The Only Way Is Up: Type 2 Fun on Mount Shasta

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

It was supposed to be simple, a warm-up for the real climbing. But, one small navigational error, mixed with some consistently bad decision making, turned our supposedly easy journey into an epic that would be impossible to forget.

Two long-time friends, my wife, and I had hiked from Mount Shasta’s Bunny Flat trailhead to Lake Helen, where we set up camp, cooked dinner, and went to bed early in preparation for an alpine start and summit attempt. The following morning, the alarm came quickly, at a time most would consider more night than day. We slowly crawled from our sleeping bags and began to layer up, fill water bottles, and pack our bags for the big day. Our plan was to summit, return to camp, pack it up, and head back to the car at Bunny Flat. Over the course of the day, we would climb almost 4,000 feet and descend more than 7,000, all at an altitude unfamiliar to us four East Coasters.

The alarm came quickly, at a time most would consider more night than day.

We left Lake Helen around 1 a.m. and moved up Shasta’s icy, steep slope toward the day’s crux: the Red Banks. Passing through the Red Banks was our chosen route’s one real challenge, and climbers have two options: Attempt the steep-ish chimney that runs through the Red Banks, or hike around them. We had elected the former option. Roped up as a team of four, we made consistent upward progress through the early morning darkness, frequently stopping to check the GPS to ensure we were heading the right way. Here, however, is where we made our first mistake.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Two of us had previously climbed Mount Shasta’s Avalanche Gulch route, and despite what the GPS said, we both felt like we were being pulled too far right, away from the chimney and toward the end of the Red Banks. Arriving at a cliff band with the sun beginning to rise, we realized our mistake. In fact, we trended too far to the left, missed the chimney, and were facing three options: One, traverse the icy slope, locate the chimney, and continue up the mountain, taking a time and effort penalty for our navigational misstep; two, descend back to camp, cut our losses, and begin preparing for the climbs on Shasta’s north side, the real reason we came here; or, three, just go up!

The only way out was up.

Going up sounded good. In theory, we could avoid any time lost from our mistake. After all, the climbing didn’t look that hard, and we would surely intersect with the Avalanche Gulch route farther up the mountain. But, whether blinded by ambition, overconfident, or just tired from traveling and the early start, this turned into our second mistake. Because of the route’s technical nature, we were no longer moving in unison; rather, one person would climb ahead and belay the other three up, significantly slowing our ascent and leaving us to nibble away at the 14,180 ft. mountain 200 feet at a time

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. After climbing one rope length, we discovered the cliff was bigger than we initially judged, leading to another rope length of technical climbing. After that, we ascended a steep snowfield, which brought us to a steep scree field, which further led us to another steep snowfield, all with bits of semi-technical climbing on crumbling volcanic rock (Type 2 Fun on its own) mixed in. At no time did we see or run into the Avalanche Gulch. It dawned on us pretty soon that we had climbed onto Casaval Ridge, one of the mountain’s more aesthetic lines and a far more challenging route.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The good news was that we knew where we were and knew that if we continued climbing, we would, in fact, intersect with Avalanche Gulch eventually. The bad news was that the climbing was slow, we had only packed food and water for a quick summit attempt, we’d been on the go for a long time, nerves were getting frayed, and there was no turning around. From our location, reversing our route would be much more challenging and time consuming. The only way out was up.

The early morning’s psych had worn off, and no one was having fun anymore. When we stopped to belay, there was nothing but silence, as everyone was locked into their personal bubbles of suffering and anxiety. Each time we reached the top of a snowfield or cliff band, there was a moment of anticipation, with everyone hoping that we’d finally get to familiar territory, but it was followed by disappointment when we realized we had yet another obstacle to overcome.

We’d been on the move for almost twelve hours when we encountered the crux of Casaval Ridge, The Catwalk. As the name implies, The Catwalk is a narrow section of rock and snow measuring between one- to two-feet wide, with a bulging wall of loose rock on your left and the abyss on your right. While not technically challenging, it is a heady bit of climbing, with dire consequences if you make a mistake, and not exactly the place you would want to be if your original plan had you cracking beers in the parking lot by now.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Never have people been so happy to see a place called Misery Hill.

Reluctantly, we climbed The Catwalk—what other choice did we have? It was also here where the day assuredly became Type 2 Fun, as a few tears were already shed. Luckily, after The Catwalk, the terrain became easier, and we could now clearly see Misery Hill, the place where Casaval Ridge and Avalanche Gulch join. Looking back, never have people been so happy to see a place called Misery Hill.

Below Misery Hill and off Casaval Ridge, we sat in the afternoon sun while nibbling on our remaining food and sipping the last of our water. With the summit in sight, two of us made a push for the top, but our hearts were no longer in it. A couple hundred feet shy of the summit, we turned around, picked up the other two, who were sulking at the base of Misery Hill, and descended Avalanche Gulch toward our camp at Lake Helen. There, we ate, drank, and packed up before hiking back to the car and the promise of hot meals, cold beers, and comfy beds in town.

After a day of relaxing, we went back and climbed Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch efficiently and without incident, summiting in the early morning with the peak to ourselves. But, we never did make it to Shasta’s north side. Over the course of our two trips, we only summited once, but got to experience two types of fun. I guess we should consider ourselves lucky we didn’t experience the third.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Unfinished Business

We dug in with our hands, kicked in with our feet, and essentially crawled our way up a ridiculously steep pitch. It wasn’t pretty, but we made it to the top and to level ground. To give my arms and legs a break, I lay down on my back, breathing heavily, and asked, “Is this it? Are we close to the summit?”

Dan, hiking buddy extraordinaire, pulled out his map and compass. “The enemy is here,” he said, pointing to a spot on the map. “And, we are here,” he continued. “We shall circle around and surprise them.”

“Shut it,” I said. “Seriously, are we close to the summit?”

Dan and I were in the midst of a bushwhack up Eleventh Mountain in the Adirondack Park. The day was heavy with humidity, the temperature was as equally unattractive, and I have a tendency to sweat—copiously. I was drenched. And, although turnaround times are common, mine was for a reason most hikers probably don’t need to address. I was meeting my ex, three hours away, to pick up my boys after they had spent the weekend with him.

We didn’t have much time left, and I was antsy to bag this summit. Plus, word on the street was that there were some pretty great views to be had from the ledges nearby.

“No,” Dan said. “We still have another mile to go. If we go for it, we won’t make your turnaround time.”

I groaned, rolled over, and hid my face in the pine duff. “Damn,” I thought. “Second summit in a row I’m going to miss.

Credit: Kristi Brennan
Credit: Kristi Brennan

Two in a Row

Failing to summit one mountain—well, that can happen. Failing to summit two in a row makes you start to wonder what you’re doing, and why it matters so much.

A couple weeks earlier, I had been in Wyoming. My childhood friend, Betty, and I meet up once a year to backpack. She’s on the West Coast, and I’m on the East Coast, so we meet somewhere close to the middle. This year, we chose to hike all around the Medicine Bow National Forest, with the coup de grâce of summiting Medicine Bow Peak. Snowy summits in August? You had me at snow.

Bad weather plagued most of our trip. Drenching rain chased us into our tents at 3 p.m. one afternoon and didn’t clear until 6 a.m. the following morning, which also happened to be our summit day.

Clouds were pushing up and over the peak early, but we both agreed to climb to the saddle and reassess the weather at that time. Up we climbed, through boulder fields and past picas who chirped threats at us for daring to walk near their homes, until we made it to the saddle at 11,000 feet.

What had started out as a near-perfect hiking morning was now dissolving into dark clouds that streamed over the summit. The darkening skies tinted our hearts, as well. Another mile of hiking up 1,000 feet would put us on the summit—but at what cost? So, we made the decision to turn back. Heading down, I kept casting glances back. Was it still cloudy? What if we hunkered in our tents for a couple of hours? Would a window open up later today? No matter how much sense the decision made, it hurt to turn around and leave unfinished business behind me.

Everyone who has climbed a mountain knows summit fever—the compulsion to reach the top at all costs.

So, what is it about failed summit attempts that eats at us? Is it merely a feeling of failure? Or, perhaps, a sense that we have lost control? Is it actually a refusal, on the part of those of us who like to challenge ourselves, to admit that something is actually too difficult for us?

Credit: Kristi Brennan
Credit: Kristi Brennan

Sometimes, the Only Way to Win is to Admit Defeat

“This hike will not be in my top 10 hikes,” I announced to Dan as we went back to the car. I was feeling off. Moody. Not only was our attempt unsuccessful, but the whack back off the mountain was longer than either one of us anticipated. I was scraped and scratched from my thighs to the top of my knee socks. Dried blood covered each knee from hitting branches sticking up from dead and downed trees that hid sneakily beneath the ground cover. Typically, these things don’t even register on my radar, but today, man—a second missed summit.

“So, I’m thinking this will be a nice hike in cooler weather,” Dan said as we neared the car. “Plus, the leaves will be down.”

This was Dan’s second attempt on Eleventh Mountain. Getting to a summit is partly why he hikes, too—partly. I asked him why he had wanted to try this peak again. He replied, “Wanting to do Eleventh Mountain is not because it’s a mountain summit, but because I wasn’t successful at doing something I can do and tried to do.” Dan went on to say, “Not completing something is unfinished business. It requires closure.”

Unfinished business. That phrase rang true enough, like the nagging self-doubt that whispers in your ear when you aren’t successful at your first attempt: “If you only had started earlier in the day, if you had hiked faster, if you didn’t take that long break…” Improve on any of these, and for this hike, there wouldn’t be any unfinished business—all the more reason to get back out and try again.

“Yeah. That’s true. With no leaves in the way, the views will be even better,” I answered. Already, the frustration and pain were ebbing and being replaced by the all-to-familiar rising feelings of excitement over another challenge, the next adventure, the hopeful sense of accomplishment, and earning that end-of-the-hike grin.

Credit: Kristi Brennan
Credit: Kristi Brennan

Big Mountain Training with the EMS Sector 42 Pack

For the last four months, I’ve been going on training hikes to prepare for climbing Chimborazo, a 20,564-foot stratovolcano down in Ecuador. Unfortunately, I don’t have endless time to go outdoors; I’m bound by the old desk and keyboard from 9 to 5 every weekday. So, when I punch that clock on Friday afternoon, that means it’s time for me to speed off toward the mountains and start logging some serious miles.

As a proud weekend warrior from the Northeast, I had to select a pack that would allow me to go light and fast for long and multi-day trips in the Catskills, High Peaks, and beyond. Throughout my training, I used the EMS Sector 42 backpack. In spite of me being the type of hiker who’s hard on gear, the Sector easily exceeded all of my expectations.

The first thing I noticed about the Sector 42 is that it’s light and comfortable. I’m 5′ 10″, and the hip belt fit snugly around my waist, supporting the majority of the weight I carried. The shoulder straps felt sturdy and flawless, sitting flush with my shoulders and upper back. The breathable back panel shaped easily, maximizing comfort.

In addition to this, I appreciated that the pack, given its size, allowed for a full range of arm motion. This was especially nice for scrambling up Devil’s Path’s steeper sections on a day trip in the Catskills.

Credit: Lucas Kelly
Credit: Lucas Kelly

I’ve always believed that the little details are what make a pack enjoyable to use

I also used the Sector 42 pack on a few multi-day winter trips up to the Adirondacks. This meant that I had to fit my zero-degree sleeping bag, warm clothing, and single-person tent, plus food and water, into the bag. And, it all fit! The pack can hold up to 42 liters, so I was pleased to find that I could carry all the bare necessities for a weekend winter hiking trip on my back.

The front stash pocket is a lifesaver, allowing for quick access to smaller and important items, like my headlamp and wallet. I used this pocket often in combination with the zippered one on the top lid, both of which saved me valuable time while setting up and breaking down camp.

I’ve always believed that the little details are what make a pack enjoyable to use, and the Sector 42 was certainly designed with the hiker in mind. The two side stretch pockets are perfect for holding water bottles and snacks: They are built deep enough that you don’t have to worry about either falling out—a small detail, but one that makes a big difference.

The hip belt also has two small pockets to keep little items (think matches) within an arm’s reach. And, if you’re looking to save weight, the supportive aluminum stay can be removed. Not knowing what conditions I might face above treeline in the Adirondacks, I carried my hiking poles on the pack’s outside by tying them into the handy attachment loops, which would work just as well for ice axes and other tools.

Conclusion

As our summit day for Chimborazo approaches, I’m happy that I was able to take the Sector 42 along on my weekend training hikes, and I’m really looking forward to using it again. Overall, it’s a solid choice for a day or weekend pack, and I’d even recommend it to those who like to go ultralight on extended backpacking trips. 

Credit: Lucas Kelly
Credit: Lucas Kelly

Climbing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Peaks

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood before a quarter-million supporters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, calling for an end to racism and injustice. Dr. King’s repetition of “I Have a Dream” will echo into the future as one of history’s greatest pieces of rhetoric. But, at the end, Dr. King shared his hope to see freedom spread throughout the country from the tops of various high points, listing mountains and hills from New Hampshire to California.

Climbing these peaks is hardly comparable to the challenges Dr. King faced during his life, but working through this summit list is a fun way to honor the freedoms for which he fought.

Mount Washington from Mount Monroe. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Mount Washington from Mount Monroe. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns

“And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire”

Dr. King first mentions our local prodigious hilltops. However, perhaps the reason he wasn’t specific is, New Hampshire has 48 peaks that are 4,000 feet or higher.

Mount Washington is the highest, at 6,289 feet—certainly prodigious enough. It’s known for its ever-changing weather, so, if you’re planning on starting here, be sure to be prepared for any and all conditions. To get to the top, you can take a number of popular trailheads, including the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, Lion Head Trail, and Boott Spur.

But, perhaps Dr. King truly meant “hilltops” rather than mountains. In this case, Mount Major is found in the Belknap Mountain Range, overlooking Alton Bay. With a summit of 1,785 feet, it’s a much easier task to tackle than its northern kin. The most common trailhead, Mount Major and Brook Trail Loop, is a 3.8-mile round-trip hike that is dog friendly and is great for all skill levels.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

“Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York”

New York features two prominent mountain ranges: the Adirondacks and the Catskills. The more southerly Catskills are known for their lush forests and waterfalls, while the “mightier” Adirondacks are home to New York’s largest mountain. Mount Marcy stands at 5,344 feet and is known by climbers to need few technical skills, but getting to the peak requires a round-trip hike over 14 miles and lots of stamina. The most popular trailhead is located by the Adirondack Lodge, passing Marcy Dam and Indian Falls before going above treeline.

For those looking for something slightly less “mighty,” Big Slide Mountain, at 4,240 feet, is an eight- to 10-mile round-trip journey, depending on which route you choose, making it a little more suitable for all skill levels.

“Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania”

It is interesting that Dr. King uses the adjective “heightening” to describe Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies. Believe it or not, these mountains are getting smaller due to time and erosion. According to geologists, the Alleghenies, and the Appalachian Mountains in general, are four times older than the Rocky Mountains, and may have even been just as large or even larger at some point!

Mount Davis stands at 3,213 feet and is the highest peak in Pennsylvania. It can be summited all year round, but overgrowth during the summer makes the trail a little more difficult. The average round-trip hike is 5.4 miles.

Another option could be Blue Knob, the state’s second-tallest mountain, at 3,146 feet. On a clear day from the summit, you can see for up to 42 miles.

Credit: Dustin Gaffke
Credit: Dustin Gaffke

“Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado”

Although four times younger than the Appalachians, the Rocky Mountains are already double their height. In fact, 58 of Colorado’s mountains are 14,000 feet or higher, and are often referred to as 14-ers. The tallest of them all is Longs Peak (14,259 feet), which is located on the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park. This 15-mile strenuous hike offers a spectacular view. The most popular trail up the mountain, the Keyhole Route, attracts thousands of adventurers every summer, so be sure to plan ahead.

Another popular “snowcapped Rocky” is Pikes Peak. At 14,115 feet, it can be seen from all over the state. The summit is unlike many other mountains’—although somewhat similar to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington—in that people can drive cars or take the cog railway all the way to the top. Even though the trail is heavily trafficked during the summer months, the view from the summit is a must-see for any adventurer, having inspired the poem “America the Beautiful.”

Credit: David Doan
Credit: David Doan

“Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California”

California’s landscape varies from the north’s water-rich forests to the southern portion’s drought-stricken desert. Again, Dr. King leaves specificity to the imagination, so we’ll stick with the trend of the highest and most popular.

Of the twelve 14-ers in California, Mount Whitney is the tallest, standing at 14,497 feet. Along with this distinction, it’s also the highest point in the continental United States. There is no easy way to the top, with the most accessible being a strenuous 22-mile hike from the Whitney Portal trailhead. Climbing this one should be left to experienced mountaineers.

If you’re less experienced, there are still plenty of “curvaceous” slopes to explore. Located in Lassen Volcanic National Park is Mount Lassen (10,457 feet). Although it is still active, the five-mile round-trip hike to the summit begins in the Lassen Peak parking area.

Credit: Chris Yunker
Credit: Chris Yunker

“But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia”

This is the first mountain that Martin Luther King, Jr., named specifically. At 1,686 feet, however, Stone Mountain is far from Georgia’s tallest. Located east of Atlanta, it’s home to the Confederate Hall Historical & Environmental Education Center, as well as the Confederate Memorial Carving. It was also the Ku Klux Klan’s revival location in 1915 and, because of these factors, was likely mentioned for its historical connections.

Getting to the top requires a 2.2-mile round-trip hike known as the Walk-Up Trail. On a clear day from the summit, you can see 60 miles into the horizon, including the Atlanta skyline to the west.

Credit: Woody Hibbard
Credit: Woody Hibbard

“Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee”

The only other mountain mentioned specifically in the speech stands at 1,850 feet. Beginning in Alabama, Lookout Mountain grows to a peak in Tennessee and overlooks the Chattanooga River. Lookout Mountain also played a crucial role in the Civil War, where, at the “Battle Above the Clouds,” the Union Army captured a Confederate stronghold.

One way to the top is by taking Point Park to Sunset Rock. This 3.5-mile round-trip hike perfectly captures the scenic terrain that makes up the mountain. Another route begins in either of the parking lots near the historic Cravens House and is a 2.2-mile round-trip trek.

“Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring”

The final mountains mentioned in the speech are probably also the vaguest. While Mississippi played a critical role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, the state isn’t known for being mountainous, which is probably why Dr. King referenced “hills” and “molehills.”

In the present, the state’s highest point is Woodall Mountain (807 feet) and has the dubious honor of being the bloodiest high point, home to a Civil War battle that resulted in the deaths of almost 8,000 soldiers.

If approaching the mountain from the north, take CR-233 south and look out for the Woodall Mountain trailhead. If approaching from the south, follow CR-176 heading north, before turning onto a dirt road that will allow you to drive almost all the way to the summit.

 

Martin Luther King, Jr., challenged the American people to push aside prejudice and history and look proudly into the future. He wanted to hear freedom ringing from the tops of every peak, so enjoy the liberties that he helped solidify and go climb some mountains!


Comfortable Winter Camping: The AMC Huts

It takes a truly tough adventurer to go camping in the Northeast during winter. But, for anyone who wants to get out—but not spend a night lying in the snow—or for someone who just wants to switch things up for an easy weekend, there’s nothing more quintessential than sitting by a fire in a cozy cabin in the woods. And, in the White Mountain National Forest, that’s easier to do than you might think.

The Appalachian Mountain Club operates a series of huts throughout the Whites during the summer, and in the winter season, three of these backcountry outposts remain open for everyday hikers, thru-hikers, and anyone else trying to stay a little more comfortable during their overnights.

Credit: Jack Roberts
Credit: Jack Roberts

Lonesome Lake Hut

Getting to these huts requires a bit of a hike, with some longer than others, and none are a small task in the winter. The easiest to access is the Lonesome Lake Hut, located 1.6 miles from the Lafayette Place Campground in Franconia Notch on I-93. It is a relatively easy hike for experienced hikers, but it’s important everyone remembers snowshoes and crampons to effectively conquer the ice and snow that may be on the trail.

The Lonesome Lake Hut sits behind Lonesome Lake, offering a perfect view of Franconia Ridge: some of the most beautiful views New Hampshire winters have to offer. Caretakers light a fire in the hut after 4 p.m., and with plenty of games and books about the history of the mountains, it may be one of the most relaxing evenings you’ll find out here.

The Lonesome Lake Hut features bathrooms, running water, and a full kitchen with gas stoves to prepare food. Almost completely made from wood, the architecture and atmosphere will beat every hotel you could find. Even on the coldest winter days, they give you a warm, cozy, at-home feeling.

Credit: Jack Roberts
Credit: Jack Roberts

Carter Notch Hut

Carter Notch Hut, requiring a one-way 3.8-mile hike, is the next-most accessible, taking hikers up a beautiful trail through the Whites’ deep wilderness. Hikers pass the Carter Lakes, where you’ll find the massive peaks of Carter Dome and Wildcat Mountain in the background. This hut, like the others, will have some snacks available, and it also provides a pillow, so you still need to pack a sleeping bag and blankets in order to stay warm through the night. Additionally, two detached bunk houses offer more of a cabin experience.

For adventuring nearby, the trails close to the hut are a must for exploring and relaxing. Most hikers will continue—either the next day or after dropping of most of their heavy equipment in the hut—up Carter Dome. The huts are about 1.2 miles from the summit, where, on a clear day, the spectacular views are more than worth the trek.

Credit: Jack Roberts
Credit: Jack Roberts

Zealand Falls Hut

Zealand Falls Hut may not be the hardest to access, but it requires the longest journey. It is only about 2.8 mile miles from the trailhead, but during the winter, the Zealand Road is closed, which adds an additional 3.5 miles. While it’s certainly doable on foot or by snowshoe, cross-country skiing can speed it up.

Either way, the trail is a stunning trek that’s worth every second. For a hike in the Whites, the journey is relatively flat, so you can enjoy the frozen ponds and scenic backgrounds without having to think about every step, like most other routes you’ll take in winter.

After getting to the hut, one of the best ways to enjoy the evening is by continuing up about 1.3 miles to Zealand Cliff, where the lookout is often regarded as one of the top views in the entire White Mountain National Forest.

If you’re looking for something to do back inside, the hut’s sign-in books are a great source of entertainment. Caretakers store all of them on a shelf, each full of names, drawings, and stories from the hut’s visitors throughout the years.

Credit: Jack Roberts
Credit: Jack Roberts

Hut Etiquette

Even though these are relatively civilized spaces, visitors are still asked to adhere to standard Leave No Trace principles: Specifically, never leave trash behind in the hut and bunk houses, just like you wouldn’t want to leave waste at your campsite if you were tenting. Most people will bring a small plastic bag to store unwanted items until they get off the mountain.

It’s also important to be respectful of other hikers staying at the cabins. Many people come out here to get away from civilization, so try to keep noise levels down after sunset.

Prices

The comfort of staying out of the wind and cold costs $33 per night during the winter season ($27 if you are an AMC member), and in the process, you’re helping support the AMC’s work. The caretakers and hut “croo” members are some of the friendliest people on Earth, so get out the calendar and plan your next trip!

Credit: Jack Roberts
Credit: Jack Roberts

A Guide to Winter Wildlife Tracking

Imagine yourself hiking alone through freshly fallen snow in the backcountry. There are no sounds of civilization—not even a plane overhead. You come across an animal’s track…Who left it behind? And, where were they going? Today, my goal is to provide you with some basic information, so you can get started on your own winter wildlife tracking.

Here’s a little bit about my wildlife tracking experience: While doing my undergrad at the University of Vermont, I took a few semesters of winter wildlife tracking. The courses were based out of a large natural area in the woods of Northern Vermont. I also studied ecology, landscape natural history, natural resources, wildlife conservation, biology, and wilderness conservation. Despite all my studies, I would not call myself an expert tracker—not even in the slightest! I am just an amateur who enjoys exploring in the woods.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

Pick where you want to go

I recommend choosing somewhere a little off the beaten path: the fewer human disturbances, the better. With that in mind, it’s safer to find some place you’re familiar with and wouldn’t mind stepping off the trail a bit.

My favorite place to track in Vermont is on the Nebraska Notch Trail on the backside of Mt. Mansfield in Stowe. In Pennsylvania, I love going to Valley Forge National Historic Park after a big snowstorm. The most important thing is to find a place where you can be comfortable!

Timing is important

Most animals are active at dawn and dusk, which is known as being crepuscular (in case you’d like to impress friends with a cool, new vocabulary word). I recommend going out first thing in the morning, a time of day when the animals you are seeking are less likely to have been disturbed and before tracks can be muddled by humans, pets, or the elements. I have had my most successful tracking adventures at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

What to Bring:

  1. Snowshoes: I have a pair of MSR Lightning Ascents. They are pretty technical, with a full crampon that makes for a good all-around snowshoe.
  2. Trekking poles
  3. Hydro Flask: Full of hot coffee or tea to keep you warm as you meander about.
  4. Waterproof boots: I wear my Oboz Bridgers, but heavier-insulated winter boots might keep you even warmer if it’s particularly cold.
  5. Hand warmers
  6. Camera
  7. Binoculars
  8. Animal track guide
  9. Backpack: EMS’ Sector Series 22L is a great lightweight option.
  10. Lunch, snacks, and water
Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

Tracking Tips

The first thing I do when looking for tracks is take 10 to 20 minutes to tune into my senses. I was taught to find a spot in the woods just off the trail where I could sit in the snow and use each of my five senses in turn.

First, I sit with my eyes closed and just listen: to the wind, to the sounds the trees make, and to the sound of my own breath. While listening to all of these different sounds, be sure to make note of them in your head. Consider their pitch, duration, repetition, tone, sequence, etc.

Next, take another five minutes or so, still with your eyes closed, to take in the smells around you. After that, open your eyes and make this next five about taking in your surroundings. This time, try not to focus in on any one thing but instead to take in many at once. Finally, combine all the senses and take in the environment as a whole for a few minutes.

The tracks you will look for are disturbances made into the baseline of the natural environment. When looking at your location’s big picture, all the components that are typically present in it—like a downed tree, the trail, the snow on the ground, the sun, the fallen leaves, and grass poking through—are aspects of the “baseline.” The baseline is the normal environment in front of you, minus any impact done by animals or humans, such as a stick nibbled on by a deer, a nut chewed by a squirrel, or a branch snapped by a boot. These are disturbances, because they interrupt what is normally present.

When wildlife tracking, the key is to step back to try to see the bigger picture of what is in front of you, so that disturbances become more obvious. Tracks are just a small disturbance into the greater picture, or the baseline, and they are the evidence left behind of animals that were once there.

Once you are ready to begin tracking, a good place to start is up high on a ridge or down low in a valley. Predators like to be at a higher elevation for a good perspective when stalking smaller prey. Valleys and low areas tend to be animal highways consistently being walked, trotted, crawled, hopped, and run through.

Walk around for a while, keeping the big picture of the entire environment in mind as you do so. Your body may be up on the ridgeline, but let your mind wander to those valleys. Patience is the name of the game here, and tracking isn’t something that can be rushed. Take your time, and when you do find some tracks, stick to them to see where the adventure leads!

Tracking Facts

  • Tracks made in direct sunlight crystallize and turn icy due to the melting process. They also crisp up and harden where the greatest amount of force was made in the mark. For example, pressure put into the ball of the foot is where there will be a significant amount of icy change comparable to the track’s edge. In addition, watch out for sunlight. It can create shadows that may result in misrepresentation within the track. Tracks that are made under cover and do not receive direct sunlight will have less melting and less iciness.
  • When I find a new track that I am uncertain of, I like to take my glove off and feel the edges of it. See where the deepest parts are and feel how icy the track is. The track’s age can be determined by how icy it has become. The icier it is, the older and more forcefully the animal made the track.
  • Another thing I like to take notice of is how far apart the tracks are. Was the animal running, hopping, walking, or stalking? If it’s a squirrel headed for a tree and the tracks are fairly spaced, maybe it was getting there in a hurry, because it was being chased.
  • When trying to decipher who left the track, I revert to my handy pocket guide! It’s fun and exciting to try to identify who left the track, and it gives clear tips on what characteristics to look for in the tracks you’ve found.

Helpful Identification Tips

Fisher

This carnivore, part of the weasel family, is the size of a large house cat. Tracks are 2 in. by 2 in. generally, and their patterns commonly feature a bounding gate. They have five toes measuring 3 in. wide by 4.5 in. long.

Red Fox

This carnivore’s tracks, with four toes, can be found in a nearly straight line. Oval tracks measure 2 in. to 3 in. long and usually show small triangular footpads.

Coyote

This carnivore, with four toes, has oval tracks measuring 2.5 in. to 3.5 in. long, and they usually show footpads. They typically walk or trot in an alternating pattern.

Black Bear

This five-toed omnivore has front tracks measuring 5 in. by 5 in. and rear paw tracks measuring 7 in. by 5 in. These bears generally walk on the soles of their feet and tend to follow preexisting trails and roads. Additionally, you may find tree markings nearby.

Moose

This herbivore has tracks measuring 5 in. to 6 in. in length and 3 in. to 4 in. wide and usually featuring prominent dewclaw imprints. You may also see a “heart”-shaped imprint left behind.

Turkey

This herbivore with three toes has tracks measuring 3.5 to 4.5 in. long by 3.75 to 4.25 in. wide. Their stride is generally a straight line, with tracks 8 to 14 in. apart, depending on its speed.

Troubleshooting: 404 tracks not found!

What do you do when you hit a wall and can’t find the next track? I think the biggest part is making sure you are seeing the whole baseline. I know that when I get excited, I can become too focused on one track or even one line of tracks. As a result, I end up losing sight of things, and then it seems impossible to find more tracks or even where they were headed. When you can’t find the next track, retrace to where you started: Look at the initial track, then back up and take in the whole baseline again, and follow those disturbances to the baseline and see where they lead.

If the track still seems to end, examine why: maybe it ends on the ground there and picks up on a tree instead, maybe the animal changed direction abruptly and the tracks head in an unforeseen direction, or maybe the rest of the tracks just can’t be found. Just because they’re lost or unseen does not mean they’re not there. The key part of reacting to situations like this is to remain calm. So, keep at it, and remember that the adventure of wildlife tracking is in finding a brand new set to follow.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

Highlight: No Compromises with New Good To-Go Breakfast Meals

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Dehydrated foods can get a bad rep. Let’s face it: There’s a reason our cabinets aren’t filled with them for at-home meals. But in the backcountry, where your stove is so small it fits inside of your slightly-less-tiny pot, something nutritious that’s also simple and easy to prepare is invaluable.

Harvard Cabin, below Mount Washington’s Huntington Ravine, isn’t one of those locations. Between the six-burner gas stove, pots and pans to cook for more than its 14-person capacity, and the tools to make your meal as fancy as you want, it’s easy to put gourmet over convenience. And, sometimes when you carry just-add-water meals up there, while everyone else is whipping up filet mignon or fresh seafood, it might garner a few laughs.

But, not when your breakfast is Good To-Go.

When we whipped these out after getting an early start in search of Huntington’s ice, the laughs never came.

The Maine-local brand’s new breakfast menu items—Granola and Oatmeal—take compromise out of the equation. Thus, you’ll spend a fraction of the time getting to your morning meal without losing homemade taste.

When we whipped these out after getting an early start in search of Huntington’s ice, the laughs never came. Perhaps, it was because of how quickly we were eating after getting out of our sleeping bags, or because of how good the food looked, or because we never had to dirty any pots or bowls.

The oatmeal is made from whole-grain oats and quinoa, with chia and hemp seeds, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom. The granola, on the other hand, features almonds, nuts, seeds, flax, whole-grain oats, blueberries, figs, real maple syrup, and honey, all mixed in a powdered milk that rehydrates instantly with either hot or cold water. As a side note, when it’s single digits in the world’s worst weather, hot was the obvious choice for us.

Available exclusively from EMS, these new offerings add Good To-Go’s signature home-cooked flavor to your mornings, whether you’re waking up to stay warm around a measly camp stove, you’re looking for something quick to eat in a fully stocked cabin, or you’re pulling breakfast out of your kitchen cabinets at home.

Credit: The Expeditioners
Credit: The Expeditioners

Good To-Go: Delicious Dehydrated Meals Made In Maine

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the EMS Blog on October 8, 2014. It has been re-published here with minimal editing. 

When it comes to choosing what kind of food to bring on a weekend camp-out or multi-day backpacking trip, convenience is king. You want easy to prepare meals with ingredients that won’t spoil, spill, or attract the attention of the furry local residents who are every bit as hungry as you are. For these reasons and many more, freeze-dried, boil-in-a-bag meals are popular alternatives to pre-mixing, storing and preparing your own breakfasts, lunches and dinners in the backcountry.

For years, the selection of prepared meals available at your local Eastern Mountain Sports stores has been dominated by Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry. Both brands offer lots of freeze-dried options for breakfast, lunch and dinner that are ready to eat within minutes after pouring boiling water directly into the pouch they’re sold in. For variety and convenience, these meals are tough to beat.

On September 30, a Maine-based newcomer to the prepared foods game named Good To-Go took a huge step forward in the form of an Editors’ Choice Award from Backpacker Magazine. While the announcement won’t be public until October 15, we at Eastern Mountain Sports have had the pleasure of watching the Good To-Go success story unfold since May when we started carrying their tasty line of dehydrated meals in 10 stores.

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Since May, Good To-Go’s gluten-free Thai Curry, Smoked Three Bean Chili,  and Herbed Mushroom Risotto have sold so well, they will be available in 33 stores by the end of October and in all 68 of our stores later next year. It’s hard to believe that this explosive growth started with a chance meeting at a trade show this past January in  Providence. As Brian Nasser from our product management team explains, “They were just getting started and their rep only had three bags with stickers on them. I liked that the fact that they were super local and trying to do something new. I decided to test it in a few stores as soon as I tasted it and Good To-Go responded with great packaging and excellent results.”

Has Good To-Go made some incredible scientific breakthrough that has enabled them to make exceptionally tasty, gluten-free meals at reasonable prices? No.

In fact, the creator of Good To-Go isn’t a scientist at all. Jennifer Scism is a world-class chef who was on the team that defeated Mario Batali on the popular Food Network show, Iron Chef. She also co-owns Annisa, a nationally recognized restaurant in NYC.  After being introduced to hiking and backpacking by her husband David Koorits, Jennifer was inspired to find a better way to enjoy delicious food while adventuring.

Jen Scism at work in her kitchen at Good To-Go Foods in Eliot, Maine.
Jen Scism at work in her kitchen at Good To-Go Foods in Eliot, Maine.

Jen began preparing some of her favorite meals as if she were about to serve them to her family and then experimenting with her countertop dehydrator. It’s the dehydration process that makes Good To-Go different. I asked David to give me the details:

“Freeze drying is done by taking the food down to -50 to -80 Celsius. Then using sublimation, a vacuum is applied to pull out the water. The freeze dried ingredients are then combined in the proper portions to make a meal.  In contrast, Good To-Go dehydrates its meals.  All the ingredients are fully cooked together allowing all the flavors to infuse like a dinner cooked at home would.  At that point the meals are dehydrated and packaged.  Dehydrating allows the meals to come back with more flavor and taste.  For example, the broccoli in our Thai Curry comes back with texture and chew when you bite into it.”

©tayleraubin-3375

I met David and Good To-Go marketing coordinator Emilie Chatelain at a staff training event last month and I was blown away by both the quality of their products and their dedication to sharing it with active people wherever they roam. You’ll find Good To-Go handing out free samples at trail heads, adventure races, local market days and of course, at our stores.

Vendor Village
Last month, EMS employees were treated to a preview of Good To-Go’s newest flavor that shipped out to stores yesterday.

So, if you’re looking to spice up your next adventure with food that has earned the praise of Outside Magazine, Mountain Online, and Gear Junkie while supporting a small New England-based business that’s doing things the right way, I hope you’ll consider trying one of Good To-Go’s dehydrated meals.

GTG Summit
Partners in business and in, life David Koorits and Jen Scism (with their dog Bella) have turned their passion for adventure and love of good food into a thriving business based in Kittery, Maine.

 


Showshoeing Vermont's Camel's Hump

Camel’s Hump is a 4,083 ft. tall peak and a fairly well-recognized natural landmark in the state of Vermont, largely due to its obvious shape. It is located in Duxbury, and from the summit, you can see Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west and the White Mountains in the east, if there aren’t any clouds. It is probably the one mountain in Vermont that, if you haven’t been to the top, you are really missing out on something special.

There are a few trails up to the peak. The Monroe Trail is my favorite, and one everyone should check off their list. It is about 6.8 miles round trip—not your easy jaunt in the woods. In the summer, it’s about a half-day hike, but in the snow, plan on a bit longer of a journey. You can find a trail map here

Getting There

Getting to the mountain itself is fairly simple. If you’re coming from the Burlington area, take I-89 south to exit 11, then take VT Rt. 2 through Richmond to Jonesville, and turn right over the Winooski River bridge. Then, take Cochran Road from the bridge to the first left onto Duxbury Road. It changes its name to River Road at the Bolton-Duxbury town line, but continue following it for about 5.8 miles to the stop sign at the base of Camel’s Hump Road. There, turn right up Camel’s Hump Road, and go about 3.6 miles to the end at the parking areas. Here, there are two parking areas near each other.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

Being Prepared

Camel’s Hump is one of my favorite mountains to climb in the winter. There are fewer people on the trail, my dog loves it, and the snowshoeing is fantastic! Somehow, this time of year, the snow on the paper birch trees and hemlock pines makes it majestic and much more appealing.

Snowshoeing is a great way to get out in the winter. It’s something that anyone can do and doesn’t require the coordination or technical skill of skiing or snowboarding, so it is very easy to get started. All this said, the first, and most important, thing you should know is that snowshoeing is still hard work! But, it will also be incredibly fun and rewarding. The journey up Camel’s Hump is strenuous, but worth every step.

Preparation is critical. Dressing appropriately can mean the difference between freezing your butt off or dripping in sweat (and then freezing your butt off because you’re soaked). It’s also important to plan out your trip. The mileage, elevation change, terrain, and weather all determine what kind of clothing, pack, and footwear you’ll need.

For Camel’s Hump, this is crucial because of the difference between the steep and physical hike up and the cold, windswept summit. In addition, weather in Vermont can change on a dime—warm and sunny one minute, and the next, it’s cold, blustering, and snowing.

Staying hydrated is also important. Snowshoeing is a lot of work, as you burn a bunch of calories and sweat, and many people make the mistake of not wanting to drink cold water. It’s crucial to keep hydrated at all times of the year—not just summer—and an occasional snack or two doesn’t hurt. Warming your water before you leave goes a long way to making it more appetizing.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

The Monroe Trail

Camel’s Hump is barely over 4,000 feet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s an easy summit to reach! The trail begins with a gentle climb, but quickly progresses into some seriously steep steps. For the Monroe Trail, follow the blue blazes on the trees, although it is most likely that someone has already been out with their snowshoes and blazed the path for you. I like to start mid-morning to guarantee that. If you’re in for a challenge, try going to the top first thing in the morning after it snows.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

I like to break this trail into chunks, as, mentally, it helps me get to the top a little easier. From the parking lot, the first portion is what I call the wooded section, a fairly open hardwood forest of birch and maples. In winter, with its lack of leaves, you can see pretty far through it. During your journey, this will feel like the longest part.

The wooded section eventually intersects with the Dean Trail, but continue on the Monroe Trail, until you notice the hardwoods becoming more dense and see pines emerging. This will be within a mile or so of the junction and completes the hike’s first portion.

The second part—my favorite—goes through softwoods and pines. Here, the woods become very dense, and you are standing next to hemlocks that seem like they should be taller. And, they would be, if they weren’t buried under a couple feet of snow. While you’ll encounter another junction, this time with the Alpine Trail, stay on the well-marked Monroe Trail. This portion continues until the trail joins with the Long Trail.  

The third portion begins after the two trails merge at a clearing that is sheltered from the wind. It’s a great place to take a break and grab a snack, or to add on extra layers before ascending.

Marking the last little climb to the top, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the conditions. On its narrow and steep parts, your trekking poles will come in handy. Expect to come across ice near the top, especially if it hasn’t snowed recently or if it is on the warmer side, so be sure to pack MICROspikes, or some other form of traction. 

The top of Camel’s Hump is a fairly large area to explore. In the winter, you’ll find most of the fragile flora covered in snow.

To return to your car, just follow the Monroe Trail back down the same way you came up.

Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson
Credit: Maddy Jackson

Après-Hike

My favorite place to go to after Camel’s Hump is the Prohibition Pig in Waterbury, VT, known for a large selection of local craft beer, including their own, and delicious food. I recommend the hush puppies served with maple butter, as well as the house burger with pimento cheese, fried green tomato, and applewood smoked bacon. Yum!


Take It or Leave It

Editor’s Note: Marissa Muller is a 10th grade student with a growing passion for hiking. This essay was originally a school assignment and has been edited only superficially by goEast.  

The most invigorating day of my life was August 20th, 2015, the 80-degree summer day when I saw snow fall.

I was visiting my dad in Boston a few years back, and he wanted to take me on an adventure for the day. We decided we wanted to try none other than Mount Washington, the highest East Coast peak. Before we embarked, we first had to prepare. We needed just the essentials: water, food, and first aid. We were prepared mentally, but physically, I knew I was far from it. I had no clue what to expect.

Before the sun even rose, we awakened, showered, dressed, and got into the car before the clock read 6 a.m. We drove. My heart was racing as fast as the car on the long, empty highway, and the stress took over. The sound of my heartbeat echoed through my brain and made me question my decision. Before I could think twice, though, we had arrived, and there it was, towering over me. I couldn’t even see the top; the clouds had taken over. Across the parking lot, across the field, and across the gravel, the sign read: “Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail to Mt. Washington.” And, so, we walked.

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“I simply cannot tell you how many times I had stopped to catch my breath”

We traveled along a straight and flat dirt path for what seemed like forever. Then, we suddenly stopped, and my dad turned and said, “Here we go.” Those three, simple words had begun the adventure of a lifetime. We had arrived at the bottom of the monster that looked down on me from 6,000 feet up. And, so, up we went.

The steepness varied from manageable to completely unbearable. I simply cannot tell you how many times I had stopped to catch my breath and push back the tears of physical pain that found its way through my entire body: my arms, my legs, and my knees, but I never gave up. I was going to do this; I had to do this; I wanted to do this. Although difficult, it was rather satisfying and fun. Even though I longed for the top, I was really enjoying my journey there. It’s what makes it all worth it in the end.

I recognized that my pain often disappeared as we hiked, simply because of all the beauty that this monster held. Everywhere we looked, we saw life and color and nature, and I began to wonder why I feared this mountain so much, when it was really so delicate and full of life: filled with blooming trees, sparkling, clear, and rushing waterfalls, cliffs that looked out into the vast range of mountains and colorful forests, and the animals that called this place home scampering around you. I wanted to call this place home. The first half was glorious.

“Mountaintops don’t really take into account the summer months”

But, eventually we were out of the woods. I simply could not believe my eyes: Snow fell. Suddenly, I couldn’t see the bright green grass that I saw not more than 30 seconds ago; a blanket of snow engraved with hiking boot prints enveloped it. We were out in the open being tackled by the winds that challenged us to keep moving forward. We had accepted it, no doubt, but that didn’t mean we didn’t need a break. It took me a moment to realize that we were standing right outside of a wooden building that was sheltered only by a few remaining trees from the woods, the Lake of The Clouds Hut.

Normally, the Lake of The Clouds was a large pond where you could see the beautiful reflection of the overhanging clouds, but on a grey skies day, you really couldn’t see much. Mountaintops don’t really take into account the summer months, and it certainly wasn’t August up here. The snowfall now increased immensely and had begun to blanket the skies around us.

When we realized that the Lake couldn’t be seen, we went inside for a short while. It was as if we had walked right into a bakery in the middle of the North Pole: a whole new world. It was filled with never-ending cups of hot chocolate and baked goods and heaters to warm yourself up from the brisk winds outside. For a moment, I had forgotten what the day was like outside the door—a snow-filled summer day—but we had to continue on. I was looking forward to the journey to the top.

We stood, only for a moment to take it all in, and then, we went up again. Except, this time, we weren’t surrounded by a rainbow of flowers and fuzzy bunnies. We were surrounded by boulders and grey skies that only allowed a few feet of visible distance. The final chapter of this adventure consisted of a pile of boulders that finished off at the tip of the mountain. This pile wasn’t like any other, though; this one went on for days, it seemed—two treacherous miles to go to the summit.

I was doing all right for the beginning of this last leg of the journey, using my will to reach the top with the 35-mile-per hour winds physically pushing me. The only thing that verified the distance I covered were the individual rock piles marking the trail. These were called cairns.

“I had the choice to take it or leave it, and for a moment, I left it”

Suddenly, that wasn’t enough. I stopped dead in my tracks and sat down on one of those haunting rocks. I physically could not push on for the last mile, even though the summit was all I wanted. My physical state took over and shut me down. I had given up. All was over and my mind was set. I had the choice to take it or leave it, and for a moment, I left it.

I turned around to descend, but it only took about five steps for the boulders to begin to mock me. They shouted and called me a “quitter” and told me that they knew I couldn’t do it. They knew I would get so close and then give up, and for a moment, I let myself believe them. They were wrong. Something inside me sparked, and I had to prove them wrong—I had to prove myself wrong. I was going to take this. I wanted this more than anything, and I didn’t come this far to just give up when I could see the top.

I don’t know if my dad saw what I was thinking, or if he just saw the determined expression that suddenly took over my face, but when he said, “I know you can,” I suddenly knew I could. And, I would.

I could not give up. I had to push on and overcome what my body was telling me and listen to what my heart was saying. My heart wanted this. Step by step, boulder by boulder, I fought for the summit. And, finally, at last, I had made it. I had really done it. In the distance, a sign read: “Mt. Washington Summit: 6,288 ft.”

The sign itself wasn’t really anything special: It was a painted piece of wood stuck into the ground with snow lining the top. But, the fact that I had earned that piece of wood was what really mattered. Its job was to stand there and congratulate me and everyone else who longed to see it. My happiness was overwhelming. The sign wasn’t much, but it was all I wanted, and that’s exactly what I got: success in the summer snowstorm.

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