Winter hiking season: when it all began for me. In January of 2009 I bagged my first documented 4000 footer (previously summited mountains were done sporadically with friends and I never knew what I was hiking). I can still remember putting on borrowed crampons to ascend the ledges heading up Whiteface. My friends described me as Cinderella because I couldn’t figure out the straps and was the token damsel in distress. Now, six years later and countless rounds of peaks, I happily await the Winter Solstice in all of its glory.
There are several blogs and informational sites regarding the proper gear and ways to research winter conditions, so I won’t repeat this useful information. I remember when New England Trail Conditions and View From The Top were highly utilized sites for broken trails, road closures, and hike itinerary ideas. Now we have Facebook hiking forums and Blogs that provide a wealth of knowledge. There are also a lot more hikers venturing out into the bitter cold conditions, which makes the trails better travelled than when I began this journey.
Here is something I don’t hear a lot about: winter hiking legs. You see, summer hiking is essentially road running with obstacles and a boat load of elevation. You have a tiny pack, minimalist shoes, and generally develop an eye for rocks and roots by the middle of May. However, winter offers a different workout from its summer counterpart.
I’ll start with the aspects of winter that make it arguably easier. First, the trails fill in with well packed snow that cover the roots and rocks that pose such a problem for my feeble ankles and clumsy legs. Once a few feet of snow has accumulated and several snowshoe clad compadres have trampled the trail there is a glorious white carpet that awaits a freakishly fast descent. Second, to build on this swift descent concept, many people enjoy butt sliding down steep trails. While I am not fond of this because I’m convinced the running downhill will develop my quads and core I definitely appreciate the merriment associated with sledding like a child as an adult. Third, once a trail is broken out it is much easier to find in the dark. While all summer I spend my headlamp lit nights searching for blazes, in winter you can practically put your head down and follow the white brick road back to your car in the underlie conditions. Score!
Now for the aspects of winter that make it a workout I virtually cannot replicate:
- Tiny stabilizing muscles engage the moment we get our first 6 inches of snowfall. When ascending or descending steep sections of trails our feet tend to slide from side to side, especially the first few hikes in these conditions. After a summer of not requiring these same muscles to engage (and happily giving the alternative stabilizing muscles around our knees and ankles a rest) I notice a welcomed fatigue in random areas on my legs. These areas include the sought after “front of shin” and “top of thigh slash lower butt” (add ‘-eous’ to the end for medical terms, haha). The one step forward and two steps back technique that fills the beginning of winter is an infuriating yet hard working one.
- Bring on the snowshoes! Once we have a substantial amount of snowfall the masochists fight for first tracks. There is something glorious about lifting your leg with ten pounds of heavy snow on the back of your snowshoe. While your heart pounds in your ears, your pace slows to 1.5-2 mph, and your hip flexors begin to scream there isn’t anything more enjoyable than the first few times you break trail for over a mile.
- What’s in my damn pack? Suddenly my tiny pack with minimal water, a filter, a few calories worth of food, and a change of shirt becomes a 20-40 liter monstrosity filled with essential gear. Every year, without fail, the moment I throw on my winter pack I remind myself of the reason I don’t want to gain 10-20 pounds. Or at least not become a hunchback.
- Let’s thrive and survive! Winter is fantastic because there is a sense of defeating elements every time you complete a hike. Once my eyelashes have a thick coating of ice I know I’m not supposed to be out there for 25 miles, but dammit I refuse to go inside! Winter increases your ability to understand your own body, its comfort zones, and how you can regulate temperature with pace and skill. I mean, who doesn’t like becoming the Hulk to undo a jacket zipper?
- Learning you never return to winter hiking in the shape you left it is humbling and awesome. I remember this feeling when I would cycle throughout the winter both outdoors and indoors (on the trainer), but still get my butt kicked when I went for my first century ride of the summer season. It seems to always take my body 3-5 winter hikes before I have acclimated to the change in conditions, muscles used, pack weight, and trail breaking. Even after a summer filled with long, fast days on trails and 10,000+ elevation consistently I still come into winter feeling exhausted after 20 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation gain. That said, every March I swear I am invincible… until the first root shows its ugly head and I inevitably trip, fall, and remember I’m just a little girl.
Happy winter hiking to everyone hitting the trails this season!