Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Winter Camping First Steps

Dec. 26
Well, I made it. It's 5:17 and I've shoveled the car in and started a fire. Thankfully there wasn't much snow, and what was there contained no ice.

It's good to be here. I've been wanting to get up here by myself for a long time.

6:08 PM
Woo hoo! My improvised heel strap for my snowshoe works GREAT! Hell, it's probably easier to secure than the original! (The original rubber strap broke just the other day. I stopped at a hardware store in Old Forge to try to figure out the best cob job. I settled on some string, a no-slip clip, and some strapping. Now all I need to do is put the boot in, snap the clip, and draw the strap tight!)

10:30 PM
Whagh! Left camp around 7:15, after packing everything I think I need for a 1- to 2-night camping trip in the snow. This was a dress rehearsal. I wanted to feel what it's like to snowshoe with the pack. And wow, was it more tiring than I thought! Of course I started after dark, at the end of a long day, after an incredibly draining week. So that makes it pretty impressive, now that I think about it. The pack threw my center of gravity way off. I was reeling and falling like a drunk; it drastically reduced my ability to recover from stumbles and slips and snags. Very frustrating.

On a positive note: my improvised heel strap functioned perfectly.

I forgot my gaiters, and that sucked. My legs were soaked. But they were soaked from the thighs down, so gaiters wouldn't have totally dealt with the problem. How am I going to deal with the problem? I don't want to get into my bag with wet pants legs. I suppose I'll have to put my pants into the little sack attached to the sleeping bag, and maybe keep the sack inside the bag to keep the pants warm. Of course they'd still be wet in the morning but aside from building a fire to dry them out, I don't see an alternative.

Another problem: my glasses steamed up badly, so I was half blind most of the time. Must try "Cat Crap".

Another problem: I should not have worn a sweatshirt because I can't open it up. I got sweaty, and that's a no-no. It was an unseasonably warm night so it wasn't a problem, but I need to be very wary of sweat.

Anyway, I made my way up Black Bear and once I got to exposed places the wind was howling. I called Grace and Twittered, and headed back down.

I was completely exhausted by the time I got back. I think that I should give the Army pack a chance - maybe I'll adjust to the displaced center of gravity. But I'm not giving it too much of a chance. If I don't get used to it soon I'm going to buy a pack that lies closer to my back.

Well, I just downed three Hofmanns with Howard's Piccalilli. Mmmmm. And I'm well on my way through a bottle of Hennepin. As the way-over-the-top friendly and ironic and funny cashier chick at Diorio's in Old Forge said: "Living the dream."

Holy shit! I have a major goose egg on my left shin! Must've hit my shin a lot harder than I realized during one of those falls.

Dec. 27
11:20 AM
Feeling refreshed. Need to go find an outfitter and buy gaiters and possibly a lighter hat that wicks sweat.

Dec. 28
1:00 PM
YEAH! Hot chocolate never tasted so good (except maybe that one time in Paris)! Then there was the camp breakfast: three eggs, four slices of thick-cut pepper bacon, two slices of Heidelburg French Peasant Bread, and two cups of tea.

OK, first some notes on the hike two nights ago, when I went up Black Bear and then right back to camp. Here's the unexpected thing I observed: I got spooked. I got spooked a lot. Part of it was the creaking and rustling of all the bindings and such on my back and on my feet. Those sounds mimic the sounds of something moving behind me. But I don't think that accounted for all of it.

I am keenly aware of how much more dangerous it is to hike in winter than in summer. I'm also aware that hiking after dark, even with multiple flashlights, is more dangerous still. That night I was aware of a cherry on the danger sundae: the pack. The pack reduced my dexterity from, like, 15 to 7. I was falling all over the place, and I knew that if I fell wrong... well, that might just be the proverbial Lulu.

So I was aware of all this, which equated to fear. And apparently fear is more generalized than I had realized. Apparently rational fear can osmose over to the irrational side of the membrane. Apparently an acute sense of my need to be careful in a potentially deadly situation can feed a sense that there are monsters in the woods! I've walked all over hell's half-acre at night, and I never got spooked like I was that night! I wonder how many people have frozen to death because they fell while running from monsters.

Anyway. My rationality easily overcame my spookedness that night. Presumably I'll get less spooked as I become more sure of myself. But I never want to get too blasé. A little spooked is better than a lot dead.

So. Yesterday I went to Pedals and Petals in Inlet and talked to Gordy, the proprietor. I told her about having to choose between going hatless and sweating profusely, and she told me about the need for a wicking, non-cotton underlayer. I bought a thin head covering that wicks moisture away from the skin, along with a pair of "Duofold Varitherm" long johns made of the same type of material. Then I went to Old Forge to get gaiters at Mountain Man. Man those Outdoor Research gaiters are expensive! $65! Well, I need them. I also got a pair of Outdoor Research "Men's PL 100 gloves". They are thin, and made of wicking polyester fleece on the interior and a stretch nylon exterior. Finally, I got some "Cat Crap".

So I loaded the pack and headed out at 3:25 - much later than I wanted. The first thing I noticed was that the Cat Crap didn't work worth a... crap! Maybe I washed too much off after I applied it while washing the glasses?

So the hike up Black Bear was much nicer than it was the previous night. I think that I was getting used to the pack, and that I had much more energy than I'd had at the end of that very long previous day. Of course the big factor was light. I'm learning that flashlights count for much less than I'd expected when snowshoeing in the woods. There's something limited about the flashlight - maybe the diffuse nature of sunlight makes subtle features of the landscape easier to pick out. In any event, the hike up to the summit of Black Bear was cake. I reached it as the light was fading. The glimpse of the sunset was worth the climb.

I headed back down into the darkening woods on the other side and immediately the fun started. As I was trying to climb down from a rock my right shoe slipped and I fell after it, while my left leg remained planted. I did a power-split and was grateful not to have pulled a groin muscle, let alone broken a bone. I thought to myself "Way to break your hip, shithead."

So, from then on I adopted the tried-and-true but slower method of descent: walking backwards while digging in with the crampons. This worked well, and I don't think I took any falls to speak of after that. And man, not taking a fall is of paramount importance on that one set of big rock steps a few hundred yards down from the summit of Black Bear.

Just after I took that fall I had another experience that reminded me of how important it is to keep my head. I suddenly couldn't see the trail. I felt around a little bit - very cautiously, because I know that there are a lot of abrupt dropoffs in that area. It wasn't long before I did the sensible thing: slowly and methodically went back until I knew I was back on the trail, then took a closer look. Of course I saw immediately where I'd gone wrong: the trail turned sharply to the right, and I'd missed it.

It occurs to me just how true the statement "Pride goeth before the fall" is. As I was poking around trying to find the trail, I could feel panic on a very low simmer, there below the surface. Why was that panic there at all? Because I was looking around and I couldn't see the trail. "Aaagh! I've lost the trail!" But that irrational fear is predicated on the assumption that I couldn't have missed something! Once I got beyond that prideful assumption and backtracked farther than I thought I needed to, my mistake was obvious and I was back on track. I wonder how many people have died because of their own pride?

So the rest of the hike down to Route 28 was uneventful, including the careful descent over those rock steps I mentioned. I continued on up Rocky, found some nice dry pine branches, and started a fire. This was not as easy as I'd expected. The first match lit just fine when struck on the scrap of striker from the match case. But that fire went out when I was scrounging for more wood, so I had to start it again. And for the life of me I couldn't get any of the other wooden matches to light. So I fell back on the book matches, which worked. This illustrates the importance of making sure your matches and your striker are fresh. That match case was my father's, so for all I know the matches and striker had been in it for decades.

I learned two other lessons around that time, both having to do with my feet. They started to get cold as I was standing in the snow tending the fire, and it was apparent that some water had gotten through the leather. So first, I needed wool socks; my father taught me that wool keeps you warm even when it's wet. Second, I need to water-proof the uppers on my Sorels.

I cooked four Hofmanns and enjoyed them with a bottle of Hennepin. Then I set up the bivy and called and texted some folks while enjoying a bottle of Rogue "Santa's Private Reserve". I got my boots and tomorrow's wool socks into the bivy, covered the pack with a contractor bag, zipped the bivy, and went to sleep.

Once I zipped up my sleeping bag I was, if anything, too warm. It was not very cold last night. I could tell that from the fact that I went gloveless the whole time I was setting up the bivy, pad and bag. No way could I have done that on a cold night.

So I slept - not badly, but not well either. It's going to take some getting used to that cramped, smelly environment. Of course, the worries preoccupying my mind don't help: how long should I wait before undergoing the peeing process? Should I unzip the sleeping bag so I don't get sweaty, or will I be too cold then? Is the condensation forming on the bag going to eventually wet through and make me cold? Will that damned snap on the bivy pop off, thus making the pole sag?

But here's the funny thing: All during the preparations for the night, all during the night, and all during the hike down the mountain and to Uncas Road in the morning, I had the song "Eli the Barrow Boy" running through my head. Sure, I heard the song recently - during my drives to and from Larchmont with Morgan and Ben. But I heard a lot of songs then. It's quite conspicuous that I fixated on the one song about sad, cold, lonely death. I find this quite reassuring. It means that my subconscious is keeping its finger on the gut-strings and feeling the vibrations of danger and risk. As long as that awareness doesn't rise high enough to spook me into doing something stupid, I'm happy it's there.

This morning I took far too long breaking down camp. "Oops - I left my knife in the sack that's now inside the pack... Oops! I forgot to fasten my suspenders before putting my shirt and jacket on!" I need to get much more efficient if I'm to do this in serious cold without damaging my hands.

So I finally got underway at 10:15, working my way carefully down the steep northern face of the summit. Boy, all those climbs up and down the ridiculously steep face of the ridge across the beaver meadow were good practice, because compared to that, this descent wasn't that bad. I went backwards when necessary, traversed when necessary, and got down in short order.

Then I started running into ridges and ravines. I was using a compass to stay on a generally north-by-northeast course because I figured that would take me back to Uncas with an eastward margin of error, which makes sense since camp is east of where I'd come in if I used a right-angle course. Well, that was clear as mud. Anyway. I tried to keep a north-by-northeast course but it turned out to be far more of a zig-zag than one usually has to take in the woods. That's because I constantly ran into granite ridges and ravines that were consistently very nearly perpendicular to my desired course. After a while the consistency became way too notable to be coincidence: those ridges and ravines are clearly a feature of the local geography. But they run roughly southeast to northwest! They can't be the result of glacial till, can they? I need to ask someone about this, because it's gotten me very curious.

Anyway, I did a hell of a lot of traipsing over and around ridges and ravines, so it felt like a lot longer than it was. When I finally made it back to Uncas I was surprised when I checked the time: 11:02. I'd made it from the summit of Rocky to Uncas Road in a smidge over 45 minutes!

So I traipsed back to camp, stocked the indoor woodpile, started drying out all the wet clothes, consolidated the ridiculous mountain of kindling-oid odds and ends, burning most of it, and cooked that glorious breakfast. And here I am!

Notes on gear performance: A big thumbs-up to the sweat-wicking underlayer garments, and especially to the head cover! It's incredibly versatile: the whole thing can be pulled down around the neck; I can pull it up to cover my chin; I can pull the top up over my head with the lower part remaining in this position; I can pull the chin piece up over my nose and breathe through the relatively thin patch of fabric; and finally, if I want, I can pull the top part all the way down over my nose so that my face is covered for sleeping. Unfortunately the logo "CTR" doesn't tell you much, and the website chaoshats.com is under construction. I suppose this head covering is little different from many on the market, but man, it's quite a revelation to me. I like not sweating!

Unfortunately the Outdoor Research gloves get a big thumbs-down. They do not live up to the hype. The package says "Stretch nylon exterior resists wind and abrasion for warmth and durability". But I put a tear in one glove after three hours of hiking, just by brushing up against some branches! And there's an abraded spot on the other glove that looks like it will become a hole soon. I'm taking these back to Mountain Man. $26 for a pair of gloves that fragile is just wrong.

Going into town now to call Grace and to get some water seal wax for my Sorels. And maybe to brag a little. :)

5:05 PM
Damn! It only got down to 26 F last night! That was no test at all!

Pedals and Petals didn't have water-seal wax for my Sorels so I went to Old Forge. Now I'm back at camp having beer and preparing hot dogs, beans and sauteed onions. Tonight I'll waterproof the boots.

Ahhh, that hit the spot. So. Beer good. Seems like I'm enjoying this Sam Adams "Winter Classics" 12-pack more than I did a winter or two ago.

Let's see... what else have I learned? I learned that I need to have a system for packing and unpacking. I learned that the one drawback to my improvised heel strap is this: When ice freezes into the plastic clip, I need a knife to chip it out in order to free up the strap.

Most of all I learned that I need to get faster at setting up camp, and especially at breaking it down, before I can hit the peaks in the real cold.

7:13 PM
OK, so my Sorels are now water-sealed. Supposedly. Tomorrow will tell. Speaking of tomorrow: what shall I do? It's supposed to dip below zero tomorrow night. I think that the sensible thing would be to camp out on Bald.

Dec. 29
5:56 PM
Mmmmm! Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic goes even better than I'd dared hope with Cadbury chocolate!

Dad would get a kick out of hearing about my exploits. Yesterday I found my way back to Uncas quite efficiently using his old compass. Today I tried to take the reverse route, but the land was posted and I wasn't sure I had the right spot, and by the time I was sure that I'd gone too far, I'd gone way too far to the west. So I headed into the woods on a southward course rather than south-by-southwest. I estimated that this would either bring me straight to Rocky or intersect yesterday's path.

The going was way tougher today; there's clearly a knoll just to the west of yesterday's approach to Uncas, because today I did a hell of a lot of traversing and climbing and searching for a path.

But it turned out that I did indeed intersect yesterday's path. I was pretty impressed that I recognized a particular treefall from yesterday; I skirted it to the north and there were my tracks from yesterday. I followed them most of the way to the summit of Rocky, choosing a new ascent route toward the end. I got a 360° series of shots on top, then headed back down.

During the hike back I was pleased to find myself regaining a touch of my old unencumbered nimbleness. Even with the pack, there were moments when I was able to skate down slopes, balancing myself as I went, and skid gracefully to a stop. So I'm hopeful that, with time, I'll compensate for the altered center of gravity.

Between my increased nimbleness and the fact that I was following a path I knew to be efficient, my walk was much quicker than yesterday's. I was back on Uncas in short order.


Anna Kamrada said...

Awesome! (literally) I love you and love the photo that shows that you packed a pint glass in your pack so you could let the beer breathe properly on top of the mountain. That's my Hugh! -Grace

Hugh Yeman said...

Actually, that's not a pint glass. It's a water bottle. After I drank the contents, I took my big black fearsome knife and cut the top off. So that my beer could breathe properly on top of the mountain.

I love you Honey. Who the hell is Anna Kamrada?

dan said...

hark! hugh goes there!

the food pictures are hilarious---definitely have your priorities straight ;-)

your running narrative of disasters, both potential and actual, remind me a bit of a southern joke:

what's that last thing a redneck says before he dies? 'hey, watch this!' ;-)

you're way more man than i...

yeah, who the hell is anna kamrada?