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February 18, 2018

A short story about snow camping

Mount Rainier snow backpack trip

You’ve been snow camping before and liked it so you want to go again. But this time, to a bigger mountain that you’ve never seen up-close in the winter. The fantasy includes views of the snow-clad mountain at sunrise and sunset, glimmering expanses of white powdery snow, and joyful moments of being outdoors overnight in the winter. The reality may include all of the fantasy, but it also includes a fair amount of drudgery.

Load up your pack, which is pretty much the same as regular backpacking season except for the extra weight of a winter tent, heavier sleeping bag, second sleeping pad, extra layers, and a shovel strapped on so you can dig your campsite base when you arrive at camp. Put the snowshoes on and hike in, stopping several times to catch your breath, wondering why you feel so out of shape when you never stopped hiking, even when the season ended and the rains began and you snowshoed every chance you had. That’s why you are here now, isn’t it? Who else backpacks to set up camp in the snow other than someone obsessed with being outdoors as much as possible? You love this. You crave this. You need this. So keep trudging on.

You are surprised at how hard it is to tell what makes a suitable campsite when all around you are rolling hills of snow with pockets of trees on the slopes. The high wind in the forecast convinces you to find a spot in an island of trees, some of which are dead snags. They sure look solid. What could knock them down onto my tent? High winds? Oh yeah. Better move out of the only flat spot and start digging on the slope.

Get out your shovel and work for 1.5 hours on a pit that’s 2-3 feet deep depending on which side you are on. Attempt to shovel without wearing your snowshoes but have to put them back on because all you do is fall down or posthole. Did you just step on the tent with your snowshoes? The footprint has punctures all over it from the last trip, so it’s not of much use this time. You could have left it at home. Oh well. Set up your tent, take off the snowshoes, then get inside and take off the boots. Untangle the mess of gear that you threw in with the tent door barely open so it wouldn’t let too much blowing snow inside. It’s cozy in here. But it’s time to eat.

Locate your stove and food. Open the tent door, attempting to keep snow out. Open the vestibule so you don’t suffocate when you use your stove to cook your dehydrated food that you brought with you in a heavy bear canister that slides around on the snow so fast you have to keep hold of it. Set up your stove and light it. Try to light it again. Turn the fuel on full blast, then light it again and hope it doesn’t explode. Okay good, it lit. But there isn’t much flame because the temperature is lower than this stove is supposed to be used at. It works, but it takes a long time. A really long time. You hope it stays on long enough to cook your dinner. Try to keep the tent door and rainfly lowered enough to keep snow out, but away from the low flame of the stove.

When your food is done, eat it in your tent for the first time. Chew the chewy chow you cooked, chewing more than you think is normal until you realize that the chicken sausage you added to your mac and cheese recipe never rehydrated. But you must eat. You exerted a lot and need to replenish your body, so chew on. Drink the hot (white) chocolate you made, which makes you very happy. Wash your stove pot because you ate out of it instead of a plastic bag.

Place the bear canister loaded with food, the stove, and the now empty but not clean mug into the second vestibule of your tent. Wonder if this is a good idea since it smells like food. Realize that keeping it anywhere else would require layering back up before getting back out of the tent, and then shoveling a small pit somewhere away from your tent because everything is sloped and the food will slide away if you just set it on the ground. And it’s dark. So you try to forget about it.

After sitting up to journal for awhile, you wonder if it’s too early to go to sleep. It’s dark, you are cold, and your back is tired from carrying a heavy load and shoveling more than you have probably ever shoveled before, so you decide that 7:30 is not too early. It’s cozy warm in the sleeping bag and double sleeping pads are cushy. This is nice. Drift off to sleep.

Wake up two hours later needing to pee. Layer up, put on the boots and walk gingerly so you don’t slip and fall in the dark. Of course, you have your headlamp on. When you squat to pee, you wonder if you are all lit up and on display from your headlamp reflecting off the snow. But there’s no one around. Go back to your tent and get all snuggly in your sleeping bag again and drift off until you have to repeat this process 3 hours later.

At some point in the night, you hear a sound that you are convinced is one of the wily foxes you saw on the drive up to the mountain and hope that they aren’t drawn to the smell of food that was cooked and eaten in your tent. Or to the still dirty mug in your vestibule. Oh well. Just forget about it and go back to sleep.

Wake up with the first rays of light and peek out of your vestibule to see that the sky is clear and bright blue. When you get out of the tent, it’s the coldest part of the day (18 degrees!) and you have to put those snowshoes back on and light your stove. Hope the fuel didn’t freeze overnight. The water did. And the views are as fantastic as the fantasy.

Mount Rainier snow backpack trip

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