Winter Camping — an exercise in survival skills

29 01 2014

Ethan Pond, evening sky. [all photos courtesy Mary Jolles]

[Nick and Mary helped me achieve my dream of hiking and camping out in the wilderness.  But I don’t know if I’d be able to do what they did this past December during one of the coldest winters on record.  Here’s a guest blog by Mary Jolles, the recently retired principal of Colebrook Elementary, and one of the most seasoned women of the mountains I know.]

It was -23 F when we got up Saturday morning, but by the time my husband Nick and I met my nephew Moses at 11:00 am at the Highland Center in Crawford Notch, the temperature had risen to about ten degrees.  We parked at a plowed out area on Route 302 and hiked in to the Ethan Pond Trailhead.  The entire hike to the Ethan Pond shelter was three miles.  The trail had obviously been hiked about a week ago, but we had to break trail through about 8 inches of snow.  The first mile and a half of the trail was steep and it was hard struggling up the slope with our winter packs.  My great-niece Margaret, Moses’ older daughter, came with us, and was a real trouper.

Mt. Willey from near the bottom of the trail.

Mt. Willey from near the bottom of the trail.

If you go camping in the winter and expect to hike as far or do things as quickly as you’re accustomed to doing them in the summer, think again.  Everything takes longer.  Your body doesn’t act the way it does in summer.  You burn far more energy.  Even though you don’t feel thirsty, you become dehydrated.  Nick broke trail for a while and forged ahead of us, not looking back.  My nephew was concerned that Nick had marched away out of sight, and we talked about the necessity to stay together.  Yet about 30 minutes later, we caught up to him.  It was a lot more effort than Nick had bargained on, and I think he was a little frustrated with himself.  He needn’t have been– it was hard work for even Moses!   Later, in the shelter as he knelt to spread out his sleeping gear, Nick was seized with a sudden cramp in his leg.  The strenuous effort, combined with some dehydration, had overtaken him.

Then there are the little things, the little tips.  If your feet are cold, put on a hat.  Or drink some water.  Eat more often.  Don’t eat something sugary just before you go to bed.  Eat a piece of cheese, or a chunk of summer sausage, or a handful of nuts.  The extra protein and fat will burn in your body through the night, keeping you warm.  It is strange to think of one’s body as a furnace, but that is exactly what it is.  The furnace also has a circulating pump system to distribute the heat to all parts of your body.  If this system (which runs on water) is not kept primed, you won’t stay warm.  Hence the need to stay hydrated to stay warm.   So what if you have to get up in the night to pee?  It won’t kill you.  But hypothermia will.

Overall the hike in took us about four and a half hours, mainly because I needed to stop and rest frequently.  We reached the edge of the pond just as the sun was setting, and the sky was pink and red.  In the distance you could see the sharp edge of Whitewall Mountain, the ridge with Zealand Mountain, Mt. Guyot, and the huge bulk of Mt. Bond.  We had to work quickly to get all our gear out and set up before it got too dark, and tramp down the path to the outhouse.   Uncharacteristically, my stove would not burn properly, so Nick and I borrowed Moses’ stove to cook our own food.  Moses used snow off the roof to melt for cooking, as it was relatively free of spruce needles.

The shelter is a very rustic, Adirondack-style building with a metal roof.  There are also tent platforms near the shelter, as this is a very popular site.  I can see why, since the pond–or lake, really–is scenic.  But the log book showed that no one had stayed there since November. There is a caretaker during the summer months, but not in winter.

Materials don’t behave or even sound the way they do in the warmth of summer.  Nick was astonished at how quickly residual water on the inside of the cap of his water bottle completely froze and he couldn’t open it.  My nephew advised him matter-of-factly, “Just give it a good whack on the floor.  The ice will break and the lid will loosen up.”  As I took my sleeping bag out of its nylon stuff sack and spread it out, I savored its soft synthetic loft.  I laid it out on top of my two sleeping pads (one closed-cell foam pad, one thin air mattress) and plumped it up.  Then I picked up the stuff sack.  Amazingly, it had stiffened in the cold air, and now crackled like a piece of paper as I smoothed it and hung it on a peg.  My felt pack liners had frozen to the soles of my boots and it took quite a bit of effort to remove them.  Even the thin leather upper of the boot refused to flex easily.

From the east end of Ethan Pond, very near the shelter, Mt. Wiley's cliffs loom in the background.

From the east end of Ethan Pond, very near the shelter, Mt. Wiley’s cliffs loom in the background.

Fortunately, thanks to technology, it is possible to sleep comfortably warm in a sleeping bag in the winter.  But what is not possible is to keep your face warm.  Getting used to a cool breeze on your cheeks all night long is somewhat difficult.  But it is possible, just as it is possible to get used to listening to crickets singing or frogs peeping all night.

Before going to bed, I filled my water bottle with hot water, slipped it inside a sock, and put it in my sleeping bag down near my felt pack liners.  This acted as a hot water bottle and really made the bag comfortable before getting in it.  My niece was afraid to put a filled water bottle in her bag, for fear it would leak.  That was fine. She is young and strong and didn’t need the extra heat.

We settled into our sleeping bags by 7:30 pm.  Moses and Margaret played cards for a little while, then turned out their lights.  Within five minutes of lights out, I heard mice stealthily exploring our packs.  They made soft little squeaks, as if they were whispering to each other! However, they eventually went away, and our food was undisturbed in the morning.  I saw many tiny tracks in the snow underneath the shelter.

The long night in a sleeping bag in the dead of winter is never fun.  It’s almost too long.  And then there is the obligatory midnight pee in the snow, your breath quite visible in the light of your headlamp, and the steam rising from the urine which has melted through the snow.  We had all drunk lots of liquid, fearing dehydration if we didn’t.  Returning to the sleeping bag, it takes time to warm up.  But I think we all slept.

Nick packing up in the morning.

Nick packing up in the morning.

Nick felt funny wearing his hat to bed, but wear it he did, and he was warm.  Moses advised us to put any extra items of clothing underneath us, between our sleeping bags and sleeping pads.  What a great idea!  In the morning my hat, mittens, snow pants and down jacket were perfectly warm when I slipped them on.  My felt liners I kept in the sleeping bag with me all night.  In the morning they were dry.  I had used my sweater as a pillow so it was warm, too.  Getting dressed, I felt perfectly warm and didn’t have to use extra energy to warm up after getting everything on.  Additionally, the water bottle I had kept in my sleeping bag all night was lukewarm, and felt really good to drink before breakfast.

In the morning Nick was mystified by the layer of dew on top of his sleeping bag.  Moses explained that we had been breathing all night under a metal roof, and the moisture had condensed on our bags.  After all, there were four of us.  It is hard to picture a winter night as having a dew point just like a summer night, but it does.


Heading back down the trail.

Breakfast was a happy time.  We looked forward to our hot drinks and the hike down, which would go much more quickly than the hike up.  The temperature had increased to about 20 F.  The sun was shining with a thin overcast of clouds moving from west to east across the sky.  The snow-covered lake was beautiful, as were the spruce trees loaded with vast quantities of snow (the snow was deeper up there than down in the valley).   Behind us loomed the awesome cliffs of Mt. Willey.  Our trail was already packed out for us, and with slightly frozen snow underfoot we made better progress on the return trip.  We started out at about 9:45 a.m., and reached the parking lot at 12:45 pm.

I am glad we made this trip with my nephew, as he was obviously very experienced at winter camping and quickly took charge of getting things set up when we reached the shelter.  He was very encouraging to his daughter, patiently listening to her complaints and trying to fix things for her, but also not putting up with any nonsense.

All in all, one gains a new appreciation for heat, both in how your body produces it, how to conserve it, and how to manufacture it using a stove or a fire.

Mary and Nick Jolles

Mary and Nick Jolles




3 responses

29 01 2014
Mary Jolles

Thank you for publishing this, Mel! The pictures look great, too!

29 01 2014

Hey, thanks for letting me, and for supplying the photos. I enjoy your accounts of your adventures so much, it only seemed right to share.

11 02 2014

I might not find myself in this situation, but I guarantee I’ll always remember the good tips! What a good adventure.

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