February 29 & March 1, 2020
Finally! My first winter camping trip! Well, no, actually, not my first. I’ve been winter camping several times, but always in places I’ve driven to, and usually sleeping in my truck. This was my first winter camping trip where I snowshoed in. I was so excited! I’ve wanted to do this for years. I’d taken a class through the Tacoma Mountaineers, and now for our grand finale–a weekend camping trip at Paradise on Mount Rainier.
I packed my backpack the night before: two zero-degree sleeping bags, two Thermarest sleeping pads, two inflatable pillows, a pair of wool socks, a pair of sock liners, UnderArmor leggings, an extra long-sleeve t-shirt, down puffy jacket in a compression sleeve, food, water, toiletries, two liters of water, cook set, my ten essentials, and ten deadman stakes. My tentmate was supplying the tent, so I offered to craft the deadman stakes required for winter camping. At the last minute, I tossed in a thermos of hot chocolate. My pack was very nearly too heavy to carry.
For my clothing, I wore sock liners, wool socks, UnderArmor hiking boots, yoga pants, light-weight ski pants, long-sleeve synthetic t-shirt, light-weight Columbia fleece pullover, heavier-weight Columbia fleece pullover, my 2016 Ironman 70.3 Couer d’Alene finisher hat, a fleece scarf, and rain pants and jacket. My MSR snowshoes and Amazon trekking poles completed my gear.
I met up with the rest of the group at the Puyallup Park & Ride early Saturday morning. Mount Rainier had received quite a bit of snow the night before, so rumor had it the park gate would open later than usual. Rather than wait in Puyallup, we agreed to meet up again at a cafe closer to our destination, where we could get an update on the gate opening time. I followed everybody else southward to the cafe in Eatonville.
The place was packed with people waiting for the park to open. We got donuts and coffee and then word came that the gate would be opening at 10:00 a.m., so we headed out again. Interestingly, I had to visit the loo twice while at the cafe. My stomach was a bit distressed, but that is not abnormal for me. My stomach always feels distressed before a triathlon, but as soon as the starter gun goes off, I’m fine. That’s just what my stomach does when I’m excited and a little anxious, so I thought nothing of it.
We met up again at Longmire, and a few minutes later, the park gate opened, and we began the long, slow, windy drive to the top, being mindful of snow plows driven by Mario Andretti clones. And then we were at the overnight parking lot, unloading our gear.
I swear my pack weighed 300 pounds, although it was probably closer to 40 or 45. I should have weighed it before I left, but frankly, it was too heavy. I needed help getting into it, but as soon as it was on my back, it wasn’t too bad. However, I had forgotten to secure the bag of deadman stakes to my pack. There was no way I was taking that thing off now, and with no place to put them, I decided to just carry it. We were snowshoeing in only about a mile and half, so no big deal. With the thermos of hot chocolate, the bag weighed probably only four pounds.
Big mistake. The trail up the mountain started climbing pretty steeply almost immediately. As if the weight of that pack wasn’t hard enough on my poor knees, that damn bag of stakes kept banging into my trekking pole with every step, threatening to knock me off balance.
I was quickly overheating. I was just too hot, despite the 24-degree weather. I pulled off my hat, which also pulled off my hair tie, making things worse. Wind blew my hair around, tangling it in my pack and covering my eyes, blocking my vision. Now I was even hotter as my long hair prevented any heat from escaping from my neck. And, I couldn’t see. With my pack on, I couldn’t remove any layers.
I tried keeping my hair out of my eyes with my hands, but it was slowing me down even more. By this time, the rest of the group was already almost out of sight. Once again, I was falling behind. I had to catch up, and to do that, I had to get my hair under control. I dropped the bag of stakes in the snow and stopped to retie my hair, but it kept getting tangled. I couldn’t get that bloody tie in! By now, it was just a snarled mess. I was swearing like a sailor, cursing every god I could think of, when I heard “take your time, we’re in no hurry” from behind me.
D’oh! When I had looked back a few minutes ago, there was no one else. I thought I was alone. I was embarrassed others had witnessed my tantrum. Even worse, it was a couple of our instructors, our trip leaders. I felt humiliated and mumbled a sheepish response. Finally, on my fourth try, I got the tie around my hair, pulling it off my neck while the trip leader secured the bag of stakes to my pack.
Hair and stakes out of the way, and I was able to make good time. A short time later, I arrived at the campsite where everyone was setting up their tents. I assisted my tentmate the best I could; she had a beautiful Big Agnes tent and was particular about how things were set up, so I mainly just tried to stay out of her way. Her tent had two vestibules, which was good because it gave each of us a door. I dug a coldwell on my side for my gear. I had not heard this term before, but essentially it means digging a pit under the vestibule. It creates more space and makes it easier to get in and out of the tent. I was surprised how well it worked. What a great idea!
After we finished setting up, we joined everyone else digging snow caves on the mountainside. Some had really good starts on their caves. I had no plans to sleep in one, so I helped another group haul away the snow as they dug it out.
Basically, with these snow caves, we carved out the front of the slope into a flat surface, and then dug an entrance about two feet wide, five feet high, and three feet deep. From there, we widened it to a T shape, building benches wide enough and long enough to sleep on.
I helped for a bit, and then Mother Nature called again. This was really odd for me. I rarely get more than one of those kinds of Mother Nature calls in a week, and this was my third in 24 hours. And, it was something I really didn’t want to do up here because we are required to pack out all solid waste. Everything. Not just TP. Yep, that waste, too. Yuck! But, I had come prepared. My toiletry bag contained not only a roll of toilet paper and some wet wipes–by the way, these freeze, so be sure to pack them with a hand warmer when the temperatures drop–but also several plastic bags, including a gallon Ziploc bag to prevent…err…leakage.
Someone, and I don’t know who, had dug two very nice latrines in the snow. Paths were carved deeper and deeper into the snow on the side of the mountain, and then turned a 90-degree corner into a small grove of trees, creating privacy. The women’s latrine had a snow “bench,” not for sitting on, obviously, but for squatting over. Brilliant! This kept pee from splashing onto our boots and gaiters. I did my business, took care of my business, dropped off my deposit back at the tent, and rejoined everyone on the snow cave field.
Unfortunately, snow cave digging was over. There had been just too much fresh snow the night before. It hadn’t had time to settle, and one of the caves had collapsed. There was no way anyone was sleeping in them now. Instead of digging out snow, everyone was tossing it back in. That was sad. I was really looking forward to seeing a snow cave!
Snow caves filled in; next task–digging a kitchen. One of the instructors showed us how to design the area and dig it out of the snow. First, we cut lines with snow saws (try saying “snow saws” ten times fast!), and then we dug out the blocks with our shovels and used the excess snow to build up back rests on the benches. In no time, we had a nice pit dug out, surrounded by bench seating, with a long table in the middle. Nice! We were all soon crowded around the table, cooking our dinners over backpacking stoves. Interestingly, the canister stoves, which often struggle in cold weather, seemed to do as well as the liquid fuel stoves.
We sat around talking, well into the night. It was really nice and peaceful. A small group went for a late-night snowshoe trip. I have enough issues in daylight, so I passed. I wasn’t really feeling up to it, anyway. I could feel Mother Nature calling again. In fact, it was more like a pack of gerbils squabbling in my guts.
I turned in at about 9:30 p.m. and despite using BOTH zero-degree bags, I could not get warm. I was freezing. But, I lay there shivering, determined to stick it out. I was going to make it through that damn night and greet the dawn as if I’d had the best sleep of my life!
From this point, my story gets TMI
I was miserable all night. Because of the tent’s design, we slept head to foot, and I had the downhill side. I kept sliding head-first into the end of the tent, and my synthetic sleeping bag, which I was using as a quilt over my down bag, became totally soaked from condensation. And, with my head downhill, I felt like I was suffocating. I had to sit up periodically to drain the build-up of fluid from my head.
At 3:56 a.m., Mother Nature’s call was too strong. I swung my legs out into the coldwell and grabbed my boots. The hand warmers I’d shoved inside were frozen solid. I jammed my feet in, surprisingly without too much trouble, but the laces were laden with frozen chunks of ice. There was no way I’d be able to tie them, so I hobbled to the latrine, holding the end of my laces in my hand. Fortunately, they were long enough that it wasn’t much of a hindrance.
It was a bitterly cold, absolutely clear night. The sky was alit with millions of crystal clear stars and the snow glittered like tiny diamonds in the moonlight. It was stunning and reminded me of home in Fairbanks, Alaska. I felt weepingly homesick. Any other time, I would have stopped in my tracks and taken it all in. My phone would have come out, and I would have done my best to capture it forever.
But not tonight. I was sad I couldn’t enjoy the view. I was too unsteady to look up for more than a second, and past caring. I did my business, and this time, there was no way I could pack out the mess, so I just buried it with snow. Sadly, I knew it was time for me to go. There was going to be no tomorrow for me, other than returning home as soon as I could.
First, I had to wait for daylight. I climbed back in the tent and sat, wrapped in one of my sleeping bags, with my feet sticking out into the coldwell. I was thirsty, but both water bottles were completely frozen. I was miserable.
I sat there for about a half hour, and then my feet just got too cold, and I climbed back in both bags. I don’t remember sleeping, but the next time I opened my eyes, it was daylight. I could hear people talking outside.
I jammed my feet into my boots, stumbled up to the first instructor I saw, and let him know I needed help and had to leave. I couldn’t stay. Without being able to keep any liquids in me, I could become dehydrated quickly, creating an even bigger problem.
And that was the end of my winter camping trip. I packed up my gear and someone helped me struggle into my pack. One of the instructors broke trail all the way back to the truck, and I followed behind. I could tell she wasn’t very happy. I couldn’t keep up, and she had to keep stopping to wait for me. I was afraid if I moved too fast I would lose it, and I wasn’t sure out of which end. Maybe both.
I wish I had been feeling better. I wish I could have finished the trip properly. It was a perfect day; not a cloud in the sky. Every peak for miles was starkly visible against a blue background. I was too sick to even pull out my phone and take photos. It was all I could do to stay on my feet. Plus, I’d missed out on the pancake breakfast the trip leaders had cooked for us. I love pancakes!
It took about an hour, maybe a bit longer, to get to Big Red. It felt like the hike out was never going to end, and I was happy to see Big Red waiting patiently for me in the parking lot. I threw my arms around it and gave it a big hug. I love my trucks. They always wait for me so patiently!
I turned the key and the big engine purred to life; a sweet, welcoming sound. I let it warm up as I scraped enough ice from the windows to drive. Next stop: the visitors center to use the loo. I needed to shit, throw up, and brush my teeth, and then I could head home. I don’t know if the instructor left at that point, too, or if she went back and rejoined the group. In any case, I could tell this was not how she wanted her trip to end, and I felt bad for her. Still, I knew I made the right decision.
The two-hour drive home took five hours. I had left a half-filled bottle of PowerAde in the truck, and I thawed it on the heater vent on the way down the mountain. But, I just couldn’t keep it down. My water bottle thawed, too, but I couldn’t even keep water down. I stopped at every rest stop and, at times, on the side of the road.
After a few hours at home, I knew I was becoming dehydrated, so I made a quick trip to the Urgent Care. They said they had seen several people that day complaining of the same symptoms and they gave me a magic pill to control the nausea. I don’t know what it was, but I felt better almost immediately.
Anyway, not a good ending to my long anticipated winter camping trip. I will take this course again next year. I want a happy ending!
And next time, I’ll remember to wear my big girl panties.
Things I learned or to think about:
- Coldwells are awesome.
- Two zero-degree sleeping bags don’t appear to be any warmer than one zero-degree bag. I need to find a better solution, perhaps a bivy.
- Hand warmers did a great job of keeping my electronics warm. I put my phone in one glove with two hand warmers and my Goal Zero flashlight, shark headlamp, and battery chargers in another glove with two hand warmers. Everything was still warm in the morning.
- Hand warmers didn’t keep my boots warm–the hand warmers froze, too. I’m not sure why they worked in my gloves and not in my boots, but it could be because my boots were open and let cold air in, whereas gloves are flat and kept cold air out. Perhaps I need to put something in my boots to block off the cold air from entering?
- Hand warmers are awesome in general. I pretty much had them in my gloves the entire time in camp, and even on the trek back to the truck.
- Foot warmers not so much. I used two on each foot at night, but honestly, I couldn’t feel any heat. I probably should have just put hand warmers in my socks when I went to bed.
- I did not want to fill my water bottles with hot water and put them in my sleeping bag at night because I’ve seen this fail too many times in YouTube videos. But, I may want to rethink this next time. It was probably close to zero degrees F Saturday night, and my water bottles froze solid, leaving me nothing to drink when I woke up thirsty.
- Although my deadman stakes were a great idea and worked well, at two pounds, they were too heavy and bulky for backpacking. Next time, I won’t be a cheap ass. I will put this on my gear shopping list and fork out the bucks for the most lightweight ones I can find.
- Don’t try carrying bags, no matter how small or light they may feel initially. After a while, they become a PITA, especially if they swing.
- The insulated water bottle with hot chocolate was a great idea, but not for backpacking. It added too much weight, and the contents didn’t stay hot. Save that for River Song.
- I’m not sure two one-liter water bottles are needed in an area with a shit-ton of newly fallen snow. Although it takes energy to melt snow, one liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds. I’m pretty sure it takes less than 2.2 pounds of energy to melt enough snow for one liter of water. If we were planning on hiking all day, then two bottles for sure. But we were hiking in a short distance and then setting up camp. Plenty of opportunity to melt snow.
- I brought too much food. Again.
- The liquid fuel stoves are scary. The priming, burning off fuel to warm up the burner thingy, making sure everything is securely attached, turning stuff the right direction, etc. Just too many things to go wrong. At one point, someone spilled fuel, and it had to be set it on fire to burn off. I don’t want to deal with scary stuff like that. The canister stoves seemed to work well enough, but aren’t always reliable in cold temperatures. I need to find a solution that fits the best of both worlds without the scary part. As with lightweight deadman stakes, I am willing to fork out some bucks to get the appropriate solution.
- My shark headlamp was awesome. It gave me all the light I needed, and it didn’t shine in anyone’s eyes. Great design! And looks fantastic, too! I was the only one wearing a shark on my head.
- One of my biggest concerns had been shitting in the woods and dealing with it. Previously, I’ve always just buried it and packed out my used paper, but I couldn’t do that here. I had to haul it out, and frankly, it’s just gross. But, I did it. Not just once, but twice, and it really wasn’t too bad. Until it got too bad. The fact that it froze almost instantly might have helped.
- I’m much happier in my own tent than sharing one.
- I should bring my own shovel, too.
- In fact, forget sharing; be radically self reliant. I am a Burner, after all. Although I appreciate the sharing part and being part of a team, I prefer to take a more active learning role, rather than passive with someone else making all the decisions. I can be part of a team and also use my own equipment; the two are not mutually exclusive. And, borrowing other people’s stuff makes me feel like I’m in the way. I want to do my own thing, make my own decisions, and have my own learning experience. While being part of a team.