Sunday, October 24, 2010

-Trip Report- Camel's Hump: The Hard Way (February 2008)

Does somebody smell burning gloves?

The stop sign sailed by us as the staccato thumping of the anti-lock brakes broke the silence.  The words "hang on guys" came out of my mouth so matter-of-factly that Gered and Brett wondered if I knew we were sliding out of control.

Lessons learned from years of driving on the snow covered back roads of Vermont unconsciously took over.  I moved my foot from the brake to the gas, turned the wheel to the right, and then quickly back into the turn as we slid sideways into the intersection and onto the paved road.  Our unplanned sled ride down the last section of the snow covered mountain road put an exclamation point on the weekend full of lessons about winter.

Winter camping lessons are usually learned the hard way.  Hours of shivering in a tent waiting for the sun to come up  won't be the most enjoyable moments of your life, but they sure leave a lasting impression.

It was early February 2008 and central Vermont had received more than six feet of snow in three weeks.  The mountains were primed, and the three of us decided to hike and ski Vermont's most recognizable peak.

We somehow stuffed all of our gear and skis into my old two door Acura and made the drive up to the winter parking lot from the Waterbury side.  The snow around the trail sign made it clear that we had found Camel's Hump in prime condition.

We donned our snowshoes, threw our skis on our backs, and headed up the Monroe Trail.

And so began the silent competition between them.  Gered and Brett are Triathlon buddies.  This means that they train together.  As far as I can tell, training involves trying to one-up one another by riding, swimming, running (or in this case snowshoeing) faster than the other.  Gered won the Burlington (VT) Triathlon this year, and Brett came in third for his age group at the USA National Triathlon in Alabama.   So I was getting my ass kicked.

A rare moment when I was not trying to catch up
The problem with this dynamic is that it works against the first rule of winter camping and backcountry skiing: Don't sweat.  All-out exertion is a bad idea when you're wearing a lot of clothes.   Sweat leads to wet layers and those have a way of getting cold when you stop moving.  Controlling this dynamic involves a combination of slowing down and shedding layers so that you never get too hot.  Unfortunately we were all guilty of breaking this rule, and at three o'clock in the morning when the first light was breaking in the tent, I promised myself never to run up a mountain again.

Lesson #1- Never Let Them See You Sweat

A companion to this first lesson applies to clothing.  It's impossible not to perspire, as your pores are open and constantly releasing moisture.  Therefore, its important to wear materials that  will still keep you warm when they are wet.  Cotton is not this material.  While cotton is the fabric of our lives, it is not the fabric to preserve your life when you're sleeping in the snow.  This job goes to wool.  The problem with cotton is that it holds a lot of water and then doesn't want to give it up.  Plus, when it is wet, it completely loses its insulating properties.
So cold my eyes were frozen shut

Wool, on the other hand, sheds water, dries faster and insulates even when it is wet.  As an afterthought, I had packed a simple old-school green wool sweater.  That sweater saved my life on that trip.

Despite being so wet that my sweater froze when I took it off (see below), it still kept me warm.
Lesson #2- Cotton Kills/ Wool Saves

After racing up the mountain to the first major trail junction, we searched the nearby woods and found a relatively flat spot to set up camp.  Brett had brought his four person, three-season tent which comfortably fit the three of us with our gear.

Just as we were starting to set up camp a snow squall rolled in, and we were surrounded by a winter wonderland fit for the inside of a souvenir snow globe.

We left our overnight gear with the tent and continued up the mountain.

As the battle of the triathletes continued, I trudged up the mountain in relative solitude.   The trail looped around a large set of cliffs, meeting up with the Long Trail, before heading toward the top. We stopped just below the summit in the small clearing where the Burrows trail joins from the West side of the mountain.   The competition broke down into a group wrestling match in the snow and I broke out my JetBoil stove and whipped up a hot lunch before heading up to the top.

One more steep climb and we arrived at the summit.  The treeless summit would have been more dramatic if the snow squall hadn't reduced visibility to a few dozen feet.  Nonetheless, we took congratulatory photos and started back down.

For the first time that day we took the skis off of our backs and skied.  The very top of the trail was narrow and only skiable because there was more than a foot of powder.  We ducked low hanging branches and ran narrow lanes into the trees.

The skiing improved as we moved lower onto the mountain.  When we got to the large cliffs, we noticed a small couloir cutting up into the cliffs.  Gered managed to climb up into it and cut a few turns.  We finished by jumping some large rocks and skied the open glades below the cliffs back to the tent. 

We arrived back at the tent and the light was fading fast.  Given that we were now all sitting around in wet clothes we started to get cold.  Even a round of hot Gatorade couldn't get us warm, so we decided to make a campfire to try to warm up.  You would think that building a campfire would help, but in our situation, it actually ended up making us colder.  The problem with a campfire during a snowstorm is that the snow that falls on your jacket tends to melt.  Melting snow, unfortunately, means more wet clothes.

I compounded our comedy of errors by setting my gloves out to dry a little too close to the fire- which I discovered a little too late.

Lesson #3- Campfires + Snow = Water

After retreating to the tent, we started the preparations for our dinner which consisted of dehydrated meals.  We had consumed most of our water, so we grabbed snow to boil down for more.  Easy, right?  Wrong.  Snow, unfortunately, is mostly air.  That means you have to melt down several large pans full to fill your water bottle.  A couple of hours later we were able eat our food, and fill some hot bottles for our bags.

Lesson #4- Stoves + Snow = Waiting 

While settling down for dinner another of our rookie mistakes became apparent.  When we set the tent down we had stomped out a platform in the snow.  Unfortunately, when we were in the tent laying out our bags, our knees and hands had left impressions in the snow.  While we were out making the campfire, those impressions froze like concrete.   Trying to sleep on the various ruts and bumps- even with an inflatable pad- was torture.  Today when I set up my sleeping pad I make a point to roll around a little and make a little rounded trench to sleep in. 

Lesson #5- Make a Body Trench

In addition to being a bumpy night, it was also COLD.  Even with an inflatable pad, cold seeps up through the floor of a tent and into your body.  Your weight compresses the insulation on the bottom of your sleeping bag making it less effective than the insulation on your sides and top.  This makes it important to have as many layers underneath you as possible.  I only had one inflatable pad underneath me that night.  Although I hadn't brought a second pad, I had a collection of damp clothes.  Instead of placing them underneath me (where my body heat would help to dry them out- and they would help to keep me warm), I placed them on the floor of the tent near the door.  When I woke up in the morning, I was faced with a horrible reality:  My sweater was now frozen solid.  Like some overstarched shirt the arms stuck straight out. I had no choice but to put it on, put my jacket over it, and hope that I would dry it out with body heat before dying.

Lesson #6- Sleep On Your Clothes

While I was ready to go running out of the tent, we had to eat breakfast.  I'm normally a huge fan of oatmeal, but the limitations on water (see above) have convinced me that there are better options.  Namely: Pop-Tarts.  The abundance of quick conversion calories that make them such a bad idea for everyday breakfast make them perfect for a winter camping breakfast.   Plus, if you read the label on a Pop-Tart carefully, it has a lot of the same minerals and nutrients as popular energy bars-- at a fraction of the cost, and twice the cherry frosting.

Lesson #7- Pop-Tarts Are the Breakfast of Champions

Before heading back to the car we couldn't pass up one more trip through the glades above our camp.  We hiked back up to the cliff face and skied the glades we explored the day before.   After stopping to pick up our bags at the tent site, we carved powder filled turns on the open trail all the way back to the winter parking lot.

We piled into the Acura and headed back toward civilization where there was one more refresher course on winter driving waiting for us at the bottom of the mountain road.

We passed that test and lived to suffer through more winter camping in the years to come.


  1. Ha ha- hilarious

    -Tollbooth Willie

  2. I'm comin' out of the boooth!

  3. Awesome story! Camel's Hump in the winter takes balls. I once lost the trail while shoeing up, camped in the open in my bivy sack, and reluctantly turned around and headed home the next day, live to hike another day!

  4. That's hardcore man. I haven't had the 'pleasure' of spending a night out in a bivy sack .... yet.