Last weekend, Earl and I hiked Mt. Chocorua.
Earl and I had a great time volunteering at Maine Huts & Trails‘ Poplar Ridge Hut. Our volunteer project involved hauling wood from the outside storage shed to the basement and then stacking it neatly. We envisioned having to haul armloads of wood down steep cellar stairs. Luckily our vision was wrong!
Instead, we carried armloads of wood to the side of the hut and dropped it thru a cubby door in the side of the building. Armloads and armloads of split logs went crashing to the floor. Once the pile was big enough (or when my hands got cold enough) we went inside and stacked the logs into neat rows.
We were just about ready to break for lunch when our partners for the task arrived. Together, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch of chicken soup and freshly baked bread. Then we got back to work.
Four sets of arms and legs definitely made the job easier! The four of us dropped wood into the basement until the pile seemed big enough. Katie and Josh went inside and stacked the wood. Earl and I stayed outside and stacked a pile on the porch.
After about 3 1/2 hours of stacking wood, Earl and I stopped for the day. Katie and Josh continued working and made tremendous progress. We guessed it would only take us an hour or two to finish the job on Sunday morning.
The remainder of Saturday was spent relaxing and talking with other guests to the Hut. On Sunday morning we managed to finish the job in the expected two hours. To honor our commitment to work eight hours, we took on different tasks inside the hut. Katie and Josh were sent upstairs to organize the games; Earl and I swept and mopped the dining area.
We had snowshoed into the hut and snowshoed back out to our car. We had such an amazing time we signed up to haul wood at another hut in a couple of weekends!
We wanted to hike, but once again we had a football-based return deadline. So what did we do? We crawled out of our warm bed at the butt crack of early this morning.
Yupper-doodle… my alarm went off at 3:16 a.m. Yes, I hit the snooze button once. How could I not?
We were in the car at 4:37 a.m. Outside temp was 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember that temperature. Fourteen degrees!!
There were no turkeys or deer to see this morning. They were probably still sleeping when we reached the Appalachia trail head parking lot at around 6:45 a.m. According to WillyWeather.com first light today was at 6:44 a.m. Oh my goodness! We were late!
Note, this is first light, not sunrise. The sun was smart enough to push the snooze button for another 30 minutes.
The moon, however, still wasn’t quite ready to go to bed.
Oh and did I update you on the temperature? Yeah, it was 3 degrees as we headed up the Valley Way Trail on our way to Madison Spring Hut (near Mt. Madison & Mt. Adams in the White Mountains of New Hampshire). We were pretty sure when we started that we would NOT be going to the summit of Mt. Madison (elevation 5,367′), but you never know how you’ll feel once you get on the trail. Our options were open.
The Valley Way trail is a wonderful trail. It was 3.8 miles from the parking lot to the AMC Madison Spring Hut. It was well packed so we only needed our Hillsound crampons. Even so, we had our snowshoes strapped to our packs just in case.
Hiking in cold weather can be tricky. You want to be warm enough, but not hot enough to sweat. You want to be sure your base layers (those against the skin) wick moisture away from the body. You want an insulating layer that keeps you warm. If it’s windy, you will also want to have a windblock layer. And if it’s rainy, I prefer to just stay home–not that we do, mind you, but it sounds like the smarter choice, doesn’t it?
Earl and I didn’t coordinate our thoughts on this too well today.
I was dressed to start hiking cold–meaning I didn’t have a lot of layers on. I wanted to start out hiking fast. That would warm up my body quickly. Once I warmed up, I would adjust my pace so I wouldn’t sweat.
Earl, on the other hand, started out wearing layers that had him feeling slightly cool/somewhat comfortable. My fast pace quickly caused his body temp to rise enough to cause him to sweat.
Yikes! Not a good thing on a frigid morning in the White Mountains! We were only a few minutes into the hike when he had to stop to remove layers. The first things he removed were his hat and heavy mittens. He unzipped his jacket.
I was warm enough to slow my pace. Apparently, it wasn’t enough. When Earl stopped a short distance later to remove his jacket, he laughed when he said I didn’t need to run up the mountain. Oops. (But inside I was gleefully thinking, “Those speed intervals on the treadmill are helping more than just my running time!”)
Poor Earl looked a bit like a frosted beer mug. Sure wish I’d taken a picture, but I kept forgetting when I had my camera out.
You see, once he took off his jacket, the fleece insulating layer he wore became frosty. His base layer was working well! The sweat on his skin was drawn away from his body, but the cold air hitting the moisture turned it to frost. You might think he would be cold, but he was not. This is how good clothing choices work!
Another factor in winter hiking is the size and weight of your pack. Besides carrying clothing layers to put on as needed, you should always be prepared to spend the night in the woods: that means carrying a sleeping bag and tent. Earl’s pack today weighed close to 40-lbs (including 2-liters of water and snowshoes). My pack weighed almost 30-lbs. (I only carried 1-liter of water–each liter is 2.2 lbs).
The Valley Way trail seemed like a gradual climb to me. The snow was well packed so our crampons worked well. The difference between snow covered and summer trails is tremendous. Winter trails are easier in many ways because the snow fills any gaps and irregularities in the trail. You are always hiking at an angle. In the summertime, trails can be like climbing irregularly spaced stairs with Tonka trucks, Leggos, or cat toys ready to trip you up.
The wind picked up as we reached the “Danger Will Robinson” sign. We were about to step into the “alpine zone.” The trees that had been blocking the wind were below us, and now there was nothing to protect us. We stopped to put on wind block layers before we continued up to the hut.
I was ready to just turn around at this point. We had already decided we were not going to continue up to the summit. I didn’t want to deal with putting on layers. But Earl insisted we continue on and promised that I would not be disappointed.
Don’t tell him, but he was right!
Another thing Earl and I need to work on is our winter weather communication skills. I stopped to take pictures. Earl was cold and wanted to keep moving. I thought I’d moved off the trail enough, so I focused on taking pictures.
He dropped to his knees behind me. I thought that was his way of getting out of the wind. When I finally stuffed my fingers back into my gloves and put my camera away, he got to his feet and hurried up to the hut to get out of the wind. Apparently, I underestimated how bulky my pack was and didn’t move far enough off the trail for him to be able to get by me. Oops!
I stopped a couple more times on the way to the hut to take pictures. My exposed fingers were nearly frozen by the time I got them back into my gloves each time. Except for my hands, I felt comfortably dressed. Layers work!
Meanwhile, Earl was pulling clothes out of his pack and getting prepared for the less strenuous activity of descending the mountain.
We talked with a couple of hikers who were doing the Presidential Traverse. We had met quite a few hikers on the way up the mountain and watched as a large group of 15-20 hikers arrived at the hut on their way up Mt Madison. They were gearing up for the final .5 miles to the summit, when Earl and I began to head back down to the car.
It had taken us 4 hours to climb 3.8 miles. It took us just over 2 hours to descend the same distance.
One thing both Earl and I noticed on the hike down the mountain trail was that the trail seemed very steep. This was really a weird feeling because it had not seemed all that steep on the ascent. One section was icy enough that we butt slid down it rather than trying to walk it.
Because of the number of people we saw on this apparently popular winter hike, we were not surprised to see a parking lot full of cars when we arrived back there at 1:20 p.m. Only a handful of them were early risers like us.
Do you remember I asked you to remember our starting temp in Biddeford, Maine? Do you remember what it was? No need to scroll back up to the top of this story, I’ll give you the answer. It was 14 degrees at 4:37 a.m. When we got to the car at 1:20 p.m. it was 14 degrees in Randolph, New Hampshire!
One of the highlights of winter hiking for men with beards or mustaches are the icicle growing abilities they develop.
We had two goals for Saturday, January 7, 2017: Hike Pleasant Mountain in Denmark, Maine and get home in time for the 4:30 p.m. Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans NFL playoff game.
We got our usual early start. The outside temp was 11 degrees when we left home at 6:30 a.m. Brrrr…
Just before we reached the trail head parking lot we came upon a deer in the road. She must have heard the car because we saw her head peek up above the knoll. She hesitated a moment and then turned to get off the road. She slipped on the ice once and then successfully bounded over the snowbank and into the woods.
I always get a kick out of seeing wildlife when we are hiking. Funny how most of the time we see them from the car.
Anyway… we reached the trail head parking lot at around 8 a.m. It was -5 degrees Fahrenheit. OMgoodness Brrrrr…
Now I’m not proud of my behavior in those first few moments, but I’ll share them with you anyway. To put it kindly, I threw a wee bit of a temper tantrum. Here’s what happened:
It was bitterly cold. Did I mention that it was MINUS 5 degrees??
Rather than go with my standard cold weather solution of wearing a buff over my cheeks and chin and a hat on my head, I decided I should wear my balaclava. That was mistake #1. It fits tightly and covers the nose. As soon as I put my glasses on they fogged up!
Arrrggh! I muttered something about how-can-people-wear-glasses-with-these-dang-things-on and tossed my glasses back in the car. If I was going to be hiking blind, why should I carry the extra weight of glasses on my face?
Earl offered a couple of ideas, but I was too cold and aggravated to listen.
The Southwest Ridge Trail was well packed so we decided to wear our new Grivel G10 crampons. These crampons have heavier duty points than our Hillsound crampons. We were looking forward to giving them a try on an icy trail.
I found them a bit awkward at first. I kept stubbing the front points as I walked and had to consciously lift my feet higher so I wouldn’t stumble. The grip on the trail was amazing though.
We hadn’t hiked far when the balaclava started annoying me. It was hot on my face and I didn’t like the pressure it placed on my nose. We stopped so I could switch it out for my old standby–hat and buff.
A short distance later I became aware of a burning sensation in both heels. Uh oh.
Earl said he didn’t think my crampons were fitted properly. We stopped to adjust them, but the problem persisted. Finally I opted to remove them.
The trail was beautiful!
The Southwest Ridge Trail starts out as a lovely wooded trail. The trail soon starts to climb and opens up to the most amazing views. Apparently the snowy-scape is actually rocky ledges. I just know there were a few places where I wouldn’t want to slide off the trail in the snow.
A trail sign pointed to the main summit of Pleasant Mountain. The trail was not as well packed and we started post-holing. We quickly made the decision to call it a day and turned around.
Once we were back at what we think was the Southwest summit, I put my crampons back on. I knew it would be tricky going down the mountain without them.
Now it’s time to share another Donna-quirk with you. As you can see from the picture above, the crampons are held in place by webbing. The tail of the webbing kept coming untucked and was flapping around my feet. It was driving me crazy! Every time it came unwrapped, I stopped to fix it. Earl tried tucking/tying it up and it kept coming loose. Finally he wrapped and wrapped and wrapped the tail of webbing until it couldn’t come loose. Success!
It didn’t take long for my heels to start burning again. I kept the crampons until we had navigated the steepest parts of the trail.
When I finally removed them, I asked Earl to take the lead. I was aggravated enough that if he’d been behind me cautioning me to “be careful” each time a foot slipped, I would have gotten a bit cranky at him. He certainly didn’t deserve that!
A bonus for me was that he had the car warmed up by the time I got back to the trail head. I tossed my pack in the trunk and climbed into the car. I looked over at him and saw he had left his hiking poles sticking out of the snow bank. Silly Earl!
Despite my fits of temper, we had an enjoyable day. A few times we thought the sun would make an appearance, but it never quite broke through the clouds. The temperature when we got back to the car at 11 a.m. was a whopping 9 degrees.
Before lunchtime, we had accomplished Goal #1.
And yes, we got home in plenty of time for the football game. In fact, we even had time to take a nap before we tackled (pun intended) goal #2.
P.S. I was surprised to discover that the crampons actually caused a blister on my right heel. Ouchie.
A winter storm on Thursday, December 29th brought about 30″ of new snow to Carrabassett Valley in Maine. We looked forward to cross-country skiing our way to Poplar Hut, one of Maine Huts & Trails amazing destination huts.
While I was having a leisurely start to the day (we slept in until almost 7 a.m.), Earl packed the car. It was nice not having to be on the road by 6 a.m. Even so, we still managed to get out the door at 8:06 a.m. Not too bad!
We were about 10 miles up the Maine turnpike when I asked the question, “Did you grab my ski boots?”
Earl hesitated. “Where were they?” he asked.
“Not in the middle of the floor,” I replied.
“Nope. Didn’t grab them.”
Fortunately we were near a turnpike exit (Scarborough exit 42) so we got off and then back on to go home to get my boots.
With boots in the trunk, we were back on the road by 8:48 a.m. We reached our destination in Kingfield, Maine at around 11:30 a.m.
The young woman at the Maine Huts & Trail office told us there were mixed reports on the skiing conditions. The snow was soft, plentiful, and in the process of being groomed by the staff.
Earl and I discussed our options as we drove the few miles farther up the road to the trail head. We decided we would ski. The other options were to snowshoe in or strap our snowshoes on our packs as a back-up if skiing proved too hard.
However, my pack really isn’t set up for strapping on snowshoes. I was also concerned that if we needed to swap over to use them, how would I carry my skis? We were confident in our decision to ski in to the hut.
We talked with two other locals who strongly advised against skiing. We changed our minds and snowshoed in. It was a smart choice.
When we arrived at the hut people did talk about how tough it was to ski the 3.3 miles from the trail head up to the hut.
We arrived at Poplar Hut just before 1:30 p.m. We drank hot cocoa, ate our trail lunch, and talked with some people who had been moving from hut to hut to hut while on vacation.
Once we were warmed up and our bellies satisfied, we headed back out into the cold to snowshoe to the waterfall located not far from the hut. We found the side trail and followed it until it stopped in the middle of nowhere. It appeared the previous adventurers had run out of trail-breaking steam. We had a choice, we could turn around or we could continue breaking the trail to the waterfall.
That is what we did! It was pretty tough snowshoeing thru 30 inches of snow, but it was also pretty fun. Creating a path where there hadn’t been one was awesome!
Meals at the huts are served family style. The large tables seat 6 – 10 people. The staff puts platters and bowls of locally sourced food on the tables. Guests take what they want and pass the bowls to the next person. Maine Huts calls it “backcountry cuisine,” this finicky-eater just calls it yummy.
The food is so good, in fact, that Maine Huts has been chosen as one of Six Ski Destinations for Foodies. The staff really seems to enjoy cooking for the guests. For our New Year’s Eve meal, one of the staff members baked her special onion bread and another baked champagne cupcakes for dessert.
I confess I did not stay up to ring in the new year. At around 10:30 p.m. we headed to the bunkhouse. Earl stayed up reading, I ate cookies and then went to sleep.
New Year’s morning we were gifted with an amazing sunrise after a brief morning snow shower.
We hung around the hut for a few hours after breakfast, finally getting on the trail at around 10 a.m. We had lingered to chat with a staff member who had hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015. He was also someone we met at the Flagstaff Hut when we attended the Nature Conservancy sponsored weekend in 2015.
If you enjoy “glamping” (glamorous camping), you should check out Maine Huts & Trails. Well-maintained, multi-use trails guide you to your destination. The huts are beautiful, warm, and welcoming. The staff is funny, talented, and friendly. The mission is impressive, achievable, and powerful.
Within the next few years, the organization hopes to build a fifth hut. But until that happens, there are four other ecologically friendly, off-the-grid lodges waiting for you to visit.