Crunch, crunch, Crunch…
That would be the sound of our group of six trudging up a snowy hill. It’s 9 o’clock on Saturday morning at Cardigan Lodge in snowy western New Hampshire. After a power communal breakfast, we’re practicing new crampon steps to assist while climbing icy mountain trails in high elevations or above treeline in winter.
“Shorter steps,” hollers Jim, one of our two instructors, as I adjust my stride. I focus on placing my pole before taking a step, always trying to have three points of contact to avoid slipping.
Crampons, the spiky metal stabilizers you strap on your boots for safely when navigating ice at high elevations, take time to master. Although I’ve climbed more than a dozen New Hampshire 4,000-footers in winter with experienced winter mountaineering friends, I still want more crampon practice since many of those peaks only require microspikes, a less aggressive form of traction. I’d like to build confidence for the more exposed peaks.
After hearing about the New Hampshire Chapter’s Appalacian Mountain Club’s winter school, I decided to join the Advanced Winter Wilderness Travel workshop. It’s never too late to solidify your skills, learn new ones and review safety, especially when your life can depend on it.
The weekend program on Jan. 21 to Jan. 23 covered everything from how to pack your backpack with proper gear, to how to recognize signs of hypothermia, fun skits for practicing how to respond in an emergency, and map and compass work for bushwhacking in the wilderness.
Out on the Holt Trail, we have been walking a half mile or so in what feels like meditative silence. Then the conversation begins. I tell Joe, the other instructor, about a rescue I helped with on the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Moosilauke (4,803 feet) in winter, when suddenly Jim hollers from behind. “Is this the right trail?”
We check our maps and realize we have blindly followed Joe up the wrong trail. This motivates us to work as a team to avoid any other bluffs. We’re in a new mindset. Checking your route at every junction is important, especially in winter when taking a wrong turn can result in a longer hike that might have you descending in darkness when the temperature plummets.
This is one of many impromptu lessons in the woods. Our instructors explain how to manage our body heat by layering and delayering our clothing, how to efficiently pack up your gear to avoid getting cold, and how to make tough decisions about whether to turn back before summiting a mountain if the weather suddenly changes or it gets too late to safely descend before dark.
Up on a steep section of the trail we have our first chance to practice our crampon steps on thick ice. This is where we learn to trust our crampons.
“If you find yourself uncomfortable climbing down a really steep slope, try going backwards,” says Jim, leaning forward on his poles as he moves backwards using aggressive front-point steps. We practice front-pointing, the American step, side-steps, and crossover steps, getting a feel for which works best in which situation.
Then above Cardigan Lodge, we head out to the windy slopes toward the summit where we have to navigate rock and ice, carefully placing our poles with each step. It’s a little unsettling traveling across rock, some glazed with ice in fog.
“Isn’t it best to avoid the bare rock and walk through the icy areas up here?” I ask Joe.
“In New England, it’s impossible to avoid rock,” he quips.