Jan 5, 2008 at 9:59 am #1226595
Maah Daah Hey Pre-Trip Report
I always try and challenge myself with a hike around my birthday in January. Last year it was hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim in 72 hours. This year my job finds me in North Dakota in January, so why not take advantage of one the most beautiful and under visited areas in the country – Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Buffalo National Grasslands, and the Maah Daah Hey trail. I have hiked this trail in sections for years with my hiking partner Christine Hoyer, an ATC trail crew leader for Konnarock and Rocky Top. We have been talking about moving our adventures to the next level by starting to do more thru-hikes. We both love the Dakotas and the 100-mile trail seems just right for the amount of time I have available. But in winter? Actually both of us crave the wilderness in off seasons and we have day-hiked sections of the MDH many times with temperatures in the teens or a little below. We have been fortunate enough to see plentiful bison, elk and coyotes with not another human for many miles. The prospect of being out for 6 days/5 nights in the harsh winter conditions however does bring up some trepidation. Since this hike is a straight line, there were some logistics to figure out. In the summer shuttles are available daily but in January everyone is shut down. Christine did manage to find a local ranch owner willing to shuttle our car from one end to the other. The next biggest challenge is the weather given that after about a day and a half into the hike you are committed – it is as far back as forward. And then there is the issue of water. 20-degree daytime temps will make water availability tricky. There is likely to be snow, good for boiling for water supply but if there is enough snow for melting there might be too much for walking. Neither of us has much experience with snowshoeing and after consulting the Theodore Roosevelt National Park rangers we have decided not to bring snowshoes. Post holing for 100 miles would not be my idea of a good time. On top of the things we can’t control – weather and water – are things that we can, like freezing in the 14 hours of darkness each night. Along those lines, sweat seems to be the biggest concern. Walking 10 hours and then stopping as the day is moving to its coldest and you are wet with sweat is a big issue. On top of this is the fact we will be keeping our pack weight as light as possible and not carrying the traditional heavy pounds of warm cloths. To this end I have read of Andrew Skurka for some time and have studies his “Ultra Light in the Nations Icebox”. We will also be relying on Vapor Barrier clothing from RBH to keep us warm during the day and block/dry what sweat accumulates when we stop for the day and put on more insulating down layers. My partner Christine is a Vegan and therefore does not use down so instead she will be using the Synthetic clothes from Backpacking Light over her Vapor Barrier layers at night. Andrew Skurka is a ‘machine’ and though we keep a respectable pace we will not be covering his kind of miles per day. I would imagine that Andy could ‘yo-yo’ the MDH in the same period of time we will thru-hike it. We both have individual paces that can go as high as 4 miles/hour when alone, but together we average around 2 miles/hour and are able to keep this pace all day long. Enjoying the scenery and discussing wilderness and life slows us down a bit, but it is a trade off that is most enjoyable. While hiking alone has its value and can certainly provide moments of revelation, I have always enjoyed the shared experience of nature and the direction it takes conversation when experienced with someone you know and trust. The MDH is divided up into sections with ‘established’ campsites at intervals along the way. We have estimated a modest pace to avoid most of those in order to have a more ‘wild’ camp and give a more remote feel to our adventure. Perhaps somewhat of a needless practice given we will probably be the only winter hikers for miles and miles. I will be trying to keep my pack weight under 20 pounds including food and fuel for this hike.Jan 5, 2008 at 10:28 am #1414941
Sounds like fun.
The water issue would make me a little nervous too but I think even if you get a bunch of snow it will be so wind driven as to pack down in a relatively short time to make travel not so difficult.
The only other thing I would add to the list is a second pad. Is you pad self inflating? If so a Gossamer Gear Thinlight or some other backup pad would be a good precaution and also a little better nights sleep. At zero degrees if your pad is flat its not very comfortable.Jan 7, 2008 at 7:56 am #1415137
Thanks, I did think of that and was going to bring one, but I think I will skip extra bulk. I am using a Big Agnes inflatable pad…(inflates with my effort)..I need a few more inches of support in my old age and this adds comfort with a small weight trade off.Jan 7, 2008 at 7:59 am #1415139
Thanks, I did think of that, but I am going to skip the extra pad. I am using a Big Ages inflatable (my inflation). I need a few more inches of comfort in my old age and this provides a nice nights sleep with only a small weight penalty.Jan 7, 2008 at 12:00 pm #1415164
A thru-hike of the Maah Daah Hey trail is in my top three thru-hikes so I take great interest in your efforts. Have you and your partner done much winter camping previously? You pose some questions that perhaps should be answered by yourselves through a series of overnight and two night shakedown trips.
I look forward to hearing more of your adventure on the cold, cold plains. I've hiked some of the Northern Unit of Teddy and it is some gorgeous country and, as you point out, plentiful in wildlife and lacking in humans.
– SamJan 7, 2008 at 5:45 pm #1415213
Thanks Sam, We have done lots of shorter nights out in cold temps but nothing this long for sure. We are not going to go head long into it no matter what, we will be checking the forcast and especially the wind speed up until the time we leave. I will give a full report when I am done. Especially on a very important aspect that no one I have read even discusses. How to keep the "male parts" warm in the cold temps…
By the way, I get to Duluth often and I think the SHT is certainly next on the list of thru hikes for usJan 8, 2008 at 9:04 am #1415279
I presumed you were experienced but I've given advice to people under that assumption before only to realize that they may not have the base set of skills with which to properly utilize my advice.
I based my winter hiking gear off a number of other gearlists. Skurka's Icebox list being one of them. Ironically I hiked and camped with him on the seventh night of that hike outside of Grand Marais – which just so happened to be the coldest night of his hike at -12 deg F(lucky me!). I was new to winter camping then and learned a lot – especially about thermo-regulating – on that hike. I still consider myself new to it and am only going to gain experience through experience.
I'll post trip report info and exchange gear ideas with you over the course of the next couple weeks as I've got two snowshoe overnights planned. One in Jay Cooke south of Duluth and the other in the Porcupine Mountains over in the U.P.
On a side note, since you're considering thru-hiking the SHT have you joined the Yahoo! group [hiker]? It's a main SHT listserv and is home to myself a dozens of other experienced SHT thru hikers all of whom are very willing to answer logistics questions and the like.Jan 8, 2008 at 12:09 pm #1415308
Outstanding, Thanks for the advice. I don't think you are ever too experienced to hear the advice from others that have already been there. I too have looked at Andy's gear list from the Icebox and even remember you picture on Andy's site of the frozen beard. I believe that might have been you! I actually emailed Andy earlier in the month to ask him a couple of direct questions about managing sweat and heat issues. I will look at the Yahoo site.Jan 8, 2008 at 1:43 pm #1415331
I look back on past years remembering how much I thought I knew and how much my views have changed. And I'm certain I'll look back on myself now in a few years and feel the same way. Anytime you think you've got it "figured out" – you're wrong.
This said, listening to questions and comments from both the experienced and greenhorns alike can spur new ideas in your brain, promote fresh thinking and provide methods of moving both forward as well as laterally in your choices and decisions for the future.
The photos from Andy's trip did include one of me and my snotcicle-ridden moustache. He had quite the time making fun of my frozen beard and frozen WPB jacket.
He's been a great source of information for me in the past through e-mail. Now that's becoming more and more a hiking celebrity with a busier agenda I don't know how much time he has to devote to individual questions. He's certainly a personable guy though and I'm sure he wants to field all the questions he can.Jan 8, 2008 at 2:16 pm #1415339
Andy was kind enough to respond to my email in just a few hours. I know a few people are interested in finding out how everything works. Nancy and Ryan at RBH have been as nice and accommodating as anyone could be and Joel at 40 Below has been very interested in the outcome of this adventure. I have set a limit of a 10 day forcast the day of the hike. If it is 10 degrees with a windspeed over 12-15 miles per hour with any long term consistancy I will probably postpone, but other than that we are set.Jan 9, 2008 at 6:41 am #1415426
Do you have a preliminary gear list put together yet? Also, are you going to be doing this in the next couple weeks?
– SamJan 9, 2008 at 6:45 am #1415427
My gear list is posted and I start January 17thJan 9, 2008 at 3:47 pm #1415496
Craig, it's a nice looking gearlist. I question the necessity of the dry bag inside the pack and the addition of the rain jacket and pants however.Jan 9, 2008 at 7:19 pm #1415549
Yes you are right about the rain jacket and pants. I have taken them off the list. the pack liner is always in there and I just don't give it much thought. I have always done that when I carry extra water, just to make sure if it should break or leak I don't get the rest of my gear wet.
ThanksJan 10, 2008 at 8:13 am #1415599
David J. SailerParticipant
@davesailerLocale: Pacific Northwest
I don't have experience backpacking in winter but I was born in North Dakota and lived there for my first 28 years.
If I can be bold enough to offer some advice, then here it is.
First, be absolutely sure that you have enough clothing and insulation to take care of yourself. The Badlands tend to be warmer than the rest of the state, and they offer lots of little nooks and gullies full of brush where a person can shelter from the wind, but winters can be fierce. I would definitely not recommend going as light as possible because it may mean trying to go lighter than possible. Once the weather changes there is nothing you can do about it.
The winter of 1887-1888 killed off most of the cattle business in that part of Dakota Territory because it killed off most of the cattle. Hundreds if not thousands of cattle froze to death. You can have a blizzard arise without much warning and even on nice days it can be windy. Temperatures of -25 degrees with a 25 or 30 mile per hour wind are not too unusual and suck all the heat from a body in minutes. Days like that are unremittingly evil, and you cannot get away from the wind.
I have been out a couple of times at -40 degrees (when it's always been calm) and can tell you that it is different in kind more than in degree (it's not a colder kind of -25 degree day at all). It's very unlikely that you'll see weather like that, but it is possible. February tends to be the coldest month. During my last winter in the state I worked outside. My coldest day was -35 degrees in the morning, rising to -15 degrees by about 1:00 p.m., and I could duck inside the office any time to warm up. It was interesting, but I wasn't out on the plains with a candle and a blanket.
Hiking hard in relatively calm weather is OK. You can even go without a jacket sometimes, especially if the day is sunny, but wind can kill you dead really fast, or remove fingers, ears, or a nose due to frostbite. Every year some people get caught, in stranded cars, and freeze to death while sitting on the highway somewhere. You will be out in the open.
I would also recommend knowing where each ranch house is along the route so you can bail out or at least find a few hours of shelter if needed. I expect that most people would be delighted to harbor a couple of interesting lunatics for a while. They tend to be very friendly folks and like company.
Water is likely to be a severe problem if there is little snow. North Dakota is a semi desert, and most precipitation falls in May, June, and July. The Badlands are in the driest part of the state where annual precipitation hangs around 10 to 15 inches, or less. It might be possible to cache some water in small chunks (like jars full of ice cubes) so it's easier to thaw as needed.
I've been on the Maah Daah Hey twice in summer, and loved it, and want to go back, and have even thought about a winter trip. It could be great if the weather isn't terrible and you are prepared. Please think six or eight times about how much gear you will could really need.Jan 10, 2008 at 8:44 am #1415603
Your level of caution is stated with total merit. I took interest in this thread originally because I lived in Fargo for ten years and know that the kind of cold that occurs in that state is found in few other places. The cold on the plains is dreadful and like adding insult to injury the wind blows and sucks heat away from everything it touches.
Having no exposed skin and moving continually will keep most anyone warm in just about any temperature but it's the sitting still, cooking, sleeping and resting that one needs to worry about.
– SamJan 10, 2008 at 9:54 am #1415608
You comments are very important and apprecitated. I can not state enough we will be monitoring the weather to the last minute for the 10 day forcast, and both Christine and I are perfectly willing to pull the plug on the thru hike and simply day hike if the weather looks bad. Christine has more experience with being out in all weather conditions and is also WFR certifide. But it wouldn't be an adventure without some acceptable risk, and Fun isn't always Fun!
We do know where all the ranches are and we have made contact with our shuttle driver (who owns a ranch) that we can use him as a bail out anytime we choose.
There is no question that this is an exciting, but challenging adventure.Jan 21, 2008 at 8:22 am #1416993
I presume the party is out in the wild as I write. I look forward to hearing a post-trip report.Jan 24, 2008 at 6:06 pm #1417593
Just wondering what happenedJan 25, 2008 at 6:50 am #1417654
Well the best laid plans of mice and men. For those that have been following the weather and those that didn't, this is what the national weather service had for us a few hours before our start:
Alberta Clipper Winter Storm Warning- North Dakota
..WINTER STORM WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM THURSDAY AFTERNOON THROUGH FRIDAY MORNING…
A WINTER STORM WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM THURSDAY AFTERNOON THROUGH FRIDAY MORNING.
AN ALBERTA CLIPPER WILL MOVE INTO THE AREA THURSDAY AFTERNOON BRINGING ANOTHER ROUND OF LIGHT SNOW AND VERY STRONG WINDS. 1 TO 3 INCHES OF NEW SNOW IS LIKELY. STRONG NORTHWEST WINDS WILL DEVELOP THURSDAY AFTERNOON AND EVENING…WITH GUSTS OF 40 TO 50 MPH LIKELY. THE COMBINATION OF NEW SNOW AND STRONG WINDS WILL CAUSE CONSIDERABLE BLOWING SNOW…AND BLIZZARD CONDITIONS COULD DEVELOP. IN ADDITION FALLING TEMPERATURES WILL COMBINE WITH THE STRONG WINDS TO DROP THE WIND CHILL INDEX TO AROUND 30 BELOW…OR POSSIBLY COLDER BY FRIDAY MORNING.
We might be crazy, but we are not stupid. With wind speeds predicted at 40-50 mph and ambient temps well below zero it was not the best time to be out in the open for 6 days.
Indeed we woke the morning of our intended start to -9 F.
We did a 17 mile day hike to stay ready incase the weather service was wrong we could have jumped on the trail at our first nights camp site the next day, but the front did move in and reduce visibility to almost nothing. The pull to just go was very powerful since we had spent all the time and effort to get there, but in the end I think we made a wise decision. We continued to day hike the rest of the week for a total of about 45 miles. We differently encountered some gear issues with the Vapor Barrier cloths and how to stay dry. We were plenty warm while hiking but with the temps so low we needed our insulating layer over our vapor barrier cloths which didn't allow for good venting. Consequently we were wet with perspiration at the end of the day. This would have been a dangerous situation had we been stopping for the night with no ability dry off.
The outcome of the BPL synthetic cloths (Christine) versus Down (me) was an easy decision. The Synthetic BPL cloths won hands down (no pun intended). Any moisture that leaked out around the VP layers threatened to collapse my Montbell down jacket and pants, while the BPL cloths always provided good loft and warmth. I believe there is also an aerobic component to this equation that might get overlooked. The better shape you are in, the less you sweat at the same pace. Being more aerobically fit means you can travel without the as much excursion (sweat). I am very curious how others have handled this extreme cold and the management of perspiration, or if this is a situation best suited for the Bison and not man.
In any case, it is an excuse to go back to a beautiful place and try again.Jan 25, 2008 at 7:51 am #1417659
You both made a wise choice. Besides being uncomfortable your tests with the synthetic vs. down clothing proved things could have been unsafe as well.
– SamJan 26, 2008 at 3:31 pm #1417824
Nothing wrong with being alittle crazy–and wise enough to know where the line between crazy and stupid is . I agree with Sam … I think you guys are wise. I remember seeing the weather report and then getting up in the morning and loooking at the temp and wondering…… how do they do that !!!!!!! Anyway its good to hear that everybody is O.K. and like you said ..Its an excuse to go back. I've been there many times. In 04 a group of us hiked it from end to end. It was quite a trip. I've enjoyed every trip out there …its a very unique area…
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