Jan 23, 2011

Trip Report: Hiking the AT in Harriman State Park

I'm alive! I mean, I'm back! It was an excellent trip, even with a nasty cold. The entire trip was VERY COLD and windy and I didn't get too much sleep but it was exhilarating all the same. It was amazing to snowshoe over peaks, admire the views, and be surrounded by silent wintry wilderness. I spent three days snowshoeing with a full pack and two nights sleeping in stone shelters at sub freezing temperatures. I ate well and was prepared for the elements except for my sleeping configuration. Anyway, let's get on with the details shall we? (And by the way, here's the complete photo gallery for this trip [237 images])

Friday Paul swung by my place and gave me a ride to Harriman State park. There, we met up with Jay. With Paul's car parked at Lake Tiorati, the three of us drove over to the Anthony Wayne Recreation Center. Snowshoes were a must for this hike, so we strapped up, checked the map, and set off on our way to West Mountain Shelter a mere 3 miles away through the white forest. The snow was deep; averaging about 16” in most places and the snowshoes made for easy going, except for the occasional ice covered boulder section. The temperature was around 20°F but I was layered up nicely and fell into a comfortable and steady pace. I felt good and my pack was well adjusted as I continued crushing snow, maneuvering around trees, over logs and up through the boulder-strewn hills. When I stopped to look around, the woods were absolutely silent. All I could hear was the sound of my own huffing and puffing. As I scanned the landscape, puffs of steam coming from my nose and mouth billowed forth then evaporated into nothing.
Pressing on, we snowshoed up West Mountain. Passing a white blaze painted on a tree, Jay pointed to it with a trekking pole saying “AT”. Having just read a book about the Appalachian Trail, I looked at it, wide-eyed, with great interest and respect. I thought to myself: Wow, I'm glad to be hiking along this historic trail! (I've read a lot about the 2100 mile trail) When we reached the long exposed ridge-line of West Mountain the wind was whipping fiercely. The side of the ridge exposed to the wind, had turned to ice covered snow that shimmered in the sunlight and crackled loudly under foot. The protected side of the ridge consisted of deep fluffy, drift snow. The apex of the ridge showcased plumes of white powder that spun and twirled like disturbed air rolling off the trailing edge of a an airplane wing. It was a spectacular site. Though beautiful, I had to drop my pack and pull out my wind shell. Once I had it on the strong winds could not penetrate and I was warm and toasty once again. Comfortable and confident, I pushed on.

Along the ridge-line of West Mountain we trudged. All round us, tree branches were glazed in a spectacular coating of ice. As the wind blew, branches clacked and tinkled together, like natural mountain wind chimes. The west-facing sides of trees were completely coated in a thick layer of ice. Looking off to the west, Bear Mountain stood prominently before us and we could see the Hudson River winding through the valley. Marvelous. This ridge was a beautiful, yet deadly cold place so we pressed on, marching through the deep snow that sparkled like millions of tiny diamonds. Before I knew it, we rounded a corner and saw a sight for sore eyes: West Mountain Shelter. We approached it from the rear and as we rounded the corner of the entrance a Nut Hatch chirped and few out into a nearby bush.

West Mountain Shelter is a three sided, rock, lean-to with two fire places. It looks out over the Hudson River and The Timp (neighboring mountain). Jay and I were the first to reach the shelter and we were both pretty stoked. I dropped my pack and put on another layer to retain my body heat. The evening temperature was around 10°F and the sun was setting quickly. Moments later Paul arrived and the three of us made the shelter our home away from home for the night. I rolled out my reflective tarp, laid down a blanket that had been left in the shelter, and then my closed-cell foam pad. On top of this I laid my 20°F down sleeping bag. Boldly, I unzipped several layers and tossed a fuel canister in my shirt, next to my base layer. The chill of the metal fuel canister was shocking but soon warmed to my body temperature and became useable. (Isopro fuel is difficult to use in low temps, so you have to warm it up)

Just as I was about to fire up my stove to heat water for coffee, a Husky poked it's head around the corner of the shelter; it was Juno. Juno belongs to Ken who hiked to the shelter with Brian. Our group was now complete, consisting of 5 guys and a dog. Ken tossed me a Thermarest pad that I had agreed to buy from him and I added it to my cushy sleeping area in the shelter. With everyone settled in, we started making dinner. We were all eating freeze dried meals. I boiled water for my pasta primavera and threw on another couple of layers. I was really cold at this point and began hopping in place from time to time to get my body temperature up. I needed to get a hot meal inside of me. As soon as my water was boiling, I made my pasta primavera and started more water for my rice & chicken meal. I sucked both meals down and then took a hike by the light of the moon.
The moon was big, nearly full, and visibility was great without using headlamps. A good way to get your body temperature up, is to do some physical activity. So, Jay and I hiked back along the ridge-line to a scenic overlook and braved the blowing wind for a few minutes before running back to the shelter. Back at the shelter, I made a hot cup of Gatorade, slugged it down and got ready for bed. I changed my socks, adding a hand warmer to each sock while doing so. Next I stripped down to my base layer stuffing hand warmers down each leg so that I had a hand warmer on each calf and each quadricep. (A bit over-kill? Not hardly!) Next I threw on a wool sweater, my balaclava (insulated face mask/hat that covers your neck) and got into my bag, pulling the draw string down to a tight circle around my mouth and nose. I slept pretty well and didn't start shivering until 5 am.
At around 5:30 I was cold and had to pee. My bladder was full. When your bladder is full, your body has to work to keep that stored urine warm so it's best to get rid of it. As quickly as possible I unzipped my bag, jammed my feet in my boots and stumbled out into the blowing wind. The beauty and wonder of the bright full moon were wasted on me at this particular moment because priority number one was blasting a steamy yellow hole in the snow, with the force of a fire hose! A few shakes later, I turned and was bounding back to my sleeping bag like a drunken ninja wearing big unlaced boots. Checking my thermometer, it was 6°F!
Saturday morning we were up and at em' pretty early. I think it must have been around 8:00am or so when we were all melting snow for drinking water and eating breakfast. I've always been partial to peaches & cream instant oatmeal and enjoyed a couple bowls and a cup of coffee in the morning sunlight. The plan for the day was to hike to Fingerboard Shelter, a good 9 miles away. We all decided we'd see how we felt at the half way point, which was Brien Shelter. Eager to get moving and generate body heat, Jay and I set out about 15 minutes in front of the group. A quick check of the map showed a 500' drop in elevation in a little less than a ½ mile of ground. It was a very steep decent over ice-covered boulders, which was difficult to do on snowshoes! I developed a kind of controlled sliding motion, sort of like skiing but more like sitting on your ass and carefully maneuvered my way down through the steepest sections. This is difficult to do with a 40lb pack on your back.
When we reached a fairly level area I pulled my map and saw that we were at Beachy Bottom Creek. Seeing the creek, I filled an empty bottle and dropped a couple of iodine tablets inside to purify the water. As I was twisting the lid back on my bottle, I caught site of Ken and Juno coming up a slow grade. Ken filled his bottle and then we all set off again. We followed the red & white blazed trail and came to the Palisades Parkway which was odd to see after being alone in the wilderness for so long. As we stood at the side of the parkway, wearing 40lb packs, snowshoes, face masks and one of us with a Husky, I looked at the people passing by in their cars. They looked at us with interest. They looked warm. They looked comfortable. I heard a little voice in my head saying “Stop! Take me with you!”

We crossed all four lanes of the parkway, and were back in the woods again. We crossed a quaint snow covered wooden bridge over a trickling creek and began our accent up Black Mountain. The contour lines on my map were so closely stacked together that they almost made a solid brown line. For the next ¼ mile my calves screamed, my quads burned and my lungs heaved as I pushed myself nearly straight up the side of the mountain. I stopped every 20 feet to catch my breath and took a rest with my knees locked. Though while taking these breaks, my snowshoes faced up hill stretching my calf muscles in a very un-relaxing way. I pushed on. I topped out. I was pooped.

At the top of Black Mountain, we took our bearings and figured that we had about another mile to go before reaching Brien Shelter. At this point, we were all in agreement to stay the night at Brien. The temperature was around 14°F. Onward we trudged through what seemed like a maze of Mountain Laurel. I'd never seen this bush before. It does not loose it's green leaves and pops out against the white snow with great contrast. Pushing through the laurel, it whipped and snapped against the sides of our packs as we inched closer and closer to the shelter. Before we knew it we were descending straight down on to our shelter. AMEN!
Brien Shelter looked pretty nice. Half delirious, I chose a top bunk right off the bat. In my head, I was thinking: Boy this is great, hot air rises! (What hot air was I thinking of?) I froze on that top bunk. The fact that I am alive and writing this is a wonder to me. It was early afternoon when we got to the shelter. We were happy with our time, but hanging out at a shelter during the winter is not a whole lot of fun. There's only one thing you can do at a shelter during the winter and that is try to keep warm! I set up my sleeping area, laying down my reflective blanket, my pads and my sleeping bag. As I laid the bag down I wished each individual down feather the very best of luck in it's lofting and insulating efforts. (Don't let me down guys!)
Right in front of the shelter was a large pile of boulders, probably 60' tall. I needed to create some body heat so I made it's peak my goal. I convinced Jay to come along and boulder to the top with me and before I knew it, we were standing on top of the hill looking almost straight down on the shelter. A good little work out. I climbed back down, cooked dinner, threw on my microspikes and climbed back up to eat my dinner on the hill. It was great. As I inhaled steamy sporkfulls of hot beef stroganoff, a pilated wood pecker rattled the branches above my head. After a few minutes of introspection I felt myself getting cold again, so I climbed back down to the shelter.

It was now 6:00pm but I was so cold that I just wanted to get into my bag and shiver myself to sleep. Stuffing hand warmers into my socks, down my pants and scattered through my bag I kept warm for about an hour. The rest of the night was spent catching 20 minute snippets of sleep! I tossed and turned and debated getting up and going for a jog, and then tossed and turned some more. Each time I woke, I popped my head out of my bag and looked out into the woods. I wondered what time it was. I could see no difference in light or darkness from the last time I looked. I remember thinking to myself: It cold be 9:00pm, or 11:30pm or it could be 4:00am... man I'm freezing! The sound of 4 other guys snoring away, was very upsetting. Bastards! I wondered if Juno was awake; even if she was awake, she wasn't suffering like I was.
When I popped my head out of my bag, the last time, I noticed that the woods looked a little lighter than before. Yes! I was elated. The fact that morning was here meant that the sun would be doing it's job soon and I'd soon be getting warmer. Slowly we all got dressed and began the ritual of melting snow for water and boiling water for meals. I had a couple bowls of instant oatmeal, a few glugs of chunky slush water and quickly packed my gear. I wanted to get moving right away and generate more body heat. My body was slowly warming up, but my toes were frozen solid. Jay was ready to go, so we strapped on the snow shoes and made plans to rendezvous with the rest of our group at Lake Tiorati. Off we went.

The hike out, went quickly. Jay and I passed a group of about seven hikers who were out without snowshoes. They seemed to be having a hard time of it. We exchanged hellos as we watched them post-holing their way through the snow. Poor bastards. About 20 minutes later we spotted Lake Tiorati Drive through the woods and made a B-line for it. Taking this road knocked a good 1.5 miles off of our hike out. About 20 minutes later the rest of the group made it out and we all agreed that the trip was a great success. Some of us were quite comfortable, some of us weren't, but we all had a great time. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. If you're interested, click here to view a gallery of all of the snapshots I took on this trip (237).

I have to work the next five days. During that time, I hope to loose this cold I've earned. While the cold fades, I'll be planning a trip for this coming weekend. I'm hooked now!


Jason said...

kickass dude.

Michael O'Hara said...

Right on Jay. Let's do it again soon! Gotta work on a warmer sleeping system though.

recumbent conspiracy theorist said...

Nice work Mike. I hate to sound cliche but a weekend like that really makes you feel alive huh?

Michael O'Hara said...

Yep, makes you feel alive for sure, but mostly it makes me feel connected with the wilderness and that's why I keep going back. I love the connection.

Suzy Allman said...

Best account of freezing it off in a Harriman lean-to that I've ever read! So glad to have found this.

Mike said...

Thanks Suzy! I enjoyed reading this post again, for old times' sake!