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Old 02-05-2020, 01:50 AM   #11
DSettahr's Avatar
Join Date: May 2007
Posts: 4,939
I can definitely empathize with the struggles faced by this group. I believe that the 4 mentioned in the article as having section hiked the NPT in winter are my friends and I- over 2 consecutive winter breaks while students at Paul Smith's College, the 4 of us hiked the entire NPT over 4 separate trips.

Our initial goal was also a thru-hike; and by the end of the second day out of Benson it became pretty obvious that this was unattainable for us. Our itinerary was overly ambitious and we were under prepared. We had wisely spotted cars (with resupplies) at each of the major road crossings on the trail, and so when we reached Piseco it was easy enough for us to bail, return to civilization for a couple of nights to warm ourselves up and dry our gear out, and come up with our 2 winter plan for tackling the rest of the trail in sections. All told, it took us 22 total days of hiking to finish the (then) 122 miles of trail.

A couple of observations from the article (which admittedly is a bit light on the details so my suppositions may not necessarily be accurate):

Their pace sounds absolutely Herculean in nature. We also initially thought that we'd be able to maintain 10 mpd to complete the trail within 12-13 days, but even after factoring in a buffer of several days worth of extra food on top of this, it quickly became clear that this was an impossible task. Ultimately, our average daily pace across the full trail (excluding both high and low outliers) clocked in at just over 5.6 mpd- and even this demanded substantial effort on some days to reach the evening's destination before dark. With a sustained pace of 10 mpd over the better part of a week in those conditions, with packs laden with the necessary gear, I'm honestly not at all surprised that some members of the group faced debilitating injuries, with ramifications lasting weeks and even months.

And the challenges of keeping up even a modest pace for us weren't just physical- there was the mental challenge of navigation as well. The NPT isn't always well marked to begin with, and in the winter with deep snow (both on the ground and weighting tree branches down) the trail corridor isn't always obvious either, regardless of markers. On most stretches we found ourselves spreading out in search of any sign of the continuation of the trail at least several times a day. The worst sections found us losing as much as the better part of an hour trying to find the continuation of the trail. (For several weeks after each section, I would have dreams about looking in vain for blue trail markers in snow-covered woods.)

I think that a slower pace also gave us a substantial psychological advantage: We weren't forced to have AM chores completed, with camp broken down and packs ready to go by sunrise every morning. I don't think the value of being able to eat breakfast and pack up in day light can be understated, especially for a winter trip of this length- the idea of feeling like you have to force yourself out of your sleeping bag well before sunrise, morning after morning after morning, for several weeks straight, just does not sound like it would in any way be conducive towards my overall enjoyment of such a trip in the the least.

It also sounds like this group had some major problems with moisture management. One thing that we didn't do that I absolutely would mandate for all group members were I to attempt something like this again is to carry vapor barrier liners for use inside of our sleeping bags. Moisture build up in sleeping bag insulation is absolutely a major concern on extended winter trips. Furthermore, it's rarely consequential on relatively short 1 or 2 night trips, so it's not an issue that would likely be apparent during a shorter shake-down trip- and so is easily overlooked in the absence of prior experience on longer-duration winter trips. It's on those longer trips particularly that it's not unheard of to see sleeping bags lose substantial insulating power over consecutive nights due to moisture build up.

We definitely had our own moisture issues- across the longest section (10 days) we accumulated enough moisture in our clothing/gear to make us end that section a couple of days earlier than we'd originally intended despite having enough food and supplies to continue. Still, it sounds like our issues were never anywhere near as bad as those faced by this group- in any case, we certainly did not accumulate moisture anywhere nearly as quickly, which makes me wonder what some of the differences were. Some possibilities:
  • Perhaps the group made the mistake of "burrowing" into their sleeping bags- we knew to keep our mouths centered in the opening (with a balaclava for insulation) so as to allow the moisture from our breath to escape, rather than condense in the bag's insulation.
  • Possibly the substantial sweating resulting in soaked clothes was a result of trying to keep up such an inhuman pace over consecutive days.
  • It's also possible that some group members were over-dressed during the day, further contributing to and exacerbating the sweating.
  • Even after we adjusted our itinerary to plan for roughly 5-6 mile days, we still included a buffer of several days worth of extra food for each section. This allowed us to take advantage of several zero and "nearo" days, which most importantly, allowed us to avoid hiking in rain. These days also gave us the opportunity to make some modest efforts to get gear dried out.
  • We also carried a handheld weather radio so as to always have an up to date weather forecast- which came in handy several times by allowing us to plan our days around worse weather (i.e., if we knew that a storm was due to hit the next afternoon, we'd make an effort to get up early and try to get to our next destination before the storm hit).
  • To some extent, it may also have been a matter of just plain luck.
The article mentions that the group faced some challenging stream crossings- this was hands down the single biggest challenge we faced (and we didn't have to deal with the Stoney Creek crossing, even). During one section we had the misfortune of facing a January thaw- which meant that all of the snow melted, and streams that were ordinarily mere trickles of water, perhaps a few feet wide and easy to hop across without a second thought, were instead raging torrents 30 feet or more across. Seriously, these were no joke- and crossing them demanded some serious, careful consideration of our options (plus also no shortage of luck). At one such crossing, we were lucky enough to find a canoe nearby. At another, we found a way across but judged it too precarious to attempt with 60-70 pound packs on our backs- so we ended up setting up hand-line across the stream and shuttled our gear across, piece by piece (so as not to risk a laden pack snapping the hand line and spilling the entire contents of the pack into deep, swift moving cold water).

They also mention the difficulty of getting fires going. We had a few on our trips, but we were very explicit in that our preparations were to allow us complete self-sufficiency without any reliance on fire- any campfire we were able to have was simply an added bonus. In any case, our experiences matched those of this group- finding good dead and downed wood that wasn't soaked and/or hidden beneath deep snow was usually more trouble that it was worth.

Another consideration that the article sort of hints at but doesn't outright state: A good number of the lean-tos on the NPT are situated on the eastern shoreline of lakes/ponds, and are both un-sheltered and face westward, directly into the prevailing winds. Great spots to camp at in the summer when afternoon breezes off the water will keep the bugs at bay, but horrible spots to camp at in the winter. I will never forget the night we spent weathering a storm at Plumley's Point on Long Lake; we were in our sleeping bags for 16 straight hours while the storm raged, with essentially no vegetative screening to keep the winds from roaring off the lake and straight into the lean-to. The winds absolutely howled all night long, loudly enough that sleeping was a challenge. Even with a tarp across the front of the lean-to, sunrise still found us with an inch of fresh snow covering everything inside the shelter.

To be clear, by no means am I attempting to qualify this group as inexperienced- it sounds like they were anything but (honestly, they sound very much more experienced than we were when we set out with the same goal in mind). However, the article is pretty vague on the specifics- I'd especially be curious to know what they'd do differently given the opportunity to try this again. In the absence of more detailed information, one is left only to speculate about what exactly lead to the issues faced by the group.

And if I'm being perfectly honest with myself, I think the biggest advantage working in our favor was not necessarily tied to experience- we were able to recognize early on that a 5-6 mpd pace was much more achievable than what we'd originally planned on, and as college students with a lengthy winter recess every year, we had ample free time at our disposal to quickly and easily switch to a substantially longer section-hike itinerary. It sounds like some of the members of the group featured in the article do work in academia and likely enjoy a similar winter recess- but I don't doubt that some group members very well may have had a 2-week deadline, after which vacation time would be used up and jobs would be expecting a return to work. This very well may have resulted in a "2 weeks or bust" attitude that ended up pushing the group beyond their limits.
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