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a moonlight hiking trip report of the 2002 Leonid meteor showers
Last year for the Leonids, I had an incredible experience just 10 minutes from my house and about 10 miles north of Boston [trip report]. There were rumors that this year’s shower might be as good or surpass last year’s except for the full moon problem. With the weather report giving a “mostly clear” window of opportunity for exactly the length of the two peak shower times in this region, I took up my friend, Kem’s, offer to join him and his 14 year old daughter, Gillian, on a night hike up Mt. Watatic, the 1,832’ mountain in southern NH at the southern end of the Wapack Range.
We left Lexington, MA at 9:05 and drove directly to the mountain. The weekend storm that had drenched the Boston area with around 2” of rain, was an ice storm and then an ice/snow storm the further north we went. As we drove, we were just hoping that it was more snow than ice on Watatic. My friend guessed that we would be the only car at the trailhead. Given the crowds I’ve seen on the top of nearby Mount Monadnock on other similar nights, I guessed that there would be a total of three cars at the trailhead as we drove up. My friend’s daughter concurred with me.
As we drove, we noted with irony the one sign for both LEOmister and LUNEnberg given the goal of the evening was to hike by moonlight and watch the Leonids.
The trailhead was a mess of previously slushy tire tracks, now frozen and not slushy at all. My car was the only car in the lot. Gillian, immediately upon exiting the car, found a great flat patch of unspoiled snow and proceeded to demonstrate her mastery of the perfect snow angel.
It was probably 10:15 or so when we started up the mountain. With only a 1.1 mile hike to the top, blazed with yellow markers, we hoped to make it to
With the full moon and the snow on the ground, the landscape was lit up and we didn’t need our lights. There was an inch or two of powdery snow on top of an inch or so of crusty ice on top of more snow. When we started, it was easy to follow the trail of footprints from those that had been there before us. We didn’t even notice the blazes. Where the trail was not steep, it offered us good purchase.
The ice storm brought quite a few branches down and a few trees, too. These and the steeper sections that didn’t hold footprints led to a number of times when we lost the trail on the way to the summit. When we realized we had lost the trail, we would take turns scouting ahead to see if we could pick up the trail again. There were times when we were scouting in multiple directions from a single point to try to find the trail. We finally resorted to using our lights to try to keep track of the footprints on the trail.
At one point, we had to backtrack a few minutes to a place where we had seen some other tracks branching off in a different direction and followed those. These led right up a fairly steep pitch. It was on these steep sections that the icy crust got too thick to kick steps. None of us had brought our crampons, and I had left my Sorels at home and was only hiking in trail shoes. There were a few dicey sections where we had to bushwhack past some steep exposed slopes and stay in the adjoining woods where there was enough snow to gain purchase.
Thankfully, it was cold enough though that the snow was staying dry and it remained thin enough that it wasn’t getting in my shoes.
We finally noticed we were on a blazed trail and managed to follow the blazes past the “shelter”, now just a roof and part of a floor, and up to the summit. The few times we got “lost” meant we didn’t get to the summit until ~11:45pm. A bit later than we had intended.
We quickly set up our pads and sleeping bags on the icy summit and crawled in. The moon was high in the sky so we tried to mainly look north. We were rewarded with quite a few meteors trailing long and colorful tails. We knew to expect fewer meteors at this hour, but the ones that appeared did tend to have long tails or skip along the atmosphere.
By 12:30, Kem set his alarm for 4:00 and I set mine for 4:30. We didn’t want to miss the morning peak period. We all tried to get a few hours of sleep. At 4:15 or so, a lone woman came strolling past us on the summit. Kem exchanged pleasantries but by the time I extricated my head from the confines of my sleeping bag, she had continued on her way. I suspect she was headed for the east peak.
At 4:30, I start looking for signs that the meteor shower is picking up. It was slow at first but quickly gaining strength so I woke my friends so we could all watch the show. The show seemed to come in groups. First a flurry of activity right in the center of Leo. Then a bunch streaking off to the north. I caught a glimpse of only one large enough to be considered a true fireball.
While watching for meteors, we also caught sight of five satellites, all on polar orbits.
Another early riser out to watch the meteors passed us around 5:00. It occurred to me that there must now be three cars in the parking lot. I guess we all guessed the parking situation correctly, in one sense or another.
Things definitely seemed to be peaking just after 5:30 and we were definitely seeing more than one a minute for a period. Frequently, there were a few in just a few seconds, and then nothing for a minute or two.
Dawn was coming and the eastern sky turned an incredible rust red. Slowly it continued to brighten and offered an amazing backdrop to the ice encrusted branches of the summit bushes.
Nature called and it was time to start packing and head down the mountain. We could see the places where we had gotten “lost” the night before. At one point, it was obvious we had been on the trail but turned around and followed the wrong trail up. Thankfully, they all lead to the summit. It was also obvious that had we looked, we could have seen that we were following the blaze markers for the entire way up the mountain.
Ah well, live and learn.
The entire descent, even with me slowing down on the steep slippery sections to try to keep my knee in one piece, took about one hour.
This year’s shower, somewhat washed out by the full moon, was not quite as spectacular as last year’s seen just a few minutes from my house. Seeing the shower, however, from the summit of a snowy ice-encrusted mountain, with the full moon to ascend by, the spectacular sunrise to descend by, and the company of friends not daunted by getting “lost” in cold wintery conditions, certainly made for a much more wonderfully memorable trip than my solo trip last year to a neighborhood park.
I was using my 20 degree Big Agnes Zirkel and REM Air Core pad as well as an additional closed cell foam pad. Initially, I tried to just put the BA system on top of the closed cell foam pad, but the air circulating was still too much to retain my body heat. I eventually put the closed cell foam pad inside the Zirkel and immediately felt warmer.
These are the temperatures I wasn't sure if I should even take the Air Core pad. I'm concerned that the buildup of moisture in the pad with the freezing temperatures could spell trouble if/when crystals form in the pad. FWIW, with temps topping out in the 20s all night, the pad held most of its air (following a recent fixed leak) and the cold did not present any difficulties when deflating the pad in the morning.
When lying on my back I do feel like the insulation along the sides of the Zirkel where it meets the pad leaks a bit. Also, maybe it’s just because I’m a woman and have different physiology or tend to sleep “cold” in general, but on more than one occasion with the system, my hips and butt have gotten cold. Last night, I was wearing long johns, and fleece tights on my bottom, and long john top, microfleece sweater, and my MEC Northernlite jacket inside the bag. I also made use of my Design Salt silk liner.
Additionally, I kept my water bottles in my bag with me, and with those acting as hot water bottles, I was still cold on occasion. I suspect the temperature last night was probably hovering right around the 20 degree mark. If it really was much colder than that, then the bag did OK. If it was warmer, then the bag was disappointing. At 20 degrees, the bag was OK as long as I bundled up inside of it.
I didn’t sleep all that well, but that was mainly because of the wind coming across my exposed cheek and nose. When I covered my face with my silk liner, my face was warmer, but I really hate the stuffy and claustrophobic feeling of breathing inside the bag. In general, I would avoid breathing inside the bag, but knowing I would be coming home and be able to let the bag dry, I wasn’t too worried about the accumulating moisture.
In the morning, all of our bags were frosty, especially around our heads. My pack which had been right next to my head and downwind also seemed a bit frostier than it might have been had I left it either upwind or further away from my head where I was exhaling warm moist air.
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