Video: American Downhiller

“Downhill is alpine skiing’s most dangerous discipline.”


Video: The Fifty on Mount Washington

Cody Townsend takes his mission to the East.


Plan B: 6 Ways to Keep Your Adventures Local

Not all adventures go as planned. Sometimes the snow and avalanche danger on your hut trip means you spend more time stoking the wood stove and less skiing. Sometimes wildfires close the area you scored backpacking permits to six months ago. Sometimes en route to a big Pacific Northwest volcano climb, your flight is delayed and you miss out. And sometimes a global pandemic freezes travel and forces you to get reacquainted with your living room and local adventure spots. It wouldn’t be an adventure otherwise.

Staying close to home has never been more important right now—Both for your own personal health and that of your loves ones, but also for our Northeast community at large, especially those in small adventure hubs. But just because you can’t pack the car and bust up to North Conway for a long weekend on Mount Washington, that doesn’t mean you can’t still adventure and spend time outside. Use these six tips to look to your back yard for new inspiration and to keep the legs moving and lungs stretched when the world feels shut down.

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1. Explore your neighborhood park.

The front lines of the outdoors, local neighborhood parks are an oasis within reach, and the perfect place to go for a quick hit of fresh air, leg stretching, and a reset from screens, puzzles, and baking bread. Normally, when there are other places to go for a big hike or climb, it would be easy to stick to running the paved paths or hanging around the jungle gym with the kids (skip the touchy-feely swing sets, monkey bars, and slides for a little while). Now with ample time, slow down, wander off the beaten path, explore side trails, and check out the more obscure corners of your local green spaces.

2. Step up your fitness

With gyms closed (and restaurants, if we’re being honest with ourselves) and big objectives on hold, there’s never been a better time to turn your local adventure zone into your gym and make some fitness gains before things open back up and your life list is back in action. The trail you love to hike? Run it. That new perspective can turn old trails new again, and exploring it with some tunes in your ears and a focus on your own personal health makes running or biking a little less lonely than simply walking solo.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

3. Earn your turns at your local ski resort

The lifts might not be spinning, but that doesn’t mean your ski season needs to be completely done. With touring gear, many resorts (check their websites or call to confirm) still allow uphill access: Skinning up the trails on your own and skiing back down. Not only is it a phenomenal workout and a fun way to keep your season alive, but it may be the best way to be introduced to a new winter activity. Even when the resorts do open back up, having the gear and experience necessary to get into the backcountry on skis is a great way to access the winter woods and a fun way to seek out powder turns. And one of the best ways to pick up the skills necessary is on a graded resort slope.

Keep in mind: One of the big benefits of uphilling at a resort during a typical ski season is that when mountains are open, ski patrollers are putting in the time to making sure the terrain is safe, obstacles are marked, avalanche danger is mitigated, and they’re there to lend a hand if you get into trouble. With the resorts closed, that is no longer the case. Plan for a day at the resort like a day in the backcountry, where you’re alone, need to be self-sufficient, and expect that help is a long ways away. Also stick to mellow terrain and know the basics of avalanche safety and rescue.

4. Start redlining your local trails

Even in our backyard wilderness, too often we focus on the flashy hikes and trails: The big summits, pristine lakes, and most popular trails. After all, they’re popular for a reason. But without the option to travel very far in search of new routes, it might be time to give those overlooked trails another glance. You might be surprised at how much you enjoy them. “Redlining,” or hiking every length of trail in a given area, definitely takes this idea to the extreme. But use this opportunity to get intimately familiar with your local trails, hiking some that you had never thought of exploring. Take a different route to that favorite spot. Go the long, “around the back” way. Camp on another, smaller lake and hike the summits that maybe have the best views. If you need a challenge and a “checklist” to work on, pin up a map of your local forest and make an effort to highlight every trail that you’ve hiked, and head to some of the obscure spots that you haven’t explored yet. If you think you knew the area before, just wait until you’ve seen corners of it that few ever do.

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5. Stay hyper local

Just because you can’t get away from the house doesn’t mean you need to forgo the pleasantries of camping. If you have a back yard, set up a tent and build a small fire pit. The kids will love it, you’ll get to enjoy a little more fresh air than you might cloistered in your house, and there’s just something about the smell of a campfire, cool air on your face while you’re tucked into a sleeping bag, and waking up with the morning light that recharges you, regardless of whether you’re 50 miles into the backcountry or 20 feet from your back door.

6. Stay in and plan your next adventure

As bad as things may look, we know one thing: This won’t last forever. Eventually, travel bans will be lifted, restaurants will re-open, flights will hit the air again, and you’ll be able to head out on that big cross-country road trip or that life list backpacking mission a few states over. Life will get back to normal. And now is the time to start planning for that. Keep in the adventure mindset by using this time shut indoors to study guidebooks and maps, sift through Caltopo, draw up your life list, and plan the trips to come. The adventure itself is only half the fun. Dive into the planning now and spend time dreaming up the missions you’ll head out on as soon as the time comes.

Whatever you choose to do to spend your time this spring, be safe, follow the CDC’s guidelines for preventing COVID-19, and don’t let your stoke die.


Video: The Kook

It’s funny until you realize…that maybe it’s not.


How to Choose Your Avalanche Safety Kit

There is nothing quite like the feeling of skiing fresh, untracked snow out in the wilderness after hours of hiking and toil, with no crowds or civilization in sight. This is the bliss of backcountry skiing, and while there are countless reasons why it is great, there are also considerations to be made in order to manage the increased risk of travel in potential avalanche terrain. Avalanches are serious hazards, and each year more and more accidents occur as more people venture out away from resorts into uncontrolled terrain.

Anyone who travels in avalanche terrain should consider taking avalanche equipment with them. This is not just limited to skiers and snowboarders, but any sort of users that find themselves in these areas. It is important that you have the proper equipment, not just to manage risk for yourself and your party, but also in case another person or group needs help.

The avalanche safety kit may have many pieces, all of which warrant discussion, but there are a universal three: a transceiver, a shovel, and a probe.

This article is by no means a replacement for instruction or education concerning avalanche rescue. Seek qualified instruction and training! Buying and having this equipment is one thing, but being able to use it correctly and effectively is entirely another.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Transceivers

Your avalanche transceiver (also known as a beacon) is the most complex, varied, and expensive part of your avalanche kit. It is essentially a small two-way radio transmitter that works by generating signal pulses, which can be picked up by other transceivers in a different mode. The beacons have a handful of methods to lead rescuers to a buried victim. Generally, these are slightly smaller than your average PB&J sandwich and are carried either in a harness close to the chest or in specific “beacon pockets” that can be found in some ski and climbing apparel. Transceivers have been around since the 1960s, and decades of research and refinement make us lucky to have these advanced tools at our disposal. All transceivers on the market use a common signal frequency (457kHz), so no matter which model or brand you go with, every device is compatible with every other device.

Almost all avalanche transceivers on the market today (excluding some outliers) are three-antenna transceivers. Historically, transceivers have used two or even one antenna, and these are now defunct. Having two or fewer means that in certain orientations, the signal from a buried person’s beacon would not be intercepted by rescuers. Use caution if buying older transceivers, and make sure to check each unit.

Digital vs. Analog

These days, most transceivers on the market are digital, meaning they use a microprocessor to interpret incoming signals. This means the display is updated more quickly when searching for a signal. Analog transceivers are the original technology, and while the search range can be greater, these are more difficult to use. Some models are able to use both technologies in conjunction depending on the situation. Generally, transceivers in today’s market have quite varied effective ranges, generally between 40 and 70 meters, depending on brand and the technology that they use. The longer a beacon’s range, the further away from a victim you can be before beginning to pick up their signal, making searches faster and easier.

Features

There are many helpful features available on modern avalanche transceivers, without being simply bells and whistles. Most commonly you’ll find directional indicators on an LCD screen on the device, to be used in addition to auditory signals. These displays look different for each transceiver, so take time to find one that makes sense to you and learn how to read it quickly. Generally you will see a combination of directional arrows and distance in meters, both designed to help you narrow in on the buried beacon. Another common feature is a “flagging” feature, which in multiple-burial situations (when you’re looking for more than one person) allows you to intentionally block the signal from a victim that you have already found, to focus your device on the other buried transceiver. Different manufacturers also build in some of their own features to devices, like Bluetooth capabilities.

Pricing

As mentioned above, avalanche transceivers are the most expensive piece of the kit. Prices vary from around $250 to $500, accounting for differences in features and performance. While not every user needs the top of the line beacon, these are one life-saving piece of gear and are always money well spent. Have a good one that you trust with you or a friend’s life.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Shovel

While it may benefit you to shave weight in other places in your kit, your shovel should be able to handle whatever you throw at it without failing. You will be shoveling like a mad person in a rescue, and worrying about your shovel’s durability shouldn’t be on your mind.

Materials

Avalanche shovels can be found using steel, aluminum, and plastic in their construction. In general, the shaft of the shovel will be aluminum, the handle will be plastic, and the blade should be metal. Plastic blades, while being the lightest option and may be good for digging out your car or building a snow fort, is much more likely to break when chopping and moving avalanche debris, and should be avoided in the backcountry.

The size of the blade will also affect how the shovel performs: A larger blade means you can move more snow at one time; However, it will be harder to fit into a backpack. The blades on the market have slightly different shapes to them, and it’s worth investigating what you like.

Handle

There are a variety of shovel handles out there, including D-grip, T-grip, and L-grip. There are pros and cons with each type.

The D-grip is your classic shovel handle like you’d find on a driveway shovel. These give you the best grip and offer the best leverage for using the shovel, especially with big gloves or mittens. However, it is larger, and also possible to break off the handle (being plastic).

The T-grip is very popular as well. It is simple, low profile, and very hard to break, although using it with mittens is trickier.

The L-grip and other special case handles you may find are less popular, but the L-grip will perform similarly to the T-grip, with a little more to hold onto. Try out a couple different types (with gloves/mittens) to see what you like.

Shaft

Shovels these days are pretty similar across the board when it comes to the shaft. In general, you’ll have an aluminum construction, with an extendable, telescoping adjustment. The shape of the shaft (round, rectangular, etc.) is more of a personal preference than anything. You will come across shovels with fixed or removable shafts, meaning you can or cannot separate the blade from the shaft and handle. Fixed construction is stronger, but a separating shovel will fit into a smaller package. Longer shafts will mean more leverage and perhaps increased performance, but it will be harder to fit in your backpack as well.

Features

Some shovels have extra features that can be rather helpful as well, but keep it simple! There are a couple models out that allow you to change the orientation of the shaft and blade from a “shovel” mode into a “hoe” mode, which can be quite helpful when used correctly. Some of these have extra little handles close to the blade for bonus control.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Probe

The avalanche probe is used primarily for finding your buried person once you’ve narrowed in your transceiver search. These are all pretty simple and light, but be careful that yours will hold up to the rigors of use, and practice deploying and using your probe plenty before you need it.

Materials

Probes on the market will almost exclusively be either made of aluminum or carbon fiber, although steel probes can be found as well. The latter tend to only be used by professionals because of how robust steel is. For the layperson, aluminum is the most popular given its balance of weight and durability (and price). Carbon fiber is the lightest, saved for the gram-counting high-end athletes. Carbon fiber can splinter and break so one should use caution if using a carbon probe.

Length

Avalanche probes are available in a plethora of sizes, ranging from 2 to more than 3 meters in length, and tend to be measured in centimeters. Common sizes include 240, 280, and 320cm. The size you want depends on where you are and the size of the snowpack you’re operating in. In the Northeast, you will almost never need a 320cm probe, as this area simply doesn’t get that amount of snow. If you were traveling in the Pacific Northwest or British Columbia, 240cm may not be sufficient, as they have very deep snowpacks. It’s best to study up on where you will be going to educate your decision.

Features

Probes are simple pieces of gear in general, but there are still small differences that can feel important to certain users. Some probes have printed-on graduations, which can be bright and obvious at first, but later may fade or be worn off from use. Other manufacturers have started laser engraving the graduations to eliminate that problem, at a higher cost. The most variable feature of probes on the market will be the lockout mechanism. This can be a mechanical lock, a special tie-off, or some plastic snaps. Find something that couldn’t loosen itself when in use and it easy for you to use.

EMS -Winter-Ski Mistaya Lodge -3734

Additional Avalanche Gear

While the beacon, shovel, an probe make up the essential triad of avalanche safety and are the three items you should always have when traveling in avalanche terrain, there are other items that can play a key role in snow and avalanche safety that might also be a good idea to think about purchasing and bringing along.

RECCO

This technology works by using a detecting device to send out a concentrated radio signal until a separate reflector bounces the signal back to the detector when hit. These reflectors are woven into various pieces of outerwear and other gear. A rescuer using the detector can locate a buried person wearing RECCO reflectors similarly to a transceiver search. Something to note is that RECCO detectors are large and very expensive, meaning they are almost exclusively used by ski patrollers in resorts, or from helicopters, and therefore should never be relied upon in place of an avalanche transceiver, but can be a nice feature for inbounds skiers.

Airbag

Avalanche airbag systems are a newer player in the game, and have proven to be valuable if you’re caught in a slide. They work by keeping you closer to the surface of an avalanche once inflated, which hopefully means you either get found sooner or are only partially buried. They come with special backpacks or can be attached to specific backpack models. These systems are very expensive, sometimes hard to travel with, and manufacturers are still ironing out all the details.

Courtesy: Backcountry Access
Courtesy: Backcountry Access

Avalung

Another crafty piece of avalanche tech, the Black Diamond Avalung system, has been proven to significantly extend the amount of time you can breathe while buried in snow. It is basically a snorkel that allows you to inhale oxygen from in front of your face and exhale carbon dioxide from your back. The downside is that per manufacturer’s specifications, you should already have it in your mouth when an avalanche occurs (Because you may not be able to find it while being carried, and once the avalanche is over, it’s likely impossible to get it in your mouth), and it can be quite cumbersome.

Communication

In any emergency, it is crucial to have the option of calling for help if you need to. This becomes increasingly difficult in the backcountry, where most avalanches occur, so the communication systems that you use must be an integral part of your rescue kit. While cell phone service may be available in many remote places these days, it cannot be entirely relied upon. This is where special devices such as the Garmin inReach come into play. Radios and satellite phones can also be helpful when used correctly. Do your research on what kind of device fits your needs, and become an adept user before you need to.

Helmet

A large number of avalanche injuries and fatalities, especially in places like the Northeast which has a thinner snowpack, are trauma-based injuries. A simple ski helmet may be one of the biggest life-savers if you’re ever caught in an avalanche.

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Video: POV Swiss Alps

It’s steep and scary.


Sunday Sanctuary

The alarm wakes me to the grey light of early morning. I slide out of bed and pull on my long underwear in the coolness of our bedroom. I try to be quiet, thinking that I don’t want to wake anyone. When I reach the foot of the stairs I hear my husband telling my son the time. It is 6 am on a winter Sunday. We are up this early because we are skiers and this is our day to head to the mountain. In the kitchen, I set the coffee to brew then pack our lunches. The guys make it to living room where the boy wraps himself in blankets on the couch as my husband arranges his clothes. A younger version of myself would not have done this: set the alarm on a weekend in advance of heading into the cold. A younger version of myself would not recognize that I am, in part, someone who regularly makes time to be outside in any season.

Courtesy: Ruth Hartnup
Courtesy: Ruth Hartnup

My husband joins me in the kitchen. We stand at the counter drinking our coffee in silence. Outside, the sky lightens.  There’s no need to check the weather. Skiing happens every weekend from Christmas break until the end of the season. It’s just what we do.  When I was younger I’d been a fickle skier at best, taking it up and giving it up in equal measure. By the time I met my husband, I’d discovered the outdoors. A few trips out west and skiing with a group of women changed the notions I had about my capabilities and interests. It then made sense when our son came along that we’d get him on the mountain. Lessons were on Sunday mornings, giving us time to ski on our own. We kept that date, now skiing as a family.

When I reach the foot of the stairs I hear my husband telling my son the time. It is 6 am on a winter Sunday.

We’ve learned that the less we have to do in the morning, the easier it is to get out of the house. Some time on Saturday we packed the skis. Breakfast is quick, then we all gather in the living room to check bags, put on travel layers, and divvy up the loads to take to the car. We let the quiet of Sunday morning resume as the drive takes us on empty back roads, past houses still dark. In the valley below the mountain that the traffic picks up. We pass the glowing convenience store, cars with ski racks filling its lot.  But we’re still ahead of most people. In fact, as we drive into the ski area parking lot, we’re directed by the attendants toward the front.

Arriving even a half hour before most people reduces the frustration of skiing on a weekend. The walk to the lodge is a quick one and only a dozen or more people are getting dressed as we easily find a place to do the same. We all talk in low tones, moving with a deliberate efficiency. The best part about being outside in winter is the calm quiet that permeates and settles over everything. This exists on a ski mountain, but you have to be early to catch it.

Courtesy: Ruth Hartnup
Courtesy: Ruth Hartnup

Once outside we make the longest walk of the day, the first trek up to the lift line. We sweat a little carrying our gear and for a moment we wonder if this is really worth it. There’s no lift line. We pop our skis on and clamber into the chair. The chill doesn’t catch us and when we are settled and moving up the mountain, we relax. We take a couple of deep breaths. It’s beautiful, no matter which way you see it. The sky. The trees. The cold air moving around us.  At the trailhead we decide on the route down, then push off, leaving our first tracks of the day.

A decade, or more, ago, I would have never envisioned doing this. Having a family and being deliberate about how we want to raise our son and spend our time requires thoughtfulness. We ski in most conditions. We make it to lunch, or long after. Every week it’s the same and every week it’s different. We’ve learned how to work a good routine. We’ve made it a practice, which has made finding our way outside on the regular is easy to do.


A Ride Fit For a President: Grant's Trip up Mount Washington

“Man looks so small against the universe,” remarked President Ulysses S. Grant as he stood atop Mount Washington in August 1869. He’d just ascended the mountain’s west side via the Cog Railway, and then strolled about the summit, smoking a cigar. Dressed in suits, top hats, and dresses, his party posed for a summit photo—the only inkling of the approaching fall chill was the blankets wrapped around the women’s shoulders. Skinning away from the Marshfield Base Station early on this mid-winter morning, it sure is a lot colder, but President Grant’s 150-year-old remark still rings true: This mountain puts things in perspective. And we have a long way to go.

President Grant (center left, holding his hat) atop Mount Washington. | Courtesy: New England Historical Society
President Grant (center left, holding his hat) atop Mount Washington. | Courtesy: New England Historical Society

The Cog Railway, which we’ve come to skin and ski today, was the brainchild of New Hampshire native, Slyvester Marsh, who’d made a fortune in Chicago’s meat-packing industry before returning to his home state. After struggling to hike up Mount Washington, Marsh was inspired to build an easier way up the peak. His idea, however, was mocked, with one legislator responding to Marsh’s request for a charter to build the railway with a suggestion that the Legislature instead authorize him to build a railway to the moon. The comment has dogged the Cog for a century and a half; You’ll still hear people call it the “railway to the moon” today.

From the Marshfield Base Station, the Cog, known in Grant’s time as the Sky Railway, ascends up the mountain between Burt and Ammonoosuc Ravines before making a gradual right turn toward the summit. President Grant ascended its 3,600 feet in elevation and roughly three miles in distance in the front of the passenger car. We don’t have that luxury—trains don’t typically run in the winter—and we’re relegated to skinning up the mountain on the open slopes on either side of the track.

His idea, however, was mocked, with one legislator responding to Marsh’s request for a charter to build the railway with a suggestion that the Legislature instead authorize him to build a railway to the moon.

Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway
Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway

The average grade is 25 percent and drops of perspiration start to appear on our caps shortly into our climb, despite the single-digit temperatures. Still, the first 1,000 feet of elevation go quickly and in no time we’re cruising by Waumbek Tank, a water tank where Grant’s train probably paused to take on more water and coal for the steam-powered engines.

At the time of Grant’s 1869 ascent, the Cog was the world’s first cog-driven railway, employing engines with cog wheels that mesh with a toothed rail in the center of the track for propulsion up and down the steep grade. The track we’re skinning next to this morning is thus the world’s oldest cog railway—running through 28 presidencies since Grant’s.

Near treeline, our skin track shifts out and left of the track as we approach Jacob’s Ladder. A marvel of engineering both in Grant’s era and now, the tracks at Jacob’s Ladder lay at a puckering 37.4 degrees and balance on trestles 30 feet in the air. On his ascent, Grant, sitting at the front of the train, would have been 14 feet higher than those in the rear of the coach. For us, the slope in the vicinity of the Ladder is the crux of the ascent, our skins searching for purchase we climb the steeps near the tracks.

Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway
Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway

Once above treeline, we continue along the Cog as it bends right, slowing down to take in the view. To the north and south, not much has changed since Grant’s time, with the rugged northern Presidentials running on our left and their gentler southern brethren to our right. Behind us today stands the Mount Washington Hotel—which wouldn’t be built for another 30 years after Grant’s visit—and Bretton Woods, which followed Grant by about a century. Grant would certainly have seen signs of civilization, however; logging and railroads were extremely active in the area and hiking in the Whites, especially on the Crawford Path, was rising in popularity.

On his ascent, Grant, sitting at the front of the train, would have been 14 feet higher than those in the rear of the coach.

Arriving on Mount Washington’s summit, we seek refuge from the wind behind the Sherman Adams Visitor Center and quickly dig out puffy coats, mittens, and balaclavas. Grant’s visit to Mount Washington’s summit predates the Sherman Adams building by about 110 years, but the Summit House hotel would have stood nearby. Our arrival on the peak is not met with the same fanfare as Grant’s. A cannon announced the President’s arrival on the summit and the railway’s founder, Marsh, was there to shake Grant’s hand. Between the cold and the wind, none of the few hardy souls milling about the summit this morning venture over to greet us as we transition for our ski down the mountain.

While Grant was our inspiration to come up the Cog this morning, we’re taking our descent cues from the railway’s early employees. They would descend the Cog on a slide board made of metal and wood. Called a “devil’s shingle,” the board fit into the tracks and riders descended toboggan-like using friction-inducing brake handles to control their speed. With the thin, windblown, and rocky snowpack up high, we won’t match the 60 mph speeds achieved on the contraptions, let alone the 2 minute and 45 second record-fast slide. But it does leave us wondering if this was what P.T. Barnum, another early passenger on the Cog Railway, was referring to when he described the railroad as the “second greatest show on earth.”

Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway
Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway

As we ski away from the summit and begin sliding downhill, we can only wonder what Grant thought during his descent. Maybe he was thinking back to earlier stops on his trip to New England—Newport, Rhode Island; Boston, Massachusetts; and Manchester and Concord, New Hampshire—or his night before at the Crawford House. Maybe he was thinking ahead to the tour’s next destinations—Littleton, New Hampshire, then off to Saratoga Springs, New York. Or maybe he was doing just what we’re doing now: taking in the serene beauty of the landscape as he cruised down Mount Washington.


10 Tips For Taking Spectacular Winter Photos

Winter in the mountains is equal parts magical and challenging. With rocks and roots buried in snow, vicious flies and mosquitoes a distant memory, and the thick, humid air of summer replaced with a crisp chill, there are countless benefits to exploring the mountains in winter. When it comes to photography, no other time of year allows for such dramatic and otherworldly images. From alpine trees caked with rime ice to waterfalls frozen in time, the landscape takes on a special character that beckons to be explored and photographed. Hostile conditions in winter are more often the norm than the exception, however, and having a safe and productive winter outing takes a level of preparedness that far exceeds that of other seasons. So what kind of gear and techniques will set you up to take the best winter photos?

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

1. Protect Yourself

Just because you climbed a mountain or went outside to take pictures, doesn’t mean you’re not exposed to the same conditions as you would be if you were simply out on a hike. Having the right layers and gear are critical to keeping you comfortable and safe. In addition to snowshoes, skis, MICROspikes, and/or crampons, items such as a warm and lightweight jacket and pants, balaclava, and ski goggles will help keep you warm and protect your skin from the biting cold and wind while you’re taking photos.

Perhaps the most critical piece of clothing for the winter photographer is hand protection. Finding the perfect balance between keeping hands warm while maintaining enough dexterity to change lenses and adjust camera settings can be a tricky task. Pairing a thin and windproof glove with a warm pair of mittens can provide the best of both worlds: The base layer glove provide just enough protection and supple dexterity to handle the camera, but the mittens can slide on quickly before your hands get too cold.

Carrying extra pairs of gloves is always wise, as gloves that have become sweaty on an ascent can become hazardous if a prolonged photo session upon reaching the exposed alpine zone is planned. I’ll often pack an extra pair of buckskin or leather gloves to change into before breaking out above the tree line, as these types of gloves provide excellent wind protection and dexterity.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

2. Protect Your Camera

Protecting the camera from harsh winter conditions not only ensures that the best possible photos will be taken, but also prevents often expensive photo gear from being ruined. A snow/rain camera cover comes in handy when photographing in snowstorms or near a spraying waterfall, and costs much less than replacing a camera body that’s been ruined by water damage.

Condensation can also be a problem in winter, especially when taking the camera from the cold, dry outdoor air to a warm and relatively humid house, cabin, or car. Allowing the camera to gradually adjust to temperature differences limits the chances of condensation forming on the camera and lens and potentially making its way inside the camera. Leaving the camera in a camera bag inside your pack overnight after bringing it inside will allow it to gradually adjust to the swing in temperature and limit the formation of condensation.

While these tips will help to avoid damaging your gear after you’ve finished your outing, a challenge that’s often faced while out in the field is moisture from snow or waterfalls accumulating and freezing on the front of the lens. Periodically checking the lens glass for snow and ice accumulation will prevent the frustration of having an excellent photo rendered useless. While snowflakes can typically be simply brushed off the lens using a microfiber cloth or an air blower, special care needs to be taken if ice has accumulated on the lens. Trying to scrape off ice can lead to scratches which could permanently mar an expensive lens or filter. This is another situation where the ever-useful hand warmer can save the day. Gently holding one against the ice helps it melt, and the resulting water can be easily wiped or blown away.

3. Seek Out the Unique Beauty of Winter

One of the greatest aspects of winter photography is that even familiar destinations take on an entirely new character and appearance when the temperature drops and snow begins to fall. The typical summit views of grey rocks and green evergreens is transformed into a fantastical world that the majority of people will never experience first-hand. Crafting photos that fully capture the raw, surreal, and sometimes savage beauty of winter is equal parts challenging and rewarding, and focusing your efforts on the most eye-catching and awe-inspiring spectacles of winter will increase the odds of coming away with impactful photos. While the range of winter photography subjects is limited only by the imagination, nothing seems to epitomize winter more than evergreens blanketed with snow or rime ice.  Shooting at tree line, the highly dynamic mountain environment where the forest ends and the alpine zone begins, is the perfect place to seek out snow covered evergreens and krummholz encased with rime ice. Whether a wide-angle lens is utilized to craft shots of snow-coated trees in the foreground giving way to mountains in the background, or a macro lens is employed to capture an abstract photo focusing on the intricate shapes and detail of ice-covered tree branches, nowhere else represents the unique beauty of winter quite like tree line on a mountain.

Floating-in-Fire-Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

4. Choose Your Location Based on Conditions.

Knowing the optimal conditions for a given location that are conducive to the best photos is an important aspect of photography, especially in winter when conditions can change more rapidly than in other seasons. In addition to the typical weather forecasts, ski resorts often post snow reports and have webcams, which make for a very useful resource if one is located in the general vicinity of your planned hike.  Maybe you’ll discover that a low snow level will preclude a previsualized shot of evergreens coated in snow, and you’ll be able to call an audible before even leaving your house and switch focus to a different winter photography subject, such as frozen waterfalls.

5. Use a long exposure for waterfalls.

Partially-frozen waterfalls can produce some of the most impactful winter photographs, especially when photographed using a long exposure to give the water a silky-smooth appearance. Exposure lengths can vary from ¼ to multiple seconds, depending on the light level of the scene. A tripod is essential for these longer exposure lengths, and neutral density filters that limit the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor can also come in handy if a longer exposure is needed to achieve the desired effect.

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Credit: Joey Priola

6. Utilize Live View

One of the trickiest parts of winter photographing is carefully composing a photograph in hostile conditions. While it’s easy to look through the viewfinder to compose a shot during other times of year, it can be difficult or impossible in winter. This is especially true when photographing from mountain summits, where high winds often require ski goggles, which impede the eye from being placed against the view finder, to be worn. Utilizing the camera’s live view function, which is found on practically all digital cameras, is a much easier way to compose a shot in harsh winter conditions. Live view displays what the camera is seeing on the LCD screen on the back of the camera, aiding in setting up the desired composition.

7. Get the Exposure Right in the Field

With bright snow and dark trees, rocks, or water often present at the same time in a winter scene, properly exposing a photograph can be challenging. One of the best ways to ensure that a winter photograph is properly exposed is to utilize the “histogram” function that’s found on almost all digital cameras. The histogram displays the distribution of tonal values in the image, from 0 percent brightness (black, on the far left of the histogram) to 100 percent brightness (white, on the far right of the histogram). Keeping an eye on the histogram is a great way to avoid one of most common pitfalls of winter photos: overexposing snow so that it becomes a white, detail-less blob.  Coupling the histogram with the live view takes things a step further, as it enables you to view how the histogram changes as the exposure is changed, even before taking a shot. Checking that the highlights aren’t “clipped” and that the histogram isn’t getting cut off on the right, white side ensures that bright snow won’t be overexposed and will retain detail.

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Credit: Joey Priola

8. Focus Properly

While intentionally blurring portions of a photograph, such as the aforementioned long exposure to blur/smooth moving water, can be a great creative effect, more often than not the desire is to produce a photo that is sharp throughout. This requires the camera to be focused properly, and the winter season makes this more challenging than other times of years. In extreme cold temperatures, the camera’s autofocus abilities can fail. In addition, as the autofocus function relies on the presence of contrast at the focal point to render a sharp image, the autofocus function can have trouble properly focusing at times of low contrast, such as a snowy scene in soft light that is common in winter. Manually focusing the image is often the best method to produce sharp photos in winter, and is another advantage of utilizing the live view function. To do this, zoom in on the composed image in live view, and then turn the focus ring on the lens until a sharp image is achieved. For wide-angle landscape photos, a general rule of thumb to attain an image that is sharp from front to back is to focus on a point that is approximately 1/3 the distance from the lens to the background. To further ensure that a sharp photo has been obtained in the field, zoom in at 10x on the LCD screen after taking a shot to confirm that it’s sharp throughout, and refocus if needed.

9. Pack Extra Batteries.

Cold temperatures sap battery life, and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting partway through a photo outing and having your camera battery die. Packing a couple extra batteries for your camera, and extra batteries for a headlamp/flashlight, can be a trip-saver when they’re needed. Extra batteries will be rendered useless, though, if they’re left unprotected at the top of your pack and subjected to the cold as you hike. Stashing batteries towards the center of the pack, where they’ll be insulated by the surrounding pack contents, can help spare batteries to maintain life. Double-bagging batteries in a plastic bag and placing a hand warmer outside of the bag that contains the batteries can provide extra insurance in truly frigid winter conditions.

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Credit: Joey Priola

10. Freeze the Action

Capturing outdoor athletes in action can yield powerful winter photos that make the viewer feel as if they’re a part of the scene. Skiers carving turns, with fresh powder billowing in their wake, are excellent subjects that highlight the exhilaration of the winter season. Freezing the fast-paced action of skiing can be a challenge to the photographer, though, and it’s easy to come away with blurry images. To ensure that the subject is tack sharp, utilize a fast shutter speed of 1/1000 second or less. If such a short shutter speed makes the image too dark, open up the aperture to allow more light in or bump up ISO, the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light.