Winter Camping

Being a member of the Colorado Mountain Club, I had heard about the Winter Camping School that was offered and thought, why not test my camping and backcountry skills on the snow?  The class lasted about a month with three evening lectures at the American Alpine Center and then three weekend overnight trips.  Our instructors had some pretty impressive resumes with some having climbs of Aconcagua, Denali and Mt Rainier.  Knowledge and experience was not an issue.

During the lectures we covered topics such as: planning (goals, weather), equipment (boots, shovels), cold weather ailments (frostbite, hypothermia) and site selection (avalanche risk, snow conditions).  We had two training days in the field before our overnight trips which is where we applied what we had learned and of course the obligatory stop at Tommyknockers Brewery in Idaho Springs after every session.

We went to St Mary’s Glacier and camped below tree line for our first over night trip.  When we arrived, we began digging out areas for our tents.  The St Mary’s Glacier weather is notorious for wind and blowing snow and this weekend was no exception.  It is important to create some type of barrier from the wind, so we stacked snow blocks that we cut and built walls.  After our tent compound was complete, we began carving blocks to build our kitchen area.  This is where we all cooked and melted snow for drinking water and where we all froze together before we crawled into our sleeping bags.  One member of our team learned an invaluable lesson – always keep the sheath on your snow saw when not in use.  It was a freak accident, but a gust of wind blew something out of their pack and when they went to grab it, they hit the saw that was stuck in the snow with their hand.  It left a pretty nice gash that required stitches.  Needless to say, the instructors worked quickly to get him off the mountain and to an emergency room.  Unfortunately, this cut their trip short, but they rejoined us on the last outing.

This weekend was our last trip as a class.  Winter storm “Triton” was bearing down on the Front Range, but we still headed to the high country.  With snow-packed roads and lots of accidents, we slowly made our way west.  Finally we arrived at the Second Creek trailhead between Berthoud Pass and Winter Park with a fresh layer of powder to greet us.  We all grabbed our gear and headed up the trail to about 11,000 feet, where we set up camp.  One of the instructors and I attempted to build a snow cave.  After 2 hours of work, we found a crack in our ceiling that made it unfit to stay in.  He used his back-up tent and I attempted another, much smaller snow cave.  Temperatures were supposed to dip to -8 F and a snow shelter is warmer than a tent, as the ambient air is a constant 32 F inside.  Snow is an excellent insulator and sound barrier.  After setting up camp, we went snowshoeing, ate some dinner, hung around and again, froze together before going to sleep.  I woke up around 6am and fired up the stove for some scrambled eggs, potatoes and bacon and some hot coffee.  Everyone else started slowly crawling out of their tents and we all hung around in the kitchen until we were thawed out enough to start packing.  It snowed almost the entire time, until just before we broke camp.  With blue skies trying to pierce the clouds, we finally saw the beautiful landscape that had surrounded us all night.  Denver only saw half of the snow that was predicted, but we had a fun hike down in about 12 inches of fresh powder.

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Colorado Mountain Club: Snow Day

On Saturday, we had our dreaded “Snow Day” with our CMC, Wilderness Trekking School class.  It is the class that the instructors had been warning us about since we started because the weather is so strange in April.  It could be 50 degrees with snow, or -20 with snow because we would be at over 10,000 feet.  One instructor even e-mailed us a video from his Snow Day in 2009, which looked brutal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=re8byHYirCI

We arrived at St Mary’s Glacier trailhead early and geared up.  The school provided everyone with helmets and ice axes, as these were required for the days’ exercises and to traverse the glacier.  We checked the temperature when we arrived and it was a chilly 23 degrees and windy.  There was a fresh dusting of snow on the road and the trail.  As we neared tree line, we could see the wind blowing snow off the glacier and the adjacent peaks.  We estimated 30-40 mph winds.  Our instructors made the call to stop in the trees and conduct a few classes before heading up to the glacier, as we wouldn’t be able to hear them (they were right).  These lectures echoed our homework and the previous class we had on avalanche awareness and snow travel.  We learned to read slope angles to predict avalanche prone areas and learned about snow shelters.  We also tested the snow by cutting about 3-4 feet down with a snow saw and dissecting the different layers to determine how stable the snow layers were.  After the lectures, we geared back up and headed towards the glacier.  The wind was furious and we couldn’t tell if it was actually snowing, or just blowing snow.  The glacier is located between two peaks, which created a wind tunnel at over 11,000 feet.  We zig zagged up the glacier, using the different travel methods we had learned with the ice ax.  The instructors guided us over to the side, where we had lunch.  Thankfully, the winds started to subside.  After a brief lunch, we moved up one of the slopes and dug out a few snow benches, so we could learn the last portion of our class: ice ax self-arrest.  We were instructed on how to stop yourself from sliding if you fell on a steep slope.  The ice ax is your lifeline!!  The weather after lunch couldn’t have been better.  The winds slowed, the sun came out and we had temperatures in the 40’s.  It was a great day, aside from a little wind burn.  We headed to Tommy Knocker Brewery in Idaho Springs after we packed up.  What better way to thaw out than with some great brew and food???

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