As we were breaking camp, my friend Ian said “This would be a good day to take a Zero.”
He got that right. The weather forecast was for 2-6 inches of rain in the next 36 hours with temperatures in the 40′s and 50′s. Perfect hypothermia weather.
Overhead, the clouds were blowing from east to west, reverse the normal weather pattern, always a sure predictor of a major storm in the White Mountains. They looked weird too: swirling into themselves like bread dough.
It started to rain while we ate blueberry pancakes made by some other trip leaders wearing bathrobes. Car camping isn’t my kind of scene, but I was being a good sport and helped polish off the pancakes and fresh perked coffee.
We were planning to stealth camp that night at the base of the North and South Hancock and I was looking forward to teaching some Leave No Trace techniques to the beginner backpackers we were taking on this route.
This was an instructional trip reserved for participants in the AMC Boston Chapter Spring Hiking Program (SHP.) Altogether, there were about 65-70 people up for the 2 night weekend, headed to 5 different campsites, with the first night car camping altogether and the second, backpacking.
Hiking the Hancocks
Hiking into the Hancocks is a challenging route for most hikers, even in good weather, because there are a lot of un-bridged stream crossings along the way. Stream crossings don’t bother me much, but a lot of the beginners on this hike were under the impression that you can keep your feet dry when you go backpacking. It’s always shocking to discover that Gore-tex boots aren’t worth a dime when the water comes up over the scree collar and into your boot!
Despite the dire weather forecast, we decided to hike out to our planned campsite for the evening to give the trip participants a taste of carrying their fully loaded packs for at least 6 miles in one day. This was a weekend to test out their gear, set up tents for the first time, and put the 5 weeks of lectures they’d attended back in Boston to the test. Although I’m an AMC leader and SHP lecturer, I always learn something new when I go backpacking, too.
A Trampled Stealth Site
Although we’d had steady rain on the hike in, it didn’t get particularly heavy until we got to our planned destination, a pristine off-trail location that one of my co-leaders has returned to for the past few years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t pristine anymore and had been badly trashed by other backpackers in the past year. They’d left a huge fire pit at the site that had been trampled into mud and was covered with partially burned sticks and logs. It was a bummer and my friend who’d brought us here was very upset to find it in such disarray. He’s a really skilled backpacker that I look up to and I could really feel his pain. He won’t be coming back here again.
We set up some tarps so people could boil some water and have a bite to eat out of the rain, before we dispersed to look for durable, non-vegetated surfaces in the surrounding woods to pitch our tents, hammocks, and shelters for the night. I’d brought a Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid pyramid tarp in anticipation of harsh weather and found a good site nestled between some trees and at the top of a rise to pitch it.
Unfortunately, the rest of the trip participants had a much harder time finding good sites, in part because they had much larger tents requiring more floor area to set up. Big tents are hard to use at pristine off-trail sites because you can’t find much open ground to pitch them on.
By this point half our group was pretty cold and wet, their double-walled tents were damp from being set up in the rain, it looked like we’d be in for a long night trying to keep the group warm in increasingly menacing conditions. The leader of our group made the call to hike the miserable, cold and wet trip participants out before nightfall, leaving a handful behind who still wanted to climb the peaks, and camp out that evening.
I opted join him because it was a pretty big group and we had a few people with medical conditions that I could help with in an emergency. My main concern wan’t spending a night under my tarp in heavy rain, but the 10 mile hike out the next day if the streams that we’d crossed coming in rose to dangerous levels. We’d considered this bail out route in advance, but rejected it as too strenuous for some of the hikers in our party.
The walk out was relatively undramatic, although most of us were cold and soaked to the bone. The streams hadn’t risen more than an inch or two but the trails were awash with several inches of water. The remaining group also opted to hike out after bagging the Hancocks, but encountered thigh deep crossings just a few hours later. That’s a sobering reminder of what several inches of rain can in a mountainous area with small streams.
Hikes like these are valuable learning experiences for students and leaders. Although we didn’t get to spend the night out, everyone gained very valuable experience with stream crossings, how to hike in the rain, why rain gear wets out, why you want to keep your pack as lightweight as possible, how to prevent the onset of hypothermia, the pitfalls of setting up double-walled tents with pouring rain, the misguided hope of keeping footware dry, how to dig a cathole, and what happens when you don’t practice leave no trace methods at pristine, stealth campsites.
Still, it would have been nice if we’d had better weather.