Outdoors by Rick Brockway: Predictably cold winters, unpredictably dubious hikes

Three or four weeks ago, a friend of my son asked Randy to join him on a winter hike. He planned on doing the Great Range in the Adirondack High Peaks. That hike would be about 17 miles, and he was going to do it in just one day. Randy declined, because he didn’t feel he had the equipment for such a hike in the winter. He also remembered a marathon hike last winter up Giant Mountain. The plan was to get to Giant Mountain’s summit just before sunset, in order to see the magnificent colors when the sun disappeared behind the mountains to the southwest. That hike meant descending the ice covered rocks in the dark. They never had a problem, but unexpected things sometimes happen. Many people who attempt these feats are totally unprepared for the elements and the changing weather in the mountains.

A couple of years ago, a guy and his girlfriend attempted to climb Algonquin, the second highest mountain in the Adirondacks. The sky was clear and sunny when they started out, but I learned many years ago that the weather changes quickly in the mountains. I’ve seen gully-washing rains in one valley, and totally blue sky in the next.

The young couple that attempted to conquer Algonquin was caught in a total white out, near the summit. Fifty to sixty mile per hour winds and freezing temperatures made things even worse. They had no idea where to go, or how to get there. They were also unprepared to spend the night.

Later that night, a family member alerted the rangers that they were missing. A major rescue began. Luckily, they knew enough to dig out a snow cave. It saved their lives. If it wasn’t for the determination of rangers and rescue teams, they would have died. Three days later, someone on top of the mountain looking for them heard a faint voice. Those kids were lucky, suffering a little frost bite.

Winter hiking has become very popular. Many hikers are determined to hike all of the Adirondack’s 46 High Peaks in winter, or the 35 peaks in the Catskills. A friend of mine has hiked them all, and likes winter hiking. She says that many of the trails are easier to hike on snowshoes.

The problem is, too many people go totally unprepared. Conditions are different than in the summer. A couple of my friends decided to hike Mt. Marcy in the winter. It was a beautiful day when they started out. Even with snowshoes, they made good time. Now I must add, hiking snowshoes aren’t the same as those that most people use. They’re small and light, because the trails are usually packed by other hikers.

When they had reached the last push near the top, some clouds moved in. Ten minutes later, the snow started to fall. By the time they reached the summit, visibility was impossible, so they immediately started back off the mountain. The problem was, they could not find the trail. With the help of a GPS, they got down a few hundred feet. There, they met a couple of other hikers. They were digging in, making a snow cave, planning to spend the night. The other hikers said they could join them, but Bill and Ryan decided to go on and got down below the tree line, making it back to their car a few hours later.

Many people enter this dangerous terrain without enough food or water. They lack a fire starting kit and a proper light. To hike, you need layers of clothing, so you can add some when you get cold or take some off when you get warm. Always be prepared for the worse, because it sometimes happens.

I suggest you check the Department of Environmental Conservation’s website for a list of life-saving essentials. Let people know where you are going and sign in and sign out at the trail registers, so you can be found if something unforeseen happens.

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