First Person:
Jeff Rand

Mount Marcy in Winter

This experience comes from Jeff Rand and describes a winter camping trip he took in January of 1993

Mount Marcy is the king of New York's Adirondack Mountains. At 5,344 feet it soars above tree line, earning it the name "Cloud Splitter" by the native Americans. During the dead of winter in January 1993 I made a three night trip to the Adirondacks to climb Mt. Marcy.

I entered the high peaks region through the Keene Valley from the east. Being concerned about future road conditions, I parked the car in town and hiked to trailhead. This turned out to be a wise decision.

My first day's hike was a short one to a campsite about three miles from my car. Temperatures were in the single digits and dropping. This would be my only experience with the positive side of zero during the excursion. One of the advantages to winter camping in snow is the ease of finding a campsite. Snow depth was two to three feet making it easy to stamp out a tent platform in an area that would normally be too rough for a campsite. Snowshoes work well for this purpose.

The next morning I began the trek up the valley to base camp. The temperature had dropped during the night and continued falling as I gained altitude. It was also snowing. Early in the day I encountered another group of humans eager to get out of the wilderness. Apparently they were college students on a five day winter backpacking trip, which had taken its toll both physically and mentally. The did not climb Mt. Marcy.

By early afternoon I had reached base camp, choosing a site near the Slant Rock Lean-to. On a summer day, I would have pressed on for the summit, but the short period of daylight and brutal temperatures made it wise to make camp early. I dug a platform in the four foot deep snow just big enough for my tent and a small veranda. Having no idea where the actual earth was located, I used the deadman approach to anchor my tent fly. I accomplished this by burying logs in the snow to hold the guy ropes. When finished, I had a cozy tent protected by high walls of snow.

After a brief Scouting expedition on the trail ahead, I returned to camp for dinner and bed. I found my Coleman Peak1 stove and attempted to make fire. It is not surprising that temperatures near 20 below zero are not kind to manmade things. The stove pump did not work. I had to take it apart and repair the pump with my one ungloved hand. I could work for no more than 60 seconds before my hand would retreat to my armpit for warming. I also used my armpit to warm the pump mechanism. I quickly reinstalled the pump, got two strokes and had to remove it for another warming. After repeating the process several times, my hand had enough and I settled for a very yellow frame. I put a pot on the stove immediately even though the stove was completely engulfed in flame. It took well over an hour to melt two quarts of water and low boil a precious eight ounces. I was able to have one small warm meal. Fortunately, I had brought enough cold food to supplement it.

One of the winter camping misconceptions is that is necessary to have warm food. Warm food is a luxury, but not a necessity. Water is another story. Dehydration is especially severe in winter, so producing and consuming water is of paramount importance. I always fill my thermos first. I suspect the hikers I encountered earlier in the day suffered from dehydration.

My minus 30 rated sleeping bag provided a safe haven for the cold night. A good sleeping bag makes all difference in winter camping. I use both a Thermarest (lightweight) and closed cell foam mattress in winter. Of course, I had pee bottle handy so I did not have to get up during the night. I also put a full water bottle in my sleeping bag to keep it from freezing. (In extreme mountaineering conditions I might have been forced to sleep with a pee bottle filled with urine, as well.) With the added luxury of candlelight reflecting from the snow bank I felt secure for the night.

After a twelve hour nap I woke up to a light snow and a temperature of 21 below zero. It wasn't fun but I emerged from my cocoon, melted some more snow, and strapped on my snowshoes.

The trail up Marcy was steep and brutal. Although I had snowshoes, the snow was five feet of powder and it took extreme effort to climb the steep mountain. Eventually, I removed my hat (still -21 degrees) to keep from overheating. When I reached timberline, I quickly put it back on. Conditions were brutal on the exposed mountain. The wind was blowing more than 60 mph and it was at least 20 below. I think the windchill was around 90 below zero. Fortunately this was only theoretical, as I put on snow goggles and had no exposed flesh to the wind. Curiously, I was not wearing my down parka (Only need it when it is really cold). However, I was fully dressed in layers, including expedition quality outerwear.

The trip across the exposed mountain was exhilarating. While the snow had blown away, it was difficult to remain standing in the wind. I kept a low stance and tended to move between gusts. My snowshoes had crampons which held to the icy rock. The visit to the summit was very brief, as expected.

There is nothing like going downhill in deep powder snow. I think I made back to camp in an hour. It had taken five to get to the top. I camped another cold night with the finicky stove.

On the fourth day, I hiked back to civilization and a dead car battery. Because I had not parked the car in a remote area, I was able to get a jump start in the balmy minus ten conditions of town.

Mechanical things do not fare well in the cold. As a full fledged blizzard commenced I left for home in a car that I knew would not start again if shut off. The real fun started when the accelerator froze at full throttle. In order to keep the car from speeding out of control I had to use the brake constantly and shift into neutral frequently. I drove sixty miles through the mountains in the blizzard before the accelerator thawed. Eventually the battery was charged enough to start the car too.

I knew this little adventure was successful when the car odometer turned over 300,000 miles before reaching home.

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