Whenever something isn’t going well on a trip or we’re struggling to get through a tough bit, I usually turn to my partner in real time and say, “Hey, remember the time we [fill in the blank]? That was awesome.”
“Hey, Bill, remember that time we went snow camping and your sleeping mat wouldn’t hold air so you had to sleep on a backpack and a butt pad? That was awesome.”
Or, “Hey, Bill, remember that time we went backcountry skiing and your binding broke so you had to ski back to the car on one ski like Lane Myer in “Better Off Dead”? That was awesome.”
It’s a gentle reminder that our struggle together will be a good story one day even if it’s sucking in the moment.
It’s also a gentle reminder to never trust weather forecasts and seize every good minute, no matter how many blisters you have or how cooked you are. Because you never really know what’s going to happen the next day.
In late December, when the holidays have overwhelmed me and I’m already dreaming of summer trips, I always think about snow camping as a stop-gap measure. I dream of wide open slopes and perfect snow and eternal sunshine and me and my friends laughing at our charming foibles and antics. It’s the stuff of REI catalog covers.
But then there is the reality of snow camping. All of the gear, the constant moisture and temperature management, the short days and the long nights, the melting of snow for drinking water, the fact that skiing with a 30 pound pack is effing hard, the exhaustion, and, the kicker, it’s cold. Damn cold.
When I got out of my toasty sleeping bag and walked down to the pee tree at midnight, the waxing gibbous moon lit up Mt. St. Helens like a summer day. Frost immediately formed on my pile pants, the moisture from my body heat changing properties magically before my eyes. It was 25 degrees and as still as a frog pond. I stood at the tent, looking at the yellow mushroom of light created by Portland in the valley below and the barren moonscape around me. It had been a fantastic day and I sighed a frosty puff of happiness. This was snow camping at its finest.
As I bent to crawl back into my warm bag, a breeze blew over the ridge and gently rocked the tent. Little did I realize it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end. We had skied up to timberline from Red Rock Pass that day, climbing under mostly cloudy skies gently first along the road at Cougar Sno-Park and then up the lava fields to a prominent gully just east of Butte Camp Dome. A mid-week snow storm had dumped 24 inches of new snow on top of a spring consolidated base and it had stabilized by Saturday. It was winter snow, a late season gift, easy to break and a dream to ski. Our plan was to camp overnight and then spend most of the next day playing on the slopes above camp in the sunshine – an REI catalog moment. That’s what the forecast promised.
With all of our food, fuel, and gear, it was a slow, sweaty fight against gravity for five miles and 2,000′ to our camp. Angry red blisters formed on my heels from my wet boots, the kind that feel like you’re stabbing your feet with a red hot poker. We broke out of tree line into a grey world with no depth of field. We picked a protected spot in a small island of trees at timberline, set up camp, and put our skies back on for some turns. The white grey world shifted, a pocket of blue building on the eastern horizon.
The higher we climbed, the icier and more windblown it got. I, with my crummy telemark skills, was nervous about getting too far up the mountain with nothing but ice and wind crust between me and my camp booties. We ended up peeling off and skiing up and down the ridgeline a few times in really lovely snow before I called uncle and went to see about my red poker blisters. It was about then that the sun came out.
I expected to see more of the same the next morning, but the light breeze that came over the ridge at midnight built into a stiff northerly wind that blew away most of the good snow to reveal the ice sheet below and covered our tracks from the previous day. There would be no REI catalog dreams fulfilled on this day. We packed up in the wind and horizontal snow and skied back down the canyon, trying our best to stay upright in the breakable crust and not get run over by snow machines barreling up the gully.
And that first bit of this story about Bill’s sleeping mat not holding air and him having to sleep on a backpack and a butt pad in the snow? True.
And about his binding breaking and him having to ski down on one ski (with a 35 pound pack)? Also true.
“Hey, Bill, remember that time we went snow camping on Mt. St. Helens and the forecast was reversed? That was awesome.”