Elementary Challenges

BaldfaceWhen I worked in the wilderness for days at a time, I had the dubious privilege of camping and living in some of the worst weather New England has to offer, and bad weather is something hardly lacking here. The Mt. Washington Observatory proudly proclaims itself home of “the worst weather in the world.”

Hyperbole or not, the elements in the White Mountains will not be disrespected. In the winter and the summer both, weather systems climbing up along the east coast meet cold air pouring down from the Arctic Circle. As the systems meet up with one another, their winds amplify each other. In the wake of storms major and minor, winds in the mountains climb comfortably to hurricane-force. When I noted that, I went to check and found that twenty-one of the preceding thirty days in the Whites were recorded, on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, as being at least class one—“very dangerous winds, will produce some damage.” Of those, eight passed into class two—“extremely dangerous winds, will cause extensive damage.” Three reached the level of a class three hurricane—“devastating damage will occur.”

This is not unusual; New England weather brings challenges year-round. There is thundering rain in the summer and, from November to April, snowfall—rarely the powdery white of ski slopes, more often a heavy, damp snow with the consistency and weight of wet sand. For those living in woods, lines stretch and sag, tents and tarps collapse, and fingers and toes are seldom warm. To stay alive in such conditions, you cannot stop moving. Even a momentary rest will slow your metabolism and allow the indifferent environment to suck life-sustaining heat into an insatiable void. The usual six months of New England Winter are made even less bearable by the daylight, which goes AWOL in October and does not fully return until late March. Many times I have woken cold, climbed quickly out of my sleeping bag into a frigid morning and a shower of snow, and fought to keep myself warm as I packed my sleeping bag, tent, and everything else I need to live.

With the right skills, you can carry everything you need, even in weather as hostile as I have described. Move fast. Consume calories by the thousands. Wear layers that make maximum use of your body heat and which are maximally functional at low temperatures. Do push-ups and stomach crunches as you go to sleep to generate enough heat in your sleeping bag to get you through the long night. Always do the best you can to keep your gear dry—wet clothing can be deadly. There is not a great deal of time to be idle in winter camping; all of your energy is taken up with survival.

Spring brings melting snow and warm weather, but also wet feet, thunderstorms, and warm days that plunge below freezing at night, turning wet gear solid. On the heels of warm rains come a fresh crop of mosquitoes, black flies, and no-see-ums. Summer has oppressive heat coupled with stifling humidity, and the awful winds of winter and spring, now welcome to blow away the bugs and haze, never seem to appear. Fall again brings freezing nights. But each of these seasons also comes with beauty—there is nothing to compare to a fresh snowfall that muffles the woods into contemplative silence, a raging waterfall swollen with spring runoff, a summer thunderstorm rumbling with undeniable majesty and power, or mountains aflame with the changing leaves.

In every challenging moment, I find also some respite, and I have come to think there can rarely be one without the balance of the other.


Image Credit: Me


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