Continuing in the theme of “misunderestimating” snow, we take a look back at March of 2019. We had planned a 23 mile hike from Dalton to North Adams in Massachusetts. Snow maps were sketchy, but from what we could tell there would be no more than 2 inches on the ground. The weather had different plans. Four to eight inches of fresh snow on this relatively unused section of the Appalachian Trail made route finding and forward progress difficult. Imagine trying to spot white blazes when every tree is covered with white snow!
I had completed the Appalachian Trail through Massachusetts in one very nice week back in 2015. Since then, I had been section hiking the trail through the rest of the North East with Hudson Valley Hikers. When one of them asked if I would be willing to redo Massachusetts, I said, “Sure, if we can do it in winter.”
I broke the 90 mile section of trail into several sections, and we started working on them in November of 2018. By March, we were almost done. All we had to do was hike the relatively short 22 miles from Dalton to North Adams. This would include Mt Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts at 3490 feet. It isn’t even a 35er!
The plan was to start at Gulf Road in Dalton and hike to Mark Nople Shelter the first day. On day two, we would continue on over the summit of Greylock and finish at Route 2 in North Adams.
We met at the Maple Terrace Motel in Williamstown, Massachusetts the night before the hike and had dinner in town. Williamstown is a nice little college town nestled in the mountains between North Adams, MA and Albany, NY. The open campus is beautiful and there are many nice restaurants and lodging options.
We got up in the morning and parked a couple of cars at a local clubhouse along Route 2 in North Adams. The clubhouse used to be the official parking location for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, but a new lot has been built closer to the rail crossing on Route 2. We got breakfast as a McDonalds and drove down to Dalton.
Dalton is another nice little New England town with white houses that all look the same. Many of the businesses here are very friendly to hikers. There’s an official trial parking and kiosk at the end of Gulf Road.
Day 1: Dalton to Mark Nople Shelter
When we arrived at Gulf Road, we found just about 1 inch of snow on the ground. I walked up the hill for a bit – off trail – to see what it was like. It seemed consistent, so we left our snow shoes in the car. We would come to regret this.
As we climbed out of Dalton, the snow got deeper until we were walking through about 6″. I don’t think that is enough to warrant snow shoes and the walking remained easy throughout Day 1. Still, absolutely everything was covered with snow and at times route finding was very difficult. We had tracks to follow for the first mile or two, but they vanished. Without the tracks, we were constantly stopping to navigate and probe ahead to find the trail. It was slow going.
It was a cold and windy day. We were forced to move slowly to keep from getting lost, but that meant we weren’t building a lot of body heat. We could really feel the cold and it was tiring.
The day got interesting about a mile before arriving at Cheshire Cobble (6.2 miles.) There were a lot of stream crossings, but the water wasn’t deep. We were rock hopping across them, but the rocks were all covered with snow and ice. I knew it was only a matter of time before one of us slipped and fell in the water.
It was me! I plunged in and the entire right side of my body was soaked. I stripped off my wet clothes quickly before the wet cold soak up too much body heat. I put on a dry shirt, gloves, and hat. but I had no replacement for my soaked soft-shell pants. I kept them on and walked double-time for the next few miles to maintain heat.
After power walking for 2 miles, we came to the town of Cheshire and found a Gas Station / Dunkin Donuts combo. I went into the bathroom, stripped off my clothes, and started drying them under the hand dryer. I was mostly concerned for my boot liners and pants. After about 45 minutes of hogging the restroom, I had them reasonably dry.
It was really nice to have the option to make this pit stop, but it is better to be prepared with a complete set of dry clothes on any long winter hike. Lesson learned the easy way.
After drying off and drinking some hot chocolate from Dunkin Donuts, we kept moving. Our destination for the night was still 4.5 miles away, and most of it was up hill. As we climbed, the snow got deeper and the hill got steeper. The wind was strong and we were getting cold. Just when we thought we would never make it, we arrived at Mark Nople Shelter on the shoulder of Mt Greylock.
Mark Nople Shelter is a typical Massachusetts Bunk and Loft Style shelter. These are some of the nicest along the Appalachian Trail. Downstairs there are 2 sets of extra-wide bunkbeds. Up top there is a loft that provides excellent protection from the wind. The loft also overhangs the picnic table and keeps it out of the rain.
I usually insist on building a fire on winter backpacking trips, but I was feeling lazy and tired. I regret not building the fire. I had a nice hot meal and a few more cups of hot chocolate and wrapped myself up in my 0 degree Enlightened Equipment quilt.
I slept in my Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy. A bivy is like a burrito for your sleep system. You lie your pad on the bottom, then stuff in your quilt, and you climb inside. Then you zip the whole thing up. Its tight, but it keeps you wrapped up and prevents drafts.
I was a little cold when I first went to bed. A lot of people panic if they feel cold going to bed while winter camping. It takes time for your body heat to warm up the air trapped in your quilt. It helps if you change out of your damp clothes as soon as you arrive in camp and get your sleeping clothes nice and dry. It also helps if you didn’t fall into a stream earlier that day.
Day 2: Mark Nople Shelter to North Adams
As soon as the sun came up the next morning, we could tell it was going to be a much warmer day. I think it eventually reached about 50 degrees. Warmer temperatures would bring their own problems, but first we had to keep dealing with the deep snow.
We left the shelter and kept climbing up hill. The snow on the wind-swept south slope of Mt Greylock wasn’t that bad, especially in the sun. Still, there were no tracks to follow and the trail wasn’t always obvious. Many of the white blazes we normally rely on were obscured by… snow.
Eventually the climb leveled off, but the snow got deeper. Thick conifers provided shade that kept repeated snow falls from melting. Many bows of trees were weighted down to the ground, obscuring the path forward. The deepest parts were up to our waists. Trudging through the deep snow was tiring, and we really wish we had our snow shoes.
Eventually we came out onto Rockwell Road. Although we had only walked 2.5 miles, we were exhausted. Pushing through the deep snow without shoes was tiring. Navigating the abyss of snow covered balsam was tedious. We looked at the trail ahead and saw that there was no improvement.
Large Pizza had ben waiting at the road with his knees packed in snow. He was done with hard hiking for the day. Porcupine arrived soon after with a look of panic on her face. She informed us that she was going to bail and find her own way home. I said, “don’t worry, we’re all bailing.”
I looked at my map and saw that the road we were on basically went around the top of the mountain and met back up with the trail on the other side. We decided to stick to the road, which was at least navigable.
The road was easier to walk on and far easier to navigate. We followed it up almost to the summit, then turned onto the route that goes around to the north. At times the snow was still deep. The roads on Greylock are unplowed during the winter so that they can be used by backcountry skiers. We saw plenty of their tracks.
It was getting to be a warm day. We stripped off most of our insulating layers, but kept on our shells to stop the wind. I was wearing boots meant for much colder weather and my feet started to sweat. My Baffin Borealis Boots have a thick soft plastic shell that makes them 100% waterproof. When temperatures go above 30, this shell seems to trap a lot of heat and sweat. My socks were soaked in sweat by the end of this hike.
After about 5 miles, we turned back onto the Appalachian trail and started down hill. The north side of Greylock is used by backcountry skiers and hikers almost all year. The trail here was easier to follow and the snow was more packed down. We occasionally saw other people, which cheered us up.
After a very steep descent, we finally arrived in North Adams. There was almost no snow left at these lower elevations. My boots were getting really hot, but I was happy to be almost done.
Arriving at our cars, we changed into dry clothes and took one more look at Mount Greylock. We had missed the summit, but still walked about 22 miles for the weekend. Most of us decided this was good enough to count toward completing the section. Perhaps we’ll be back.