Freezing in the PA Canyonlands

Resting on an uphill battle, Brian’s breath was freezing to his beard.

I knew it was dangerous cold when I saw Brian’s breath freezing on his beard, icicles dangling in crazy free-form shapes. And the first time we stopped, cresting a ridge before starting a half-mile, 1,000-foot descent into a canyon wild area, the mouth of my water canteen was iced over requiring me to chip it open with my knife.

This was the most incredible string of icicles, like a diamond necklace dangling in the wild.

We had yet to experience the full measure of cold.

I had not been back to the Chuck Keiper Trail since August 2001 when I hiked about 12 miles with my brother-in-law. The trail was a wild place that summer. Thick clouds of fog from the West Branch of the Susquehanna River filled the forested canyons, giving  intrigue and adventure to every overgrown trail bend. A crazy bat circling our camp. A torrential downpour. A lazy, lumbering porcupine. And my first rattlesnake sighting.

That trip endeared me to the Susquehanna’s northern “canyonlands,” which is why I convinced my friends that we should see it in winter. In the midst of a very cold first week of 2017.

Snow squalls blew in as we began our hike and despite the rising sun, the temperature never went above 10 degrees (that I’m aware of) while we walked the trail. Brian’s and Josh’s water bottles nearly froze solid. My water was well on its way to freeze until I decided to place it inside my jacket**. That was a good move. My body heat thawed it and I was able to drink freely. (**Hiker Tip) The other guys weren’t as lucky, fighting ice just for a few sips.

A snow squall drifts in from the northwest over the Letterman Wild Area in Sproul State Forest at the trailhead for the Chuck Keiper Trail.

When we reached out first-night destination on a three-night journey, it was apparent from the rapidly dropping temperatures that we needed to get shelter and a fire going immediately. We couldn’t move fast enough. But we built a nice triangular tarp lean-to shelter with an open center, kind of like a piss-poor built teepee. Luckily we were able to close it off from wind using old tarps left at the site by those less worried about their impact on the forest. (When we broke camp the next day, we packed out what we could and organized the rest to make it less like a garbage dump.)

The hammocks were strung, the fire slowly building in the cold evening, struggling against the icy ground and the biting chill of the air. You couldn’t keep your hands out of your gloves for more than five minutes or you found your fingers going numb, literally flesh-cicles, and serious pain as they rewarmed. The temperature was easily below 0 degrees. I tried to filter water. A plastic part on Josh’s pump broke in the cold. We needed to boil it.

We settled in and made dinner. Steaks and potatoes for the guys. I grilled Cajun sausages, chased it with a boiling spring-vegetable Cup-O-Soup, and warmed some naan bread over the fire.

My new chemical pellet stove was a mostly efficient addition to the pack.

The chemical pellet stove my wife bought me for Christmas worked well, but in those temperatures it started slow and took two pellets to boil one 2-cup mug of water. I wasn’t expecting that. Josh had problems with his gas stove, too. It was sputtering and he had difficulty lighting it.

As we settled in for the night, it became clear: This was a new type of cold weather camping. The lowest temperature I had previously camped in was -9 degrees F, but we had tents.

This time, I ventured out to relieve myself and stopped at the tree 20 feet from the shelter to check the thermometer I earlier placed there.  The small key chain device read -10 degrees. Wind chill put it well beyond that. (I forgot to photograph the thermometer.)

Even with a nice crackling fire, it was just 20 degrees Fahrenheit inside our shelter.

Inside the shelter, at my hammock, the second thermometer read just 20 degrees only about 5 feet from the fire. The rocks next to the fire read just 100 degrees.

The other guys had sleeping bags rated for such temperatures, but mine was rated for only 32 degrees. I bought a SOL emergency bivvy sack for the trip, and was glad I did. As we settled in for the night, I pulled the bivvy up over my sleeping bag, and cinched the drawstring closed around my face. It was a balmy 70 degrees inside that cocoon and I soon drifted off to sleep. Three hours later, I stoked the fire and then returned to my bivvy for another two hours of sleep.

By 5:30, I was awake, rekindling the fire. We ate breakfast quick and packed up. The temperature was not rising so we needed to step out onto the trail to warm up. Josh and I were refreshed and raring to go. But Brian was quiet and looked a little pale

Then he began dry-heaving and spitting, on the verge of vomiting the little food he had for breakfast. “Yeah, I’m sorry guys, but I don’t have another night in me,” he said.

We quickly deduced Brian was suffering some kind of stomach or flu bug and it would be best to hike out to the car rather than risk his health in another sub-zero night on the trail. When we reached the top of the mountain, he picked up cell-phone service and learned his wife and kids at home also were sick.

Soaking up the sun’s rays on the hike out.

When we reached the highway, Josh dropped pack and walked the road back to the car to pick us up. I sprawled out on my back, propped against my pack, boiled a mug of water and made some coffee. Brian suffered quietly against his illness until we were once again sheltered in a truck, cruising along at 50 mph.

You never really know what to expect when you go out into wild places. A four-day journey can easily turn into just one night, ending with a sick friend and no real options other than to bail. That’s OK. We slept in conditions most other people shudder just to hear about.

And it’s fun to tell them, watch their jaw drop with the words “-10 degrees, no tent” and have a gut-laugh as they visibly shiver. Even a failed trip can be worth it in those moments.

Enjoy some more photos from our trip below!

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