In the dead of winter with temperatures far below zero, Troop 610 Scouts strap on snowshoes and crampons to climb some of the tallest peaks in New York State.
You know it’s cold when moisture freezes on your eyelashes and perspiration forms into tiny ice balls on your headband. It is so cold that you hold glove-covered hands over your mouth as you breathe, trying to warm the air because it actually hurts to inhale. Even footsteps sound different at these temperatures, each stride emitting a sharp crunch or snap in the snow.
It was minus 20 degrees in mid-February, and the eight Scouts of Troop 610 from Hamden, Conn., had never experienced anything this extreme. Climbing the Adirondack Mountains of New York State in the dead of winter was teaching them more about cold weather hiking and camping—including walking with snowshoes or crampons—than they ever imagined possible.
“Layer change!” shouted Scoutmaster Bill Earley, the troop’s leader of 30 years. The Scouts stopped hiking and peeled off a layer of clothing. “When you start to climb, you need to be on the cool side,” Earley explained.
In addition to maintaining a comfortable layering of clothing when scaling a mountain, the Scouts knew it was important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. They took swigs from their water bottles, which were insulated from the cold inside thick woolen socks. Then they turned the bottles upside down (so the water would freeze first at the end opposite the cap) and stored them back in their packs.
The troop’s goal for this Presidents’ Day weekend was the summit of Cascade Mountain. It is one of the more than 40 mountains with elevations above 4,000 feet in the High Peaks Region of New York’s 6.1-million acre Adirondack Park.
But first, as a warm-up, they were headed toward the top of 2,500-foot Chimney Mountain, a 2.5-mile hike up a 900-foot ascent.
“I don’t want to burn out the boys before tomorrow,” Earley explained. “The point of today’s climb is to get them acclimated to climbing in severe winter conditions.”
Using snowshoes was a major learning experience. The Scouts struggled to keep their legs far enough apart as they walked to avoid tripping over their wide shoes. And they also had to concentrate on where they put each step, to avoid “bridging” a snowshoe between rocks, tree roots, or ditches, and creating enough stress to snap it in half.
As the trail became steeper, some Scouts began to get the long wooden tail of one snowshoe caught in the lacing of the other. This caused frequent stumbles and falls until they mastered using their ski pole as a third leg.
“Use all your lacing as traction and plant that shoe in the snow aggressively,” Earley instructed. “Walk like a duck, too. That will help hold you on the mountain.”
TO THE SUMMIT
Using walkie-talkies for communication, the Scoutmaster rearranged the boys in line. He moved a lagging hiker from the rear up to second place, which immediately boosted the Scout’s confidence and motivated him to pick up his pace. Earley then dropped the strong lead hiker who had been setting too swift a pace farther back in line.
The closer they got to the summit, the more the Scouts dragged, as the strenuous work of snowshoeing took its toll. For relief, several boys gobbled high-energy bars and remarked how quickly they felt a surge of renewed strength.
After more than two hours of climbing, the group reached the top of Chimney Mountain. The expansive view generated satisfied sighs from the Scouts, as they enjoyed a moment of pride in their accomplishment. Then they rewarded themselves with a snack of sandwiches and Russian tea (instant tea, lemonade, instant orange-flavored breakfast drink, sugar), kept hot in Thermos containers.
Forgetting their fatigue and using their snowshoes like wide skis, they decided to make the descent by sliding down the mountainside. And soon the woods rang with laughter as the Scouts tumbled on top of one another.
Back at their cabin base camp, the group talked about their first day of climbing.
“I had my doubts at first, but the higher I climbed, the more confidence I gained,” said Alex Cantor. “Then I knew I could really do it.”
“It was really difficult,” Ben Huff admitted. “You had to focus on mind over matter, but we talked to each other as we climbed to keep our minds busy.”
The leaders asked the Scouts to use the first day’s experience to adjust their preparation for the next day’s climb. “Think about what you would do differently tomorrow,” they suggested. “Wear less clothing? Bring more water? Then make those adjustments, because today was just practice and tomorrow is the big event.”
TIME FOR CRAMPONS
Sunday dawned clear with no wind. The temperature had warmed up—to minus 15—and promised a stellar day for venturing to the world above the tree line.
An hour-and-a-half drive from base camp took the Scouts to the High Peaks Region and their destination—Cascade Mountain, a 4,098-foot summit. The Troop 610 Scouts would climb 2,000 feet of that ascent in less than two and a half miles.
The snow on the trail was well packed, so leader Steve Frauenthal advised the boys to wear metal-spike crampons instead of snowshoes.
This meant more walking lessons, in particular learning to take a step without catching the sharp 1 1Ž2-inch spikes on the opposite pant leg.
The higher they hiked, the more the Scouts had to walk in a hunched- over position, to avoid the low boughs of evergreen trees half-buried in deep snow. Some taller Scouts couldn’t avoid the branches, which caught on the snowshoes lashed to their backpacks, restraining them and even knocking them down. It was exhausting work.
At the intersection with the trail to Porter Mountain, another 4,000-foot peak just three-quarters of a mile away, the boys had to dig into the snow to find the trail sign. This made them realize they were walking on top of five feet of snow.
The whole world seemed to open up as they finally reached the tree line. Overwhelmed by the view, the Scouts stopped and stared.
In the noon sun, the ice-covered summit of Cascade Mountain sparkled like crystals, and the gnarled and twisted branches of tiny evergreens looked dipped in ice.
Snowy peaks covered the horizon, dominated by Algonquin Mountain, at 5,114 feet, the second tallest in New York State.
Just a quarter mile below the summit, their path was blocked by ice-covered boulders. The group was forced to detour up a steep, icy slope, relying on their crampons for footing.
Trudging higher, they finally reached the summit, hooting it up as they looked around.
Before them sprawled a world of glittering ice- and snow-covered mountains, row after row. It was a sight most human beings will never see, and far different from what summer hikers would view from the same spot.
“I can hardly believe we are this high up,” Ben Huff observed.
“And we got here all by ourselves,” another Scout added.
Back at the cabin that evening, following dinner, the boys gathered round the woodstove to recap the day.
“I am so tired I can hardly hold this bowl of pretzels on my lap,” Andrew McClintock declared.
“This trip boosted my interest in traveling,” said Matt Bolton. “It opened up a whole window of opportunity for me.”
“I feel much more confident,” said Tim O’Keefe.
“You know, it’s not the average person who can come out here and do this sort of thing…deal with those sort of extremes,” said Chris Traester.
The leaders smiled. This is what they hoped the weekend experience would produce: more confident and self-assured young men.
Before calling it a night, the boys cranked up the outdoor sauna in host Steve Frauenthal’s cabin to 185 degrees (a nice change from minus 20).
After toasting in the sauna a bit, they burst out the door and threw themselves into a snow bank.
It was just another extreme example of an extreme weekend.
Cindy Ross described another troop’s weekend adventure in our September 2003 issue, a canoe-and-bicycle trip on Pennsylvania’s historic Lehigh River.
Troop Makes Adirondack Climb An Annual Winter Activity
Troop 610 has been winter climbing in the Adirondack Mountains for 16 years. The trips are reserved for the troop’s 15- to 17-year-old boys, a high adventure activity designed to keep them interested in Scouting.
In addition to being at least First Class in rank, those Scouts who want to go have to earn a spot on the team, meeting requirements in attendance, advancement, physical ability, and attitude.
Before the Adirondack adventure, the boys watch a slide show from previous years, secure the proper gear, review winter first aid (treating hypothermia and frostbite), and go on three winter practice hikes. (Some have to do even more work to make the grade, like Star Scout Alex Cantor, who ran six flights of stairs for 30 minutes a day for a month in order to shed 10 pounds.)
The Adirondack adventure is led by five men with a total of 135 years in Scouting. Their host for the weekend, Steve Frauenthal, is a Troop 610 assistant Scoutmaster and an instructor in the Adirondack Winter Mountaineering Program. His 20 pairs of wooden and leather-laced snowshoes, 25 pairs of ice crampons, and 40 pairs of Army surplus, sub-zero “mouse boots” are available for the troop’s use, along with his comfortable, warm cabin that serves as a base camp.