Friday, January 12, 2018

Pete Nelson: Thirty Below on Big Crow

Last Saturday night was the coldest night of the winter so far in Keene. Cold even by old-timers’ standards. These kinds of temperatures descend with considerably less frequency than they used to, and I hate wasting rare opportunities, so I concluded to rise early and take in the most frigid air of the year with a hike.

I awakened with the temperature still bottoming out and headed for the Crows, overlooking the Keene Valley, in order to watch the sun rise on a crystal clear, bitterly cold morning.  For fun I counted twenty-six items of clothing and footwear I put on before I stepped outside.

I drove up O’Toole Road as far as it was plowed and climbed Big Crow with the temperature at thirty below.  As many hardy Adirondackers know, this is a level of cold where you experience your breath freezing as you exhale, so that you can actually feel it snowing on your chin.  Closing your eyes is also a risk, as you face the possibility that on any given blink your eyes will briefly freeze shut, as mine did a few times.

My writing ability is nowhere near equal to the beauty I experienced this morning.  I’ve never quite seen the like.  Just as when it was full a few days ago, the moon remained unusually bright. It was still high in the sky as I started my climb, glowing intensely and bathing the snow with a blue-white hue.  As I achieved the first open ridges the morning light began illuminating the higher peaks to the west in pinkish-gold, yet the snow around me was still blue-gray with moon tint and the surrounding greens of the balsams popped out in contrast. I had to pause every few steps on the way up just to stand quietly in the middle of it all.

Once I was on the summit I watched the sun, redolent in its distinctive winter yellow, ease above Hurricane’s ridge and stream its rays past me. The sunlight briefly dueled with the blue-ish moonlight, combining in a salmon color that made all the white around me soften into a pillowy, textured blanket of peach cream.  This lasted no more than a minute or two, but I’ll remember it for considerably longer. It was sublime. I love the Adirondacks in all seasons, but winter by far the most. Not even the peak colors of fall can offer a radiant tapestry like this.

As one might expect with such cold, it was piercingly clear atop Big Crow.  It seemed that the outlines of every snowbound tree were visible along the Great Range and the large rock faces and slides of Lower Wolfjaw, Gothics and Saddleback, diamond hard and cold, seemed chiseled apart from the surrounding palette of pastels. The cone of Whiteface, doused with hoar frost, jumped forward from its blue-sky background as though it were close enough to me that I might hit it with a well-placed snowball. But there were no snowballs in the offing: all was either gossamer powder with chest-deep drifts or wind-blown crust, crisp and crunchy-hard against my spikes.

The woods had been still on my ascent, but the summit offered a breeze which knifed into my face and clothing layers with the precision of fine cutlery. My eyes had grown a little watery at the immensity of the sunrise that had enveloped me; as a result now my sight was being made fuzzy by lenses of ice draping from my lashes and my cheeks were feeling as though a frozen razor had been pulled across them. Reluctantly I turned away and descended, sliding and stumbling downward, falling, grinning, shaking off snow and slowly warming again. By then the forest was everywhere illuminated by shafts of sunlight, glinting off ice and lending an illusion of warmth to the frozen trees.

Now I’m home, and as I write this the temperature has risen to minus 25, destined to climb throughout the day to near freezing tomorrow. With the warming will come a dose of snow and Whiteface’s runs will surely call to me. But for now it is a morning of bright sun, pure, wind-blown powder in our front yard and vivid shadows on the Cascade Range.

It is understandable that some curse Adirondack winters, and all of us know to feel empathy for those who are cold or distressed. We know to express our admiration and patience for the women and men who labor in artic conditions to keep roads clear, fuel supplied and power running. We think of the numerous emergencies caused by the weather, and the people who must meet them. The damage these temperatures can do is no joke. I think of the time Amy and I had a house freeze in Wisconsin – ironically, while we were on winter vacation here – resulting in thousands of dollars in damage.  I cringe in knowing solidarity with the many stories of burst pipes in the regional news.

But at the same time I am grateful for the humbling, arctic beauty of an Adirondack winter like this one. On the next cold snap I’ll be out there, in the darkness and the light.

Photos: balsams against sub-zero morning blue; the author at the end of the hike.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

20 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Great story! One Christmas morning when I was a kid we woke up to the thermometer at our house in Saranac Lake maxed out at 45 below. The weather service said it was just 31 below (a record low for that day) but it was colder! Nobody’s car would start!

    Check it out two years later it was 85 degrees warmer that day (54 also a record high)!

  2. Bill Joplin says:

    Lovely writing, Pete!

  3. laurie says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve missed your Dispatches.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Hi Laurie:

      Thanks for the kind reference to my Dispatches. Their absence stems from no loss of interest on my part, believe me. I have a list of a few dozen I’d like to write. It’s just that since I actually moved here I’ve been buried in working lots of things I used to write about. I’d really like to write these more often and your kind words and those of others are gratifying and motivating, so I’ll try harder.



  4. geogymn says:

    I also had the opportunity to take a couple woodland walks in this extreme cold. The beauty and aura are impossible to articulate but you did a darn nice job of it!

    “Nothing gold can stay” Frost

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Thank you for this comment, and especially for sharing Frost’s line which shows the brilliant things a great writer can do in four words. What an evocative, multilayered thing he said.

  5. Barbara Franklin says:

    Love how you catch the moments not just a he overall experience. Beautiful writing
    Now I have to get motivated, both to write and dare to take that hike

  6. Joe Bergen says:

    Loved the scenes you painted here, felt like I was there without having to go out in that.
    But-smart to do that solo?

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Hi Joe.

      Big Crow is a short one, only 0.7 from the trail head, about a mile total from where I had to park the car. I highly recommend it if you’ve not done it. Given cold like that you can be sure I informed my wife of the route and timing.

      Although, truth be told, I go lots of places solo.


    • Boreas says:

      “But-smart to do that solo?”


      Good question. “Smart” can be a relative term. Properly geared-up and with as many safety precautions taken as possible, apparently nonsensical solo excursions such as those described above can be both exhilarating and life-affirming. In a previous life, I used to choose to ski, snowshoe, and camp in these conditions. I can’t say it was smart, but it was usually fun and memorable. No bugs, no mud, and little competition for tent sites!

  7. Robert R. Worth says:

    This is a thrilling article, about a hike we have often taken in summer, but never at dawn, at 30 below! A great photo too. Thank you so much.
    Bob Worth

  8. W. Davis says:

    Eloquently written.

  9. I really connected with your well written descriptions. What a fine writing technique you have. Thanks for posting this. I miss the Adirondacks even though I am nestled in among 5 and 6 thousand feet mountains here in east Tennessee. There’s just nothing quite as spectacular as the Adirondacks.

  10. Harv Sibley says:

    Fabulous story… safe on those solitary treks.

  11. Jeanne michela says:

    I enjoyed this story, it almost made me feel like I was there. I also think winter is the most beautiful season in the adirondacks and you are lucky to live there.

  12. Mark Obbie says:

    Beautiful writing as always. I second the motion for more Dispatches, which this reminded me of.

    Sidenote: Dude, they make goggles and balaclavas.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Hard to tell from the picture, but that red deal is a balaclava, ill-used.

      I still owe you your prize, which, now that I live here, can be collected in a wide range of possible dates and times. It’s a minimum of half a day to “collect” it.


  13. Linda Kloczkowski says:

    Pete, I think your writing ability was just fine. I felt as though I was with you on the trek up Big Crow and took in all the beautiful colors the sun, moon and sky gave you. Thank you for your eloquent style and a glimpse into what you took in on that sub-zero morning, I’ll bet you were thankful to have on every one of those twenty-six items of clothing and footwear! Love the pic of you also!!
    Keep on giving us great articles to read.

    Linda K. Cicero, NY

  14. Charlie S says:

    There’s something about the extreme cold that draws me too Pete. I do my half hour walks in the mornings (hours before sunup) but there are mornings I just am not up to it. That -30 degrees must have been the morning it was -10 degrees where I live and this was one morning I did not want to miss my walk and so I got my half hour in on the coldest morning of this winter (so far.) Plus I stood out in it for a long length of time afterwards. The days are so few that the temperatures get this low (maybe not up there in the Adirondacks) and there is such an added charm to the early morning’s when it does. I always take advantage of the extreme cold days….while I am able. Thanks for sharing this.

  15. Mike Marzullo says:

    Big crow is such a pleasant little jaunt! Great story ?

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