After attending a two-day course in basic mountaineering skills with Attitude Montagne, I decided to test my new skills on my first mountaineering adventure to Mt. Colden in the Adirondacks in March 2013. It would not be my first climb up a mountain in winter (I had done two day-trips in Chamonix) however it would be my first time sleeping outdoors at -20C in a lean-to with four men I did not know!
Climbing Mt. Colden, NY
Mt. Colden, NY is located in the Adirondacks and stands at 1,427m. It is not the highest peak in the area but it does offer its challenges for first-time mountaineers. You can do the climb in one day however it is more enjoyable to take two days; day 1 is the approach and day 2 is the climb. The approach is an 8 km walk in the backcountry (carrying all your gear) and there you can stop and find a place to sleep in a lean-to. There are quite a few lean-tos however they are taken quickly so you may have to spend time wandering in the dark from one to the next until you find a place to sleep.
The next morning you rise early to start your hike to get up the Trap Dyke couloir before the sun touches the ice and snow. This couloir requires some skills in ice climbing, is known for avalanches and has claimed a few lives and caused serious injuries so it is important to be well prepared and set-out early in the morning. Once you arrive at the top of the couloir, you must then climb to a plateau that will take you to the summit of Mt. Colden.
The plateau is completely exposed and offers no cover from the wind and sun however we were lucky and had an amazing day with beautiful climbing conditions. We used ropes to climb this portion of the mountain since part of this trip was to practice our rope skills however some climb this section without the use of ropes (it all depends on the weather and snow conditions so use good judgment).
Once at the summit we enjoyed a nice lunch and walked back down using the trail and arrived at our lean-to in time to relax, enjoy a nice dinner and spend our last night gazing at the stars. Overall this was a great introduction to mountaineering and winter camping!
Things to consider
Buying vs. Renting:
I did not have all the required gear as this was my first time on this type of adventure. I went to my local outdoors store and combined buying and renting. I bought items I knew I would probably use in other activities (down jacket, crampons, helmet) and rented other things that were expensive or that were activity specific (ropes, climbing boots, compact sleeping bag for cold temperatures). This helped me save money and get high quality rental gear vs. purchasing sub-par equipment to save a dime.
Pack what you need…no more:
My pack was so heavy and I felt like a turtle; if I fell on my back I would be hopelessly stuck and not be able to get back up! I packed way too much food and clothes. I think that is a common mistake of many first-timers so make sure you can actually lift your pack and test it out a few days before.
Because I waited until the last minute to reserve my rental equipment, the store only had sleeping bags for -12C however the nights turned out to be -20C so I froze the first night. Make sure your sleeping bag is adequate or you will spend a very uncomfortable night out in the woods. The cold kept me up most of the night so the climb was really hard the following day.
Another reason I was so cold the first night was because I slept in the same clothes I wore to hike to the lean-to and they were humid. The following night I wore dry clothes and it made all the difference (granted I was still a little cold but not as bad as the first night). I also took the lining out of my boots and slept with those in my sleeping bag so they would be warm and dry the next morning. Of course, if they are wet from sweat I would not recommend that. I also started my hikes with fewer layers and added as required. I only needed my down jacket at the summit when I started to cool down.
If possible, take a Level 1 course in mountaineering and learn the basics. Not only will it give you more confidence on your climb, it will also make the climb more enjoyable for yourself and others. I spent hours practicing my knots in the days leading up to the climb so when I was at the mountain I was not fumbling around. My hands get cold really easily so I have to wear mittens instead of gloves so that makes it more difficult to put on crampons, attach ropes, etc. I even practices putting my gear on with my mittens!