Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mt. Gilboa: Shoulda Brought my Snowshoes (And some climbing gear)

Mt. Gilboa

February 8, 2009

Distance: 13 miles
Location: Somerville & Arlington, MA
Sights: Minuteman, Puddles, & Mt. Gilboa Conservation Area
Difficulty: Easy (except climbing the cliff

It seemed odd that it was dangerous since I had brought my proper climbing gear – Reebok running shoes and my bike gloves. About halfway up the icy cliff I realized this might have been a bad idea. The foothold above me was sketchy, at best; and, there was no way down. I had no choice but to scramble to the top from here.

The cliff I was climbing was Mt. Gilboa, in Arlington, MA. Its namesake is a hill in the Jezreel Valley of Israel. It was here (in Israel not Arlington) that Saul lost his battle with the Philistines, and, “therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it” (1 Samuel 31:5). Gilboa is also known for its distinctive irises, which grow only on its ridge.

Once I had struggled to the top, there were no irises in the winter snow (and, fortunately found no Philistine heavy infantry). I did find two things though. First, there was a great view of downtown. Then I looked over and found an easy path up the side of the hill. Apparently, I risked my life for nothing.

Easy Trail up Gilboa

Sunday was a brief Indian Summer – 45 F and sunny. It was a perfect excuse to take out my new bike, Schwarzfahrer on its first long ride. Literally “Schwarzfahrer” means “black-rider in German. The color of the Trek FX 7.1 is black; therefore, it makes sense. But, idiomatically, it means a person who rides the subway without paying his fare. Thus, when I commute to work with it – I’m a “Schwarzfahrer.”

So, I set out on my bike planning to ride the Minuteman into Bedford and then the Narrow-Gauge Trail to Billerica. The total ride was to be 31 miles. The Minuteman is the jewel of the Rails-to-Trails in Eastern Mass. It’s 11 Miles from Alewife Station to Bedford Depot. Along the way one can stop in Arlington Center and at the site of the Battle of Lexington. The Narrow-Gauge Trail, I’ve never ridden and this seemed like a good time to explore it.

The Indian Summer had caused one major issue – melting. The two feet of snow we’d gotten in the past three weeks became puddles on the trail. Between Alewife I found one 60 feet long and about 6 inches deep. Then some points of the puddle weren’t even puddles but ice hidden under a thin layer of water. At points Schwarzfahrer was not a ride but a poor icebreaker. In front of the Bike Stop (The Bike shop on the Minuteman), it was another 30 foot-long puddle of ice!

Ice Sheet in Front of the Bike Stop

For better or worse, I fought through each of these spots – mostly for worse. But at Bow Street the town stops plowing the Minuteman. Indian Summer or not, There was still a foot and a half of snow on the rest of the trail. So, I removed myself to the road. At this point, I had no clear idea where to go. I meandered the streets of Arlington – taking the most challenging hills I could find.

This eventually led me to the Mt. Gilboa Conservation Area. I dismounted Schwarzfahrer and started walking down the trail. About halfway across the park I saw it. There was the cliff I had to climb! After that adventure, I was wet and tired. So I rode back to Davis, hit the Mexican place and went home to watch the stupid Pro Bowl and eat a quesadilla.

View from atop Cliff

Map of Ride

Monday, February 2, 2009

Yurtin' for Certain: Or, Jamming on the Yurt! (1/3 - 1/4/2009)

Yurtin group

The Nissan Maxima sputtered a bit climbing higher and higher up the Kancamagus Highway between Conway and Lincoln. Coming the other way, skiers in luxury SUVs and various other vehicles crawled down the icy road leaving Loon Mountain. Jim commented, “I’m definitely going to build my own yurt.”

“Well, you’ll need plenty of musk-ox hide,” is all I could think to comment.


“Yeah, I think the Mongol’s yurt walls were made of musk-ox hide.”

With a laugh Jim responded, “If I see a musk-ox, I definitely get its hide.”

You’re probably thinking one of two questions – if not both: “What the **** is a yurt?”; and/or “Why the hell were you guys talking about yurts?” To the first question, a yurt is the western name for the portable hut the Mongols and Turkics of Central Asia used. The walls are made of felt from sheep fleece that are stretched over a frame of willow. (Notice, it’s not musk-ox at all. As a matter of fact there are no must-ox in Asia; maybe I was thinking of yaks?) They have slightly pitched roofs with an opening in the center to allow the smoke from the hearth to escape. The Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi went North on a diplomatic mission and was deeply impressed by the relative luxury and the ability of the dwelling to withstand the varying weather of the Mongol Steppe.

Tanka of the Yurt
after Bai Juyi’s “Sky Blue Yurt

Thousand sheep of felt
Drawn taut as Agincourt’s bows
Over willow frame.
Boreas’ blows shake it not
And warm does my yurt remain.

Mongol Yurt
Today, many westerners use the yurt design as an outdoorsy structure. It is an excellent mix between tent and cabin. Jim and I had just stayed outside of Fryeburg, Maine in a yurt with Tnarg, Laura, Patrick, Michelle and Emily. Our yurt was not transportable. It was about 12-15 foot in diameter with walls of a lattice work of pine, maybe. The outer wall was not fleece (or musk-ox or yak for that matter). Instead it was a plasticized canvas. Except for a bathroom, the yurt had all the amenities of a cabin, including wood-stove, a propane cooking stove and beds that could sleep eight.

Upon arriving at Frost Mountain Yurts, we parked the cars and found the key to our yurt. The yurt is still about an eighth of a mile into the woods, so we loaded cargo sleds and pulled them into the Maine Woods. Once the gear was in the yurt, we decided to go on a snowshoe hike before the winter sun set.

Hike One: Frost Mtn. Summit
Date: January 3, 2009
Distance: about 2.5 miles
Height: 1,211 ft (369m) (about 700 ft elevation gain)
Location: Brownfield, ME
Type: hike (snowy)
Sights: White Mountains, sunsets that “look like Jupiter”, sledding
Difficulty: Easy

The snowshoe trails leave right from the yurts sites. After a quick walk back to the cars, we made our way up the old logging trail into the hardwoods. This part of Maine is on the tail end of the White Mountains region, the snow was densely packed where we used the snowshoes very little, but the crampons on the shoes considerably; Jim did not even use his snowshoes, only wearing his cramp-ons.
As far as mountain hikes go, this was a quite easy. There were two or three parts that I would call moderate, but they were few and far between. At the summit, we all gathered at Sunsets Rocks. Looking almost due west, there were spectacular views of the Presidentials as the ice and snow glistened in the low sun. While we had lost Jim originally, he caught up with us at the top. Apparently he returned to the yurt and grabbed two sleds for the return trip.
With the sun quickly dropping behind Mt. Washington, we decided to return the way we came, rather than finishing the loop. This put us on the northern slope. About a third of the way down there was a great view of the ponds and lakes in the Fryeburg/Brownfield region. The refraction of the setting sun produced purples and oranges reflecting off the glacial ponds. They were of almost unnatural color. Jim commented it looks like Jupiter.

Back on the old logging trail, Jim decided we should sled. He took the saucer and made a great run of about 100 feet down the mountain. I then took the full sled and leapt forward in a Cressida/skeleton run. I passed where Jim had sled to, made a jump and BAM I was going down the hill with my yurt hat flapping in the wind. In what seemed a five minute ride (and probably only like one), I thought I’d make all the way to our yurt. Off course once I said this to myself I was stopped in a snow bank and Jim-in-saucer was right behind.


Date: January 4, 2009
Distance: 4.8 miles
Altitude: 3800ft
Altitude gain: 1800ft
Location: Mt. Washington, NH
Type: hike (snowy)
Sights: White Mountains
Difficulty: Moderate

In the morning the seven of us left the yurts. The other five went back to Portland while Jim and I headed back to Boston. As we headed toward North Conway, I asked “Is there another hike we can do while we’re here?”
This set in motion a fantastic hike. Jim, the backwoods-rock-climbing man knew of several up in the White Mountains. But, based on time and effort, he picked out the perfect one.
We drove into the Presidential Range to Pinkham Notch at the base of Mt. Washington. Jim gave me some spikes and after attaching them to my Bean Boots and going through some complicated tying of nylon rope around them, we were off.
It’s only about 2.5 miles from the base at Pinkham Notch to Hermit Lake. But, it is pretty much straight up. Winter hiking is a new thing for me and I didn’t quite get how much the spikes were helping – that was until we passed a couple without them. They were slipping on the packed snow and ice while I was merely tiring from the uphill.

The hike brought us to the Hermit Lake shelters, which is the common place to end ones hike. It is also the jumping off point for skiers and ice climbers. We had chats with groups of each. It’s still another 1500 feet and 2 miles to the summit of Mt. Washington. This summer I definitely plan to do it.

Portrait of Patrick - or Oliver Cromwell; I get them confused all the time