The Freezebaby Tour
A solo winter backpacking trip to
the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire.
The Freezebaby Tour
• by John David Fawcett •
FRIDAY 8 MARCH
Late as usual, I'm finally on the road at 8:00 am. Weather bulletins warn of meteorological chaos to the east. Sure enough, the longer I drive the worse the roads. Near Albany, NY I drive through a fierce rush hour snow storm as an armada of daredevil drivers perform spectacular spinning wipeouts, disappearing off the road in a cloud of snow. Somehow managing to steer clear of the idiots, I cruise on. Four more hours brings me to Bradford, Vermont. Not much traffic at this hour. Disguised as a tourist, I find a room for the night.
SATURDAY 9 MARCH
International Mountain Equipment in North Conway is a beautiful and exciting drive down the Kancamagus Highway. The roads aren't too bad, but traffic in North Conway is. Time passes. Finally I find a parking place and pick up the rental sleeping bag at IME. Its still damp from the previous renter so back through town I go in search of a laundromat. It cost fifty cents, but now I have a nice dry bag. Now all I need is a place to stay. So back down the Kancamagus Highway I go, stopping at every view and investigating everything that looks like a passable road. I nearly get stuck down one as I turn around at the gate.
I stop at Lafayette Place campground but it's closed, locked up for the season. It's a bit surreal walking around the campground. I've stayed here on a few of my previous trips in autumn and it looks so different now with three feet of snow on the ground. I get back in the car and then I do get stuck. Maybe I'll be staying here after all. I finally break free but its getting late, I'm getting crabby, and not one damned person knows a thing about camping sites around here. Are they all new or what?! Somewhat irritated I drive back to the Kancamagus Highway and find a campsite. The wind, an almost unnoticeable breeze when I set up camp, has suddenly turned into a gale, blasting through the valleys with a noise like jet aircraft. In order to keep the tent from sailing into the next county I have to use my precious water to ice my tentstakes into the snow. As it tuned out, that was a real stupid thing to do. Chopping them out in the morning was a bit tedious.
At midnight the stars gleam down brightly. It's -10ºF and still dropping. I finally finished melting snow and, dinner over, am ready for bed. Against my better judgement I follow the advice of much more experienced winter-camping aquaintences and strip down to my lightweight thermal underwear. As I underdstand it, the theory is that by doing so I'll be much warmer than sleeping in my heavier fleece jacket and pants. In practice, that was by far the coldest, most miserable night I have ever experienced. Ever!
SUNDAY 10 MARCH
6:00 am, -15ºF, I used to think it got cold in Ohio, but no more. I get up, break camp, hop in the car and... it won't start. What a great way to build character! An hour later I'm shoveling down hotcakes and coffee, having coaxed my car into town where I poured in two bottles of dry-gas and topped off the fuel tank.
It's a bright and sunny morning and I quickly hike up to Artist's Bluff, take a few pictures and manage to not fall off. I start over to Bald Knob, making good time. I do not, however, walk carefully, and by the time I reach the summit I have managed to puncture my gaiters with the crampons not once, not twice, but three times. Looks like I'm off to a great start! About two feet of snow covers the summit, so trying not to twist my ankle on hidden rocks, I take a few more photos and head back to the car.
Stop in at the Cannon Mt. ski area for camping info. People everywhere. Except at the information desk. Hmm... So then I ask if I can ride the tram to the top and hike down, but they say no. I wonder if it was something I said? I manage to find the ranger station despite the lack of information and - surprise - camping is permitted at Lafayette Place. They even apologize for the lack of running water and flush toilets!
Back at the campground I strap on the snowshoes, shoulder the pack and stagger about half a mile through waist deep snow. I find a nice site and start to pack down a tent platform, had it about halfway done when I decide that it's far too much trouble setting up the tent and a lot easier to sleep in the car - after a pizza and beer that is.
Right there in the deserted parking lot of Lafayette Place campground I tilt the seat back, take my boots off and crawl into my sleeping bag. I read for a while, the silence shattered periodically by lunatic snowmachiners blasting up and down the bike trail. Sparks fly when they cross the twenty feet or so of bare pavement. I wonder what that does to their fancy toys?
MONDAY 11 MARCH
Surprise - the windshield frosted over. I start the car, eat a little breakfast, and wait while the car defrosts. It doesn't take long and, ready for adventure, I'm on the trail by 7:00 am.
I sorted and repacked my gear last night and what I've decided to take along is nearly everything I brought. My pack is incapacitatingly heavy. After a mile of shuffling, I wonder why I'm doing this. The trail's slippery from the snow, my legs are throbbing, the pack's cutting into my back and I keep stumbling into snow laden limbs which promptly dump their burden down my back. I don't know why they call this thing the Old Bridle Path - I can't imagine a horse ever making it up here. I plod on, stopping frequently for pictures. But finally I make it to Greenleaf Hut (closed for the winter), my legs imitating Elvis Presley's. I swear to be in better shape next time. Mostly I just swear.
I can see Mt. Liberty, my intended campsite, way down the ridge. A friendly local admits that my plans are "a bit, um.. ambitious". Later, at home, I discover my mistake - I should have taken the Falling Waters Trail instead of the Bridle Path. At any rate, I decide to stay here near Greenleaf Hut, climb to the summit of Mt. Lafayette, hike the Franconia Ridge Trail a short distance and then hike back down to the car.
After dinner I run back up the ridge and watch the sunset. Its spectacular despite the lack of clouds. I wonder what happened to the nasty weather that was forecast?
TUESDAY 12 MARCH
Sleep was hard to come by despite staying up and reading. My legs are sore from yesterday's climb and mild cramping overnight. I was up early, thinking I'd be off before the other two parties, but I spend over an hour fooling around with breakfast and enjoying the beautiful morning. Looks like the bad weather is holding off. More time is wasted as I struggle with the mechanics of elimination, a problem compounded by the waist deep snow.
The climb to the summit is surprisingly easy considering how badly my legs hurt yesterday. Lots of fun frontpointing several hundred feet straight up some very steep ice. My first view of the Pemigewasset Wilderness is stunning. I can see the snow covered Presidential range shining in the distance. This really makes up for the struggle yesterday. I hike the ridge as far as Mt. Lincoln, the only sound the crunch of my crampons. On the way back the sun feels so good I sit for a bit and bask in the radiant warmth. Still not a cloud in sight, I decide to stay another night and hike out tomorrow.
Back at camp I melt more snow, eat dinner and enjoy another spectacular sunset. I figured I would at least see a few dayhikers but I haven't seen another person all day. Tonight I'm the only one camping here. Before bed I stick my head out and watch the shooting stars.
WEDNESDAY 13 MARCH
Awake early, aroused by an annoyingly itchy nose. My face hurts. A look in my handy little mirror reveals the mother of all sunburns. My entire nose is blistered and oozing, and the right side of my face is swollen. Not in too great a hurry to leave, I manage to doze for several more hours and don't get underway till 8:00 am.
Four hours later I'm enjoying my third cup of coffee. I stop at IME to get some sunscreen (better late than never), check the weather/avalanche report and buy a new pump for my stove, then cross the street to check out EMS. Not much of interest, so I grab a sandwich at Subway and head for the campground. Plenty of open sites and a few hours to kill. I drive to Gorham, call the folks, almost flatten a road sign, and somehow make it back to camp.
The campsites at Dolly Cop are very unappealing, so I opt for sleeping in the car again. I read for a bit, then watch the stars before zipping up my sleeping bag.
THURSDAY 14 MARCH
My nose crusted over like some creature from a monster movie, I head back to Pinkham Notch and buy two nights worth of floor space in a lean-to at Hermit Lake. Down in the packroom I spend too long assembling my gear, picking all the stuff that will make me look like a real hard-core mountaineer type. Image is everything, right? Halfway up the trail I'm passed by a guy who is obviously a local. I can tell because he's moving fast. Real fast. He isn't even breathing hard. And he's skiing. Uphill. I decide its time for a break.
Later, I cook dinner and read for a while, the sole occupant of the lean-to. Eventually the headlamp battery wears down so I turn in for the night.
FRIDAY 15 MARCH
I toss and turn, finally get up, and begin to ready myself despite the very low cloud ceiling. I eat breakfast on the deck of the caretakers cabin as the first of the skiers pass by on their way up to Tuckerman's Ravine. It's still cloudy over head but I'm here so I climb straight up the headwall anyway.
Up, up, up I go, visibility fading. I wish I could remember how to use my compass. At the lip of the headwall the wind is really howling. Still cloudy. I discover that I've just used the last roll of slide film - all that's left is four rolls of print film. Did I mention it was cloudy? Very cloudy? As in maximum visibility of maybe 50 feet?
Both of my heels are a bloody mess. Damned boots! I'd throw them away right now but I really don't care to go barefoot. I can't see the summit but I can smell it. A stench of diesel generator fumes. Its kind of funny. For years I've dreamed of climbing Mt. Washington in the winter, and finally, here I am. But due to a poor choice in footwear I head not to the summit, but instead to the isolated (at least so far) Davis Path. By the time I get to the trail junction the clouds have lifted and I can almost make out the summit. And I'm not sure if that is a good thing or not - now I can make out the summit buildings and antennas. Later I'm tempted to climb down the Hillman Highway but take a few pictures instead.
The only way back to Hermit Lake is the brutally steep Bootte Spur Link. It turns out to be great fun. I practice a glissade and then immediately practice self-arrest finally jamming a crampon through my pants. Its a good thing they put that tree there or I'd likely had slid all the way to Pinkham Notch. It left a bruise though.
Later, as I cook my dinner, Alan and Chris, a father/son team from Connecticut arrive. We spend the evening swapping lies and giving each other the food we brought but can't bring ourselves to eat.
I wake during the night dreaming of rain, but it turns out to be snow melting on my face. The wind is howling and a good bit of spindrift is filling the shelter.
SATURDAY 16 MARCH
I'm suddenly awake, aware that something's bouncing on my feet. It's a little squirrel looking for its (my) breakfast. The wind has abated, but not by much. Its blasting down the ravine, the snow nearly parallel to the ground and all my gear is covered with a layer of spindrift. Cool! I make my way to the caretaker's cabin to check the wind speed. Average 40 mph, gusting to 70 mph. Really cool! I'm sure it's no big deal here but back home wind like this would have the news media running around like headless chickens.
But... unfortunately that's the last of the adventures. I take the last shot on my last roll of film and share a cup of coffee with Alan and Chris before heading down the trail. I'm the first one out this morning and it is absolutely gorgeous. An hour later I'm back at Pinkham Notch ready for the hot showers. But, as it turns out, not a single one is functional. I'm just lucky that way.
I return the sleeping bag to IME, call the folks to tell them I survived, stop for food and gas, and start for home at about 10:00 am. A long but uneventful fourteen driving hours later I climb into my own soft, warm bed. I'll upack everything tomorrow.
SUNDAY 17 MARCH
I unload the car and start sorting out all my gear. It's amazing how much stuff I need to wash and repack, and I'm surprised at how much food I brought home. On my other trips I've ended up not having enough so this time I made sure to stock up, but I guess I over estimated a bit.
Aha, there's the guidebook. So, lets see... what's the next adventure and what gear do I need?