COLD COMFORT

  • By Sarah Jackson / Herald Writer
  • Friday, February 24, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

I am lying beside my husband, Matt, in the smallest two-person tent known to man.

Though we’ve been in this familiar backcountry position before, many times, it’s rarely been in snow, and it’s never, ever been this cold.

Frost is crystallizing in curious shapes on the purple edges of the tent surrounding our mummy-style sleeping bags.

Our rain fly froze hours ago.

“We’re idiots,” Matt says.

“I know,” I say, peeking out of my bag’s tiny face hole, dreading the moment we will have to pack up. “We are about to experience the coldest night of our lives.”

Right now it is, we estimate, zero degrees, though it’s kind of hard to tell for sure at this point. My cheap thermometer’s digital screen doesn’t work well in air this frigid.

This is called snow camping.

Yes, it’s partly the sick thrill of doing something we’re pretty sure only a few people, if any, are doing right now that keeps us going on this supposedly record-breaking weekend of cold.

But we also just want to camp. You can only do so many day hikes and short snowshoeing trips before you pine for a night of solitude in the woods.

It’s also a chance for us to worship some new gear.

I just purchased a new backpack from Osprey, the Ariel 55, a snazzy little number that gives me more space (55 liters) for winter trips just like this one.

Now I have room for a thousand different hand warmers as well as 27 pairs of gloves and mittens. My sleeping bag, rated for minus 5 degrees and ideal for my chronically cold backside, also fits perfectly into my precious little Ariel.

Matt, meanwhile, has acquired a new Arcteryx backpack, the Needle 45, and an ultralight sleeping bag, rated to zero degrees.

With all this and more in tow, we set out snowshoeing, eventually reaching a little-known ridge about two miles in, near the Cooper River in Eastern Washington.

It all starts out like a spring day. We walk and sweat in the sun, wearing only a couple of thin layers.

Where is this record cold?

After we stake out a majestic campsite, Matt, who had hoped to create a snow cave, finds only rock-hard snow and instead digs a tent hole and then starts chiseling icy blocks of snow to create igloo walls around it.

It seems silly as the sun heats my thermometer, hung on a small conifer, to 54.6 degrees.

Not knowing quite what to do with myself, I carve out a snow chair so I can kick back, catch some rays and make hot chocolate.

Undulating pillows of snow surround us with only dainty rabbit tracks to interrupt the diamond crystals on the surface.

However, as the short daylight hours pass and the sun dips behind the opposite ridge – well before I expect it to – the temperature rapidly plummets to 19.3 degrees.

It’s 4 p.m.

It is going to be a long night.

Shocked by the cold and ready to warm up, we quickly tidy our camp, drink some hot tea and climb into our sleeping bags, wearing balaclavas, with me saying, “I hope there aren’t any bears out.”

“All the bears are hibernating,” Matt says.

“All bears?” I wonder, putting on down booties.

Matt quickly drifts off to sleep.

Thirty minutes later, he wakes up: “I don’t understand what these sleeping bags ratings mean. Maybe a zero-degree bag means: ‘If you’re wearing every article of clothing that you have, you’ll survive a night at zero degrees.’ Lower than that, and they’re not making any promises.

“Let’s boil our Nalgenes now.”

Matt boils water, pours it into our Nalgene-brand wide-mouth water bottles (which can handle subzero temps and boiling liquids) and then we use them as little heaters inside our sleeping bags to warm whatever parts are cold.

When the water cools off a bit, we use it to make hot chocolate or tea. When that’s gone, we just boil another round of snow and start the cycle again.

Thanks to this wonderful method – as well as a hot meal at 8 p.m. and a complete lack of wind – we stay fairly warm, boiling water every two to three hours, and frequently getting up to gawk at the breathtaking stars.

There are so many.

In town, you see only the greatest hits of the solar system. But out here, well, wow, you have to see it to believe it. Jupiter winks every color of the rainbow and there are so many points of white light it’s almost scary. It seems like the cold air makes them brighter.

Then again, we are too cold to stay outside our sleeping bags for very long.

As we keep checking the thermometer, it is always in the single digits, usually registering about 3 degrees, but that’s after holding and tilting the thing a while to get a reading, which, I’m sure, warms it up.

By morning, we can hardly wait for the all-powerful sun to come back. After lounging in the tent until about 8 a.m. and warming up granola bars with hand warmers so they won’t break our teeth, we break camp in filtered sunlight, having waited this long only out of necessity.

Our boots, stored outside the tent under the rain fly, are ice, complete with lacecicles. And despite the best efforts of a fresh batch of toe warmers, it will be an hour into the trek back before we can feel our toes.

If we don’t lose our digits to frostbite, I’ll consider this trip a success, I think. I’ve had worse mornings.

Yes, this is how desperate we are for the Great Outdoors – a deep yearning that doesn’t subside, even when temperatures are low, which actually carries a glorious guarantee of no rain.

We just want to camp, to lie on the lumpy ground, all alone, for a night.

It’s not so bad if you’re prepared.

In fact, with all the sunshine, bright blue skies and white slopes in view on our snowshoe out, I am hardly noticing the cold at all right now.

When the feeling comes back into my toes, this will be the perfect end to a trip of pure backpacker bliss.

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or sjackson@heraldnet.com.

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