Around 5 PM of January 12, 2019
As the darkness tip-toed around for a while and finally was upon me like a prowling black panther, I could not make out much of the trail marker from about a five feet away. The few seconds I took panting, for a few more steps closer to the sign, felt much longer than it actually was, as I run through the possible outcomes the sign could lead me from then on, for the rest of the night. For starters, I do not remember coming across the sign while going up. We are doing an out and back trail, not a loop. That could potentially mean I lost my way and ended up on a different trail that may not lead me to my intended destination, or worse, lead me deeper into the woods. Or probably I was just not paying attention earlier in the morning – if so, the necessity for the placement of a sign at this point of the trail, could very well mean that I still have a walk longer than I’m comfortable with, doing alone at this time. The other uncomfortable thought lurking at the back of my mind was the phone that gave up on me earlier in the day, choked by the windchill that plunged well below zero.
The last time I was in the Adirondacks, it was the summer of 2015. That was my first ever hike in the ADKs, when I let the rugged mountains push me around for two days. Here I am, back after a while to tackle a completely different beast – the winter. Some of you might remember me getting my ass kicked as a newbie hiker on the Mt. Washington, when I was naive enough to think I can get up there for my first winter hike. If not, you may read up on the story here. After that experience, I started slowly getting into the winter game. Hiked an easy to moderate trail up the Hunter mountain in the Catskills recently, very comfortably. Thought it might be time to up my game attempting an ADK summit, so here I am with a whole bunch of other hikers from the meetup group, eager to bag the Whiteface mountain.
6 AM, earlier on the same day
As typical of a hiking day we were up early and got to the breakfast area of the motel where we stayed the night. It’s nice that some of the motels in these regions, with hikers being their typical clientele, accommodate early breakfast requests. I noticed many of the hiking party had already gathered there. As I filled my plate with scrambled eggs and toast, I noticed the not so cheerful, uncertain faces. Not a great start to the day – I got to know that our lead hiker whom we depend on usually to take decisions on trails and to guide the newbies, has some personal situation back home that he might have to drive back home immediately, so wouldn’t be able to join the hike. Note that it’s about five hours of driving to get to New Jersey from here. We had to make a decision. After discussing different ideas, we decided that some of us will continue as planned with the hike, while the rest will drive back with him.
Hike is on!
Let me give a glimpse into the day with the summit forecast we had. It was forecasted to be a beautiful sunny day, but the single digit on the scale and the negative windchill forecast can create hazardous conditions if not layered appropriately.
We started as a group of hopeful ten on a nicely packed well-trodden trail, like a carpet put on a fresh blanket of virgin white snow. The glaring sun was amplified promptly by the snow, making me regret not carrying sun glasses. I was carrying ski goggles though, but that will be an overkill for a nice stroll under the tree-line. Slowly and steadily we were going up the gradually climbing trail, adding miles.
As years pass by and you look back to your past, you notice things to which you were terribly blindsided back then. As I am looking at these photos, while writing this post two years after the hike, I realize how dumb my beanie is. If you don’t know my face – I am the first one in the above slideshow after the group picture, with a dumb beanie. Being a cheap-ass, I bought that in Walmart for 5 bucks. You heard that right. I went on a hike with windchill forecasted to be in the negative and I thought it’s a good idea to buy a beanie from Walmart.
The change in the landscape as you gain miles and elevation during winter hikes is spectacular. As the trees get shorter and the snow gets deeper, the winter wonderland slowly unfolds before you to feast your eyes, as you can see in below shots. The trees that looked barren in the lower elevations are now lush with fresh white snow from the previous night, sprinkling white dust on you as the trees sway and creek with the winds. The sun which was still closer to the horizon when you started the hike, would be sneaking up on you now, hiding behind the shortening pine trees, playing peek-a-boo.
As we steadily gained up on the elevation, the trail got steeper and colder, slowing us down. The forecasted windchill was creeping up on us slowly. This is when a large group usually end up getting split into smaller groups of varying pace, and it is a good idea to regroup now and then. At that moment I was aware that there were a few people ahead of me, and a few behind me who may easily catch up with me if I stop for a water break soon. I was hiking at a slow pace, and just when I was worried that I haven’t seen anyone else for a while, Sanath passed me by, letting me know that Rajesh decided to turn back due to cramps along with Ritesh. If I remember right Ritesh did not have a good pair of insulated or waterproof shoes and unfortunately he got his feet a little wet in a stream earlier. It is not a good idea to spend a long time out on such cold days with wet feet. Probably a good decision on his part. A little while after, I was surprised to see Khyati turning back too with her toes not feeling too warm. The crowd was thinning, so did the trees. Since we were slowly losing the tree cover, I reached a particularly windy spot giving us a teaser of things up at the summit. This is when I saw Kavita on her way back, letting me know that she is not doing great with the cold and is going back down.
Decision time for me, with many of them turning back. I wouldn’t say I was particularly doing great then, but I did not feel the need to turn back either. The good thing was I was not entirely alone. There were five more who were ahead of me at a great pace. I may not have been able to catch up with them at my pace, but I can definitely keep moving and see how far I can go. In winter hikes it is important to establish a turn around time to call it a day, so as to not get stuck in harsh weather conditions in the dark. Considering my circumstance I decided to establish my turn around time based on the rest of the group ahead. Worst possible case for me was I may meet up with them on their way back and I can turn back with them giving up my summit plan, in exchange for hiking back in the safety of a group. Satisfied with my viable plan I pushed ahead. By this time I also took my goggles out of my pack and let it hang on my neck for quicker access when needed. I’ll explain later why this was a terrible decision that I would come to regret later.
As the views got better up, my physical condition was slowly deteriorating, slowing my pace further down. There are a few things I can think of now to know what was I doing wrong which I did not know back then. It is critical to maintain your temperature within the layers to stay at the ideal. You do not want to get too cold that you may lose your core temperature, at the same time you do not want to stay too comfortably warm. Despite the cold weather, when you exert your body on steep climbs, body generates a lot of heat burning calories. I get too warm too easily. If I keep up with that, I will start sweating. Cold weather + wet clothes is a bad combination. After a number of subsequent hikes, now I have figured a much better layering system, but this particular day I was hiking completely in a puffer (down) jacket. Now I know that was a bad idea. I have learned later that I should get to my down jacket only when I have already added my shell jacket to block the wind and probably a fleece for light insulation, but still chilly. Or if I am taking a particularly long break without moving much. I also had a wool neck gaiter and a beanie on all the time. Turns out I have been sweating, losing salts which can lead to cramps, but I still did not remove layers because reducing layers felt counterintuitive on a cold day.
That was my first experience with the leg cramps, but I knew right away that is what it was. I had to stop every few steps and sip water and gatorade often to get my tightening thigh muscles going, while also clicking a picture now and then to entertain myself. I did not realize then that my phone was taking the brunt of the cold winds. As I clicked a selfie and a few more photos, I noticed my phone display flickering. I realized that it is battling for life and is living its final moments and put it back in my pocket to lessen its suffering and continued on. I was clinging on to hopes that I might revive it. Picked it up again after some time to realize that my phone has succumbed. Following are the last couple of shots I got. I had to hope that I would not put myself in a situation to dial emergency.
This was a time when I was not accustomed to using snowshoes yet, even though I was carrying one. It is possible I might have post-holed (the act of making deep holes in the trail as your feet sinks into loose snow, which is heavily frowned upon in the hiking community) here and there but except a few sections, the trail was mostly packed to manage with micro-spikes. I could feel that I was getting closer to the summit based on the terrain. It is a bad idea to be hiking without a map to estimate how far you have come and how much further to go. My phone wasn’t usable and even if it did, I did not have any navigation apps installed in the phone back then as I was just following the group. Luckily the trail wasn’t that difficult to follow and there were not many other trails to be confused with at junctions. I was just winging it following the previous hikers’ footsteps.
I reached a section of the trail that seemed like a road, which I crossed to find the trail continuing further up, perpendicular to the road. This is when the trail got too stubborn to let me pass. I need to get on a boulder covered in ice and snow, to continue further. This boulder did not have any ledge or a groove to step on to get traction and the boulder was too big to get on it with a single step. There was not any tree or branch to hold. I did not find a viable way around. Only possible approach I could see was to jump over, landing my torso on the boulder and scramble my way up like a reptile using my surface area for traction. That approach didn’t seem to work as well as it did in my mind. Every time I jumped up on it, I kept sliding back down the glossy surface, looking around to make sure there was no one to watch me fumble. On the contrary I also wished someone was around. I might be able to get over this with a helping hand to pull me up. If I don’t get over this, that might be an embarrassing end to this day. Did I hike all the way up, battling cramps, only to be turned back by a damn rock? After a few attempts, I took a step back to take a break and as I was sipping my water, came up with a new plan. If I remove my backpack, throw it over the boulder on the trail, I should probably be able to tackle the climb with less weight on me to drag me down. Got rid of my gloves also to work with my bare hands to find better traction. That worked! Scrambled my way up like a lizard, until I reached a relatively level surface to get back on my feet and put my gloves back on to save my fingers. Phew!
As I went a few further steps after putting my backpack on, I realized I’m terribly beat by now after that ordeal. Just as I was losing my morale, a couple were coming back down giving me hopes that I’m almost there while also warning me that it is terribly windy up there. Although I knew that I cannot trust someone on the trail telling me that I am almost there, as they could just be trying to keep my morale up, I really wanted to trust them. The good thing is I haven’t yet met the rest of my group who were ahead of me with whom I may have to turn back. I presumed they were taking their sweet time at the summit taking pictures, which meant I had a real chance at the summit if I slogged more. Within a few minutes I got out of the tree-line and was amazed by a stretch of trail before me that appeared to be a final push to the summit. This was also when I realized that all of this pain and suffering was worth it.
As much as I was elated to look at this majestic sight, I also had to face the full force of the unobstructed biting windchill from now on, added to the blinding sun reflected off the snow. Remember the goggles I decided to hang on my neck earlier? It was time to put it on. Something was wrong though. I could not see through the goggles. Did I put it on the wrong way or something? No, I did not. To my dismay I noticed a thin but stubborn layer of opaque ice on the goggles, rendering it useless. I learned later that one should never take out their goggles from the pack until the need comes to put it on. Once you put it on, you never remove it until you are done with it and decide to put it back in the pack. At least you should treat your goggles with a defogger solution to reduce the chances of it fogging up and freezing. Some lessons are learnt the hard way. Well, at least I had a neck gaiter that I can also use as a face covering against the wind. I finally met with the rest of the group coming back down from the summit. The women folk seemed to have added a few decades to their age, with their heavily frost silver hair. They were surprised to find me slogging along by myself. They let me know later that they had not known I’m coming up and assumed I might have turned back with the others. My earlier plan was to turn around when I meet up with them, but now that the summit is within my sight, I do not want to turn back now. I let them know that I’ll bag my summit and catch up with them. They let me know that they are going to be hiking back down slowly so I can catch up. Little did I know that, that’s the last I’m going to see them on the trail that day.
Now that I’m in the alpine zone with biting windchill hitting my face, I got even slower. Every step further took a significant effort from me. My wool face covering helped to some extent but it seemed to be absorbing moisture from my breath causing it to freeze. I had to take it on and off trying to feel better. That was the last time I used that gear. This is another situation I’m better equipped to handle now with a neoprene face mask with nose-holes to breath. As I kept inching towards the summit without a pair of usable goggles, I started feeling something that I did not figure out right away. I blinked as I would normally, but my eyelids did not feel normal. The time it took to blink seemed longer than usual. It took a few seconds for my slower brain to process what was happening. My eye lashes were frosting so bad that the upper and lower eye lashes were sticking together every time I blinked. I had to restore my blink response time by wiping the frost off my eye lashes at regular intervals. I finally reached the summit and hurriedly turned back. I wish I was in a better mental state to hangout more, let the vistas sink in and celebrate my presence at the summit, but I need to get back soon to the safety of the tree-line. In hindsight, the 20-30 mph winds I must have faced that day aren’t that bad compared to some of my subsequent hikes. It’s actually the norm on many of the ADK summits in winter, but being a newbie I was just not well prepared or appropriately geared to handle it comfortably back then.
Here are some of the shots at the summit that Kim shared from her camera.
A hiker should always keep this in mind – summit is only half the hike. You still have to get back to the parking lot. That sounds obvious but quite often, focusing too much on bagging the summit, one might fail to plan the time, resources and energy it takes to get back down safely and might put oneself in dire situations, as evidenced by the frequent rescue missions the rangers have to go on in winters. I have a long way back.
(This post ended up much longer than I originally intended. Turns out I had so much to tell about the day. Stay with me. I will wrap it up soon.)
Possibly around 3 PM
I felt much better physically, once I left the open summit and got back down to the safety of the tree-line. I did not see rest of the group anywhere though. I hoped I can catch up to them soon. Getting down was fun for a while with occasional butt sliding now and then. The trail was easy to follow with the foot steps of previous hikers intact in the snow. Or so I thought. Do not always count on the foot steps, for you might find yourself in a situation I’m about to encounter. The foot steps stopped at a point and it did not seem like I have a trail to follow any more. I could not find any trail markers on the tree barks either. Just when I started panicking, I heard footsteps behind me a little further up the trail and was glad to see two other strangers on the trail. It seemed initially that they might be following my footsteps but they stopped, noticed something was amiss, went back up, and took a hard left at a point veering away from me. I did not want to let them out of my sight, so I gathered my energy and hiked back up the trail while shouting at them asking if they are seeing the trail ahead. They responded to me that I was going off the trail and that the actual trail was in the direction they were headed. Looks like I missed a turn, so did few others before me, creating that misleading trail. This is why one should always have a map and check now and then to stay on trail, especially when hiking alone.
Other than that part, the trail was fairly straightforward to follow. Having spent a large part of the day in freezing temperature, my water bottle started to freeze by then. At least it was still slush and not hardened ice. I had may be a couple hours of hiking left to do. If I keep shaking the bottle to move the slush around and sip now and then before it would freeze, I should make it out well hydrated. I hadn’t caught up with my mates yet. The thing with winter hiking is that you have to constantly be on the move, to keep that heartbeat up and the blood pumping. The moment you stop, the windchill will start to slowly creep up on you. Especially on the downhill when you don’t exert much, with the sun light fading away, it is imperative that you keep moving to stay warm. I figured that my group probably wouldn’t be able to wait much longer to let me catch up at my slower pace.
Around 5 PM
With the sun calling it a day, sliding behind one of the nearby mountain, leaving me all alone in the valley, I realized I wouldn’t make it out in daylight. I thought I might soon hit the parking area, but all I managed to reach was this junction of trails and a trail sign pointing directions. I did not really remember seeing the trail sign in the morning. But after looking at the photos the next day, I realized my memory failed me that night. You might remember that my phone gave up on me earlier during noon. But if my phone did not really completely drain but just shut itself down at the extreme weather, I thought I should probably be able to turn it back on, now that I’m away from the winds under the protection of the tree-line. I gave it a try and it turned back on to my relief! And with a decent amount of charge left in it. To my surprise I was even able to find network coverage. I opened google maps to get sense of my current position and the direction I should be headed and figured I should take left towards Wilmington reservoir and I have 1.3 miles to go. Since rest of my group would have reached parking lot by then, I dropped a message in the whatsapp group updating my location in case they were worried, or worse, if I get lost from here they will know my last known location. I might have done a few things wrong with my gear, but one thing I did not mess up – I made sure to carry a headlamp with spare batteries. A must-carry item even though you plan a day hike in any season. You never know what may cause a delay forcing you to hike in the dark. As long as you have a headlamp and a map, you may stay calm, follow the trail and get out of the woods no matter how late it gets.
I was on my final mile. The last push to get to a nicely heated car seat. My typical hiking days always end up with me feeling this – the last mile ends up the longest mile I have ever walked. The more I wanted it to end, the farther it seemed. This was also my first time hiking in the dark by myself. I experienced things in my mind that I would never forget. There is a saying in my native language that literally translates to – ‘a scared man sees ghosts everywhere he looks’. I was glad that I do not believe in ghosts, but then I believe in bears. The whooshing winds and the creaking woods in the dark of the night were creepier than ever. Every shape I saw in the dark seemed like an animal waiting to pounce on me. I could have sworn I saw a polar bear at some point, that magically turned itself into a snow covered rock when I flashed my light at it. After what seemed like hours which in reality was about thirty minutes, I noticed a distant light that could have been the light from my headlamp reflecting off a one-eyed mountain lion. After hearing someone calling out my name, I was convinced that was just Sanath looking out for me. I shouted back, reassuring him that it was indeed me. Soon more lights came into my sight, as I finally reached the car with rest of the group competing for their spot before the car’s heat vents and for the spicy snacks to refuel our lost calories.
(I was told that the people who helped me when I was going off the trail talked to my group and were very concerned that I have not made it out yet. Thank you, kind strangers.)