The wind whips my hair wildly about as I attempt to tame it inside a wool hat, shoulders scrunched up to assist in the process. I turn toward my car, giving its warm seats once last glance as I shoulder my pack onto my shoulders- nearly ten pounds heavier than my summer pack. I am dressed in many layers, all with a specific purpose and all very expensive. I head into the woods, but not before fumbling to snap a photo of the trailhead sign.
Not yet fifteen minutes into the hike I am overheated. I wait until the others in my group begin to slow and then announce I need to delayer. While we’re stopped I decide to drink some water. I unzip the koozie to access the inverted Nalgene bottle. It has to be placed this way to keep the water from freezing. I make three attempts to remove the bottle before removing my mittens. As I sip I tell myself not to go too long without drinking. In winter it’s easy to get dehydrated.
My nose begins to drip as I begin up the trail once more. I wipe it along my $300 down jacket sleeve and begin mouth breathing. Puffs of hot air escape into the frigid mountain sky. We come to a stream crossing and I ready my trekking poles. The large rocks used to cross are covered in a thin layer of ice. Mounds of snow have not yet covered this obstacle. I step onto the first ice free rock with ease and move onto the next. The third is unexpectedly icy and my foot slips. My arms shake, but my trekking poles do not let me down. Not this time.
I look up at the white blaze on the tree ahead of me and wonder how many of them have been camouflaged by snow. My mind drifts to food and numbers and finally stillness. I think of nothing and just feel. My legs move fluidly underneath me with ease, trekking poles gracing top of the snow leaving brushstrokes on the trail.
This feeling of contentment, admiring the dreamlike forest which is covered in a thick blanket of white comes to a sudden halt. My boots are inches below a dense layer of snow and I am looking up at the sky; The first posthole of the day. I sit up and attempt to remove the snow from inside my clothing before pulling my legs out of the giant hole I have just created. Winter hiking is not fun. I pull off my gloves and shake them out, exposing my hands to six degree air. My body temperature drops but looking ahead at the impossibly steep trail I decide to put my snowshoes on and keep my current layers on. I will soon overheat if I add any more clothing.
I remove my gloves once again to cinch the straps of my mountaineering snowshoes, tugging them tight. As I begin to walk I adjust my gait to avoid tripping over my new flippers.
46…47…48…. I pause and glance up, cheating at the game I’ve made up for myself when the climbs get tough. The goal is to reach a specific number without pausing to get up steep sections quickly and efficiently. My unofficial rule is to avoid looking ahead during the process. Not one to break my own rules, I add ten more paces to my made up objective.
The trail reaches what may be the last bit of flat surface until the summit. I reach for a snack and fumble with my water bottle as I chew. Breaks are quick in winter to avoid getting too chilled.
The last section of trail is relentless. The trail does not switchback up the mountain, but instead goes directly up it. I squint into the glaring sun. I am getting to treeline! I hear the wind slapping violently against the ground then swirling gracefully with bunches of snow. I look around at the entrance to this new alpine world, knowing this dance the wind is performing may cover my tracks by the time I return.
The sign reads a warning about avoiding the fragile alpine plants, but this time of year any plant life is covered in feet of snow. I pull layers over myself in preparation for the last stretch before the summit: another midlayer, a snot covered down jacket, my balaclava, and goggles. The world tints as I pull the goggles over my eyes and the chorus of Coldplay’s Yellow begins to repeat in my head.
It isn’t five minutes before my nose begins dripping again and my goggles fog up. My face is dripping and my hair gets covered in rime ice. The summit cairn is in sight yet I feel like a slob.
I reach the summit and crouch behind a nearby cairn to fumble with my camera once again. I give my whole face one last wipe before making an attempt to look somewhat civilized, but I look wild; As I should.
The summit affords views of dozens of peaks. Some grand and others merely smooth curves in the distance.
The wind whips at nearly 70 miles per hour. My eyes begin to water even behind my goggles and my body is pushed around as the wind gusts. The clouds quickly come in as a final warning to seek refuge under treeline.
My time atop is brief. In that time I feel a great sense of discomfort. My skin chills, face drips, and I am utterly out of control. My body literally moving as the elements force it to. I rush back to the trail and take my first deep breath. I feel alive.
Winter hiking is not inherently fun. So why do I do it? It is tough and full of obstacles that will force you to make decisions in the moment and immediately learn from moments that don’t go just right. Hiking teaches you to adapt. Throw in whipping winds, frigid temperatures, and ever changing trail conditions and you have the perfect space for growth. In the moment when you’re reeking the benefits of discomfort, winter hiking is most definitely not fun. That is unless you discover the joys of glissading. Now that’s pure joy.
Last modified: November 2, 2015