motion.  It was either that or I had my arms in front extended into the snow, crawling, maintaining weight on 4 points in the powder.  It was pretty intense looking over my left shoulder a couple of times, and I thought, please don't slip...  After those tense moments, I finally made it to solid ground, and continued on up the summit.  I could feel the snow frozen onto my eyelashes and face, and the wind was wicked.  It was -11 degrees or colder, and on the very top the wind was definitely over 20 mph, making it at least 30 below, if not closer to 40.  All I know is that I that the view I got was all the view I needed from my VT 4Ks in winter.  I stared at the massive Adirondacks as I approached the summit, and when I got there, I could see mountain ranges all over the northeast, including the Presidential's in NH.  The view was amazing...I had only a few very very short minutes to look around.

The Adirondacks from Mt. Mansfield,, highest point in VT

Mt. Mansfield in winter (#55)
Hike Stats
Trails: Long Trail
Distance: 5.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,003 ft.
Actual Book Time: 3:34
GPS Track: Garmin Adventures

Mt. Abraham & Ellen - January 12
I think Jan 11th was a complete bad weather day, but the following Sunday, January 12th, my goal was to bag Ellen and Abraham, and then Camel's Hump to finish VT in winter.  I had wrestled with deciding on using Battell and Jerusalem Trails and setting up a car spot or taxi or going out and back by the ski trails. Ultimately, after reading some old trip reports, I decided to park at Sugarbush North and ascend by the Lower F.I.S. ski trail.

Good morning Vermont
A bare and lower part of the Lower F.I.S. ski trail
Although it was the middle of winter, a recent warm spell that week meant a lack of snow, believe it or not.  From the lot, I easily found the trail to the left.  After about 20 minutes it became icy enough for microspikes. After it being a rather nice walk up a gradual road, it got pretty darn steep for a grassy ski trail and was sort of half-frozen and still mushy.  Nearing the top of that trail, I merged onto a usable ski trail (not yet open for the day), and then the lift strip for the last haul to the top. At the top, the summit of Ellen is just to the left on the Long Trail in the trees.  For a 4000-footer in New England, Ellen has to be one of the most boring, but the view on a clear day is very good.

Mt. Ellen summit in winter (#56)
Now on the Long Trail, the snow cover was minimal - almost late spring-like minus the monorail, which made for fast travel over the ridge.  It felt even faster because of the cool summits in between that break up the hike.  Little Abe was definitely way cooler then Ellen, especially with that nice rime on its summit sign.  I remember it being colder up on the ridge, with the wind blowing just over the tops of the trees.  I arrived at the summit of Mt. Abraham.  The summit sign was missing from my last visit, so that was sort of strange, and the view was nil, also much different than my summer hike here.  I snapped my summit photo, for my 57th New England 4000-footer in winter, and then booked it back to my car as quick as possible, the same way I had come, completing the 11.2 mile hike in just over 5 hours.

Thin snow cover on the Long Trail
Sugarbush South from the Long Trail
Nancy Hanks Peak
Lincoln Peak
Little Abe Summit
Mt. Abraham in winter (#57)
Hike Stats
Trails: Lower F.I.S. Ski Trail, Long Trail
Distance: 11.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,541 ft.
Actual Book Time: 5:18
GPS Track: Will upload later

Camel's Hump - January 12
After my hike to Ellen & Abraham, I drove about 45 minutes north to Camel's Hump to head up by way of the Burrows Trail.  The start of the hike didn't feel like winter at all.  Somewhere along the way I eventually put on the microspikes.  It was a nice hike up, and I passed several people coming down on the way up. Near the top, a woman was questioning heading up the final stretch which rounds the summit cone and approaches the top over a half-exposed section.  Rightfully so, the tricky section was filled with solid ice and no snow to aid in traction.  She asked if she could join me to the summit, and I said absolutely.  It was pretty gusty up there too, and there was a unique sun and clouds view. It wasn't very spectacular, but the feeling of finishing the Vermont peaks in winter, a milestone on this winter's journey, was a good feeling, and that's what I remember Camel's Hump for.  I got the true sense of winter at 4000-feet in VT from Mt. Mansfield with its toughness and spectacular views and holy moly does Killington get the pow!

Hike Stats
Trails: Burrows Trail
Distance: 4.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,300 ft.
Actual Book Time: 3:00
GPS Track: Will upload later

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Super Extended Pemi Loop in Winter - February 2014

Last weekend, I completed an overnight “Super Extended” Pemi Loop in winter. As part of my goal to hike the NE67 in winter, I decided to give this thing a go with good weather, and knowledge of a couple of key trails most likely being broken out. To make this version of the Pemi Loop, the “Super Extended “ Pemi Loop, I descended North Twin, and then used the Fire Warden’s Trail to Hale to continue the circuit, getting 13 of 48 4000-footers (Flume, Liberty, Lincoln, Lafayette, Garfield, Galehead, South Twin, North Twin, Hale, Zealand, West Bond, Bond, and Bondcliff).

The total distance was 43.8 miles and the elevation gain was 15,824 feet. I carried an approximately 35 lb pack including overnight gear (25 degree bag, inflatable air mattress, tarp, a couple of emergency blankets for ground tarp, cook set, and 1 can of gas with 2 oatmeal packets and 1 package of noodles for 2-3 meals beyond my few pounds of energy food) I had planned for a stop for wherever along the trail, Guyot Shelter, or whatever other opportunity.

This was an amazing hike featuring sunrises, sunsets, moonlight hiking, and great views, but lots of brutal trail breaking, cold temperatures, and frozen water. As insane as it was, I had good weather, and the amazing experiences along the way kept me going strong through the end.

I started around 2:30am on Saturday morning and hiked for about 18 hours. After breaking out the entire Lend-A-Hand Trail from Hale through the 9PM hour, I had to crash Zealand Hut. I showed up after 10pm, and found a spot in the dining area to lay out my sleeping bag. I cooked my noodle soup, and got a few winks in during my brief stay. I talked to the caretaker and explained what I was up to. I was up and out by the time breakfast was served, having no impact on anyone staying there. On Sunday, I hiked from sunrise until I finally made it out at twilight around 5:30pm.

Here is the story from this amazing adventure, broken down by trail sections:

Lincoln Woods, Osseo Trail & Franconia Ridge Traverse – The trail was broken out to the top of the ladders on the Osseo Trail. I broke trail from there to the summit of Liberty. I then broke trail from the Liberty Springs Trail all of the way to the ridge. I had a little glimpse of sunrise for Flume & Liberty, before it got very windy and cold for Lincoln and Lafayette. From Lincoln, I couldn't wait to get over the shoulders of Lafayette and out of the challenging conditions. I've hit the four Franconia Peaks over 10 times each, and this was probably the 2nd or 3rd most challenging traverse with the cold and wind that I dealt with.

Mt. Flume summit
Mt. Liberty summit

Mt. Lafayette
Garfield Ridge Trail (Lafayette to Garfield) – It was smooth finding the trail off the ridge, and as expected, I broke trail for the entire 3.5 miles to Garfield through snow about a foot deep. I hit a confusing spot in the col, causing a 20 minute delay, but I then continued and popped out onto the Garfield summit, where a large group of people were also arriving, and they were first people I had seen.

Mt. Garfield summit
Garfield Ridge Trail to Galehead – It was a big advantage having the next several miles of this difficult trail broken out, all of the way to the Hut and to the summit of Galehead.  I never, ever under estimate what I might get on the Garfield Ridge Trail in winter, but this time it was straight-forward and pretty quick.

Galehead summit
Galehead Mountain from the Hut
The Twinway, & Twins – Again, nicely broken out, and I made the steep ascent of South Twin arriving just in time for sunset over Franconia Ridge. Continuing on quickly, I arrived at North Twin just after dark, and made a rather laborious and tough descent on the North Twin Trail all of the way until I came to the start of the Firewarden Trail to Hale.

South Twin summit with nice colors
Sunrise behind Lafayette and Franconia Ridge
From South Twin
Firewarden's Trail to Hale – I had plugged the GPS coordinates in for the start of the unmaintained trail, and it was spot on. I was also extremely thrilled to see that, indeed, it was a highway of broken out awesomeness. This was my first time on this route to Mt. Hale, but I have to say that hiking it in the moonlight without the need for a headlamp was a pretty amazing (my first batteries were dying anyways). At this time I was on at least 15 hours of hiking and near 12,000 feet of gain, but the night time scene of this beautiful area was keeping my spirits up and my legs moving. I arrived to Mt. Hale where the moonlight light up the entire summit area. It was awesome.

Mt. Hale summit
Lend-A-Hand Trail & Calling it a Night at Zealand Hut – After the epic moonlight ascent, I faced a completely unbroken Lend-A-Hand Trail which is 2.7 miles to the Twinway. In the middle of the night, still with a beautiful and bright half moon, I trudged through a foot of snow, having no problem following this trail, which I had broken out once before. I had pondered setting up a camp in the preceeding hours, but after Lend-A-Hand, I quietly made my “crash” stop at Zealand Hut described above.

Twinway to Zealand – I left the hut as the sun was coming up. The trail was broken out to the first height of land before Zeacliff, where there was an amazing morning view. I then broke out the next one and half miles or so to Zealand. There were fox or coyote tracks from the Zealand Summit all of the way to Mt. Guyot. I followed those tracks and broke the rest of the 1.6 miles of trail to Guyot, which had stunning views.

Looking towards Zealand from where the broken trail stopped
Something was on Zealand before me! 
Zealand summit
Bondcliff Trail & Bonds - I was pleased to see from Guyot some inviting snow shoe tracks towards the Bonds.  Being on this remote stretch of trail in beautiful weather was uplifting.  I dropped the pack for West Bond, and made it out quickly.  This was my first time back to West Bond in winter since my winter finish last year.  It was actually a very similar morning.  I spent a good few minutes on the summit enjoying the views and checking in with family after no cell service since yesterday afternoon.  I was in good spirits, made my way up to Bond for more views, and things got better as I kept moving toward Bondcliff. The scene was pretty sweet heading to Bondcliff, my 13th and last peak on this epic adventure.

Mt. Guyot

Final push to West Bond
My 10th summit of West Bond in the 10th different month
The Bonds ridge

The Rest of the Way - To make things even sweeter, the Bondcliff Trail in the other direction was also broken out very nicely. THANK YOU! I was going to take a break around Bondcliff, but I motored on down to the last river crossing to take it instead.  I was getting very hungry again, so I stopped to cook my couple of oatmeal packets and drink some actual water to fuel up for the rest of the way.  After that, I was good. I put the snowshoes on the pack, and bare-booted it all of the way from that spot on the nicely packed trail. With daylight still around, and knowing I'd finish before dark, I was pumped. While on other Pemi Loops, I've walked this trail back practically limping, but this time everything was strong to the end.

The 3rd stream crossing on the descent
My nice meal break before the final push out!
A little under 3 miles to go!
Alas, I made it.
This was an awesome endeavor for a lot of reasons - mostly the views and experiencing the awesome fresh snow, but 11 of the 13 peaks counted to February for my grid, and most of these peaks counted for rounds 7 or higher.  After hiking 18 of 19 peaks in Maine and Vermont so far this winter (North Brother remains), I've done 20 NH 4000-footers in just five hiking days, bringing me to 38 of 67 this winter with only 10 or 11 more possible hiking days to try for 29 more (I only hike weekends). Two of those hiking days will be needed for North Brother.  It should be an exciting finish to the winter as I go for it and should pass a couple of more interesting milestones (4th round and all NE4Ks solo in winter). Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy reading about my craziness and excitement of going for the New England peak in winter!