I pulled up the National Weather Service recreational forecast for one last look before turning my phone to airplane mode. Lows 3 below to 13 below. West winds 15 to 25 mph. Wind chill values as low as 33 below.
I let a wave of anxiety crash over me before I was distracted, watching my friend (M)’s cheerful rainbow-striped hat bob as she made some last-minute gear adjustments. I released the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding and felt my shoulders relax.
My original plan was to corral 11 friends and spend the night at Carter Notch Hut. The forecast scared 6 off.
That wasn’t the only change to the plan. M and I, the most experienced of the group, were going to hike out over the Wildcats. That plan had changed, not just because of the bitter cold, but because we would have had to leave a car parked on the side of the road by Glen Ellis Falls trailhead. We took this combination of factors as a bad omen and decided to leave crampons and ice axes in the car.
Besides, this would allow us to stay with the newer hikers, who had been scared by an employee at a local outdoor retailer.
We stuck toe warmers on our feet, strapped on gaiters, snowshoes, and finally hoisted our heavy packs onto our backs. In addition to my usual winter gear, I had decided to carry up potatoes to contribute to the group dinner, my winter sleeping bag, down booties, and about three extra jackets, spooked by the forecast.
We herded the new winter hikers / backpackers to the trailhead and took up our rightful position in the caboose as sweeps.
Nineteen Mile Brook Trail is exquisite in the winter.
It’s a gentle trail, too, especially the first two-thirds or so. I always appreciate being able to warm up on the hike in, rather than starting off with a bang.
There were the usual stops for removing and adding layers and adjusting packs, but we ascended pretty steadily and reached the hut quickly.
We were far from alone; I’d guess that the 6 who dropped out of our trip were probably the only vacancies at the hut, despite the formidable forecast. Seeing so many other humans was reassuring; I’d had second thoughts, especially after such a large faction of our party backed out of the weekend.
The bunkhouses at Carter Notch Hut are detached from the main cabin, unlike many of the other huts (Zealand Falls Hut, Lakes of the Clouds Hut, Madison Spring Hut, and Greenleaf Hut), so they tend to be much colder, especially since each bunkroom sleeps just four people. We divided our group of six into two rooms and set up.
I had instructed everyone to bring a sleeping pad to layer under their sleeping bag; the cots at the huts are really great at staying cold! Setting up my own sleeping pad is always a challenge for me – I have Raynaud’s syndrome, and it’s especially pronounced in my fingers, so unrolling my ice-cold, lightly-frost-covered pad and holding it up to breathe into it, while standing still in below-zero temperatures was torture. Half my fingers were completely white by the time I fumbled them back into my mittens, and I could only keep them covered up for a few minutes before unpacking my sleeping bag. Once that was done, I was in agony, but forced myself to open a couple of hand warmers to throw into my bag along with all my extra clothes, to try to get some warmth generated in there while we had dinner.
We retreated to the main cabin, which was significantly warmer than the bunkroom, and socialized and warmed up for a bit, taking advantage of the hot chocolate and tea.
Soon it was our turn to make dinner: Annie’s mac and cheese, a delicious lentil, spinach, and tomato dish, and my potatoes. And of course, we had to heat up some brownies.
After dinner, we played a few hands of Cards Against Humanity, which I’d also hauled up the hill – if I keep this kind of packing list up for all my winter backpacking, my summer pack will feel like nothing!
Lights out was at 9:30, and I’m certain we all felt some degree of trepidation about the night ahead as we trudged to our sleeping quarters under a glorious, but un-photographed, full moon.
We were all in our sleeping bags by 10:20, but I don’t think anyone was asleep until 11 or so. I had a few cold spots, and then of course had to take a bio-break, crawling back into my bag even colder than before. Once I fell asleep, though, I slept pretty well. I occasionally woke up feeling cold, but was able to rearrange myself and my jackets to keep warm enough to sleep.
Everyone was awake and packed up by 8:30 or 9 AM, and we all returned to the main cabin to make a modest breakfast and socialize.
My friend M and I decided to check out Wildcat River Trail, while the others opted to hike down.
We found this amazing boulder field, marked by a sign and a spur trail, and spent a while alternating between enjoying the sunshine and ducking out of the wind.
We especially relished being able to walk across the pond and get a unique perspective on the Wildcats.
We took our time hiking out; the temperature gradually rose to the mid-teens, the sun was shining, and the trees and the notch itself protected us from the wind as we descended.
It was such a joy to have no pressing timelines, no ambitious goals – to leave the hamster wheel of “What are you doing next?” and “Where are you going next?” and peak-bagging – to just enjoy the conversation and the trees and the sun and the snow.
And now that I know that I can do that, have that experience, in these brutal and forbidding conditions, I think I’ll be doing it a lot more often.