Without a doubt, I say with great certainty that despite all of the backpacking, camping, and hiking trips I’ve done, I’ve never done one in more extreme weather than the trip I just returned from today. Organized by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Backpackers group on MeetUp, this “short” little trip on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail ended up bring a very brutal weekend in the woods.

As the trip approached, I watched the weather report for the region settle to chilly 10 degrees F at night. I was due for a winter bag upgrade, so I went to REI and picked up a new Marmot Sawtooth as well as a fleece inner liner. To make sure that I was in good shape for the weekend, I spent Thursday night out on my back porch in Level Green with a low temperate of 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Sustaining the night comfortably with only a base layer on, I decided that as crazy as it might be, I was equipped for the night on the Laurel Ridge. My friend Sean, from Siemens, came along for the journey.

The hike’s total was about 6.25 miles in both directions, and in a different season, would most certainly be a scenic, easy, and peaceful hike. However, poor planning on our part left us hiking the total distance over snow that averaged at 12″ inches deep, and blew in to some drifts up to 24″. Most of the group had the foresight to bring snow shoes, but we stuck miserably trudging over the snow on foot.

The above map shows the trail as recorded from my GPS. For those of you that have attended our parties at DPM’s cabin, the Lone Pine, or have come swimming with us at Blue Hole, you can see both in the lower section of this map. Note the North indicator in the upper right.

As we climbed up in to the mountain in Sean’s WRX, we witnessed the storm picking up and by the time we parked the car and started preparing to set off in to the wilderness, we were already being batted in the face by gusts of wind carrying nearly horizontal streams of snow. The picture above was taken just a few minutes after we arrived and you can already see how covered our gear and the car became.

Laurel Ridge state park has a convenient little webcam that we used to track the snow all week leading up to the trip. At the beginning of our hike, there was already about 8 inches of base snow, but the snow was accumulating at almost half an inch per hour during our hike – constantly batting us in the face with sharp little ice crystals. Surprisingly, the temperature was never our biggest inconvenience during the trip – the snow stability was by far the worst element. Without snow shows, the few of us traveling without snow shoes ended up exercising rarely-used muscles in our hips to keep our stability, and by the end of the trip in, we were on fire with muscle aches.

Finally after getting to the shelters, we built a toasty fire, made some food, carried wood, and eventually became frustrated with the constant chilling gusts and dropping temperatures, so the group consensus in our shelter was to set up our sleeping bags and climb in for some protection from the elements. In our shelter was Sean and Tom, another Siemens employee from a different division that had corresponded with me before the trip. I was most worried about being comfortable at night, but between my insulated sleeping pad, cold-weather down sleeping bag, inner fleece lining, fleece outer layer, synthetic sweat suit, and hydrophobic base layer, I stayed within the range of slightly-cold to comfortable during a night that dropped down to 5 degrees Farenheit. (Wind chills were as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit.) Although in many multiple bursts, I managed to get a reasonable nights’ sleep.

In the morning, although begrudgingly, we quickly made breakfast and coffee, packed up, and hit the trail before 9:00am. This is me cooking up some coffee in the morning.

The trip was very challenging at almost every moment, and required a lot of effort to maintain a safe temperature, stay hydrated and fed, travel in and out, and survive the night – the best part of the trip was the accomplishment we were all proud of, but most moments during the trip were spent reflecting on how much improved the trip would have felt if we had attempted it two months in the future, or at least had the foresight to bring snow shoes. Somehow, despite the trouble caused by snow, we were still grateful for the infinite views like this:

The trip out of the forest was just as difficult, if not more so. After all of abuse on our joints, the last mile (you’ll see below that the last mile includes quite a climb), required multiple breaks to cover the distance needed. The constant barrage of snow over the 24 hour period left Sean’s car looking like this:

Here are elevation maps and some stats for both of our trips. The 1% downhill grade made the trip to the shelters relatively easy, but the accumulated distance and uphill grade of the return trip made for a very tiring and dehydrating trip home.

Track Log from Rt. 653 to Grindle Ridge Shelter (.gpx)

Track Log from Grindle Ridge Shelter to Rt. 653 (.gpx)

When it was finished, Sean and I were glad we made the trip, but while we were being pummeled by mother nature, we were a little less optimistic. I love this part of the trail, and I’ll do several trips this summer when the weather breaks, but without snow shoes, I simply wasn’t equipped for an easy hike this weekend. Still, we dumped thousands of calories, got a giant refresher from mother nature during a long winter, and had a gratifying, challenging experience in the woods that I won’t need to repeat for a few years. 😉