Lessons in peak bagging

When the magazine assignment came in to profile a business in Littleton NH I jumped on it: of course I would do it, even with a 3 hour drive each way. And of course I would plan the trip around the opportunity to climb a mountain alone in winter conditions.

By the time the day was over I’d learned a lot about planning, gear requirements and time.

Shame on me for being surprised when I showed up at The Basin: snow in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in November? Well, duh! But I had the whole day to myself and was committed to a significant hike, so I did. I’d left the house at 4am and was on the trail by 7:30, ice and snow crunching under my feet as I made my way toward Lonesome Lake Trail.

My original plan was for a “light and fast” 8-10 mile loop over Kinsman Ridge, hitting at least North Kinsman, possibly South Kinsman peaks. I gave myself 5 hours. It wasn’t to be, but I’m glad I made some rational decisions along the way or I might still be out there somewhere. It’s so unlike me to reduce my expectations in light of the conditions.

on paper, it all looked so simple and doable, in the snow it was different

on paper, it all looked so simple and doable, in the snow it was different

First, I was surprised at the slippery trail conditions. Lonesome Lake is a popular, accessible spot (beautiful too) with an AMC hut open in winter making families with kids comfortable taking a winter hike. That traffic means lots of feet compacting the snow, making for slick lower trails. Later I was surprised (unpleasantly) that there weren’t many beautiful views from this ridge trail as most of it is in the trees. Once I turned around (I was going north-to-south) and saw Mt. Washington in the distance, gorgeous, but it was a fleeting sight, nothing like the spectacular views from Franconia Ridge across the way.

the biggest challenge on the lower trail was ice from compaction

the biggest challenge on the lower trail was ice from compaction

Once I hit the intersection to climb higher, to Kinsman ridge, the snow was deeper. There was only one, maybe two sets of footprints in the snow on the ridge, perhaps from the day before. So I realized it was unlikely I’d see another person on this 3-4 mile leg of the hike. It would not be a good place to fall, twist an ankle or otherwise screw up. That realization slowed me down a little, as did the rocks that were icy under the snow and stuff like these ladders on the trail (it was that steep in some places).

steep enough to require ladders, slippery and with only one other set of footprints in the snow, Kinsman Ridge trail

steep enough to require ladders, slippery and with only one other set of footprints in the snow, Kinsman Ridge trail

I went as fast as I could without sacrificing all of my traction and judgement about where my feet were going. Did I say it was slippery? Some of the tight vertical scrambles were real challenges that required rock climbing skills like finding crevices I could get my fingers into and close attention to balancing my body weight, keeping my center of gravity low. I had extra pants, gloves etc in my pack but was still concerned about getting wet and cold, so I tried to keep from doing any butt-plants in the snow. I wasn’t completely successful. I was definitely doing harder stuff — sliding splits with spins and grab-a-tree descents — than that stunt that got Jean Claude van Damm so much attention, yet nobody was there to witness my feats of flexibility and grace.

a couple good decisions kept me from disaster on my winter hike

a couple good decisions kept me from disaster on my winter hike

The first good decision I made was to skip the turn toward Cannon Mountain, which would have extended the ridge hike. I snapped the above photo at 9:30am, confident that I’d cover the next two miles quickly and move on to the north peak. But it took two hours to reach the junction of Kinsman Ridge and Fishing Jimmy trails. At that point I’d already been in the woods four hours, which was way beyond my time budget. I had to cut my losses and take Fishing Jimmy back toward Lonesome Lake and out of the mountains. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so rational if there weren’t an assignment waiting (and I needed time to change and clean up before meeting my interview subjects too!). Thank God for small favors.

Lonesome Lake

Lonesome Lake

Instead of a peak-bagging expedition, I had to accept the hike as a lesson in planning. First, waterproof shoes were smart, but gaiters and microspikes would have been smarter (they’re on order as I type this). Poles would have been a plus in many areas (but I hate dealing with them in steep spots where you either have to stop and stow them or figure out how to hold them in one hand when necessary). Overestimating the ground I could cover was probably my biggest lesson, and I’d learned it before but I guess it hadn’t sunk in thoroughly. Despite being able to run 8 miles in an hour on pavement, vertical trails are very different and I averaged about one mile per hour. That was confirmed by this hiking time calculator, so I consoled myself afterward that I’d actually done very well in the conditions and with the gear I had (no spikes, no poles).

Broken branches and a bald spot on the rock mark the spot of a spectacular sliding wipeout, not sure I could have avoided it completely but next time I'll prepare better

Broken branches and a bald spot on the rock mark the spot of a spectacular sliding wipeout, not sure I could have avoided it completely but next time I’ll prepare better

On the way home I kept thinking “next time, I’ll …” — the best part is that there WILL be a next time to hit those elusive peaks.

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