AMC Outdoors, January/February 2003
Michael Saletnik, 32, is a software engineer from Burlington, Mass. A self-described “newbie” to winter hiking, he’s immersed himself in the sport, with dozens of overnights under his belt in the past two years.
Q. What was your first winter hiking experience?
A. In the late fall of 2000, a friend of mine was looking to get me out into the winter woods. She had introduced me to three-season hiking, and was looking for a winter hiking partner, since she was already an avid snowshoer and cross-country skier, and her husband was not interested in winter hiking.
We planned a safe, easy trip for my introduction — to head up to Lonesome Lake Hut and back. I picked up some appropriate clothing layers and rented snowshoes.
When we got up to Lafayette Campground, the notch was creating its own weather, and it was snowing. The trail was well-packed and easy to negotiate, so I got used to having snowshoes on my feet. I was astonished at how warm I was once I got going, and how quickly I’d cool off — especially my hands — when I stopped. It was quiet, deserted, and peaceful. We followed others’ footsteps right across Lonesome Lake.
Q. Is this what got you hooked?
A. I was hooked, right then and there. Even my experiences on the way out, when we chose to circumnavigate the lake and I had a number of foot plunges through the snow into icy water, couldn’t dissuade me. I bought my own pair of snowshoes at the same time I returned the rentals.
Q. How often do you go hiking in winter?
A. Two or three times a month, sometimes with overnight hut or shelter stays as well. It’s difficult, since I am much more cautious in winter about hiking alone, and so am limited to either areas I’m familiar with that I know will be well populated, or making arrangements to hike along with others. [AMC recommends erring on the side of caution and never hiking alone.]
Q. What was your best moment on a winter peak or trail?
A. Last winter I took the two AMC Winter Mountain Skills workshops up at Pinkham. I wanted to learn and practice techniques to be safer on above-treeline winter trails. We’d had a weekend of temperatures in the 30s, clear blue skies, and almost no wind. We went directly up a gully in Tuckerman Ravine to Lion Head. Standing up there was definitely my best moment, in spite of the sweat and pain.
Q. What’s a piece of gear you’re never without in winter?
A. My favorite is my down sweater. It compresses into its own pocket, making a small packed-up ball. But when it opens up, it’s phenomenally warm. With the foil space blanket that I also carry, I am reasonably assured that in case of emergency, I’ll be able to stay warm and alive.
But the absolute, number-one piece of gear that I carry in winter is one I also bring with me on every hike in the summer — my little LED headlamp. Its importance in winter is far greater, given shorter days and longer shadows. It can already be dark out by 4 o’clock in some places. Whether I’m taking an overnight trip or just a couple-hour day hike, that headlamp is with me, and I keep it buried deep in my pack so the battery stays warm.
Q. What’s your favorite Northeast winter destination?
A. So many of them, but I’d have to say Carter Notch Hut. I’ve done several January overnights there, and will be continuing the tradition this year. I love the notch in winter, and while the hut isn’t as much a wilderness feel as just camping out in a tent, it’s a good way to enjoy the winter and relax a little more. Especially after the effort of getting up and down either Carter Dome or Wildcat, which in the winter is extremely non-trivial. I’ve even been turned back because of 12-foot drifts between the Dome and Mount Hight.
Q. Any goals for this winter?
A.That’s easy — I want to do the Franconia Ridge loop!
Q. What would your recommendations be to a first-time winter hiker?
A. Go with someone experienced or attend a workshop. It’s not as simple as buying warm clothing and equipment — technique and practice, especially for crampon and ice-ax use, are critical to your safety. Start slow, just get into the woods in the winter and learn how to manage your body heat and nutrition while getting used to the cold, snow, and ice.
Don’t be afraid of the winter woods. There’s much fun to be had, and no bugs. But do remember that hiking in winter is dangerous. Even simpler trails like 19-Mile Brook have slippery, steep, and icy spots where a misstep can send you plunging down into the rocks or into the frigid water.