Catamount Trail Skimo Camp

Thank you Aaron Rice for letting me use your photos in this post. On a complete side note he is an awesome guy who climbed and skied 2.5 million feet in a year. Check him out at

https://airandrice.com/

I’m a bit behind writing up about this but back in December I found out about the Catamount Trail Association who not only organised a skimo and backcountry ski camp but also hold a number of ski touring days. There is still plenty of snow out on the trails and trips going on this season. If you are interested in ski touring, backcountry skiing or even for the summer there are options for various tours and routes to check out.

http://catamounttrail.org/

Anyway we headed up late on a friday night. It’s safe to say between work taking slightly longer than expected, as did the drive we arrived and got to sleep a bit after midnight. An ideal bedtime prior to a 5 am wake up to get over to the ski area for a morning tour up the mountain. I rose the next morning trying to be as quiet as possible before Laura my wife kindly drove me over to the venue before heading back for some much needed sleep. The excitement of the day a head certainly helped overcome the tiredness of minimal sleep. As did a spot of a sugar rush as I grabbed a cereal bar to eat on the drive over. 

After a quick briefing in the morning twilight with the other skiers and a few split boarders before we got underway in the blue light of the morning. Although it was just light enough a few people opted probably more sensibly to bring out a head torch as beams of light cut across the trail as we started to hike up. It felt great being out on the skis for the first time of the season. I had unfortunately not been able to make the most of THE snow dump that happened back in November. Many of the skiers regaled tales of some of the best snow and powder days they had seen in seasons. Despite the crisp cold conditions we all soon heated up as we picked up pace heading on up the mountain at Bolton Valley. Having never been there it was a great spot to see with some dedicated uphill trail routes to skin up. This was the warm up of the day and for me a great re-introduction into ski touring, everything kind of felt a bit familiar yet rusty. We headed up past a mountain hut that you can stay in overnight during the winter which looked like an awesome spot for another day! The trail took us further up the mountain weaving between trees and over frozen streams as the sun began to rise. It was a cloudy morning unfortunately, so there was to be no golden sunrise. Rather an overcast blue grey glow. The group slowly spread out up the mountain as micro groups found their rhythm heading up the trail. 

Starting off in the morning twilight

Starting off in the morning twilight

Reaching the top and it was time to strip the skins from the base of our skis and ski down. Helmets on, skins off and we were flying down the mountain side. Having mainly done skimo races where you don’t necessarily take in how everyone else is performing their transitions it was great to start seeing the varying levels of efficiency and proficiency at the top. As we got closer to the base we began passing a number of other ski tourers heading up for their own first lines of the day. Arriving back at base camp we came through the doors of the classroom area to a row of donuts and coffee. Despite the earlier breakfast in the car the caffeine and sugar hit was exactly what was required. This was not to be the breakfast of athletes or champions I expect but it was certainly a welcome treat. 

It was then time for class.

The day was broken down into 2 sections, the morning for some indoor teaching, Here there were a couple of options. Essentially 2 sessions were more focussed on an intro to ski touring and backcountry. Then another 2 which were orientated on performance and race perspective within a ski touring setting. A lot of the principles are completely transferrable to a backcountry setting. I opted for the two focussed on performance. 

First up was transitions. Regardless of the mountain being able to switch from boot packing, skinning or skiing in any combination as quickly as possible it’s hugely beneficial. In a race it allows you to not loose precious and non valued adding time. When you are not in a race it is safer and allows you to stay warm as you keep moving. For those that might like to take photographs, grab a quick summit bite to eat or something this time saving buys you some additional time whilst your mates are faffing to get ready. 

The biggest and most memorable point I came away with was the mantra of boots, bindings then skins. And always doing it in that order. That in itself has made my transitions more organised, deliberate and smoother. 

There were also some tricks of the trade for removing skins as quickly as possible. Below are some examples of some great transitions.

The second part of the morning was more into discussing training and nutrition as part of your training or race day program. There is loads of nutrition advice out on the web and with there being so much I often find the information contradicts one another when it comes to which is the best diet to perform on. Regardless of diets during any activity staying fuelled and hydrated is key and this came through in the presentation also. I haven’t always been that great with specific evening and pre-race nutrition regimes but when I have eaten properly the night before, drank a load of water or sports drink the morning of and then continued to fuel through the race. Unsurprisingly I have felt and performed better.  This presentation was quite fitting though as my evening meal had been grabbed on the go and wasn’t exactly nutritious while breakfast had been a cereal bar, coffee and a couple of donuts. 

If you are interested here are some resources (i am not affiliated with them nor an expert, if its something you would be interested in me doing more about nutrition then let me know!)

https://www.uphillathlete.com/high-fat-low-carb-diet-ultra-endurance-performance/

https://feedzonecookbook.com/

The afternoon was spent testing out equipment and putting into practise what we had been discussing in the morning around up hill technique and transitions. Having the day structured like this so we could hear about how to do it in the warmth and partly see some demonstrations before practising outside was fantastic for really practising good technique. I managed to borrow some Salomon s-lab skis. The comparison to my all mountain skis with a particularly heavy touring setup made a huge difference. I also learnt some key points. Such as them not having brakes to save weight. It is great but when transitioning on a slope you need to keep hold of your skis. In the event of running after them grabbing new skis by the edge is equally not a great plan. I ended up cutting a finger which was a pain but fine. It however then bled everywhere and on everything I touched. The conditions were really quite warm on the day so I had opted to not wear gloves the whole time. So if in doubt always try to wear gloves even if they are incredibly lightweight ones. And always hold onto your skis!

We finished up for the day with a raffle and some epic prizes! I cam away with some gloves and managed along the way to pick up some second hand skimo skis. Missing bindings but I will come onto them later.

All in all I would highly recommend this workshop. I will definitely be checking it out next season. You cant ask much more than to meet a load of super friendly ski touring buddies along with learning some tips and tricks.

Thanks Aaron Rice for letting me use your photos!!

Thanks Aaron Rice for letting me use your photos!!

Mt Mitchell - North Carolina

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 21.39.57.png

This was the first long holiday of the year and after much debate we had settled on exploring Asheville and the Black Mountain area in North Carolina. Renowned for outdoor activities and a lot of breweries! The first task was for a casual 11 hour drive down to the area from New Jersey. With a car full of people and kit. Loaded up with snacks for the drive we began making our way south.

One of the first spots we visited was a natural slide. Hidden in Pisgah National forest we braved the slightly cooler weather for the chance for a wild swim. By the time we got there their were only a few people milling about and sliding down the rock face into the plunge pool at the bottom. With it being the end of the season we had definitely avoided the crowds which you could imagine being the norm in the heat of the summer. After spending some time sliding down and hiking up it was time to head on back to our base for the next few days. 

Sliding Rock

Sliding Rock

After checking out the weather that evening and various trails available we settled on heading up Mt Mitchell. Mt Mitchell itself was high on the wish list for our time there. Partly because its the highest peak east of the Mississippi and eastern North America (when you exclude some of the Arctic region) standing at 2,037m or 6,684 feet. Making it about 400ft taller than Mt Washington up in New Hampshire or roughly 2,200 feet taller than Ben Nevis in Scotland. The mountain and surrounding area have an interesting history as well. Originally the Cherokee tribe were one of the more prominent in the Black Mountain region until settlers took over the region. Since then it was first climbed by a French Botanist and Explore named Andre Michaux (who commenced quite a few expeditions from New Jersey & New York). Making a climb to the top all the more relevant having travelled from New Jersey albeit far easier to get there compared to his travels. A Professor from the University of North Carolina, Elisha Mitchell, explored and studied the height of the mountain before confirming it as the highest mountain in the East of the US. He later unfortunately went on to die on the mountain after an accident. 

The trail up Mt Mitchell

The trail up Mt Mitchell

In the 1940’s a road was created along a ridge that runs 469 miles between Virginia and North Carolina, with a stop off at the summit of Mt Mitchell, creating the Blue Ridge Parkway. However since then the environment has had a tough time. A mixture of effects have been damaging the eco system. From logging and fires through to foreign invading plants and animals. The more recent effect has been acid rain, which is still to this day severely affecting the forest and killing many of the trees. In 1993 it was declared an International Biosphere by UNESCO. Despite the challenges it still has a rich environment. Its not surprising that its one of the most visited national parks in the US. Due to its popularity there are a variety of options to reach the summit including a drive almost to the summit or horseback ride. We opted to hike from the base starting at the Black Mountain campsite.

Blue Ridge Parkway meandering below us

Blue Ridge Parkway meandering below us

The adventure started with the drive over there. Plugging the campsite in as the start point for our hike we soon found ourselves driving up a rough track road with ever tighter switch backs. Higher and higher we headed up the mountain. What we had not appreciated when going with the route the GPS suggested was that this would take us the off road route. It showed the importance of having a road map of the local area! It was quite the experience driving up with sheer drops to one side and some fairly impressive pot holes amongst other parts. It turned out the road should have already been closed for the season. We had managed to sneak through for a final ascent whilst they were conducting some maintenance. As we climbed our expected time of arrival got later and later. It felt like we had driven to the top of the mountain as we emerged onto the main and perfectly tarmacked road. Trying to find the second segment for the onward journey, which unfortunately had been closed for the season, we began searching for alternative routes. After trying a few different ones we were finally heading in the right direction on the only remaining route to get to the start of the trail head. The trail started from the Black Mountain camp ground. We soon enough arrived far later than expected but there nonetheless . The campground is tucked in beneath the mountain. Parking up we crossed over a bubbling river to get into the camp group which was filled with campers and surrounded by towering trees. 


Some wooden signs directed us towards the start of the trail, with a fairly flat section to warm us up into the hike a head of us. This however did not last long. We soon found ourselves in amongst the trees and working our way up wards. The cooler weather making for some perfect conditions for hiking. 


One of the plants of interest for the day was poison ivy having spoken to a few people about the various poisonous plants in the US. We had spent some time over breakfast reading a few warnings and articles about poisoned ivy, oak and a few other plants as well as how to spot them. We were on the look out for these plants in a bid to avoid them. Not being your flora expert anything that looked remotely similar suddenly became a hurdle to overcome. Not wanting to be covered in the resin that these plants secrete which waits up to 48 hours before revealing the blisters of the infected area. Unfortunately you can spread it around during this time so in the event of getting it on your hands imagine all the places you might touch during a 48 hour time period….

Slowly but surely we made our way further and further up wards. With most of the mountainside covered in forest we did not have much of an opportunity to take in the views around us. Until we reached a small clearing which had been carved out to make way for a electricity pylon that was strung up the side of the mountain and also headed for the top albeit in a much more direct fashion. Straight up. This gave us a small glimpse into what we would see from the summit and it was already pretty spectacular. 

I find it fascinating seeing how the environment changes as we meandered our way along and higher up the mountain. We passed through thick groves of rhododendron’s as we climbed and the scenery slowly changed from chestnuts and oak trees to fir trees as we made our way higher and higher. Unfortunately we didn’t see any flying squirrels or local black bears. Admittedly not seeing a bear up close although an amazing experience would have been a bit nerve racking for the group and the bear. 
You can read about my last bear experience in the link below

We were not disappointed on reaching the summit. The 360 degree views were pretty awe-inspiring. We even met some cyclist that had made a bid for the summit under their own power as well. Munching away of some snacks before the second leg of the journey we watched large grey clouds moving in on the area. With the weather on the turn and due to it taking longer than expected to reach our actual starting point we made the decision to make a dash for the bottom rather than continue along the ridge to some other nearby peaks. Part the way down the first rain drops started to make their way through the foliage. We stopped briefly for an attempt at some easy bouldering before pressing on quickly to the bottom. We got back down in pretty quick time, with the rest of the evening to explore the nearby town and its array of Breweries and Bars. 

The Weather Turning

The Weather Turning

If you are interested in reading a bit more on Mt Mitchell and the surrounding area the link below has a bunch of info.
https://www.ncparks.gov/mount-mitchell-state-park/ecology

Views from the Summit

Views from the Summit

Tesla Hertz 50km Ultra Run

After building the training up bit by bit and a half marathon as a warm up the next stage was a 50km ultra marathon out on Long Island. Its called the Tesla Hertz ultra race. Making it sounded like an exceptionally well sponsored event!!

Unlike the last race, being point to point, this was a steady 10mile loop with barely a hill to match. As bizarre as it sounds having some hills makes for a nice change on the body along the route. However with it still being hot and this being one of my first ultra's back in a while not having to carry a huge amount round due to it being laps was definitely going to be a big advantage. 

Friday night and with everything finally packed for the weekend I headed out first to get some last minute supplies and then onwards to Long Island. One of the key things after almost getting cramps at the last race was some electrolytes. Back in the UK I had found the cheapest and best solution to be dioralyte, designed for dodgy stomachs it seemed to hit the spot every time. Searching for something similar in the US I have come across something called pedialyte. Pretty much exactly the same thing with a different name. It's also rumoured to be an excellent hang over cure. I don't think it beats irnbru on that front though.

Arriving at a massive campsite for the night I setup camp for the night with the occasional bug bite in the process before jumping into my sleeping bag. It was incredibly humid and my sleeping bag designed for Scottish summer meant I was roasting. In the process of this restful night's sleep I jumped out mid way through the night for a bathroom break and in the process stubbing my toe on the only curb around. Back into my hot and sweaty sleeping bag with a throbbing toe it felt like no time at all before my alarm was going off in my ear. A slightly unique alarm sound to wake up to. If your interested check it out below.

Getting out I was greeted to a thick blanket of fog wrapped over the forest. Taking the tent down whilst trying not to wake the rest of the campsite. A quick bite to eat and I was ready to  head to the start of the race. I made the short trip to the start of the race, bumping into a few fellow competitors before a quick sign in. As we signed in people who had started in the early hours of the morning doing 50 miles, 100kms or 100 miles crossed over the start line for another lap on route to the finish. Greeted to a round of applause it was inspiring to see. 

TeslaHertzMap.png

 

The tesla hertz race had a attracted a wide variety of people from all over North America to compete in. Located near the historic site of tesla tower a radio mast that was originally aimed at sending messages back to the UK it was a very fitting event. 

A quick photo from the start and brief before we made a start. Bizarrely I found myself near the front of the race. I say bizarre as I've normally sat around the top third to top half. I was happy enough though and was making good ground. The blanket of fog slowly lifting from the trees and replacing it with an ever increasing amount of humidity. It still felt like pretty ideal conditions. Running through the cushioned hard pack trails past trees starting to show glimmers of fall. The ground littered in a variety of fungi. My knowledge in this areas is low to none (basically don't eat the red ones...) but I'm sure for the experienced picker this could have looked like a natural feast. 

Making to the first check point I was excited to see whiskey and an array of treats. Including Swedish fish and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This is not an early American conversion but something that had been growing on me for quite a while. Fortunately this is considered a perfectly reasonable lunch request or sandwich/ bagel deli request. For those used to running events particularly road running events these aid stations might seem strange but for longer races the prospect of being sustained on energy gels is not particularly appetising! I made a fairly quick transition through this not wanting to loose much time before heading back the way I came. It was a cool feature of the race being able to see how far behind the next competitors is. The answer was not much. 

Running further along and we started coming across more people out on their morning cycle or run. The day was definitely heating up bit by bit. Coming up the brow of the one and only hill was a perfect little break from the constant flat gradient. Crossing lap one I and they had water melon! I may have ended up eating too much this race but watermelon on a hot day was seriously refreshing! 

 

Lap two and I could feel I was slowing a little bit. The competitors in front I would briefly see running the opposite way just before the aid station and check point on the lap. But apart from that it felt like I was alone in the woods running round the trails. It was at this stage that the sun had finally broken through at it was hitting the high 70's low 80's (high 20's/ low 30s). My water consumption had suddenly gone through the roof and my top was soaking. It was time for my top to come off. I've generally not had the need to do this back in the UK but the heat was pretty intense. Once it was off I immediately felt cooler.

The one and only hill came and went by slower than the first. Before lining up for lap 3. It was at this point and I am not sure what triggered it maybe the fact I hadn't been passed by anyone but I wondered if a lap was 10km not 10 miles. Checking out my watch and asking a couple of people I pasted about what distance they were doing and I was pretty sure I was on track with it being 10 miles. I grabbed some more electrolyte at the start line for lap 3 and a bit more food and water before the making a start on the next one. Despite not doing an ultra for a while the idea of constantly fuelling the body is something I haven't forgotten. I knew that especially on a hot day like it was missing the opportunity to eat and drink could catch up with me quickly. 

The final lap was by far my slowest, admittedly it was what I was expecting to average for all the laps it just worked out that my first two were much quicker. Being out in front though kept my mind thinking that if I could just keep a steady pace I should finish in a good position and ideally hold where I was. I hadn't seen the guy up a head for quite a while and as I made my way up towards the aid station I wasn't expecting to see him as for the entirety of the race he had been up a head by an ever increasing amount. Just as I reached the station though I reached him. Not only that but I was surprised by my wife, Laura, who had after a red eye flight driven out to Long Island to see me running. The final chunks of watermelon and pb & j sandwiches consumed before heading back out onto the course for the final 5 miles ish. On my way back out I passed a few people who had made ground on me but I was confident I could maintain the gap  for the moment at least. Not long after I came across the guy who had been a head race. We ended up running most of this final stretch together passing the time chatting about various races. Towards the end he managed to pull away, my legs no longer feeling fresh and not much left in the tank I didn't manage to close the gap as we headed up towards the finish line. Finally crossing in 5 hours 27 min.

I was elated about finishing and even more so for being in 2nd place. As we walked back to the car for a celebratory chocolate milkshake I cramped up crossing the road whilst stepping up the curb. Almost falling back in could have been a bit of a disaster but fortunately Laura was there with a helping hand. 

The drive back was long but pain and cramp free!! 

Windiest Place on Earth

Mount Washington The chance to ski on the windiest place on earth. Why wouldn’t I turn that option down.

Not long after moving to the North east I found out about an organisation called the Appalachian mountain club who were organising a ski tour up the Cog railway on mount Washington. Situated in an incredible area known as the white mountains in New Hampshire. Mount Washington I quickly discovered once had (only relatively recently beaten into second place) the highest recorded surface wind speed outside of a tropical storm coming in at 231mph.

It isn’t the closest ski area but with the warmer than usual temperatures in the north east it was always going to be about travelling further north to get the best snow possible. Unlike the previous weekend, the temperatures had certainly begun to cool down. As I started to make the drive north the weather began to change and by the end of the night it was snowing. I was seriously looking forward to getting out the car after a fairly brutal 7 hour drive after a full days work. As much as I wanted the snow I didn’t really fancy the slowing down of the journey.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Arriving at the lodge I crashed out as soon as I hit the mattress, it didn’t feel like many hours later than the first people began to stir, all trying to get the best conditions for the day. Munching a quick breakfast all washed down with large mugs of coffee, I made my way to the meeting point. Now despite it once having the highest recorded wind speed on earth there is still a railway to the summit along with an access road. Our plan was to follow the train tracks up the mountain and once out of the tree line see what the conditions were like. Summiting was highly unlikely with forecasts of high winds and a thick layer of cloud covering it.

DSC04796
DSC04796

I had enjoyed the ski mountaineering racing but this was a completely different experience again. The pace obviously much more sedate with the emphasis being on efficiency and trying not to sweat. Compared to my race strategy of trying to go as fast and efficiently as possible. Which was more of a brute strength and endurance exercise. And certainly less care for the amount of sweating going on. It was however a lot colder, hovering around the -5 to -15F , a balmy -20 to -26C and the  wind chill on top. Despite this it still felt quite warm as we meandered up hill surrounded by trees which looked incredible. Like frozen statues dotted all the way up the mountain side. Pausing occasionally to have a drink and admire the views behind and in front of us, despite the large bank of clouds hiding the summit. It wasn’t the blue bird day we had all hoped for but still fantastic being out on the mountain.

DSC04805
DSC04805

Arriving at the first split point and we soon bundled up as the temperature plummeted. We had come out of the trees and the wind now had us in its sights. The rail line had clearly taken the full force of this onslaught for quite a while as its frozen structure looked like something from another planet. Not even in the arctic had I seen buildings covered in ice to this extent.

DSC04807
DSC04807
DSC04815
DSC04815
DSC04812
DSC04812

A few of us opted to continue slightly further up the mountainside. It is safe to say we needn’t have bothered. All that proceed was some skating around on an icy surface of wind stripped mountainside. We tried to get purchase on what little friction we could get but despite this effort we hardly made it any further up for a lot more huffing and puffing. With the wind battering our faces and bodies it was only sensible to head back down. There was no chance of a summit today and the possibility of some better powder round the corner was never going to happen without some more hardware of ice axes and crampons. Even then we were not convinced there would be any great powder.

It was a quick turn around to get out the wind. I say quick but the ice and strong winds made it tough work wrapping up our ski skins to get them put away. Its like trying to roll loose duck tape up in a strong gale into a neat organised bundle.

And then the bit we had built up for, the ski down. Despite the odd patch of ice there were some great stretches of powder. The three of us who had tried to go a bit higher made the most of the descent getting in as many tight wee turns to float on the powder. In the hunt for some I managed to find a fairly lightly covered rock. Skiing over it I stopped almost instantly, trying to recover my balance from the forward momentum only to finally pop out of my bindings. Unfortunately one of the guys saw the whole thing unfold in a particularly slow and  inelegant fashion.

DSC04821
DSC04821

We made it down to the bottom and back to the lodge for a well deserved hot shower and drink.

The next day I headed up to the in famous tuckermanns ravine. You can check out a couple of pro skiers hitting this on the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CM7YknhIKeU

It isn’t recommended generally to ski it until later in the season but whilst in the area I at least wanted to have a peek at what it was all about. I followed the trail up which is incredibly well marked. Past people snow shoeing up and a number of groups up for the weekend as part of a nearby ice festival learning about avalanche rescue techniques. The wind certainly felt less strong and it was definitely a warmer day than the previous one. Snow occasionally fell from the trees. It was a pretty magical sight.

DSC04829
DSC04829

Slowly but surely the ravine revealed itself. Each glimpse between the trees showing a bit more until I came round the corner and caught sight of the whole area. With clear views of the summit of mount washington in the background. There in front the huge tuckermanns ravine and the steepest ski descents in the north east, or at least one of the better known ones.

DSC04830
DSC04830

Arriving at a small cabin and there were groups continuing up as part of their avalanche course as well as some skiers who despite the now windy conditions had opted to try a few routes. It looked pretty incredible and in places pretty intimidating even from a distance. I headed on up the mountain as I wanted to see the full face of it. Some of the slopes are up at 40 - 50 degree range. The wind had certainly picked up though and I was now taking a bit of a beating even if it was warmer than the previous day. Arriving at the bottom of tuckermanns and I could finally take it it. I definitely want to return to the slopes here and take on some of these descents.

DSC04832
DSC04832

Heading back down the mountain and my legs could finally enjoy a bit of a down hill ski. After trekking up it made for a nice change. Despite this I still had to walk a few bits at the top due to not being able to find a decent route to ski down as well as the path I walked up being really quite tight between rocks, trees and a small stream that with the warmer conditions wasn’t completely covered in snow.

C43A2315
C43A2315

I soon found myself down the bottom  of the mountain just in time to munch a load of food in the car and before the return journey back down south to new jersey.