By Morgan Reitmeyer and Group
It was around 2pm that we got off track. Both our travel angels watched over us as the early snow whomphed below our skis, cracks running from side to side along the steep slope. Early in the day, up above tree line, we had seen a pink dawn roll onto the rock and leave white snow blazing hot orange. Later we saw rabbits running across windswept crystal crusts, leaving cursive notes ahead of our tracks. We crossed under huge peaks with looming shelves of ice, and held off the cold by breaking trail. But at 2pm, after a wrong turn navigating in the high country, we found ourselves following the contours of a sheer mountain. By 4pm we were finally pointing the in the right direction for shelter and safety, but several valleys over from our goal. At 5pm I watched the sun set, and knew that our path back to the relative security of the highway was still long. Weaving through trees at dusk, finally postholing in the dark with a blessing of a full moon rising over us, and slogging through snow up to our waist as we tried to navigate a gully, we made it to the highway. By 8pm, while Sean called highway patrol, I had crawled into an emergency blanket and was wrapped in a sleeping bag. I was cold, but not sure if I was shivering from wet boots or the survival of a close adventure, foolishness, winter and wild.
Growing up in Colorado, I am comfortable with the mountains in spring, summer and fall. There are rules, and if you follow them you will likely be safe. But those mountains are wild, and I am properly frightened when I encounter the slow echoing heart of her, of my mountains, in the unforgiving corners– and winter is all unforgiving corners.
That night, safe in a hotel room and Sean sound asleep next to me, I counted our day in the high country a good day, but it felt prudent to get more winter knowledge. When Sean later suggested that we take a winter camping class I quickly agreed. The Colorado Mountain Club Winter Camping School is extensive. There are three nights of interactive class, going from 6pm-9pm each night. During these classes the instructors taught Sean and I about the clothing to wear, the importance of staying dry, the amount of calories you need to eat, and the theory of snow shelter building. The lecture nights culminated in an evening presentation where members thrilled us with travel tales about glacier crossing, climbing Mount Rainier and Denali.
We then had two field days which consisted of going out into the winter day to make snow shelters. Here is how you make a snow shelter:
First, you find a spot that would be a good place to build. In selecting location you want somewhere not too windy, not too shady, and certainly out of the way of snow dragons (aka avalanches) for your winter palace– and as pictures show, it is a palace. You can have full kitchens, complete with tables and benches, elaborate bathrooms, fine nooks and hidden entrances to your sleeping quarters, all crafted of compressed crystals. Before you build, however, there is some labor. Once you have chosen a spot you probe the snow with a long specially designed winter snow probe. This tells you how deep the snow is (4-10 feet deep) and if there are major things under it that will come as a surprise later (surprise! a tree! surprise! a boulder). Now you stomp. You stomp in your snowshoes for an hour, jumping up and down, maybe with a gear on. Your goal is to pack the snow, making it a stronger and better building material. However, the result is your body eating itself. When you are working in the snow your body is burning calories. Not only are you carrying the weight of extra gear, extra food, and the remains of Christmas on your body, you are also burning calories to keep warm. Food equals warmth in the winter– around 6000 calories a day. After bouncing on the surface of the snow (and you must have on your snowshoes or you sink instantly to your waist), and eating, and making water by melting snow and rehydrating, you begin digging. Now you hollow out this space to make a burrow, a shelter, a place to hide when the sun sets. Now you dig and cut the snow with special snow saws, pulling out blocks and stacking them into fantastic, complex structures. About four hours into this process you have a snow castle.
We learned all of these things, all of these details that you need for the winter not to eat your tiny, naked monkey self for lunch. I was more confident that I now knew the rules for winter, the guidelines to stay safe.
Then we camped and I met with the winter that had been stalking me months before on the high ridge.
The first night that I went winter camping I was cold. There are several reasons that I was cold, none of which were the fault of the winter camping school. My sleeping bag was not rated for the temperatures we reached, as the night was down around zero. I did not eat enough (only 4000 calories). Our tent was not the perfect tent (which we now own). These are the many normal reasons that winter camping is a challenge.
The real reason that I was cold, however, was the huge, cavernous, relentless, night of winter surrounding me in crisp, aching darkness. Winter night is jumping into the ocean when you know there is nothing below you but water and black for miles. Winter camping is when you walk up to the edge of a cliff and feel the echo of a canyon and your own quick breath. Winter camping is what, I imagine, the first moment stepping outside of a space shuttle would be like. It is quiet, so quiet that you can hear the winter pushing all around you. Even when you have gained knowledge, in the winter you are small. In winter night you will listen, and feel cold, and feel small, and feel wild. If you are anything like me, you pull your lover close and listen to the mortality and immortality of winter, counter rhythms of a massive mountain heartbeat.