CAMPING IN THE WESTERN MOUNTAINS
12. Winter Camping
Winter camping is a strenuous and exacting sport, even in the level forests of the eastern United States and Canada. In the mountains of the West it is, in addition, as dangerous as you care to make it. However, the compensations are very great. Few of us will ever get the opportunity to explore the Polar regions, but most of us have been thrilled by the narratives of the great expeditions. Much of the fascination of mountain landscape lies in its inhuman immaculate grandeur. The story of the conquest of a great peak, Whympers long struggle with the Matterhorn, for instance, is like a Sophoclean tragedy; at the end of the story, at the summit, nothing has happened to the peak, it is still there, unchanged and aloof, like the destiny of the tragedians, but something momentous has happened to the men.
Today unexplored lands, trackless forests and unclimbed peaks are few and far away, but winter is a great obliterator of the signs of man. Once the tracked area about the ski lodge is left behind, and our skis are the first to cut the snow, we too can capture something of the wonder of the trails and bivouacs of Franklin, Saussure, Nansen and Whymper. Even a short trip through high mountain country, however well known the summer trail, is thrilling over untracked snow. Then too, the exploration and mapping of good ski routes through the mountains of the West is still in its earliest infancy. In this specialized sense, parties with an adequate amount of skill can really open up the country and perform very real service.
The first requirement for a successful winter trip is health. The body consumes an immense amount of energy merely in keeping warm and combatting the other difficulties of the climate. This burden of greatly increased energy is ultimately borne by the heart. Unless the body is far below par the effects of this exertion are often unnoticed for several days, and then suddenly the organism is exhausted and refuses to function as it should. When a member of a party gives out this way there is only one thing to do, return to inhabited country or to an open road by as easy stages as possible.
No one should undertake a winter mountaineering trip who suffers from any sort of serious cardiac trouble. If there is any doubt, see a doctor, but see a doctor who is himself a mountaineer. The average physician will say NO whatever the condition of your heart. Nowadays when many people smoke two packages of cigarettes a day, hearts are liable to be fast. This does not necessarily mean anything, but it may. Best taper off on your smoking for a few weeks prior to the trip; if you can stop altogether without untoward reactions, do so. By all means stop drinking, except possibly a glass of beer or very light wine a day, and carry no alcohol with you. This is not cranky advice, but the consensus of opinion of hundreds of mountaineers and explorers, many of whom were two-bottle men at lower elevations and other circumstances. If you can, stop coffee and tea, or at least use only one or the other, and that only once a day. Start your trip after adequate sleep, dont try to drive all night to the mountains and then set off on an expedition the next day.
The next requirement is safety. Every reasonable contingency should be anticipated, equipment should be foolproof, and of course every member of the party should know how to ski. This does not necessarily mean fancy technique. The more technique the better, if you can jump, jump with the sticks, run a steep and tricky slalom with predetermined turns, so much the better, but at least you should be able to get through the country with the minimum amount of speed and safety, even if that means traverses and kick turns on every steep slope, and with the minimum amount of falls. It is rather fun to fall in new snow on a practice slope, it is a lot different to have to struggle up with a heavy pack on your back many times a day on a long trip. Possibly your physique can stand it, but you have no right to make such demands on the tempers of your companions.
Never attempt more than you are sure you can do. Real mountaineering (that is, climbing of difficult peaks, ridges and cols) on skis requires real technique. Hidden cornices demand instantaneous jump turns, sudden irregularities on steep slopes necessitate perfect balance, confidence, and the ability to unweight the skis or jump on a split seconds notice. Also, skill on a practice slope is no real criterion of fitness for cross-country work in the mountains. On the practice slope a certain professional exactitude, technique in the book sense of the term, will get you by, no one but the most skilled observer need know the effort and tension some particularly fancy bit of work with the boards necessitated. On tour, ease and relaxation are important, you must be able to use the skis with the least expenditure of effort. The skilled ski mountaineer rides his boards like a flyer manipulates a glider, but unlike the flyer, he is never at their mercy, and seldom is acutely conscious of them.
Some years ago, after winning most of the events in an international meet, a famous Norwegian skier was asked by a spectator the difference between a Christiania and Telemark. With the utmost confidence he answered that a Telemark was a turn to the right, a Christy, a turn to the left. This doesnt mean that book learning and coaching are unimportant, but it does mean that practice until control becomes instinctive is a lot more so.
Mais revenons à nos moutons. [But lets get back to the subject.] This is not a skiing textbook. As was mentioned before, equipment is very important indeed. In summer, faulty equipment may lead to serious inconvenience, in winter it may well make all the difference. Lightness is of paramount importance, and it must become an obsession. Every fraction of an ounce matters. Go over your equipment constantly, before and after every trip, and ferret out every iota of excess weight. Short chopsticks are lighter than forks, toothbrushes can be used with sawed-off handles, foods already dried can be further desiccated in a very slow oven. If you cant discover and eliminate an extra pound or more after each trip, your ingenuity is faltering.
Once more a list, not a perfect one by any manner of means, but the best I have been able to evolve so far. It is designed for three persons on a ten-day trip, in temperatures ranging from -5° F., camping on the snow every night. Three is the minimum of safety in mountainous country in the winter, larger parties can estimate the equipment in units of three. Of course, for short trips, particularly for overnight bivouacs out from the ski lodge, or for a trip where huts are available, some of these items may be eliminated.
CLOTHING each person:
ski cap, or knit or fur toque
two light, all-wool polo shirts
two light, all-wool slipover sweaters
all-wool undershirt and drawers
windproof ski pants
three pairs all-wool heavy socks
two pairs all-wool mittens with long cuffs
one pair waterproof mittens with long cuffs
cummerbund or alpine scarf
one pair blizzard goggles to three men
EQUIPMENT each person:
headlight flashlight, extra batteries and bulb
packet of prepared bandage strips
skis, bindings, poles, climbers
one pair 84-inch leather bootlaces
pack tobacco, if any, in oiled silk pouch
down sleeping bag
EQUIPMENT shared by three:
ski repair kit (small pliers, spool copper wire, screws and bolts, small screwdriver, shovel-type aluminum ski tip, [ski bandage] [crossed out and replaced with some type of gauze, not legible], extra straps, ski waxes and scraper)
two small turkish towels
sewing kit (as in summer equipment)
first aid kit (as in summer equipment, omit snake kit)
folding shovel, if no shovel ski tip
thirty feet 3/16-inch rope (90 feet of alpinists rope if mountaineering)
three plumbers candles
extra pair leather boot laces
canteens (hot water bags)
fuel for primus
All authorities are agreed that the beginner usually takes too much clothing. Except in the most bitter weather, one perspires excessively while skiing. The clothing must be flexible enough to permit comparatively little to be worn on strenuous climbs and long schusses where the nervous tension is great; and there must be plenty of additional garments for stops on exposed ridges and for wear around camp. Sudden chill is far more dangerous than continued cold.
The parka and ski pants should be windproof, all other garments should be porous enough to permit plenty of ventilation. Two light knit garments are warmer than an equal weight of woven material, and control perspiration better. Shirts, sweaters, undershirts should have long tails. Such garments are extremely difficult to find, if there is a knitting female amongst your family or friends, have them made. Use the best yarns you can obtain, seventy-five cents to a dollar and a half for a four-ounce skein. Shrink the yarn before knitting. All garments, including the socks, should be treated with lanolin (anhydrous) and carbon tetrachloride solution. The socks should be dipped last, as they do not need as much oil. So treated, the cloth is what dealers call wetproof or showerproof, is warmer and absorbs less perspiration.
There are two schools of thought in the matter of absolute waterproofing. Any garment which will admit no water whatsoever, will also admit only negligible quantities of air. A parka so treated is a sort of ambulatory sweat bath, and in my opinion, dangerous to use. The ideal waterproofing for both pants and parka is one like the alum and sugar of lead treatment described in the chapter on equipment. It will shed all but the worst rains, is snowproof and yet sufficiently porous. However, if all the lead is not washed out after treatment, there is considerable danger of lead poisoning. My own parka is of wamsutta parka cloth, waterproofed with sugar of lead and alum. [Since it is bright red, I look rather like a raspberry sherbet or a gloriously mottled Turner sunset.] [Sentence crossed out in MS.] Incidentally, brilliant red is a good color, straying members of a party are much more easily located. My ski pants are of closely woven wool gabardine, with knits cuffs, treated with Aridex. Both parka and pants should be extremely roomy, to ensure ventilation and because all but the loosest pants will invariably rip in the crotch.
I prefer short, [knit spiral] [crossed out and replaced with an illegible word] puttees to canvas gaiters. They should be liberally dosed with lanolin. Cavalry leggings, sold in most Army stores, are much cheaper than the more chic ski gaiters and just as practical. Suspenders are better than a belt, get strong ones, Police Specials. A knit or woven cummerbund, or an Alpine scarf, now rare in outfitters, is a great convenience on windy exposed ridges, during stops, and around camp. Woven cloth has less tendency to wrinkle. If you wear two pairs of socks at once, carry four or five pairs. Dont get the most expensive, they will shrink badly. I have a pair that shrink on my feet, from perspiration, and can be restored to shape only with the aid of a pair of stretchers. They cost $3.50 a pair; others, priced from $.50 to $1.00 are perfectly satisfactory.
Ski goggles should be of composition, with an elastic band, rather than bows. Be sure there are plenty of little holes around the edges, or they will become fogged. NEVER WEAR GLASS. If you wear glasses, get goggles big enough to completely cover them. One pair of blizzard goggles (of aluminum with little slits for vision) are sufficient for each three persons, they can be worn by the leader during severe storms. A ski cap helps protect the face from burn, a knit toque is warmer. Mittens should have long cuffs, the longer the better, the mitt covers of Everest cloth sold by outfitters are better than leather.
Sad to say, the ideal cross-country ski boot has not, at this writing, appeared on the American market. For the benefit of any altruistic manufacturer who might read this, these are the qualities it should have: It should be built out from a Munson last, or from one of the Groundgripper type. The toe should be very straight along the edges, very square over the top. The inner cap should be extremely hard and should not soften when wet or after long wear. A steel cap is cold, but if well insulated, might be best. It should be possible to kneel on the skis with the boots tight in the bindings. The upper should hug the foot at the sides of the arch and show no tendency to bulge. Ski boots should be made with a combination last, with heels in different sizes than toes, to ensure perfect fit in the heel. They should be unlined, but there should be a narrow band of heavy wool inside the upper edge of the boot. Tongues should be soft, flexible, full gusset. The leather should be of the best calf, capable of withstanding slush and rain when oiled with cod liver oil or mineral oil (liquid paraffin). Heavy oils, neats-foot or heavier, will make boots hard as iron in cold weather. Straps at the top are not strictly necessary. Every part of the boot should fit perfectly, without cramping or constricting the foot at any point. Misfit boots cause frostbite and may cause frozen feet. If you want to keep all your toes, get the boot that comes nearest to the above specifications for use on long trips, no single item of equipment or clothing is more important.
You may find it necessary to travel at night, or at least at dusk, though you are foolish if you do it voluntarily. Only the miners or hunters flashlight, that straps on the head, is of much use under such circumstances. Get a stout jackknife and watch that you dont break it in the cold. The bootlaces are to tie your skis to your body when crossing steep, long slopes where you may spill and lose a ski. The pack should be a Norwegian meis, preferably a Two-In-One, and should be worn belted. The homemade meis described in the first chapter can be made to do if you cant afford the imported one, packboards have too much sidesway for skiing. Packs resting against the back are definitely out, they have a habit of freezing fast to the clothing if not to the body.
If you know enough about skiing to take a trip through the mountains, you will already have preferences in skis, bindings, waxes, climbers. Avoid racing skis; standard length (you should be able to touch the tips of the skis with your arm extended over your head) is long enough, shorter skis for brushy country and summer skiing. Binding should be simple. I am well aware of the merits of springs, Kandahar-type bindings, etc., but they are difficult to repair in the wilds; simple alpina-type bindings, with leather heel straps, are best. They are easily repaired and if loosened will come off on bad spills. We dispense with wax altogether, except to stick on climbers. Linoleum lacquer is durable, very fast, and no trouble. It can be applied only on new skis or on those thoroughly cleaned with carbon tetrachloride. Sealskins are ridiculously expensive; any durable fur with a definite grain can be made into climbers, or heavy velour can be used. The latter is not as good going downhill, but it is cheap. Canvas climbers will not take the steepest grades, ball on descents, freeze fast to the skis, sometimes become coated with ice and slick. They are cheap and easily made at home. At least one ski pole to a party, with a detachable ring for sounding snow bridges, windslab, etc., is a convenience.
Seligman, in his book Snow Structures and Ski Fields, illustrates a ski tip with a shovel-form end. I have never seen such a thing on the market, but if you take an ordinary tip and sufficient aluminum or duraluminum to a machine shop, they will make one for you. It is a contrivance I recommend most heartily.
A primus stove is essential for camps on glaciers or above timberline. At lower elevations, dead woods can usually be found on standing trees. The waste wax from the candles can be used to start fires, or better still, patent fire-starters like Meta can be carried. Two pocket primuses (or primi) are better than one large one. Husband your kerosene; your allowance, with a half-pint primus, should not exceed one-quarter pint a day.
Metal canteens may freeze and burst. Hot water bags are lighter, expand when frozen. It is a good idea to fill them with hot, but not too hot water (or you will be chilled later) and take them to bed. In the morning the water can be used for breakfast. The rubbery taste is none too pleasant, but one gets used to it. If filled with warm water and imbedded in the pack, you can have water for lunch in all but the coldest weather. Be sure the tops fit perfectly.
The lightest weight marble pocket axe is best for winter use. Warm it in your hands before using or it may chip.
I am not given to the use of the compass and watch in the summer; in a driving blizzard, with sky and topography completely hidden, they are absolutely necessary. If any solo climbs or excursions are planned, each member of the party should have them.
The tent should be of the Robinson pattern described in the chapter on equipment, treated with Duprene or some other impervious waterproofing, and of as lightweight material as can be found. Parachute cloth is best, you may be able to find a condemned parachute around your local airport or Army base. Several persons can club together and buy one, or the local commanding officer can tell you where you can buy the cloth. The finished cloth, with waterproofing, should not weigh more than four ounces to the yard. If nothing else can be found, 100 by 100 count fine percale sheeting will do, but it is not very durable.
Sleeping bags suitable for use in zero weather are extremely high priced, ranging from $50 to $150. A good bag may be made at home for between $10 and $20. The bag should be as small as possible, and fit the body closely. The larger the surface, the greater the loss of heat. It should be closed around the head and shoulders to prevent cold air from being sucked in by the movements of the sleeper. No seams should go completely through the bag, they should be insulated by a layer of down. Robinson published a design in the Sierra Club Bulletin, February 1939, which meets the first two of these conditions, but not the last. His bag is easier to make than a completely insulated one, but it allows a certain amount of cold to penetrate along the numerous seams. The bag here given is an adaptation of his design.
The diagrams are largely self-explanatory. [No such diagrams are included in the manuscript.] Notice that the seams of the tubes do not meet at the edges, but that the outer tube folds over at each edge. The inner cloth should be of very lightweight Bohemian ticking, or of a comparable domestic substitute, or of light, high-count percale sheeting, or of parachute cloth, whichever is most easily obtained or whichever is lightest. The outer cloth should be 4 ounce or less, 100 x 100 count or more, long-staple Egyptian sailcloth, it should have a high tensile strength, and be kept out of the sun to prevent it from cracking. Impervious waterproofings will cause moisture to accumulate inside the bag. In winter this will freeze, and soon the bag will be heavy and cold. Lead acetate and alum will permit the bag to breathe, Aridex and similar wax treatments must be applied lightly. Only the outer cloth should be waterproofed. The face should be protected from the zipper, which can become terribly cold, by a strip of flannel or blanket cloth sewed along each side. The bag should have an inner lining easily removable, of silk, lightweight, unfilled, well laundered and shrunk. Taffeta is warm and wears well, satin of good quality is next, pongee is cheap. Wool and flannel linings make the bag difficult to get into. Buy the best feathers you can afford, goose down at the cheapest. The down of land birds, chickens, etc., should not be used. Eider is best, but expensive. Two and one-half or three pounds of down is sufficient.
It is possible to make a double layer of down with only one thickness of cloth between. The tubes are sewn to the middle cloth alternately, first the top, then the bottom. Unless the sewer is exceptionally skilled and there is plenty of room beneath the arm of the sewing machine, this is not very easy to do. Two middle layers are much easier to handle, and provide an additional air space for insulation. The middle cloth should be as light as possible and need not be completely down proof; very fine, high-count percale is probably best. After all the tubes have been sewn along the sides and top (the bottom should be left open to insert the down) the two middle cloths can be sewn together by hand, the seams running along the bag, at right angles to the tubes.
Attach the suction and blower hoses to the vacuum cleaner, insert the blower deep in the tube, the suction hose in the bags, turn on the juice and withdraw the blower as the tube fills.
Keep the mouth of the tube tightly closed around the hose or the room will be filled with a down blizzard. Be very careful to distribute the down evenly, weighing the bag continuously if necessary. Baste each tube end closed as it is filled or the down will leak out while you are working. When the tubes have all been filled, sew the bottom closed on the machine, fold the quilt over and sew up the bag. Notice that the inner and outer tubes are offset, and lap at the side seam. The bottom and top should be closed with a lap seam, on the outside of the bag; better still, the seam can be sewn twice, about three inches apart, and the resulting tube filled with down. The finished bag should weigh between four and six pounds.
The six points covering the selection of a dietary quoted in the chapter on minimum provisions hold absolutely for winter camping. Quickness of cooking is also a consideration, particularly if a primus must be used. The following grub list is quoted, with slight modifications, from Robinson. Minor changes can be made to suit individual tastes, but they should be very minor. I know of no lighter list with equal caloric content and variety. The fuel value is high, 4360 calories, but I would not advise reducing it, particularly on long trips, as the intake of less food than meets the expenditure of energy may lead to exhaustion.
|lbs. per man day||calories per lb.||calories for quantity indicated|
|mixed dried fruit||0.25||1500||375|
|mixed hard candy||0.10||1750||175|
|mixed shelled nuts||0.15||2500||375|
|mixed dried meats||0.30||1500||450|
|dried whole milk||0.15||2600||390|
|quick oatmeal or toasted wheat germ||0.15||1750||263|
|breadstuffs (rye crisp, flatbread)||0.12||1600||192|
|rice and macaroni||0.10||1650||165|
Ovaltine may be substituted for coffee or tea and some of the rather excessive sweets allowance then reduced. Sausages or prepared soups, pea, bean and lentil, may be substituted for the goat cheese, cornmeal for oatmeal, prepared dried mushes, such as Pablum (a food for babies and invalids) for the breadstuffs. Wheat germ is not very tasty, toasting increases its assimilability and improves the obnoxious unborn flavor. Meats, particularly lean dried beef and dried smoked tongue, can be further dehydrated in a slow oven, with the door open, and then ground to powder. The dried-fruit allowance, the only thing that will stand between you and impacted innards, should not be reduced, but, if anything, increased. For short trips, tomato paste can be carried for the rice and macaroni.
The cold, dry air and brilliant sun of the winter mountains causes excessive thirst. Skiers, out for one-day trips, usually carry liberal supplies of tomato juice. On long trips we chew gum, keep our mouths tightly closed, our lips well oiled with cod liver oil, and make the best of the rubbery water in our bottles. DO NOT EAT SNOW. Much of your thirst is due to a feverish condition of the mouth and throat caused by the dry cold, snow only makes matters worse.
Three men can get along with two two-quart aluminum pots, three spoons, three cups, eating either from the cups or Chinese fashion, all from the pot. Frying pans are unnecessary, there is nothing to fry. All food should be in oiled silk bags or it will absorb moisture.
Squaw wood, the dead limbs clinging to standing trees, can usually be found in sufficient quantities to make a fire in the lower altitudes. Lay the fire on two thicknesses of green logs, placed closely side by side on the snow, the second course at right angles to the first. The primus is essential above timberline, and it is wise not to rely on wood at any time. Deep drifts often conceal all dead limbs for a considerable distance.
Wind, or rather the lack of it, is the principal consideration in the selection of a campsite. Remember that where the wind blows least, the snow drifts most. If the snow is soft and powdery, a deep trench for the tent can be shoveled from a drift in a short time. Never camp in the very deep drifts in the lee of high cliffs or steep slopes. You may be buried by avalanches or a storm in the night may pile up so much snow that you will find it very difficult to get out. Probably the best campsite is in the center of a dense stand of timber, on as level ground as can be found. Never camp in the wind tunnels around rocks or trees unless the air is fairly still. Do not try to keep a fire going all night, you will only get chilled tending it.
Only considerable experience can develop a sensitivity to snow conditions. Snow is an unstable and constantly changing substance and even the most cautious and skilled are sometimes misled and overestimate the safety of slopes. I am not sure, but to judge from the literature, avalanches seem to be less common and less dangerous in the mountains of the western United States than in the Alps. Probably, as skiing in our higher mountains increases in popularity, and the more inaccessible and precipitous regions open up to winter travel, we will discover that the present statistical difference is due to inadequate information. At least at the present time, and probably for many years to come, the cross-country skier in our mountains has the additional danger of loneliness and isolation to contend with, and this more than makes up for any small margin of comparative safety that may exist. Except for a few localities in the Girsons, the Alps in winter are pretty densely populated, and if one gets into serious difficulties, help is always near. On a long trip in the Sierras or Rockies, a party is entirely on its own, help is left behind at the ski lodge, open roads are few and far between, the country is completely deserted for many, often hundreds of miles, and in all directions. Chances that in the Alps would only add zest to the trip must be strictly avoided.
Avoid all slopes steeper than 30° at all times. After a fresh snowfall, stay off slopes of more than 20° for at least three days after the fall if the temperature is around freezing or slightly lower, in colder weather, for longer. Slopes as mild as 15° may avalanche in rain or warm wind, and if the snow begins to ball or stick, should be avoided. During thaws, avalanches may occur more frequently in the afternoon than in the morning. Under such conditions, it is wisest to stay on the north slopes, where the sun has not reached, or on those sheltered from the warm wind.
After snowfalls accompanied by wind, all lee slopes should be regarded with suspicion, as thick accumulations of soft, powdery snow form there, and are most liable to avalanche.
All slopes exposed to and hardened by wind (as opposed to sun) should be suspected of windslab and reconnoitered carefully. The hard, smooth surface of windslab is very deceptive, avalanches of such snow are common and have been responsible for many fatal accidents.
A dangerous slope should not be traversed or crossed horizontally. If it is impossible to turn back, it is best to go straight down with sealskins on or without skis. If a traverse cannot be avoided (supposing the slope to end in a cliff) the crossing should be made high up, with loosened binding or without skis.
The chances of surviving an avalanche are much greater if skis are not being worn. A man traversing on foot is less likely to start an avalanche than one wearing skis.
On the traverse of a suspected slope there should be an interval of 100 yards, or on a long traverse of 200 to 300 yards, between the members of the party.
A slope anywhere below a cornice should be treated with the greatest caution. The area of greatest danger is of course under the overhang of the cornice and in the soft snow beneath it; however, the opposite side is very likely to fracture along the line of incidence of the opposing slope. On cross-country trips it is wisest to stay strictly away from all cornices of any height and to avoid travel through rocky, broken country where they are common.
Remember that, unlike Mohamets mountain, an avalanche, even if you dont go to it, may come to you. Avalanches may start on a steep grade and run out over moderate slopes or even level ground. Deep narrow canyons, even steep but small gullies, should be avoided and where they cannot be, should be crossed as quickly as possible. In planning a trip, the route should be confined as much as possible to open ridges topping moderate slopes, to valley of gentle contour, and to long sloping plateaus. Canyons should be crossed at approximately right angles, and the steep, glacial troughs of the Yosemite type, so common in the Sierras, should be avoided altogether. Winter travel along narrow precipitous gorges like those of the Merced and Kings and their tributaries, and even more, the fault chasms of the Upper Kern, would be exceedingly dangerous under any conditions, and are suicidal now, with the almost total lack of communications and population in our winter mountains. Where it is necessary to travel along the sides of a steep canyon for a short distance, the trail should stick to the side least exposed to the sun and a careful watch should be kept for cornices, avalanche snow and falling ice.
A start should on no account be made for a hut or high mountain tour unless the weather is settled and the barometer has been steady for several days. An official weather report and forecast should be obtained.
Topographical maps are an absolute necessity on a long ski tour. If the region you plan to visit has not been mapped, go somewhere else.
Last chapter of Kenneth Rexroths Camping in the Western Mountains (unpublished manuscript, ca. 1939). Copyright 2003. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.