And You Said We Were Car Camping…

Backpacking / Winter Sports
And You Said We Were Car Camping…

I blame shopping for my mountaineering habit.

Usually a new hobby comes first and buying gear comes second, but for me, mountaineering was born two years ago in the fitting room of the Eastern Mountain Sports in North Conway, NH.

It started innocently enough: I told my boyfriend that I was going into the dressing room to try on a few sports bras in advance of what was to be “some snowshoeing and maybe some car camping if we feel up for it” (his words). Ten minutes later, I reappeared and was handed a pair of double-boots, crampons, an ice axe and a topo map…of Mount Madison in New Hampshire.

So much for car camping.

An experienced winter backpacker, DJ coached me through the basics, aided by George at the North Conway school. A lifelong skier, I’d never known that mountaineers used plastic boots too — never mind that crampons came in different sizes and varieties of intensity. I also invested in a thick pair of socks (likely a trip- and relationship-saver).

You don’t get much of a view when hiking up Valley Way (accessed from Rt. 2), but in the spirit of adventure I learned how to safely use crampons, set up winter camp, melt snow for water (without incinerating your cooking pot), and cook dinner in the tent’s vestibule. It was exciting to reinvent old camping habits and I loved tucking into my 800-fill down sleeping bag that night with an impromptu hot-water Nalgene bottle against my feet — but it wasn’t really so different from summertime backpacking.

And then we woke up to this:

At that moment, I was hooked. Eight inches of fresh powder and we were only an hour or two from a blue-sky summit? Yes please!

After a quick stop to evaluate risks (note to self, don’t show that pic to parents), we continued on.

Mt. Madison is a fairly easy summit on a mild day and doesn’t require too many advanced mountaineering skills, but DJ ran through a few drills for self-arrest using an ice axe (could have used some of those techniques in prior ski crashes), and we continued up, substituting ice axes for our trekking poles for the sake of practice.

By the time we reached the summit, winter skies were closing in and we needed to beat feet back down to the trailhead, but not before snapping a few photos. This shot of the summit marker covered in rime was a particular favorite of city friends back home.

We reached the trailhead just in time to catch a quick dinner and head back to Philadelphia, where I began plotting other potential weekends for snowy mountain excursions. I’m pretty sure “I told you so” might have been on the tip of DJ’s tongue as he watched me — although he was kind enough not to say it out loud.

Winter wallflower no longer, that first trip two years ago was the introduction to many road trips from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire for winter adventures, and the first step in packing up our city lives and moving to Vermont this summer. And while I was lucky to have an experienced winter backpacker as my partner-in-crime, EMS guide-school courses like Winter Camping 101 and Winter Climbing 101 offer a great introduction to winter sports on the mountain for those trying it for the first time.

Or you could just linger in the fitting rooms at EMS until you find that your retail therapy turns into a full-blown adventure as well.

Lindsay Westley

Lindsay Westley is a freelance journalist who spent much of her childhood with her nose pressed to the windowpane enviously watching her older brother depart on camping trips with the Boy Scouts. A lifelong runner, biker, swimmer, hiker, skier and snowshoer, she began tackling higher elevations and longer excursions when she met her now-husband DJ, who has been an EMS guide since '09. After two years of living in and near Philadelphia and driving up to the White Mountains of New Hampshire every free weekend, they finally decided to quit their respectable jobs, get married, and move to Burlington, VT (it was a busy summer). Now Lindsay writes about the arts, architecture, travel and outdoor adventures for various newspapers and magazines -- and the only time she presses her nose to the window is to look out at the Green Mountains and plan her next adventure.