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My UL Frenzy: Twenty-Five Weekends of Backpacking in the White Mountains and Beyond

2008: A Year of Change. Follow Jim Bailey on his rabid quest to hike every possible weekend between March and November, despite living in New England with its record-breaking weather.

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by James Bailey | 2009-04-28 00:00:00-06

I like to hike and carry a light pack.

In 2008, I lived in the Northeastern U.S.

I wanted to get into good shape, inspired by my comrades from Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III course in October of 2007. Those guys were animals. I wanted to be an animal, too.

So, I set my sights on hiking every possible weekend in 2008 (trails permitting of course), focusing on my home area stomping grounds, the White Mountains, and beyond.

January through March hiking involves shorter days, warmer layers, traction devices, snowshoes, and, depending on the length of an outing, warmer sleeping gear, a more robust shelter, and generally just a lot more "stuff." At best, you'll cover about half the distance you normally would in summer months. Not one to be a total glutton for punishment, I waited for good weather and trail conditions so I could go ultralight. In the Whites, that sometimes never comes. Fortunately in 2008, it came in March.

What follows is a consolidated trail journal of my UL frenzy last year.

A Note About Weather

Weather is something that seasoned hikers pay close attention to during unpredictable winter months, and for good reason. In the beginning of 2008, a record snow year, New Hampshire had a record number of search and rescue hiker extractions, exceeding the amount the state had budgeted and causing outrage from the taxpayers reading disastrous headlines in the NH Union Leader. An annual $100 hiker license was even proposed to offset the cost of hiking-related rescues.

March

While visiting a friend working for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), I witnessed the record snow levels at the Lonesome Lake hut. There were sixteen-foot snow drifts, with tunnels carefully carved through the centers leading to the outhouses. Off-trail travel wasn't much of an option: at one point, we came across a post hole in the center of a trail that was close to six feet deep, and I can only imagine the energy it took to climb out of that one.

One of the up-shots of that winter's hiking was the opportunity to hike with Brian Doble, whom I'd met during the Wilderness Trekking III course in 2007. We quickly became hiking buddies, sharing great trips together in some pretty challenging conditions. His camaraderie, our shared passion for hiking, plus the skills we had learned from BPL's program made the fourth season downright enjoyable and educational for both of us. Brian and I also shared the same sick sense of humor, which lead to many hours in camp laughing hysterically over things that others would probably deem as just plain wrong. At the end of March, I received an email from Brian mentioning that he was heading for Springer Mountain, Georgia around mid-April to yo-yo hike the Appalachian Trail with a four-pound base weight. Unfortunately, I couldn't play and would miss his camaraderie, but cheered him on: "Right on, Brian, go for it!"

Spring took a long time to get to the mountains of northern New England in 2008.

April

April is usually one of the worst months for hiking up this way. Massachusetts sees the first signs of spring appear with the landscape blossoming from subtle browns and greys into green with budding flowers. Elevated moods and people losing their pained "winter faces" (winter face: a New England expression that's a combination of discontent, mild anger, and a sheer will to survive) are two more sure signs of warmer weather. While all of this is blooming in Massachusetts, New Hampshire is still a combination of low level mud and slush, with abundant collapsing deep snow slightly higher, and winter-like conditions lingering on summits. It tends to be frustrating knowing that backpacking trips probably won't start until May, while ticking off how many weekends/multi-day trips can be crammed in between spring (aka "thaw/black fly season") and early winter.

May

By the first weekend in May, I had made the decision to spend every possible weekend until November hiking or backpacking. By the second weekend, some internal Start button had been pushed, and the race was on. Working in a cubical farm during the week gives me little opportunity for physical activity, so I began fast-paced walking during lunch hour, after work, and to run errands. The walking helped me get better into shape, though my hiking legs wouldn't really be back until the sixth weekend out.

June/July

June and July had record-breaking rainfall, apparently since the same stalled storm fronts that caused so much snowfall were being repeated during the summer months, leading to washed out bridges and massive trail erosion. I was no longer carrying a traditional tent, just a tarp and bivy combination which kept things dry all season. I found that a larger 8 x 10-foot rectangular tarp rigged in various configurations worked flawlessly and gave me additional room for hanging out at night. This was also ideal space for providing "trail magic" for thru hikers and AMC staff that work up in the Whites. For those not familiar with trail magic, it's the simple act of sharing food and drink with long-distance hikers and the fine community of people working in the Whites, and is just one hiker's way of giving back to a really great group of folks.

Around the last weekend in June, I contacted fellow BPL reader Jonathan Ryan after his frustrated and downright funny response to a BPL forum troll attack, and we started going back and forth about trying a done-in-a-day (DIAD) 32-mile Pemi loop in New Hampshire. This is a really aggressive route, involving 18,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and I thought it sounded tough but doable. Very quickly we were working out logistics and planning a date to pull this off, so I really started working on improving my mileage during weekends. We were both excited about the trip and ended up having a pretty good attempt, but not quite finishing the route. The best thing about this trip was being out with another like-minded hiker who later joined in on a couple of other great outings, and a friendship developed rapidly.

UL Hiking Rampage, 2008 - 1
Alpine lake near the Lake of the Clouds Hut, just below the summit of Mount Washington.

August

As August approached, I figured that my sleep system would be changing up with the onset of cooler nights. I ordered a BPL PRO 90 Quilt that was on sale, and, when the package arrived, pulled it from the box thinking I'd misjudged - it might be good on a few warm weather nights in June. To my surprise, the Quilt, combined with a Cocoon Hoody and MLD Superlight Bivy, would comfortably get me though the entire summer season in the Whites. (Side note: I'm very impressed by this Quilt and anticipate even better things from the 2009 line.)

Attempting nonstop weekends, working a 9-to-5 without additional days off, and pushing mileage on foot going up hills of steep granite is just plain grueling; exhaustion was setting in. I was getting cranky, my man cave (where I live during the week) was looking pretty rough, my diet was out of control (consuming massive amounts of calories during the week and minimum on weekends), and I took my first weekend off after thirteen consecutive weekends out backpacking. The main thing accomplished was getting much needed sleep.

September

September is when summer ends in the mountains of New Hampshire, and you can pretty much count on this every year. The crowds thin out at backcountry campsites, AMC employees start to move on, and leaves change color rather spectacularly. Most of the backpackers I know here really don't come out until fall, largely because of its cooler, more comfortable hiking temperatures. The 2008 season was different; high gas prices and fewer visitors due to constant rain affected the local economy. Business owners were closing shop and leaving the area. September was desolate in the north country, and with fewer people out in the wilderness, the natural beauty of the Whites seemed forever etched in its granite landscape.

October

October started out warm in the northeast, but weather this time of year is endlessly mercurial. Depending on the fronts, it can be sunny and in the 60s one day with snow the next at higher elevations. I monitored NOAA closely throughout the week to figure out what gear to carry and it was now a time of seasonal gear transition with my MLD Prophet swapped out to an original GoLite Jam for packing. I had an unusually active October, with other hikers and the few remaining friends that worked at AMC sites requesting visits one last time for 2008. As the month wound down, hiking was getting difficult, as Saturday mornings felt very much like I was going through the motions. It was the same drive through the same country; I had done all of my favorite trails multiple times; I was beginning to wonder if I had acquired some type of hiking/backpacking disorder that would keep me forever single, yet healthy due to exercise, leaving me to perish alone, very old, with huge hiker legs and massive hobbit feet.

UL Hiking Rampage, 2008 - 2
After a long hike in on the Bondcliff Trail, Michelle (in the tank top) mentioned in sheer exhaustion, "I feel so much hate right now." Her outlook took a turn for the better when she saw the expansive alpine views with no signs of civilization overlooking the Pemi Wilderness area.

November

November was a month of drastic change. With the news of the world economy coming crashing down in October, hiking in the Whites was a glorious escape on weekends. No televisions, internet news, or radio broadcasting doom and gloom reports, just the simple act of walking aggressively up steep hills of granite and camping out. The temps were now steadily in the 20s at night and 40s during the day. Crowds were gone at backcountry campsites except for a few other hardy souls. Leaves were now brown and scattered over trails, requiring constant monitoring of my footing.

After the second weekend of backpacking in November, my quest was abruptly called off by my offsite supervisor. On my way into the office, he called and asked me to meet him at a nearby hotel. At this point, I was told my department was being closed, but I was offered a position in Georgia, which I eventually accepted. The hardest part of this difficult decision was breaking my southbound news to my hiking companions and friends that work for the AMC. (Don't worry: if any of you happen to be reading this, I will be back next summer for a week's trek.)

I finished up a final hike in New Hampshire for the 2008 season (this was Weekend #25, and pretty close to back-to-back) with fellow BPL hikers Brian Doble and Jonathan Ryan, plus Jonathan's wife Rachel and their dog Aspen, on my favorite trail, the Liberty Springs Trail.

Temps were lingering in the teens to single digits during the day, and -10 at night, according to my pack thermometer. The group carried ultralight gear and wore trail runners in some pretty extreme conditions, but most importantly we all had a blast doing this together.

During the final drive back to Massachusetts, I started to wonder about what was next: rest briefly, then move all my worldly possessions into a small 6x7x8 foot relocation cube and finalize billing info and company transfer details. After my initial rest period and coming to terms with moving 1,100 miles south, I was starting to look forward to all the great terrain that part of the country has to offer. I was doubly fortunate to have Brian Doble along for the big road trip, pointing out great hiking spots along the AT. Finally, the warmer southern temperatures were a welcome end to a year of change.


Citation

"My UL Frenzy: Twenty-Five Weekends of Backpacking in the White Mountains and Beyond," by James Bailey. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/ul_hiking_frenzy_2008.html, 2009-04-28 00:00:00-06.

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My UL Frenzy: Twenty-Five Weekends of Backpacking in the White Mountains and Beyond
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
My UL Frenzy: Twenty-Five Weekends of Backpacking in the White Mountains and Beyond on 04/28/2009 19:14:43 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

My UL Frenzy: Twenty-Five Weekends of Backpacking in the White Mountains and Beyond

Dean F.
(acrosome) - MLife

Locale: Back in the Front Range
hiking license on 04/29/2009 00:26:33 MDT Print View

Regarding the calls for a "hiking license" to cover SAR costs...

As I recall Colorado has something called a CORSAR card. It isn't really "SAR insurance" per se, since the Colorado sherriffs' office can't bill for SAR, but the implication is that you will be looked upon in a better light if you have one. Considering the recent MISGUIDED calls from the general public about billing people for SAR costs this seems like a cheap way to demonstrate your sense of personal responability if such nonsense finds more proponents.

EDIT-
Yeah, I just Googled this thing. The money from the cards ($3/year, $12/5years) goes into a statewide fund that is used to reimburse the sherriffs' offices for their SAR expenses. (Otherwise it just comes out of their budget.) Any money left over at the end of the year is budgeted to equipment purchases and training courses for the SAR teams.
The fund also gets money from fishing and hunting licenses, ORV registrations, etc.
And, of course, you will still be billed for your medical care at the hospital they take you to.

Edited by acrosome on 04/29/2009 00:35:06 MDT.

Philip Werner
(earlylite) - F - MLife

Locale: New England
Weather in The Whites on 04/29/2009 04:35:32 MDT Print View

I'm chomping at the bit to hike the Whites myself, but waiting for "Spring" to arrive is maddening. It's May already and it seems like I'll have to wait until June before I can stop carrying microspikes, crampons, and snowshoes on every hike over 3000 feet.

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Re: Weather in The Whites on 04/29/2009 05:43:32 MDT Print View

I agree Philip, my wife and I headed north two weekends ago and everything was monorail with 5-6 foot post holes off to the sides. Took us 5 hours to do 6 miles! Plain old misery....

Great article Jim, I def want to be you when I grow up :)

James Gealy
(surnailz) - F

Locale: White Mountains
Hiking in the Whites on 04/29/2009 07:52:34 MDT Print View

After reading BPL for almost two and a half years, I figured it was time to make my first post!

Anywho, for someone who is dreaming of shedding the plastic boots and crampons for the Limmers (yes, Limmers) I can say that this was a timely and welcomed article. If I can get myself out for not even half of the weekends you did Jim, I'll be happy!

As an aside, it looks like a couple of the BPL members live in Mass and hike in the Whites. It's good to know ultralight can be done up here as I'm moving that way as my budget allows. I'm interested to know just how many BPL members live in northern New England, and how many of those few live in NH.

Thanks again for the article and also to BPL for publishing it!

-jim

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Re: Hiking in the Whites on 04/29/2009 09:09:35 MDT Print View

hey James,
Congrats on your first post! I live in MA and have been going UL in the Whites for a several years now. It certainly can be done and in fact gives a certain factor of safety that I never had when I carried heavier loads. Considering in the Whites you are never very far from a road, quick escapes when the weather rolls in is somthing people with "Expedition" sized packs cannot do. While the 20-30 mile days our west coast BPL peeps can acheive are alittle less enjoyable (but possible) out this way, 15+ mile days are now the norm for me (somthing I was never able to do with a larger pack).

Considering you are starting up UL hiking you really do not have to spend alot of money to get up and going. Just changing your shelter setup to a tarp/bivy will shave alot of weight off and does not have to empty your wallet.

Edited by Jkrew81 on 04/29/2009 11:11:06 MDT.

John Whynot
(jdw01776)

Locale: Southeast Texas
Re: Re: Hiking in the Whites on 04/29/2009 10:46:45 MDT Print View

I don't live there anymore, but I'll be heading to NH at the end of May for a UL trip. This article reminded me of why traveling back to NH to go backpacking is worth the effort (and expense).

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
What's on tap for 2009? on 04/29/2009 11:12:29 MDT Print View

Cool! It's April 2009--what's on tap for this year? Was if fun and worth it?

Angela Zukowski
(AngelaZ) - F

Locale: New England
Re: Re: Re: Hiking in the Whites on 04/29/2009 11:31:27 MDT Print View

I think at some point the New England BPL people need to plan a meet up hike. Go figure that the friendly West Coasters have already accomplished this, while us curmudgeonly New Englanders have yet to thaw out our grumpy winter faces!

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Re: Re: Re: Re: Hiking in the Whites on 04/29/2009 11:40:00 MDT Print View

I agree Angela. This is what Jim and I did for our Pemi trip and it worked out very well and lead to several fun trips.

James Gealy
(surnailz) - F

Locale: White Mountains
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Hiking in the Whites on 04/29/2009 13:21:40 MDT Print View

I know I could really benefit from hiking with others of the lightweight mindset. Most of my hiking friends think I'm either nuts or ... more nuts. I would be willing to meet up for a day or overnight this summer though. I think it would be a good time.

Angela Zukowski
(AngelaZ) - F

Locale: New England
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Hiking in the Whites on 04/29/2009 14:00:21 MDT Print View

Sounds like a tentative plan then!

Let's give the Whites a chance to thaw out and then I will toss a thread out there and see what happens.

jim bailey
(florigen) - F - M

Locale: South East
My UL Frenzy on 04/29/2009 14:12:36 MDT Print View

Thanks for all the comments,
Welcome aboard James, keep Jonathan in mind for future hikes, real great hiking companion. Saw very few carrying UL packs and gear up north over the past few years, now's your time to get this started.

@ Kevin
Was great Kevin! something that an ultra runner could appreciate. 09 has started with trail running, companion is a hyper English Setter and exploring the hills of the SE. The start button for non stop weekends is about to go off very shortly.

Jim

Edited by florigen on 04/29/2009 14:22:31 MDT.

Robert Blean
(blean) - MLife

Locale: San Jose -- too far from Sierras
Re: My UL Frenzy on 04/29/2009 21:10:17 MDT Print View

Jim,

You do not say, but I presume in your hiking frenzy you did bag all of the White Mtn 4000 foot peaks.

Since you seem to be goal oriented, and pushing hard ... I suppose the next thing we'll hear about is a White Mountain 48 in each of the four seasons of a single 12-month year? I'll bet *that* would be a record (fwiw).

:))
-- MV

Edited by blean on 04/29/2009 21:11:06 MDT.

jim bailey
(florigen) - F - M

Locale: South East
UL Frenzy on 04/29/2009 21:38:53 MDT Print View

Bob,
Never kept track of bagging 4K peaks while in the NE, think I have done most, was more interested in just being outside and enjoying that area.

Live in the southeast now, Smokies are the "New Whites" for this season's rampage, starting shortly. Stay tuned!

Edited by florigen on 04/30/2009 09:12:12 MDT.

Brian Doble
(brian79) - MLife

Locale: New England
Great article! on 04/30/2009 09:52:15 MDT Print View

Going light in the Whites certainly isn't the norm, especially during the winter. You wouldn't believe the looks Jim and I got from other hikers! It was the shoes, and possibly the tights.

Jim taught me a lot about UL winter hiking in the Whites. For example, always have the latest weather forecast, up to the moment you get into your car, no matter what. Canister stoves work perfectly in freezing temps. Plastic bags make great base layer socks. You can run a stove all night, and as long as your shelter is adequately ventilated, you will...um...

jim bailey
(florigen) - F - M

Locale: South East
My UL Frenzy on 04/30/2009 10:32:01 MDT Print View

Brian, great too hear from you.

You also taught me how to be a tough guy in sub zero conditions and wear trail runners in the Whites in March without losing any toes, it is possible people!

Good luck on the PCT & hoping you crush the current Long Trail unsupported record when your finished out west

John Whynot
(jdw01776)

Locale: Southeast Texas
Re: Re: My UL Frenzy on 04/30/2009 10:44:47 MDT Print View

>>I suppose the next thing we'll hear about is a White Mountain 48 in each of the four seasons of a single 12-month year? I'll bet *that* would be a record (fwiw).

Wouldn't surprise me if this was done years ago by Guy Waterman...

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
4000 ft Peaks in every month on 04/30/2009 11:03:32 MDT Print View

Guessing Guy Waterman did this as well. Sue "Stinky Feet" Johnson did every 4K peak in every month back in 2003. That must have been pretty solid training for her ultra-marathons. Not sure if she won the Hardrock that year..