Winter hiking a ‘transformative’ experience

Enthusiasts cite peacefulness, beauty and uncrowded trails
Mary Zawacki stands near the top of Dix Mountain last week; inset: Dustin Wright, left, and Adam Nichols.
Mary Zawacki stands near the top of Dix Mountain last week; inset: Dustin Wright, left, and Adam Nichols.

As she prepared for her first winter hike back in December of 2017, Schenectady’s Mary Zawacki was convinced she wasn’t going to enjoy the experience.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘this is going to be horrible, I’m going to be freezing, it’s a big mistake,'” said Zawacki, who was part of a group led by pastor/avid climber Dustin Wright of Rotterdam that went up Windham Mountain in the Catskills that day. “I hadn’t even realized that winter hiking was a thing. I didn’t even know that people did it.”

It didn’t take long for Zawacki to realize what Wright and others in the group had discovered a while ago. Winter hiking can be something special.

“Within 10 minutes of starting our hike I was taking off my gloves and hat,” remembered Zawacki, executive director of the Schenectady County Historical Society. “I was having fun on the hike, and when we got to the summit it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It was a real transformative experience. Being on top of a high peak in the Adirondacks or the Catskills during the winter is a whole new world.”

For Wright, senior pastor at the Messiah Lutheran Church on Guilderland Avenue in Rotterdam, the joys associated with winter hiking became clear during January of 2015.

“I had cabin fever more than usual that winter so I did a few hikes and I loved it,” said Wright, a Connecticut native who came to upstate New York from the Philadelphia area in 2014. “I quickly realized it’s not nearly as crowded as it is during the summer, and while you get a grew view in the summer, approaching the summit in the winter with a light snow falling is just a wonderful experience. To be out in the peaceful beauty of the wilderness this time of year, well, there’s nothing else like it.”

Wright and Zawacki are young, in their early 30s, and very fit. Wright has run a couple of half-marathons, and Zawacki is an avid cyclist. While that certainly helps them, it’s not a prerequisite to becoming a winter hiker according to Wright.

“I’m not a super athlete by any stretch of the imagination,” said Wright. “You have to have a certain level of fitness, just to make sure you’re safe out there, especially in the winter, but anyone who’s in reasonable shape should be OK. If you get tired turn you just go back. When you don’t, that’s when the trouble begins. People do stupid things, and that ends up putting them at risk along with others in the group. If there’s an issue you just turn back. The mountains will be there another day.”

While there may be a few more risks involved in winter hiking, there are also a few more costs. Nothing, however, that makes the hobby prohibitive. Among the particular items you may want to purchase are snowshoes, micro-spikes or crampons, a first-aid kit and a compass. One should always wear plenty of layers and avoid cotton fabrics, and don’t forget to pack a flashlight, plenty of water, and snacks.

“Compared to a lot of other winter hobbies you could try, winter hiking is not expensive at all,” said Zawacki, who like Wright is a member of the Adirondack Mountain Club and a 46er, which means they have climbed all 46 peaks in the Adirondack State Park that are over 4,000 feet. “Once you have the basics, like a good coat and boots, that’s all you really need. You don’t have to worry about buying a lift ticket. You just get in your car and you go.”

Eighty-year-old Bill Clock, a Rotterdam native and Glenville resident, has been getting in the car and going to the woods since 1965. His love of the outdoors and mountains of New York and New England has helped keep him young for a while now, and there’s very little letup during the winter.

“If I don’t get out and hike somewhere my whole mind starts to deteriorate,” said Clock, who worked at the RND Center in Niskayuna for more than 35 years. “I get fidgety. Getting outdoors  clears my mind and gets me away from my problems. It’s a psychological boost, and it’s even more so in the winter. The cold weather doesn’t bother me. My father used to tell me, ‘if you’re gonna do something, don’t let the weather stop you.’ And as far as I’m concerned, you haven’t really been out in the woods until you’re out there in the winter.”

Adam Nichols, a 48-year-old Rotterdam native and Golub Corporation employee, is a relative newcomer to serious hiking but has packed a lot of climbing into the last three years. He only recently became a member of the 46er club, and is on his way to becoming a winter 46er.

“I started hiking in the winter because some of my friends were doing it, and one of the things I liked about it was there were fewer people on the trails,” said Nichols. “In the wintertime there’s more of a fraternity of hikers, and we all seem to know what we’re doing, unlike the summer where you might come across anybody on the trail. And during the summer you don’t see the beauty of a fresh snowfall. You get near the top and it starts snowing, and it’s just incredible.”

The Department of Environmental Conservation has a number of safety tips on its web site, but nothing beats common sense and going with a partner. Another aspect of winter hiking Zawacki enjoys is the descent. Sometimes it can be a lot easier than during the warmer months.

“If there’s enough snow, you’re not worried about tripping on rocks on the way down,” she said. “You can also slide down much of the way. I’ve gone down a mountain in the summer that took two hours, and during the winter it took a half hour. It was so fast it was thrilling.”

Spending a night in the mountains requires a whole other group of essentials, but Zawacki says she’s got no interest in that.

“No, I like getting down the mountain and then having a great dinner,” she said. “I don’t want to spent the night in the cold.”




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