Winter Camping (taking misery to new heights)

If you’ve ever wanted to do extensive research on hypothermia and frostbite, not to mention crunching the numbers on temperatures, the gear you’re bringing, and the length of exposure, you should probably go winter camping.

If you’ve ever wanted to see icicles grow off of your dog’s coat, you should go winter camping.

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If you’ve ever wanted to restrict your meals to 4 minutes or less because standing still or sitting for longer will freeze you to death, you should go winter camping.

If you’re curious about game trails and very clear large animal prints, or if you’d like to know how easy it is to wake a bear up out of torpor (because their hibernation is SO LIGHT it’s not actually considered hibernation by most scientists), you should go winter camping.

I’m not going to mention going to the bathroom. Or the large frozen blood chunks in the snow. Okay, maybe we’ll talk about one of those. What I’m really not going to talk about is the LYNX tracks.

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So I told you, internet, that I had been fantasizing a lot about Nolan’s 14 and I briefly considered what it might be like to attempt a winter FKT, which as far as I know hasn’t been done. I also had high hopes for several day backcountry snowboarding trips this winter. Mark had some vacation time coming up and I was high off of the very exciting Capitol trip, and I wildly suggested a 3-day foray into winter camping to test the waters. And by waters, I mean several feet of frozen water.

Day one: We didn't hate our lives or the universe yet here

Day one: We didn’t hate our lives or the universe yet here

The day before I managed to use my excellent new knot tying skills and several feet of paracord to attach not one, but TWO sleeping bags to my pack. A nice 15 degree bag and an outrageously heavy outer bag made of flannel, some kind of vinyl or something, and probably filled with lead that I lovingly named BIG MAMA and cursed about 90 times during the trip, except while we were sleeping of course because Big Mama stood between me and death. Packed full of food and in every piece of winter gear I own, we drove 6ish miles west of Aspen on one of many “creek” roads where we parked and headed out into the wild.

And this is what my "pack" looked like.  By the end of the trip, I very strongly considered dumping most of my gear.  Upon arrival to the truck at the end, I dropped everything, laid down on top of it, and cried harder than I have in a very long time.

And this is what my “pack” looked like. By the end of the trip, I very strongly considered dumping most of my gear. Upon arrival to the truck at the end, I dropped everything, laid down on top of it, and cried harder than I have in a very long time.

Lu on her way in, just after we arrived

Lu on her way in, just after we arrived

So there were some foot tracks in just a little ways, the mystery of that is why would you bother to get there and start hiking in only for about 400 feet…but to each his own. What was worse was amongst these tracks was not just a little, but an incredible amount of frozen blood underneath a foot or so of snow. We speculated a bit but not that much…there wasn’t really an answer that’s not terribly disturbing I think.

Lu breaks trail

Lu breaks trail

Hypothermia. The body must maintain 97.7-99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. As the limbs decrease in temperature, heat from the core goes outward to replenish and if the core can’t keep it up from there things start going downhill. There are four stages:

Stage 1: awake and shivering 90-95 degrees
Stage 2: drowsy and not shivering 82-90 degrees
Stage 3: unconscious, not shivering 68-82 degrees
Stage 4: no vital signs less than 68 degrees

1500 people die in the US every year of hypothermia. Then, there’s the other cold related problems, frostbite and frostnip. I don’t really even want to talk about Chillblains. You know a little girl in Sweden was revived after a body temperature of 54 degrees!? Did you see that movie about the mountaineer ice climbers that made the first ascent of some giant mountain in Peru or somewhere and there was an accident and anyway they were out there for a couple days and their skin was made up with all sorts of creepy sores? I’m thinking they were supposed to be Chillblains now that I know about them, and that’s all I have to say about Chillblains.

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I had a pretty interesting moment while climbing through extensive brush in order to fill up Nalgenes from the river (and btw, did you know that backcountry mountain water in the winter is THE MOST refreshing water that exists in the world? true story, it tastes nothing like the bottled water that is claimed to come from mountain springs either) because I realized that if *I* were a bear, I would most definitely hibernate in very thick brush by the river and since bears don’t officially hibernate they can be woken up at the drop of a hat (or by the brush breaking over them). I’m unsure how they can just pop up and attack you, since their body temperature drops to 5 degrees fahrenheit and their heart rate to 8-12 beats per minute. But what’s impressive is that mama bears go under pregnant and pop out cubs during. Also, by some miracle of supposed science their muscles don’t atrophy.

Getting water- a wonderful high point, especially since I wasn't mauled by 5 degree bears

Getting water- a wonderful high point, especially since I wasn’t mauled by 5 degree bears

I’m not really sure what else to say about the fateful trip. You don’t sleep, then after hours of not sleeping you get suddenly warm enough to sleep for 30 minutes and you wake up freezing again. The forecasted high temperature does not apply to the mountains, even if it’s forecasted for the mountains. Even worse, there’s hardly any sun (it’s obscured by MOUNTAINS). Baked beans that were boiling are amazingly cold in less than three minutes. We still don’t know if it’s better or much worse to clear the snow below the tent (don’t worry, before winter’s out I will be able to build a snow cave and I’ll tell you about it). You can’t put up a tent in your giant snow mittens so you have to do it with bare hands and they FREEZE, so bring a second pair of less-warm-but-more-workable gloves. I thought I was a bigger badass for some reason, but the backcountry reminded me what hardcore means. What is miserable suddenly becomes less miserable once you admit you’re miserable.

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Oh- and snow covered mountains and icy rivers are gorgeous and epic.

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Capitol Peak (and I discovered I will risk my life)

As you know, Capitol was planned to be the piece de la resistance, the 28th summit over 14,000ft of my 28th year, and we were to summit on the morning of my birthday. It is occasionally referred to as the most technically difficult 14er in Colorado, and it certainly makes the top 5 for most dangerous and most deadly due to its long ridge ascent that is sometimes class 4, very exposed, includes challenging route finding, and, of course, the crossing of the famous “knife edge” ridge.

Capitol Peak (14,130ft) 17miles, 5300ft gain

thar she is, so far in the distance, to the left

thar she is, so far in the distance, to the left

Dan and I at the TH

Dan and I at the TH

We had the game plan of hiking in to the lake (5.5miles from the TH) on Thursday so we could be ascending to the ridge early in the day on Friday, giving us the best possible chance to summit. We left later than we had planned, and then there was the snow. Oh, did I forget to mention? It’s been snowing ALL WEEK in the Elk Range and there is now FEET of snow. So in order to set up before nightfall, and because we assumed the temperatures would be even lower near the lake, we made camp a mile or so out from the lake in a relatively flat area beneath some trees.

This was taken not very far into the hike, as you can tell because we're not dragging ourselves through snow yet

This was taken not very far into the hike, as you can tell because we’re not dragging ourselves through snow yet

I crawled immediately into my sleeping bag, hoping to get warm, because as darkness fell shit was getting cold. To no avail. I did my best to eat my frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drink some water because I knew I needed to, but it’s hard when you’re cold. That might be the biggest struggle, is that you don’t want to eat or drink. Dan brought me a bottle of boiling hot water to put in my sleeping bag with me and that was a real game changer. Not to imply that I slept more than about 45min total over the course of that horrible night. This was my first experience in winter camping. Don’t let the horribleness of the situation fool you, now I’m hooked on winter camping. It was 15 degrees that night.

This was taken on my birthday morning.  It's what it looks like to camp in January.  But it was October.

This was taken on my birthday morning. It’s what it looks like to camp in January. But it was October.

Waking up in the morning, you have to surrender your sleeping bag and put your shoes back on, that have frozen completely solid. You know that when you get moving, there’s a better chance of being warm again, but that seems very far in the future. Dan said, “Happy Birthday, Sarah.” Yep.

During a river crossing, I slipped off the snow covered log I was on and ended up directly in the river. We also refilled water bottles here, and let me tell you that ice cold mountain river water is the freshest water I’ve ever tasted. Up until just before the lake we were fortunate enough to be following a trail that a man with two horses and a dog had made (I suppose he was an actual cowboy), but his trail disappeared and we were left to break trail through knee deep snow on our own. Breaking trail is so much work. At the lake, you turn and head up the ascent to the saddle that will bring you to the ridge.

Here's the ridge.  We'd be hiking up to the saddle on the left just out of the picture.  The right is Capitol Peak.

Here’s the ridge. We’d be hiking up to the saddle on the left just out of the picture. The right is Capitol Peak.

This part was arduous. I imagine when it’s not covered by feet of snow, the trail switchbacks because it’s so steep. You do a lot of sliding back down, and some parts I couldn’t even bring myself back up to standing and ended up crawling to a less slippery place. My feet were freezing but my torso was burning up and sweating. It’s that weird feeling like you’re warm again, but that’s a very tenuous moment. Dan and I sat on the saddle for a few minutes, eating frozen clif bars and speculating about the upcoming ridge.

Up until this moment, we had been thinking that the ridge looked rocky, like the snow had mostly blown off of it. We could see now that most of the ridge was covered in several feet of snow, including terrifying cornices that obscured the actual location of the ridge itself. Heading out, Dan tested traversing through a cornice and it was successful. Each success doesn’t really make you less afraid, I think. But it does make you more likely to go on to the next dangerous decision and choose to keep going. There was a bit of steep scree scrambling that was unsettling as it was mired with ice, then some technical climbing. Dan waiting for me at the top of this bit and once I stepped onto the rock above and he turned to take a step forward, the cornice beside us, one foot away, broke off suddenly and avalanched down the side of the mountain. I think that moment was the hardest my heart has ever beaten. [I’m unsure if it’s acceptable to use avalanche as a verb…I’ll look into that in the future]

We kept going.

This was the steep scree bit followed by the technical bit.

This was the steep scree bit followed by the technical bit.

Before each increasingly dangerous obstacle, Dan would turn around and say “you okay?” and I’d say “I’m okay if you’re okay” and we’d trudge on. There was another technical bit that made it apparently exactly what class 4 is-it’s complete vertical climbing with very obvious ledges and handholds, kind of like 5-.2. Another interesting section as most of the good foot ledges were covered in ice and snow. The best part of this bit was, directly underneath it is a slide into a gully that would likely result in 100’s of feet. Do you remember the first time I climbed, and I was fascinated that each time you make a move and take a risk, it feels very much like you’re risking your life, but you’re really not because someone at the other end of the rope will catch you. In this moment, the risk was very much your life, and you don’t think you’ll make a mistake but you don’t know. This was a pivotal moment, I realized I will without flinching risk my life to touch the sky. Before you judge me for that, is it so much better to waste it?

As we began the traverse around K2, the snow got increasingly deeper and it seemed we were not only casually walking into the complete unknown (wtf is under 3-4ft of snow? we don’t have any idea what we’re stepping on) but also putting ourselves right in the middle of what could later be a big old snow slide. After a decent amount of this waist deep trail breaking, we stopped and looked at each other. We agreed it was time to go back. The truth was, we had long since passed any idea of “safety” and although successfully crossing various obstacles made us believe it was okay to attempt increasingly harder ones, the second half of the ridge promised to be much more terrifying, much more technical, more exposed, etc and when we reached those obstacles it was going to become more and more likely that we really wouldn’t be able to cross them at all. The danger we could see, too, was that even if we kept going, made it past the knife edge and other terrifying ice and snow covered feats, by the time we got back we might not be able to cross snowy traverse we were standing in without a snow slide that would certainly be fatal, due to the perfect sunshine that would’ve beaten on it for hours.

It just gets deeper from here.

It just gets deeper from here.

I knew when I chose the most epic of peaks that there was a risk of not making the summit on my birthday. Even before the early-season snow. I knew I would be bummed if we didn’t make it. But, attempting that ridge in January conditions was the most epic thing I’ve tried. At the point where we decided to turn around, I was not upset at all. I knew I’d get my 28th summit. Last year on my birthday, I went shopping at the second hand store, got ice cream for Lu and I, and had dinner with my girlfriend at the time (and she was late). This could not have been a more perfect way to cap off a year of doing epic shit, of blazing, of adventuring.

28 fourteeners did not actually seem possible when I considered the idea. But, I’m not the type to let such little things stop me. I didn’t finish today, but I will. And it will be epic.

Side note: coming back across the ridge and downclimbing the technical sections might have been even more terrifying. We drank my summit beer on the hike out.