After long and really quite unreasonable avoidance I finally joined the snow camping crowd. It was a good choice, to join that is. Man, snow camping is great. It is actually much better than the downhill skiing stuff (much cheaper too, which is important in this economy). I didn’t do hard-core stuff yet, but so far it was good.
Thus last weekend (Feb 5-7) I joined a group led by local snow travel and mushroom guru Igor. I never camped in the snow, neither did I go with Igor before. So it was double experience. In reality snow camping has a lot of advantages – no bugs, no people, peace and quiet, everything is white (if you are lucky), and not hot. On the down side is that anything that is wet will most likely stay wet till the end of the trip. It is possible to dry some small closing items using the body drier (basically put the wet stuff into the sleeping bag with you – the heat your body generates will dry them), but be prepared for the wet conditions all the time.
The trip started on Friday noon. I had to take off right after lunch time. Durba picked me up, and after getting Lenader we went to Igor’s place. There the group slowly loaded into two huge GM SUVs and eventually started at around 3PM. I don’t know, personally I usually, on these sort of trips, want to move as fast as possible towards wilderness. T’hell, it is winter, the sun will set early, it will be dark and … um … cold. Let’s get going, let’s set up camp while it is still light. Igor, on the other hand seemed so relaxed. We went reasonably slowly. At about 6PM or so he said that it is time for his regular dinner so we stopped at some stupid strip mall (with a bell tower actually) to eat. I skipped the regular SubWay or gourmet In’n’Out and went for Mexican food. Eventually we managed to get to a trail-head at about 11PM. Sweet. Luckily it wasn’t coming down too bad. People put on their skis and backpacks and we skied into the darkness on the virgin snow by the headlight. I have never done this before, but it wasn’t so bad after all. Setting up camp at around 1AM with headlights was fine. It is all turned out fine.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Next day, Saturday, I woke up early as usual but didn’t get up (lazy bastard). Eventually I got up at about 9AM. Good man Achilles was already building snow stove to cook some breakfast. After the food we packed, loaded, and headed towards the distant Cinder Cone.
I have to say that people were struggling with x-country skiing. It was a bit up hill and the backpack kind of got the balance messed up, but it wasn’t so bad, at least for me. The snow didn’t stick to the skis at all. It was rather cold. So the skiing was fine. I was really enjoying it. We had lunch at some sort of intersection after which the fun began.
The trail started climbing up more than it did before. By this time the temperature went up a bit and f…ng snow started sticking to the f…ng skis. I was brutal. There was no trail. Once you stand a bit the wet snow clumps to your skis making them very heavy and practically glued to the trail. You always had to keep moving to prevent this. At the end there were only four of us – Igor, Yuhua, Anya, and me – at the head breaking trail. Igor set up this rotation system for the head trail breaker. In this case people will have some time to rest and no single person will get terribly tired. Up front the person has to keep the pace so that the snow doesn’t stick. Keeping this pace, whoever, wasn’t easy. So his rotation system worked out fine.
In the end we reached a little hill at the edge of the forest right before Cinder Cone. Igor actually planned the trail in such a way so that eventually you come out of the forest and have this wow moment when Cinder Cone comes into view. Don’t know if it achieved the desired effect. It seems that people were too tired to care. After all this work I was hot and steaming. I had to change what I could because eventually I would get cold from all this wet clothing.
People were coming up slowly after the first group. Igor, as the more experienced person, brought in some pieces of bark to put stoves on and made this beautiful five-burner stove with a gorgeous view of the pristine snow and the Cone. Ok, that’s fine, I suppose. The day was coming to the end and it would get dark soon so we won’t see the view anyway.
Evening is the best time. It’s too bad that winter camping kind of makes it rather painful. First it is dark (oh, well); second, no matter what the temperature was during the day it drops below zero at night. As a result everything that is slightly wet freezes really quickly. My rented boots that were supposed to waterproof were soaked through – it was going to be a cold night.
So we cooked and ate, ate, ate. I can’t believe how much food people brought (and fire water too). It was kind of pain to boil water in this conditions – it had to be converted from solid state, plus the stoves didn’t work very well. But it was all done eventually and even I with my perpetual shyness got something to eat and drink (I was actually quite dehydrated).
The funniest par was during the night. Every big tent had someone snoring. The girls’ test was a bit far away so I couldn’t hear it, but the rumors were that they snored also. The two tents that were close together two guys snored. They did it on different frequencies so it was like an a capella concert. It would have been fine if I didn’t need to sleep. Plus that stupid bag advertised at 0F was still cold. Maybe it was just too large (note: I used my other bag on other winter camping trip and it was warmer despite +15F rating).
Sunday, February 7, 2010
New day. The weather is gorgeous – Sunny a cool. Perfect day on a snow.
After the regular breakfast the question was raised about summiting the mountain right in front of us. Now, I did summit Cinder Cone before – in Summer of 2006 during the first relatively long trip that I led. It wasn’t so bad at the time, just pain to go up that sliding ash trail. But it was Summer. Now, in Winter, the cone looked rather steep and intimidating from the bottom. Well, what t’hell, let’s do it. I gathered all my strength in the face of scaring danger and went ahead on skis.
Skiing up hill, without skins, is a bit tricky but doable. The important part was not to slide back :). So the technique is to go at an angle and then carefully change direction making sort of switchbacks. Well, since this mountain is a perfect cone it is possible to avoid this switchbacking busyness by simply going on a spiral around it, but no one was bold enough to do it. In the end going up snow-covered Cinder Cone was actually a lot easier than in Summer. Just go up and up and make sure you don’t slide down while changing direction. I didn’t even sweat coming up.
It was actually gorgeous on the top. Beautiful clear sky with some sparse clouds (it is actually better, otherwise the sky is too boring blue), cold air, great fresh dry snow.
The top of the Cone was a bit windswept which uncovered some of that ash that the Cone is made from. We did a simple circle around the crater while Yuhua went down to the bottom. (This woman actually had so much energy – after going to the crater she actually ran around it without the snowshoes). We did all sorts of things on the top (legal, of course) – some yoga poses, lots of photos, … and that’s it. It was time to go down so that we can make it back on time before dark. I slid clumsily down – while I was standing on the summit the wet snow go to my skis and forgot to clean them. Well, due to that I didn’t need to slide on my butt down.
We broke the camp at around 1PM and started to the cars. I was actually looking forward to it – lighter pack and going downhill on already made trail should be fun. I think I was rather alone in this notion. It turned out that people had quite a hard time coming back. I pretty much zipped though the trail without breaking a sweat. However, others were really struggling on the way back. It is tricky to keep the balance with the back going downhill. Girish resorted to actually go off the trail we made the day before because he could keep the balance better.
So I made it back to the car. It was still light. I was enjoying some food and was planning to change. Then Igor said that we should go back and help people who were struggling to get to the cars (who know, maybe they were even injured). So I went. Skiing without a pack was so good. Evening. It was getting dark. The trail was getting a bit icy, but it was still fine.
Eventually we all made it back to the cars. Then it took a while to load them up with all that skis and stuff. I situated on the last row of that SUV and could sleep. We stopped to eat at Outback Steakhouse. I ordered some insanely seasoned quite expensive lamb and got a good training in ordering steaks from others. It turned out that ordering rare variation actually ensures, somewhat, that the meat is fresh. Well done meat might be just reheated yesterday’s meat (which is actually good for environmental reasons because beef production is very environmentally expensive).
With all that slow motion I made it home at about 3AM.
There are a ton of resources on the web about winter camping specifically. I’ll just list a couple.
Good source of the winter camping information (wisdom) can be found here.
There is a whole series of articles from the Backpacker magazine.