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Winter traction for feet December 4, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians, White Mountains.
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One end of the spectrum---I don't use these very often

Ever since I moved back to the Southern Appalachians, I’ve heard hikers comment along the lines of, “We decided not to do that hike because conditions were too icy.” That seems a shame when so many tools are available for dealing with ice or with steep, slippery snow.

People around here are starting to catch on to devices like Kahtoola Microspikes. They’re great for many winter conditions—if you had to pick just one device, I’d recommend these—but they aren’t perfect for every situation. Up in New England, where I did winter hiking for 16 years, microspikes have become so popular that people sometimes make the mistake of using them in situations, like steep hard ice, where crampons are needed. I remember hearing about a group doing a winter traverse of the Presies (i.e. Presidential Range) who nearly had a fatal accident. One of them was climbing up the icy slope of Mt. Jefferson with microspikes and took a long, frightening slide.

For many years in these parts, people have used instep crampons on icy trails like the Alum Cave Trail on Mt. LeConte. They’re certainly better than bare bootsoles, but they have serious limitations.

Instep crampon on regular hiking boot

They only give you four points of traction, and they’re quite awkward when you get past the icy stretch and walk on bare ground, especially rock. So you end up taking them off and putting them back on at regular intervals.

Another option is Yaktrax. I gave away my pair and can’t offer my own photo, but here is one from Wikimedia.

Yaktrax

Definitely an improvement over the insteps—easier to put on and take off, more effective—but personally I have been more satisfied with the microspikes.

Here is what the microspikes look like before you pull them on. They can easily fit in a large zip-loc bag.

Microspikes

The red connector bands are flexible enough that you can use them on a variety of boot types. Here they are on a pair of Sorel boots.

Microspikes on Sorels

Now, for a digression into boots. I find that regular hiking boots are fine for temperatures down to 20 degrees or so—below that, I start having trouble with icy feet. Obviously, each person reaches that discomfort level at a different temperature. Colder than that, you need boots like Sorels with felt liners or plastic mountaineering boots.

I should say that I differ from most people in preferring Sorels to the plastics. If you go to an outdoor equipment store, chances are they’ll tell you the Sorels are only good for shoveling snow out of the driveway. But I found them to be very comfortable and very warm, and I’ll just say that I climbed all 48 of the 4000 footers of New Hampshire in winter wearing Sorels. I even went up the Lions Head route on Mt. Washington in Sorels.

As you saw in the above photo, microspikes fit just fine on the Sorels. So do strap-on 12-point crampons. The one disadvantage is that you can’t use step-in crampons with Sorels, and the strap-ons take more time to put on and take off.

Sorels with strap-on crampons

You see the plastic boots with step-in Grivel 12-point crampons in the photo at top. The step-ins are very convenient—the part behind the heel snaps into place, and then you just have one strap to deal with. My problem with the plastic boots was that I felt like I was wearing cinder blocks on my feet. By contrast, the Sorels were so comfortable that I always felt reluctant to switch back to my regular boots in spring!

Neither the strap-ons nor the step-ins depicted above are suitable for technical ice climbing. That’s a whole other deal. You use two short ice axes, one in each hand, instead of the long mountaineering axe.

Mountaineering ice axe

You see that I’ve wound some medical tape around it for better grip, plus I’ve attached a leash. Probably most of the time in the Southern Appalachians you’d do just as fine with a trekking pole. The ice axe does work better for steep icy conditions. Ice axes can be surprisingly versatile—my friend Greg Harrell did some “thinking outside the box” and came up with a technique for using an axe while doing steep climbs up slides in the Smokies, regardless of season.

Finally, a word about my personal experience with snowshoes. In 1993 I purchased a set of 36″ Sherpa snowshoes and had the optional big claws put on.

Claws on Sherpa snowshoes

With these snowshoes, I was able to march right up steep snowy slopes without backsliding, while my friends with smaller claws struggled along. Well, I can’t recommend the Sherpas, for the simple reason that the company went out of business a while back. Much smaller, lighter snowshoes have been the trend for a while. But I wonder how people do with those in really deep, unconsolidated snow. It comes down to the simple physics of “flotation”—you need a good-sized surface area to keep you from sinking down.

Sherpa snowshoe

By the way, forget about those advertising images you see, like in L.L. Bean catalogs, of people gaily scampering along in their snowshoes. Look closely, and you’ll see they’re on a surface that’s already packed down! Real snowshoeing isn’t about trotting around on a touring center track, it’s about getting to places in the mountains that you couldn’t reach otherwise.

Good luck with your winter hiking.

Champney Falls, Mt. Chocorua, New Hampshire

November hiking November 18, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Uncategorized, White Mountains.
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Bob expresses his feelings about November hiking

Bob expresses his feelings about November hiking

Bob won’t even consider hiking in November any more.  Or in April.  The trouble is, he’s so knowledgeable about trail conditions at different times of year that he writes those months off completely.  Most of the time he is quite right about what it’ll be like.  In November, just as I described in my recent post , the rocks were covered with a thin coating of ice that made the going very difficult.  I am waiting now for my Kahtoola microspikes to arrive via UPS so that I can go out again and mount my assault on the mountain ledges of New England.

It’s the transitional months that turn out to be such a problem.  In November, there’s lots of ice, but the streams haven’t frozen over yet, so instead of sauntering across on thick snow and ice, you’re desperately bounding across icy rocks.  On the trail, the ice doesn’t have any nice cushiony snow underneath that crampons can sink into.  In April, you will start your hike among the early spring wildflowers, but then as you go higher you will encounter increasing amounts of old, dirty, icy snow.  Sometimes on the really beaten-down trails, you run into what gets called the monorail—the snow in the center of the trail has gotten so compacted by snowshoes and general traffic that it’s melting very slowly, while on both sides the softer noncompacted snow is completely gone.   This is entirely a manmade phenomenon, and it is very strange and inconvenient.

When Bob and I first met, one of the first hikes we did together was a November climb up Mt. Mansfield in Vermont via the Long Trail from Smuggler’s Notch.  Very short hike, but we had to turn back at the “Nose” because of those classic November conditions, thin ice on smooth ledge.

Basically, Bob regards November hiking as a pain in the ass.  I tell him that I know he’s right, but I still think I might get something worthwhile out of the experience.  He tells me, “Go ahead!  Have fun!”

Rocks with slipcovers November 13, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature.
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Looks like water.  It's not.

Looks like water. It's not.

Remember the clear plastic slipcovers that people used to put on their living room sofas?  (If you don’t, you may belong to a younger, post-slipcover generation, just as I myself belong to a post-antimacassar generation.  You can look it up.)  The slipcovers were so slippery that you were in danger of sliding right off onto the floor, especially if you were wearing something filmy or sleek.  (I’m afraid circumstances these days seldom call for me to wear anything filmy or sleek.)

The rock slabs in the shade of the upper slopes of Mt. Cardigan had slipcovers yesterday.  Just a quarter inch thick, probably.  My instep crampons were useless.  I’m going to get myself a pair of stabilicers or microspikes for November.  In January, with thick snow and ice, the full crampons and ice axe work fine.  But still, it was a beautiful hike, with the snowy white dome of Mt. Washington shining off in the distance.