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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.

The 26-hour winter hike (Part 2) November 25, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking, White Mountains.
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franconia-notch1We had reached the “Hillary Step” of Bondcliff, a steep ledge roughly head-high that was covered with nice shiny ice.  Just above the ledge, the trail approaches treeline and is generally buffeted by winds.  So two things had to happen.  All eleven of us had to get up the ledge, and all eleven also had to reach into the appropriate sections of our packs and extract goggles, balaclavas or face masks, insulated mittens, wind pants, etc., etc., and get the appropriate gear onto the appropriate part of the body.  I opted to switch from my snowshoes to my crampons.   It must have taken me and Bob at least 20 minutes to get everything organized, but we were still among the first to get up the ledge.  Actually, I regret not having waited down below for the fun of watching my fellow hikers desperately clawing their way up the ledge, clinging to the bristly scrub and flailing with whatever pointy equipment they had to get some purchase on the ice.  (I know that’s what they did, because that’s what Bob and I did.)

The wind was blowing maybe 30 mph out of the southwest, and the temperature was in the mid-20’s.  It really could have been a lot worse, but you still wanted face protection.  At treeline we encountered irregular drifts along the trail.  One minute you’d be walking on bare rock, the next you’d be floundering through waist-deep snow.  Pretty soon I had to take my crampons off and put the snowshoes back on.  But before very long, we had reached the 4265′ summit of Bondcliff.  Hurray!

We looked at our watches.  It was 12:45.  Another 15 minutes or so went by before everyone was on the summit.  It had taken seven hours for us to go 9.1 miles.  But since we had done the first 4.7 miles of the flat, easy Wilderness Trail in little more than two hours, the more interesting statistic was that it had taken us five hours to go the last 4.4 miles.  Of course the group would be much faster coming out (assuming it retraced its steps—more about that in a moment), but we still had to climb 650 vertical feet from the Bondcliff-Bond col to the top of Bond, drop down to the Bond-West Bond col, climb another 200 vertical to the West Bond summit, then another 350 back up to Bond, down again and then up 200 back to Bondcliff.  There was enough time to get up to Bond, but Bob and I simply didn’t believe the group could get to West Bond and back out without it being a death march of epic proportions.

So we decided to turn around, and one other person decided to go out with us.  Why didn’t we go ahead and do Bond?  Because we’d have to go on another whole trip to get West Bond anyway, so why bother….   We had a leisurely descent with our new companion, Ben, and got back to the trailhead at 6:00 p.m., having taken 12 hours to do 18.2 miles and 3100 vertical feet.

Meanwhile, according to Mohamed’s description, our eight companions reached the summit of West Bond, arguably the most remote mountain in the Whites, at 3:30 p.m., or about an hour before dark.  From the very beginning there had been talk of bushwhacking into the Hellgate Brook valley off of West Bond instead of retracing steps.  That route saves about two miles, and it means you don’t have to go uphill any more.  That must have seemed very attractive to the group at that moment.  Bob and I had climbed West Bond from Hellgate Brook in summer conditions.  The band of scrub above the 4000 foot level had been brutal, and it had taken us more than an hour to go the last half mile.  But sometimes in winter, in deep snow, you can more or less bounce across the top of the scrub, and it actually becomes easier.  That, at least, was what the group was anticipating.  Little did they know what conditions awaited them.

(To be continued)

The 26-hour winter hike (Part 1) November 23, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking, White Mountains.
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White Mountains in winter

White Mountains in winter

Yes, there really was a time, back in January 2002,  when a group of people set out to climb the three Bonds in a day and ended up coming out 26 hours later.  I believe this may outdo even the “Episode of the Nesting Spoons” that I mentioned in my post “Sarge and his hiking stories”.  On the Bonds expedition, Bob and I started out with the group, but we realized about seven hours into it that things were looking a bit dubious, and we (together with one other person) elected to turn around after bagging only the first of the three peaks, Bondcliff.  Thank goodness we made that decision….

For those who may not quite see what could motivate a trip like this, I’ll explain that it’s part of the project of climbing the New Hampshire 4000 Footers in winter—all 48 of them, climbed strictly between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  The three Bonds are excruciatingly difficult to do in one winter day, but the alternative is a frigid night of camping in the Pemi wilderness.  The dimensions of the endeavor make it hard enough to do even in summer: 23.0 miles, 4500 vertical feet.  (That’s starting at the Lincoln Woods trailhead, going over Bondcliff, Bond, and West Bond, and then back out over Bond and Bondcliff. )

The fateful January excursion was an outing of the Appalachian Mountain Club.  Mohamed Ellozy, a very experienced hiker who was along on this adventure, has written about it on his website.  He tells the story with a lot of fascinating details—things like how, when, and why they decided to bushwhack into the snow-encrusted scrub off the side of West Bond, and how they gave up the bushwhack five hours later and struggled back up to the top of West Bond toward midnight.  I will not attempt to duplicate Mohamed’s effort, but will only describe what the experience was like for me and Bob, and why we decided to turn around when we did.

Our group of eleven set off from the trailhead in the pre-dawn darkness of 6:00, wearing headlamps.  As the sky slowly lightened, and since we were on the straightest, widest trail in the Whites, it wasn’t long before we were able to stow the headlamps.  At the Bondcliff trail junction, 4.7 miles in, we put on our snowshoes. As always seems to be the case with a group of any size in the winter, it took a long time for everyone to get their gear organized, put on and/or take off the appropriate layers, have something to eat, tighten their snowshoe straps, adjust the length of their poles, etc., etc.   We moved very slowly.  There were a lot of stops.  The trail had been broken out (probably the weekend before), but there was still a lot of fresh snow, and those of us who were up front had our work cut out for us breaking trail.  At last we reached the infamous ledge of Bondcliff, described in the AMC White Mountain Guide as “rather a difficult scramble.”  It was covered with ice.

(To be continued)

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