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A Yankee Notebook

March 9, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – I’ve done quite a bit of winter camping in my life. I’m not sure why; my first experience, on Thanksgiving weekend in 1947, was so miserable that logic would dictate I’d never try it again. Wrapped in a totally inadequate wool horse blanker all night between two snoring Scout leaders snug in army surplus double bags, I think I cried and shivered softly all through the dark hours. In the morning, perceiving my distress, our Scoutmaster sent me off with a saw to find some standing dead firewood. I returned with a winter-dormant, but otherwise quite vital tamarack.

Still, I persevered, and eventually grew almost to enjoy it. I introduced a couple of dozen of my students to the activity, and they all managed to survive more or less cheerfully. We climbed in the eastern Adirondacks, mostly, during the years that the old ex-military equipment was changing into modern aluminum, Gore-Tex, and polypro, and the woods became more crowded with winter thrill-seekers. In spite of the often miserable conditions – freezing rain, below-zero temperatures, hip-deep new snow – we had some beautiful, almost transcendent experiences. I remember especially a dead-still New Year’s Eve night on top of Mount Marcy with six other climbers. There was a full moon, and we lay under a translucent parachute canopy, arranged radially, like the cylinders in an old aircraft engine, with our feet in the middle. It was probably only early-onset tinnitus, or the icy wine we’d used to celebrate the turning of the year, but I swear that during the quietest part of the night I could hear what the ancients called the glass-bell music of the spheres.

Which brings us to this year. I’d thought that with age, infirmity, and the growth of common sense, my days of winter camping were over. Then one of the producers of our outdoor television show – significantly, one who would not be joining us – suggested that he’d like to get in a winter overnight shoot before too late this year. And one of the other participants suggested a leanto shelter a couple of miles up on the side of Mount Ascutney.

By pure dumb luck we didn’t schedule it for February, which turned out to be the coldest on record, I believe. Early March looked good – almost the spring equinox, with plenty of daylight – and the sun would really be heating things up on clear days.

We were scheduled to go on Thursday. As I packed my gear on Wednesday for the trip to our rendezvous next morning at the start of the Windsor Trail, the temperature outside was a balmy 29 degrees. It was time to try an experiment I’ve been considering for a long time: layers of polypropylene fleece instead of a down jacket and a wind shell parka. On my feet, to save weight, a pair of insulated “snow sneakers,” instead of heavy boots with thick felt inner boots. When it came to a choice of sleeping bag, my Thanksgiving weekend experience of 68 years ago was still fresh in my mind; I chose my warmest bag, rated to minus-twenty and thus almost never used. As I loaded the truck for the trip, the weather report forecast a Canadian front coming in from the northwest on gusty winds, with subzero temperatures on its heels. Hoo boy!

Mount Ascutney is a pretty interesting piece of rock. Geomorphically, it’s a monadnock. Like the New Hampshire mountain of that name, it stands alone. Geologically, however, it couldn’t be much more different; it’s an igneous pluton, a would-be volcano that squirted upward through crustal cracks into rock formations above and formed the typical cone-shaped mountain, but probably never erupted. Eons of erosion and the indignities of scouring by a continental ice sheet have left it only a bit higher than 3000 feet, and scattered bits of its particular granite in a long boulder train all the way into Massachusetts. A look at a topographic map of Ascutney State Park reveals instantly its distinctive conical shape. Visible for miles up and down the Connecticut Valley, it’s long inspired artists, photographers, skiers, and hikers.

Our peerless videographer, Steve Giordani, and I showed up at the head of the so-called Windsor Trail at ten in the morning, and met Scott Ellis, who’d described this particular hike, to an open log shelter about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, as a two-mile piece of cake. When I looked up at the mountain looming above us and asked the amount of climb to the shelter, I got the vague sort of answer I’d expect from someone selling a used Dodge Omni. But never mind; there was no turning back now. Off we went.

The trail follows an old skid road about a mile, then swings west toward the north shoulder of the mountain. Right about there, Scott’s friend Austin Borg, a fellow Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, caught up with us, not a difficult thing to do: Scott was hauling a loaded pulk, Steve was lugging his tripod and camera, and I’m like molasses in January – which is what the temperature felt like.

The great drawback to leanto camping, in addition to the darkness of the log walls, is that years of gleaning have left the surrounding forest barren of handy firewood. But Scott and Austin dragged in loads of twigs and chunks of birch trunks (which, because birch bark is waterproof, rot within months). I split the sawed-up chunks as well as I could, and we loaded as much of it as might burn in beside the stove that Scott had stuck into the fireplace. Outdoors, it grew steadily colder. We pulled a piece of tarp across the hole in the snowbank that filled the front of the leanto.

Scott cooked a stew on the Jetboil. We wolfed it down, shot a few minutes of video by candlelight, and began stowing our outer clothes all around us against a reveille ten hours away. Austin lay down by the stove to keep it going through the night. Following US Army arctic advice, I downed a Snickers before zipping up that beautiful warm sleeping bag. Yep, it was a cold night.

Photo by Willem lange