Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Short Winter Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park

You can't escape the snow... even in the desert
Winter in Joshua Tree means snow in the desert
I suppose one of the advantages of having roots all across America is that I'm always on the run. My university just began its winter break and with the help of some very cheap plane tickets, I was able to visit my girlfriend out in Southern California. So I bid farewell to the mild winter days of Northern New England and have been enjoying the California sun for a week. We have become "desert people" over the years and even with a long distance relationship, we come out to Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego or Mojave National Preserve at least a couple times a year. Its a rejuvenating place for me and one I deeply miss since moving away from California.

Those who don't know Joshua Tree are always fascinated by seemingly photoshopped images of cactus and yuccas covered in snow. The Mojave Desert can be a harsh and cold place in the winter and it is not a rare sight to see snow at the higher elevations. I don't know what the average height of the desert is, but most of Joshua Tree National park is between 3,000-4,000ft which is certainly high enough to see snow.
Keys View, Joshua Tree National Park
The day started with a drive up to Keys View which is a perfect place to start if you're looking for a relaxing day in the park. Its a short walk from the parking lot to a beautiful lookout which has views of Palm Springs, Salton Sea, Mt San Jacinto and Mt San Gorgonio. Its hard to believe that from this very spot, you can see the Salton Sea at -227ft below sea level, all the way to Mt San Jacinto at 10,834ft. This is a land of extremes and a part of California I will always love. This is an excellent view of the San Andreas Fault; one can appreciate the major forces which have caused such drastic changes in elevation and natural environment. 

From here we went to the Ryan Mountain Trail which is a short but steep trail to a 5,457ft summit with expansive views of the high desert. I love this trail because you can see the mountains and valleys of Joshua Trees for which the park was named. Its also somewhat snowy at the summit! This trail is 3.0 miles and can be done by a novice hiker. I would also recommend this spot for a brilliant sunset!
Valleys of Joshua Trees. Quail mountain in the center with Mt San Gorgonio in the distance
Looking South from Ryan Mountain
The final destination of the day was the nature walk to Barker Dam near Hidden Valley. This was another perfect little hike! From this 1.3 mile loop, we were able to see most of the vegetation that grows in this part of the state and even some petroglyphs. The Barker Dam itself was part of a short-lived effort to graze cattle in the desert but has left a small lake which you don't often see in the desert.
Reservoir behind the Barker Dam
All in all, it was a beautiful winter day in JTree. Although people often think of the desert as scorching hot, it was actually cold and windy! Bundle up if you plan on hiking!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How to Buy Mountaineering Boots

A simple guide to buying footwear for mountaineers

Perhaps you’re an aspiring mountaineer or a seasoned veteran and you want to get some boots to match your sport. Mountaineering boots, as I have learned, are a serious investment and should be taken as seriously as you would any safety gear. After all, you’re trusting your very limbs to this type of footwear! Like all kinds of gear in the outdoor world, you get what you pay for with each price jump. However, you shouldn’t pay extra money for a boot that you won’t be using to its full potential (why buy a Ferrari and only drive it 55mph?). So before you go and buy double-plastic, knee-high mountaineering boots for a couple of summer routes, consider your options and
A shoe collection my girlfriend can be proud of...
The first questions you need to ask are-
  • What and where are you climbing now?
  • Which seasons do you climb?
  • What are your goals?
  • What mountain ranges are you planning on climbing?
  • How often do you climb?
  • Do you plan on ice climbing?
  • How well do your feet fare in cold weather?
Especially if you are going to a serious outfitter, you would want to be able to answer all these questions if you really want to get boots that suit your needs.

The major decision point is of course “Location, location, location!” Where are you going to climb? This is what separates 200 dollar boots from 500 dollar boots. If you’re planning on doing just coastal ranges such as the Sierras and Cascades, you might not have to get a top of the line boot. For the Rockies and Tetons (and even the Whites sometimes!), you’ll probably want to go up a price range.

If you’re just planning on doing some Class III summer routes… you might even be satisfied with a sturdy pair of hiking boots as opposed to mountaineering boots. I’ve continued to use my old hiking boots when the temperatures are not as cold and I want to have a lighter boot on. Heavy mountaineering boots can be tough on your feet and legs!

Also, if you only climb 1-2 times a year, you might just want to rent boots instead. I’ve seen many outfitters who will rent you top of the line boots for 20-25 dollars a day.

Next, you will have to figure out where you will buy your boots. It is extremely important that you go to a real outfitter as opposed to a major retailer. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting stuff from REI and EMS but you might be working with someone who is not very familiar with brands and suiting the boot to your needs. I purchased mine at Fifth Season Sports which is in the town of Mt Shasta, California. A real outfitter will schedule you for a boot fitting where they will take a good hour to match the boot to your size and need. This is worth the time and perhaps a little extra money. I’ve been extremely satisfied with the boots I’ve purchased from this outfitter.

These so-called “real outfitters” are almost always located nearby a major national park or climbing destination. In a place like Seattle or Portland, its easy to find them. I've also purchased gear from Joshua Tree Outfitters near Palm Springs, Ca, Elevation in Lone Pine, CA and International Mountain Equipment in North Conway, New Hampshire. There are, of course, many options!

Pricing of mountaineering boots generally range from $200-$500 with top of the line boots going for $700-$1,000.

As far as brands go, the outfitter will know the who's who in the world of mountain footwear. Personally, I swear by my Lowas which have kept my feet warm on winter ascents in the Rockies, Sierras and Whites and many summer ascents in the Cascades. La Sportiva and Scarpa make everything from summer mountaineering to technical, high altitude boots. Again, trust the outfitter with decisions around brands. Most of us mountaineers do not have the money to try out 5 different kinds of boots. Seriously though, unless you're doing Denali or the Himalayas, don't spend 800 dollars on boots.

Another important part of buying mountaineering boots is to bring your crampons or consider purchasing crampons. Its usually not a problem, but it is good practice to make sure that everything fits well together. Also, there is a real difference between mountaineering crampons and ice climbing crampons. You can use ice climbing crampons for regular mountaineering but not mountaineering crampons for ice climbing.

I'll soon be posting a gear review of my boots which I use on nearly all my winter trips. If you have an opinion on your boots, tell me what you think!

Friday, February 17, 2012

60 Below Zero on Mt Kinsman: New England 4,000 Footers and 50 Finest

Wicked Cold...
Winter on Mt Kinsman
I knew it was going to be a cold weekend. Towards the middle of February, an arctic mass plunged most of the Eastern United States into frigid temperatures over the weekend. Even the Florida Panhandle was seeing temperatures well below zero. Up here in northern New England, it actually felt like winter! A little too much like winter...

I had a weekend off from work and wanted to get out of the house and away from the books, despite the cold weather. In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, NOAA was predicting surface temperatures between -10F and 0F (-23C to -17C) with strong winds. Up in the higher peaks, the Mount Washington Weather Observatory was reporting a windchill of between -30F and -40F (-34C to -40C). This was probably going to be the coldest day of an otherwise mild winter! Great day for some winter climbing and... Denali training?

Here was the Weather Report!
Crossing Lonely Lake was excruciatingly cold with the wind gusts
Well that's probably about as cold as it gets in the Whites! When I pulled into the parking lot in Franconia Notch State Park, my car's temp read 0F (-32C). I bundled up in 12 different articles of clothing which has served me well on winter ascents in the Sierras and Rockies. This day proved to be colder than anything I've experienced out West. In addition, I had crampons, an ice axe and snowshoes. I took an extra jacket for good measure and food for an extra day should the worst happen. One learns to prepare for the worst in the Whites... even in the summer.

I saw a curious sight at the trailhead. I was passed by no less than 100 young Boy Scouts on their a winter camp out. I couldn't believe it... there were 9-year-olds running down the trail with sleds and backpacks! One of their leaders told me that they had stayed up in the Appalachian Trail Cabin and it was their first trip! It reminded me of my first winter campout with the Boy Scouts when I was in 6th grade. Who would have known that I would actually be enjoying this type of thing 10 years later...
No skin exposed!!
It was a two mile hike from the trailhead to the Appalachian Trail Cabin at Lonely Lake. Its a wonderful little place that's fully stocked and open 365 days a year. The caretakers work every other week and keep it open for people who like to hike up in the winter and stay in the cabin. Over the years these cabins have created a small community of hikers and backpackers who visit several times a year.

The other nice thing about the cabins is that they keep up to date weather reports. The thermometer at the cabin was hovering between -5F and 0F with winds around 10-15mph. However the gusts across the bare lonely lake were much higher- 40mph with some gusts. 

The ranger also gave me the weather report from Mt Washington which also gives a report for the high peaks. "Careful up there- there's an advisory for windchill of 60 below zero". I couldn't believe that.  Somehow, the temperature was so cold and the wind so fierce that the temperature feels like 60 below zero. (how do they come up with this stuff?)I have no mental picture of what -60F "feels like". However I was well-dressed for what I'd encountered so far and I could always turn back.
Kinsman Pond in the Winter
After leaving the cabin, I climbed up the steep "Fishin' Jimmy Trail" which brings you to Kinsman Pond below the two summits. After about an hour, I popped out near the wilderness shelter by Kinsman Pond. Normally a serene little refuge for AT hikers, this was where the cold became almost intolerable. At one point, while skirting around the lake, I took off my mask for a second and breathing in hurt!

Still, back in the cover of trees, it was not so dangerous. Most of Kinsman Ridge is covered in trees save for a few exposed sections. Walking up was difficult because my goggles were fogging up and then subsequently freezing. It was an interminable process of stopping, taking off the goggles, de-frosting them and walking again. Eventually the summit of North Kinsman was below me and I started the march to South Kinsman. Interestingly enough, I met 3 other hikers charging the ridge. They also had the classic, frozen beards and eyelashes.
South Kinsman in the Winter
Everything had a bizarre, ethereal look to it. While my other winter hikes have been nothing but delightful, the mountains on this trip looked fierce and uninviting.I thought that this must be what Alaska looks like in the winter. But of course.... nothing... not even frigid temperatures will keep me from taking pictures!

The summit of South Kinsman was the most exposed and coldest part of the trip. I wish I had a thermometer to actually measure the surface temperature. There was just such a huge difference between hiking below and above treeline. Even with all the clothing, I could only stay long enough to get a summit picture or two.
The summit of South Kinsman
Summit Picture!
Winter on Cannon Mountain
Hiking down was colder as the day wore on but having that Appalachian Cabin made it more bearable. There I was greeted by a couple of other fellow hikers who were staying the weekend up in the cabin. So I wasn't the only crazy one...

Well, I think that takes the cake for my coldest hike ever. Earlier last year I was able to bag one of the Tetons and Mt Elbert in Colorado in the late spring but this was much colder. Who would have thought that it could get so cold on a mere 4,100ft mountain? Be prepared for anything when you're hiking in the Whites!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mt Moosilauke via Beaver Brook Trail: New Hampshire 4,000 Footers

Hiking the Westernmost 4,000 footer in New Hampshire in the Winter
The icy summit of Mt Moosilauke in January
I'm on a roll! Just because its winter doesn't mean the peakbagging slows down! I really do love living only about an hour and a half from the White Mountains and Northern Appalachians of Maine. This day's ascent was the westernmost 4,000 footer of New Hampshire; the 4,802ft Mt Moosilauke. This perhaps one of the most climbed mountains in the state but nevertheless can be a challenge at any time of the year.

This mountains can be hiked from any cardinal direction. Its a steep trek any way you slice it. From the West, there's the 7.8 mile Glencliff Trail, from the South, there's the Gorge Brook Trail which is 7.9 miles and from the North there's the 7.6 mile Benton Trail. I thought the East approach was the most fun- the Beaver Brook Trail because it essentially paralleled a frozen waterfall. The Appalachian Trail traverses this peak. For northbound hikers, it is the beginning of one of the most challenging and scenic sections of the AT. Here is a map!
One of many frozen waterfalls on the Beaver Creek Trail
Did I mention that Beaver Creek is steep? The 1.9 miles from the trailhead on highway 112 to the notch are relentless. Fortunately there's great views of the cascades which I imagine are just as glorious in the summer as they were in the winter. After about 1.5 miles of hiking, there's the Beaver Brook AT hut which serves as a nice resting point. In just another 0.4 miles, you'll come to the turnoff between Moosilauke and Mt Jim. Heading to the right (West) will take you to the summit.

This part was the highlight of the trail. Its about another 1.9 miles to the summit through a mostly alpine landscape. The Krummholz (stunted alpine trees) is a starkly different landscape than the hardwood forests below. Interestingly enough, the vegitation gets denser and denser until you get past the treeline. I find it interesting that the treeline in New Hampshire is abrupt, like a boarder. There's no transition between the Krummholz and the alpine zone.
The alpine zone on Mt Blue
As soon as you pop out of the trees, the summit of Moosilauke is just a short hike. This is, of course, the most scenic part of the hike and due to its isolation, this summit provides unique views of New Hampshire and Vermont. One can easily see the Green Mountains and Mt Mansfield, the highest point in Vermont. Franconia Ridge and the Kinsman's are very easily seen to the North. Mt Moosilauke is a unique part of the Whites due to its isolation and I can see why it is so often climbed.
Treeline on Moosilauke
The Kinsmans and Franconia Ridge- a notoriously difficult section of the AT
More summit views from Moosilauke
Usually I try not to climb the same mountain twice but I would love to do another route up Mt Moosilauke. Its a real challenge but worth it from any direction. The trails are well-marked and easy to follow, even during the winter.

The quests to climb New England's 50 Finest and 4,000-footers continues!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!