One of the great ironies this weekend is that those who brought snowshoes (Bear Run) didn't have enough snow for them, while those who left their snowshoes at home (Hammersley) probably could have used them!
I knew we were in for it when, after an uneventful drive up to Cross Fork, PA, we pulled into Deb's to find the parking lot full of snowmobiles! Seriously, about 30 of them. I promptly got my car stuck in the parking lot. We pushed it out. Well, by "we" I mean, Will, Jimmy, and Karan pushed. Anyway, we got the car out.
Chris (Hobbit)--a local from the Susquehannock Trail Club--promptly joined us as we had lunch. And boy, he did not disappoint. With his Zpack and his stripped down load, he was way lighter than all of us! I hope, in a year or so, I can walk into the woods, anticipating temps below zero, with a load as light as that one! It goes to show that the "more you know, the less you need." Chris is really at home on the Allegheny Plateau, and it shows. I don't think I've ever seen anyone pack that light when it's that cold.
(Our packs were in the high 20s to low 30s range--light for the negatives, but heavy for us. I was certainly carrying the heaviest one. I became quite conservative with temps projected to be that low and carried my 4-season tent as well as my -25* F bag. Still, the weight was no more than 30-ish. Again: Texan.)
After drinking a few beers--three times now, I have yet to do that climb out of Cross Fork dry (it's a tradition)--we started the trip with temps in the teens. The moment we stepped over the guardrail and into about 12" of snow, I knew we were going to have a time of it. The snow was light and dry and every step took us to our calves or knees. Still, we five were all strong, and we plowed gamely up the slope, taking turns. DC UL was built to go do stupid things, and were proving it. I jokingly asked, "Think we'll see any other backpackers?" We did not.
Down we went along Elkhorn Hollow, where we camped last Memorial Day. Here the STS turns north, and we turned south. I think we all felt some trepidation as we left the orange blazes, and the trail ... But Hobbit's instincts were right. There is a beautiful wide spot of ground just to the south along the Hammersley. I asked Hobbit if people camped here often. He said, "As far as I know, no one had ever camped here." I was dreaming of future thru-hikes.
(I pitched my tent on a nice flat spot that turned out to be a frozen braid of the creek. Ice makes a good tent pad!)
We pitched. The stars and the moon came out, and we settled in for a long winter's night. Early in the morning, the trees popped repeatedly, and we emerged from the tents to find the Hammersley almost frozen. Hobbit's thermometer read -5*, though back in town we heard tales of -10*! It was cold. Savage had to use pliers from his Leatherman to pull stakes from the ground. I dipped my hydroflask in the creek, only to have it emerge with the droplets of water freezing instaneously!
(FWIW, the alcohol stoves worked great at -5*F.)
At 8am, we started backpacking south, Hobbit in the lead. We immediately climbed a steep slope to find an old disused CCC trail. Then came a stretch of awkward side-hilling in the powder, with lots of slips. I shambled along like a mummy--if only one leg was three inches shorter than the other. Cow Run and Dump Hollow passed by. We descended to the valley of the Hammersley, saw traces of porcupines, crossed the river on a suspension bridge where once there was an old CCC camp. We walked north towards the confluence of the Bell and Nelson Branches. In the early twentieth century, there had been a logging town here.
But we were moving slowly. All strong hikers, it was the best we could manage to do just over 1mph through the powder. Every step was a struggle. Hobbit stated that his hip was bothering him. Karan became worried that his feet were freezing--it was still very cold. I had never heard Karan express discomfort before. Alone, I was reluctant to lead us on the bushwhack over Cow Run. Maybe we could have done it, maybe not. We turned back, trying to make good time so that we could have a fire and have Karan get his feet into his down booties.
I glissaded down that steep slope I mentioned. Turns out that glissading in a Pennsylvania hollow is not such a great idea. Too many trees. But I survived.
Thanks to GQ, we did have a lovely fire, and we enjoyed the conversation and the camraderie as it began to snow. That night it dropped to 2* F ... And by 7:30am, we were all eager to return to the trail and to Cross Fork. All of us felt old and slow and heavy climbing up Elk Horn Hollow. All of us vowed to go to the gym more often. A trivial ascent, but in that powder, nothing was trivial. On the plateau, there was 14" of snow in spots.
The descent was a joy. GQ fell on the road and kissed the pavement. Karan said that we had clocked 18 miles. That may be among the toughest 18 miles I've ever walked. Off trail at times, in bitter cold, and in deep powder! I began to dream of spring! Still, DC UL is built to go on stupid adventures. Mission accomplished.
That said, this trip really confirmed my love for this place. There is great exploration to do in the Hammersley ... And I am going to go back this spring to walk the loop Hobbit and I envisioned ... When I don't need snowshoes and heavy winter gear!
Thanks to Savage, GQ, and Karan for toughing out this ill-considered adventure. And special thanks to Hobbit, for sharing his expertise with us! We had a wonderful group for plowing through the snow. And most of us set "new lows" (for coldest night out) on this trip!