Mt. Major: My First Winter Hike
A friend recently observed that he's impressed with my improved selection of hiking gear since the days when he and I would slip up and down mountains with little more than our sneakers and torn jeans – and I thought, man we're a couple of lucky saps!
Today I will tie snowshoes to my bag, wear microspikes, dress in multiple layers and bring extra hats and gloves and food and water. But back then, I'd climb up with just a water bottle and a pair of TOMS on my feet. I look back on those memories fondly, however, as the constant situational awareness training that comes from lacking proper gear has made me a smarter, more physically capable winter hiker. But I don't recommend doing any of the sketchy things I did. Just get the stuff you need, okay?
Definitely don't wear TOMS on a winter hike. You might as well wear flip-flops.
MT. MAJOR, FEBRUARY 2013
Do you remember Nemo? In early 2013, the nasty blizzard dropped anywhere from 2-4 feet all over the northeast United States. I decided just a few days later that I would lace up my sneakers with no tread and go up Mt. Major, a 1785-foot peak overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee near Alton Bay.
On my drive up, slithering through Alton Bay, I admired the scattered bobhouses on the ice. I even saw a plane parked on the frozen lake. I felt excitement flood through me – for the hike, but also for the possibility that I could watch the plane take off from the summit of Major, which offers one of the best bird's eye views of the entire bay.
I took a gamble that day without wearing boots or microspikes. I went up relying on others to have already broken trail. Of course, Major is so well-loved that there were plenty of boot prints and snowshoe paths to walk through. As I went up the popular blue trail, I noticed the boot prints switchbacking across the steeper ridges near the top, but the snowshoes climbing straight up. They felt like steps and I walked right up, my sneakers sinking into the packed-down snow just a little.
As I breached tree line, it began to snow. Beautiful flurries surrounded me, but skewed my view of Alton Bay and the surrounding hills. I was only a few minutes from the summit when I heard the plane taking off from below. Rats! I looked around me with the bare hope I could at least see the plane zip by, but I never did. And when I got to the summit, the plane was long gone.
I had the summit to myself that day. Just me in the light snow, leaning on the ruins of the old hut, looking down at the lake and out to the Belknap Range behind me. It was cold out, so I didn't linger. I also had no idea how much snow was going to come down, so I got moving.
Those snowshoe prints were not so easy to navigate going down. I basically skiied down, using my gloved hands as ski poles and my butt as an emergency brake. I slid past two well-equipped climbers on their way up and one asked me the old standby, “Havin' fun yet?”
“Oh yeah!” I whooped as I passed them. Once I landed under the trees again, the walking was easy and pleasant. I didn't have a care in the world. The snow continued to fall. It was one of those winter wonderland moments. But I thought about the recklessness I displayed above.
When I got back to my car, I pointed it to the hardware store. In the seasonal section, they had some microspikes for sale. The cheap, flimsy kind grandpas wear to shovel driveways without falling. Not really spikes, but pins. It was my first official hiking gear purchase.
Recently, I found those cheap spikes crumpled up in the back of my car. I've come a long way since then. They were buried under fishing gear, camping gear, backpacks and snowshoes. I tossed the old spikes, but they'll always linger with that memory of me sliding down Major in the snow.
Sometimes you need to act stupid in order to get smart.