There are two themes to the December Grid so far. First is the question whether I can get all 35 done, with the latest challenge being a sore knee and a tight groin, which together led me to abort an attempt on Big Indian and Doubletop earlier this week. The second, and more interesting theme, is the effort to “push back” against the grim cold conditions of winter, especially on the part of someone who’s pretty comfortable in the heat (even back in the day running in summertime Death Valley) and for whom the cold can be a little intimidating. As it happened, the other day an email showed up from the Wim Hof organization promoting a new book by investigative journalist Scott Carney, titled “What Doesn’t Kill us,” which profiles the author’s experiences with some of the cold-training methods that have made Wim Hof famous, culminating in a shirtless climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Over the last few years I’ve played around with some of the Wim Hof techniques, and this new book sparked my interest again, and helped me stoke a little bid of attitude with which to confront the cold. (Also, I signed up for ten 10-week Wim Hof instructional video series, so it will be interesting to see what I learn going forward.)
For some background, it was only a few years ago that I’d go for a run in the park in late fall, wearing several layers, and even so coming back home I’d have difficulty turning the key in the door lock, my hands were so cold. And this wasn’t on particularly cold days, it was in the 50s F. Weak circulation, a sign of getting old — that’s how I interpreted things, until one day I saw someone running shirtless in the park in the middle of winter. How does he do it, I wondered?
Around this time I first heard of Wim Hof. A friend shared a video in which the Dutchman, whose nickname is “The Iceman,” ran a half-marathon barefoot and in shorts somewhere above the Arctic Circle. Hof has a remarkable ability to manage his core temperature and keep the blood flowing to his extremities through force of concentration. He’s set a variety of cold-related records, including swimming underneath ice-covered lakes, climbing mountains in sandals and shorts (he summitted Kilimanjaro in this garb and almost made it to the top of Everest), and sitting in buckets of ice for long periods of time.
It took me a year or so to finally get up the nerve, but eventually I began to experiment with cold showers (Hof suggests starting them out warm and gradually lowering the temperature) and then running shirtless in winter conditions, starting in the 50s and gradually working my way down to shorter runs, at a brisk pace, in the mid-20s. When you’re running, you build up body heat of course, so the question is can you manage the discomfort of cold air against chest and arms, and can your circulation system handle the task of keeping fingers and toes warm without diverting to much warmth from the core. Needless to say, these activities are conducted with safety as the first consideration, which means in familiar areas where it’s easy to exit to a warm environment if you get chilled.
When hiking in back country areas, like the Catskills, a more conservative approach is appropriate, since you can’t stop and wave down a taxi if you get cold. However, safety doesn’t mean that you always bundle up, for one of the key principles of back country winter travel is to avoid sweating, because moist clothes will chill you very quickly once you stop. With this thought in mind, last year I began stripping off jacket, shirt, and gloves on steep climbs, finding this was perfectly comfortable, and then layering back up once at the top.
Fast forward to December 2017, and feeling a little bit in a funk about the cold weather, and having forgotten the Wim Hof approach until I saw that email about Scott Carney’s book, now I decided to push back….
The goal is Westkill and Rusk, and at the trailhead the thermometer reads 25 F. I explain my plan to my friend Alan, who doesn’t seem to find this strange (he’s heard of Wim Hof), although he’s not going to participate in the experiment. We head off on the way to Westkill with me shirtless and gloveless, although wearing a hat and long underwear under trousers and carrying lots of extra warm gear in my pack. We walk along at a moderate pace, and the temperature’s perfectly comfortable, in fact on some of the steeper sections I take off my hat to keep from sweating. So far, so good. Now it’s time for something different: I’m going to stay shirtless on the descent. And despite the lower level of exertion going down, which means less body heat generated, this is perfectly fine, too.
Now it’s time for Rusk, which is a bushwhack through the forest, and my core temperature remains OK even as it starts to lightly snow. It’s only on the descent that shirt, sweater and jacket go back on, and the reason is the steep and increasingly snow-dusted and slippery slope, which demands careful attention, otherwise ankle and sore knee will pay a price. Trying to manage the cold, while at the same time negotiating difficult terrain, would be layering on too many training stressors at one time, and the result would be excessive risk.
The next task is a three-mile run at the local track. The snow storm dumped a couple of inches, and with temperatures in the low-20s, going barefoot doesn’t seem like a good idea (although I have Facebook friends who run barefoot in the snow in all temperatures), so instead I wait for the afternoon, when it’s warmed up into the low 30s. In these conditions, with lots of layers (including shirt, sweater, and jacket), the feet feel a little cold, but not numb, and the run is a success.
Now it’s time to go hike Balsam Lake Mountain and Graham, and this morning it’s colder, around 12-14 F at the trailhead, and windy. After warming up, I strip off jacket, sweater, and shirt and trudge along through 6 inches of snow (and sometimes deeper), which is hard work in snowshoes. The cooler temperature is noticeable, especially when the wind catches me, and my arms are tingling and turning a little red. After 3 miles, I reach the summit, and this is enough, all those layers come back out of the pack and stay on the rest of the day. Not only is core temperature a consideration, but when your arms are cold, you lose manual dexterity in your fingers quickly. The body has the ability to warm the fingers even in very cold weather (this is called the “hunter’s response”), but you don’t want to push the envelope in training when you’re by yourself in the woods.
A few days later I’m at the base of Bearpen Mountain, which is accessed by an easy-walking snowmobile trail, looking at several inches of snow on the ground, but the temperature is 40 F and the sun is peeking out from time to time from behind the clouds. After passing some loggers taking out ash trees (once the emerald ash borer strikes, you have to harvest them quickly, they explain), I decide to try hiking barefoot. Just past the hunting cabin on the ridge, a hiker passes me on the way down, and thanks to him I get to step in boot prints, which save me from what would otherwise be ankle-deep snow. Once past a grueling steep section of trail, the hike turns into a wonderful saunter on top of a level ridge, through patches of blackberry, now just purple canes sticking out of the snow (but how many berries I’d eaten in August 2016 when trying to thru-hike the 35!). I also recall my first barefoot hike on Bearpen, when I’d gotten confused about the shortcut, but this time I just follow the bootprints all the way to a vantage point near the summit, where I admire northern vistas of sun and shadow and for the first time pick out the Schoharie Reservoir in the distance. Then I turn off the trail and plunge into ankle-deep snow in order to cross the actual summit of the mountain, which is located a short distance away in the forest (evidently the boot-shod hiker did not do this). Deep snow gets a little painful, and I’m practically running through the forest, but once out on the trail again, my feet are fine (a little cold, but not numb, and a little red color showing that plenty of blood is flowing). I keep shoes off and enjoy the walk down, trying to identify the peaks of the Blackhead Range to the east through leafless trees, and making sure not to slip where the trail turns steep.
After Bearpen, it’s back in the car and off to a parking area where there’s a two mile hike to the Shandaken lean-to, and now my heart is sinking, and it’s not because of the cold, rather it’s the sore knee and a little bit of a groin strain that are weighing on my thoughts, and I’m dreading the climb to Big Indian and especially the bushwhack to Doubletop. It’s a huge relief to reach the lean-to, but my sterno can is just about out, and dinner is limited to a lukewarm cup of tea. I shiver through the night (despite wearing all my clothes), which suggests a warmer bag might be a good idea. The next morning the decision is made, the ascent is aborted, and instead it’s off to town for a hot breakfast.
I decide to finish the day with a shorter, easier climb, and the trail to Slide Mountain fits this bill. It’s 25 F at the trailhead and a little breezy. This time I head up in spikes in 4-6″ of fresh snow, with the trail a little more packed, pausing to tie down one set of spikes which keeps sliding off the front of my shoe. Warmed up by the start of the climb, and re-energized by the breakfast, I strip off shirt and sweater and head off at a steady pace, using trekking poles to keep strain off the knee.
Looking down at my feet, the trail is littered with seed-containing samoras and three-pronged bracts that have fallen from the female catkins on yellow birch trees. Once into the boreal fir forest, it’s scales from the fir cones that dot the snow. It’s a pleasant walk through a snowy forest, and as the trail reaches higher in elevation, and the snow is thicker on the branches, it feels a little bit like moving through a cave.
Once I reach the 3500 foot elevation sign, I start ticking off the remaining 700 feet in 100-foot increments (as displayed on my GPS watch), altogether feeling pretty comfortable except when the breeze catches me.
At the summit is waiting an extraordinarily beautiful scene. Tall, robust fir trees — beautiful “tree people” dressed in their finest white coats — are standing watch over a small clearing and rock ledge which bears a memorial plaque to John Burroughs — and above them a break in the clouds reveals turquoise blue sky shining calm and serene. In Accepting the Universe, Burroughs wrote that “The sun and blue sky are still there behind the clouds, unmindful of them.” This was a metaphor for how life must include both good and evil, health and sickness, pleasure and pain. How remarkable to find the summit of his favorite mountain in total agreement.
The return trip is uneventful. I stay shirtless, although my hands get cold, so I give in and put on mittens. Back at the car, I happily layer back up and turn on the heat full blast.