Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Our Latest Column for the Northcountry News

Ah, the annual holiday issue. With that in mind, here’s a little something different from Tom & Atticus – some ideas for the winter hiker on your holiday list.

Two or Three Headlamps: In winter, it gets light later and gets dark earlier. Spend enough time on the trails and you will hike sooner or later with a headlamp on. One will fail sooner or later, so bring extras. And always bring extra batteries. A headlamp serves the additional purpose of head protection. Yes, head protection – for when your spouse wants to slap you upside the head because you have the bedroom light on at 4:00 a.m. while getting ready for your hike.

Balaclava: You’d be warm, but also considered the biggest dork in your neighborhood if you wore a balaclava to walk the dog. Fear not, there’s nothing dorky about face protection on a frozen, windy day above treeline in the mountains. As a matter of fact, it is essential. A balaclava protects much of your face from frost bite and serves the additional purpose of making all photos look that much more dramatic. Stand on a mountaintop with a balaclava on and those back home looking at photos of you will understand immediately how dangerously cold it was that day on the mountain – even if it wasn’t. (A little drama never hurt any story.) And of course, if you are like me, balaclavas have a slimming effect when they cover up that double chin.

MSR Snowshoes: More often than not I see city folks in the mountains post-holing through deep snow with crampons on and I’m thinking, “What the hell?” Yes, snowshoes are far more commonly needed than crampons but folks don’t see them as sexy. They watch television shows on climbing Everest and they have an image of what they want to look like when they hike to the top of any of the White Mountains. That image consists of something more manly than snowshoes. They even look so much more dangerous than snowshoes with their big jagged spikes. (And believe me when I tell you they are, as many novice winter hikers will tell you when they gash one of their legs with their own crampons.) The beauty about MSR brand snowshoes is that they are far more aggressive than regular snowshoes when it comes to climbing. To attest to this, I’ve climbed each of the mountains in the Presidential Range at one time or other in snowshoes. Sure there will be times when you need crampons, just not as much as the egotist hiker will tell you. You want to look sexy? Hike in a thong.

Carbon Graphite Trekking Poles: Most hikers will tell you they use trekking poles to ease the impact on their knees while coming down a mountain or for balance while crossing icy rocks in a stream or traversing a snow field high above treeline. That may be so, but the real use I get out of them is that they give me something to hold onto when I can’t go any further and I’m cursing my body for being out of shape while my head hangs in defeat between my slumping shoulders while my arms are extended outward holding onto the pole handles. Usually the phrase that accompanies such a position is “I will never hike another #@@$$%$%! mountain for as long as I live! What was I thinking?” If the poles weren’t there, I’d fall face-first into the snow and look even more pathetic. (The carbon graphite versions are extra light weight and extra strong, if you happen to be like me – extra large.)

Microspikes: These things are fantastic. No they are not as sexy as crampons because they are ‘micro’ and not big manly spikes, but there are times when neither snowshoes nor crampons are needed but you need some traction for good footing. They slip on over your winter boots with ease and come off just as easily, even while you are wearing gloves. They can also be used as a marriage aid. No, not talking about you folks into S & M here, but they will give you a good grip on the ice on your walkway and driveway back home so you have no excuse not to take out the trash even in the iciest of conditions, which will help keep your home life ice free.

Wool Socks & Ziploc Bags: I know you are thinking this is just downright silly but trust me, they are needed. Sure you need one or two pairs of wool socks on your feet in a winter boot, that’s easy to understand. Socks serve other purposes besides just keeping your feet warm. They can work as extra mittens if – God forbid – and emergency arises. They can be used to keep your water or Gatorade from freezing up in your pack. Slide the full bottle in upside down and tuck the stuffed sock into the middle of all your other gear. If that doesn’t keep it from freezing, at least having the water bottle upside down will ensure the freezing takes place at the bottom of the bottle. As for Ziploc Bags, they are the most important of all pieces of winter equipment for they carry those wondrous miniature Snickers bars. Unwrap them before going and put them into the Ziploc Bags so you won’t have to take off your gloves to eat; then stick the little bags where they are easily accessible.

Dog Gear: The best protection you can give to your dog in winter is to not put him or her into a dangerous position. However, when you’ve determined it is okay to bring your own Atticus out in the winter there are two pieces of gear I’ve found to be of great help. The first is his set of Muttluk boots ( I put them on my little hiking partner when the snow is loose or the ground extra cold. When on ice, I take them off him so he can use his claws for traction. Muttluks are also great for summer use above treeline. All too often dogs leave a trail of bloody paw prints behind because their owners haven’t put much thought into their care. The other piece of equipment Atticus uses is a body suit that comes from K9 Top Coat ( Sure he looks like a perverted Aqua Man with his paws and privates revealed for all to see, but everything else is covered with fleece on the inside and neoprene on the outside. I use it on extra cold days, or when he has to trudge through deeper snow. In all fairness, I should point out that Atticus hates to put these things on, but once they are on he does very well with them. He is, after all, a nudist by nature, but I have no doubt he still appreciates this gear.

These are only a few things you need when hiking in the winter. When shopping for them, remember the independent retailers closest to you. Stand by the little guy who gives back to your community whenever you can. But no matter where you get your gear, be safe out there. The mountains can be dangerous.

1 comment:

Beth said...

Great post and reminders along with essential humor. I've missed regular posts from you and assume it's because you are busy with your book. Happy Winter, Tom and Atticus.