Climbing mountains in Maine in the winter is significantly different than the rest of the year. Cold weather, deep snow and icy conditions add a multitude of additional risks and demands. Higher more remote mountains increase the potential hazards. Three important factors should be considered: fitness, proper equipment and preparation.
Like most of my life experiences, I’ve learned many of my winter mountaineering lessons the hard way. For instance, overdressing can be problematic. So can underdressing. Classic beavertail snowshoes look great over the fireplace but they’re lousy for climbing mountains. Too much food is unnecessary weight. Insufficient food can be risky. Water is heavy but essential. Hefty arctic-style boots keep feet warm but impede progress.
Many hikers have individual issues that warrant consideration before trekking in the winter. I have a condition called Raynaud’s disease, a disorder that inhibits circulation in my fingers when cold. A slow learner, I suffered multiple frozen finger misadventures before finally addressing the problem. Requiring the assistance of companions to perform basic tasks such as zipping and unzipping or strapping on snowshoes and crampons can be quite humiliating; and a liability to group safety. Now, I never go into the mountains in freezing conditions without wearing Black Diamond cold weather mitts with chemical hand warmers activated. Many of my mountaineering friends have hand and foot concerns, some require more water than others and a few cope with potassium deficiencies. The variables are numerous. A good rule of thumb, if you have a malady under normal circumstances, it will probably worsen exponentially in winter.
My first overnight winter mountain escapade was Bald Rock Mountain in the Camden Hills, a mere molehill by mountain standards. Three of us encountered a foot and a half of fresh snow and temperatures in the teens at the trailhead. We were wearing multiple layers of cotton and wool, heavy duty Sorel boots on beavertail snowshoes and pulling a toboggan weighing about 150 pounds while carrying packs. Only a one night trip, we had sufficient food for a month long excursion and copious amounts of hot buttered rum, a concoction Kenneth Roberts embraced in his classic novel Northwest Passage. Taking minimal water, we planned to melt snow when more was needed.
Things went well for a few hundred yards. Once climbing, the snowshoes failed to gain traction, we were quickly drenched in sweat and our water supply exhausted. Stripping down to a layer of cotton long underwear, we piled snowshoes on the toboggan and post holed up the mountain eating snow to hydrate. Approaching the summit, gusty frigid northwest winds froze our underwear and I couldn’t feel my hands. Deep snow filled our boots and melted, soaking our feet. Somehow we managed to start a fire and set up camp in a lean to. Except for gathering firewood, my frozen hands were useless. Too tired and cold to cook, we ate snackfood, consumed cold buttered rum and collapsed into our sleeping bags. With gravity working for us, our descent the next morning was marginally easier. The point; preparation, proper equipment and fitness are essential. In the 40 years since the Bald Rock fiasco, I’ve learned much about coping with the vicissitudes of winter hiking.
What constitutes adequate fitness for winter mountaineering is difficult to define. Warm weather hiking is probably the best means of measuring one’s fitness for winter outings. My advice, assume the same winter hike will probably be one and half times more strenuous. Since additional gear and equipment are necessary, packs are much heavier. Snowshoeing with weighty packs is quite arduous, especially breaking trail.
Most winter hikers wear water resistant breathable exterior shells and pants with layers of polypro and fleece underneath. Relatively inexpensive insulated mountaineering boots with gaiters will keep feet warm and dry under most circumstances. Short lightweight snowshoes with claws facilitate climbing. For a day trip, a medium-sized alpine pack is sufficient to carry needed water, food, extra clothes, emergency equipment and depending on conditions, snowshoes, micro spikes or crampons. Address unique needs in advance. I carry an emergency kit that includes lots of hand warmers, ice fishing mitts and plenty of chocolate, my primary source of quick energy and it tastes great. Leave pack space available for layering down when ascending and keep a down parka readily accessible as summits are usually cold.
Two close friends have scheduled a climb of Old Speck Mountain in Grafton Notch. At 4,170 feet in elevation, it is the 4th highest peak in Maine and the forecast is cold and windy. This senior citizen has signed on and is getting prepared. Hot buttered rum is not on my checklist and I won’t be melting snow, I hope. See you on the flip side.