Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Trip Report: Echo Lake 2/23/13 – 2/24/13

We only have another month or so of winter left, so I have been trying to make the most of it before the weather warms up. This past weekend some friends and I had planned on going ice fishing. More precisely, they were going ice fishing, and I was going along with them since I don’t know what I’m doing. To my surprise, Saturday morning, just as I was getting my gear in the car, I got a call from them telling me they were bailing out. The weather report was for rain and/or snow the whole weekend, and that wasn’t their idea of fun.

Since I was already geared to go, I decided to make a quick change of plans. I looked at my maps, and quickly planned out another trip. Some time ago I had done a trip with the AMC where we passed some ruins of an old building. At that time we continued on through the mountain range. However I remembered that to the west there was a small lake, one of the few in the Catskills. It’s called Echo Lake. I decided that for my trip I would hike out there, spend the night by the lake and then go back. It would be an 8 mile round trip, over fairly easy terrain. So, I hopped in the car, and two and a half hours later I was at the base of the mountain.

When I got there, I looked at the weather conditions. I had brought my snow shoes with me, but looking at the snow cover it didn’t seem deep enough to require them. I decided to leave them in the car.


The temperature was in that horrible range right on the edge of freezing. It was cold enough for the snow to stay on the ground, but it was soft and hard to walk on. It was snowing/raining. It seemed like ice. It would stick to the trees in the form of ice, but would melt on my clothing.



I had to wear my shells for most of the trip, which I generally don’t like to do. By the way, if my face look weird, it’s because I had three of my wisdom teeth pulled out that Monday, so I was still a bit swollen on one side.

Anyway, the snow/ice/rain was sticking to everything, covering all of the trees and branches with a coating of ice. This wasn’t the type of snow that you can just shake off the tree. It was solid ice covering everything. Starting fire in this weather would definitely require some wood processing.



The traveling wasn’t hard. The elevation change was continuous and gradual. Enough people had passed this way so that the snow had been compressed and walking was not much of a challenge. By noon I had already reached the ruins which marked the half way point of the trip. I know I have shown you photos of them before, but I figured I would show you some more in the snow.




Since it was noon, I figured this would be a good place to stop for lunch and to take my pills (a mix of pain killers and antibiotics, courtesy of my dentist).


When I was finished, I took the detour to Echo Lake. I imagined that it would be a popular destination, even in winter, but apparently I was wrong. There was only one set of footprints, and looked to be a week old. As a result, none of the snow was compressed, and combined with the higher accumulation at this elevation, I started sinking in immediately. I regretted leaving my snow shoes in the car. At places it wasn’t bad, maybe ten inches or so of snow, but in other locations it was knee deep. After a while there were no tracks at all. It looked like I was the first person to go to the lake from this side of the mountain in a while.


You could still see that there is a trail cut through the woods, but no one had used it in some time.


After a few more hours of pushing through the snow, I reached the lake. Luckily, most of the way was down hill. I tried to leave good tracks which I could follow out the next day assuming we didn’t get any serious snow. By the time I reached the lake, much of the mountain was covered in fog.


There was a decent lean to shelter by the lake. I don’t like to use them, and prefer to set up my own site away from people, even though the fire place was tempting.


I kept going alongside the lake until I found a good location a bit further up the mountain where I could set up my camp. When the tent was up, I started gathering some firewood which I stored in the tent.


I wasn’t planning on a large fire. I usually don’t these days. I just wanted enough to use for melting water and for some warmth for a few hours. Since this area had only hardwood, and it was all covered in ice, I knew I would have to split some to get a fire going. I hadn’t brought my hatchet, so I was limited in the size of wood I could effectively process. Luckily there was some birch by the water, which would make the job easier. There was also ton of beaver sign.




As I was continuing to gather fire wood, I heard some voices in the distance. They seemed to be coming from the lean to shelter. I made my way back there and saw a group of four guys setting up there. We introduced ourselves, and it turns out they had come from the other side of the mountain and were staying there for the weekend. After talking for a bit we decided to just make one common fire at the shelter that we could all use in the evening. The company was appreciated.


The guys had brought an insane amount of food with them (well, one of them had), which he proceeded to prep for grilling on the coals.


After splitting some wood we got the fire going. One of the guys had brought a Roselli hatchet, which worked well in that role. It’s not something I would want to carve or chop with, but it splits like a mini maul.


The grilling soon began, and we spent a large part of the evening just killing time. I have to say, these were some of the best ribs I have ever had, and I have no idea how he managed to cook them that well on a camp fire. Much better than my usual instant mashed potatoes.

The next day I got up early, and after having breakfast, I packed up and set out. Everything was wet, and I had to pay great attention to maintaining certain items dry such as my jacket and sleeping bag.

After climbing only a short distance in elevation, I entered the layer of thick fog that was covering the mountain.


I expected this part of the trip to be much worse than it was. I was able to follow my footsteps out pretty well, and while there was more snow/ice coming down, there the tracks were still very clear. After a few more hundred feet in elevation, the temperature dropped noticeably down to about 23F (-5C). With the lower temperature, there was no more melting snow and ice. There was just snow. I could finally remove my shell jacket.


Not long after that the fog cleared and all that was left was a beautiful, frozen winter landscape.


After another hour or so I was back up to the highest point in the trip. From there it was a quick descent down. I only stopped to eat and drink water. A few more hours, and I was back at the car.


It was an eight mile round trip with about 1200 ft elevation gain. The route required me to go up to a high elevation, and then descent towards the lake. I would then have to climb back out and then down the mountain, creating this amusing elevation diagram.


A nice, fun, easy trip overall. I met some nice guys and had a good time. The weather is my least favorite. I would have much preferred it to have been a little colder, and I also wish I had brought my snowshoes, but those are minor nuisances in an otherwise fun trip.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Kovea Spider (KB-1109) Long Term Review

Back in July of 2012 I was contacted by Kovea, a Korean company, regarding reviewing one of their stoves that they were about to release on the market. The stove was the Kovea Spider. After a few uses, I did my initial review of the stove, which you can see here. Up through that point I had been using a MSR Whisperlite International white gas stove. The reason was that I don’t like changing stoves based on seasons, and a white gas stove was the safest bet for having a reliable stove in winter. After using the Kovea Spider however, and seeing what it can do, I decided to start using it as my main stove and see how it would perform under different conditions. In short, the results have been impressive.


The stove weighs 6.0 oz, one of the lightest canister stoves on the market, and can currently be purchased from Kovea for about $52. For such a stove this is dirt cheap. Similar stoves by MSR and Primus cost over $100. This is the bargain of the year. You can buy the stoves at the Kovea eBay store here.

As a bit of an overview, the Kovea Spider is a remote canister gas stove. What makes such a stove different from a regular canister stove is that it allows the fuel to be used in liquid mode rather than just as a gas. That is done by inverting the canister after lighting the stove. A preheating tube then vaporizes the liquid fuel before burning. This mechanism allows the stove to function at much lower temperatures than a regular canister stove that relies on the fuel to be in gas form. The reason for that is that most fuels stop gasifying at below certain temperatures (usually about 20F for Isobutane, and about 40F for Butane). By inverting the canister, you can use such a stove at temperatures below 0F (-18C). I like to use MSR fuel canisters because they contain 80% Isobutane and 20% Propane. Propane remains a gas down to –40F, which means that I always have enough pressure to start the stove before inverting the canister to allow it to function in liquid feed mode.


In order to see the stove in use, all you have to do is look at my trip reports. I have been using this stove exclusively for the past five months. It is powerful enough and works well enough in the cold to melt snow, while at the same time is easy enough to operate inside my tent (do at your own risk).


The construction of the stove is excellent. The legs are solid and lock into place. The fuel connection is solid. The design of the valve makes it easy to invert the canister. The stove keeps functioning in cold conditions even when the canister is nearly empty. From a design and construction stand point, I can not say anything negative about it. The more I use it, the more I like it.

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One thing to keep an eye out for though is to make sure that the stove is properly primed when you are using it in cold temperatures. I have successfully used it at –10F (-23C), but you have to let the stove burn with the canister upright for about thirty seconds before inverting so that the preheating tube warms up. If you don’t you will get flair ups much like you would with a white gas stove that has not been adequately primed. The flair ups are smaller than those you get with a white gas stove, but they can be easily avoided all together by properly preheating the stove before using it in liquid fuel mode. Also note, that while the stove works at low temperatures, it does not put out as much heat as some of the white gas stoves currently on the market. If you are melting large quantities of snow, it will take you quite a bit longer than it would with a stove like the MSR Whisperlite.


I know that I am not using the greatest of pictures in this post, but as a long term review, I wanted to show you the stove in use under some real, and less than ideal conditions.


Overall, this is one of the best pieces of gear that I own. It has performed very well under a wide range of conditions with zero fiddle factor. As you can see from the picture the stove is powerful enough for me to not even bother with a windscreen (you should use one to increase efficiency). It is incredibly easy to use, and has no unnecessary features that can fail. For $52, in my opinion, it is one of the best stoves on the market. In fact, I would go as far as to say that even for $100 it would still be one of the best stoves on the market. Of course, others spend more time testing stoves may have different opinions on the subject.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My Three Season Camping and Bushcraft Gear

It has been almost a year since I did a post about the gear that I carry. You can see that post here. Since then I’ve been getting a lot of questions about my current gear so I figured I would put together a post. This one will focus on my three season gear. By three season I mean the gear I would use for trips where the temperature will be above 32F (0C). Anything below that, and I would have to make some modifications.

So, first, let’s start with the backpack that holds all of the gear. My current backpack is the REI Flash 62.


It is a relatively lightweight internal frame pack, weighing in at exactly 3.0 lb for the medium length pack. It has a 62 litter capacity, which is overkill for my three season gear. In fact, I use the same pack for most of my winter trips as well. A 45 litter pack would fit all of the gear you see here. The main compartment of the REI Flash 62 (excluding pockets) is about 50 litters which does the job well.

When it comes to packs, I like ones that are appropriately sized for the gear. I don’t like strapping things to the outside, hanging things to teh pack, or adding pockets, pouches or anything like that. If my gear doesn’t fit inside a pack, I get a larger one.

For shelter I use the GoLite Shangri-La 3 flysheet. The tent itself comes with a floor and mosquito netting which gets inserted under the flysheet, but I do not use it. The only components I use from the tent are the flysheet, center pole and the tent stakes.


The Shangri-La 3, as I have it set up weighs 2 lb 3 oz. Out of that weight 11.2 oz is the center pole. Separate from that weight, I use six tent stakes which weigh a combined 5.1 oz, bringing the total of the shelter system to 2 lb 8.1 oz. I have been very happy with this shelter. I like the open floor design which allows me to treat it very much like a tarp, with the added wind and rain protection.

My sleep system is comprised of several components.


The first thing on the ground is a plastic sheet (an opened up trash bag) weighing 1.8 oz. It serves just as extra ground cover in case my sleeping bag hangs over my sleeping pad and touches the ground. On top of that I have the Thermarest NeoAir All Season Pad. It provides more insulation that one really needs for three season camping with an R value of 4.9, but I use it all year round. It offers good comfort, plenty of insulation and folds down to the size of a Nalgene bottle. It weighs 1 lb 5.6 oz. I carry a repair kit for it that weighs an additional 0.5 oz. On top of the pad I have my sleeping bag. For my three season trips I use an old green/patrol bag from an army surplus MMS system. It is not the lightest, but works well enough. I also like that I can have my dogs in there without worrying about them ruining it. The bag weighs 2 lb 5.3 oz. It is held in a waterproof Sea to Summit stuff sack that weighs 4.7 oz. The last component is a small inflatable pillow, the Kooka Bay Kookalight pillow, weighing 1.2 oz. The total weight of the sleep system is 4 lb 3.1 oz. 

This covers the big heavy items. The next one to look at is water storage and filtration.


You can see most of the components in the above picture. For water storage I use one Nalgene 1L bottle and a 2L Platypus bladder. I don’t drink from it as a hydration system, but just use it for storage of water. The Nalgene bottle weighs 6.2 oz, and the Platypus bladder weighs 1.4 oz.


My filter is the Sawyer Squeeze Filter. I have replaced the bag that it comes with with an Evernew bladder, and have added a pre-filter and a back flush attachment. The filter itself weighs 3.0 oz. The Evernew 1L bladder where the dirty water is stored weighs 1.2 oz. The pre-filter weighs 0.2 oz and the back flush mechanism weighs and additional 0.3 oz. The total weight of the filter system, stored in a plastic Ziplock bag is 5.0 oz.

The next set of items to examine is my cook kit.


The pot I use is the Open Country 2 Qt pot. It is made out of aluminum, weighs only 7.7 oz, and is one of my favorite pieces of kit. I could get away with a smaller pot, but I like that I can boil things in it without them boiling over, and I use it in winter as well to melt snow. The stove I use is the Kovea Spider. The stove itself weighs 5.9 oz. The weight of an empty canister (since we are doing the base weight here) is 5.0 oz. With the cook system I also carry a 0.4 oz aluminum foil windscreen, a 0.4 oz lighter, and a 1.0 oz bandana. It all goes into a stuff sack that weighs 0.6 oz. The total weight of the cook system is 1 lb 5 oz.

Separate from the above cook kit I have a titanium cup that nests with my Nalgene bottle. It is the Backcountry Stoic Ti Kettle, which weighs 3.1 oz.


This pretty much covers all of the large items I have and use. I also have a waterproof bag with other smaller items.


I’ll try to go through all of the items. The bag itself weighs 0.8 oz and is a Sea to Summit stuff sack. In the Ziplock bag on the left I have some toilet paper (0.4 oz, but obviously the amount varies), toothbrush (0.4 oz), and a bottle of soap, which weighs 1.0 oz when full. I also have a Black Diamond Gizmo headlamp that weighs 2.2 oz, a mirror which weighs 0.7 oz, a basic compass that weighs 1.0 oz, a DC3 sharpening stone weighing 1.3 oz, a Leatherman Squirt multitool weighing 2.0 oz, a spray bottle of DEET, which when full weighs 1.0 oz, and about 50 ft of rope, weighing 1.1 oz. The rope is not parachord, as I find parachord to be overkill as far as rope needs. The total weight of the bag with these items is 11.8 oz. 

I also carry a first aid kit. It is relatively small, and is designed to deal with injuries that I may get and am capable of handling my self.


The kit has two components. One is designed to deal with heavy bleeding, and the other is designed for minor injuries. The two items you see on the sides are designed to stop heavy bleeding. One is a surgical dressing. It weighs 0.4 oz. The other is a Quick Clot sponge, which stops heavy bleeding by causing clotting. The sponge weighs 1.1 oz. In the middle you see a small bag with items designed for smaller injuries. It contains medications, Neosporin, gauze, band aids, etc. Including the stuff sack, the whole first aid kit weighs 5.4 oz.

The last item I carry in my pack is a Bahco Laplander folding saw.

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It weighs 6.4 oz and provides significant cutting capacity for that relatively low weight. It has come to be a fairly standard equipment choice, and for good reason. You have probably noticed that I am not carrying an axe or hatchet. I did until very recently, but these days I am trying to go without one. It just wasn’t justifying its weight. Over the years I have started using smaller and smaller fires, especially since I camp alone so much. I find that a knife and the saw are more than enough to process the firewood I need. Whenever I carry an axe, I seem to just be looking for reasons to use it without actually needing it. It is a good tool to have, but when you carry everything on your back, every tool has to justify its weight in terms of practical use, not just theoretical one.

So, when we add everything up, we get a total base weight of all the above gear of 13 lb 7.5 oz. It is not an ultralight set up, but then again, it was never intended to be one. There are a lot of items where the weight can be reduced further if you so wish. The cooking kit can be much smaller. The sleeping bag and sleeping mat can also be reduced in weight, and if you can do that, you can probably move to a lighter frameless pack. However, I carry the gear you see above because  I like it and it serves me well.

Aside from the items in my pack, I have a few more things in my pockets.


In my right pocket I carry the Mora #2 knife you see above. I keep it in a leather sheath that I got from another knife. The knife together with the sheath weighs 4.0 oz. The Mora #2 is my favorite knife in terms of blade and handle design. Its only downside is that it is not a full tang knife, so it has some strength limitations.

In the other pocket I carry a small pouch (actually from my Kovea stove), in which I keep a Fenix E01 flashlight, a mini BIC lighter, and three Altoids Smalls tins. One of the tins holds my repair kit with a few fishing hooks thrown in on the bottom. The second tin holds some medications I commonly use and water purification tablets. The third tin contains tinder (waxed jute twine) and matches. On the pouch itself a have attached a mini compass. The whole pouch weighs 4.5 oz.


So, when the weight of the contents of my pockets is added to the overall pack weight, I get a total combined weight of exactly 14 lb. Of course, the actual pack ends up being heavier when we add perishable items like food, water and fuel. A full canister of gas will add another 8 oz. Each liter of water will add another 2 lb, and a day worth of food is between 1 or 2 lb. Additionally, I may have some articles of clothing which I would put in the pack when I am not wearing them – some extra insulation, rain jacket, hat, extra socks, etc. I have not included them in the base weight of the pack because they are not always in it. I will do separate posts on clothing. However, even though the clothing is not included here, the backpack itself is large enough to hold all the clothing other than what I would be wearing all the time.

That’s about it for my three season gear. It is what I would consider fairly luxurious. I certainly have not spared many comforts. The weight can easily be reduced if you are willing to sacrifice some of those luxuries. You certainly don’t need such a large pot or stove. You don’t need such a heavy sleeping pad, nor do you need such a large shelter. A down bag will significantly reduce the weight and bulk. However, each one of us has to strike that balance between how much we are willing to carry, and what items we would like to have with us. For now, this is mine.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Winter Clothing – The Layering Theory Revisited

I’ve been contemplating writing a few posts on my gear and clothing because I get a lot of questions about it, but before I do that, I wanted to go over some of the theory behind why I do what I do. In particular, in this post I want to go over my theory on clothing, and specifically on selecting cold weather clothing.

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No! I didn’t stab myself in the crotch with the ice tool. My arms were just in a lot of pain so I was getting some rest. :)

For a long time now, the layering principle has been the accepted norm for outdoor clothing. The theory states that you start with a thin base layer, which is designed to wick the moisture/sweat away from your body. On top of that you have a mid layer which provides the insulation. This mid layer can be comprised of a number of different pieces of clothing until you get sufficient insulation for the environment you are in. On top of that, as a final layer, you have a shell of some sort or anorak which protects you from wind, rain, etc. In some cases you will add an over-jacket for added insulation. If you become too warm, you remove a piece of the insulating clothing. If you get too cold, you put on another piece of clothing.

In more recent years a competing approach to clothing has started to emerge. The idea is generally attributed to Mark Twight. I’m sure the approach was around before him, but he certainly coined the term in his book Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast, & High. He called it the Action Suit principle. The two systems are nearly identical at first glance. They are both comprised of the same components, base layer, insulation layer, shell layer, over jacket, etc. The difference however comes in the realization that with certain outdoor activities, Mark Twight was talking about climbing, but I find it equally applicable to backpacking, the heat output from the human body is not constant and continuous. Unlike a regular layering system that changes insulation by increments, and requires continuous adjustment, the Action Suit theory assumes that you will experience periods of time of high exertion when you body produces a lot of heat, followed by periods of rest when your body cools down rapidly. I have found that to be very true of backpacking as well as climbing.

So, the approach focuses on creating an “action suit”, which will allow you to remain thermally neutral during periods of high activity. Just like with a regular layering system, you have a wicking base layer, an insulating layer, and possibly a shell layer to protect you from rain and wind. The insulation in the action suit is supposed to be the minimum required to keep you thermally regulated when moving. In most conditions that requires very little because even in extremely cold conditions the body produces very large amounts of heat. It is not uncommon to see people skiing to the South Pole in just a base layer. The second component of the system is a highly insulating outer layer. Climbers call it a belay jacket, but we can use whatever term we want. This jacket is put on over all of the other layers the moment you stop moving.

It is this separation of the clothing system into pieces designed for insulation when moving and ones designed for stationary activity that for me marks the Action Suit system. I think this approach more correctly captures the insulation requirements of an active person in the outdoors, whether we want to call it climbing, backpacking, or bushcraft.

There are some issues however that become evident when using this system that are often overlooked when talking about traditional layering principles. The main issue for me is storage of this second set of clothing designed for stationary activity. After all, the whole point of the system is that you are moving while wearing relatively limited and light clothing. The heavy insulation has to be stored somewhere until needed. The result is an outer layer that is light and easily compressible. Bulky and heavy parkas of decades past simply will not do. The moment you start moving, you have to remove that jacket and place it in your pack. If you can not do that, then it is not much good. The ability to pull out the stationary/heavy insulation and put it on the moment you stop moving, and subsequently take it off and quickly pack it away once you are ready to move on, and do it in an efficient and fluid manner is of extreme importance.

Very often you will see people start out into the woods with heavy outer jackets or numerous insulating layers under an oversized anorak-type shell. They are immediately limited in what they can do in the woods, or in the alternative, are planning on only being stationary in a camp site. Since they have no easy way to take off that jacket and store it in their pack due to its size and weight, they have to bring their mobility down to a minimum in order to prevent severe overheating. Anyone who has done any walking in the woods knows that even basic tasks and movement will generate large amount of heat. Alternatively having to stop and remove an outer shell just to adjust the insulation layers underneath, is highly inefficient and allows much of the stored heat to escape. When trying to put on more insulation, often times the heat lost from stopping and removing the shell layer/anorak will outweigh the warmth gained from adding more insulation.

It is important to remember that both components of the system, the active and the stationary, can be modified and adjusted for different conditions. The action suit I will use in 0F is very different than what i would use at –30F. The –30F action suit understandably has more insulation, but still just enough to keep me thermally regulated when active. Similarly the outer insulating layer can be thicker or thinner depending on what the conditions require. In warmer weather it will not be needed at all.

So, how does all of this translate into practice? Well, I’ll try to make a post about my clothing so you can see exactly what components I use, but until then, there is an excellent article by Andrew Earle called What to Wear for Winter Hiking and Climbing. In there he gives recommendations for individual clothing items. I think he is right on the money.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bear Grylls Back on Discovery Channel

As you guys know, Bear Gryll’s last show on Discovery, Man vs. Wild was canceled back in March because of a disagreement Bear had with Discovery channel. He implied that they were asking him to do things he was not willing to do. You can see the original post here.


Well, it looks like they have patched things up, and Bear Grylls will be back on Discovery with a new show called Bear Grylls: Ultimate Survivor. The premise of the show is that they will take real survival situations that ordinary people have experienced. Bear will then be placed in the exact same situation, and he will show us what he would do in those circumstances in order to survive and get himself out. The show is scheduled to start airing later this year.

There was a very similar show a few years back that I liked a lot called I Shouldn’t Be Alive: The Science of Survival. It was an off shoot of a show called I Shouldn’t Be Alive which retold the stories of people who survived different type of situations. In The Science of Survival off shoot, an expert was placed in the same situation as the people were in one of the episodes, and explained what he would do. I hope this new Bear Grylls show is similar and not overly sensationalized.

Don’t forget, Bear also has another show in the works with NBC which should follow more of a reality show format although details are still sketchy.

He also has a new show called Bear Grylls’ Wild Adventures that airs on BBC America on Tuesday nights at 9pm. On the show Bear gets paired up with a celebrity who has no business being in the woods, and shows them how to survive.

Looks like Bear is here to stay. The premise of the new show looks very interesting. I am a big fan of survival instruction that revolves around realistic survival situations. Hopefully Bear will not squander the opportunity to show some realistic survival skills by jumping off cliffs and crawling through caves. Let’s wait and see.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Trip Report: Mt. Washington FAILED Solo Winter Summit Attempt 2/10/13 – 2/12/13

For the past few months I have been thinking about possibly doing a winter climb of Mt Washington. I finally decided to just do it. I bought a map of the area, took two days off, and this past weekend I gave it a go.

Just as some background, Mt. Washington is located in New Hampshire, and is the highest point in the eastern United States. Now, that doesn’t mean much. The peak rises to 6,288 ft (1,917 m), which is nothing when compared to some of the peaks in the west. As a result, during warmer weather it is a relatively easy climb, turning it, much as other high peaks, into a tourist trap. In fact, during the warmer months there is a road on one side of the mountain that can take people up to the top where there is a weather observatory. I had little interest in climbing a mountain just to see a bus of school children there taking their picture at the top.

The challenge with Mt. Washington is to climb it in winter. When the snow starts coming down, most approaches to the mountain get closed due to avalanche danger. The road certainly shuts down, so the only people on the top are the ones willing to climb up the one route which is typically left open, as it avoids most of the avalanche cones on the slopes. It is called the Lion’s Head winter route.

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I have marked the route on the map. It starts out at the Pinkham Notch visitor’s center at the bottom of the mountain at about 2100 ft. From there it follows the Tuckerman Ravine Trail for part of the way. During warmer months this is one of the typical approaches to the top of the mountain. During winter however, most of this trail is closed. The approach takes a detour onto the Lion’s Head Winter Trail, which takes you up above the tree line. It then passes through the Alpine Garden, and then up to the summit of Mt. Washington. The most common way to make a summit attempt is to do it as a day trip. People usually start out before sunrise, carrying only light day packs, and make a rush on the summit. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted the experience to involve me spending at least one night in the woods.

The challenge with a winter summit attempt of Mt. Washington is not the elevation, or even the temperature, which rarely drops below –20F (-29C), but rather the extreme winds that batter the mountain above tree line. In fact, in 1934 the fastest wind on Earth was recorded here, on Mt. Washington of 231 mph (372 km/h). The high winds can cause wind-chill of under –70F (-57C) and can make travel above the tree line impossible.

So, my plan to make the summit attempt was to leave from NY Friday night after work, travel through the night (6.5 hours) so I can be at the base of the mountain Saturday morning. I would then climb up to the top of the tree line where I would set up camp. Then I would have Sunday and Monday to make summit attempts before returning on Tuesday. As luck would have it however, just as Friday approached, the northeast got hit with one of the biggest snow storms we have had all winter. In my are we got three feet of snow Friday afternoon. I tried to get the car out, but it was impossible. Turns out to have been a good thing because the governors of several of the states through which I would have to pass declared a state of emergency and closed all the roads, including the highways.

I waited out the storm, and had to shift my schedule back a day. Unfortunately, that would remove a day from my trip. So, with my local street plowed, I got in the car Saturday night and headed for Mt. Washington. While the travel ban had been lifted, large sections of the highway were not plowed, which meant all the cars had to move in each other’s tracks at 10 mph. It took me over 10 hours to complete the trip. Around 10am on Sunday I was at the bottom of Mt. Washington at the Pinkham Notch visitor’s center. Now, before starting the trip, a bit on the gear:


Usually the winter gear you see me using (check last trip report) is designed for temperatures down to 0F (-18C). It’s the gear I use the most because that is the typical temperature range for my local woods. What you see above is my really cold weather gear. I don’t bring it out too often, and I figured this would be a good time to let it get some air. The main difference between this gear and my usual winter gear is that the sleeping bag has been replaced by the Western Mountaineering Puma (-25F) bag, instead of the Western Mountaineering Antelope (0F) bag. Also, my Patagonia DAS Parka is replaced by the Eddie Bauer Ascent Peak XV down jacket. Sometimes, although not on this trip, I also replace my usual Kovea Spider stove with a MSR Whisperlite white gas stove. All other gear remains the same. Now, all this bulkier gear does not fit in the REI Flash 62 pack. Because of that, I have to transition to the larger Gregory Palisade 80L pack.

I spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not I will be able to get away with my lighter “typical” winter gear on this trip, but with night time temperatures going as low as –20F (-29C) the week before, I chickened out, and went with the heavier, more comfortable gear. They say that the mark of a true woodsman is not knowing what to bring, but rather what to leave out. Looks like this was an amateur move on my part. The one piece of gear that I almost didn’t bring, but I am very glad I did was the snowshoes. They are always a lot of weight to carry around, but with two feet of fresh snow on top of the few feet of snow already on the ground, much of the trip would have been impossible without them.


Alright, now that we are done with the gear, I headed out. Even though the temperature was chilly, probably around –5F (-21C), I started out with just my fleece top. Moving in snow uses up a lot of energy and you warm up very fast, especially when you are going up an incline. Traveling along the Tuckerman Ravine Trail was pretty easy. The elevation gain is not great, and the trail is clearly cut in between the trees. Usually it is well traveled because it leads to a few ski slopes, but because of all the snow the previous day, it looked like only a few skiers had gone up this way before me. Around noon I stopped for lunch.


In the picture you see me wearing the Eddie Bauer Ascent Peak XV jacket. It is extremely warm while still being very compressible. I could have probably gotten away with a lighter jacket, but the Peak XV doesn’t get out much, and it waned to come out and play. If you are wondering, I am sitting on my snow shoes with the insulating pad on top of them. They kept me from sinking in the soft snow. As far as food, for this trip I had switched to foods I could eat with my gloves on, and that could be cooked without getting my pot dirty. Washing a pot in 10F (-12C) is annoying, washing it at –10F (-23C) is something I avoid at all costs. I brought beef jerky, Cliff bars, and mountain house frozen dinners that you could rehydrate in the packet. I soon discovered that my jaw is not strong enough to chew through enough beef jerky and Cliff bars to give me the calories I needed.

After lunch I decided to put on the snow shoes. In the past I have hated wearing snow shoes, but they would certainly help in the soft snow. I have to say, ever since I got the MSR Lightning Ascent show shoes, every time I put them on, I am amazed by how well they perform. As much as I disliked snowshoeing in the past, I actually love these snow shoes. I used them every chance I got for the rest of the trip.

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Now, earlier I mentioned that I was planning on camping somewhere just below the top of the tree line. Unfortunately, when I got to Pinkham Notch, I found out that it would not be possible. Apparently due to avalanche danger, or whatever else, overnighting is not allowed in most places on the mountain. Camping was allowed just about everywhere about a day’s walk from the mountain, but that didn’t do me any good. There are two places on the mountain where camping is allowed. I decided to stay at one of them, called Harvard Cabin. The way they made it sound at Pinkham Notch was as if though it was an actual camp site. You had to pay $10 to use it, and you could either stay at the cabin or the camp site. Each option had very limited numbers allowed. I was very disappointed. If I wanted to go to a camp site, I didn’t have to travel 10 hours to do it.

Fortunately however, I was very pleasantly surprised when I go there. I don’t know what it looks like during Summer, but this time of year there was no camp site at all. I reached a small cabin. Inside was just a guy, a wood stove, a table and a hammock. It made Dick Proenneke’s cabin look like a luxury resort.

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Other than the cabin there was no camp site at all. Apparently the purpose of these two locations is to limit the number of people who can overnight on the mountain. I think there was a limit of 16 people in this area. Didn’t seem to be a problem as I was the only person there. The guy told me to just go either up  or down from the cabin, find a location that I liked and sep up my camp. That’s exactly what I did; I stamped out an area with my snowshoes and pitched the shelter. To support the center pole I used a piece of tree bark so I wouldn’t have to use one of the snow shoes, as I needed them to get just about anywhere. 

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It was still early, probably about 2pm. I melted a bunch of water, ate some more beef jerky, sat back and relaxed.

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After eating, I pulled my hood up and apparently dozed off. I woke up a bit after 4pm. The sun had gone down behind the mountains and it was noticeably colder. I cooked my dinner, and ate, which warmed me up. The Kovea Spider, even though not designed to work in such low temperatures did just fine. It’s only downside when compared to a white gas stove is that it was noticeably slower to melt snow.

I mentioned earlier that this is not my usual winter temperature to camp out in, so each time I do this, I end up learning something new. I already knew not to try to wash my pot because the water would turn into ice and coat the pot before you can wash away any of the food. The new one this time was to be careful with fuel canisters. Usually each time you disconnect the stove some fuel leaks out from the canister. This time, the fuel got on my hand, and instead of turning into liquid, it immediately froze solid. A sharp pain shot up my hand. My first reaction was to take my glove off, but I couldn’t do it because it was stuck to my hand. I put it close to my body and let it defrost. Luckily after I removed the glove there wasn’t any serious damage. I got some frost nip, and had some pain in the fingers for the rest of the trip, but none of the skin came off. After this problem, I just went to bed. I kept all of my water and electronics inside the sleeping bag.

The night was relatively warm, probably about –10F (-23C). The WM Puma sleeping bag was overkill. At some point in the night though, the winds really picked up. The Shangri-La 3 did great at keeping the wind out. It made a pig difference. It would have been much colder without it. The next morning, I was packed up by 8am, and started on my way up the mountain.

I back tracked to the Lion’s Hear route, which was quick because the ground was level. I snowshoed the whole distance and part up the Lion’s Hear route. When it started to get steep, I switched to crampons. Note that I was not climbing with the Pak XV coat on. I just pulled it out and put it on every time I had to stop for a prolonged period of time.

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At times the climb was steep and very sketchy. A few times I thought about turning back because if I got injured I would have no way to get out. However, I kept going. I remember seeing a wooden ladder placed on the slope in people’s pictures of their own climbs, but it wasn’t there. It was either removed, or it was completely covered by snow. It’s fine by me either way. I strongly believe that if you can’t do a climb with your own skills and gear you carry with you, then you shouldn’t be doing it. As I gained elevation, I started seeing above the trees. I quickly noticed some clouds in the distance that I didn’t like.

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I kept moving up. Little by little, the tracks that I was following up the mountain kept diminishing. By the time I neared the top of the tree line, I counted only three set of tracks ahead of me, judging by the ice axe holes. I reached the top of the tree line just as the clouds caught up with me and it started snowing. I stopped to eat and get some water, as well as put on another insulation layer (the REI Revelcloud) and my shell layer (Arcteryx Beta SV).


It was fairly cold, but I didn’t mind it. My biggest worry at this point was the lack of visibility and the strong winds, which seemed to get worse. Here is a screen shot a friend of mine took for me during that time on the mountain.


The temperature wasn’t bad; –8.3F (-22.4C), but the wind chill was very serious at –60.6F (-51.4C). At that temperature you have to cover all skin to prevent frostbite, and you have to keep moving. Even with very thick clothing, if you stand around, you will freeze. The interesting thing however is that even at these temperatures you can easily overheat when you are climbing. You still need relatively light clothing that would keep you cool when moving. When you stop, then you put on your thick jacket, which you then remove once you start moving again. A warm easily compressible jacket like the Peak XV or the DAS Parka is key to this.


Unfortunately, from this point forward there would be no full self portraits. The wind was just too strong for the camera to not be blown away. As you can see from the above picture, I chose to forego the goggles, which I didn’t bring at all, and instead go with my Julbo Explorer glacier glasses. They are much lighter and do a very good job at staying close to your face and preventing snow from getting in your eyes. Unfortunately, just like goggles they fog up very easily, and once you remove them, the condensation freezes solid.

I kept pushing up, but visibility was getting close to zero. The wind was also brutal and I had a very hard time moving.




At this point I saw three guys coming down the mountain. Apparently they were the ones whose tracks I had seen going up. They told me that they had left at 5am and had made it past the Alpine Garden when they were caught by the storm. They had to turn away about a mile from the summit because they just could see anything or move in the wind. I told them I would push up a bit further. I went forward for another half hour and realized I had the exact same problem. I couldn’t see anything, and moving was almost impossible. I decided to turn back. Just as I was contemplating turning around. I saw two guys trying to make their way up the mountain behind me.


They reached my position. I told them the issues I was having. They said that they will try to go a bit further. I told them that if they were willing to go, I would go with them, so we kept climbing. Eventually we saw the rock formation called Lion’s Head, after which the trail is named. It is hard to see in the picture below, but it is the rock in the middle of the photo that kind of looks like a lion’s head.


It was becoming literally impossible to move. We just couldn’t stand up straight. We would make two steps and then be blown over. At times, no matter how hard you tried to stand up against the wind, it would blow you over. We struggled along, at time crawling until we got part way up Lion’s Head, just below the Alpine Garden. At that point one of the guys called it. I certainly shared his feeling that we couldn’t go on. Even if we found a way to keep moving, we were burning too much energy doing it. It would have been impossible to make it all the way up to Mt. Washington and then back down.


We decided to turn back. I took a picture of myself at this highest point I managed to reach, complete with frozen face and snotcicles.


We made our way down as fast as possible. We all had some serious falls, and I had to self arrest at least a few times. It wasn’t easy to do with this powdery snow. The snow was also a large part of the reason we were falling so much. It was just too soft and too deep. The crampons wouldn’t penetrate deep enough to drab onto any hard packed snow or ice. You could be knee deep in snow and have the whole two feet of snow sliding down from under you.



Eventually we made it back to the tree line and some shelter. There we stopped for some food and water. 


This was unfortunately the last picture I was able to take during the day. I had kept my camera out to take pictures, and it froze. I put it under my clothing to defrost it, but it looks like when the ice melted, the water got into the lens. It’s a shame because once we got down the mountain we had some beautiful winter scenery with the softly falling snow. We put on out snowshoes, and made our way down. I went back to Harvard Cabin to spend the night. Since there was no one else there, I got the same spot I had the previous day.

The next day the weather was nice and warm, the snow had stopped, and the camera had dried out. I figured I would take another picture of my camp.

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I hadn’t eaten my dinner the previous night, opting to just get in the sleeping bag and having some Cliff bars. I cooked it for breakfast instead.

In the morning it was a quick trip down the mountain. I actually put on the clothing I was wearing when climbing the mountain the previous day so you can see a full shot of it. It was obviously way too warm to actually snowshoes out wearing all this clothing.

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Unfortunately, my GPS had some issues, so I can’t show you the usual pictures. I managed to salvage a picture of the track, but not the elevation. You would have to judge that from the actual map.


It will be easier to see on the actual map below. The red line represents the route that I was planning to follow on the original map above and actually ended up following. The blue line is the detour to Harvard Cabin where I camped out both nights. The yellow line is the uncompleted part of the route.

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Even though I failed to reach the summit, I can’t say that I am particularly upset. If the weather was better, or if the storm hadn’t prevented me from getting to the mountain the previous day, I could have done it, but then again, how often do you get to push yourself against such conditions? It was a great experience and it let me fine tune a few things. Unfortunately because of the long drive this is not something I can do too often, but I will give it another shot, probably next year.