8 Tips for Winter Hikes Above Treeline

While the mountains of the Northeast may not contain the vast alpine climates of the American West or other regions, many peaks of the Adirondacks, Greens, Whites, and Maine do require extensive travel above treeline to reach summit. Hiking above treeline, especially in winter, can be some of the most spectacular and rewarding hiking around, but it doesn’t come without challenged or danger. The unpredictable and harsh weather, inhospitable terrain, and difficulty of getting help all the way up there makes preparation necessary any time you venture into the Alpine, and these tips will start you in the right direction.

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1. Do the proper planning.

While sound preparation is a must for any safe hiking experience, it becomes even more important when visiting above treeline trails. You should carefully study your route, read trip reports or descriptions of your hike, and take careful note of weather predictions. Higher summit forecasts can be very different than general weather reports, and you should account for being exposed to any wind or precipitation which can often be more intense on exposed summits and ridgelines. As with any hike, be sure to let others know a detailed itinerary and when to expect you in case of emergency.

2. Practice makes perfect.

Before entering an alpine zone in winter, you should have a chance to test and dial in your gear and technique on lesser objectives and more forgiving trails. A windswept cold summit is not the place to find your water has frozen or your crampons don’t fit your boots. Pick a cold and windy day to try a small hike above treeline where you know you have an easy exit to test out your skill, gear, and resolve.

3. Adjust your risk assessments.

A part of more extreme peak bagging that is often learned through (sometimes negative) experiences is decision making and knowing when it is best to bail on an objective. When deciding to travel above treeline, the risks you are willing to take should be adjusted accordingly. Travelling solo or pressing on despite issues can have much more severe consequences here. Have alternative plans, expect the worst, and be willing to bail if needed rather than risk injury or worse.

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4. Carry the proper water and food.

Realize that subzero wind chills and exposure to the elements and weather will change the way you eat and drink. You will be uncomfortable or even dangerously cold if trying to fumble with preparing food or melting snow for water. Carry what you need for fluids in insulated containers to prevent freezing—winter alpine regions are no place for hydration packs whose tubes can freeze easily. Carry snacks that won’t freeze in easily accessible pouches or pockets so you can eat on the move without having to access you pack frequently.

5. Dress for the cold.

You will want to be sure to carry and wear the correct clothing. Typical winter layers may also require a heavy down insulating layer and a waterproof/windproof shell depending on conditions. Don’t over layer as you will still generate a great deal of heat even in freezing conditions. However, think about what you would need to stay warm should you become immobile for hours or, at worst, even overnight. Depending on the duration of your time above treeline, the availability of bailout options, and other factors, it may even be wise to carry basic winter shelter such as a bivy or emergency blanket as needed.

6. Wear the right traction.

While most winter hikes will include the need for traction devices such as snowshoes or Microspikes, this becomes even more crucial above treeline. The above treeline areas of the Northeast are often rocky, icy, and/or exposed—you may even require full crampons for safety. It is better to have all these devices than to find yourself sliding into a possible injury along a fully exposed section of trail. Be sure to be properly trained in crampon technique before using this potentially dangerous equipment.

7. Protect your face and eyes.

Blasting winds and ice over long stretches of ridgeline can quickly create uncomfortable or even dangerous frostbite conditions on any exposed skin. Carry and use adequate gear to protect your face. While a simple Buff may suffice for cold windy hikes in the woods, alpine exposure may require a full face mask, as well as goggles or glacier glasses to protect your eyes. It seems simple, but some forget that hiking with no vision can quickly lead to disaster.

8. Navigate carefully.

The regions above treeline in winter look much like the moon. They can be uniform landscapes of rocky white with at best an occasional cairn to mark routes. Besides studying routes ahead of time, it is crucial to take extra steps to ensure proper navigation. Consider carrying a GPS, and always be equipped with a map and compass. As you enter an alpine zone, take careful note of the direction you came from, the direction you are heading, and any notable landmarks or indicators. It is wise to even take a quick bearing on your compass of the exit and/or target routes. It is not uncommon for a clear summit to become a windswept and engulfed in whiteout conditions in just minutes. If you do get caught in extreme weather, don’t panic. Think carefully for a minute of the information you have and make sound decisions to get below treeline rather than rashly scrambling in what might be a dangerous direction.

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9 Tips for Staying Warm While Ice Climbing

A day of ice climbing in the winter is a day well spent. But, when you’re planning for hours of ice-cragging with a group of friends, it’s easy to underestimate how cold it can really get. To stay outside and happy for the whole day, and hopefully avoid the screaming barfies while you are at it, start with the following tips.

1. The puffier, the better

Bring a big, fat puffy belay jacket to wear when you aren’t climbing. It doesn’t have to be high tech, new, or even pretty. It just has to be warm. And, the bigger it is, the better. However, this isn’t a super-light alpine-style ascent we are talking about. If your jacket needs its own XL stuff sack for storage, then you can bet you won’t be cold while you’re wearing it.

2. Stay off the ground

At some point during the day, you might want to sit down. Camp chairs are nice, but they’re bulky and can get in the way at a crowded climbing area. Instead, bring a small foam or inflatable seat pad that you can sit on when you need to take a load off. Otherwise, you will be losing lots of heat through the seat of your pants.

Courtesy: Keith Moon
Courtesy: Keith Moon

3. Plan to get wet

It may be 10 degrees out, but the waterfall you are climbing will most likely still be spraying some liquid water. To anticipate this, a waterproof outer layer keeps you dry while you climb. If you are one of those people who prefers something more breathable, however, wearing high-quality, quick-drying fabrics makes the difference between climbing all day, and heading home early because your clothing has turned to ice.

In all cases, keep your down jackets away from the water. Most down loses its insulating properties once it gets wet.

4. Warm from the inside out

During a day of ice climbing, frozen granola bars just won’t cut it. So, grab a couple of insulated bottles to bring along some hot tea and broth-based soup. And, if you have enough to share, you are sure to make some new friends. Being warmed from the inside out is almost as good of a feeling as sending that lead.

Credit: Mark Meinrenken
Credit: Mark Meinrenken

5. Climb, climb, climb

This one is easy. Get on the ice, and get your blood flowing, as the more you climb, the warmer you will be. Just make sure that when you untie from the rope, you put some insulating layers back on. Heat loss happens quickly whenever you stand around.

6. Keep moving

If you are waiting for a free rope, and aren’t belaying your buddy, keep it moving! For a suggestion, hike around to check out the condition of a nearby flow, or even have a dance party. Ultimately, the more you move, the warmer you will be.

7. Carry multiple pairs of gloves

Bring a minimum of two pairs of gloves: a thinner set for climbing, and thicker ones for belaying. Don’t try to wear them at the same time, however. Rather, keep one pair inside your jacket, where they will stay warm. If they get wet, it is even more important to keep them from freezing and help them dry out.

Credit: Keith Moon
Credit: Keith Moon

8. Don’t wear too many socks

Socks are great, but if you wear too many pairs, you will squeeze the blood from your feet and get some awfully cold toes. Circulation does a great job at keeping your feet warm, so wear one pair of good socks and give your feet some room to let the blood flow.

9. Keep your head warm

When picking out what shirts and jackets to wear, opt for choices that have hoods. Lots of blood pumps into your head, and it all flows through the neck. As a result, keeping your head and neck seamlessly covered prevents warm air from escaping through the top of your shirt, and keeps those drops of ice-water from surprising you with a cold shock down your spine.


The Legend of Mike Matty

There are 157 names on the wall, and we stood there, reading each one in an uneasy silence. This mountain—the one we were currently standing atop—has killed more than its fair share of hikers, climbers, and skiers.

The Sherman Adams Visitor Center’s double doors crashed open, blowing in near-hurricane-force winds and a bone-chilling cold. The man who walked in had a balaclava and ski goggles completely masking his face. The weather had turned overnight from cold-but-manageable to now dangerous, idling at around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind speeds hitting 74 MPH. For a moment, everything seemed to stop, as this mysterious man strolled across the room with the weather appearing to have no effect on him. The rime ice that had been engineered onto the masked man’s shell jacket immediately started melting and dropping off behind him as he made his way to a bench.

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There weren’t any hikers or tourists up here today—the weather had turned them all away. So, I assumed he was with the state park. But, that didn’t make sense. I had become quite familiar with the team in the observatory after spending the night in their quarters, having dinner with them, and chatting it up about the weather, gear, Game of Thrones, and The Pats’ upcoming season. I didn’t recognize this guy, and the dayglow orange shell, trekking poles, and Black Diamond gloves were clearly not state-issued.

Sharon hustled over to him. “Hi…I’m Sharon,” she said in a hesitant tone that I hadn’t heard even a hint of since I’d met her the day before. As a Coast Guard commander prior to becoming the president of the Observatory, doubt wasn’t a part of her make-up. Earlier in the morning, she had been warning us that our descent down the Auto Road would be delayed, as they put chains on the Observatory van’s tires. And, there was absolutely no way she could allow our two store staff members, Amy and Eric, to hike back down the mountain. The sight of this man calmly strolling in from the churning weather threw off her game a bit.

“Are you an Observatory member?” she asked incredulously.

“Yeah, I think my name is up on the wall, over there somewhere,” he said and casually strode over to a different wall made of blue name plates lining the stairs that went down to the museum for the Observatory’s top donors and members. His nonchalant attitude toward it added a new layer of curiosity. I turned and looked in the direction of his outstretched trekking pole. “Mike Matty” read the white lettering on the plate.

IMG_2339“Oh, welcome! I’m the president of the Observatory,” Sharon replied, smoothing her demeanor now that she knew the potential trespasser had literally paid his dues

“We have the folks from EMS with us for an overnight. This is Tom,” she said as she introduced my boss.

“I’m surprised you made the trek, given the weather,” Tom commented, clearly still feeling the shock of this stranger ambling out of the roiling weather as if he were coming back from a walk in the park.

“That’s why I came up,” Mike deadpanned. “So, you work at EMS?” Mike asked Tom, our Vice President of Ecommerce and Marketing. “My nephew loves that store.”

I chuckled to myself, as I made my way over to windows in the rotunda. Outside, the rime ice flowered and grew seemingly out of nowhere, carried by the dense cloud enveloping the summit. I felt like I had woken up on a different planet. Not even 18 hours ago, our ascent up the Auto Road had been sunny, calm, and beautiful.

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“The home of the world’s worst weather” is a catchphrase Mount Washington has certainly earned. The hike up itself isn’t one the most dangerous or difficult. Rather, this 6,288-foot peak’s volatile conditions are the reason for those 157 names posted in the Adams Center.

The gusts whipping up over the western corner of the deck made it feel like you were stuck in the world’s worst washing machine. A 10-minute, 30-foot trek from the door to the corner and back had exhausted me.

Mount Washington is in a unique position. The highest point east of the Mississippi, it sits directly at the epicenter of a topographical funnel that compresses and accelerates the wind to such an extreme that the 231 MPH wind speed recorded at the summit in 1934 still stands today as the fastest-ever observed by man. It’s even said that the sheer force of the wind tore apart the measuring instruments. Only once was this record ever beaten, at an unmanned weather station in Australia in 1996.

“He’s climbed the seven peaks!” I thought I heard Amy squeal behind me to Eric. She excitedly handed her phone over for a picture with Mike. Amy’s sudden exuberance seemed odd, but I was more focused on the portentous conditions threatening to trap us on the summit. As Eric handed the camera back to her, Mike started reassembling his gear for the descent.

I thought about our earlier excursion out on the deck of the observatory. We had to gear up in MICROspikes to gain some semblance of traction, leaning into frigid, hurricane-force winds. The gusts whipping up over the western corner of the deck made it feel like you were stuck in the world’s worst washing machine. A 10-minute, 30-foot trek from the door to the corner and back had exhausted me.

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This guy had hiked all the way up in that, and was about to hike all the way back down, too. I shuddered. Mike adjusted his goggles before punching the exit door depressor. A 15-minute break had been enough to rest, dry off, and get warm before he plunged back into weather that would make the average person cower and yearn for their Uggs and a cozy Duraflame fire.

He was training for bigger things, searching for the conditions to match his more sizable feats, and found them on this windy New Hampshire peak more than 4.5 times smaller than Everest.

Sitting back at my desk on Monday, I couldn’t get the mysterious encounter with Mike out of my head. It was odd. Who was this guy? What did he mean when he said that the weather was the reason he hiked up? So, I did what any red-blooded, digitally inclined American would do.

To my slack-jawed, wide-eyed amazement, the Google results showed that Mike had indeed mastered the seven summits: Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, Kosciuszko in Australia, Elbrus in Europe, Denali in North America, Aconcagua in South America, and, the crown jewel of them all, Everest.

To Mike, the conditions on Mount Washington that day, September 1, were ideal. He was training for bigger things, searching for the conditions to match his more sizable feats, and found them on this windy New Hampshire peak more than 4.5 times smaller than Everest. The harsher the conditions were, the better his training.

Or, maybe that’s just how an outdoor masochist gets some exercise. Who knows.

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