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One to Remember. A harrowing experience.

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  • One to Remember. A harrowing experience.

    Winter bushwhacking is in many of my cases an exercise in the unraveling of one's safety margin. I start out fresh and dry, every hair in place and I stride with energy and purpose. Gradually, things fall apart and my margin of safety grows increasingly tenuous. My recent bushwhack of Panther is a perfect example.

    ONE TO REMEMBER.

    At 6:30 am with the thermometer at 0F I was striding along the Santanoni Road, up the mostly frozen Bradley Pond Trail and was at the the Lean-to in 2 hours. I was the only one out and there were 3 or 4 sets of prints from the day before over a solid trail. I kept going along the same, now unbroken, trail for two more hours dropping from 930 to 690 meters elevation before turning my back on the trail and commencing a bushwhack of Panther Mountain at 1,350 meters elly.

    For navigation I had a map and compass along with my altimeter and an unreliable in the cold iPhone with the Gaia app and maps installed. The freshly charged phone, when I turned it on would indicate 1% battery remaining and the next time it would read 75%. I kept it as warm as I could in my breast pocket with a pair of mitts over top.

    The long north ridge of Panther was to my west and I decided to intersect it at about 850 meters (approx 3000 feet). I started out due west then curved SW and SSW and finally S. The crust was shallow and very supportive of my K10 crampons and the woods on this north-facing slope were very open. I was racking up elevation gains at energy conserving and impressive rate. With every 100m of gain I would turn on the iPhone and confirm that I was where I wanted to be and then continue checking the compass often to stay right on track.

    The sleeves of my shell were getting wet as were my wool mitts and Revel shell mitts. Otherwise everything was A-1. And then the spell was broken when everything changed abruptly at 1100 meters. I was slightly west of a bump on the ridge and a set of cliffs pushed me further west. Here the woods became incredibly thick and progress came to a near standstill. Plus, I had to deal with cliffs. From one cliff outcrop I caught views of the twin peaks of Panther and the ridge-line to Couch. Panther summit looked completely out of reach. There was no end to the prison bar woods and my compass bearing pointed to nothing but more of the same. So, like a man escaping a swarm of yellow jackets, I dropped down 150 feet further west off the ridge and was able to progress more easily. Now I was feeling the strain in my legs and was fairly wet but maintained core due to the extreme exertions. Had I gone around the bump's east side I suspect the woods would have been better. I'll never know.

    I noticed that the snow was getting deeper and that the crust was no longer supportive but at least the woods had opened up. I found that post-holing in semi-supportive crust was extremely tiring and that I could only advance at a snail's pace. It was as if my legs had lost all of their juice. However, at this point in the bushwhack my only bailout option was the summit itself so I kept a very close eye on the time, my progress on the altimeter and the compass. 1200 meters elevation was a cause for celebration but Gaia on the iPhone made me dial that down to 1170. This was a recurring theme as the barometer dropped and I ascended into cold air.

    I reached the lesser summit at 3:00 but stayed about 10 meters below it in order to save energy. By that time 10 meters of elevation was like a thousand dollars to me. The compass bearing brought me to a cliff, which gave me views of the true summit some 300 yards away and about 150 feet above me. The forecasted snow was now falling and between the peaks the snow appeared thick as it blew horizontally in the 30 mph wind. Panther was veiled by the falling darkness and snow. I felt more alone and vulnerable (and now, a bit stupid) than ever before in my entire life as I back-tracked off the cliff.

    I checked the Gaia app more often now and re-set the compass. I couldn't afford to wander astray. The final 300 yards took me 40 minutes due to the snow that was now above my knees. Snowshoes would have been worse than useless. I was falling into blowdown and spruce traps to my waste and getting out was exhausting. The wind kept moaning and the snow was blowing into my face. I would take 3 or 4 steps and then have no choice but to stop and wait before taking a few more steps.

    After some time I looked up at a very steep and rocky cone and felt the summit was up there but it was way too steep so I decided to curl under it and find an easier way up. But there was a cliff whose base went downhill away away from the summit and the now all-important herd path. I had no choice but to back-track to the “insurmountable” cone and climb it. I noticed how easy it was to follow my post-holes back those twenty steps and then I took it hard on the chin grunting my depleted way up the cone. I aided myself by taking it cool and proceeding very slowly in the ripping wind and frenzied snowfall. In spite of my ever-thinning safety margin and the precariousness of my position I reminded myself of the importance of maintaining self-discipline and I continuously checked my position, compass bearing, time of day and elevation.

    Once I got to the top of the cone I realized I wasn't done. I was so tired but there was no indication of the summit yet so I floundered/rested/floundered/rested in the deep snow. I pushed my way through the gnarly and wind-tortured vegetation for another 10 minutes before seeing the back side of an old sign. I touched it then and tried to flip over but it was stuck in the ice. Through the interstices of branches I saw the current sign but just couldn't get to it. Finally, I forced through the branches to the herd path and was done. It was 3:40, ten minutes later than my hope-for time. Obviously the perfect conditions lower down compensated for the over-the-top difficulties higher up.

    I immediately sped across the bare patch as the wind and snow raked across it and got to Herald Square so fast I thought the tracks going down Panther Brook were someone's erroneous wanderings. I checked Gaia and confirmed I was on the correct path and booted it down. The snowfall was threatening to cover the tracks and the last thing I wanted was to have to navigate to the Bradley Pond Trail in the dark. I made it to the BPT in 65 minutes. I stopped, dug out and reassembled my poles, took a long drink and some pain-killers and began placing one foot in front of the other for two more hours. The snowfall varied from heavy to none and back to heavy.

    Back at the car I was unable to undo the resistant and ice-encased buckles of my K-10 crampons and had to sit for 10 minutes with the heat car heater blasting on them until finally I got them off. The drive back to Keene was white-knuckle due to the slippery roads (Tahawaus road unplowed). I couldn't even finish my beer and crawled into my sleeping bag. Feeling somewhat stunned and grateful for the warm bed, I reflected a bit on what I had just gone through as I fell into a deep sleep.

  • #2
    Wow... just wow. That was a gripping read! Glad it turned out successful.

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    • #3
      A day of Type 3 fun!

      Great story. Happy to hear you made it out safely.

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      • #4
        You're an accident waiting to happen.

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        • #5
          Post-mortum. I decided three factors played a role in finding myself in a situation like this one. While struggling to the top I was not happy with myself.
          One: getting caught on (blundering into?) the west side of the ridge when I know full well that east slopes are nearly always more open than west. Ie. Less afternoon sun, therefore a shorter and cooler growing season and less wind. Also a deeper snow pack that lingers later into spring.
          Second: I underestimated the snow depth up high. I was not expecting the crust to be supportive but did not anticipate snow over my knees.
          Third: I overestimated my own fitness level, which is not at the Project 100 level.
          The wind and falling snow only played a psychological role. Having a partner would have cut the work considerably and I agree with Julie Chevalier that being solo intensifies the experience.

          Factors that played in my favor were shortening the route at the start of the whack because I got started on it a bit later than planned. The excellent conditions and open woods lower down were anticipated. With the exception of the too-long and really bad section mentioned in the report the north slope woods were fairly open right to the top. Also, I was able to dig into a well of previous experiences and maintain discipline and coolheadedness. Once it became a struggle I knew that tight navigation would be extremely important and I never allowed myself to wander from the best line to the goal, except to back-track off of cliffs. I must have checked my compass every minute, if not even more. Once the struggle became over-the-top I knew that every step was progressively a larger percentage of the remaining distance I had to cover.


          Could I have bailed out? I had no desire to bail from high on the ridge. Bushwhacking downhill can be treacherous, especially when you are tired and daylight is beginning to fade. By the time I thought of bailing I decided the summit and herd path was my best option.

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          • #6
            As I was reading this, I thought to myself that I could never write such a report because I'd be dead.

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            • #7
              Neil, ever use something like a handwarmer, even a crushable one, to keep your batteries warm? Carrying two could save your life. Must've been one helluva adventure.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Old Hunter View Post
                Neil, ever use something like a handwarmer, even a crushable one, to keep your batteries warm? Carrying two could save your life. Must've been one helluva adventure.
                And toe (foot) warmers have adhesive one one side. You can stick the warmer to the back of your phone. Works quite well.

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Old Hunter View Post
                  Neil, ever use something like a handwarmer, even a crushable one, to keep your batteries warm? Carrying two could save your life. Must've been one helluva adventure.
                  It was a hell of an adventure but not one I would care to repeat.

                  I thought (afterward) of a hand warmer for the phone. However, I had forgotten to bring my GPS, which I tend to use primarily on winter bushwhacks. The iPhone I had only brought for music during the drive. As it turned out I was glad not to have done the hike with only map and compass and very glad the phone worked so well. In spite of the clarity of the map image and the ease of use of the app I consider the GPS to be a much better tool in winter and you can change the batteries if need be.

                  On another note, if my life was dependent on a GPS I would feel quite uncomfortable. I've had GPS's crap out on me several times on bushwhacks but I was able to quickly switch over to map and compass mode.

                  I didn't mention in my report that my straight line of travel crossed a set of bear tracks about 10 times. This was at about 3,000 feet and the tracks were at least a day old. Judging by the wandering nature of the tracks I assumed it was looking for a den.

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                  • #10
                    One gets hurt the 'warmers' can also be used on themselves/or others till help arrives. Regarding the bear tracks, I've seen that before, one time on Jay Mtn where we actually saw the bear in the swamp meandering around.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Neil View Post
                      Post-mortum.
                      Post mortem. An interesting choice of words. Just kidding .

                      An experience I had in the Santas in March once. I had climbed two of three and when approaching the height of land at the jct to the express trail a group I'd met at the trailhead had just arrived by bushwhack to the ridge trail.

                      Don

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                      • #12
                        I have not had a problem with my iPhone battery carried in my pants pocket on many winter hikes, including below zero temperature and long duration. I keep it in airplane mode and can occasionally take it out for pictures or checking Gaia GPS app. When snowy, I keep it in a sandwich bag to avoid snow/wet problems.

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                        • #13
                          Neil, I'm curious as to what you were carrying to mitigate the safety risks.

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Natlife View Post
                            Neil, I'm curious as to what you were carrying to mitigate the safety risks.
                            In my pack I had a spare base layer shirt, a synthetic puffy jacket and a Marmot Baffin down parka. Also, Patagonia synthetic puffy pants, spare socks with plastic bags and extra footbeds, plus assorted wool hats and mitts and an extra pair of shell mitts. I carry fire starter (paraffin with dryer lint) matches and a lighter, 3 headlamps, an extra map in plastic and a Spot device. A few other odds and ends but that's about it. Had the forecast been for higher temps and possibly wet precip I would have swapped the down parka for a synthetic one plus maybe a rain jacket.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Neil View Post

                              In my pack I had a spare base layer shirt, a synthetic puffy jacket and a Marmot Baffin down parka. Also, Patagonia synthetic puffy pants, spare socks with plastic bags and extra footbeds, plus assorted wool hats and mitts and an extra pair of shell mitts. I carry fire starter (paraffin with dryer lint) matches and a lighter, 3 headlamps, an extra map in plastic and a Spot device. A few other odds and ends but that's about it. Had the forecast been for higher temps and possibly wet precip I would have swapped the down parka for a synthetic one plus maybe a rain jacket.
                              Sounds prepared but hey Neil whatever you post and carry someone will say something but what I like is 'assorted hats and mitts' because they sure can get soaked from snow and sweat and God forbid if we lose one.

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