I like to hike and carry a light pack.
In 2008, I lived in the Northeastern U.S.
I wanted to get into good shape, inspired by my comrades from Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking III course in October of 2007. Those guys were animals. I wanted to be an animal, too.
So, I set my sights on hiking every possible weekend in 2008 (trails permitting of course), focusing on my home area stomping grounds, the White Mountains, and beyond.
January through March hiking involves shorter days, warmer layers, traction devices, snowshoes, and, depending on the length of an outing, warmer sleeping gear, a more robust shelter, and generally just a lot more “stuff.” At best, you’ll cover about half the distance you normally would in summer months. Not one to be a total glutton for punishment, I waited for good weather and trail conditions so I could go ultralight. In the Whites, that sometimes never comes. Fortunately in 2008, it came in March.
What follows is a consolidated trail journal of my UL frenzy last year.
A Note About Weather
Weather is something that seasoned hikers pay close attention to during unpredictable winter months, and for good reason. In the beginning of 2008, a record snow year, New Hampshire had a record number of search and rescue hiker extractions, exceeding the amount the state had budgeted and causing outrage from the taxpayers reading disastrous headlines in the NH Union Leader. An annual $100 hiker license was even proposed to offset the cost of hiking-related rescues.
While visiting a friend working for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), I witnessed the record snow levels at the Lonesome Lake hut. There were sixteen-foot snow drifts, with tunnels carefully carved through the centers leading to the outhouses. Off-trail travel wasn’t much of an option: at one point, we came across a post hole in the center of a trail that was close to six feet deep, and I can only imagine the energy it took to climb out of that one.
One of the up-shots of that winter’s hiking was the opportunity to hike with Brian Doble, whom I’d met during the Wilderness Trekking III course in 2007. We quickly became hiking buddies, sharing great trips together in some pretty challenging conditions. His camaraderie, our shared passion for hiking, plus the skills we had learned from BPL’s program made the fourth season downright enjoyable and educational for both of us. Brian and I also shared the same sick sense of humor, which lead to many hours in camp laughing hysterically over things that others would probably deem as just plain wrong. At the end of March, I received an email from Brian mentioning that he was heading for Springer Mountain, Georgia around mid-April to yo-yo hike the Appalachian Trail with a four-pound base weight. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play and would miss his camaraderie, but cheered him on: "Right on, Brian, go for it!"
Spring took a long time to get to the mountains of northern New England in 2008.
April is usually one of the worst months for hiking up this way. Massachusetts sees the first signs of spring appear with the landscape blossoming from subtle browns and greys into green with budding flowers. Elevated moods and people losing their pained "winter faces" (winter face: a New England expression that’s a combination of discontent, mild anger, and a sheer will to survive) are two more sure signs of warmer weather. While all of this is blooming in Massachusetts, New Hampshire is still a combination of low level mud and slush, with abundant collapsing deep snow slightly higher, and winter-like conditions lingering on summits. It tends to be frustrating knowing that backpacking trips probably won’t start until May, while ticking off how many weekends/multi-day trips can be crammed in between spring (aka "thaw/black fly season") and early winter.
By the first weekend in May, I had made the decision to spend every possible weekend until November hiking or backpacking. By the second weekend, some internal Start button had been pushed, and the race was on. Working in a cubical farm during the week gives me little opportunity for physical activity, so I began fast-paced walking during lunch hour, after work, and to run errands. The walking helped me get better into shape, though my hiking legs wouldn’t really be back until the sixth weekend out.
June and July had record-breaking rainfall, apparently since the same stalled storm fronts that caused so much snowfall were being repeated during the summer months, leading to washed out bridges and massive trail erosion. I was no longer carrying a traditional tent, just a tarp and bivy combination which kept things dry all season. I found that a larger 8 x 10-foot rectangular tarp rigged in various configurations worked flawlessly and gave me additional room for hanging out at night. This was also ideal space for providing "trail magic" for thru hikers and AMC staff that work up in the Whites. For those not familiar with trail magic, it’s the simple act of sharing food and drink with long-distance hikers and the fine community of people working in the Whites, and is just one hiker’s way of giving back to a really great group of folks.
Around the last weekend in June, I contacted fellow BPL reader Jonathan Ryan after his frustrated and downright funny response to a BPL forum troll attack, and we started going back and forth about trying a done-in-a-day (DIAD) 32-mile Pemi loop in New Hampshire. This is a really aggressive route, involving 18,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and I thought it sounded tough but doable. Very quickly we were working out logistics and planning a date to pull this off, so I really started working on improving my mileage during weekends. We were both excited about the trip and ended up having a pretty good attempt, but not quite finishing the route. The best thing about this trip was being out with another like-minded hiker who later joined in on a couple of other great outings, and a friendship developed rapidly.
Alpine lake near the Lake of the Clouds Hut, just below the summit of Mount Washington.
As August approached, I figured that my sleep system would be changing up with the onset of cooler nights. I ordered a BPL PRO 90 Quilt that was on sale, and, when the package arrived, pulled it from the box thinking I’d misjudged – it might be good on a few warm weather nights in June. To my surprise, the Quilt, combined with a Cocoon Hoody and MLD Superlight Bivy, would comfortably get me though the entire summer season in the Whites. (Side note: I’m very impressed by this Quilt and anticipate even better things from the 2009 line.)
Attempting nonstop weekends, working a 9-to-5 without additional days off, and pushing mileage on foot going up hills of steep granite is just plain grueling; exhaustion was setting in. I was getting cranky, my man cave (where I live during the week) was looking pretty rough, my diet was out of control (consuming massive amounts of calories during the week and minimum on weekends), and I took my first weekend off after thirteen consecutive weekends out backpacking. The main thing accomplished was getting much needed sleep.
September is when summer ends in the mountains of New Hampshire, and you can pretty much count on this every year. The crowds thin out at backcountry campsites, AMC employees start to move on, and leaves change color rather spectacularly. Most of the backpackers I know here really don’t come out until fall, largely because of its cooler, more comfortable hiking temperatures. The 2008 season was different; high gas prices and fewer visitors due to constant rain affected the local economy. Business owners were closing shop and leaving the area. September was desolate in the north country, and with fewer people out in the wilderness, the natural beauty of the Whites seemed forever etched in its granite landscape.
October started out warm in the northeast, but weather this time of year is endlessly mercurial. Depending on the fronts, it can be sunny and in the 60s one day with snow the next at higher elevations. I monitored NOAA closely throughout the week to figure out what gear to carry and it was now a time of seasonal gear transition with my MLD Prophet swapped out to an original GoLite Jam for packing. I had an unusually active October, with other hikers and the few remaining friends that worked at AMC sites requesting visits one last time for 2008. As the month wound down, hiking was getting difficult, as Saturday mornings felt very much like I was going through the motions. It was the same drive through the same country; I had done all of my favorite trails multiple times; I was beginning to wonder if I had acquired some type of hiking/backpacking disorder that would keep me forever single, yet healthy due to exercise, leaving me to perish alone, very old, with huge hiker legs and massive hobbit feet.
After a long hike in on the Bondcliff Trail, Michelle (in the tank top) mentioned in sheer exhaustion, "I feel so much hate right now." Her outlook took a turn for the better when she saw the expansive alpine views with no signs of civilization overlooking the Pemi Wilderness area.
November was a month of drastic change. With the news of the world economy coming crashing down in October, hiking in the Whites was a glorious escape on weekends. No televisions, internet news, or radio broadcasting doom and gloom reports, just the simple act of walking aggressively up steep hills of granite and camping out. The temps were now steadily in the 20s at night and 40s during the day. Crowds were gone at backcountry campsites except for a few other hardy souls. Leaves were now brown and scattered over trails, requiring constant monitoring of my footing.
After the second weekend of backpacking in November, my quest was abruptly called off by my offsite supervisor. On my way into the office, he called and asked me to meet him at a nearby hotel. At this point, I was told my department was being closed, but I was offered a position in Georgia, which I eventually accepted. The hardest part of this difficult decision was breaking my southbound news to my hiking companions and friends that work for the AMC. (Don’t worry: if any of you happen to be reading this, I will be back next summer for a week’s trek.)
I finished up a final hike in New Hampshire for the 2008 season (this was Weekend #25, and pretty close to back-to-back) with fellow BPL hikers Brian Doble and Jonathan Ryan, plus Jonathan’s wife Rachel and their dog Aspen, on my favorite trail, the Liberty Springs Trail.
Temps were lingering in the teens to single digits during the day, and -10 at night, according to my pack thermometer. The group carried ultralight gear and wore trail runners in some pretty extreme conditions, but most importantly we all had a blast doing this together.
During the final drive back to Massachusetts, I started to wonder about what was next: rest briefly, then move all my worldly possessions into a small 6x7x8 foot relocation cube and finalize billing info and company transfer details. After my initial rest period and coming to terms with moving 1,100 miles south, I was starting to look forward to all the great terrain that part of the country has to offer. I was doubly fortunate to have Brian Doble along for the big road trip, pointing out great hiking spots along the AT. Finally, the warmer southern temperatures were a welcome end to a year of change.