Thursday, January 17, 2013
Many forces and drives were pulling at me and affecting my hike planning for this trip. As with my recent trip up Hopkins and Giant, I hadn't really decided which of my many contending hikes to choose from until right at the end. I kept wanting to go bigger or more remote. I'd been consulting with some people on the high peaks message boards and ultimately decided to go with a real list-pleasing hike: Big Slide via Yard. This would fulfill all 4 working lists:
1) New Trail
2) Koda 46er
3) Winter 46er
4) Solo 46er
My rough blueprint for winter solo hiking safety has been starting out at sunrise, planning on hiking less than 15 miles and shooting to be out of the woods long before dark. I've been trying to minimize morning house time too (don't wanna wake up Jeanette) so I packed everything up the night before, including food and simply got dressed and started driving just before 5 AM. Koda gets some composure treats which are essentially doggy Valium. He typically whines a bit on any drive to a hike and is completely dead to the world on the return trip. This trip was a pretty textbook as far as that goes. Lots of good quiet time on the way up but he occasionally gets upset/ agitated and cries for a bit. I stopped for coffee at exit 25 Chester and walked Koda for a minute. He had NO interest in taking a leak and I made a mental note to not bother the next time. I ate some hard boiled eggs and bacon made the night before on the drive.
We got to the Garden trail-head just as the sun was coming up. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day. I threw some wet food in a bowl for Koda. On previous big hikes he hasn't really eaten more than a few bites of breakfast so I wanted to make sure he had some food in his belly. Knowing dry kibble wasn't gonna entice, I just gave him a heap of the good stuff. Well, his excitement to hike might actually overshadow mine. All he could do was run back and forth between the car and the trails start, giving the bowl of dog candy only the occasional sniff. Well it was worth a try... The dog food went on my dashboard.....where I hoped it wouldn't smell too bad if the temps stayed low.
I began to trot after the very eager pup down the Phelps trail. It was indeed a beautiful morning. There was less than 8 inches of well-packed snow on the ground so I bare-booted all the way to Johns Brook Lodge. Views of the Great Range were stunning. I studied Bennies Brook slide, remembering Kieran and I's memorable ascent and fantasized about future snowboard outings. Blazing Pink sun illuminated the summit of Lower Wolf Jaw and I imagined what a neat place to take in a sunrise that would be.
By the time we reached it, I was drained and started munching on the pepperoni stick which has become (for better or for worse) a winter staple for me. There wasn't much moving water for Koda to drink so for the rest of the day we shared watered down Gatorade from my Nalgene. He also got a pack of tuna here so he'd have some steam for the ascent of Yard Mountain.
On paper and in the rest of the hiking season, the mileage and elevation gain for this next section is pretty standard high peaks hiking. As a novice winter hiker I was in over my head. Any gain in elevation meant increased snow depth. The Warm temps and bright blue skies meant wet and heavy snow. I was frustrated with myself, knowing I should have picked a hike where the trail was likely going to be packed out at least a little. It was dangerous for both myself and my young dog to be back on a seldom traveled trail in the middle of the week mucking through heavy deep snow. After some very successful 'road-less-traveled' hikes in the recent past (Blueberry mtn>Porter>Cascade, Hopkins>Giant) I didn't think seriously enough about the recent snow.
Waves of exhaustion over-swept me as we continued tromping through the snow. I put the tails on my snowshoes for the first time for added float. They were effective but were now heavier and more unwieldy, both aiding and increasing difficulty at the same time. Koda was flagging too. This was the hardest part for me. I could tell he was exhausted and needed lots of breaks (he usually doesn't need ANY and is impatient with me when I rest). He would flop over in the snow and bury his snout. I would too. It broke my heart and I felt dumb and selfish dragging him out here. He loves to hike but wouldn't stop until he couldn't as long as I kept going. I had to remember this feeling and implement it on my next trip planning. I can't risk his life and he can't speak up for himself. I've been warned several times on the boards as well that I need to go easy with the little guy until he's full grown. I felt immature for not listening to those who have gone before me.
When the climbing started in earnest, the thought of bagging the hike started to seem like a good idea. I'd plod along for a while, calculate, evaluate our condition and look back. We were about 3/4 of the way up Yard and it seemed at that point that it'd be less mileage out if we kept going forward so if we weren't injured, we should keep going. ANY signs of injury for Koda and we'd head right down to the interior outpost. Lets just get the regrets out of the way here so we can move forward with the rest of the hike. I regret not being able to enjoy the trail more. it was quite beautiful, offered some unique perspective and was all the solitude I could hope for. Once over the hump on Yard, I was so grateful to not be ascending anymore I didn't really poke around for a view.
Koda and I both perked up a bit once we had gained the ridge. He had learned that if he stayed behind me, I would break the trail for him. At first I was tremendously relieved. This seemed to greatly reduce the difficulty of travel for him and also meant he couldn't run ahead and would be saving even more energy. As glad as I was at first, I began thinking what a lazy jerk he was. The ridge line hike between Yard and Big Slide was relatively flat, with deep snow and no evidence of recent human visitors. We followed snowshoe hare prints the entire ridge and were very grateful for their slight trail-breaking assistance. Even though things were better now that we weren't climbing I was still really exhausted and more than a little frustrated with myself on poor planning putting myself and dog in danger. The first faint appearance of boot prints might of been one of the more relieving moments in my high peaks experience. I knew we had to be very close. Sure enough we broke out of the tree line and onto that perfect little summit of Big Slide moments later. Such totally and complete relief.
Bright blue skies and crisp gust of between 10-15 mph greeted us on the summit. I had gotten pretty wet sloshing around on the ascent so I got very cold pretty quickly. We both had some tuna and banana chips, gulped some watered down Gatorade and took some pictures before scurrying off.Hiking on a packed trail was a complete day changer. We were able to make easy and quick progress and this caused us both to perk up and shake off the grueling ascent. I met a couple of guys pretty close to the top who told me The Brothers were ice-free. Knowing that the trail was packed and ice free this was the shortest and prettiest return route and so an obvious choice.
We made our way down, encountering a few groups of hikers, our first human contact of the day. Some clouds rolled in and the day went from bright blue to dappled gray. The hike along The Brothers was fast paced and as pretty as ever. Lots of varied perspectives of the great range. I sat for a minute after an hour and a half of steady descent and enjoyed two Christmas gifts from two amazing women. The first was a beautiful blue prayer bowl my sister gave me. I chimed it and made it ring, listening to the sound in the mountains. Jeanette found me a beautiful carved stone pipe crafted by a Native American artist. It's a platform-style pipe with the bowl carved into a bear which faces the user. This felt at home here too.
The rest of the hike went by with limited fuss and fanfare. It was great to move my body rapidly through the landscape and we made tremendous time back to the car. As has been our routine, I put him on leash about 10 minutes before we reached the trail head. When we got to the car I put out his bowl of wet food again and this time he killed the entire thing without breathing. I looked forward to a peaceful drive home with him completely passed out. After a quick stop at the Stewarts in Keene, we were making our way back to Albany. We were in the woods from 7am to around 1:30pm. About 6.5 hours covering just under 10 miles. This was Koda's fourth high peak and my tenth winter high peak. I'm learning a lot by doing as is my usual and learning some by listening to those with experience which is much harder for me. What people were trying to tell me about not hiking loops in the winter just didn't sink in until I was hiking and could see why. I had no idea what the return hike would be like. I was also told to not push Koda too far as he is still young and developing. Watching him struggle breaking trail with me was a real call to awareness. For the rest of the winter we are going to choose hikes which are either low mileage with some potential for trail breaking or medium mileage with high potential for broken trails. I am confident that there are a big handful of winter high peaks that we can do that fit these qualifications and I'm excited to have some rules to guide our hiking choices.