Cold Redemption Part 3 of 3

In the weeks after our debacle on Slide Mountain Mike and I avoided planning another winter backpacking trip and mostly focused on staying in shape in the rock gym. There was no real interest in going back out on a winter trip this season. As things started to warm back up, we ended up doing some day-hikes, rock climbing a bunch, and a couple overnight trips to Lackawanna StateForest and the Catskills. We even got a 20-mile day in on the Pinchot Trail in Pennsylvania. As the spring and summer went on, we had some fall objectives in mind but our minds where far from winter. It wasn’t until a chilly night camping on Windham High Peak in the Catskills that Mike decided he wanted to get some winter backpacking redemption. We decided that we would get another Winter trip on the books and after some joking we called the trip “Slide Mountain Redemption”.  We set a date for mid-February and started thinking about what we could do to stack the odds in our favor.

While I am sure part of our Slide Mountain mishap was physical, I think the biggest issues were on the mental side. To put it simply I should have been more aware of red flags and noticed when Mike was checking out and had had enough of the situation. I should have been more cognizant of all the warning signs and turned us around. We should have set and agreed on a turn around time. We should have agreed that we both have veto power. This means that we should have had a conversation and agreed that if either of us was not feeling it or felt the other was in a potentially risky state then we could say let’s turn back.  We knew that in order to pull off a dead of winter backpacking trip we were going to have to set some strict parameters and really work as a team. For a few weeks we would meet for lunch and go back and forth about what hike would be best for the trip. While there were surely some easier mountains out there, I lobbied heavy for Twin Mountain. Twin Mountain sits on the notorious Devils Path and is known for having a relatively steep climb coupled with a somewhat exposed and beautiful summit. In terms of difficulty it would be much harder than Slide but had a lot of options in terms of camping and bailing out if we needed to.  Summiting and spending the night on Twin would be a worthy redemption for our previous years Slide debacle. After some debating, we both agreed that Twin was the goal with one large caveat. If we ran into any issues or were not feeling it, we would turn back early and would asses our level of comfort often. Finally, we agreed that we would have a strict turn around time if shit got weird and we were going slow. Now it was time to prepare.

We decided on February 17th that we would go for it. That week we had lunch a couple times to go through our gear, turn around time, and the route. We established that we would head up Twin from the Prediger Road trail head via Jimmy Dolan Notch. We would start out at Sunrise and would head back to the car if we had not found and established camp by 3:30pm. In terms of gear I went a little on the heavy side to make sure we had enough gear for variable conditions. I made sure to carry most of the extra heavyweight in my pack so Mike could move faster and stay confident in the cold temps. I was used to carrying heavy packs and was coming off a summer trip where I carried a 100lb pack deep into the Bugaboo Mountains. We packed all of the standard winter backpacking gear such as a 4-season tent, heavy sleeping bags ,and many clothing layers. I also brought a few add on items that really made the difference. These included a short 30m rope, Ice Tools, 2 SOL Bivys, 2 stubby Ice Screws, SOL reflective blanket, a harness, ATC, and two Wild CountryRopemen micro ascenders. It seems like a lot of gear for the Catskills but it all would prove to be useful.

The night before leaving we checked the weather forecast and found that some light snow was predicted at the upper elevations after 9pm. This surely provoked some conversation around the importance of being in camp, set up, and hunkered down well before the snow started. That night we also each wrote a gear packing list and reviewed each other’s list to ensure that we did not forget anything.  Ideally you would like to pack together but when you’re coming from different locations or live far apart that can be a challenge. Instead we chatted on the phone when we packed and had the option to face time if we needed it. I slept easy that night knowing that everything was packed and that we had a solid plan for another try at winter backpacking.

We arrived at the trailhead just as sunlight was starting to break through the trees. The parking lot was empty except for a few patches of lingering ice. Despite temps in the low 20s and moderate winds we both started out with a light tech shirt and light shell jacket. This was an attempt to stay cool and not sweat too much as we moved up hill. The first few miles of the trail were just frozen mud with some small patches of ice and snow. I was starting to wonder why I had made the decision to lug around extra winter gear including the MSR snowshoes that had been a royal pain in the ass to get on the back of my large pack. For the first mile or so the trail gently inclines and remained relatively free of ice and snow which helped us keep a moderate pace as we made our way towards steeper terrain. Every half hour or so we checked in with each other to make sure we were staying warm but not sweating and if the pace that I was setting was still manageable. Prior to leaving I had looked at the topo and scouted a couple flat spots that I thought might be good to camp at. As we made our way up, I stopped and marked on my GPS watch a few spots thatlooked like decent camping spots (at least 150 feet off the trail). I marked spots early and often as I wanted to have many known options for later-on. I also wanted to have camping options closer to the car in the event that one of us got cold or if the weather got really nasty and we had to bail.

Things were going great. We were warm, spirits were high, and we had been doing great at managing layers and pace. Then we found the ice. Somewhere just before 2 miles we ran into a large area of 5 to 6-inch-thick ice. This ice covered the trail for several hundred feet and while not on an extremely steep section the low angle, heavy packs, and inexperience meant we were in for a real Catskill winter treat. We had just warmed up from stopping to put on our micro spikes a few minutes back and neither of us were ready to stop and make the switch to crampons. However before starting up the ice I decided to take a few seconds to evaluate the angle, length, and consequences of a slip or fall. While the angle was low the run out of a fall would send you barreling down the rocky trail and into the trees. In addition, the Ice looked to go all the way up to the trail merger with the Devils Path at Jimmy Dolan Notch. I made the call to switch to crampons. We both put our large puffy jackets on and began the switch out. I should note that having a large puffy jacket easily accessible to put on over your other layers at breaks or transitions is a key step in managing warmth. Once we both had our crampons on, we stowed our jackets and headed up. We took our time and had no issues with this section. Soon we arrive at the turn off for the notorious Devils Path.

Mike on some Ice just before switching to crampons.

We made the right turn on to the Devils Path and were soon greeted with plethora of steep ice almost immediately. In terms of elevation gain we had about 500 feet of elevation gain to go before reaching the summit of Twin. This set of ice was much steeper and riskier than the ice we had encountered lower on the trail. We got out our axes to use in the event that we needed to swing into a steep section for added security. I should note that this is the only reason I would carry an axe in the Catskills. I see many people carrying traditional mountaineering axes which is fine but there are few sections in which the added weight make sense to carry these. We had the option to use the rope but the steep sections were short enough that we could take breaks and safely navigate around dangerous sections. We took our time to plan our routes and stay safe. We were really careful to not stand below each other on steep sections to avoid both of us getting injured if the first person fell. The heavy packs made ascending the ice a bit interesting but we made it through the steep sections and were greeted by a gentle uphill mile to the first peak. The views from Peak One and the summit ended up being well worth it!

Mike working through some steep ice.
Mike working through some steep ice.
Summit Selfie ????

As climbers we all know that reaching the summit is often only half the battle and in many cases the return trip is more dangerous. We turned around and headed down. We soon arrived at the top of the ice section to watch a group of unprepared hikers fumbling their way up the ice. We decided to wait it out to avoid getting mixed in with the group coming up. The first person to reach us was not wearing crampons or micro spikes and had a large mountaineering ice axe in one hand and a small dog in the other. The next two had micro spikes but no packs, water bottles, or spare anything. The final two in the group had denim Carhart jackets on, muck boots, and cotton gloves. They reached a steep ice bulge and decided to walk off trail for about 75 feet to ascend up steep snow rather than the icy trail. While I think it’s great that newbie hikers are getting out, this shit was just reckless and frankly pretty dangerous. I won’t go on and on about the what-ifs but I will say that I had some questions around how they planned to get down and what would happen if one of them got hurt out there. They were not nearly prepared to keep an incapacitated hiker warm enough to await a rescue. If you are new to hiking and want to try a winter hike there are tons of resources out there to help. Feel free to message me and I can also help or point you in the right direction. Any way I kept to myself and stayed focused on getting Mike, myself, and our 50lb+ packs down the ice.

I did not mention that almost as soon as Mike and I stopped to wait we decided that a rappel down was safest with the heavy packs and Mikes inexperience on Ice. While we waited we both threw on a puffy jackets, started flaking rope and put on our harnesses. I padded the tree with a piece of an old foam sleeping pad to avoid damaging it while I rapped off. Prior to me rapping I had Mike pre-rig his rappel so I could make sure everything was correct. I rapped down, then Mike removed the pad and starting rapping down. Due to the angle of the rappel there was some swing potential that could become dangerous with a heavy pack so I gave Mike a fireman’s belay from the bottom. After he made it down I quickly coiled the rope and we were on our way. This was much safer then down climbing with a heavy pack and I actually think took us less time even including the extra time it took to put on the gear and rig the rappel.  Sometimes it’s just better to be safe.

Better safe then sorry!

We made it back to the notch well ahead of schedule at 12pm so we decided that we would take advantage of the ice to try out some different safety systems. Specifically, I wanted to try out a system I recently learned that is designed to help tired or newer climbers. We dropped our packs near the notch and went down to the lower angle ice. Mike and I went out on the middle and about 25 feet down on a fairly consistent section of hard ice. I tied in like I was going to lead climb. I then secured a Wildcountry Ropeman ascender to Mikes harness with a girth hitched alpine draw and locking carabiner. I then took Mikes end of the rope and attached it to a well-placed Ice screw with a tight clove hitch. I made my way up to the top of the angled ice and attached the rope to a large tree with a runner and then pulled all slack out of the rope with a tight clove hitch. This creates a tight line that the team can tether to in order to safely ascend consequential terrain. I should note that in steep or dangerous terrain the leader can be belayed on lead and place gear as they ascend. This system can also be used to descend low angle terrain but a true rappel should be used on vertical terrain. We played around with this system for a few minutes and then made our way back to our packs to start looking for camp.

We arrived at our packs at 1:45pm and had plenty of time to head down and select a spot to set up camp for the night. But first we decided to check out the view point at the far end of the notch. As we approached the viewpoint, we came across a section of hard but deep snow that was protected on three sides by the steep hillside and large section of rocks. Mike joked about how this would be great place to camp for a night and how it would give us plenty of time to set up and get warm in the tent. I agreed but figured Mike would want to head down closer to the car in case he got cold. That’s when Mike suggested that maybe we should actually camp here. I first check our elevation and found that we were only around 1000 feet higher then where we parked the car and then checked on my watch the elevation of the other campsites I had marked. I found that many of the other sites we had marked were only about 400 to 500 feet lower on the mountain. While it would be slightly warmer there, I figured it would not be significant. Next, I checked to see where the winter bear den that the Catskill Mountaineer site warns about was. We both walked around for a while and could not find anything that resembled a bear den. We decided that it was likely not in use. Finally, I brought up the weather on my phone and found that the winds would slightly pick up and the snow showers were not predicted to drop significant snow. But we did find that if the wind did pickup that it would be coming from the one unprotected side of the site. However, we both agreed that we had enough time to set up and that the burley mountaineering tent would be more than enough for slight snow and moderate winds. I was excited to be camping in such a beautiful location and we were both confident that we could pull it off safely. Only being 2 miles and not having any serious terrain between us and the car also helped with confidence. We grabbed our packs and started setting up.

Prior to laying out the tent I did my usual check of the trees and hillsides above. I am careful to look for dead branches, precariously placed rocks, or unstable snow/ice. I found on the right side of the notch a large chunk of ice that was sitting halfway down the steep slope. I kicked some steps up to it and smashed it with my ice tool. While it would not have done much damage, it would have been startling in the middle of the night. We used our avy shovels to flatten out the area and then set the tent up kind of in the middle of the notch area (more than 150 off the trail and water sources). Just as we got the tent set up Mike said that his feet were getting a little cold. We decided that he would go in the tent and start setting up sleeping pads and bags and I would stay out and start staking down the tent. This would allow him to get out of the light winds and then get inside his sleeping bag sooner. Staking down the tent was easier said than done. The snow was way too hard to shovel to burry anchors and the trees ended up being so far away that I used the climbing rope to reach them. I also got clever and used an Ice screw to make a few v thread anchors in the frozen snow. Basically you use the screw to make two holes that intersect into a V deep into the ice. I then fed the tent fly cord through these and tied them off. This ended up working great but took some dexterity to complete, this forced my hands out of gloves which led to cold fingers pretty quick. I took a few breaks to put my gloves back on and dig a slight depression under the front vestibule to use as an area for cooking. Finally, after about a half hour or so our tent was tightly secured and ready for a cold and windy night.

A beautiful campsite.
Cooking dinner.

Once I got back in the tent Mike had done a great job setting the inside up. He had put our SOL space blanket on the floor of the tent to create a reflective liner to trap in more heat. All our packs and spare gear was in the back vestibule and he was fully in his bag and staying warm. When I first got in the tent the inside temp was around 25 but after a few hours of hanging out while heating and sipping some “fine” whiskey (Black Velvet) and tea, the temp had gone up to 32 degrees in the tent. Around 6pm I fired up the stove in the well-ventilated vestibule and made dinner. Shortly after dinner I climbed into my bag and fell asleep almost immediately. I slept great until around 11pm when the winds really started to pick up and snow was blowing through our vent and down into the tent. I hesitantly closed the vent and went outside to see what the problem was. I found that new snow was drifting through the notch and getting caught in our tents vent. I cleared the built-up snow and hurried back into my sleeping bag. I was happy to have brought two sleeping pads for added insulation which immensely helped to keep me warm. I used a cheap Z-lite folding pad and a nice Nemo inflatable pad. The Z-lite is great because it can easily attach to the outside of a pack and be used for sitting on breaks and stops. I fell back asleep and slept until at 5am. We awoke to a few inches of fresh drift snow and bluebird skies. We packed up and made our way back to the car. We started celebrating as soon as I could start to see the reflection of my Jeep in the parking lot. A worthy winter backpacking redemption indeed!

On the drive back South I took some time to reflect on the importance of this trip for both of our backpacking confidence levels. For Mike he now had the confidence that he could winter backpack safely. In just one year Mike had learned a ton about the gear, technic, and most importantly the ability to know when he should stop and turn back. For me the learning was around being able to recognize and manage red flags in both the group and environment. Now by no means does this mean we are pros or know it all, the fact of the matter is that there is always more to learn. Thanks for reading and feel free to comment or DM with any questions. I would be happy to chat about gear, trails, or cheap beer!

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