A Winter Hike, A Sleepless Night

February 24, 2009

When my teenage son, Cody and his buddy announced their intention to climb Mounts Adams and Madison, the northern Presidentials over the February school vacation, hiking in the deep snow and camping overnight at a shelter. I knew it’d be a sleepless night – for me. 

We read headlines each winter: “Overdue hikers reported as missing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains…”   Whenever I think of the Presidential Range in midwinter, I hear viola strains of “Jaws” theme music. Winter mountaineering in The Whites is popular and can be dangerous. The process of letting him go was bittersweet. I watch the news. I’m aware of statistics. I avidly read each new account of mountain search and rescues operations in winter.

I issued dire warnings, stern admonishments and fired questions at him – “what about this and what about that?” All were met with competent and well-reasoned responses. He has the right clothing, winter camping gear, knowledge and instincts. He’d planned a good route with contingency plans. He packed and repacked. I queried him about each piece of essential equipment: “crampons, stove, maps, headlamp, fuel, hydration, tent, sleeping bag, cell phone” All set. “Then take a camera” I added.

At 18 years old, my son lacks experience. But he’s anxious to obtain it. Far be it for me to dampen that intrepid spirit. I chattered my teeth winter camping and climbing the peaks of the Whites Mountains with the Plymouth State Outing Club, twenty-five years ago. The old-school army surplus woolen clothing, aluminum cook kit, heavy steel stove, external frame pack, crude sleeping bag and other ancient climbing gear in my closet are primitive by modern equipment standards. The 1980’s might as well be the Cretaceous Period to my kids. I snapped my fibula in a bad fall while wearing snowshoes just below treeline on Mt. Madison a decade ago. It was a long day hobbling out. My son has heard the story – dozens of times. I now prefer hiking in the warm months, black flies and all. My winter mountaineering days are done. Been there, done that.  

A colleague describes waiting recently for her husband to return from an ambitious winter ski traverse of Mount Moosilaukee: “When he’s overdue I worry.  I remind myself that he’s always made it back, often late but usually unhurt… I remind myself that he’s well prepared so he can be there overnight if he needs to be. I know neither of us wants anyone else to get hurt trying to find him so I wouldn’t ask anyone to search at night.  So I wait, but I get all the phone numbers ready so that if he’s not back by morning I can start making calls.  So far he’s always made it home that night.”

The “Hike Safe” hiker responsibility code states that you are responsible for yourself, so be prepared with knowledge and gear. Become self-reliant by learning about the terrain, conditions, local weather and your equipment before you start. Leave your itinerary, tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you'll return and your emergency plans. Stay together as a group, hike as a group, end as a group. Pace your hike to the slowest person. Turn back in bad weather. Weather changes quickly in the mountains. Fatigue and unexpected conditions also affect your hike. Know your limitations and when to postpone your objective. The mountains will be there another day. Be prepared for emergencies. Even if headed out for just an hour, an injury, severe weather or a wrong turn can become life threatening. Don't assume you will be rescued; know how to rescue yourself. Lastly, share the hiker code with others.

Winter in New Hampshire’s spectacular White Mountains is exhilarating and, at times, dangerous. Winter camping and hiking above tree line is challenge even for seasoned mountaineers. Having the right equipment, knowledge and experience, monitoring weather conditions and following the basic tenets of the hiker’s responsibility code are essential to a successful winter adventure… and to peace of mind for those waiting back at home. Have fun and stay safe.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at danderson@forestsociety.org or through the Forest Society's Web site: forestsociety.org.