Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Serendipity 3. Snow shoe hike up Camel's Hump

Recently I added a new (and quintessentially Vermont) New Thing to the list -- climbing up Camel's Hump in all four seasons. In order to start things off, I signed up for a snow shoe hike sponsored by the College's Wilderness Program, and was excited to learn that Ryan, over whom my department (political science) and the history department have a fierce competition for bragging rights (he's a double major), because we both think he's so great. But then this hike got scooped when my friend and former student, Conor, offered to let me tag along on one of his regular Camel's Hump hike on Tuesday. As you might have seen in a previous post (New Thing #10.1), we hiked it in hiking boots and crampons, and it was absolutely fabulous.

So, having technically done the winter part of my hike up Camel's Hump, and considering that I did skate skiing the day before and my legs were not happy with me already, I had a decision to make; should I hike Camel's Hump for the second time in the same week? Of course my curiosity (crampons or snow shoes? was it really that cold at the top, or did I just imagine it?)got the better of me and I decided to put it on my Serendipity List of cool things that happened because of the original list. That was clearly the right decision, though I might not have said that about two-tenths of a mile from the summit when I was thinking about all my non-insane friends and colleagues sitting in the comfort of their homes not even knowing how lucky they all were to be able to feel every single part of their fingers, toes and faces.

The desire to retain total feeling in all extremities might also have been the reasoning of two of the students who signed up for the hike and didn't show, leaving only four of us -- Bridget, Alex, Ryan and me -- to hop in the van and drive up to the trail head. "Driving up to the trail head" turned out to be easier said than done, though. The complications started with a missed turn, which led to an ill-fated attempt to turn around in entirely too much slippery snow, leaving the van spinning its wheels without the slightest forward movement. Luckily, we were in Vermont, which meant that it was only a matter of moments till a man drove up in a red pickup truck (wearing an Official Vermonter Red Flannel Shirt with the requisite large and friendly dog sitting in the front seat with him), produced a chain, and proceeded to pull the van out, with an admirable economy of time and language (about 90 seconds and less than ten words) before driving off again. Three-quarters of a mile from the Camel's Hump trail head parking lot, the van failed us again, and slipped and slid but stolidly refused to move any further up the road. This left us no choice but to park the van, strap on our snow shoes and hike the additional distance to the nominal beginning of the hike. Luckily Ryan, Bridget and Alex are all great people with excellent senses of humor (though maybe a teeny bit crazy), so the extra challenges getting to the trail head just made us all laugh.

The snow on the trail was deeper and heavier than it had been five days ago when I hiked with Conor. But doing the same winter hike twice in one week yielded some interesting observations. The first is that, in my highly unprofessional opinion, if you have a choice between hiking with snow shoes or just regular hiking boots with crampons, choose the latter. I've always known (and all these winter sports have reinforced this reality) that I am a heat-seeking creature; what I hadn't thought about much before is that I'm also a hill-averse one. Almost all of the sports-based New Things I've tried in the last six weeks have forced me to face both these facts. Now I spend a fair of amount of effort figuring out how to be warm outside and how to deal with hills, as I can no longer avoid either. My strategy for the first problem has been to break down and enter into the mysterious world of the Outdoor Gear Exchange, where I have purchased wool socks and clothing made out of strange man-made materials for the first time in ten winters in Vermont. But I'm still working out the second. If anyone has a map of all the flat roads, trails and open spaces in Vermont, please contact me and I'll pay you lots of money for it. In the meantime, I have become a big fan of crampons, which were obviously nightmare-inducing torture devices in a previous life, but definitely make going uphill much less labor intensive than snowshoes or skis. Summary for fellow winter sport novices: crampons are where it's at.

My other painfully-obvious-but-previously-oblivious observation concerns dogs and the Vermonters who love them. In my previous post from hiking Camel's Hump with Conor I suggested that the hike is something of a requirement for Vermonters. But I forgot to notice (and therefore mention), that even more importantly, it is a mandatory part of being a dog here. And nothing changes just because it's winter. At one point Bridget estimated that we had seen 13 dogs on the trail -- some were hiking solo, others in pairs and we saw at least one trio. A few had on silly-looking coats, but most had no special gear to shield them from the cold, and they didn't seem to mind a bit. In fact, as a whole I'd say they were about the most ecstatic group I've seen in a while. My personal favorite was a yellow lab who did an otter imitation, rolling over and over in the snow and then sliding gleefully downhill on her back, then running back up to do it again. If you want to see the embodiment of pure, unadulterated joy, go for a winter hike on Camel's Hump and check out the dogs you meet along the way.

Our foursome of hikers were feeling somewhat less joy than the dogs once the second, steeper part of the hike commenced, and were downright unhappy in the final quarter mile before we hit the summit, while the wind whipped around furiously and we accumulated a coat of ice on any hair not covered by our hats. At the top we didn't even do a group photo, but hurriedly snapped shots of first Bridget and Alex and then Ryan and I to prove our temporary insanity, and then started the trek back down. I did have the opportunity to show Ryan the fine art of sliding on your backside that Conor had shared with me. Now he can say that, if I taught him nothing else in his major, I shared the secret of the fastest and easiest way to go down a hill in the winter -- you know, something useful, as opposed to our endless discussions of the choke hold of interest groups on the electoral process that is the usual fare. But once again, I have to say that crampons have it all over snowshoes, because when going downhill you just take them off and throw them in your pack, rather than having to keep them on and getting snagged by them as you slide downhill.

The final moral of the story though, is that climbing Camel's Hump really is a truly Vermont experience -- everything from flannel-clad and dog-laden encounters to gorgeous snow-covered forests to the feeling of accomplishment that comes from standing on the top of a peak. I think these things go a long way in explaining why many of us came here, or, in my case, came and stayed a lot longer than we ever thought we would. Two winter hikes in one week felt like a lot when I was wavering about whether to do them, but now I think it's getting a bit addictive. If anyone has read these posts and felt deprived let me know -- I think I'd be up to do the climb again!


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  2. Thats great! I know sometimes I've had to opt'ed out before the summit of some great climbs and it isn't an easy thing to do! It's good to see that you can still have fun though, that's the whole process is about! I don't know if you've ever heard of Yaktrax before, but there awesome for light snow climbing. I like them because there lighter than a snow shoe, check them out.

  3. is this the dog you were talking about: