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The 26-hour winter hike (Part 3) November 28, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking, White Mountains.
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franconia-notch2The band of eight set off from the summit of West Bond, not retracing their steps along the spur trail but continuing west along the ridge, bushwhacking into deep, unconsolidated snow with no crust.  As Mohamed described it, “Progress was slow along the ridge, and remained slow after we dropped off its end, even though we were following a bearing which had led to an easy descent on a previous winter attempt.  After about five hours we had only lost about 500 vertical feet, were still in dense spruce, and appeared surrounded by spruce traps.”  And of those five hours, they had been bushwhacking in the dark with headlamps for about four.

For those who have never had the experience, a spruce trap is a good-sized pocket of air in deep snow formed by the wind patterns and drifting of snow around branches of scrub spruce or fir.  It looks solid on top, but as soon as the hapless snowshoer steps onto it, the thin snow layer on top collapses and the snowshoer falls into a deep pit, sometimes over head height.  It can be extremely hard to get out of, especially since the snowshoes themselves tend to get stuck against the edges of the pit.  The upper slopes of West Bond, being girdled with gnarly scrub, are perfect spruce trap territory.

So they decided to follow their deep tracks back to the top of West Bond and then take the trail back out.  It took them two and a half hours to get back to the summit, which they reached around 11:00.  They stopped for a rest at the Bond/West Bond col, and there decided to hike slowly out through the night rather than bivouac.  They were able to make cell phone contact with their spouses and friends.   And so they continued on through the night, stopping frequently to rest.  The last two members of the group made it out at 8:00 the next morning.

Mohamed’s account gives a full analysis of the decisions that were made and the lessons to be drawn.  To me, the most interesting question is whether it’s possibly to recognize quickly in winter conditions when it just doesn’t make sense to bushwhack.  I have done a  bit of winter bushwhacking myself.  One time in March 1995 Bob and I climbed Garfield by a bushwhack approach just for the fun of it, following a tributary of the North Branch of the Gale River.  That was certainly a nutty thing to do, since we could easily have followed trails the whole way, but we experienced a beautiful sparkling white stream valley that led us past frozen waterfalls and canyon walls cushioned with snow, a place where not many people have ever set foot.

Winter hikers, like Eskimos, know there are about a hundred kinds of snow.  And ice.  And combinations of the two.  I think the key lies in whether the snow is at all consolidated.  Was any of it heavy, wet snow that turned fairly solid, or is it all loose powdery stuff?  Is there a crust, and is it strong enough to support everyone on the hike? (It’s no good if one person can stay on top and the other breaks through with each step.)   Personally, I’m not sure I would ever choose to bushwhack in winter through the krummholz zone.  Too many spruce traps.  Bob and I had a taste of that one winter between North and South Twin when it became impossible to stay exactly on the trail through areas of windblown scrub.  But there’s a simple way to avoid the scrub on a winter bushwhack: either stay above treeline, or stay below about 3700 feet—just don’t try to connect the two zones!  (On the Garfield bushwhack, we hit the Garfield Ridge trail at 3900 feet on a sheltered slope that had no scrub at that elevation, and followed the trail the last half mile or so to the summit.)

Bob and I did go back and get the Bonds on March 11, 2006.  It took us about 15 hours.  We skied in as far as the Bondcliff trail junction.  The weather was good, but the wind did knock me off my feet twice as I cramponed across smooth ice between Bondcliff and Bond.  For me, the skiing back out was very difficult.  I was very tired by that point, and it was past sunset, and with my heavy pack my balance was poor and I fell down a lot.  But we made it.

Comments»

1. Gary Howell - December 1, 2008

18 miles on snow shoes and crampons sounds a great plenty, especially for a Floridian who finds change in elevation difficult in the best of weather.

The tale of the 24 hours reminds me of the Florida cave divers.
Florida is honeycombed with underwater tunnels. There is a whole
culture of a poor man’s space program. Spare regulators, stashed
tanks .. reeling out lines you can follow back .. spare lights .. the time they had to share a regulator the last hour or two.

Turn around on 1/3 air (have to allow for decompression) .. you can get back above water and to fresh air .. but if you haven’t decompressed then you can bend. (so have have spare air and body heaters stashed to decompress .. underwater chess sets .. but it has been observed that the underwater moves were not very good).

The guy I knew (from sailing) was 50 and had been doing this for 40 years. The common factor is knowing when to turn. Every year some cave divers drown.

2. Jenny - December 1, 2008

“…a Floridian who finds change in elevation difficult”… False modesty, Gary! You conquered Mt. Flume in winter!

3. Mohamed Ellozy - December 7, 2008

Nice description from another perspective, Jenny! Linked to it from my web site, and am looking forward to seeing you at the Awards!

4. Gary Howell - December 19, 2008

A spruce trap .. such an innocent name. There would be some desperation after a few of them.

5. Jenny - December 19, 2008

I haven’t run afoul of that many of them, but one time I found myself standing in a hole about 6 or 7 feet deep, and my snowshoes were tangled up with each other, and I think I might have gotten a bit panicky if I had been alone. Bob shouted encouragement from the top of the hole and tugged on my arms, which really didn’t help, but it gave me moral support.


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