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The Joys of the Great Outdoors in Winter

Published 12/01/2010 12:00 AM

While descending Lonesome Lake Trail near Franconia Notch in New Hampshire's White Mountains last winter, my friend Phil Plouffe and I edged aside to let a group of snowshoers pass on their way up.

Three or four shuffled by, nodding their heads in appreciation of our small courtesy, but just as we prepared to step back onto the path another ascending handful, and then another, rounded the bend, so Phil and I clambered back onto a rock to wait beneath a canopy of ice-encrusted spruces.

After more than 20 had gone around us we began to feel like car passengers held up at a railroad crossing while a mile-long freight train passed. No matter, though, Phil and I weren't in a hurry and used the break to take off our packs, munch peanuts and brush snow off our parkas.

Finally, the last snowshoer plodded past, and Phil and I resumed our descent.

There was nothing remarkable about encountering other outdoor enthusiasts on the trail, but we observed one detail that would have been unusual not too long ago: About half the snowshoers were women.

These days more women are taking to the outdoors, even in winter, and a growing number of organizations and adventure travel groups are taking advantage of the trend.

A variety of tours and events throughout the Northeast and beyond cater to women looking to snowshoe, cross-country ski, ice climb, camp or hike in the winter woods. Some organized trips are for families, including moms and kids, still others for singles of either gender and others are exclusively for women.

"It's a completely different dynamic when all-women groups are hiking and camping together," said Sally Manikian, an experienced outdoorswoman and backcountry resource conservation manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club in Pinkham Notch, N.H.

Men tend to plan their outings by establishing a leader who reviews the plan, then makes his decision. Women typically reach decisions by consensus, Manikian said.

Either process works, but sometimes women traveling with a mixed-gender group feel pressured to "go along with the guys."

"I can't underestimate the value of women leading women," Manikian said. "One of the benefits of women leading women is that I feel like I don't need to explain myself. Learning from other women, there is an immediate understanding that we are both meant to be there."

Women traveling together in the outdoors are also more comfortable discussing topics such as hygiene on the trail, she added.

I met Manikian a few years ago when she served as winter caretaker of Gray Knob, a tiny cabin nestled at 4,370 feet in the Alpine Zone of New Hampshire's Northern Presidential Range.

I was on a writing assignment to spend a week as a temporary replacement caretaker, and Manikian lingered a couple of days to show me the ropes before she headed down the trail. She led me through a variety of chores: posting daily weather reports relayed from the nearby Mount Washington Observatory, keeping the cabin and outhouse clean and secure, and collecting overnight fees from hikers staying at Gray Knob as well as at Crag Camp, located four-tenths of a mile away down a snow-covered trail on the edge of King Ravine, and at The Perch, a three-sided lean-to seven-tenths of a mile away overlooking Cascade Ravine.

The three buildings, owned and operated by the Randolph Mountain Club, are among several White Mountain camps open in winter to hikers. A few winters ago Manikian noticed an interesting phenomenon at Gray Knob: More than half the guests one night were women.

"I was really psyched," she said.

The caretaker serves as an innkeeper, making visitors feel comfortable, but also keeps track of their whereabouts in case of accidents and medical emergencies on the mountain, where winter winds can roar above 100 mph, temperatures often plunge below zero and snow piles up yards deep.

There are few amenities inside the cabin - because firewood is in such short supply in the Alpine Zone you almost never light the wood stove, so the indoor temperature often dips into the teens.

There's a propane stove for cooking that must be used sparingly; when the tank runs out every month or so the caretaker must carry it down to the road, drive 15 miles to a store, get it filled, return to the trailhead and then haul the 40-pound canister 3.2 miles up a steep, icy trail back to the cabin.

In addition to having served as a caretaker, Manikian, who earned a master's degree in international political theory from the University of Wales, attended law school, worked as a newspaper reporter and drove a team of sled dogs for guests at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods.

In her new job with the AMC, she oversees 15 caretakers at various shelters and hopes more women join the ranks.

Of course, you don't have to be a caretaker or experienced mountaineer to spend a winter night in Gray Knob or in other AMC shelters at Lonesome Lake, Zealand Falls and Carter Notch. All are accessible via relatively easy, well-traveled trails that usually don't require such technical equipment as crampons. The website also describes what kind of gear and food to pack, which varies from hut to hut and season to season.

For many women, and men, simply hiking or skiing to one of these shelters and spending the night is an adventure; others use them as staging grounds for more ambitious hikes into the mountains.