Saturday, March 16, 2013

Longs Peak Trail Winter Backpacking Trip Report

(NOTE: For background information on this trip, check out my "Backpacking Trip up Longs Peak tomorrow" post first)

Well, I made it home in one piece! Unfortunately, I had to cut my trip short at the end of the second day due to extreme conditions at the tree line, which made it impossible to light my MSR stove to melt snow for drinking water.

Blowing snow was so bad up there that it literally covered the stove by the time I took it out of my pack and put it on the ground. Watch the video at the end of this report and you'll see what I'm talking about!

In case you're wondering, I couldn't start a campfire, because campfires aren't allowed on Longs Peak, and there's very little firewood available at the tree line.

In those harsh conditions, which included tropical storm-force wind gusts and windchill temperatures approaching -21 F during the day, I was rapidly dehydrating, and without the ability to melt snow into drinking water, I had no choice but to beat a hasty retreat back down the trail as night fell.

Day One

(click to enlarge)

My first day involved backpacking up to Goblin's Forest, which is the first available place to camp off the trail, roughly a mile from the trailhead. Luckily, the snow on the trail was compacted down enough that I was able to make the trek without snow shoes. It was here that I would spend my first night.

The view of the trail behind me on the approach to Goblin's Forest

Goblin's Forest camping area

Altimeter reading at the camping area:

The area to the left of trail (shown in the photo below) is where backpackers are allowed to camp overnight. Underestimating the depth of the snow, I merrily tromped into this area looking for a camp site. After just a short distance, I wound up in snow up to my waist!

Luckily, I found a level area with only knee-deep snow, where I could set up camp. I had debated about bringing my avalanche shovel, figuring I could use just my snow shoes to clear camp. In the end I decided to bring the shovel even though it was added weight, and I'm glad I did, because it would have been a lot more work without it.

As I was setting up camp, the wind started to howl, and snow began to blow hard enough to obscure my visibility, so I hurriedly dug out an area to pitch my ParaTipi. Once it was set up (and due to my haste, I didn't set it up as well as I normally would), I managed to fire up my MSR XGK EX stove and make a Mountain House dehydrated meal for dinner before night settled in.

Overnight and into the next morning

After night fell, around 6:30pm, it was too cold to do anything but jump into my sleeping bag. It ended up being a good opportunity to catch up on some sleep, because even though I brought a book, it was just too dang cold to try and read!
(click to enlarge)

Luckily, the North Face Inferno -40 F bag that I brought along to test lived up to its name, or I would have been miserable. Overnight temps approached -20 F with the windchill. I had to leave the flap open on the Paratipi to prevent condensation from forming, since it is a single walled nylon tent, so I definitely felt the full effect of the cold as the wind blew into it.

The Inferno bag was actually warm enough in those temperatures that I had to vent it in the middle of the night, so my guess is that the -40 F rating on it is fairly accurate.

I spent nearly 13 hours inside the bag, getting up when the sun cracked the sky at around 7:30 am. My sleep was fairly restful, though I was awakened a few times when clumps of snow fell from high branches and smacked the Paratipi. Luckily, Kifaru builds their tipis to withstand extreme conditions such as these, and the falling snow didn't affect its integrity in any way.

Gear Selection

I thought I would take a moment to mention the gear I used to function in a subarctic environment without a fire:


Outer-layer- Wintergreen Northern Wear Anorak Shell and Guide Pants
Main insulation layer- a couple of old fleece liner jackets that I pillaged from beat-up thrift store winter jackets
Head protection- Talus Cold Avenger Expedition Balaclava, plus a fleece cap found at a thrift store.
Eye Protection- Smith Optics goggles for protection in snowy conditions, or Pivothead Video Sunglasses for drier, sunny conditions and to take video clips.

Gear Used

Backpack- Kelty 2012 RedCloud 90
Backpacking Stove- MSR XGK EX Liquid Fuel Stove
Ground insulation- 2012 Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite Pad,  Therm-A-Rest Pro-Lite Plus Self-Inflating Mattress, and a Grabber Space Tarp
Food- Mountain House Pro Packs
Emergency Matches- UCO Stormproof Matches
Cookware- Snow Peak Kettle #1 for melting snow for drinking water and rehydrating Mountain House food
Spork- American Kami's Titanium Survival Spork
Trekking poles- Mountain Smith (don't know which model, got them on clearance at a local outdoors store)
Spare Cordage- Lifeview Outdoors Mil-Spec Type 1 Paracord
Portable Weather Instrument/Altimeter- Kestrel 3500
Compass- Suunto
Camera- just my old but reliable Canon digital camera, plus a cheap, no-name tripod that ended up breaking before the trip was over.

Day Two- Trek towards the tree line

After spending the night in Goblin's Forest, It took me a couple of hours to break camp before heading out on the second leg of the journey. Breaking camp on winter excursions takes much longer than during warm weather, since you have to pack up twice as much gear, as well as having to melt snow in order to drink or eat.

Since I'm mentioning gear, I thought I'd also mention one of the most unpleasant aspects of winter backpacking- weight! Though I've done this type of trip many times, traveling up mountain trails with nearly 100 pounds of combined gear (on top of snow) sucks. There's no other way to describe it. I always feel like an overloaded pack mule, but it's necessary to ensure survival and comfort on a solo winter trip.

The trek towards the treeline was really quite beautiful:

The flat area beyond the mountains is where the city of Longmont is located

The approach to the tree line:

At the tree line

Once I got to the tree line, I noticed that the trail had disappeared. It was noticeably colder and the wind had picked up quite a bit. There were also chest-high snow drifts everywhere.

With this extreme change in conditions, I decided to err on the side of caution and not go any further that day, as I wanted plenty of time to make camp by digging out a snow shelter. I found an area where snow had drifted behind a Limber Pine tree and dug out a shelter, with the intention of covering it with a tarp.

By the time I got my shelter ready, the sun was low in the sky, and the conditions starting getting noticeably worse. Winds were gusting at high speeds, and the temperature dropped even lower. Wind-driven snow started covering everything, and even sitting down inside the shelter with my back turned against the wind, snow was still blowing into my nostrils. My gear was coated with several inches within minutes.

I managed to brave the elements long enough to put on my Pivothead Video Sunglasses and capture the following video. The windchill recorded with my Kestrel weather instrument was just shy of -21 F. 

(enlarge the video by clicking the Youtube symbol to see the temperature and get the full effect!)

After I took this video, I attempted to hunker down in my shelter and use my MSR stove to melt snow into drinking water, since I was getting pretty dehydrated. The wind then started to blow even harder than what was shown in the video. Snow was blowing so badly that, even behind the shelter, it completely covered my stove by the the time I took it out of my pack, making it impossible to ignite. Snow also started to cover my face and body, to the point where if I had simply relaxed for a few minutes, I would have been coated from head to toe in several inches of snow!

With no ability to make drinking water, dehydration setting in, and nighttime windchill temperatures I estimated would hit -40 to -50 F, it was a virtual death trap.

That's when I made the decision to bail out. 

I have been in some very harsh conditions in the mountains before, but this is the first time I felt my life could be in danger. The best way I can describe it is,  Planet Hoth from "The Empire Strikes Back!"

Despite being a tough trip, I was still able to get some great gear testing done, and as always, you learn something new every time you go out there!

About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ (without spaces)

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