Saturday, February 21, 2015

Who Says Camping Is A Summer Sport?

From below the bottom bunk in the guest room, tucked behind a large plastic bin filled with kayak paddles and ultralight cookware, came a beckoning. Cautiously, like the sound of hope when it's first forming, something called to me. That something was my tent. 

Immediately, I thought: Great. I haven't camped in awhile.

Then I thought: That's because it's January. 

Pshaw. One can't let things like extreme temperatures and the possibility of hypothermia stop one from having fun. Besides, I'd been wanting to do a backpacking trip in the snow for awhile, so the timing of my tent's beckoning was perfect. First though, I had to find out if there was any snow. While much of the country, especially the Northeast, had been breaking records with their amount of snowfall, Oregon, and specifically Mt. Hood, was experiencing a snow drought. For example, we hadn't had any significant snow since right before Christmas. Clearly, I needed to assemble a reconnoissance team for snow level information, and as luck would have it, two friends were coming into town the following week. Friends, who for whatever reasons, tended to say yes to my ideas and often believed I knew what I was doing. Well, one friend anyway; Meg rather quickly vetoed snow camping and opted to stay home with the hot tub instead. However, she did agree to hike out with us the day before our trip to gauge the snow. Camping in the winter requires a lot of gear and I intended to supplement our backpacks with a sled full of it. However, first I needed to be sure the white stuff was on the ground for pulling a sled with no snow didn't sound very appealing. 

In addition to checking out the snow conditions, I also wanted to cache firewood. Knowing nightfall and the cold would come early, I understood we would need a fire unless we planned to be in our sleeping bags at 5:30 when evening and the temperatures plummeted making for a very long night in the tent. True we would be in the forest with wood all around, but it was also true that winter, delicate as it was this year, had come to Mt. Hood and said wood would likely be covered with snow. I had no experience starting a fire in the snow with wood that had spent the previous three months soaking up precipitation. No, we needed dry wood while out there in the backcountry, alone under the stars and convening with nature, so we stopped at the grocery store and got some.

Diana, Meg, and I at the trailhead
The next day with backpacks stuffed with timber, we started out on the Pacific Crest Trail- the very trail Cheryl Strayed herself walked years before in search of herself and the meaning of life. A heavy undertaking to be sure, but every time we slipped on a patch of ice or once again adjusted our many layers of clothing, the fact that Strayed did her hike in the summer when the trekking was easy wasn't lost on us. I'm sure some of you are thinking, yeah, but Cheryl Strayed hiked 1,100 miles; you guys only hiked eight. Please. We hiked in fake UGGs and snow pants. We pulled a sled and carried packs. We made yellow snow. Cheryl Strayed was in shorts and a t-shirt. Someone helped lighten her pack along the way. Furthermore, she skipped the snow. So, don't let the mileage fool you.

Meg, gamely carrying firewood for us.
Once we reached our destination, we considered whether or not to cache our wood for the night. Upper Twin Lake looked like it'd been deserted for days, but still, we felt it prudent to hide our only heat source just in case someone else planned to hike to 5,000 feet in elevation on a Wednesday night in January to camp for the night. Certainly, we didn't need anyone to spot our wood and conclude that the forest service had begun a new program in which they left bundles of dry firewood around Mt. Hood specifically for the convenience of winter campers, and therefore, burned it. So, we hid our grocery store wood under a mess of downed brush and hoped we'd see it the following day. Snow camping rule #1743: Don't take any chances with your firewood. 

Wisdom agreed.

By the time we finished making our wood the most stealth wood on the mountain, the sun was starting to set over Twin Lake. The reconnaissance trip a success, we snapped a quick picture and took off for the car. We still had to go home and go through gear for the actual Snow Camping Trip the following day. Now that we knew there was snow we felt more comfortable calling it that. 

Going through gear is one of my favorite things to do. When aiming to keep a pack between 22-25 pounds, it's a fun challenge to choose what's coming into the backcountry and what's staying at home from the comfort of the couch. I love examining each piece of equipment, considering its purpose, and determining if it makes the cut. If you don't already have a hobby that requires going through gear, get one. There's something extremely satisfying in the tangibility of choosing exactly what you think you'll need to accomplish your goal. I bet it's less than you think. Plus, you get to buy stuff. A lot of stuff.  

With gear sorted and packs packed, we left the comforts of home and hot tub the next day. Diana looked blissfully happy, Wisdom looked ready for adventure, and I don't know what I looked like. Maybe someone who could've used more sleep? At any rate, we were off.

At the trailhead, we loaded the sled and donned our packs. The sled was necessary because winter camping required an entirely different set up. The tent was sturdier; therefore, bulkier. The sleeping bags were rated to 10 degrees and bulkier too. Our sleeping pads had a high R-value; therefore- you guessed it- bulky. Our clothes were bulky too. Everything required space and lots of it, including our alcohol stash. After all, who knew if the wood we hauled up the day before would still be there, and we needed something to ensure our warmth.

An advantage to snow camping: no bugs. Another advantage: snow camping provides solitude and inspires a sense of accomplishment; it encourages one to trust in their own survival skills. Their own survival skills and the lucky star they were born under, that is.

Despite a couple of sled mishaps and downed trees, we soon had our lunch eaten and the tent pitched. Life was good in the snow. 

We spent the afternoon sipping whiskey, walking in the woods, and trying to get award winning photographs with our phones. What do you think? Did we get one?

As night fell, we were happy to find our wood where we left it. After an incredible amount of persistence, determination, and downright will, we got a fire. I tell you- it's no easy task building a fire on ice covered rocks in what was essentially a dug out snow bank in below freezing temperatures, but we did it. And it was delightful. 

As was our crab chowder cooking in the kitchen.

That night in the tent, we both felt the cold, but it wasn't too bad and didn't last too long. The key to being a happy snow camper, we decided, is having the right clothing. As they say, "There's no bad weather, only bad gear." 

We woke up the next morning feeling proud that we tried something new, something that few people do. Snow camping had been on a back burner of mine for awhile, but I could never quite pull it together. This trip reminded me of something I hadn't thought about in awhile: life is long and our best dreams sometimes take what feels an eternity to happen, but when their moment arrives, you know. You hear that tiny voice with its fledgling hope calling to you, softly at first as it takes hold and gains steam, eventually, consuming your being in the best possible way. And if you're lucky enough to have a friend who says, yeah, I'll come chase down your dream with you, know it will only be all the sweeter. 

1 comment:

  1. ...... "An advantage to snow camping: no bugs. Another advantage: snow camping provides solitude and inspires a sense of accomplishment; it encourages one to trust in their own survival skills. Their own survival skills and the lucky star they were born under, that is.".......
    SO TRUE, Lisa! Well said. Pictures are AWESOME!! Love you XO