We sorted out our packs in the basement room in the visitor center, with Cris running up to sort out our camping permit. $15 each, turn the paper in to the caretaker at Hermit Lake, and we were reassured that there weren't that many people registered to stay the night so getting a spot wouldn't be an issue. I stripped off my extra warm layer, ready to sweat on the climb up in just my base layer and winter jacket (shell + fleece), and then realised that I had to hit the flush toilets one more time before heading up. We didn't even need the microspikes/yaktrax to start, Tuckerman Ravine trail was well packed down. We did stop to put them on once we felt that we were slipping a bit on the steeper sections, but it felt like we were racing up compared to gingerly picking our way up in the summer, the snow really smoothed out the trail. It was still steep of course, but I don't think I had to call for as many stops - it helpd a lot that they let me lead to set the pace. :-) We didn't bother going up the tiny spur trail to look at the waterfall, opting to try and keep a steady pace up instead. After passing the Boot Spur link turn off, I saw a flash of an orange jacket through the trees as a skier came down the trail off to the side. There were quite a few skiers passing us with light packs. One guy we hopscotched a few times as we took turns resting, he joked that we were touring with him. He turned off on the Harvard cabin trail, we didn't see many skiers between there and Hermit Lake (not far). I ate a luna bar and tried to make sure I was drinking enough, but I ended the weekend dehydrated. The weather was crisp and fairly clear, the sun came streaming through the trees near the Hermit Lake shelters.
After 2.5 hours we rounded the corner to the caretaker's cabin, Cris having outpaced us to pop in and deal with the permit. They didn't want us in a four sided shelter since we'd brought tents. :-( I was disappointed, I'd really wanted to try one out, but not quite enough to promise not to put a tent up in them for extra insulation. We walked down past the summer and winter outhouses then when we realised that there weren't many (if any) lean-tos down the steepish path, we backtracked up and back down Tucks to check around the lake. The first shelter off the trail was coated in snow and way too exposed to the traffic. Shelter 4 was already taken by a group who'd strung up tarps to make a fourth wall (*lightbulb*). We struggled on a bit, still not putting snow shoes on, post holing a bit through the woods and down/through a ditch to get to shelter 3 which was open. It annoyingly had a padlocked outhouse nearby, we'd have to trek back to the buildings to go the bathroom (woe, backcountry luxury).
It was around 1pm when we got there, we did a quick tent set up and had a cold lunch, but hot tea I think. I'd made up a new batch of almond dip and John and I shared that with lentil crackers, racing to eat it before the rehydrating water froze. We did a skin out change to get rid of the sweaty clothes, and John found that putting a hand warmer in his gloves made his hands sweat more and get them wet. :-/ We put our snow shoes on to head back out, it was much easier on the less travelled shelter loop continuing around the lake. Cris wanted to do a longish loop (well, 1.5 miles) with our newly lightened packs, but after we visited the outhouse, it wasn't all that long until sunset (4:41pm) and I knew that everything would take longer than expected. I really don't like cooking in the dark, so I suggested we do some out and backs, keeping an eye on the time. We snow shoed up Boot Spur link, crossing a snowmobile track and a ski track, enjoying the sun through the trees on the valley floor. I categorically refused to go up the steep part, still annoyed at it from the summer trip. John's snowshoes weren't good on steep terrain (we did a few rolling hills and a stream crossing, getting a nice view of the ravine head wall), but my new ones were great, I felt really connected to the trail with them, and only slipped a little on loose snow/steep parts. We turned around after Cris went ahead a bit to verify that the trail was going up the ravine wall from there on, backtracking to the caretaker hut and having a mini debate there about where to go. We ended up agreeing to go up Tuckerman Ravine trail some more to see if we could get a clear view of the headwall and watch the skiiers. We went past the water pump - Cris had tried it to see if we could use it as a source, but 10 pumps hadn't produced anything, it was wet/icy near the base though, so I wanted to try again to fill up our empty bottles on the way back to camp. At the frozen over pond we had a gorgeous sunsetting view of the ravine headwall. The trail got a lot steeper all of a sudden, climbing through the trees and rocks up toward the next view point and I called it there as John's snowshoes were beign defeated by the angle of the slope, plus I was nervous about being able to get back down from where I'd climbed up to. The sun was edging down as well, time to head back to camp. We did stop at the water pump and tag teamed the pumping and bottle holding as I recalled from last time that it took a long time to draw the water up, and very little pause for it to drop back down again. The water came out pretty brown though, so we ended up filtering and UVing it both once we got back to camp.
We nodded hello to the group who was settled into the shelter before ours, their JetBoil stove easy to hear as we approached. Once back at shelter 3, we set up the stoves and got water boiling for cowboy pasta and chili and hot drinks. The windw as picking up a tiny bit, I'd feel it when I was standing before the shelter to use the floor as a cooking platform but not enough to warrant putting up the tarp. We had our headlamps on by the time we were finished eating (sitting on the tarp for a bit of insulation) and cleaning up, the dark came in fast - the sun had dropped behind the mountain already but losing even reflected light put us in the black, especially with the trees around us. But then I saw a yellow glow coming from toward the valley - the full moon was up and shining diffusely through the low thin clouds! It was pretty cold, but clear, and I had just had another hot drink and wanted to visit the outhouse one last time before hiding away in my sleeping bag, so I convinced John to strap his snowshoes back on and join me. Cris opted to stay in his tent, but he got to see it later in the night when he ventured out on his own. The moonlight was bright enough (with bonus reflecting from the snow) to be able to turn off my headlamp on the walk back - we didn't stay long appreciating the view, managing core body temperature levels came first! We did see either a satellite or the space station going by overhead, the sky was nice and dark between icy white stars. Snowshoeing backt hrough the trees, I had to put my headlamp back on eventually for safety's sake, and we were back and tucked into our sleeping bags at the super late hour of 7:30pm. :-) I didn't sleep very well as seems to be usual on my first night in a tent, though mostly it wasn't due to being too cold. My pashmina around my hips helped insulate me from a zipper cold spot, but I'd put my camelback on top of my legs between my sleeping bag and my overbag (in an attempt to keep it liquid overnight) and it was leeching the warmth out of me too much. I had to wiggle my arms out of the bag and sit up enough to tuck the bladder into my winter coat that was wrapped around the Nalgene water bottles and hoped for the best when morning came. Me staying warm was more critical then than not having to melt ice or snow in the morning (reason #1 why we bring extra fuel on winter trips). Cinching down all the sleeping bag adjustment points really helped as well, I'd alternate between burying my head and coming up for air. I heard both of my camp mates get up to go to the outhouse during the night, but I had for once managed my fluid intake so I was in for the night.
We were packed up, strapped into the snow shoes and ready to hit the outhouse one final time at 10:30am. It took us just under three hours to get back to the car, but we weren't rushing too much. The deciding factor on the shorter way back was that the drinking tubes on 2 of 3 packs were freezing up (I'd been able to open mine up over the kettle steam and keep it free, but it involved some ice drinking). The sky was a beautiful blue and there was still little to no wind, kind of eerie, but I'll take it. I'd proposed doing a long loop down to Jackson Rd trail and out that way, but with water being an issue, we decided to just do the side trail to the Harvard Cabin and then back to Tucks (also: known state of trail was a good thing). My sunblock was frozen when I woke up, but I was able to warm it up enough to get some out, not enough to prevent red cheeks by the time we got back to the car though.
We headed down Tuckerman Ravine and soon hit the turn off for the trail to the Harvard Cabin. It turned out to be pretty steep in spots, so we left a lot of following distance to account for slipping. We came down onto what was basically a fire road and a constellation of trails, at first thinking that the first aide supply shack was the cabin. I'm pretty sure that I misread the map, it was a short walk up the wide flat trail to the cabin, and then going back we hit Tucks again without a long detour. The caretaker was outside the cabin and volunteered to take a picture for us. He was collecting firewood I think. Cris took off his snow shoes and checked out the inside, he reported back that it was cozy; it reminded me of Grey Knob cabin from the outside. Cris's water tube was totall frozen at this point, so we went back to Tucks and down that way, stopping fairly soon to swap to microspikes from snowshoes as we didn't need them on the trail. Other trail users were on skis, snowshoes or just bare boots. It was fun watching the ski trails of Waterville across the valley floor as we descended, tracking how far we'd dropped against that mountain as we lost Washington behind the trees. We stepped at the Crystal Cascade this time to take some pictures and admire the frozen water formations. Soon the buildings at the base came into sight, right after we heard loud trucks going past on 16. We popped into the visitor center to hit up the bathroom and collapse poles and adjust layers - it had warmed up a lot on the way down, the icicles were dripping liquid water as it was above freezing. Cris snapped an awesome picture of me and John walking back to the car, backlit by the sun. :-)
I decided that I could deal with trying out Yankee Smoke House finally,
having seen the happy pig in flames billboards for so many years. It was a
bit further than I recalled, more Tamworth than Conway, so I was hungry by
the time we arrived and happy to see that they had a smoked chicken salad
sandwich that I could eat, along with sweet potato fries and some hot tea.
Inside it was a retro family style diner feel, with an odd mix of creepy
photographs and happy pigs as decoration. We were at a table tucked into
an alcove so had a bit of a problem getting the server's attention, but we
were soon around our food. Back on the road, about 2 hours to Boston, and
it was interesting seeing the road side snow go down and then up again -
the forecast half foot plus turned into barely four inches, no traffic
impacts and we were back home around 6pm.