Four Day Pemi Snow Trip – December 2016

24 Pictures plus tales of adventure from a four day winter weather trip I managed to squeeze in during the holidays. Snow had been hard to come by near the coast in Maine, but watching the weather to the West I knew I’d find some in the New Hampshire mountains.dsc00552aEven there in the Whites the days had been warm at times so I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d find. Rather than risk running into bare rocks I left the sled at home and hoisted a hefty, 60lb winter pack. Arriving just after a light rain ended the snow was mushy and wet with the temperature well above freezing. This little guy was taking in the warm weather with a smile on his face all the same.dsc00553aThere was definitely more water in the river than on my last visit here. I was glad to see it wasn’t frozen over leaving me to melt snow for drinking water. Also glad I’d pretty much decided that I’d be staying on this side of the river for the entire trip so no worries about crossing.dsc00556aWith little breeze and a temp close to 40°F I got a bit steamy after only a few miles. Despite my best efforts to keep my pace really slow it was just too warm to be slogging through wet, squishy snow with a full winter pack. Rather than risk being caught out in damp clothes when it cooled off later I opted to set up camp early and get into some dry stuff. Of course it is important to dry out the pelt before putting on fresh layers.dsc00557aI squished down a bit of snow to make a spot for my tent. The extra room a two person tent provides is worth the weight on cold weather trips I find. Nice to set up the bed in back so any snow that sneaks in the door is far away.dsc00563aCertainly was warm enough that I could have used a canister stove, but I brought the full winter kit including the Whisperlite.  I used to push the limits before I bought this stove. Now I like to know I’ll be good to go no matter how cold it gets.dsc00564aBeing just a week past the Winter Solstice there was a pretty big chunk of dark to be dealt with. I ate dinner early, but lingered in camp watching the light fade slowly in the snow filled woods. Then it was time to settle in for a few hours of reading before pulling the quilts up to my chin to sleep.dsc00567aMorning showed that a light dusting had fallen during the night. I wasn’t planning on going far this day, so was in no hurry to break camp.  Hot cereal and coffee were enjoyed. Around 10am I realized my wife was probably wondering why my GPS location wasn’t updating so I decided to send her a message explaining I hadn’t left yet. Great minds thinking alike she was sending me a message asking me to check in at right about the same time.dsc00570aEventually it was time to break down camp. Organization is always helpful when it comes to getting everything back in your pack, but in the snow it is doubly important. Anything that gets away may not be seen again until Spring. At this point I’ve gotten everything ready to be stowed except for the stove and my coffee cup, as both were still hot.dsc00571aAlmost ready to put on the pack until I realized I was still wearing this warm camp jacket. No way I was going to unpack enough to get it stuffed where it belonged so it ended up crammed into an outside pouch. Should have noticed how cozy I was while packing heh.dsc00575aThere was a lovely bit of snow falling by the time I headed off along the river. The trail was relatively unbroken with only faint signs of old traffic so I wore my snowshoes though I was only sinking in a few inches.dsc00578aThere was no wind and the flakes settled slowly in the still air. The sound of the water from the river seemed a bit muffled by the snow even though it was close by.dsc00580aReaching the Cedar Brook crossing I found broad sections of ice on either side with open water in the middle. Knowing this crossing well I was pretty sure the water was low enough to allow me to walk on the rocks just below the surface of the open water. Mostly it was just a question of if the ice would break under me and how deep the water would be if it did. All went mostly to plan except that I discovered one of my waterproof boots had failed to live up to its name. dsc00591aI pushed on another five miles or so until reaching a spot high above the river where I could set up in the open to see some sky. The clouds moved out late in the afternoon and I was looking forward to a starry night. The wet boot and its dry partner had some time to recover while I stomped around in another pair of boots I’d brought for camp.dsc00595aWith the clouds gone the temp started dropping fast. I brought up a pot of water from the river while I still had daylight. Sticking it in the snow kept it sort of insulated so it wouldn’t freeze before dinner. My thermometer had it down to roughly 20°F before sunset and in the low teens by morning.dsc00597aYou can see that reaching open water required navigating a seriously treacherous ice field. That is why I made a point of doing it in daylight rather than relying on my headlamp. My foot broke through at one point, falling through a good six inches of air before hitting water below. Luckily I was going slow enough that my leg didn’t snap off or anything, but it did underscore the dangers involved in something as simple as getting a pot of water.dsc00601aThere is just something about the site of the Whisperlite set up in the snow that makes me feel happy. Winter camping is usually devoid of people and filled with quiet time to appreciate being in such a magical place. Even mundane chores like making dinner take on a different feeling. dsc00606aWaking up to a bright, cold morning I found breaking camp a much faster process. Already the routines were easy to follow with one step leading to the next until it was time for breakfast. Boiling water to purify it is different that the usual, three season, dinner boil. You need to keep a rolling boil going for at least a few minutes, more like ten if you want to be safe. Melting snow is even more work so I’m happy if I can find open water to draw from.dsc00608aThere was a snow storm of some size expected to hit later in the day so I decided to start moving back closer towards the road. Starting out I had the advantage of following my own steps from the previous day. With a heavy snowfall expected I didn’t bother with evening out the trail. The next person through would be breaking a new trail of their own with no sign of my steps left.dsc00611aAs forecast, the storm delivered some snow! It was amazingly quiet with no wind here in the valley. Just lots of snow and it began to pile up rapidly. My footprints from the day before began to fill in more and more as I went showing just how much snow was actually falling.dsc00613aSo neat to be in this place as the weather closed in and feeling no sense of urgency to leave. Everything I needed was in my pack and where ever I chose to ride out the storm would be home for the night. I stopped and took off my pack to have a snack, crunching on peanuts and semi-frozen raisins until the snow started to pile up on me too much. Then I headed a bit more down the trail and found a spot to get set up before the storm really hit. I knew the snow was the start, but that there would be some wind behind it and I wanted to be ready when it showed up.

This video sort of captures the difference between the first part of the storm and the second. If you turn up the volume you’ll start out hearing gently falling snow and then hear roaring wind, though this doesn’t begin to compare to what it sounds like in person.

dsc00618aBy morning about 18″ of snow had fallen and while I probably should have gotten up to shovel off some snow during the night the tent held up pretty well. I’d punched the roof a few times to keep the roof vents open, but eventually there was no where for the snow to go. Digging out and packing up was interesting in this much snow. It was good that I’d be heading home because the tent would need to dry out after being buried like this.dsc00620aWhat a great way to end the first cold weather trip of the season. It is fun to camp in the snow, but always much more fun to camp in a snowstorm. The more snow the better and the roaring winds can be fun too so long as nothing falls on you. Overnight the sound was constant, though louder at times which was especially unsettling. Along with that constant roar there was the thudding of snow bombs falling from the trees. Most of them were soft plopping noises, but the ones that hit the tent would thunder and shake the walls. Sleeping becomes an adventure on a night like that!dsc00623aOh but to wake up in the mountains while the storm is still blowing is always a fantastic feeling. The wind was peaking it seemed as trees were shedding limbs all around me, mostly small though a few of good size. I kept moving so as to give them a harder target to hit, but did have to stop and gaze in wonder at the peaks a few times. Couldn’t help but think how happy I was to be down where I was rather than up there. Between the howling winds and the clouds wrapped around the high ridges I knew it would not be happy times up there that morning.dsc00628aI on the other hand was pushing through deep powder on my way back to the road. My timing was perfect as I arrived just as the crew was starting to plow the lot. By the time I finished getting my gear stowed and the ton of snow wiped off the roof of the car I only had a few feet of snow to shovel in front of the wheels to get out. Everyone seemed to be rushing to get out to play in the snow which I found funny after spending four days out there alone. I guess fresh powder will do that though!

Not sure when I’ll be able to get out there again. Winter trips are harder to come by now that my daughter has started school. Hopefully there are a few more to come. It is such a different world out there this time of year. Hopefully you are getting out when you can too, even if you can’t find a blizzard to camp in.

3 thoughts on “Four Day Pemi Snow Trip – December 2016

  1. Wow. Great post. I’ve never winter camped. I am thoroughly inspired. Really want to try it. I recently went into the Lincoln woods with my xc skis and just loved being in there with the snow and the way it muffles everything. The river was so beautiful and I thought about the hibernating bears.

    Does a canister stove freeze at in winter? Do you happen to know if an alcohol stove works in the cold?

    • Knowing how neat the place is as you do it is only natural to progress to staying out there, but cold weather camping can be both painful and dangerous if done wrong. I found testing things out in the back yard to see how they worked in cold weather really helped me avoid problems. There were a few tests that ended with me sneaking into the house at 4am with chattering teeth. If you can, figure out what works for you safely near home before heading out, especially if you are heading out alone.

      That being said, canister stoves have some issues with the cold. On stoves designed to use the canister inverted they work down to 10°F or so unless you apply heat to the can which is not advised heh. Standard three season stoves that just screw into the canister will start to have issues around 20° but you can heat them in your jacket to warm them up before use. Alcohol does burn in the cold, but can be hard to light. I like to use alcohol to prime my white gas stove because it burns cleaner, but in sub zero cold it can be really hard to get it warm enough to vaporize which is where the burning takes place. I’ve seen people use a twig like a wick to get it burning, but I tend to just run a Bic under the cup until it starts boiling 🙂

      Be safe if you head out Tam, but I have a feeling you’d love waking up out there!

  2. Thanks for the info. I did not know or consider how some stoves might not work so well in the cold. Winter camping in the backyard sounds like a great way to try it before heading out. Love the idea of waking up out there in the winter. For now my growing edge is hiking on the shoulder seasons which is a new adventure for me.

    Really enjoyed reading about your experience camping thru the storm. Wild. ⛺️

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