This past Christmas Eve was about the coldest night I’ve camped outside since I was a teen in Alberta.
Before I left the ranger station in Yellowstone, I was put through the grind by not one, but by two rangers, to see if I was worthy of a backcountry camping permit, due to the crippling cold weather. After watching a video from what appeared to be the 1980’s on cold weather camping, (the girl in the video was wearing a neon green Jordache style snowsuit). I was then questioned on survival tactics and winter gear. “No sir, I do not have the proper gear as outlined in your 1982 Hall & Oates survival video.” As cold as it was, I think their interrogation was based more on the inconvenience of having to go rescue some smuck in genitalia shrinking weather, rather than caring whether or not I actually lived or died. But I shouldn’t complain, they do a thorough job to weed out the imposters (maybe crazy people?) and being my life was in their hands, I felt pretty confident when the ranger said with a sarcastic smile “have fun out there and enjoy your trip.” One thing you’ll notice about park rangers is the common sense most of them have, based on some of the stupid shit people say and do. “How do the elk know they are supposed to cross at the elk crossing signs?” “Are the bears with collars tame?”
I was one of only two people in the whole northern section of the park that night according to the rangers. I needed to meet this other person, I needed to look into his eyes and see if I could spot the Craziness.
I settled on an area north of Blacktail Creek about 10 miles east of Mammoth. From there it was about a 4 mile hike into the great frost barrier.
The sun was up and the views were killer, the air was cold but tolerable. The Bear Tooth Mountains visible to the north were beautiful, yet ruggedly intimidating. Snow capped peaks as far as my eyes could see, which isn’t so far these days. There were elk grazing on a hill to the northeast and there was a lone Buffalo in front of me who paid me no attention at all. He was moving snow with his snout, trying to find grass to eat, his every exhale was like the smoke from a hundred cigarettes my old grade 2 school teacher would smoke on an average day. RIP Mrs. Carnine.
Pulling a sled is nothing new for me. My friends and I would use a sled when we winter camped up in Alberta as kids. Our equipment was menial at the time (allowance reflective) and made for some REAL survival trips. But luckily for me, I have a big boy job and my gear was up to par. But- I could tap into my kid side every time I was faced with the downslope of a hill. I rode my sled down on several, only tipping several times.
Like the castle in its corner, In a medieval game, I foresee terrible trouble, Yet I stay here just the same – Steely Dan
Extreme camping is exhausting. The expenditure of energy setting up, trying to stay warm, keeping the snow at bay, walking in snowshoes, keeping your clothing dry, (especially from the inside) batteries and electronics from freezing, preparing (mostly frozen) food and plenty of it to keep the calories high in order to stay warm, melting snow for water with a camp stove as most of the streams are frozen, trying to stay hydrated at a higher altitude, not being able to build a fire due to winter fire regulations, dreaded late night pee sessions, where you curse yourself for having a bladder, crawling out of your cozy cocoon to go outside and pull it out (enough to make any man cry), listening to noises at night where every snapping twig in your mind is a bear waking up from hibernation, getting up in the morning with a tent covered in ice, and not just on the outside. Then after all this you pack up your wet cold, snowy gear and hike the 3-4 miles back to where you started. You ask why then would a person go off to die like this?
To everyone else, it’s a suffer fest. To me, it’s something entirely different.
First off, the park is completely isolated. It’s as pure and closest to its natural element this time of year. The solitude, the chance of feeling at one with nature, the challenge, the experience. Everything looks so clean, the snow covers the earth’s blemishes. Those who hunger for a respite from civilization will find it if they’re brave enough to step out of their comfort zone. It’s a time where the animals anxiety is at its lowest. Most of them are in the lowlands, feeding off grass where there is less snow. So where you have Buffalo you also have Elk, and Bighorn Sheep. And where the prey go, so do the predators. Large wolf packs. No bugs. The bears are hibernating. You’ll see stars like never before, witness a moon dog or stand in awe under a veil of Northern Lights streaking across the sky. Unless you live down south, for 5 months out of the year we’re stuck in winter. That’s a lot of time to be stuck indoors. It’s a way to embrace and take advantage of the whole year and everything Mother Nature has to offer.
And… no one wants to admit it, but one of the big advantages of winter camping is that you’re doing something completely abnormal -which means when you spin a tale at the local pub, people will listen. After all, anyone can tell stories of summer camping, but share an anecdote of sleeping outside in -33 and you’re in an elite group of mad hatters.
Before I forget… I did meet “the other crazy camper.” He was that guy from Utah I mentioned in my prior post that gave up his Mormonism and was trying to find himself. Label that one however you want.