Gray Knob Cabin, 2014

Somehow it came up that Cris, Forest and I were all willing to do a winter hiking/camping trip (I may have instigated). We picked a weekend in February and marked our calendars then started planning for real in January. Our original target was to stay at the Lonesome Lake Hut run by AMC, but a snafu with the registration web site meant that our reservation didn't go through. I think it was plan C or D that we went with, to head back to King's Ravine and see what it was like in winter, hoping to snag three spots in the insulated Gray Knob Cabin. I'd found the list of things to expect and packed all my down gear. :-) I had tickets for a show on Friday night, so the plan was to leave at 6am on Saturday morning and hit the trail around 9am.

Saturday February 8, 2014

I woke up with my alarm at 5am and made myself a big bowl of granola with yoghurt, having had to stop at a convenience store the previous night to stock up. I did a bit of last minute packing - mostly filling up my camelbak and water bottles and squeezed in a quick shower. I was outside by 6 waiting to be picked up, but took advantage of their delay to run inside and get my pashmina - I knew I should have put it with the ski jacket I was bringing. I also had time to actually pour the stove fuel into the bottle rather than bringing the whole jug. I'd exchanged a couple of text messages with Cris to triple check which cooking supplies we were each bringing, I was tasked with pots and an extra fuel bottle. The hatchback was full with their packs, so mine got heaved into the back seat and I climbed in with it. Since we were all pretty bundled up, Cris kept the heat fairly low. I think it was below freezing, but we pretty much spent the weekend estimating temperatures (and I have a feeling we were off most of the time...). There were a surprising number of cars on the road, though I did spot a slew of skiers/boarders when we stopped for gas. It was a quick drive north, but my plan to nap didn't come to fruition - a few sips of tea before leaving turned out to be enough to wake me up. We stopped at the Water Wheel restaurant near the trail head to make one last bathroom/food break (they have a small store there) - I put my knee braces on and changed into my soft shell pants from the fleece ones I'd worn for the drive, and grabbed a muffin. I just had time to finish it before we pulled into the Appalachia parking lot. There were quite a few cars there already, it was just past 9am, but enough space to fit the car in. A pair of well equipped hikers left the lot for the trail as we were getting our poles extended and our snowshoes on. Forest had never used them before, he and Cris rented MSR ones with floatation tails from REI, while I was using my Atlas ones that I belatedly realised I hadn't bought with backpacking in mind. Luckily the trail was mostly hard packed, with just some fluffy snow on top, and when I dropped to the rear after getting tired breaking trail, it was easier to walk in their steps. It took a few downed trees to master the art of high stepping with snow shoes though.

We paused for a minute at the weather conditions warning sign to snap a photo, then crossed the snowmobile track. The machines sounded really quiet, almost as if they had electric rather than diesel engines, or maybe they just weren't as beefy as the ones I've heard. The weather was sunny and clear, definitely below freezing but not windy, and I was soon warmed up enough to strip down to my liner gloves and remove my balaclava, just keeping my wool hat. The trail starts off really flat, we went for a mile or so parallel to the highway, through a maple sugar set up with tubing strung between the trees and then hit Amphibrach. We started going gently up then as we started the climb up the mountain following the general flow of a waterway. We were on Randolph for a bit and stopped to eat at a junction. We were really warm when we stopped, but without climbing constantly, we cooled down really fast. Cris's drinking water tube had frozen (he had to stop to pull out a water bottle), and Forest and I were both struggling to keep ours free of ice. I was set on having a hot lunch one we got to the cabin, so was subsisting on squares of chocolate and a Luna bar - the guys had packed cold lunches and ate them at that stop. I will say that the Luna bar withstood the cold better than a Clif bar, it was only chilly, not frozen solid. We crossed over the river a few times, I had to struggle to see the places we'd visited in spring, the riot of green was now a blanket of white. I could just here water gurgling at one point, it was mostly frozen, but I still didn't like stopping on the snow covered ice. :-) Crossing beside the log reminded me of a river crossing I did in India, following the path pack animals had worn in the river ice instead of using the log bridge. The track was getting a lot steeper and I was running low on calories. There were a couple of frozen waterfalls that we had to help each other over, I think Cris was the best at getting on top of them, he'd give Forest a hand/pole up, then Foe would help me up. the snowshoes were generally working well, with metal bits under the sole to help grip the ice, but they weren't made for vertical ascents. :-) We paused for a quick rest before tackling the last bit up to Gray Knob, the strenuous Hinks trail. I swear it and Spur are the steepest most annoying trails in that area, and you have to hit them if you're going to go to the RMC cabins. Well, I guess we could have swung wide and gone up Lowes, but I'm not sure if it would have helped much, a ridge is a ridge is a ridge. Overall we went up about 3000 feet over 3.6 miles, most of the gain in the last 2 miles. It was gorgeous though, and very very very quiet. We didn't see any other people the whole time we were climbing. When I'd pause to let my heart rate slow down, I could hear my heart pounding and my stomach gurgling. Occasionally a tree would creak ominously, I was glad for only a slight wind. I stopped grabbing trees to brace myself on the path when I could hear them crackling with internal ice. My sunglasses kept fogging then frosting up, I had them on top of my hat most of the time, and my nose was running constantly from looking down to check my steps. I must have taken well over an hour to make it up Hinks, I was joking to Cris that I was going at toddler pace: take a couple of steps then pause to look around. The views back down into the valley were rare but nice. The trees were getting shorter too as we neared the exposed ridge, but as usual with steep hikes, I couldn't ever be sure where the end was. As it was, I looked up after a rest break and was surprised to see a human structure. Turns out it wasn't the cabin, I had to climb a bit higher to get to the entrance. Cris and Forest had waited for me very patiently, I was seriously bonking by the time I made it, like waiting out lightheaded spells. Turns out that they were pretty wiped out too, it was a hard slog up that last bit. We were probably burning more calories than expected just to stay warm too. I'd also felt my left knee give a worrying shot of pain as I was crossing one river, it wasn't the usual sort of pain for that joint, but it only twinged a few more times on the rest of the climb.

Walking into the cabin was wonderful. The wood stove was going, the caretaker welcomed us, and there were some older guys there getting ready to head out for their hike, as well as a Quebecois couple. We made it there at around 2:30 I think, an hour later than expected. I took a few moments to thaw and then started shucking layers and hanging things up to defrost and dry. The cabin is cozy, we had to dance around each other as we were sorting out cooking gear and then getting our stuff upstairs into the sleeping attic. Cris won all the points for doing most of the cooking this weekend - granted, he brought the stove so it made sense for him to use it, and all I needed was water to be boiled, but still, I was grateful for time I could spend on a bench pulled up to the stove rather than any further away from it than I had to be. Boil in bag rice with a seasoned tuna packet over it for me, and I could feel myself coming back to life.

Before we got too cozy though, we wanted to do a quick walk over to Crag Camp to see the view since it was so clear, and Cris wanted to top up the water supply (there were community jugs that we could use and refill, but we had our own bottles we could use). The convinced me that we could go without snowshoes, it was a bit dicey but the Gray Knob path was relatively flat and pounded down so we made it okay. It was neat seeing the area we'd stayed in during the summer all snow covered. The summit of Adams was crystal clear, but just looking up the trail toward the summit (steeper than Hinks) almost had me hyper-ventilating, so I was happy to stand on the porch at Crag and just look up. We went inside to get out of the wind, no one was staying there, there were small drifts of snow inside some of the windows, but I still loved the airy open space - it sleeps 20, 5 more than Crag, but with bunk beds and a larger kitchen area I bet it doesn't feel as crowded. Another group of 5 or 7 was coming in to Gray Knob, two quick hikers had made it first as we were heading out, we'd have a full house and have to take turns cooking dinner. I stopped at the sunset boulder to take some pictures while Cris ventured down the side path to the water source - no caretaker strung pipe now, just a spot hacked through the ice and covered with a tarp. Back to Gray Knob to warm up again. There were two guys there, outside the cabin with an excitable German shepherd, but they weren't staying. Cris boiled up water so he and Foe could have tea and I had some hot chocolate. While we were sitting at a table drinking, Cris said that he wanted to go out to the Quay to see the sunset at around 5:30. My knee wasn't screaming and it wasn't far, maybe a minute's walk (an advantage over Crag, the prime sunset spot is much closer and over a pretty flat trail). The big group had arrived and gone out to smoke up and view the sunset as well. They were clowning a little, but we all got our pictures taken. The wind was fierce, I had my hand bare to take some phone camera snapshots and it took getting back to the cabin and sitting by the fire for a while to completely warm up. We could see Mt Jefferson just above some drifting clouds, and the sun was lighting up a band of clouds and making some lovely pink and orange bands. The caretaker came out to look at the view too, it never gets old. :-)

We hung out near the stove for a bit, and I got my sleeping bag and pad and inflatable pillows set up upstairs - I snagged the cubby behind the stairwell since the rest was all open space and I was worried about people tromping around. Forest took one of the long edges of the stairwell to get some of the heat rising from downstairs, while Cris set up next to the window. The group of 5 or so were in a line perpendicular to Forest, I had to pick through their stuff to get out, or go around the Quebecois couple on the other side of the stairs. The eaves on the other side were filled in with guys too. Turns out that the caretaker (Adam?) was keeping the stove going to try and combat a mold problem, not to keep the place warm, but when he went to bed at just after 8 (after a funny check in with the club in Randolph via radio - we could all hear everything, I had to convert the expected low of -10F to C so that I could grok it - brrr!), he packed the stove a bit too tight with biobricks and logs of wood and it got smothered. Luckily with the cabin being insulated and filled with people, we were more than warm enough - I started off in my fleece pants and socks over my long johns and had to go down to just long johns when I got too hot in the middle of the night, as well as turning down my overbag to it just covered my feet. I kept my hat and pashmina on, but was just down to my base layer on top as well. But before bedtime, it was supper time. We put off eating, fascinated by the big group making falafels and the guys trying to get their stove to not explode. There were a few whisperlites as well as Jetboils, I'm still sold on the former though despite the ease of lighting the latter. I had boil in bag rice with heated up curried lentils over it. Foe let me try his chicken risotto - it was pretty good and seemed quite filling from just the one spoonful I tried. I was super hungry and content to chase around the last few grains of rice and beans in my bowl before rinsing it out (we were supposed to pack out food scraps, I preferred to eat them). The place was dimly lit with a couple of oil lamps, a few tea lights and the red glow from the fireplace, so most everyone had on a headlamp. I kept getting random flashes of light in my eyes, and appreciated the ones that had red filters (I know I have a packet of filters somewhere for mine, have to dig down in my camping box). Cris gave up first and headed up to sleep, while Foe and I kept fighting off the sleepies to try and stay awake long enough to ensure sleeping through to dawn. I was also determined not to have to get up in the middle of the night to use the outhouse (the compost bag was almost frozen) or to pee in the woods, so was waiting until the last second to duck outside before diving into my sleeping bag. I kept rotating which side was facing the stove, it was putting off a lot of heat and the bench was pulled close. Forest was reading a book of odd events and would share tidbits, but I'd decided not to add weight and bring a book and the shelf of free books on the other side of the cabin just seemed too far. :-) Once the caretaker went to bed he offered up the rocking chair he'd been camped out in in front of the flames, so I enjoyed that spot for a while. I'd swapped out my thick wool socks for dry ones, but made the mistake of leaving on the liners and my feet were still chilly. I took them off eventually and stuck them in my pocket and held my re-fuzzified feet up to the stove to warm them up, that worked much better. I also put my boots under the bench to dry them out a bit, and my ski jacket up on a hook to dry too, with my gloves on the line around the stove. If we do this again, I'm going to be much quicker about doing a full change out of sweat soaked clothes into dry layers once we stop hiking for the day. I took off my heavy wool layer on top and switched to my down jacket for indoors, but the baselayer took a while to completely dry - I'd open the jacket zipper when I was facing toward the stove, and close it up again when warming my back. When I was yawning more than anything else, I braved the nostril hair freezing cold for a quick wild pee (note: when squatting in snow, your boots sink a bit and your butt is not as far from the snow as you think). I'd thought it had clouded over, but it was just that the moon was bright enough to wash out a lot of the sky. It had a huge ring of glowing ice crystals around it, and Orion was shining brightly nearby. I was able to get upstairs and into my bag without stepping on anyone, but lay there for a while before putting in my earplugs, listening to the voices from downstairs. There's something about being warm and cozy inside with a whole lot of nothing and cold outside that I wanted to savour. The fire tools were hung from hooks on the stairs, so they'd clank a bit every time someone went up or down, but most everyone came up soon after I did. I think I put in my earplugs and conked out at around 9 or so.

Sunday February 9, 2014

I slept well with the ear plugs in, despite the crowd and them occasionally falling out - we lucked out, there was only one quiet snorer that I noticed. I think I woke up at around 7 but dozed for a bit on and off and got up for real at 8. I had granola and Cris warmed up water for tea, and I put a bit of hot water on my granola. He made up a big pot of huevos rancheros for himself and Forest, presoaking/hydrating while tea water boiled then heating it up. We sat with the couple from Quebec City, I hope that they were amused as we got punchy over the oddly textured (oh, the plop as it hit a plate) and tasting (I tried a spoonful, had to take up Forest's offer of some of his tea to clear my mouth) huevos rancheros. :-) I think Foe and I both regressed to childhood with our teasing/clowning, Cris had to threaten to turn the cabin around. :-) Note to self: never get dehydrated eggs as camping food, but do make eggs at home again once the memories fade. We packed up our gear, scouring the cabin for things left out to dry and cooking stuff we had out to use. Foe packed out the light trash bag, and I refilled my camelbak from the icy water bottle that the guys had refilled while I lazed about in my sleeping bag that morning, dumping my excess water into the washing pot (this was a mistake). I'd also dedicated a baby wipe (kept downstairs after finding the sheets freezing together) to a thorough face cleaning, but then forgot to put on sunblock (also a bit of a mistake).

After snowshoeing up at around 9:30, we went out to the quay to see the view - no wind! Sun! Views! It was a great start to the day, and all the pictures from there show huge smiles. My hiking poles were squeaking loudly in the cold snow, once loudly enough to startle me. We all started out wearing our snowshoes but they were not good for downhills - mine especially were optimised for climbing/flat. I was trying to dig in my toes, basically tip toeing down the mountain, and often failing. I switched to my microspikes and had an easier time, kicking in my heels first to get a solid foot hold, and was a lot less stressed out facing steep sections. I still slid down on my butt in spots, and took a header down one section, just missing a cut tree stump - I got it in the crook of my neck instead of the side of my head thankfully (oddly, no bruising, yay layers I guess) - and bent back my thumb when my hiking pole got wrenched out of my hand. I landed on a couple of rocks at various points too, my legs have interesting bruises, but not nearly to the level they would have been on bare rocks. Cris went down hard once when he caught a shoe tip, landing knees first, but was luckily okay. There was generally a lot of snow over the rocks, but in places it was thin enough to be worrisome in the case of a fall. Foe switched to his yaxtrax on Randolph I think, but Cris held out to Amphibrach. I wished I'd swapped back to snowshoes there though, the snow was packed hard until it wasn't, and I kept rolling my ankles as my feet would slide sideways (I sank deep into the snow when I slid off the path while putting the microspikes on, that was silly - my softshell pants generally worked well, but they had zero grip on snow, at one point I was wishing for crampons for my knees as I was crawling up a steep section on the way up). The sun was nice and it didn't feel nearly as cold as the day before, but my drinking tube had frozen on the way down Hinks. I got it cleared at the junction and got a few sips out of it, but it refroze and was useless after a while. Luckily Cris had an unfrozen bottle and we shared sips of it. I was sweating a bit but going downhill was so much easier cardio wise, and the snow was much much kinder on my knees too - my legs got tired enough to be shaky, but I only had a few twinges of pain. We saw more bare ice lower on the mountain, I suspect that the later arrivals might have worn away the snow, though it might have been wind overnight. We passed a trio of older ladies snowshoeing on Link but they were the only other people we saw. More quietish snowmobiles went by on the track, we passed the sugar shack, having to dug further under the tubes and wires since we had our snow shoes sticking up a bit. We made really good time, we were back to the car around 12:45 or so. I'd have been fine hanging out at the cabin if the guys had wanted to do a loop from there, and almost considered suggesting a detour on the way down when we hit Cliffway, but resisted.

We loaded up the car and headed back to the Water Wheel restaurant, happy that we made it before they closed at 2pm. The blueberry pancake overflowing the plate was delicious (I was conservative and only ordered one), and I filled up on hot tea and lukewarm water as well (I won't be drinking ice water for a while). I picked up a bottle of maple syrup since I was running low at home, and also picked at some of Foe's left over potatoes - he'd ordered a lot. Cris cleaned up two big pancakes and they both got big mugs of coffee + refills. Going out for only one night let us get away with a bit, a hot breakfast at least every other day would be awesome on a longer trip. Back in the car and around the mountains to 93 to head south and home. We hit traffic at the MA border, then dropped Forest off first. I just missed the library closing time of 5pm, no DVD for me for the evening, but that ended up being fine. I just had time to take a shower and bike down to the grocery to pick up stuff for dinner and breakfast. Getting back up the hill was ... painful. I got my pack completely emptied and stuff put away, and ran a load of laundry as well - I'd brought most of my favourite winter biking clothes and I'd need them the next morning. I had to have a snack before feeling up to cooking, I was feeling a bit of hiker hunger. I just barely stayed awake long enough to eat, I was out just after 10.

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