Traveling by foot requires your feet

Traveling by foot requires your feet

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Sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it?  Yet, as simple as that sounds, feet are often taken for granted and, other than what lies between your ears, few things are as important on a hike as sound, healthy feet.  Unfortunately, hiking has the propensity to wreak havoc with feet and feet that hurt or get injured will make even the most spectacular of journeys, miserable.

Prevention

Proper foot care starts with blister prevention.  Blisters are caused by heat, moisture and friction, or the combination of the three.  If one can keep their feet cool and dry, and minimize rubbing, they have already won half the battle.  Here are a few considerations that may help you do that and go a long way towards reducing the likelihood of blisters.

Socks

Hikers should not wear cotton socks; cotton socks will absorb moisture and remain damp until taken off and dried.  Cotton should always be avoided when hiking, no matter what the use.  By the way, when you are shopping for a new cool shirt to wear on your next hiking trip and you see some cotton beauties that say they are “wicking”, don’t believe them.  The only wicking cotton will ever do is from one cotton fiber to the neighboring cotton fiber as they absorb and retain moisture.  That said, let’s not go down the “cotton kills” highway for now and instead let’s get back to our blog about feet.  Instead of cotton socks, use synthetic or wool socks that will allow for the movement of perspiration through the material to the exterior so that it can be evaporated from the outside surface of the fabric.

To help eliminate friction, use double layer socks or socks with liners.  A liner sock can be any thin sock that is next to your foot with an over-sock on top of it.  The idea is that whatever rubbing does exist, occurs between the two sock layers instead of between the sock and your foot.  If you do not want to use separate liner socks, there are many sock manufacturers that make socks that are double layered and I almost always hike with Wright Socks, which have this double layer construction.

Make sure your socks fit.  Small feet need small socks and big feet need big socks.  Wrinkles in socks that are too large for your feet are almost certain to form blisters, and likewise, cushioned socks that have cushioning where it doesn’t belong because the socks are too small, can be problematic.

Always bring extra socks.  Socks are relatively lightweight and changing socks in the middle of a hike will always provide a cooler, dryer environment for your feet with the additional benefit that it always feels great to put on fresh socks.  Use the sock changing process as an opportunity to open up the laces of your shoes or boots to get a bit of air in them to help dry them out briefly.

Shoes

As a general rule, hike with the lightest most breathable shoes you can that will provide the support that you, personally, require.  More and more hikers are using trail running shoes for summer day hikes and even some who are out on long treks with heavy packs are looking at lightweight alternatives to the traditional heavy boot.  If you need the support of boots, then by all means use them, but where you can get away with less support, try to do such.  The amount of support that everyone needs is different and so decisions on footwear need to be made on an individual basis.

In terms of footwear, waterproof means hotter.  Waterproof boots do not breath as well as their non-waterproof cousins.  Evaluate whether you really need that Gore-Tex liner or the heavy wax protectant on your expensive leather boots.  In some situations, you may need the waterproof capabilities of these technologies, but if your trip is through dry regions, during dry seasons, evaluate this consideration carefully.

If your hike has many steam crossings where you must wade through the current, (not just step from rock to rock), consider bringing along some water shoes or sandals rather than filling your boots with water and then hiking in them all day. If you must wade with your boots, do it quickly and take them off immediately upon reaching the other bank.  Dump them out and dry them as best you can and then put on dry socks.  Please do not misconstrue my words here, I DO NOT recommend wading through current barefoot where you might cut the bottom of your foot on streambed debris, but, if you wade through water with your boots on, your feet may pay the price for doing such. 

Remember that feet swell during the day, particularly on hot summer days.  Make sure that your footwear will accommodate this swelling.  It is better to have shoes a half a size too big and to wear an extra sock in the morning, than to have them cramped and sweaty in the afternoon, just make sure that your foot is not moving all around in the boot during the morning hours and that you are able to secure it with an extra sock.

Always break in your shoes or boots well before your hike.  The best footwear for hiking is that which is halfway through its expected life.  All shoes and boots, even the newest “no break-in required” boots, need breaking in.  If you cannot get the opportunity to break-in your new boots on the trail, wear them to the office, around the neighborhood or at the grocery store.  Sure, everyone may talk, but it will just announce to the world that you are a kick ass hiker kind of person who takes their gear seriously.  They should be so lucky as to have a pair of nice new boots like you!

To powder or not to powder

Some hikers like to use cornstarch, talc or other powders in their boots or shoes to help reduce friction and to absorb moisture.  Others say it clumps up and may actually cause blisters.  The difference may be in how much one sweats or how much powder one uses, but the concept is a good one and you may want to try it while you break in those new shoes.  Likewise, distance runners often coat their feet with Vaseline before placing them in socks to minimize the friction during the race.  While I would not promote slathering your feet with Vaseline every day for a long-distance hike, the takeaway of a lubricant under the sock is a good one.  Where are your problem areas?  Where do you sometimes get hotspots?  Use a little Vaseline or a balm like Joshua Tree Climbing Salve to pre-lubricate the area before putting on your socks.

My feet get very hot in the summer months and as a result they sweat in hiking boots.  On long summer hikes, I used to spray them first with antiperspirant spray which didn’t make them any cooler, but did keep them from sweating up a storm in my boots.  It may sound unusual but this remedy is not so far-fetched.  There are a number of companies now that make antiperspirant foot powders and antiperspirant lotions for the feet.  If you have this same issue, you may want to try one of these products that are available OTC at most neighborhood pharmacies.

When it is hot, put out the fire

Blisters do not just happen.  Your body signals to you that there is a problem coming and gives you the chance to remedy it.  This signal is often in the form of a hot spot and hot spots should not be ignored.  Stop, take off your shoes and examine the area.  It might be just a wrinkle in your sock, or you might be able to find that something is rubbing.  You can add some lubricant to the area, or perhaps tape it or put some moleskin around it to protect it.  If you treat it now, you may not have to treat a blister later.

 

Oh no!  Blister!

Your Blister Kit

So, despite your best efforts you have a blister.  What do you do now?  The first thing is that you need to pull out your blister kit to assess the tools available to address the problem?  What, you don’t have a blister kit?  Well you should, and this is what you should have in it:

1 Roll (or cut lengths on non-stick backing) of Leukotape P

1 Roll (or cut lengths) of waterproof Kineseo-Tex tape

1 Roll of Micropore tape

Alcohol wipes

1 small bottle of adhesive promoter (either Mastisol or Tincture of Benzoin)

Q tips for applying adhesive promoter

Small amount of foot powder or adhesive remover

Blisto-bans

Krazy glue

Tweezers

Syringe or needle

Scissors

 

The strongest tape in your kit is the Leukotape and it can be used for most blister repairs.  The Kinesio-Tex tape should be used with the adhesive promoter and can be used where there are complicated curves such as between the toes, and the Micropore tape, also used with the promoter, is used over the edges of the tape to keep it adhered.  Always round out your tape corners to help keep them from coming up.  Use the foot powder for skin that got adhesive promoter on it which is not covered by tape to keep the area from sticking to your socks.

 

Before applying a piece of tape, clean the area well with an alcohol wipe and allow it to dry.  If you are using a promoter, apply it to the area that will be covered by the tape but avoid going beyond the intended area.  DO NOT get promoter on your blisters, in fact, if you are taping over an existing blister, it is a good idea to put a little salve or Vaseline on the blister to keep the tape from sticking to the cover of the blister.  If you are taping over a curved surface and you have wrinkles in the tape, pull the tape together into flaps and cut those off so that you have a smooth surface instead.

 

Space here will not allow me to go into all the ways to tape particular blisters and there are good videos on the web for all the typical areas.   One would do well to watch some videos, get a few ideas, and then look for common themes among them.  Practice taping at home, where you can try multiple times to get it right.  Once you get what you feel is a good taping job, put a sock on and wear it for a while.  How does it feel?  Keep it on for a day and judge the effectiveness at the end of the day.  As a general rule, avoid multiple layers of tape and keep your taping as small as possible while still making sure there is enough sound skin for the tape to adhere securely.  Don’t let your practice taping create new blisters.  If you feel irritation, stop the experiment and try again.

 

The syringe is to drain blisters (if you use a needle instead, be sure to sterilize it in a flame first), the tweezers are to help you place small pieces of tape, and the scissors are to help you cut and shape your tape.  The Blisto-bans in your kit are good for the back of the heal.  If you do not have them, a piece of Leukotape can be used instead if you get a blister in this blister-prone area.  If you have trouble keeping the tape adhered, use promoter and consider taping the edges with promoter and the micropore tape.

 

What about the Krazy glue; you thought I left that out, didn’t you?  Here goes, and this is going to hurt…  If you have a large blister with a flap of skin that is still partially attached but is coming off, you can glue the flap down using the Krazy Glue and then tape over it to protect it.  I am not joking; this type of glue is routinely used by surgeons.  The glue will burn like hell against the raw skin, and you must make sure the area is clean so that you are not gluing bacteria into the wound, but this type of repair can be extremely effective if it is done right.  Be careful not to get any glue on your fingers or other areas since everything will stick to it.  The glue dries in less than a minute and the pain level drops off quickly as the glue dries.

 

Duration

When you are out for a day of hiking, you usually just want to finish the hike, but when you are on a long hike over many days, you need repairs that will last.  These tapes and treatments are all intended to be durable.  How long they last will depend on the extent of the injury and whether the issue that caused the injury to begin with has been rectified.  Often a good taping will last several days but on a long, multi-day, hike, it is good practice each morning to examine your feet and your bandages to make sure everything is tight and sound.  If required, it is far better to replace your taping then, while you have the time and the opportunity, rather than later, on the trail, when suddenly your tape starts to slide, move, or come off and you do not have a clean, comfortable area in which to work.

 

Wrapping up, (no pun intended)

Feet are one of those things that get little thought until they are in trouble, and then you can think of little else beyond relief from the pain you are experiencing.  Hopefully, what I have shared here will help you keep your feet in tip top condition so that they can remain, out of mind.  As is true with many things in hiking, practice these foot care strategies at home, where you can reverse decisions instantly if things don’t work as expected.  Break in your boots, try some foot powder or antiperspirant, tape up your toes, learn to take care of your feet now so that you will be ready to take care of them on the trail should the need arise.  Now, my hiking friends, you are ready to travel by foot.

How to get around, winter style

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Last week I wrote about how to dress for outdoor activities in the winter, in this post I am going to discuss what we can put on our feet to move about more freely, safely, or faster.

 Snowshoes

MSR brand snowshoes

MSR brand snowshoes

Let’s start with snowshoes.  Living down here in Manchester, where we do not often get deep snow, I get a kick out of people in the park walking about with snowshoes when there are only a few inches of snow on the ground.  Snowshoes have been around for 4000-6000 years and probably originated in central Asia where they get lots of snow and, contrary to the thoughts of my weekend warriors at the local park, snowshoes were not created to walk about on a few inches of snow, but instead were developed to spread ones weight across a much larger area than ones footprint thus allowing them to move across deep, unconsolidated, snow.  The larger or heavier the hiker, the larger the snowshoe must be.

In choosing snowshoes, one needs to look at the means by which they attach to the boot (the bindings), as well as the durability of the construction and the materials.  Consider how easily you can adjust the snowshoe while wearing mittens.  How easily can this mechanism get clogged or broken by accumulating snow or ice around the foot?  If you take the snowshoes off for a bit after using them for a while, how easily will you be able to put them back on when the time comes?  If something breaks on the binding system, how easy will it be to fix it on the fly?  It is also important to get the right size snow shoe; a 105 pound woman with a 25 pound winter pack, will need a much smaller snowshoe than a 190 pound guy with a 40 pound pack.

Some snowshoes come with lifters that fold up and down in the heel area to make it easier to climb hills.  These work well if the ascent is continuous, but if it is at all rolling, you may find yourself pointed at the ground where the slope levels out or descends.  If you go for one of these models, use the same criteria as above when evaluating how easy it will be to use and how dependable these mechanisms might be.  Some snowshoes have tails that can be added for deep snow or heavier packs.  Consider this an adjustment that must be done at home before the trip because trying to add them while on the trail is not fair to your hiking partners no matter how patient they may be.

Microspikes

Kahtoola Microspikes

Kahtoola Microspikes

Microspikes are metal chains with bent steel points, attached to a rubber harness that stretches around your foot and holds the chains in place under you sole.  They are great for added traction on packed snow and some ice.  They can be taken on and off easily, weigh little, and come with their own little cloth bag for storing in your pack.  These are great for spring hikes when one starts to encounter a lot of monorail on the trail, and can be handy to have with you while trail running in the winter or when you do not expect to be traveling over a large amount of ice.  When you do encounter a piece of icy ledge and all you have with you are the microspikes, it is best to stomp each step you take to be sure the metal points cut into the ice.

Microspikes come in different sizes and it is important to get the size that corresponds to your boot size. If there is a downside to using microspikes, it is that sometimes, on steep slopes or slabs, the rubber part of the harnessing system is not strong enough to hold the foot inside and they can slip off.  Such failures are rare and proper sizing and fit helps to minimize this concern.

Crampons

Three sets of my crampons. Left to right, Black Diamond strap-on type, Charlet hybrid type with strap at toe and bail at heel, Grivel with bails on toe and heel.

Three sets of my crampons. Left to right, Black Diamond strap-on type, Charlet hybrid type with strap at toe and bail at heel, Grivel with bails on toe and heel.

What microspikes are not good for is climbing sheer icefalls or thick steep ice over ledge and rock.  In these situations you need to wear crampons.  Crampons are steel plates that clamp onto the bottom of your boots.  They have 10-12 one inch triangular teeth around the perimeter of the plate, the front two of which point forward, which cut into snow or ice and provide secure footing.  There are two types of crampons: mountaineering crampons and ice climbing crampons.  Ice climbing crampons are usually sharper, have more teeth and the front facing spikes are generally less acute and may have serrated edges.  These two types have different purposes and one needs to be sure they are using the right type for the task at hand; hiking with ice climbing crampons is less than ideal.

Crampons will give the hiker superior traction on almost any terrain.  They come in styles that clip onto mountaineering boots and those that are held on with straps.  Unless you have mountaineering boots, which have a rigid sole, you will have to use the strap-on version of crampons.  Both styles are excellent for hiking, but should you need to climb sheer ice, the front pointing capabilities of the clip on style will be more bullet-proof.  Strap-on crampons can be used for front pointing, but the user should to be careful to make sure that the straps are tight and the crampons are secure on the boot to minimize the possibility of the crampon coming loose while mid climb.  In these situations, often the failure point in climbing sheer ice with this style of crampon comes not from the crampon, but from the lack of rigidity of the boot sole; the sole flexes and the crampon comes loose. That said, ice falls that a hiker might encounter in the Whites are few and far between as well as short in duration, and one can certainly make do with the strap-on variety if they do not have mountaineering boots, but if the hiker is traveling to other areas, they would do well to invest in boots that can accommodate clip on crampons and then get a set.

Because of their front facing spikes, walking in crampons takes a little getting used to and one’s pants cuffs may get a little cut up after wearing them for a day.  This can be minimized by wearing a thick pair of gaiters (which double as a good way to keep the snow from slipping inside your boots).  Also be aware that in wet sticky snow, like that which is encountered in the spring sometimes, accumulations of snow and ice can happen on the soles of the crampon which reduces the effectiveness of the teeth.  These clumps of snow and ice can be knocked away with hiking poles periodically or the hiker can buy plastic pieces called anti-bot devices that will minimize the accumulation.  One can also make their own anti-bot devices at home from a plastic milk jug and perhaps I will show my readers how to do such in a future post.

Cross country skis

Sometimes hiking through the woods is just what one needs, other times, one wants to move quickly over flat terrain.  For instance, I sometimes like to hike trails where the trailhead is off a service road that is closed in the winter. In this case, my hike is not about the service road per se, but I must somehow traverse this road to reach the part of the hike that is most important to me. The fastest way to cover large, mostly-flat trails by foot is with cross country skis.  Not all cross country skis are the same.  Some cross country skis, called track skis or touring skis, are made for moving along on groomed trails and in tracks. These skis are longer and narrower than the other kind of cross country skis, (backcountry skis), and they used with different boots.  Track skis are much faster than backcountry skis, but because they are so narrow that they cannot be used on anything but a firmly packed trail.

When hikers talk about skiing in to a trailhead, or just going out for a cross country ski, they are most often talking about backcountry skis.  Here too, clarification needs to be made; do not confuse backcountry cross country skis with backcountry downhill skis.  All backcountry cross country skis have scales or overlapping shingle like ridges on the bottom to help you move forward while skiing, downhill skis do not have these, and are much wider and heavier.  Downhill skis are also much more expensive.

Scales on the bottom of backcountry skis

Scales on the bottom of backcountry skis

Backcountry skis should be about as long as you are tall.  You can use skis up to five inches longer or shorter, but keep in mind your intended use.  The longer the ski, the more difficult it will be to turn and negotiate between trees, but it will also be faster than a shorter ski.  If you are thinking you will primarily be skiing across frozen lakes and on logging roads, then go for the longer ski.  If you are planning to be more on trails that wind through the woods, lean towards the shorter ski.  In general, I find one’s height minus five inches is best for the beginner. 

There are two choices for bindings on backcountry skis, both of which, unlike their downhill cousins, are comparatively inexpensive.  There is a three pin (NN) system that gives better performance if the skier will be doing a bit of downhill telemark type skiing with the skis, and an NNN BC system that has a bar across the toe of the boot that pops into a bracket.  The pins on the NN bindings can get fussy and difficult to work with when snow has packed into the binding and I find that almost all hikers use the NNN BC system.

Backcountry ski boots are robust.  They look very much like hiking boots, except they have the bar required for the NNN BC bindings built right into the front of them.  They should be insulated, warm and comfortable to wear.  Cross country skiing will flex your ankles forward and back over and over, so make sure the boot is comfortable while going through these motions.

 Randonee skis

Cross country skis are good for mostly level terrain, but when you want to go up, you need to move to Alpine Touring or Randonee equipment.  Randonee skis look like downhill skis and perform in  a very similar fashion.  The idea behind randonee skiing is that one advances over terrain by means of looping a climbing skin over the toe of the ski and clipping it onto the back of the ski. 

Black diamond brand climbing skin looped over front of a randonee ski

Black diamond brand climbing skin looped over front of a randonee ski

The skin allows for sliding in one direction only and grips in the opposite direction much like the scales on the bottom of the cross country skis.  With the toe of the randonee ski boot clipped into the front of the binding and with skins on the bottom of the skis, one can climb a significant grade in a back and forth, kick and glide, fashion, similar to cross country skiing.  Once one reaches the top of the trail, the skins are removed, the binding is changed so that the boots are now attached at both the front and the back of the binding, and the skis now act like regular downhill skis to go down the slope.

My randonee bindings in free heel position. These bindings allow the boot to be attached in the front only (free heel), like a cross country ski, or both front and back like a traditional downhill ski.

My randonee bindings in free heel position. These bindings allow the boot to be attached in the front only (free heel), like a cross country ski, or both front and back like a traditional downhill ski.

A Randonee setup requires skis, boots, bindings and skins- all of which together will run over a thousand dollars, even for a beginner package.  Randonee skiing is great exercise and a lot of fun, but here on the east coast, my suggestion, for those that want to try it, would be to rent equipment.  Out west, and in Europe, skiing your way across the high peaks is a great way to get outdoors and explore the winter, but here in the East, there are unfortunately few places you can utilize that expensive equipment.

Mix and Match

So there you have it.  Other than skating across a frozen pond on ice skates, or just plain old bare boot hiking where the trails are packed and the snow is firm underfoot, those are the ways you can get around the wilderness in the winter.  Keep in mind, if your winter adventure takes you through different alpine environments, a good day out may require you to start with one type of traction, switch to another, then switch back again later in the day.  It would be a mistake to judge the trail conditions for the day by what you encounter in the first 50 yards.  Be prepared for things to change by having the right equipment with you.  It is better to carry a little extra weight and have equipment you might not need, than to save the few pounds but be stuck out on the trail without having the right thing for your feet.

Now that you know how to get around, get out there and explore the Whites.  What are you waiting for?

Winter hiking clothing; let’s not tell Grandma

Winter hiking clothing; let’s not tell Grandma

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There have been a lot of reasons that I have not posted to my blog for a while.  I am an ardent conservationist and environmentalist and much of what I see happening today, from our reluctance to admit and address what is happening with our climate, to the reduction, and inappropriate use, of our public lands for the immediate and selfish gain of a few, I find not just alarming but extremely discouraging.  I thought we, as a country, were better than that and that we could never turn the ignorant or arrogant eye that we now do daily.  This has kept me from blogging because I do not want to pontificate, as I unfortunately just have, about all the environmental wrongs that I see continually occurring.  Today, instead, I thought, perhaps I could start a series of more technical blogs and I apologize now for the brief trip down the I-don’t-give-a damn-about-what-we-leave-environmentally-for-future-generations rabbit hole that I have just taken.

Winter hiking is an experience that is unparalleled in all that we do outdoors.  There is a stillness in the winter woods that you will never find any other time of the year, and the mantel of snow that covers everything makes trails smoother and often easier to travel.  Small streams and brooks are frozen over making them easier to cross, you can see further through the trees without all the foliage, and the forest floor has more direct and reflected light.  When the sun shines, the woods sometimes sparkle with the refracted light of a million little snow and ice crystals.  It can be breathtaking.   There are, of course, exceptions to the ease of traveling snow covered trails (the major exception to this would be trails that have unconsolidated snow such that you might find right after a very heavy snowfall), but for the careful winter hiker in the Whites, who plans their trips well, the dangerous conditions can be avoided and they will be rewarded with nicely packed out trails that are often easier to hike than during the warmer weather.

Exploring the wilderness in the winter, however, does take some training and the proper preparation. It is cold out there, sometimes very cold, and to be safe one must dress appropriately.  Before we discuss clothing, let’s review the science of how one’s body loses heat in the winter.  There are four ways one loses heat:  evaporation, convection, conduction and radiation.  Evaporation is the loss of heat through the evaporation of sweat and moisture through the skin, mouth, nose and lungs.  As water evaporates, it changes state from liquid to gas which takes energy or heat.  That heat, called the latent heat of vaporization, comes, in this case, from your body.  The net effect of evaporation is that the surface upon which the water evaporates, becomes cooler from this loss of energy.  Conduction is heat that is lost through direct contact with something cooler.  In hiking, conductive heat loss is primarily through contact with the moisture in wet clothing.  Different substances have different rates of conductivity and, while fabric has a very low rate, water has a very high rate.  Convection is the loss from wind blowing away the thermal layer of warmth that surrounds our bodies and when we consider this type of heat loss, we are most often thinking of this in terms of wind-chill.  By far, however, the greatest means by which the body loses heat is radiation and it can account for as much as 60-65% of our heat loss in the outdoors.  This is the loss of what people think of as body heat, and comes directly from our skin and our head.  This heat is the results of our vascular system carrying oxygen rich blood from our warm core out to our cold skin, providing oxygen to our cells but losing heat in the process.   Successful winter hiking clothing schemes address all four of these heat loss areas.   

As a hiker you are active and exerting energy, which is different than, say, a snowmobiler who is out in the cold but sedentary.  It is also different than an ice climber who may stand in the cold for hours on belay while his buddy climbs.  While these may all be outdoor winter activities, they all require different clothing systems.  When we are active and working hard, such as we would be while climbing a mountain or cross country skiing across a valley, our body’s tendency is to sweat.  Sweaty or wet clothing immediately begins to break down our cold weather clothing system and it is the primary reason by which people get chilled while in the outdoors and begin to move towards a hypothermic state.  Our goal, therefore, is to provide the outdoor enthusiast with warm, comfortable clothing, while keeping them from becoming so warm that they sweat when they exert themselves.  We cannot stop sweating entirely, so what little sweat does occur, must be moved away from the body quickly so as not to contribute to conductive heat loss. 

Let’s stop here a minute, though, and mange expectations.  One cannot simply get dressed in “appropriate winter clothing”, prescribed by me, or by anyone, and expect to be warm and dry all day long. Any winter clothing system will require management and must be flexible and capable of adapting to different conditions and different states of exertion and it takes work on the part of the end user to recognize when it needs to be adjusted.  The goal is to actually stay just a little chilly.  When one starts to warm up, layers are changed to keep the wearer on just the cool side of warm.  Activity should be steady and starts and stops, as well as periods of great exertion, should be avoided.

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All systems must start with a base layer.  Underwear is not a base layer.  If you count yourself among those that prefer to wear underwear beneath a base layer, the same rules for a base layer will apply to underwear but underwear does not replace the latter.  Your base layer is the layer closest to your skin and the primary purpose of this layer is to wick away moisture.  This layer should be thin and made of fibers that are good at, or design specifically for, moving moisture away from the body, or “wicking”.  Many wear wool or silk base layers, but there are a large number of synthetic fibers that are specifically designed for this purpose and may perform better than these natural fibers.  The primary material used in these products is polypropylene, an extruded plastic product, but manufacturers have a number of proprietary extruded shapes, and differing claims as to how well they wick moisture, so this may be found under other names.  The primary point of these materials is that because they are plastic, they cannot absorb moisture and, through capillary action, no matter what the weave or shape of the fiber, the laws of physics show that they will move moisture away from the body. 

Base layers should consist of three pieces, a shirt for your torso, long pants and socks.  Again, if you wear underwear, a base layer goes over your underwear.  A mistake that is often made is that hikers will have good polypropylene base layers but they have cotton underwear or a bra underneath.  There is an expression among outdoor enthusiasts about cotton; cotton kills.  Cotton absorbs moisture and keeps it close to the body instead of wicking it away.  Avoiding cotton clothing entirely is a practice that will serve a hiker well in any season.

The next layer is an insulation layer.  This layer must allow moisture to pass through it, but must retain one’s body heat.  Here we are trying to minimize the loss due to radiation.  Since the addition or removal of insulating layers is how one manages their warmth, I prefer to go with two thin insulating layers rather than one bulky one.  Polar fleece, wool sweaters, synthetic or down quilted shirts, sweaters or jackets are all good insulating layers, but if you have just one thick layer, and you begin to overheat and need to remove that layer, you are left with no insulating layer and may begin to chill. Knowing that is their only choice, hikers with a thick insulating layer often forego removing their insulating layer and then they end up sweating; a recipe for disaster when you are miles away from the trailhead.  Some people like to have a thick and a thin layer in their pack and they wear the one that is most appropriate for the activity they are doing.  This is a fine strategy, however, when they change from one layer to the other, they temporarily lose the heat that has been transferred to the old garment through convection and conduction and it will take both time and energy to warm up the new layer.  Again, I prefer two thinner insulating layers instead of one bulky layer.  Also, when assembling your clothing system, consider how easily the layer will be to remove; a layer that comes off with a zipper or buttons down the front will be easier to change than one that pulls over the head.

For pants, I often wear a pair of tights or leggings over my long underwear, but choose wisely here so as not to overheat your legs.  For your feet, over the light base layer socks mentioned earlier, you should wear a pair of wool socks or synthetic blend socks.  Again, no cotton.  We will have another post eventually on boots, but for now let me caution you not to overcrowd your feet inside your boots.  Insulation involves layers of dead air space or trapped air through which heat cannot pass.  If your feet are jammed into your boots because you are wearing the pair of super ultra thick wool socks your grandma gave you at Christmas to keep your feet warm, your feet may actually end up being colder than they would have if you had used a normal pair of wool socks.  Sorry, Grandma.

On top of your insulation layers you need to wear an outer protective layer.  Next to your base layer, this is your second most important layer.  Like the other layers, this outer layer has to provide for the movement of moisture to the outside, but this layer now has to protect you from wind (convective cooling) as well as from precipitation.  The best outer layer garments are made of Gore-Tex or some other waterproof and breathable material; look for these.  I would recommend a jacket with a hood, since above treeline, hoods are very good at protecting the head from wind chill.  You should wear a wool or synthetic hat, but wind can strip away the trapped heat between the fibers of these hats and a hood can prevent that heat loss when the breeze picks up.  I sometimes wear a softshell jacket on top of my insulating layers, but then carry a hard shell in my pack.  When I get above treeline, or when the wind picks up, I can pull out the hardshell and put it on to protect me from driving wind or precipitation.  When I am not above treeline, the higher level of transpiration of the softshell allows for better movement of moisture from my body outwards.

I always wear Gore-Tex pants.  Some people prefer to purchase insulated winter hiking pants, combining the insulating layer with the protective outer layer, but again, my preference, is always to have the flexibility of individual layers rather that thick combined layers.  What is of primary importance is that pants should be waterproof.  You will sit in the snow, glissade or butt slide down trails, etc., and nobody wants a wet ass- nobody.  Also, some practical pointers about pants...  Since it is important to keep yourself hydrated while hiking in the winter (remember about evaporative heat loss from the skin, lungs, mouth and nose) it is only natural that you will have to relieve yourself from time to time.  Make sure your lower garments allow for this.  This is particularly true for those that like to wear bib style pants.  Bibs are great for keeping your lower back covered, but one must consider how difficult it may be to step off the trail and go to the bathroom and what will be required to do such when the time comes.  The large seat-of-the-pants zippers may work great on the ski outfit in the ski lodge bathroom, but they are not as easy to negotiate at five degrees, on the side of the trail, with a pair of mittens.  Also, consider, if your legs begin to get hot, how easily you can let some heat out of your pants .  My personal preference is to wear mountaineering pants with full zippers that run down the outside of both legs.  These types of pants can be unzipped in varying amounts to regulate the temperature of my legs if they warm too much.

As I said earlier, we will discuss boots another time, but in this post we should emphasize that it is important that whatever boots you end up using should be waterproof.  If your feet begin to get wet on the trail, there will be little you can do to warm them up, so keep them dry to begin with by using waterproof boots.

There are a few more accessories that should be mentioned before we end this post.  Everyone should always have a good hat.  I keep a wool hat in my pack year round, but in addition, in the winter I use a nice wool or synthetic hat that will cover my ears and keep my head warm.  I do not hike with a scarf but instead prefer to use a neck gaiter when it gets really chilly.  Neck gaiters keep a lot of heat in, so I do not wear them all the time, but they are nice to have when it gets really cold.  Likewise, on cold summits, I sometimes use a balaclava over my head and around my face to help minimize skin exposure to the wind.  Be careful of balaclavas that cover your nose and mouth since they can get wet in these areas quickly from respiration and runny noses.  Wet balaclavas freeze quickly and while it sometimes cannot be avoided, one should at least be prepared for it and try to purchase balaclavas that are designed to mitigate this result.

On my hands I wear double layer mittens, and under the mittens I wear glove liners.  Mittens are only so dexterous and there are plenty of times I need to snap a buckle or grab a zipper or something.  In these instances, removing my hand from my comfy mittens is tremendously better when I am wearing thin glove liners than when I am not.  They are worth the ten dollars they cost and then some.

So that about wraps up this post on winter clothing.  Still to be discussed in future posts are boots, traction, cold weather drinking and fueling, and how to get the most from your winter excursions.  Hopefully those posts will not be quite as long as this one has been.  Thanks for hanging with me.  Go get a cup of hot chocolate, grab a trail map, and start to plan about your next winter adventure.  Oh, and go ahead, take your shoes off and put on Grandma’s socks.

'Tis the Season

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When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, early Spring was the season for baseball tryouts.  We were not allowed to call it Little League because my town did not participate in the actual Little League Association, but town-wide all the boys my age got together on the high school football field for “tryouts” where the organizers tried to balance the teams in terms of ability.  Towards the end of the week they posted the results and every boy was happy to see they “made it”, however, in truth, every boy who tried out, made it.  One year a girl tried out. She was pretty in a  tomboyish way, and towards the end of high school I would end up dating her for several months, but at the time, she was a groundbreaker and it was big news; in Montclair, New Jersey, for the first time ever, it was the season for baseball for kids of both genders.

During college I remember a Spring when, after breaking up with a woman I had been seeing, I took a walk down Commonwealth Avenue to the Boston Common and the Public Gardens.  I walked about and marveled at the disproportionate number of young couples walking hand in hand, snuggling close to one another on the park benches, or lying together on blankets laid upon the bright green of newly sprouted grass.  They seemed to be everywhere and I, alone, felt terribly wronged by not having someone to share the flowers and grass and still somewhat crisp Spring sunshine in what was obviously, the season of love.  The sunshine was bright, the sky blue, the strong fragrance from lilacs was heavy in the air, and bulbs splashed red and yellow in every direction in an effort to obliterate the grey of the long winter.  The season of love was truly a beautiful time.

In college I raced on the BU ski team.  This time of year, when the snowpack stayed deep in the mountains but the crowds had grown tired of winter sports, it was the season for Spring Skiing.  There were many great days spent zooming unfettered down the slopes with my friends, clad in short sleeves or even shorts as we picked up a tan and skied in the soft mushy snow beneath our feet.  Back before the days of when it became so popular to do such, for my teammates and I, it was the season for Tuckerman’s as we all climbed up to ski the famous ravine one spring.  What a great day that was.

 About 15 years ago, I got into whitewater kayaking.  Here in the northeast, in the summer, that means planning visits to rivers that have damns that schedule releases.  These water releases are posted and when the water is allowed to flow, the rivers rise and the fishermen and the kayakers come out; the half dozen hours of high water make our local rivers fun for sportsmen of all kinds.  In other states, where the rivers have not been damned as much, the flow of water is tied more to the weather, and the forces that control when one can kayak down a river are natural instead of man-made.  

During the early Spring, however, as the snow in the mountains begins to melt and the damns are all wide open, nature takes back the control of the rivers and the water runs high and fast.  It is the season for whitewater kayaking and paddlers bundle up in their drysuits and kayak down rivers all around the state.  What dictates whether a kayaker paddles a river is measured in courage and skill, not the availability of water through a controlled and measured release from a damn.  The connection to forces of nature is strong and paddling the spring melt is always more exhilarating than playing in the spray during a summer release.  It is the season for kayaking.

Two weeks ago, I, and group of hikers, strapped on the microspikes and started the training hikes for the single day Presidential Traverse hike I do every June.  I start the training hikes pretty much the same Saturday every year and in many ways it is the kick off for the summer hiking season.  The season for baseball that had transformed itself into the season for love, the season for Spring skiing, the season for Tuckerman’s, and the season for kayaking, had now transformed itself into the season for hiking.  

All that transformation aside, this last summer when I joined the Pemi Valley Search and Rescue team, I began to get a different perspective on hiking in the Whites, and the season for hiking, as it turns out, is also the season for rescues.  More rescues happen at this time of the year than any other period during the hiking season.  The temperatures warm up in the southern parts of the state and people get the itch to get up in the mountains to go hiking, but they do not prepare for the very deep snow pack still on the trails.  Hikers embark on trails equipped with sneakers and trail shoes and slip and fall on the snow and ice covered trails they encounter further up the slopes.  Hikers sometimes find it easier to run down slippery downhill slopes and can be surprised to suddenly find themselves postholing through the surface and breaking a leg or a knee. It happens routinely, unfortunately.

There was 16-18 inches of new snow this last week in the Whites.  As I write this, there is a severe avalanche alert in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines.  It is a beautiful time to get out and hike, but there is a lot of snow still in the mountains and hikers have to be prepared for it.  The snow is deep in places, under the snow on the trails there is a “monorail” of ice down the center of the trail, and in other places the snow has eroded from below and has become “rotten”.  If you travel to the mountains to indulge in the beauty of early Spring, do so with the knowledge that rescue season is upon us and be prepared with proper footwear and traction or snowshoes so that this remains the season for hiking for you, and not the season for rescue.

Thanks, as always for reading, now go out and enjoy the season, no matter what it means to you.  

Spruce traps, postholes and getting lost; winter hazards for sure, oh my!

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It was a cold clear morning.  I had a cup of coffee when I awoke at 5:15 and another on the drive from Manchester to Crawford Notch.  The night before was a late night, and, despite my desire to get to bed early, between the broken heating pipe that flooded the basement, the Haute Route slide show and info meeting, and the last minute pulling together of clothing and gear for the 9 below morning that lay ahead of me today, I had gotten little rest.  Nonetheless, here I was, hiking up the Crawford Path, making my way towards the Mitzpah Cutoff.  When we got to the cutoff, it was time for a quick snack, a drink of water and for me to go off the trail and relieve myself of all that coffee.

Despite knowing the potential for what was about to happen, I was caught by surprise when my next to last step found me falling through the snow into a chest deep hole; I was in a spruce trap.  Spruce traps happen when snow has fallen and collected on the branches of a spruce tree, but not sifted its way down through to the space underneath the branches.  As more snow falls, the little snow bridge that the spruce branch created continues to get covered and what is left is a large void beneath the branches and the surface of the snow.  Most often we find these traps next to spruce trees that project up through the snow, but sometimes small trees end up buried in their entirety with significant pockets of air beneath them.  This is what happened in my situation this last weekend when I went off the trail.

The easiest way to keep from falling into a spruce trap is to avoid them to begin with.  Keep your travel path away from the trunks of spruce trees, especially those with dense low benches that might indicate more buried branches below.  Sometimes this is not possible, and sometimes, the trees are completely buried.  In this case, if you can’t avoid them, one should learn how to escape from a hole  before one finds themself stuck in one.  Once in a trap, one cannot just boost oneself out of the hole because the unconsolidated snow on the sides of the hole provides little purchase and one's hands just sink into the fluff.  Trying to do such can often push more snow into the hole on top of your trapped feet, which may make escape that much more difficult.

Usually, one can lean over and roll through the edge of the hole, thus compacting the snow to the immediate side; giving you purchase to then pull your feet from the pit.  If this doesn’t work, and you still cannot get purchase, try putting something on the snow and rolling on that.  If you are carrying snowshoes, they work well for this, if not, a pack, your hiking poles, anything else you can find that will help to distribute your weight across the snow might do the trick.

If you cannot roll your way out of a spruce trap, start digging your way out by moving the snow with your arms and hands.  Dig in the downhill direction, and once you have made significant progress, try rolling into the trench you have begun to dig out and then lifting your feet.  Once out, roll back towards the trail until you are sure it is safe to stand up.

Sometimes where the snow is particularly deep, people fall head first into a spruce trap.  This can be particularly dangerous and difficult to escape.  First, don’t panic; panicking and thrashing about can often force you further down a large hole.  Instead, take stock of what has happened and where you are.  Where is the tree?  Locate where the branches meet the tree and, grabbing the branch as close to the trunk as possible, push yourself back up the way you came, using the branch for leverage.  Do this slowly and deliberately.  If you try to push yourself from the end of the branch, the branch can bend, the hole can expand, and you can go further in.  This is difficult to do because visibility will be difficult, but use touch to assist you.  The larger the diameter of the branch, the closer it is to the trunk and the more purchase you will have.

If you are hiking as a group and one of you has fallen head-first into a large spruce trap, the first person to assist should  immediately grab the feet of the victim, and should not let go no matter what.  They should then call the rest of the party over and continue to hold the feet while the others try to free the victim by digging them out.  

Another kind of mishap we sometimes see in the winter is injury from post-holing.  Post-holing happens most often in the Spring when the ground begins to warm and the snow erodes from beneath the surface, leaving what we call rotten snow, but it can happen in the dead of winter as well.  As one steps on the surface of the snow, their leg falls through the crust and then goes down into a hole.  While moving, this sudden collapse of the ground you thought you were securely stepping on, can lead to knee and other leg injuries.

Again, as with the spruce traps, the best way to avoid injury from post-holing is to avoid post-holing all together.  Wearing snowshoes will keep you from post-holing on even the most rotten of rotten snow.  Snow shoes spread out your weight and compress the snow evenly all around your foot, giving you a platform to support your body.  To avoid making holes that other hikers might fall into later, responsible winter hikers wear snowshoes where there is a posthole possibility.

If the trail conditions catch you by surprise, and you find yourself with bare boots in an area with post-holing potential, walk with your feet shoulder-width apart, stay back from the edges where others may have already postholed, and keep your poles always active.  Should your foot break through the crust, having a good pole plant may help you to pull your foot up quickly before you go too deep, and may end up preventing an injury.

This last weekend, as we continued up the Mitzpah Cutoff towards Jackson, we were following the tracks of a single hiker who had broken the fresh snow before us.  About 1/4 of the way up the trail the footsteps veered to the right and I said aloud that it didn’t look like he was on the trail.  I went up about 50 feet and the footsteps led into ever thickening scrub and it was obvious that the hiker before us was in fact off the trail.  I returned to the group and we then proceeded up the proper trail, leaving the footprints behind us.

It is easy to get lost in the winter; the snow is deep and sometimes covers blazes on the trees, swales and drifts can obscure the trail, and rime ice can sometimes cover the outside bark of trees along an entire side, hiding whatever blazes may be beneath the ice.  Sometimes, even the most intrepid hiker can get off the trail.

Some tricks that can help are things that help you find the trail in any area where marking is not readily apparent, regardless of the season.  First, trails generally have a consistently wider opening in the woods than the surrounding topography.  Particularly in the winter with snow, the ground level is often depressed from the immediate area along a trail and if you look for that depression, both directly in front of you and twenty or so feet ahead in the direction you think the trail should be, you will often see the trail ahead of you.  If you cannot see the blazes on the trees, sometimes  you can try turning around and looking the opposite direction.  Trails are blazed in both directions and while the blazes in your direction may be obscured by snow or ice, the opposite direction may be clear and easy to spot.

If you do feel as though you are lost, check a GPS that is using a good database.  Keep in mind that GPSs that are using the old USGS topo information can be off by hundreds of feet sometimes and that ends up being a huge distance in the middle of the woods in winter.  Be sure to use some of the newer trail data that is available.  A good source is the GPSFileDepot website where you can download data from a lot of different gps datasources.  My Trails, is one of my favorite sources for good, accurate, trail and POI data.  Of course, it should go without saying that even if you know exactly the trails you intend to take, you should always carry a map with you regardless because you just never know what may happen or where your travels may take you.  If, despite your best efforts, you do get lost, double back and follow your tracks to a point where you were not lost, rather than pressing on to see if you can get un-lost.  Lost winter hikers don’t get un-lost, they get frozen.

Deep spruce traps are very uncommon, but if you are hiking up in Baxter or other norther areas of our region, they do happen and you need to be prepared.  Post-holing is more common and causes more injuries than spruce traps each year, but the numbers are still relatively low.  It is unclear how many people get lost for a while in the woods.  Most, make their way out eventually, but occasionally some do not.  Winter hazards do exist, and the few I have mentioned here today are not meant to be an exhaustive list, but having a bit of knowledge and knowing how to avoid them, can certainly make your winter adventures that much more safe and enjoyable.  Now get out and enjoy the beautiful winter landscape; it is gorgeous out there.

Thanksgiving

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I have so much to be thankful for this year.  The brother of one of my closest friends was struck by a hit and run driver at 50 mph while riding a bike, and miraculously he was not killed.  Faced with severe back injury, the prognosis, if he lived beyond the first 24 hours, was that he would be a quadriplegic, and yet, a week ago, three months after the accident, he walked out of the doors of the rehab hospital, completely unassisted, to a car which took him home.  He is not mended, not the singing, dancing mailman that everyone in town loved, but he is so far beyond where anyone ever could have expected him to be, that nobody now dares say where his recovery will plateau. 

I have a cousin who, at 50, was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia this past year.  Again, it is tragic how fate can swoop down and suddenly strike someone with a life threatening disease, and yet, the hand of God is perhaps more powerful than that of fate and, in this case, a non-family bone marrow donor was found and my cousin is on the road to recovery. 

I am well, my family is well, and almost all  those I know continue to do well and prosper. 

I have had an amazing year of hiking.  I have made great friends, introduced countless numbers to some of the places I love and the trails that always show me something new, always make me smile, no matter how many times I hike them.  When I joined the Pemi Valley Search and Rescue Team this summer, I met an amazing group of volunteers and I feel richer from getting to know them.  Every call I respond to, working side by side with these unselfish, always giving folks, has made me a better person.  It has been an incredible spring, summer and fall.

With all these good thing happening in my life, with so much to be thankful for, one would think that I sleep well at night, and yet, I do not. 

I was at a panel discussion a few months back and I heard a quote that got me thinking. “Understanding nature is not only more complex than we think- it is more complex than we can think”.  What does this say about stewardship of this planet?  What does this say about our stewardship of this planet?

This last year has exposed to us all, some ugly truths about attitudes that are gaining prevalence today.  When I was a child in middle school in the early 70s, there was a huge cultural focus on what we, as a society, were doing to the environment.  These were the days when we were learning the effects of DDT on the egg shells of our national symbol, the bald eagle.  These were the days of television public service announcements denouncing the effect of pollution on our world.  Who, of my generation, does not remember the “Crying Indian” television commercials?  We even had an ecology flag that one might see flying here or there from time to time.  It had what some believed was the Greek letter theta, but in truth, it was originally the lower case e for ecology and o for organism, superimposed on one another.  It was a popularized belief that the visual similarity to the letter theta was no accident since the theta symbol is associated with the Greek word for death, thanatos, which is what the effect of the human species was said to be on the environment and the atmosphere of the earth. 

Intentional or not, pollution, ecology, conservation and stewardship for the world in which we lived, was front and center for all of my youth. I was nursed on this belief of social responsibility for the environment for forty years and I grew up believing in those ideals.  I won an award in Boy Scouts for outstanding service to conservation.  I have volunteered to clean and restore areas that had been damage by human pollution, carelessness and overuse.  I have restored woodland habitat and replanted trees.  I have worked on coastal erosion projects and done my part to reverse and undo the pollution we humans have left like footprints in our wake.  I have not been alone; I am no hero.  There was a huge growing tide of people who believed as I did.  Maybe we all came of age together, maybe there was something else that bound us all together, but we cared about the world in which we lived and, more importantly, the world we were leaving behind.  We felt as though we had a responsibility to future generations.  Let’s face it, nobody would ever have bought the original Honda Insight, if they did not care deeply about the environment.  We were everywhere and we were growing in number every year.  We were a force to be reckoned with, and we all cared, damn it, every last one of us.  We wanted to leave the world a better, cleaner, more natural place than we found it.  Legacy was important to us all.

This, my friends, is what keeps me up in the middle of the night some nights.  Despite this last year being a great year for my family and me, despite personally prospering, this last year has been a terrible year for that legacy.  I feel as though all I have believed in for the last forty years, all the conservation work I have done, and those of my ilk have done, has been torn out from under us in a single year of incredible setbacks.  This administration has made it clear that the environment, the world in which we live, is not something to be cared for and cherished, but instead it is something to be used and depleted for our own personal wealth, comfort or prosperity.  But make no mistake, I do not blame the administration alone; our president (yes I say our, because we collectively elected him) has only tapped into sentiment that has been ripe for a while; a new ethos of “me first”, of “take and don’t worry about leaving for others”.

I walk to work daily, and almost daily I see children on the sidewalk playing.  Often these kids are eating or drinking something and when they are done, the containers or wrappers go right to the ground.  I look to their parents, who are sometimes sitting right there on the steps nearby, for their outrage, and instead I see trash blowing about them that indicates they do just the same.  Is this the new norm?  I often feel like that crying Indian myself.  What has become of us?

I was talking to someone tonight and while she expressed the same frustration, she said what I hear all too often these days, “What can I do?  As one person, what can I really do to effect a change?”  We can all do something, even little things matter.  We owe it to ourselves to learn what is really happening all around us, and what we can do to slow the train wreck coming, to help where we can.  More importantly, we owe it to our children to teach them what our parents taught us about preservation, conservation, and social responsibility. 

This winter I have promised myself to show a number of films in my home, open to anyone that wishes to attend, that hopefully will help to spread the word of what is happening and what can be done.  Even many of you, my friends, do not realize how perilous our tenancy on this planet is right now.  This is just one more small way that I can help, and I would encourage you all to share in these films with me and then to help spread the word.  You don't have to come to my screenings, you don't have to do screenings of your own, but do something; there are so many things we all can do, we all must do, and we have to do them now or it may be too late.

I have a lot to be thankful for this year, but most of all, I am thankful that I am not alone.  I am thankful that it is not too late, that there is still a chance we can save this planet, that we can save our very species.  I am thankful that there is still a huge population of people that can think beyond their own needs, that still care, that still believe we have a social responsibility to leave the world a better place, and still want to help, and I know that most of you out there can count yourselves among them.  I am thankful for all of you.

Night Hike

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A couple of weeks ago, I had a fabulous hike in the Baldfaces.  While the fall color was not as one might reasonable expect this time the year, the weather was just stellar.  Late into September one could not ask for a clear, dry sunny day in the 80s and have the slightest expectation of getting it and yet there I was, trekking across the bare summits of ledge after ledge with unlimited views to the East and views to the West of the Carter-Moriah Range and the Presidentials behind in gorgeous summer weather.  The day could not have been better.

The Baldfaces are a good distance from my home and rather than drive 2-1/2 hours each way, I took my Winnebago and spent the night before and the night after the hike in a National Forest campground slightly north of the trailhead.  I like the National Forest campgrounds very much because all of the sites have a degree of privacy that you do not find in the NH State Park campgrounds or in private campgrounds.

Despite the summer like weather, night comes much earlier in late September than it does in mid-summer and by 7:30 I was watching the sliver of a waning crescent moon grab the last bent rays of sunlight from the setting sun it was chasing.  By 8:00 it was dark and by 8:30 it was deep night.

The evening being warm, I was not ready to settle into the comfort of my Winnie for a read, and then sleep, so instead, I grabbed a good headlamp and headed out for a walk.  With not a cloud in that night sky, the stars were just amazing.  I knew that if I turned my headlamp off I would see much more and so I did and, within a few minutes, I was rewarded with one of the clearest moonless nights I have seen all year.  The sky was just lit up with a hundred thousand little pinpricks of light shining through the dark blue fabric of the night sky.  I walked along in awe-struck amazement of the sky above me.  One never sees a night like this where there are lights of the city, but here, tucked between mountains, with absolutely no light from any nearby town, the sky was truly special.

I walked for a long time before I realized that I had never turned my headlamp back on and then a memory from long ago came flooding back to me that I had forgotten.  As a boy scout, once chores were done in our campsites and everything was cleaned up, and before we would have our evening campfire, we would often go out for “night hikes”.  We all carried flashlights, but turning yours on subjected you to immediate scorn from all the other boys and leaders around you.  Turning on your light “ruined” the night vision for anyone who accidentally took in the light, and it would take a few minutes for one’s night vision to come back.

Without the crutch of artificial light, it was really amazing how well we boys could see the trails and the woods about us.  We could navigate easily and seldom did a scout fall or trip on these hikes that were usually several miles in distance.  We would often walk along ridgelines and we could clearly discern other ridges in the distance and the valleys between them.

As I walked from my campsite in the woods, memories of those night hikes past filled my head.  I had forgotten how easily one can see when they just retrain their eyes to look.  You see the world, as it is, without headlamps and flashlights interpreting it for us, without street lights and porch lights showing us the way, without car headlamps zooming along the country roads blinding the wildlife that cannot cry out in complaint when their night vision is “ruined”.  Once, we all knew how to see in the dark, but now we have grown dependent on the electric light.

There is a lot of change in our country right now.  There are things happening that could have repercussions and implications for generations yet to come.  Much of what we all know has been chewed up, digested and regurgitated, strained and filtered by the politicians and the media into the messages they want us to hear or believe.  Just as we are l endowed with eyes that know how to see in the dark, although they may have forgotten that they can, we are all endowed with minds that know how to think, how to interpret the world on own.  We can all, if we try, recognize good from bad, right from wrong, selfish and short sighted from altruistic and forward thinking. 

We all know how to see in the dark, and I would encourage every reader here to try it, but beyond that what I encourage, what I urge, is for all of us to try to remember how to see inthe light and then effect some positive and real change before we have little worth seeing at all. As for night hikes, let me know when you are around and I will gladly take you.  Bring your headlamp but don’t you dare turn it on!

The Most Unusual Thing

I am sitting here at my computer writing, having just finished a week of hiking, and I am  reflecting on the time I have had in the woods.  I have, for the most part, been by myself.  It is true, when one is alone and by them self, their thoughts become very reflective and introspective.  Unlike Mr. Thoreau before me, however, I cannot say that my thoughts had any degree of profundity. To that end, let me apologize in advance for the blog I am about to regale you with.  I usually like to have some twist or connection at the end of my blogs that ties the preceding paragraphs together and, often, my blogs have some not so subtle message.  The blog you are about to read has no great twist, no connection to the beginning and certainly no moral or ethical message at the end.  As I said, I am no Thoreau.

Throughout my hiking this past week, I have often thought of blogs I could write and how I could share some of what I have experienced here in the woods with my friends on line.  Earlier this week, I met a young family on a summit with whom I visited while we ate lunch.  The young boy in this family asked me what was the strangest thing I had ever seen while hiking.  I smiled as I thought about the question for a bit and then shared my answer with him, but before I reveal that to you, my readers, I thought I would share some of what made me smile (which I did not share with the young hiker).

I have, in fact, seen a few things that have been quite strange.  I have seen wasps the size of my hand on the bare summits of some of the presidential peaks.  These insects did not appear malevolent, and I have seen them nowhere else, but they were definitely in the wasp family.  In keeping with insects, once, when hiking with my daughters to Franconia Falls, we found, for whatever reason, that huge groups of yellow swallowtail butterflies chose to visit the falls that day.  Many were drinking from the pools and like wildebeests at the watering holes in Africa; they aligned themselves wing to wing and drank from the puddles and still pools.  They would land everywhere and I have pictures of my daughters each with a half dozen to a dozen butterflies resting on their arms as they stood near the falls.  I have never seen them there since, despite more than a dozen visits to the falls since that day.

I have seen men in kilts, presumably bottomless below, and I have seen women completely topless.  Now mind you, while I love breasts, (I think most men do), when confronted with them exposed on the trail, it is difficult to know exactly what is the proper etiquette.  One cannot really look away and one doesn’t want to stare- it is just plain awkward- and so, while I generally would promote as much  toplessness for women as possible, let’s keep that from the trails for a bit ladies, OK?   As an aside, this past winter, in six feet of snow on top of South Hancock, while on a presidential traverse training hike, my group of hikers met a woman in a sports bra, mini skirt, and snow shoes.  Unusual, to be sure, but as we have seen already, certainly not the most unusual thing I have encountered.

I have seen it snow in August and I have seen ice on the trail in the middle of the summer.  I have also enjoyed a 60 degree day in the middle of February at Lake of the Clouds hut as I rested before hiking onward.  I have crossed paths with men carrying skis in July on top of Jefferson and I have seen the entire sky light up red from the northern lights.  I have watched the wind whip the clouds up and over the tops of mountains and I recently saw a cloud structure with three flat levels, likes lozenges, all stacked on top of each other with a small connecting stem; they reminded me of flattened olives on a martini toothpick.

I have found many relics of the logging days along the sides of the trail and there are buried railroad ties and even track, along many trails.  It is sometimes fun to find personal artifacts in the old camps; a rusted old belt buckle here, a scrap of leather or riveted iron, there.  One cannot help but wonder what life as a logger must have been like a hundred twenty five years ago.  I have never found artifacts that pre-date the logging days, although I know that the forest holds many objects from the days when Native Americans roamed these woods.

Of all these unusual things I have seen, however, the strangest I think, by far, was the encampment I stumbled upon one summer day while scouting new hikes for my clients.  Where the Bondcliff trail reaches the East Branch of Pemi as one descends from Bondcliff itself, the trail takes a sharp right.  This used to be a “T” like intersection with another trail, but the section to the left, as you are facing the Pemi, has been closed for several years.  It is wide and flat and in generally good repair, but there are signs at the beginning of this section of the trail that make it very clear the trail is not being maintained, and there has been some minor effort to block the way with trees and other fallen debris.  I knew this trail, from the days of when it had been open, and it was where I needed to go, so I continued on despite the warnings that the trail was not being maintained.

I continue for a bit, and then the trail dropped down to cross a tributary to the Pemi, and when it came up on the other side, to my amazement and wonder, I found an encampment of more than a hundred people.  There were large tarps strung high in the trees to make a large open area sheltered from the rain.  There were tents everywhere and lots of groups of people mulling about talking, laughing and generally enjoying themselves.  This was not a week in the woods with some friends, this camp looked like it had been there all summer and, with multiple fires going, it appeared to me to be some cross between what I might find in the hills of Tennessee and a church group summer picnic in a park.

It was unsettling to find that many people, holed up in the woods, away from civilization, from others, from authority, and I did not stick around long enough to find out who or what they were.  I don’t know if I was ever spotted from the camp, or if they really cared, but for many hours after I had an uneasy feeling that I might have been followed (I never, ever, should have watched the movie Deliverance).  To this day, I don’t know who those people were or what they were doing there, but it is safe to say that finding them there, away from everything, is by far, the, most unusual thing I have seen on my hikes.

To the class of 2017

It is May and it is time for Graduation.  After four years of studying, growing, learning and experiencing, hundreds of thousands of students will be moving from the somewhat protected world of academia into the real world of life.  The stories of their lives are as of yet unwritten, a clean slate upon which they will, from that point forward, begin to leave their mark.  As part of that rite of passage, most of these young men and women will be treated to a commencement address by someone who is believed to have some sage wisdom to pass along.

Many of the addresses will be very good.  Some will be so bad that they will be comical, and the vast majority, peppered with bits of great advice, will be sufficient to charge our graduating students with the ideals of hard work and good deeds; the perfect message to send our young people into the world that awaits them.  I can, without exception, tell you one thing that is true of all these speeches: not one will be written or delivered by me.  That is true this year, and will be true in every year.  Mind you, it is not that I may or may not enjoy delivering such a potentially impactful oration to our young graduates, nor is that I cannot be loquacious enough for such a speech (I can go on and on), but the fact is, I will never be invited to have the opportunity to speak to graduates of any class.

And so, - some of you are way ahead of me, here- I thought I would take this opportunity to address the graduating class of 2017, or at least anyone who cares to listen.

Graduates of 2017, you enter the world in troubling times.  Our country right now is arguably the most divided it has been since the civil war.  There is more than just philosophical disagreement between individuals; ugly parts of the human psyche that many of us had thought were now in our past are making a resurgence.  The news is increasingly filled with stories of racism, bigotry, hate and violence and most alarmingly, many have lost faith in the institutions that help us discern right from wrong, good from bad, truth from lie.

I swear to you here and now, graduates, for all the current ugliness and tumult in our country now, there is more goodness and kindness than there is badness and hate.  This country has a strong tradition of identifying and fixing our wrongs , learning from our mistakes and moving forward.  Embrace what is fair, what is good, what is right, not just for you but for the stranger you do not know, the immigrant that has just landed on our shores, and the disenfranchised that have not been as fortunate as you and have not had the benefit of the education from which you are now graduating.  Have the courage to stand up for what you believe in, and you will be part of the forces that keeps our country moving forward, correcting the mistakes of its past.

I hope to live to be at least 90 and by the time you are 90, you might well expect to live to be 110 or 120.  In other words, you have a hundred years ahead of you and, although it may seem obvious, a hundred years is a long time to live.  For perspective on how long a hundred years can be, let’s look back at how far this country has come in the last hundred years.

Put down your cell phones, graduates, and ponder for a second that the first trans-continental telephone call was made100 years ago in 1915.  It would be another 15 years before telephones were to become more common place and most telephone calls had to be made with the assistance of an operator physically making the connection between copper wires.  In 1917, half of all families lived in rural areas and more than 90% of rural America did not have electric power.  Only one person in fifty had a car in 1917, and most either walked or rode a horse to get around.  In 1917, the 19th amendment was three years from being ratified and women could not yet legally vote.  Think of all of this and ponder for a second how technology, that so impacts American life, has changed drastically in the last 100 years; the period of time you still have ahead of you.

 Now the growth in technology has become exponential and we cannot begin to envision the technological world of 2117.  But, as much as the technological world will change in the next hundred years, I hope, I pray, that the physical world, the planet upon which we live and depend, will not change and the places we save as wild, free and open will remain such.  I implore you to think not just of the political ebbs and tides of today, which can seem all consuming, but to think of the world of tomorrow as well.  It is not too early to be thinking of your legacy, graduates.  What will the world in which you raise your children look like?  How about the world you will leave them? 

If history provides a roadmap for the future, the political division and the struggles that this country faces today, will be but a blip on the timeline of your life, on your personal history.  We, as a society, have the ability to recover fairly quickly from political swings; we can correct the cultural missteps we may make and fix them.  However, the changes we make to the planet, to the world upon which we depend, can be extremely long lasting, hard to correct, and, in some cases, irreversible- just ask the passenger pigeon, the auk, or the West African black rhino.

If you do not know the beauty, the peace and solemnity that is the natural world, I encourage you to explore it and become familiar.  We are inextricably tied to the world about us and to learn of the natural world is to learn of ourselves.  John Muir said, “The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.”

Preservation and conservation do not happen on their own; it takes effort and it takes work.  How will you keep the water we drink and the air we breathe clean?  Will you take up these causes of preservation and conservation and will you help to strike a balance between using natural resources responsibly and exhausting them beyond recovery?  The decisions you make, class, will impact my world, your world, and the world you leave to future generations.  This may be your greatest challenge.

There are many speeches that will talk about your future being bright and indeed, I am sure for most of you, it will be.  There are many that will tell you to stay focused on your inner spirit, your dreams, your career or other noble causes, and all of that is good advice.  But my advice to you, graduates, is do not get bogged down in the noise of today’s news.  Go out and be doctors and lawyers, engineers and scientists.  In fact, be whatever will make you happy and will be rewarding and fulfilling, but also please, commit yourselves to never stop considering the planet upon which we all live and depend and the wild places you leave to your children.  While these wild places have been here since the dawn of our planet, they will not be here tomorrow without your help.  Make that help part of your legacy as you make the most of the 100 years ahead of you.

Good luck, graduates of 2017.

 

Christmas in May

Christmas morning at the Stewart home was, for many years, almost the same routine.  My younger brother and I would get up with the sunrise and then immediately wake up my even younger sister.  Before we could tell time, we would go romping into my parent’s bedroom and jump all over the bed to wake them and tell them that Christmas morning had arrived.  Once we could tell time, we were told that we had to wait until 7:00 before waking them, and so we would, “quietly” sit outside their closed bedroom door until the appointed hour, then charge into their room and romp all over the bed like we had in years previous.  Of course, quiet is a relative term and there is only so quiet that elementary school age children can be.

My mother would be the first to get up and she would go downstairs without us and start the coffee.  As the smell of the brewing coffee would waft up to the second floor, we children would stand at the top of the stairs and call down to her, “Is it ready yet, is it time?”

Eventually Mom would cave, and, with a cup of coffee in hand for my father, she would call us down to the living room where stockings were hung over the fireplace, oversized presents from Santa were stacked below each stocking, and gifts from everyone other than Santa were piled under the tree.  We would find a place in the living room to sit and mom would take down the stockings and pass them over to each of us and, in a somewhat measured manner, we would being to unwrap the trinkets in the stockings and the gifts that were below, waiting, as much as we could, for “turns”, rather than all at once in a frenzy of shredded wrapping paper and ribbon. 

Once the Santa gifts were done, my mother would dole out, one at a time so that we could all see what the others were receiving, the bigger presents from under the tree.  It was a measured unwrapping experience and respectful of everyone’s turn.  The result of this practice was that it turned Christmas morning gift giving into a much longer and protracted experience than it otherwise would have been had we children been left to just tear into the presents at our own pace, and the joy of Christmas morning lasted that much longer.

For all but those who hike in the winter, spring in the White Mountains is much like Christmas morning.  We find the hills and valleys wrapped in the bright yellow-greens of leaves budding out, the dappled whites and pinks of flowering trees blooming, and wildflowers like trillium and azalea are all coming into bloom on the forest floor.  Hikers are all waiting at the top of the stair for the signal to run down and open this present that is spring.

This winter, however, like a few before, has been an unusual winter in that we received significant snow late in the season.  This snow has clung to the woods and much of the White Mountain National Forest is still covered by several feet of snow.  By this time in the season, in years past, there were only small patches of snow and it was a novelty to come across them on the trail, but this year the snow is deep, the spring has been cool, and spring thaw has been a very slow process.

Last year there was an astounding 245 search and rescues in the White Mountains; an incredible number when you consider that almost all of these occur on the weekends and the vast majority of those weekends during the summer.  Many of the rescues are of people who were hiking trails that exceed their skill level, or hikers who were ill equipped to deal with changing weather or conditions. What is even more remarkable than the number of rescues last year, however, is that this year we have already had more than 170 search and rescues callouts and summer has not yet arrived.  Just this last week, there were 5 rescues of individuals caught waist deep in snow; one with a leg broken from “postholing” through the hardened layer of snow and ice we call the monorail and one by National Guard helicopter on the side of Mt. Lincoln, three days after getting lost, off the trail, and calling for help.

Hikers, at this time of the year, need someone like my mother to keep them at the top of the stair for a bit and then to dole out the presents of spring in a measured fashion.  Soon enough we will all be able to climb whatever we like without fear of rotten snow or icy monorail, but for now, the elevations above 3000 feet are dangerous without proper training, equipment and guiding.  Please, everyone, the warm weather will be here soon, but for now, listen to “Mom” and keep your hikes below 3000 feet for a few more weeks and revel in a longer, more rewarding, Christmas morning this year.

I hate being cold

I hate being cold; let there be no doubt about it.  There are some times when I climb into bed, before the cotton sheets, layers of wool and fleece blankets and thick down comforter have had a chance to catch and retain my body heat, before it has turned into the soft cocoon of comfort that envelopes me and will make me struggle to leave it in the morning, that I wonder what the hell I am doing in such an inhospitable part of the country as the northeast at this time of the year.

When I was a boy, winter, and surviving the cold, seemed almost like a rite of passage I had to endure.  Just the other day I was talking to someone about ski equipment we used when we were kids.  Not only was all of it extremely painful to wear and use, but when one came in from the slopes at lunch time, one of the first things they had to do was to check their toes for the tell tale signs of frostbite.  I have always extracted the very most I could get from a day of skiing and, to this day, it pains me to sit inside a lodge when I can be getting in another run or two, but I must confess that there were a few times in my youth when fear of losing a toe may have kept me inside just a little longer at lunch when I could have been skiing.  It was such a predicament; lose a toe or lose a ski run.  Today that seems like an obvious choice, but for a middle and then high school kid at the time, it filled me with anxiety and angst.

When I graduated from cub scouts to boy scouts, one of the determining decisions as to what troop I was going to join, was the amount of time they went hiking and camping during the year.  I chose the boy scout troop that stated that they went out once a month for an overnight, regardless of the weather.  During the warmer months, we would go to various state parks or forests, but in the winter we would go to a boy scout camp in northern New Jersey.

I have written here before about the climb up the “heart attack hill” to our troop’s cabin, but I have not written much about the camping we did atop.  These were, without doubt, very formative trips and I cherish many of the experiences I had both in warm weather and cold.  Once we got to the area where our cabin was, the scouts would spread out across the hilltop and set up their tents and campsites, the adults would go into the cabin and unpack – setting up on cots in an insulated cabin with two wood stoves- and the older boy leaders would go into a twelve by twelve shed named “the cook shack” which contained a half dozen tiered canvas cots and a large eight-burner wood stove.

On really cold nights, if kids got too cold, they would make their way to the cabin with the adults.  To do such was to fail the test of fortitude and would subject the poor scout to such torment and ridicule that I fear it may have ruined the scouting experience for most of those that succumbed.  So, in cheap Coleman flannel sleeping bags, (yea, I said flannel), we toughed it out no matter how cold it became at night.  We would put on lots of clothing and shiver all night, but we would not give in to Old Man Winter.

As an older scout in the cook shack, winter was not much better.  We would stoke that eight-burner with so much wood that the entire top of the stove would glow bright red in the dark.  We would strip down to tee shirts and shorts and sweat in the blast furnace like interior of the cook shack.  But then we would eventually fall asleep, and the stove would get cold, and the uninsulated corrugated steel walls of the cook shack would do nothing to fight back the cold northern New Jersey nights and at four in the morning, damp, cold and shivering, it again became a test of whether you were boy enough to make it through the freezing night.

I think you emerge from experiences like my winter scouting trips, and zero degree ski trips with thin plastic boots, either hating winter or loving it.  As I wrote when I started this blog, I hate the cold, but I will confess openly and without hesitation, that there are few things I find more exhilarating than the woods in the winter.  Too many people are afraid to hike in the snow and it is true that there are days when it is foolish to try to do such.  Likewise, there are unbroken trails that, with deep snow, should not be attempted for great distances even on the finest of days.  However, the vast majority of days, and the vast majority of trails, are perfect for winter hiking.  All the rocks and roots and other obstacles are smoothed out in a blanket of packed down white powder and many trails can actually become easier to hike if one has the right equipment and attitude. 

And, oh my, once you are out there, you will be amazed at the world that presents itself to you.  Everything is draped in white and all the hard edges become soft and fluffy.  Even on days with milk-bottle visibility, the adventure will astound you with the beauty that surrounds; there is no need for vistas where you can see for miles when you have immersed yourself in such a magical landscape.

It is fine to hate the cold, but don’t let that dislike for cold keep you indoors this winter.  Learn how to hike in the snow.  Take a course, go with a friend, hike with a guide (wink wink)… just get out and do it; you will not regret a single day you spend in a world where the snow is deeper than you are tall and snowshoes are your best friend.

Safe winter hiking

We have had some significant temperature swings the past couple of weeks and so I thought a post discussing the effect this can have on the snow pack might be in order. 

Most of the time when we hike in the winter, we are hiking on trails that others have traveled before.  The snow gets compacted, rocks get buried and the trail actually gets smoother than it might be in the warmer weather.  This is ideal winter hiking and there is nothing like it.  You can sometimes walk on these trails with bare boots or light traction such as Microspikes, and sometimes you might need small snowshoes or crampons.  I often have both snowshoes and crampons with me on a hike because conditions change with exposure and altitude.

When the snow has not been walked on very much, or if it is a new deep snowfall, the snow is called unconsolidated.  Unconsolidated snow is not particularly dangerous to traverse, but is can be extremely arduous for one to do so.  Even with large snowshoes, hikers will sink deep in unconsolidated snow and the lead hiker in the group expends great effort to lift every snowshoe laden foot out of the footprint he has just made and place it in front of him for the next.  Often, on unconsolidated trails, groups of hikers take turns “breaking trail” so that no single hiker gets more tired than the others.

Because it is such slow going when hiking over trails of unconsolidated snow, one should keep in mind that the distance they can travel will be greatly reduced and trips should be planned or changed accordingly.  One of the biggest problems winter hikers have is that they have a particular goal in mind and lose sight of the time and the distance they have traveled or still need to travel.  There was recently a tragic outcome for a hiker as he ventured, unguided, up to Bondcliff on a winter hike.  He called his parents from the summit at 7 pm, much too late to be up there, 7 - 8 miles from the trailhead.  He unfortunately did not survive getting out and search and rescue teams had to call in a helicopter to retrieve his frozen body two days later.

Another thing to keep in mind when traveling over unconsolidated snow is that one needs to stay on the trail.  Often, especially as one gets high in the peaks and the snow pack gets deep, spruce trees get partially or completely buried beneath the snow.  These trees can have large air pockets next to their trunks where the branches have kept snow from falling and they create pits we call “spruce traps” which can be a hazard for the unwary hiker.  By being aware that these traps can exist next to spruce trees, one can safely avoid them all together, but having equipment, just in case, to extricate a hiker that has fallen into a trap can be important.

Sometimes we hike in areas where there may be large fields of snow below or above us.  In these instances, we must always be mindful of avalanche danger.  This is where the large temperature swings I mentioned at the beginning of this post can be important.  As snow falls, because it doesn’t melt, it accumulates in many layers.  Some layers can be just an inch or two, and some can be feet deep.  As long as the snow remains snow and doesn’t melt and turn to ice, these layers combine with one another and cohere.  This is a strong and stable snow pack and can be traversed safely.  However, when there is a freezing rain storm, sleet or grapple (a soft hail like precipitation), or the snow melts a little and re-freezes, a weak layer can be formed on top of the compacted base.  When more snow falls on top of the weak layer, or it is blown there by wind, it is a recipe for trouble.  The new snow on top of the weak layer is called a slab layer and may be one layer of snow or several, but the key is that it did not bond with the snow below the weak layer and so, when there is a triggering event, this slab layer of snow sloughs off and forms an avalanche.

The wind and weather can both be avalanche triggers but, by far, the most common avalanche triggers are humans.  Hikers, climbers or skiers on, or above, an unstable slab can add just enough extra impetuous for the snow to release and start to slide downhill.  Sometimes, hikers below an unstable slope can trigger and avalanche upon themselves just by the chain reaction of breaking the weak bond below the slab layer.  The key to hiking safely in avalanche areas is to avoid them entirely.  Before hiking in areas of avalanche danger, check the avalanche conditions board in Pinkham Notch or go here: http://www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org/advisory/ to see the currently posted conditions.  Conditions are rated one of five different levels and the warnings on line generally will tell you what is safe and what is not.

There is a lot of fun to be had in the mountains in the winter, and they can be absolutely gorgeous, but it is important to explore them safely.  Be mindful not just of the weather for the day of your hike or climb, but also of the weather for the past few weeks.  With that in mind, the proper attire and an adventurous spirit, you will have a great time!

 

 

A Few of my Favorite Things...

Whether you have been naughty or nice this year, the Holiday season is upon us and as all of my hiking friends, new and old, think about things to put on their lists for Santa, I thought I would share some of the equipment and brands that I use and endorse.

Osprey packs is a pack company that has always been ahead of the curve in terms of technology and customer service.  Years ago they created what they called the re-curve suspension for full sized packs and it remains one of the most effective frames for transferring pack load to your hips.  With re-curve framed packs, I have hiked the Long Trail in Vermont and the Haute Route in Europe, as well as a good number of other shorter multi-day treks.  A few years back they came up with a suspension Osprey named “airspeed” on their day and technical packs that allows for air to get in between the pack and your back.  I have used one model or another of an Osprey pack for all my day hikes for at least the last fifteen years.  Additionally, I cannot say enough about Osprey’s warranty.  Since 2009, if you have had an issue with their packs for any reason, they will make it right.  They call it their “All Mighty Guarantee” and you can read about it on their website.

I do not buy equipment that is not high quality, preferring to buy something that will last and take care of it, rather than something that is less expensive but will require replacing in just a few seasons.  Some of the brands that make what I feel are quality items are Leki for poles, Marmot and Arc’teryx for clothing, MSR for a bunch of miscellaneous outdoor equipment, and Jet Boil for back country cooking.  When I sleep on the trail, I bed down in either a Marmot sleeping bag or, in the middle of winter, a Feathered Friends -60 degree bag that keeps me toasty no matter how cold it gets.  While I do not have a Big Agnes sleeping bag, I do know that they too are a brand worth mentioning and I would not overlook them.  Regardless of the sleeping bag I sleeping in, I am resting atop a Thermarest inflatable pad of one sort or another.  In winter, good pads are important to insulate you from the cold ground or snow below you, and they improve your sleeping comfort in all seasons.

I have talked before in my blog about my Garmin Fenix 3, which only leaves my wrist for recharging.  It gives me more metrics about every outdoor sport I do than I sometimes know what to with and with it on my wrist, I rarely need to take out the full-size GPS.  When I do pull out the GPS, it too is a Garmin.  Magellan is the competitive brand to Garmin and I know little about them one way or another, but I have never gone wrong with Garmin and, as with many of the other brands I have mentioned here, their customer service is great.

I have used a lot of water purification methods since I started hiking and backpacking.  First I used tablets, and then an MSR pump that I thought was a great improvement over chemical tasting water, although it was heavy in the pack.  From there I moved to another MSR device, this one called a Miox which made a little saline elixir with rock salt and batteries that you dumped into your water and let sit for 30 minutes.  In all honesty, while neither my charges nor I ever got sick, I was never 100 percent convinced that everything that needed to be killed in the water had been.  I now use a SteriPEN Adventure Opti Water Purifier that I know makes my water 100 percent safe.  It is easy to use, lightweight and safe; quite a remarkable device, actually.

For headlamps, I have a bunch of headlamps made by Petzl, which is another one of those great brands that makes a wide range of outdoor equipment.  Besides headlamps, they primarily make climbing equipment, and a few years ago, they combined with the French company Charlet that makes one set of crampons I use.  The other crampons I use and like are Grivel and they have worked well for me for years.  Both of these companies make great ice tools and axes.  For lighter ice traction, I use Microspikes by Kahtoola and Hillsound trail crampons which are very similar to the Microspikes.  I recommend staying away from Yaktrax which may be good for shoveling your walk, but not for hiking.  On my feet, whether summer or winter, I am usually wearing La Sportiva hiking shoes or boots and I am super excited to wear some new G2 SM Mountaineering boots this winter from La SportivaLa Sportiva is an Italian company that has always made high quality footwear and equipment.

Other hiking gifts to consider are some books and maps published by the Appalachian Mountain Club, including the White Mountain Guide, written and edited by Steve Smith who runs a great map and book store called the Mountain Wanderer in Lincoln, NH.  Steve’s books are great and he has written a number of other guides to hiking, snowshoeing and back country skiing in the Whites.  If you are purchasing just maps, be sure the get your favorite hiker maps that have been printed on Tyvek which makes them lighter than paper maps and waterproof.

If you will indulge me and allow me to plug myself, of course one of the best gifts you can get your favorite outdoor enthusiast are the Exploring the Whites Gift Certificates that are available in either dollar amounts or for complete trips.  Whether your favorite hiker is a beginner or an expert, a summer or a winter enthusiast, I have adventures designed for everyone. 

If you are after some equipment for which I have not made a recommendation, please feel free to reach out to me for a suggestion and I will gladly share what I may know and make a few recommendations to help you choose the perfect gift.  The equipment and brands I have mentioned are just based upon my experience with them and my endorsements and recommendations are not intended to warrant or guarantee how well you will like their equipment.  As always, get equipment that works within your budget, fits you well, and suits your needs.

Happy Holidays everyone.

One season rolls into the next

It is the beginning of November and the first snows of the winter have already blanketed the higher peaks in a drape of soft fluffy white.  There has been a couple of feet of snow on the top of Mount Washington, and I read the other day of two hikers who needed rescuing as they tried to ski down the Ammonoosuc Ravine trail, in the dark, and ran out of headlight power.  I am always struck by the number of people who attempt things they never should even contemplate starting, and do such with only the minimum amount of equipment, experience or intelligence.  From my understanding, these two foolish characters were attempting to ski in a fragile alpine area, with not enough snow, after dark, with one headlamp between the two of them loaded with weak batteries that soon died.  Maybe the headlamp was not the only thing they shared between the two of them; perhaps these two half-wits shared the intelligence of a single individual as well.  But I have digressed into a rant about the latest story of dolts who should not be allowed to venture further than their backyards and I apologize; that was not why I am sitting here writing.

Fall is transitioning into winter yet again.  I have had a wonderful first season of guiding as a business instead of just for the pleasure of taking people into the woods and sharing what I know, and the number of people that I have been able to introduce to the restorative powers of the wilderness, the soul re-centering capacity of the woods, has been more than I ever could have hoped to have reached.

It used to be, for me, that the changing of seasons was filled with melancholy.  I would become sentimental and nostalgic as the seasons changed and I would think back about both the good, and the bad, seasons that had preceded it.  I would think of days hiking or camping with my friends in high school or in boy scouts.  Or perhaps I might let my mind wander back to some of the wilder adventures I had during the years that followed college (although never as risky or stupid as trying to ski down the side of Mount Washington in October with just one shared, dying headlamp), or maybe to some of the week-long backpacking excursions I took with my daughters as they were growing up; those are all great memories. 

I would reflect on all those that I have been fortunate enough to hike with.  Like life itself, I have had some wonderful long term hiking partners, and I have had some not so great long term hiking partners, but through them all, I have grown as a hiker, and as a person, and my life is richer for having known them and for having hiked with them.

But this introspection, and sometimes resulting sense of loss, is something that changes as we get older.  Perhaps it is the number of seasons that have passed that make these seem less dramatic, less monumental, but I think, as we age, the changing of seasons transitions from mile marker reflection points, to reminders of the rhythm of life; the constant and un-interruptible currents and cycles that are part and parcel of life itself.  Seasons begin, bloom, age, and then start to whither just as the next season begins, but rather than mark the end of a period of time, this change marks just another step in a long continuum.

This is true when we look at things myopically and consider one year to the next, and this is true when we look at decades or centuries.  I think of the farms of northern New England which, 100 years ago, covered a good deal of the North Country.  But farming in the North Country is hard work, and has few rewards for all but the stalwart, and so many of the farm houses that were once so abundant have been abandoned as farm children grew up to seek an easier life beyond rural Vermont or New Hampshire, and the farms and the fields that were left behind were left to be reclaimed by the forests around them.  The seasons, the years, roll one to another and the rhythm of life continues.  It can be calming and reassuring, this cyclic pattern of the seasons and of life; knowing that regardless of whatever calamity or disruption to your peaceful world that might occur today, tomorrow will start fresh again, and one week will follow another, and one season will blend to the next.

I am already thinking about the trips I want to do next year.  I have talked to many about doing the Haute Route in Switzerland again next summer, a 14 day traverse from Mont Blanc in France to the majestic Matterhorn in Switzerland across some of the prettiest mountains I have ever experienced, and I will do a Presidential Traverse again and introduce countless others to the joys of hiking and backpacking.  To those who read this blog and are not on my mailing list, be sure to go to the contact page on this site and add your name to the email list so that you can be sure to know of all the upcoming trips and explorations.  For all those that have joined me on an adventure this last year, from the kids on the charity hike to those who never thought they could hike the Presidential Traverse and celebrated completion on top of Mount Pierce, thank you all for being part of this year’s turn of the cycle.

Go try the slide

Go try the slide

A week ago, I traveled to Chicago for my “day job”.  As many of you know, although I work in a law firm Monday through Friday, I am, by education and training, an architect, and a trip to Chicago is always a treat for the architectural eyes.  I find Chicago to be a city that has embraced the value of art, architecture and culture and while that may be lost on many, it was not lost on me, and I appreciated all of it as I immersed myself at every opportunity.

One such opportunity was after the conference I was attending had ended and the closing speeches had been made.  Left to my own devices I took off for a ten mile walk along the Chicago waterfront.  It was dusk on a weekday, so there were not the large crowds that were in the parks earlier that week when I explored them on the afternoon of the marathon.  I discovered some very engaging and successful public spaces as I wandered about, and eventually I found myself in a playground unlike any I had seen before.  Maggie Daley Park can best be described as play islands connected by a winding, wooded path, with names like “The Sea”, “The Watering Hole”, “The Harbor”, “Enchanted Forest” and, where I finally ended up, “The Slide Crater”.

In essence, the Slide Crater was two three-story towers connected with a suspension bridge between them that then ran to the raised edges of “the crater” on either side, and a giant twisting tube slide that came down from the top of one of the towers.  I don’t know why I could not just admire the creativity of the space and move on, as I had with the others areas, but something drew me in.  You folks are way ahead of me, I can tell.  That ‘s right, dressed in nice wool slacks and a dress shirt, I made my way over to the slide tower, and, ducking to get in, I climbed my way up a series of inside ladders and obstacles, stooping all the while, until I found myself on the top most platform with the shiny dark entrance to the slide in front of me.  Almost giggling, I looked left and then right, like a kid about to see if he could get away with something, and then I put my legs in that large tube and pushed off.

I had forgotten the near impossibility of trying to stop mid-slide, not that I wanted to, but like that, memories from my childhood flooded through me as I plunged, feet first, back through my elementary school years to the waiting ground below.  I popped out at the bottom and stood up, laughing and out of breath as I waited momentarily for my age, my place, for modern day life itself, to come back into my soul.  It was one last moment of exhilaration to relish before I was back in the present day world.  It was five seconds of pure exhilaration that spanned fifty years.  As I walked away from the Crater there was a young woman in her late twenties and what I guessed was her mother. They were foreign, and spoke with a strong accent, and I encouraged them to go do the slide.  They laughed, and I laughed, and then I walked away.

I did not look back at the two women and I do not know if they took my advice or if they thought I was some strange American man who had lost his mind, but I think my advice to them was sound and it is the same advice I give to you now; go try the slide.  Too often when I meet people, they say things like “Oh, I can’t do that kind of thing now, I am too old.”  I often hear this from people who are even younger than I.  I say to them, what I say to you now, this is nonsense.  There are thousands of experiences out there waiting to be tried.  A few of these have physical limitations and only you and your doctor can decide if those limitations apply, but don’t let there be any mental limitations; age is no barrier.  You are not too old get out and explore; to do things you have only ever dreamed of, or things you only experienced in the days of your youth.  You are not too old to go ride a bike, to walk to the park, to ride on a sled down a snow covered hill, to hike to a waterfall, to climb to the top of a mountain for the mere pleasure of doing it, or even to learn how to climb a frozen waterfall at temperatures well below zero just to experience the exhilaration of climbing it.  You have only to climb that tower and let go.  You can do it; go try the slide.

Winners and Losers

There are two subjects that we, collectively as a society, have difficulty discussing; religion and politics.  For whatever reason, even in this state of lawn signs and first in the nation primaries, we hold our political and religious beliefs close to our vest and we rarely discuss these subjects with anyone but our closest of friends, despite often having very strong beliefs about each.  Perhaps in part because of that, or perhaps because I just haven’t decided yet if it is appropriate for me to discuss politics in this venue, I have kept silent here in regards to the upcoming presidential election.  I have friends that are far left and I have friends that are far right and I have many who fill the gradient between the two.  While I do not agree exactly with the beliefs of any one of my friends, I respect the right of all of them to have their beliefs no matter how much they may differ from my own.

Putting aside the many proposals, platforms, stances and opinions that I may or may not agree with, there is rhetoric in this presidential campaign that I feel cannot be ignored.  “I am not a debater, but I am a winner. If I am elected I will make this country a total winner”, declared Mr. Trump after a debate last fall in the primary.  Time after time, for a year now, Mr. Trump has repeated this same theme, stating, in so many words, I am a winner and if you are with me you are a winner too, if you are against me, then you are a loser.

Whether one agrees with what Mr. Trump espouses for policy, whether or not you support his candidacy, is not the issue here.  The problem that warrants discussion is that as soon as you declare a large group of people winners, you are, by definition, calling all of the others, losers.  This winners/losers division immediately discounts and marks invalid any opinion that disagrees with that of the “winners”. 

There are some things that are yes or no issues.  If one is dropped in the middle of a lake, whether you can swim to shore or not is a yes/no proposition, in this case with grave consequences.  Likewise, whether one can ride a bike is a yes or no question, also with dramatic consequences if, let's say, one finds themselves rolling down a hill on two wheels. But examples like these aside - most of which deal with skills or abilities - the world is not black and white, Mr. Trump, and opinions and beliefs, whether they align or not with your thinking, are equally as valid as your own.  Further, labeling one a loser, closes down the discussion and the valuable insight one may have on issues that are not so diametrically opposed to your own beliefs.  I have said before, in this blog, everyone has something to teach me.

Sometimes I meet people who do not know that I guide hikes and other explorations, and when I tell them they say something to the effect of, “I have always wanted to hike but I cannot do that.”  Somewhat facetiously I ask if they can walk, and when they look at me quizzically, I say, “If you can walk, you can hike.”  If you can walk two miles, I can take you a mile into the wilderness and show you places you could not imagine existing in NH.  If you can walk one mile, I can show you glens just a half a mile into the woods where the stillness and tranquility will rival that of the most sacred of sanctuaries, and even if you can only walk a couple of city blocks, there are waterfalls we can hike to that will refresh and energize your soul.  If you can only walk a few blocks, we will not get you to the top of some mountain with one hundred mile views, but that does not mean that you cannot imbibe of the restorative powers of the wilderness and get to know the peace and solemnity of the woods that once covered this country. 

Everyone can hike, and everyone has the right to reap the rewards that a foray into the woods may provide.  Hiking, like so many things in life, is broad spectrum and there are a myriad of permutations.  The world is not divided into hikers and non-hikers, there are a million shades of grey between those black and white extremes and, in this presidential election season, please remember that our country, too, is not divided into winners and losers but instead into a very broad spectrum of beliefs and values.  Everyone’s opinion, whether it aligns with yours or not, is equally valid and important.

Of moose and toads

In my last post, I promised that there were two blogs running through my head on my last long hike.  This is the second.

I have been hiking more than 40 years and I have been hiking the Whites for more than 30.  To the uninitiated, during that time, on the surface at least, little has changed.  However, for those that know where to look, or how to look, much has changed.  One thing in particular that has really struck me recently, is the decrease in the amount of wildlife I see.  There are not, proportionally, a lot of large mammals in the Whites, and much of that has to do with the history of these mountains.  If you have hiked with me, you have undoubtedly heard me tell of how the mountains were all stripped bare by the logging companies and the impact that had on the forest ecology and how the White Mountains have only recovered in part, from that devastation a hundred years ago.

The denuding of the mountains, combined with the extreme weather and tough topography, have always made this region a difficult place for coyote, bobcat, deer, moose, and bear.  That said, when I started hiking the Whites there were always two large species one was sure to meet if one just hiked enough; the moose and the black bear.  The black bear is incredibly adaptable and so their population continues to be stable state wide, although many say that their numbers have increased in urban areas and decreased significantly in wilderness ones.  There may be some truth to that, but I do not have data to support it and it is not what I wish to share with you today.

For the moose, I do have some data.  In the last 10 years, the number of moose, the iconic animal that represents all that is wild in NH, has decreased from 7,500 state-wide to less than 4000 individuals.  Folks, that is a 46% decrease in ten years!  Much of the population loss is blamed on global warming, or upon increased numbers of ticks as a result of global warming.  Again, those that have hiked with me know that there are far fewer ticks in the Whites than in other forested areas of the state due, in part, to the fewer number of oaks in the region (this of course due to the widespread lumbering of the last half of the nineteenth century – everything is related after all) and therefore fewer mice that depend on the acorns from the oaks for winter food, and so, it is hard to blame the decreased numbers of moose in the Whites, on ticks.

In 2007, the State of NH issued 675 hunting permits for Moose.  In other words, with a population of about 7500 animals, they felt that 675 could be killed by hunters every year and the population would remain stable.  To make this very clear, that means that the NH Fish and Game Department was saying that as long as their remained 6825 animals at the end of the hunting season, the annual population of 7500 would not decline.  Today we have less than 4000 of these beautiful animals in the state and yet, in 2014, we still issued hunting permits to 124 people.  Why are we continuing to hunt this peaceful iconic animal?  What the heck is wrong with us?

Let’s talk about something else.  One of the things that struck me when I first started hiking in the Whites was the large number of toads one would see on the trail.  I can remember days, hiking with my daughters, when we would count the toads we saw and come up just short of a hundred for a single day.  Today, if I see a toad, it is a rare occurrence.  What happened to them?  It turns out that there is a disease called chytridiomycosis which is caused by a fungus that attacks the skin of amphibians and kills them in very short order.  Amphibians of all sorts - frogs, toads and salamanders - are dying off by the millions all over the world with many species already now extinct.

The fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), was first found in Australia in 1993.  So how does a fungus linked disease in Australia (an island continent, remember) find its way to the forest of NH?  One theory is that it was brought here inadvertently by us.  As it turns out, not all amphibians are susceptible to the disease, and some species have carried the fungus on their skin to local water supplies where it spread to infect other species that were susceptible. 

One such host-carrier species was the African Clawed Frog.  African Clawed Frogs were, for many years, widely used in pregnancy test since the female frogs would lay eggs within hours of being injected with the urine from a pregnant human female.  These frogs were shipped world-wide for these types of pregnancy verification tests and, the fungus that they carried with them, was shipped as well.  Today, Bd is found all over the world, the amphibian world has been decimated, and we have no known method of stopping the spread of the disease.

I have not seen a moose in the woods of NH for more than five years and toad sightings are a rare thing these days, but this is not a post about moose or toads.  This post is about us, as humans, being more deliberate as a species and thinking hard and fast about the consequences of our actions.  If you look, and if you care to see, the world is changing before our very eyes and it is up to us, now, to do what we can to slow down, stop or even reverse some of this change.  I donate as much as I can to every organization that I can that I feel is dedicated to idea of conservation and preservation. Do what you can, TODAY, to make a change; to preserve and conserve this beautiful world that has been entrusted to us.

I will share with you that I have been a bit reluctant to post this blog entry for fear that it makes the future look bleak and the prospects of change, hopeless.  We are indeed at an unprecedented time right now with the actions of our species as a whole effecting and controlling the entire planet.  With this absolute power, comes absolute responsibility, but this doesn't mean the future is hopeless.  Thirty years ago it was forecast that we were all going to roast to death from UV exposure as a result of a quickly expanding hole in the Ozone layer over Antarctica.  As a planet we came together, reduced and banned chlorofluorocarbons and now, just recently, I have read that we have successfully reversed the progress of the hole and it is closing.  Scientist expect that it will be completely healed by the year 2050.  So we can, as a species, effect global change, but it takes awareness and it takes willingness.  My message of moose and toads is a simple one, and yet, it is the message that all of us must take to heart, act on and pass along if future generations are to share in the beauty and the stillness that are our wild places.  This, to me, is one of our highest obligations to future generations.

The tool to leave behind

I had a hike scheduled for Saturday for which nobody signed up.  It was not a particularly exciting hike, but one which many people need for their 4000 footer list, so I took a chance in offering it.  At any rate, with a Saturday free and the Whites at my doorstep, I was in the enviable position of being able to hike whatever I wanted.  What I chose turned out to be a fabulous 26 mile loop that started in the Zealand parking area, went up and over Mt. Zealand, Mt. Guyot, Mt. Bond and Bondcliff, then down the Bondcliff trail, across the East Banch of the Pemigewasset River, up to Thoreau Falls and back to Zealand.  Those who know me know how fond I am of the Bonds, and I could write for hours about the beauty of this entrance to the Pemigewasset Wilderness but I found the entire trip, not just my time in the Bonds, to be incredibly inspiring and rich.  Although long, this would make a fantastic foliage hike for the fall and I may offer it in September for advanced hikers.

When one travels alone through the wilderness, like I was this weekend, (and please do not take this to mean I condone hiking alone because I do not), their thoughts turn inward, and when I set off, I wondered what would consume my thoughts for the next ten hours.  It was not long before inspiration for two blog post came to me and will I share the first with you now.

From the AMC hut at Zealand Falls I took the Twinway trail, which, while not technical, is fairly steep and continuous.  Shortly after leaving the hut, I encountered two women who were clearly struggling to climb this incline.  They were both a little overweight, not in great shape, and were huffing and puffing as they moved at a snail’s pace up the trail.  I said hello as I approached and asked if they were headed to the Bonds or to Galehead (the AMC hut that lies beyond the summit).  One woman spoke and responded that she did not know where they were headed but hoped they were not going to Galehead, no doubt seeing the mileage on the earlier sign and recognizing that Galehead was further.  Not knowing one’s destination puzzled me.

I asked if they were alright and the response, still from the same woman, was, “Yes, just out of breath”.  I then inquired if they were alone, to which the same woman responded, “No, my husband is up ahead.”  With that little bit of reassurance, I bid them a pleasant hike and continued on my way, expecting to find the husband 100 yards up the trail patiently waiting for them.

I passed the intersection with the Lend a Hand trail, which led off to the right, and I continued for a full .4 miles before I encountered a large strapping man and a boy of about 10 or 12.  When I caught him, I asked if he was with the two women I had passed and he responded in the affirmative.  I informed him they were a full four tenths a mile behind us and his almost surly response was, “Yes, we are stopping right here to wait for them.  That is what we do, we hike and then we stop and wait.”

It was all I could do to bite my tongue and not go off on this guy about the myriad of things that were wrong with this situation, but his son was there and I felt that anything I said would probably fall on deaf ears anyway.  So, instead of a tirade against the guy about safety and responsibility, I said something like, “Good, I am sure they will appreciate that”, and I continued on.  A little ways further I reached a view area named Zeacliff which has some wonderful views.  I stopped here to make a safety check-in, take some pictures and to talk to some very nice folks about the hike I was doing.  Within ten minutes, the son, whom I had earlier passed, appeared on Zeacliff.  It was obvious that while the two of them may have waited for a bit, they did not wait the entire time for the women to catch up.

Again, avoiding a confrontation in front of the boy, which probably would not accomplish anything, I left without saying a word and chose, instead, to express my ire here, in my blog.  First, let’s talk about the women.  They had no business climbing the trail they were on.  This could not have been enjoyable and putting people in situations that are both exhausting and personally dangerous only tarnishes what might otherwise be a great family activity.  Who picked this trail for their family outing?  I do not fault the women, because without them knowing where they were headed, I think it a fair guess to say that it was not the two women who chose this hike.

The real problem here, of course, is the father.  Why did he leave his wife and her friend or sister so far behind? Clearly, if there was an accident with either of them, he would never have known. What if one of them twisted an ankle or had some sort of cardiac event?  What if one fell on the rocks they were climbing and scrambling over? These poor women didn’t even know their destination.  What would happen if they took the Lend a Hand trail when they got to that intersection and headed off towards Mount Hale?  There are a million safety issues with them being in such poor shape and so far behind.

How about the young son?  What lessons was “dad” teaching his son?  Sure, the father was in better shape than the poor women who were struggling, but the son already knew that and, frankly, anyone could know that just by looking at the couple side by side, and bounding up the mountain behind the boy and leaving mom behind did not illustrate that comparison any better.  It showed, instead, how to disrespect women, how to be thoughtless, how to disregard the feelings of someone you supposedly love and care about and how, quite frankly, to be a tool.  Hey buddy, if you want to show your son what a man you are, how about you take her pack for her since you are so physically fit?  How about you offer a hand up on those big rock steps?  How about you give her words of encouragement and praise instead of demonstrably showing your son what a burden she is on your hiking trip.  There are so many great lessons and values your time in the outdoors could have helped you imbue in your son, instead you chose to squander a great opportunity as well as drive a wedge in your relationship with your wife.

Guys, it comes down to this, I think.  Everything about the wilderness can be a wonderful experience that can be exciting to share and enjoy together, either as a couple or as a family, but please don’t make it yet another stage in which to prove your testosterone filled head and body can out-perform, and under-think, your spouse.  Pick trails together that are appropriate for everyone in your group, hike at a pace that keeps everyone together so that you can share in the richness that surrounds you, and, ladies, if you have one of these guys at home, leave that tool behind.

Gearhead

People who know me know that I love my gadgets.  Recently, someone asked me what my favorite piece of gear was.  Instantly, my thoughts were racing as I tried to filter through all the wonderful gizmos, gadgets and just plain essential gear that I have had over the years in order to declare an absolute favorite.

There are some essential hiking items like a great pair of boots or shoes (I seem to go through a lot of these) or a great pack.  I love Osprey packs and cannot say enough good things about the company and their products, but does that put these things in contention for favorite piece of equipment?  I do not think so. If it did, then I think I would have to also list favorite clothing manufacturers or sleeping bags and I just do not think of these things as gear.  Maybe someday I will do a blog with my favorite brands and in that post I can extol the virtues of great clothing manufacturers and other essential hiking equipment manufacturers, but not here.

I began to think about what makes something a favorite, and I came to believe that the most important distinction is that it must be something I use often and something I am not comfortable hiking without.  That knocked out the little Leatherman that I carry and use once in a blue moon, and it kicked to the curb the great headlamps I have used over the years.  Oh, the wheels were spinning fast as I thought evaluated the remaining possibilities.

I thought I was doing great when I winnowed it down to two things.  I thought my favorite piece of equipment had to be either be the great carbon Leki trekking poles I use all the time, or my Garmin Fenix 3 that I wear on my wrist which tells me every possible metric I could ever want to know about my current hike or adventure, when suddenly the answered occurred to me.  Surely this was a trick question because in this epiphany, the answer seemed so obvious.

My favorite piece of gear is with me all the time.  Better than any compass it allows me to discern my way through the woods when a trail is not apparent, better than any map it lets me know from the vegetation that surrounds me how high I have climbed or how near I am to the summit, better than any barometer it tells me from the color of the sky and the types of clouds overhead what the weather will be in the next couple of hours, better than any field guide it tells me when I cross a brook if the water level will be higher or lower when I return to the cross it later in the day, and more accurately than any camera it captures all of the images that surround me from the start of my hike to the end.  This one piece of equipment does these and a thousand other tasks, all at once, and it is so important that it renders all other gadgets almost superfluous.  I truly am a gearhead because my favorite piece of gear is my mind; it leads me on wondrous adventures.

Traverse Time

I am posting this blog post from the summit of Mount Washington, between bites of my lunch, as I lead yet another group of hikers across the entire Presidential range in a single day.

I have done this trip so many times that it has become very nostalgic for me.  Now, and for the days leading up to this hike, I have been flooded with memories of the many different experiences this hike has provided me.  I remember the time we encountered a moose in the middle of Crawford Path after dark as we descended into Crawford Notch, and I remember, too, a time we almost turned back when we encountered 65 mph winds on top of Madison that almost blew us over and we were concerned about what lay ahead on Washington; it turned out fine as the winds subsided with the warming of the day.  I remember when I was too poor to pay for a hotel for the night before the hike and I camped with my young daughters in a tent just off the trail head; they being so excited and wound up that we barely got any sleep at all that night before.  I remember mornings with great undercast (where clouds were below our feet as we popped from summit to summit), and I remember sunrises so peaceful and quiet that all of us had our breath taken away from us at once.

There was a year, as a fundraiser for my church, that I carried a bag full of small rocks,  each with a name written on it with indelible ink to memorialize a loved one,  to the summit of Washington, and scattered them among the talus so that those names could reside forever in the clouds.  Those rocks are still here, no doubt, hidden in the cracks and crevices between the boulders I walked on not fifteen minutes ago.  I remember that as well, and the tears that came to my eyes as I scattered a smooth white rock with my Grandmother’s name written on it, along with the fifty or so others I had brought to the summit.

I think of all the people that have come into my life since I first started doing these traverses, and I think of those I have lost.  It is a very strange thing to mark time by this annual pilgrimage among the high peaks of the White.  I think of the struggles and anxiety that so many of the hikers I have led here have felt as they worked through the training hikes, and I think of the smiles and laughter shared on the trail as each of these hikers has moved along the ridge with authority and confidence, finally realizing that that they could indeed do this. 

To most of these hikers, what they will remember most about this day are the unending views which have been with us since we poked above the trees at 5:30 in the morning and will continue until the sun sets on us at 9.  Every turn, every climb, every twist in the trail gives a new perspective, whether it is a view over the countless mountain ranges as they look towards the horizon in any direction, or the views down the precipitous drops into the Great Gulf that we have walked beside on our hike here and which cannot help but remind one of how high they have climbed. 

To me, however, what I remember most about these hikes, are the people that I have been able to bring up here and help experience this.  Their faces, their joy, the overflowing satisfaction and sense of accomplishment they feel when they reach Crawford Notch after sunset and they take off their boots.  This year’s group is an outstanding set of hikers and I have had a great time working with them and guiding them to this day, to this moment in time. 

We are half way through this hike and I am sure the afternoon will prove  just as enjoyable as the morning has been.  Thank you all for letting me share this with you, I will remember it well.