Bitter Cold in the White Mountains

On Friday morning, as I prepared for a day of field trip festivities in Boston, I called Zach repeatedly to try and make weekend plans.  No answer.  As I would need to leave directly from the Boston bus station to get anywhere that night, I would have to be prepared for anything we did the moment I left my house that morning.  Optimistically hoping for adventure, I stuffed my largest backpack with a wide assortment of camping gear, warm clothes, homework, and photo gear.  Ready for anything, I boarded the train to Boston, where I finally spoke to Zach, and our plans began to fall into place.  Attempting an overnight camping trip in the White Mountains would be very last-minute, but seemed ultimately like the most ambitious, adventurous thing to do with only two free days – and so it was that Zach picked me up at a bus stop in Dover, New Hampshire, later that night.  We drove off into the darkness, towards North Conway, at the base of the White Mountains.

It was late when we got in, and neither of us had eaten since lunch.  We checked into the cheapest hotel I had been able to find over the phone, and began a semi-desperate search for dinner.  A local restaurant was closing, but its friendly manager took pity on us, and we finally sat down to a much-awaited meal.  The simple joy of a filling dinner put us in a wonderful mood, and we turned in for the night, resting up for the adventure ahead.

The next morning, we wasted no time in heading to the outfitter IME for some rental gear and trail recommendations.  After some debate, we decided to hike into a campsite called the Perch, at the base of Mt. Adams in the Presidential Range, home to the worst weather in the world.  There, we would get to try out the new four-season tent I’d gotten Zach for Christmas, putting it to the test right out of the box on one of the coldest nights of the year.  The friendly shop owners described the incoming weather pattern as an “arctic blast,” with overnight temperatures expected to drop to -25 (not including windchill).  Above treeline, the forecast for our summit of Mt. Adams the next morning rested at a crisp -45 degrees Fahrenheit.  At the strong recommendation of the local experts, we rented -30 degree sleeping bags, double-plastic mountaineering boots, ice axes and crampons.  As prepared as we could be, we made a last stop at a grocery store for some high-fat, high-calorie staples such as a block of cheese, a jar of Nutella, and bags of trail mix before hitting the trail.

The sun was already beginning its gradual descent towards the horizon as we left the warm shelter of Zach’s car, cringing in the bitter wind towards the trailhead.  The cold was already fairly extreme for a camping trip, but I felt confident that below treeline, with high-fat food in our bodies and a cozy tent, we would be just fine.  We entered a beautiful forest of snow-draped hardwood trees, golden sunlight spilling across the forest floor, and began our ascent into the mountains.  The fatigue in my legs reminded me that I hadn’t hiked with a pack in a long time, but it felt great to be back in my wintery element, covering distance.  As the sunlight turned to fiery shades of orange and magenta, the trees slowly became evergreens, blanketed in sparkling snow.  We reached the campsite at sunset – our goal – amidst short pine trees completely bejeweled with glittering frost and ice, the colorful splendor of the mountain landscape spreading below.  It was unbelievably beautiful, but photography fell to the back burner as we hurried to get our tent set up before dark and don our warmest layers.  The hair that stuck out from between our hats and face warmers was frozen solid in swirls of white frost.  Zach’s eyelashes were frozen.

Behold, my sudden lack of photography skills at 25 below!  Something to work on…

I began to contemplate the tiny fragments of warmth that we, humans, carry within us; hardly more significant than a candle flame.  No matter how cold the wind, shelter it and it will not go out; fuel it and it will burn more brightly.  Get it wet, however, and you will struggle to re-light it.  In the bitter cold, all we could do was insulate ourselves with layer upon layer, eat the most fat possible, and stay dry.

Puffy garments on, we jogged a few laps on the nearby trails with our fuel canister close to our skin, trying to warm it up enough to make dinner.  I opened packets of hand warmers, sticking a pair in my mittens and a single warmer against my core.  Zach made dinner as we munched on cheese, eager for our bodies to heat up digesting it.  Despite the rapidly dropping temperature, we soon had Mexican chicken and rice from Backpacker’s Pantry, with Nutella right out of the jar and hot chocolate.  As soon as it was done, we sprinted a few more laps for warmth, stashed our stove, and crept into our sleeping bags.  Temperatures sank.  I lay there, shivering, between the water bottle, fuel canister, and Nutella jar I was trying to keep from freezing with my body heat.  While we clearly weren’t going to freeze to death, I was uncomfortably cold, and hardly slept.  Accustomed to sleeping in a tight, women’s sleeping bag with extra insulation around the hips (where apparently, women lose a significant portion of body heat?), the extensive roominess of my rental bag let in too much cold air to be sufficiently warm.

As Zach would later say, however, the problem was also the solution.  When my summit alarm went off at 7:00, I realized I had come down with a cold overnight.  I felt terrible.  Abandoning all previous ambition to summit the peak that day, I finally crawled inside Zach’s sleeping bag, something I had always heard mentioned as a last resort, but didn’t think of as easy to pull off.  To my surprise, there was plenty of room for both of us in the giant rental bag.  Sharing his body heat, I immediately passed out for a few precious hours of real, restful sleep.

We decided to descend, as I felt so bad that even getting up was a struggle. Overnight, the heat and moisture of our breath had caused some significant condensation on the inside of the tent; in the bitter cold, it had taken the form of a thick layer of frost crystals that fell like snowflakes onto us whenever we moved. It literally snowed inside the tent, while the sky ironically remained perfectly clear outside. As soon as Zach left to make breakfast, I was freezing again, and ate Nutella straight out of the jar for warmth before even leaving my sleeping bag.  Zach returned to help me get my gaiters on and pack my backpack, while I shuffled around trying to warm up.  Thankfully, things began to look up after a sugary breakfast.  Eager to get off the mountain, we descended as fast as possible, using our ice axes to avoid slipping on the icy boulders beneath the snow.  We ran into several other pairs of hikers, all of whom congratulated us for our successful tent-camping endeavor, sharing stories of multiple failed attempts to summit these legendary mountains.  Our decision to leave the summit for another day seemed increasingly wise.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached the car, and I was desperately hungry– the night spent freezing was no match for a couple spoonfuls of Nutella, a mug of oatmeal and some trail mix.  I suddenly found myself weak with fatigue, hardly able to function.  When we finally sat down for dinner, I ate like I was starving, absolutely stuffing my face, and still hungry for more when it was done.  Although it had only been one night, the intensity of the weekend’s cold left me with a renewed sense of appreciation for simple things like food, water and a warm bed to return to that night.  I couldn’t stop smiling as I took a gloriously hot shower, or when hot coffee was as easy as turning on the burner.  The simplest things suddenly seemed wonderful beyond compare.

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8 thoughts on “Bitter Cold in the White Mountains

  1. I’ve been hoping you’d write about this weekend. I thought about you after you mentioned your plans. It got pretty cold that night! I climbed Mt. Lafayette in 1978 solo in the winter. I didn’t get to the summit, I almost froze to death. I went up very prepared and came down realizing I was very unprepared. One of my greatest climbing trips though. I have been climbing in North Conway for 30 some years though not recently. I need knee replacements so for now my climbing days are over. I gave all my gear to my brother in Mammoth Lake in California. At least it gets used! Love your pics and your stories.

  2. Great account of your adventure! I recently had a go in the Adirondacks ending with a similar tale, haha. Winter camping takes an appreciation for suffering, thats for sure. However, I remember leaving my adventure feeling like I had lived to my fullest potential. going back to work was insignificant after such a weekend haha.

    Hope you gain your health again soon.

    Cheers!

  3. I love mount Adams… and I love winter camping. Sounds like a great trip. Although my first thought was– canister stove? In that weather? Really? The simple things in life really are the best, though. And going without them for awhile is sometimes all we need to remember that.

  4. Thanks everyone! It’s awesome to me that people read this who can actually relate, haha. And asoulwalker – don’t worry, we didn’t leave town until the experienced owner of the outfitter had absolutely assured us that our canister stove would work despite the frigid temperatures. Sure enough they were right! I generally don’t trust canister stoves though, so was pretty impressed.

    • Which stove was it? I’ve used plenty of canister stoves at temperatures colder than twenty below F. but it was always a pain in my ass to make them work (warming canisters in places I don’t want to warm them, bringing heat packs to put under them, stopping mid-cooking session to disconnect the canisters and rewarm them, etc…) So I’m super curious now.

  5. it’s a jetboil but I’m not sure what model… we definitely did have to go to significant lengths to warm it, though. It DID work without warming it, but our water boiled way faster after 5 minutes of running around in the trees with the canister between layers of clothing. the thing is pretty awesome, though… i’ve always been more of a fan of the MSR whisperlite but man did the jetboil get things done fast.

    • I have both of those stoves and have loved them dearly for a very long time (obviously I have loved the whisperlite longer as it has existed for most of my life while the jetboil is relatively new). Repairing backpacking stoves was always one of my favourite things when I was a shoprat. I even got to work on a guys stove on the west buttress. There is something magical about winter camping and there is no winter camping without a stove (well, above tree line anyways). I’m glad you got to go out and have a good time in the mountains. Taking photos in those temperatures takes a lot of practice… you’ll get it if you want to. Cheers.

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