Winter's Wrath in the Whites

by Randy Pierce

Why take all the challenges of our summer hikes, remove Quinn’s help, and instead undertake a hike under conditions that are snowy, icy, and potentially very cold? Interestingly, winter hiking in the White Mountains brings some benefit to a blind hiker, but it also introduces a new set of challenges. Trails in the White Mountains are close to rock-strewn streambeds, making the placement of each step the largest challenge for me in the summer. In the winter, the snow-laden paths are level, and that is an incredible benefit. Since these trails are frequently hiked, even in the winter, hikers before us will have packed the path into a harder surface, which means that feeling the trail underfoot and with trekking poles becomes significantly easier as well.

Randy, Tracy, and Quinn on Pack Monadnock
Randy, Tracy, and Quinn on Pack Monadnock

Trekking poles, plural? That’s right! My first trip is this weekend and I won’t be taking Quinn with me. Therefore, I’ll be using a pole in both hands to prod ahead and find obstacles. The poles also help me determine the hard packed areas of the trail verses the softly packed, off-trail areas. Using the poles augments the bear bells worn by the person hiking ahead of me, which gives me some auditory directional information. Of course, being well bundled in all the appropriate winter gear means I’ll have some trouble hearing, and some trouble feeling. Even my feet, which are my primary messengers for the terrain, will be impacted by the use of snowshoes and possibly crampons or micro-spikes for the steeper icy sections above tree line. There are many changes to consider when hiking in the winter and it will be vastly a different experience.

The largest difference for me may be the absence of Quinn, as our teamwork is a fundamental part of the 2020 Vision Quest work I do on these slopes. There are many reasons why working with him on a winter hike is not appropriate. The most significant reason is that the temperatures are likely too cold for him and there simply isn’t enough gear to make it work safely and comfortably for him. Add to this the challenge of narrow paths, wider snowshoes, and spiky soles that could injure him and it becomes an easier decision to leave him at home. Many dogs can and do manage winter hiking, though they typically aren’t using the mental energy required to lead a blind person. If Quinn is not working for me, it is best for me not to have to worry about him, and that is best served by letting him lounge in front of the fire at home!

Greenleaf Hut atop Mount Lafayette. Photo courtesy of Sean McQuilken.

A final note on the challenge of this trip is regarding the weather. Winter conditions can easily prevent a hiking group from achieving the summit. A weather outlook can be promising, but there are so many variables and so few resources when hiking in winter weather. The summit is a destination, but a safe and enjoyable trip is my primary goal.
So, I have explained how I would hike this winter, but I haven’t told you why I would do this. The beauty of the landscape in winter is incredible in many different ways than in summer, and that will evoke very different responses from those I hike with. The silence and solitude found in snow-hushed winter wonderlands is amazing in its own right and that will enhance my reflections. The strongest reason for me, however, is the desire to experience the world in many ways – and this is yet another outstanding option to explore. For now, it’s all theoretical, as I’m writing this before my first undertaking of one of the 48 in winter. If all goes well, when this posts on Monday I’ll be reflecting on my expedition up Mt. Lafayette with a much clearer understanding of what is involved in winter hiking.


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