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A date with Mr. Winter
by Tom Stewart
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Before you start whining, think about it. You go backpacking all year long, especially in the fall because, "It's my favorite time of year." It's already cold enough in the mornings to freeze your nose drippins'. Then, when the snow falls, you sit inside and long for it to be warm enough to go backpacking again. Shame on you! Get off the couch, pack up and get out!
I remember my first winter trip. My friend, 'Slim', and I decided we were going to, "Just do it!" I had a collection of junk that I carried over from my Cubscout days. An old aluminum frame, no pack mind you just a frame. Slim hadn't much better. I tied my sleeping bag on, hung an old army knapsack on top, strung my canteen over the side and away we went. I looked like a traveling junk salesman. It was the best trip I've ever had and the worst trip I've every had. Each trip I've went on since was a learning experience. Like the way a dog learns. OK, I won't do that again. So anyway.... a reluctant friend of mine, Greg, hauled our unknowing, young carcasses off to the trail head to visit Mister Winter. We were going to leave Slim's vehicle at the terminus of our journey. Our plans were to hike to it. Total commitment when Greg dropped us off and left in the second vehicle. The first indication of being in over our heads was when the road leading to the trail head was only passable in a snowcat. Not to stop us though. Slim started at the bottom with the motor screaming and the snow a flyin', dumped the clutch and took off in one of the best '68 Chevy pickup slaloms man has ever seen. The second attempt was even more awe inspiring. The third attempt was the gold. We made it. Our journey would begin. I don't think I'll ever forget the solemn look Greg gave us when we closed the door and started walking away. We were glad he had faith in us. The hike went basically uneventful because we had to keep moving for fear of freezing to death. Our knowledge of winter camping was to say the least, molecular. Blue jeans and plain old cotton long underwear. You know the kind. Keeping my feet warm was a constant struggle for me. Slim, on the other hand, had the amazing ability to walk all day in knee deep snow with plain old leather Danner hiking boots, one pair of wool socks and swear up and down that his feet were warm. I hated him for that. To keep my mind off of my freezing feet, I let my mind drift to thoughts of a sitting before a raging fire sipping the cheap wine I had brought along and laughing at Mister Winter. It turned out to be a beautiful day, for winter. It snowed all day. We stopped frequently to snack, take in the beauty of winter in the mountains and for me, to warm outer extremities. It was late in the afternoon when we reached a campsite. The sun was slowly going down and we were about to settle in for a visit in Mister Winter's living room. First mister Winter tested our putting up the flimsy little tent skills. It was a cheap little thing that I got for Christmas one year. It had four piece poles, the kind without the shock cord inside. Each pole had to be put together in a certain sequence then slid into a nylon tube. Putting it up at home in the pretty green grass of summer was enough of a chore. Now we had to master it with frozen fingers and Mister Winter breathing down our necks. We finally got it put up but, the reality of the situation still hadn't set into our young and blithe minds. I still have the poor flimsy thing. I take it out from time to time, look at it and chortle quietly to myself.
With the tent ritual finished, we crammed our collection of toys inside and crawled in. We laid down in our shoddy sleeping bags trying to get a feel of what we were up against. All of a sudden, we heard fumbling and mumbling coming from behind us. "How the heck do you get in this thing?" Someone asked.
"This side," We shouted. We unzipped the poor thing and an authoritative looking man with a Smokey Bear hat on poked his head in. It was Ranger Bob. He was making his rounds checking his roster. He looked around at our collection of junk and said matter-of-factly, "You boys are gonna freeze. Why don't you stay in one of the shelters?" He asked seriously. The shelters were three sided lean-tos. Each one had a wood floor to keep you off the ground and a nice big fire place in front. They sounded cozy. "Nah, we'll be all right," We said trying to be tough. "It's not that cold out." I think we both actually thought we were prepared for what was about to come.
"Ok", Ranger Bob said as he left shaking his head, "if you get cold don't be afraid to use one of the shelters. "What does he know we thought? Only babies use shelters." Besides, it wasn't like we weren't going to have a fire. Ranger Bob was gone. It was time to start the festivities. There was wood to gather, a massive fire to build and real cheap wine to drink. When we decided that we had enough wood to build a fire big enough to be seen from space, we stopped gathering and started lighting. It's amazing how quick and how big a fire can become when coaxed with white gas. We sat around the giant fire chugging wine and talking way into the night. We laughed at how easy it seemed. There we were sitting before a raging fire in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter warm and toastie and having fun. "Anyone can do this." We thought.
I really don't know what time it was when the wine was all gone and falling into the fire became a real possibility. We again crawled into our frail shelter. We were both still cozy from the roaring fire and cheap wine. We slid down into our ratty sleeping bags and prepared for all that Mister Winter could muster. I was a little concerned. Earlier we had laughed in Mr. Winter's face. I quietly prayed to myself. At some time during the night, I suddenly awoke to find that Mr. Winter was trying to get into my sleeping bag with me. "That dirty bastard," I thought. I pulled the corners of my sleeping bag toward my shoulders and tucked them in. "Try it now! You swine," I chuckled. I was again fairly warm with my pants, long underwear, wool socks, parka, and hat on. Basically everything I brought along.
Another few hours of tossing and turning and I awoke to Mr. Winter sleeping soundly up against my back. It was too late, I was his. I let him spend the rest of what was left of the night with me. The morning came none too quickly. It was time to shake the invader from my sleeping bag. It is amazing how one small bottle of five and dime wine can make you feel so lousy that Mr. Winter almost feels good cuddled up against you. Mr. Winter punished us both badly that night for scoffing at him. Things could have been worse though. While doing our stretching, dry heaving and straightening out routine, we both noticed a giant widow maker perched precariously on a limb directly above our tent. Mr. Winter has a sense of humor.
Well, I hope you learned something from my adventure. I certainly did. Some points to remember; Anything you don't want to freeze sleep with it. That includes boots. Good winter boots are a must. There are many kinds. Some claim to be better than others with thinsulate and Gore-tex. Me, I've tried the thinsulate and Gore-Tex. My feet still felt like frozen blocks of wood. I've found from experience that good old pack boots with felt or synthetic liners work wonderful for me. The liners pull right out, fit in your sleeping bag easily and make for toastie slippers in the morning. For other boots, take a stuff sack, turn it inside out, put your boots in it and cram it to the bottom of your bag. Don't scrimp on a sleeping bag or sleeping pad. A good insulated sleeping pad will keep Mr. Winter from giving you a cold back massage. A good mummy bag could mean the difference between being snug and sharing the night with Mr. Winter. Make sure it has a draw string around the hood and a draft flap to cover the zipper. You'd be surprised how much cold can seep in through a zipper. Always check above for hanging limbs. They could really ruin your day with a little bit of wind. A good tent. Not one that flaps like a jib sail. A good four season one. Buy good wine! So next time your sitting inside looking out at the wind blowing snow up around the window, go ahead. Get out there. Don't be afraid of Mr. Winter. He's not really a bad guy. You just have to know how to take him.
About the AuthorAvid hiker, photographer, writer with not enough hours in the day!
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