15-18 Feb 2013 Pennsylvania
Set out to do a winter 35-mile section hike SOBO from the Delaware Water Gap to Lehigh Gap, in Pennsylvania over 4-days/3-nights. My hiking partner and I would be sleeping on the ground under tarps and a little snow was in the forecast for Saturday night. Since we expected to reach Kirkridge Shelter by then we could deal with it. Friday weather was ideal as we started out and, even though there a little snow on the ground, I was hiking along in shorts. Eight miles in we found a nice location at the edge of a treeline to make camp and set up two tarps (tent-style) oriented to block the wind, which was picking up a bit. Temperature was in the low 40s, had a nice warm dinner, changed into my sleeping clothes – crawled in zero-degree bag for the night by 7PM.
About 9:30 I awoke after feeling what was, apparently, snowflakes on my face, coming from the wind swirling around the open end of my tarp. A little accumulation up near my head. Shined my flashlight into the darkness and observed a full-blown snowstorm all around us, with 4-6 inched already on the ground. This, following a 55 degree afternoon, caught us by surprise to say the least. I got up, booted, and fastened my small 5×8′ fly over the end of the tarp to block any more snow coming in. Went back to sleep.
By midnight my tarp was slowly getting buried on both sides leaving me about 6 inches over my face – had to get up again. This time to re-stake the tarp tighter, and also poke the side out a little with a walking pole. All the while with cold boots on and a flashlight in my teeth. Fortunately, after this I was good for the rest of the night.
My thermometer read 22 degrees in the AM. It was one of those mornings in which you could not get dressed and packed FAST enough to get moving, since moving offered the only hope of getting warm.
What concerned us next was being able to see the white blazes on the trees since the wind forced the snow to stick to the sides of all the trees. As you looked out on the trail every tree had a dozen blazes – which one was real. Combined with the trail now being obscured by 6 inched of snow made the task of navigating rather daunting.
The other hazard that we had to deal with was the glaze of ice on the rocks (this IS Pennsylvania after all). This was especially true as we made our way over Wolf Rocks. Not only was there ice on the rocks making it treacherous, but also that the white blazes painted ON the rocks were buried under the snow and ice and of no use for navigating. Progress was slow since we didn’t want to vector off in the wrong direction and have to retrace our steps.
Let’s review – wake up Saturday AM with 6-8 inches of snow on the ground, it’s 25 degrees, can barely make out the trail, and we have 12 miles to Kirkridge Shelter. Have I mentioned we’re having a great time? Believe it.
Doing 12 miles before dark turned out to be a tall order. The hike was very slow going. The snow was thin in some areas and 8-10 inch drifts in others. We were still 2 miles to go when the sun started setting, and there was NOWHERE to set up a tarp. We HAD to make it to the shelter. I agreed to forge ahead, since I was a little quicker, saying that ONE of us had to get there to pave the trail for the other, who could follow my footsteps with a light. This worked. I made my way to the shelter after dark, but with just enough ambient light to see my way. (I did not want to use my headlamp and destroy my night vision.) At the left turn to the shelter I left a walking pole on the ground pointing left so my partner wouldn’t overshoot the turn in the dark. The sign pointing to the shelter was 10 feet up the tree!! WTF? This also helped.
Over the course of the trip the temp got lower and lower. Woke up to 10 degrees Sunday AM. Luckily the snow wasn’t as deep the further south we went. Somewhere along the way my partner lost his tarp from the sidepocket of his pack. He was not happy. How could this happen? Lesson here – Always thread a side strap on your pack through a loop or drawstring on anything I have in your pockets, as insurance in case they pop out.
Sunday night we made camp on a ridgeline out of the wind (sort of) and, fortunately, had room for both of us in my tarp since it’s pretty big, and light – 10’X11’ silnylon – s’far as I know it’s the biggest you can buy, sold by Jacks-R-Better. This night was a true test of our limits on cold weather backpacking, with the temp dropping to zero overnight not counting the wind chill.
My main concern was the wind, which was considerable, so we anchored the tarp stakes with rocks. Boots froze, but my water didn’t, since I took it to bed with me. Actually stayed plenty warm through the night, but faced another morning where getting packed and moving was paramount. Once we were on our way, cold was not an issue.
As we are all aware, safety always comes first. Although we faced numerous challenges at no time did I ever feel were putting ourselves in an unsafe position. We were completely prepared for extreme cold weather, and had food/water/fuel. Most importantly we had identified offramps should we decide to abort our trip. Am I ready to hike again in the extreme cold any time soon? – Not at least until next year. Right now I’m preparing for a 75-mile section hike just north of Mt Rogers, and looking forward to balmy weather and nights in my hammock.
Denis ‘Menace’ Powers