I was reminded of the dangers of solo winter hiking while climbing Mt Avalon (3, 442 ft) in Crawford Notch. There’s a balance between ambition and self-preservation that one needs to be cognizant of if you hike in the mountains or any remote area in winter.
Mt Avalon isn’t normally a difficult climb, except for some steep bits in the last half mile. It’s located right off the frequently visited A-Z Trail that starts near the AMC’s Highland Center and provides access to spur trails to Mt Willard, Mt Tom, and Mt Field.
I figured that the A-Z and Avalon Spur Trails would be well broken out when I arrived on a Friday morning, before the long holiday weekend. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Fresh snow had fallen and and it was easily three feet deep.
I stood there for a while trying to guess whether the Mt Field spur, a mile father along the A-Z trail would be broken out. My original objective for the day had been to bag Avalon and Field, which is an easy 3 season hike. Field is an unpopular 4,000 footer, and I decided that it probably wasn’t broken out. So I stood there, and pondered whether I should break out the Avalon Trail and try to summit.
Then I did something, which on hindsight, was more chancy than I prepared for. I decided to go for it. The reasons are complex, but ambition is certainly one of them. I wanted to summit at least one peak that day. I had driven up to New Hampshire, leaving at 5 am for the 3 hour drive, and I didn’t want to “do nothing” that day.
The Dangers of Breaking Trail Alone
Breaking a Leg
While, snowshoeing on broken trail can be pretty tame stuff on level ground, it’s not without risk in the mountains. Occasionally, you’ll post hole through the surface into a stream or shrub pocket beneath the surface. While you can usually extricate yourself with a little patience or an ice axe, there’s always the danger that you could break a leg.
Breaking trail alone is a hazardous proposition if you do it for any length of time. First off, it’s extremely exhausting. My wife was shocked to learn that you sink into powder, despite the fact that you’re wearing snowshoes. It’s true. When I was breaking trail on Mt Avalon, I was sinking at least 2 feet down with every step. It’s just as exhausting as post holing in boots, but when you are wearing snowshoes, you need to lift another 2 lbs of snowshoe with every step you take.
Breaking trail is extremely hard work and you will sweat a lot in the process. Unless you are an expert at layering your clothes, and have all of the layers required for winter hiking with you (base, insulating, shell, puffy) and multiple pairs of gloves, it is easy to get cold when you stop moving. I had all of this gear, but I did completely wet out 3 pairs of gloves on my hike.
Trail finding can also be quite difficult if it has snowed heavily. When there’s a lot of snow on the trees, trail blazes can be covered and very difficult to see. It’s also quite easy to get lost by following something that looks like a trail but isn’t one. Things can really snowball, after that, if you don’t have a map and a compass.
Like many White Mountain and AMC-maintained trails, the Avalon Trail is poorly blazed. I ended up missing a turn on my climb and wandered off the track along what looked like a path up a steep slope. It wasn’t and I wandered into an area with spruce traps. These are pockets of snow that surround the base of trees. If you fall into one, there’s a chance that you won’t be able to climb out and that you’ll freeze to death. They also form around the base of spruce trees and are called spruce traps.
Winter Risk Mitigation
These are some of the risks of solo winter hiking and snowshoeing in mountainous terrain. While the best way to mitigate them is to hike in a group, if you decide to hike alone, it behooves you to make very conservative judgments when weather or snow conditions do not pan out as expected.
In addition to bringing extra layers and a full compliment of winter gear, one thing I always do when I hike solo, is to bring enough overnight gear that I could survive an unexpected night out. This includes packing a sleeping pad and a bivy sack, and sometimes even a lightweight sleeping bag.
In addition I always carry a satellite-based personal locator beacon on winter trips, most often a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger. While not perfect, this device gives me some assurance that I’ll be able to signal for help, if I’m conscious and keep my wits about me. My wife insists that I carry one on all solo trips, year round.
If you hike or climb mountains in winter conditions, there will come a time when you do a solo hike and you will push the limits of prudence. The important thing is to learn from the experience, and to remember it the next time you go hiking solo in winter.