Savoring the Solitude of Mountains in Winter

 

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. ...

Each step of snowshoe on crusty snow echoed through a dazzling ravine in New Hampshire’s White Mountains the other day, the only sound except for the occasional squawk of a coal-black raven circling in a cerulean sky and the huff of my breath expelling clouds of vapor in the frigid air.

Prisms from an early-morning sun danced among sharp shadows of swaying evergreen boughs as I worked my way down the steep Sprucewood Path, en route to a vast expanse of trails maintained by the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation that many consider some of the best for cross-country on the East Coast.

In past years I’ve skiied down the Yodel Trail directly from our hilltop hotel to the cross-country center in Jackson Village, but because of this week’s icy conditions I feared I would be doing a lot of unintentional yodeling on the way, and so opted for mountaineering snowshoes outfitted with crampons.

It was a rewarding decision — not just because I avoided slamming into a tree or sailing off a ledge, but because I enjoyed a short stretch of solitude in the mountains.

Don’t get me wrong — I always enjoy the company of friends and family on outdoor adventures, but every so often appreciate lone excursions, when solitude can heighten sensory experiences.

A few years ago I spent a week, mostly alone, as a winter caretaker at a remote, mile-high hut north of Mount Washington, and while it was lonely and intimidating at times I felt more intimately connected to my surroundings, more acutely aware of nature’s raw powers.

During that caretaking experience I hiked alone toward the frozen summit of Mount Adams at sunset just as a parhelion, or sun dog, materialized in the heavens, a halo-like glow caused by sunlight filtering through ice crystals in the air. Part of me wished other people had been nearby to share the magical experience, but another part was elated to have had the meteorological phenomenon all to myself.

Nothing on my brief sojourn along the narrow, twisting Sprucewood Path the other day came close to the euphoria of a sun dog, but I did experience a simple sense of serenity.

Soon I reached the bottom of the hill in Jackson and crossed onto the wide, well-groomed trails. There I met my family and switched to cross-country skis. As we glided along the Ellis River Trail crowds of other skiers swept past.

Happy faces, cheerful greetings, laughter. It’s all good.

 

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