The Upside of Winter Hiking

Submitted by Nancy

"Enthusiasm is the great hill-climber."
Elbert Hubbard

I thought winter hiking was all seriousness, risk and hard work - slogging up through the snow in heavy clumsy boots, treading carefully over the ice, managing to keep your body warm in freezing temperatures and extreme wind, forcing yourself to drink and eat even when your food and water freezes, and bearing the weight of a heavy backpack stuffed with enough extra gear and warm layers to keep yourself safe from hypothermia. These seem to be the downsides to winter hiking. But I have discovered an upside too! Winter hiking is also silly-giddy-whoop-and-hollering-child-like joy. Who knew?


"We're down, hon, safe and sound," I say to my beloved husband Don, having just reached the car after a six-hour winter hike up Sandwich Dome with Pat.

He breathes a sigh of relief. We had recently watched "Through the Void" where a rock climber barely makes it down the Peruvian Andes alive, and just heard about a 24-year-old hiker lost for two days on Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Don had visions of me being stuck on a mountain top.

"I may not be there when you get home," he says. "I'm going to borrow a weed whacker."

OK folks - it's January in New Hampshire, so I say, "A weed whacker? You are a crazy man!"

His voice is strong in his retort. "You hike in the White Mountains in sub-zero degree weather and you call ME crazy? You're the one who's crazy!"

He has a point...


I'm a newbie hiker - just started in earnest last May when Pat and I decided to hike the 67 4,000 footers in New England. So far, we have bagged 43. This first winter hiking season has been tough. We've endured freezing cold, icy trails, deep snow and below-zero chill factors. We've turned around twice before reaching the summits. Once on Mansfield because my feet were so cold I couldn't feel them and once between the peaks of Adams and Madison because two and a half hours of exposure in blow-us-away wind and frigid cold was enough.

So, given the difficulty, why do it? It's a question I've been asking myself since the beginning of the season. In fact, when we turned around because of my cold feet, I found myself admitting, through tears, that I didn't LIKE winter hiking. And my husband, after hearing about our escapades, has suggested that perhaps winter is not my hiking season. I hike in winter because it pushes me outside of my comfort zone and into the land of a-ha's - a place that is rarely comfy, always surprising, sometimes painful and often emotional -- where I learn who I really am.

On our hike yesterday I saw a part of who I really am that I love. Laughing with abandon and screaming with delight, I blissfully, gleefully slid down the trail on my butt!

We climbed Sandwich Dome. It took three and a half grueling hours to trudge up the mountain. It was steep and I was sucking pretty hefty wind, sweat rolling down my back and chest, totally soaking my multiple layers of tech-wicks and fleece. My heart was pounding in my ears, and I had assumed the "steep" position -- hands on hips and elbows pushed back, trying to maximize my lung capacity. Hopefully I was burning major fat cells. Of course, I was complaining about how steep it was as we climbed. You see, this was NOT a 4,000 footer. We were taking it easy by doing one of the Hundred Highest mountains in New England; Sandwich Dome is ONLY 3,980 feet high, 20 feet shy of the requirement. But in my mind, since it wasn't a 4,000 footer, I thought it would be a gentle stroll up to a view. NOT. In addition to steep, adding insult to injury, there was no hot rock with a view to lounge on for lunch, my favorite part of our summer hikes. We kept trudging, gnawing on our frozen power bars. We got to the top, and it was windy and very cold. Not that that should have been a surprise. It was in the single digits at the trailhead. But the trail was in the woods so we had been protected from the wind until we reached the exposed peak. We froze trying to take pictures of the amazing contrast between the white rime ice and the blue mountains on the horizon. The chill-factor was below-zero and our cameras went on a collective strike - working conditions were way too cold.

No time to celebrate bagging the peak; we turned around and headed down fast before we froze. As I headed back, gravity, my enemy going up, became my friend going down. I was moving quickly with only the minimal effort it took to put one foot in front of the other and gravity did the rest while the snow cushioned my steps. Then we came to a very steep section where we needed to take it slow. No! Pat sat down and slid on her butt. I followed suit. Oh My GOD!! Whoooo Hooooo! Yippee!

I was laughing and whooping and hollering as I leaned to one side or the other to avoid rocks in the trail. I was going fast - my feet right in front of me, ready to break if need be. Now here's what I found. I couldn't do it seriously. I sounded and felt like a six-year-old. Each steep section that elicited a swear word on our ascent became the thrilling bliss of our decent! I was loud. I felt free. I was no longer cold or even worried about the cold. I just entirely let go and slid down the mountain. The experience flooded my soul with bubbly serotonin that effused me with giddy energy. It was intoxicating. We got down much faster than it took to go up, by 1.5 hours, and much of that time was on our butts!

The payoff of the long, butt-busting, clothes-drenching hike up was the thrilling butt-coasting, life-awakening ride down. Now ya gotta have the right pants on - like wind pants, something with little resistance to them. Other than that - no previous experience, no training, no equipment necessary!

The Sandwich Dome climb turned my view of winter hiking upside down and gave me a whole new perspective. The reward isn't in getting to the top - it's in the ride to the bottom! The upside of winter hiking is the down SLIDE! Steep? Bring it on!

Sliding down the mountain yesterday released the exuberance and enthusiasm in me that had been shut-in, not even thinking she could come out on a winter hike. As a result, the kid in me is closer to the surface today. I can feel her smiling just under my skin, behind my eyes, near my cheeks. She's looking for a chance to come out and play again now that she's been released by the responsible adult. I'm lighter, less serious, more effervescent and vital. And when I think about our next hike, I'm more hopeful of opportunities to play and have fun. I keep replaying a video in my mind of me sliding down Sandwich Dome. Wowsers, that was fun. I can hear the little girl inside me giggling, whispering in my head, "Let's go sliding again. Can we? Huh? Can we?

It got me thinking about other ways I release my inner child-like spirit. I say child-like because children seem to have vast amounts of it naturally and then it gets eked out of us as we grow up. But if we had it as children, then we have it as adults. It's not a child quality; it's a human quality. Actually, as I write this, I realize I search out opportunities to release the enthusiastic passion in me often -- white water rafting in the Grand Canyon, skydiving and bungee jumping in Australia, Pictionary with friends and family. There will never be enough of that in my life. I love my cheerleader side. She's fun and her enthusiasm is contagious. It is a big part of who I am.

Hiking is a microcosm of how I live my life. How I hike is how I live. I work hard at hiking - I push hard, challenge myself, set goals, work through the struggles and focus on overcoming the difficulties and learning the lessons. Wow; I focus on the hard parts. The Sandwich Dome a-ha reminds me that not all of life, or hiking, is hard - life is also abounding ebullience and irrepressible joy.

Difficult circumstances bring out our true character. Similarly, opportunities to truly enjoy life also reveal who we really are. I know I have a survivor in me. But I also know I have a life-cheerleader in me as well. I'm thankful for both.