Taking Lafayette by Storm – Part 2

by Randy Pierce

The traction of my MSR snowshoes was incredible and I didn’t slip on any of the steep steps. Aside from the directional work I had to do, the hardest challenge was the many ‘duck walks’. The duck walks occurred in areas where the trail brought us under a dome of branches piled high with snow, like a cave or tunnel. Occasionally an insufficient crouch or ‘duck’ would drop some of that snow onto a hiker, and I quickly learned to get very low for these sections. The sound and air pressure changes in these areas were some of the most magical snow silence and solitude that I relish.

The Agonies provided some of the steepest work of the day, and we felt the winds increase, so much so that I covered my entire face for the remainder of the ascent. As we reached the hut, it was clear that we were walking on snowdrifts, which were higher than the hut itself – it was even possible to walk straight onto the
back roof of the hut. It’s is incredible to realize there is so much snow beneath you and likely the next time you’re on those same trails it would all be gone! We talked with several other hikers at the hut, and all who had attempted a summit had returned unsuccessful. We intended only to go the short distance further to pass tree line and feel a bit more of the full wind upon the mountain. We did this successfully, and we were very eager to get our group photo opportunity and then retreat to the slightly more sheltered region. Temperatures with the wind chill at that point were likely less than twenty below zero, and unless we were working hard or adding layers, it was no place to remain.

Heading down with a very healthy feeling of accomplishment and very comfortable weather (though we knew it was still below zero with wind); we took a few opportunities to play. Most shed their snowshoes, as the hard-packed snow didn’t require them while on the trail. Striding off the trail to measure snow depth, we would easily drop to our waist, necks, or even further in the snow!

Instead of the ‘bear bell’ method of direction I used on the way up, I was able to place my hand on the pack of another person and let him guide me along. Lack of snowshoes made this reasonable; though not sliding into my guide was a challenge at times. Another challenge was attempting to stay away from the edges of the trail, since I was not able to use my trekker poles while being guided in this manner. Physically, this was more demanding but mentally it was less so, and we made better time. Much thanks to Robbie and Sherpa for this incredible bit of work. They were fantastic and I appreciated it – although I must say that the independent feel of accomplishing a trail with them versus with Quinn is noteworthy. Some of the reward is in how we feel about ourselves, and without question, it was a great accomplishment!

Photo courtesy of Sherpa John

In our playful descent, the more practical fun was experienced in the art of glissading, in which the aforementioned luge trail was used for just that. Sitting and using hands and feet to propel the body to slide down the trail was exhilarating.  This also kept our pace up and was far safer in reality than I imagined when it was first described to me. It was a justified reward that the steepest and hardest parts on the way up were the swiftest and most fun on the way down! We needed fewer rests, though there were some different leg muscles at
work and they did require rest at a few points. We were off the mountain by 3:30 p.m. and, as is often the case, feeling a lot closer for the time and accomplishments together.

The bulk of our hike was in beautiful weather, though without all the right gear and the heat of our efforts, it would have been incredibly cold. Just beyond our final turning point was a storm so furious, it would have been torturous to us, despite the additional gear in our packs and the extra exertions it would have required. We took the mountain in a calm around a storm, and our success enabled us to storm up and back with the elation the experience deserved. For a first winter foray into the 48, we achieved a much-deserved reward and look forward to many more!  Continue


Taking Lafayette by Storm – Part 1

by Randy Pierce

Riding up Interstate 93 into Franconia Notch, John Lacroix – known to many as Sherpa John – explained how the cloud dome over the summit of Mt. Lafayette is caused by the powerful winds riding up the ravine. The presence of the dome also confirmed the weather forecast for us that day; a stormy summit with hurricane-force winds likely. Snow had fallen during the evening, but we pulled into the parking area, made our evaluations, and decided on how to proceed.

Sherpa John took the responsibility for being the “bear bell“ lead on this hike, as he has helped me evaluate and practice the new and challenging aspects of my White Mountain forays in the past. UNH Outdoor Education student Robbie Caldwell was a last minute addition to our group so he could gain some collegiate leadership hours. At the trailhead, the weather was calm but very cold; the red glow of the sun striking the top of Cannon Mountain offering a bit of encouragement.

It was 8:30 a.m. on February 13th, and my hands struggled for dexterity as the biting cold caused mere seconds without gloves to be a problem. We all gathered swiftly and began the trek so that our bodies could get working and warm. There is little small talk – just enough to be clear on our plan, which is to head to Greenleaf hut and then up above tree line to gauge the force of the winds. We would turn around at any point necessary – undoubtedly at that tree line – due to the storm on the summit.

One early detriment to the hike was the discovery that the tube of my Camelbak was frozen and most likely was so even before we began. Despite the warm water in it, the exposed tube was solid, and my water would now have to come from my less-convenient Nalgene bottle. We tucked the tube into my clothes to let my body heat melt it, but it wasn’t until we neared the hut that I finally had water flowing from it.

We called lunch on a rock that provided good seats for our weary legs and a great view of the three hills known as ‘The Agonies’. These three hills were our next challenge on the way up. We took time here to eat, reflect on our hike so far, and to appreciate the various summits all around us: Lincoln, Haystack, and the cloud-enshrouded Lafayette high above them all.

Photo courtesy of Sherpa John

As I had learned on the previous day with my first blind snowshoe hike up a mountain (Pack Monadnock), previous hikers had made a packed-down path that was lower than the surrounding snow. The packed trail made for an easy groove to guide my steps; the edges curled up almost like an ice luge to help guide me, and the flat footing for each step was an absolute treasure, as I’m used to struggling for footing during summer hikes. The bear bells hanging from my guide helped me as well, though the sounds of the snowshoes ahead were an easier source for me to track. Therefore, while each step was considerably easier to manage, the concentration for direction required a bit more work and practice. Fir traps beside the trail became an occasional hazard, as one of my legs sometimes plunged down into them. Without Quinn’s presence to warn me of low-hanging branches, that task fell to the folks in front of me, and it took some adjustments to learn what level of communication worked best. Still the pace was considerably quicker than my normal stride and we made excellent progress. In no time at all, no one was feeling the cold. And while we hiked, gently falling snow decorated the incredible winter landscape for the eight of us…


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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