The Mountain Hut
After a long hiatus, I am slowly getting back into the mind set for another summit trip. I have this continuing longing to return to the wilds. It has been a while, and I patiently anticipate the next summit. Let me make it this clear. I do things a little different than most summiteers. If you own an alpine style peak-trip pack less than 4000 cubic inch in size, then you may not be impressed with the info on this page. I go for the full 60lb 5500 cubes expedition pack and maintain a mild steady all-day all-weather pace up the mountain, and literally camp where I collapse. This is usually anywhere between 6:30pm to 1am. Yuppies that like to hit the mountain for a day and call it a victory, may be intimidated by this type of mountaineering. What I am talking about is shooting the elements and giving it what you got.
We are fortunate enough to have several mountain peaks above the 10,000 ft line in southern california. This is the place that I grew up. I have solo 'd numerous trips into the backwoods. Solo expeditions is a more descriptive term of what happens when I have the mountain to myself. Usually, I would head out on a thursday or friday night, and return on sunday or monday night. Upon return, there is no rest like the rest that ensues with that first home cooked meal in front of the tv set on a sunday evening after a trying trip. The summit trails and routes in So Cal are usually between moderate to strenuous, and also there are numerous mountaineer routes as well straight up a bowl, waterfall, ridge line, or chute. Also nearby somewhere is Methuselah. If your not familiar with Methuselah she(the tree)is your near 5000 year old living co-habitant.
Winters on the summit can be quite challenging. First of all, the biological arctic transition zone is near 11,000 to 12,000 ft and above, nNot to be confused with the Montane zone that is 2 zones lower which is where popular "high altitude" camping takes place. When your in this Arctic range, your literally in the Arctic. My favourite zone is right at the cap of the Hudsonian just into the Alpine or Arctic zone. Its a frozen desert, with up to near hundred+ mile an hour blizzard gales at times, and has some short old-growth trees to shelter near which also provides some nice scenery.
Near and in this transition zone, there are these very interesting looking ice formations that some mountaineers know as what is called "chicken heads". These Chicken Heads are these relatively huge ice formations which form on top of any given item, usually a tree or rock, where the roost of the chicken (that red skin flap found on roosters heads) is the part of ice that is shaped pointing out and up with spiked edges in the direction of the wind on top of for example two foot tall millennia old majestic old growth trees. There are snow cairns which are piles of rocks and snow blocks set up to offer an area of protection from the spiking blizzard winds where you can set up the tent up in between, and that which serve as the only wind shelter, blinding glare protection from the sunlight reflecting off ice crystals, and whiteout conditions. When prepared, in all its might, the stunning glory shines through in a most powerful experience. This is a place where the inner workings of the mind are an important part of immediate survival. Anybody not prepared for this environment will automatically shun it, and retreat from the extremes in an act of zombie like instinct. I enjoy camping just into this zone. I consider it the edge of the survivable environment. Of course you could also expedition clear into the arctic zone such as summiting the peak of Mt. Whitney in CA, or Mt. Hood in WA, Mt. Ranier in OR, Mt. Elbert in CO, Wheeler Peak NM, Boundary Peak NV, Kings Peak UT, or Humphreys Peak AZ, all of which are in the Arctic Tranzistion Zone, and are near a days drive apart in the Western U.S.
When the winter storm watches and news flashes come, its time to enter the mountain and "test the gear". You see, once your on the mountain, and its storming, that is your entire world. Your visibility is cut anywhere from a mile to 5 feet in front of you.
Some general rules obviously apply here to summit comfortably;
Daytime high temperatures shouldnt be expected to be more than 30 degrees Fahrenheit, at about the 6000 ft. level, expecially if expecting precipitation, and you better hope for a little wind if it stays this warm. Contrary to what you may be thinking, we're not here to freeze, so it needs to be COLD. Why colder you may ask? Well, a little experience will tell you that maintaining a full soak due to rain, or sweat, at altitude or in these upper two transition zones deals out one of the coldest experiences man can have. Knees give out prematurely during packing if they dont stay warm, hands remain near solid, feet stop flexing so well and are the coldest things on the body, and a full synchronous body shiver is welcomed in to aid in the warming process when your not jogging in place, or strenuously hiking out(off the mountain). Decrease the temperature, and the comfort increases as the Goose Down lofts up, starts to work more effectively, and the snow that you touch actually dries you off by absorbing and freezing any moisture instead of wetting you.
If the trail crosses a large 45 Degree+ slope, and temperatures are near 30F degrees or warmer, and its nearing noon, BE CAREFUL, don't hike it. Plan around it! Avalanches can be a deadly threat. Only some trails will bring yuou to the base of avalanche territory, and if you have a keen eye, you can see signs of previous avalanches by spotting torn down trees and slopes that trees should be growing but is completely absent of trees. Bring a walking stick or trekking pole or two, or make one from a 1-1.5 inch stick.
Stay hydrated if you want to stay warm no matter how cold the water is. Water will keep you warm by allowing your metabolism to effectively warm your body. Rest assured you will not want to drink during the evening tent rests for atleats two reasons. The first reason is because it seems to cold to drink cold liquids. the second reason is because nobody likes to have to take a nature call to urinate when its utterly freezing outside, especially if your gear is wet and hanging to dry because it has been too warm. Drink hot chicken broth if you have to, and you can also warm your water in a pan on the stove. Drink lots of fluid no matter what.
And the most important rule to stay dry and warm in the long-run is to shed layers as you overheat during hiking. Sometimes the heat can be overwhelming. Gear needs to be chosen carefully during hiking, the rest strapped on or in the pack. Layers must be shed right away, once you feel overheating, before they accumulate perspiration. Do not wear goose-down if its above about 25F, instead wear synthetic and stow the down for camp when its either colder, or during less/no activity. Nothing is more 'worthless', heavy, and bulky than wet 'high-dollar' goose down. Nothing is more comforting that a warm dry goose down jacket as a head and face wrap during the night to seal in the warmth. Be careful if you choose to breathe in it, it may get too wet. Curl up a synthetic jacket to breathe into to help cut the icy fresh air.
Place your mostly empty backpack under your feet under the sleeping bag, or feet and bag inside the backpack for extra insulation(warning this will collapse the loft and may actually prove to be colder depending on your gear, you have to test it first.). I remind the mountaineers out there, an "Internal Frame" pack will slip all the way above your waist for emergency shelter.
Sometimes it is time for the multi-day, overnight approaches in the storm. If its not cold enough for satisfaction, then a real mind blower is to hike well into the dark in blowing snowy winds with near white out conditions. Of course this is safer when done as a team, keeping track of each other with the headlamp beams and chuckling at the extremities being endured, and at the same time most excited about how well the gear is performing and how warm the little cocoon that your inside really is. Alot of tracks can be made when hiking like this. Setting up a tent in the cold of night is always fun as well. Its always alot easier because the snow gets real crusty at night instead of fresh blown. Makes it easier to hike too.
With all this in mind, in order stay warm, the rest depends on factors such as high metabolism, high body fat, hot food intake, physical activity(jogging-in-place or tent-shivering/vigorous-maneuvering to gain heat in emergency), and if your responsible with using hat and gloves and good dry socks. Otherwise you will shed heat rapidly.