Posts Tagged ‘Snow’

**From October 2015**

Around dusk, we stumbled up to a campfire “cooey-ing” and receiving excited “cooey” responses. We knew we had found The Darkness. Dropping our packs haphazardly we each gave her a big hug and all spoke at the same time with different stories from the past 1,000 miles that she had gotten slightly behind us.

We set up tents and swapped story after story until the weather tried to snow and rain on us. We were glad to have her back, joking that the harem was reunited. Since Scallywag had taken the San Juan’s loop, he was about five to six days behind us and we needed a new bull elk. We decided Crosby was up to that task.

The weather decided not to improve in the morning, so while The Darkness stoked the fire back up, we poked around on maps and Memphis mentioned a tiny “town” called Platoro was where he had gotten off trail going nobo to flip. Taking some dirt roads over that way avoided quite a bit of above treeline in the sleet that started trying to dampen the fire. Plus, then we could catch up more since we had not exhausted our stories the previous night.

Meandering around on the dirt roads, we heard all new tales of hikers a few days behind us like the whereabouts of Lighthouse and Fun Size, Das Boots, and the Swiss Couple. The precipitation shifted switched between rain, sleet, and wisps of potential snow faster than most politicians can change positions. However, with good conversation, we stumbled into the “town” of Platoro, Colorado.

It looked creepy. Everything seemed closed. The weather added to the creepiness. Memphis started to meander away from the group looking for something.

The Darkness: Where’s Memphis going?

E.D.: Not sure.

Me: This is the point in the horror movie where we start getting picked off one by one…

Crosby: Follow?

We followed Memphis though someone’s lawn, whose windows had plywood covering them and we walked past a business of some sort, also with plywood in the windows and went toward an “open” business. It appeared to be a store, restaurant, cabin rental, and RV spot all in one. We looked longingly. We lingered. Memphis returned saying it would open in about half an hour. We wondered if we could linger on the porch out of the rain when a man approached us seemingly out of thin air, who we later learned was Michael.

Michael: You all look cold! Why don’t you come inside and warm up by the fire with tea and coffee until we open.

We gladly took him up on the offer, placed our packs on the porch, and went inside to hover as close as possible to a wood stove. Michael was incredibly hospitable and gracious opening early, putting an extra log on the fire, and letting us do a jigsaw puzzle until the kitchen could be ready again.

All of us scarfed down food as fast as they could crank it out of the kitchen. At that point in the hike, all of us needed to put on weight or at the very minimum, not lose more. The cold had been depleting our calories faster that we were able to replace them with trail food—food that we were all getting tired of.

Memphis disappeared for a bit and came back saying he got the “CDT” cabin for us all for the night because the weather tonight looked bleak. The single room cabin had three beds, an old TV, and a VCR. Naturally, all five of us fit perfectly and watched a George Clooney movie that night while the rain refused to let up. Right as we were trying to fall asleep, huge thunder claps kept us up just long enough to be thankful for the shelter.

We waited for the restaurant to open for breakfast and scarfed down even more food, while we attempted to motivate ourselves back out into the weather that had improved, but not greatly. After we reluctantly finished packing up and thoroughly talking Memphis into a cooler hat, Michael brought us back to the trail, while trying to give us jobs for the following summer.

Out into the misty, cold cloud drenched hills we climbed. We had to cross a large creek to jump back onto the CDT itself which Memphis skillfully hid from E.D. until we got to it.

Memphis: WHOA! This was raging when we had to cross it. This was why we bailed into Platoro.

We all looked at it and managed to rock hop across without our feet getting wet. What a difference snow melt could make.

The misty campsite.

Once we had climbed back up, we found a glorious campsite. Unfortunately, it was only lunchtime. As we all sat there, The Darkness scrambled around and got a small fire going while we ate. She was so excited for people after hiking alone for a week.

On top of the ridge.

It was one of those days where we all had to put on rain gear, then take it off twenty minutes later only to put it on twenty more minutes later. We hiked over one of the last 11,000 foot ridges and dropped down to a campsite by a marshy lake where The Darkness decided we needed more campfire time.

Pitching our tents, we set about helping her gather the driest wood we could find in a largely wet area. With the help of some heet, we had a fire going in no time.

The five us of sat around the fire that whole evening, well past dark talking until we hit hiker midnight (around 9pm) and fell asleep just as another rain shower passed through.

In the morning, we had to climb one more lower ridge and meander along it until we got to Cumbres Pass which we could take into Chama. The rain had ceased, but clouds passed through frequently adding a new texture to the hike. When we looked back at the last ridge over 11,000 feet, we saw the snow line. Had we camped higher, we would have woken up in snow. The top of this lower ridge had a thin layer of snow as well that melted quickly as we hurried south.

I hiked toward the road with Crosby and E.D. and the three of us caught The Darkness right before hitching. However, Memphis was nowhere in sight. We all thought he was in front of us, so we thought that he might have gotten lucky and found a ride. We threw our thumbs out while we tried to look for him coming down off the trail when we found him in the oddest way…

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**From September 2015**

Eventually, we managed to extract ourselves from the vortex of Leadville and made our way back to the Trail with a ride from a former thru-hiker in a Subaru. She dropped us off at Tennessee Pass where we moved sluggishly down the trail and quickly encountered a cooler further distracting us from Mexico.

Once we extracted ourselves from the cooler, we proceeded along the trail. Eventually, we paused and ate the subs we packed out for dinner and debated about a campsite location. The three of us came up with an “ideal” spot and a “probably spot.” I then came to the dilemma of how much of the sub to eat. I ate half just fine and wanted more, but sometimes, the other half can be too much, especially going uphill. My stomach overruled my rational brain and I ate the other half.

About a quarter mile later I regretted that as we plugged away uphill. If I was sluggish before, I became more so. Memphis had shot ahead uphill like usual and E.D. was not too far ahead of me having the same problem. When we got to the top of the climb, I noticed E.D. had found a campsite and was ready to fall asleep to digest the subway. I wanted to go a little further, but a raindrop hit my face and it was dark, so we set up tents and figured we’d find Memphis in the morning. Just as we got tents up, it began to rain and it continued most of the night.

The aspens on the way down to Twin Lakes.

The next day, we eventually got high enough to send Memphis a text. He replied that he was almost to Twin Lakes and heard about a hiker cabin available for dirt cheap by the store that Yogi slammed in her town guide. I had skipped Twin Lakes on the Colorado Trail four years prior, so I was curious. Since the weather fell into the “less than ideal” category, we wanted to see if we could snag said cabin. We had camped at about 11,000 feet and the snow line in the morning only fell about five hundred feet above us.

Memphis got into town before the store closed, rented the cabin for $30 total for all three of us and told us the location before heading to the only restaurant in the nearby hotel. With the weather turning worse in the evening, we found the cabin most comfortable and it even came with a TV/DVD set up. We had a choice between three DVDs.

When the store opened in the morning they could not have been nicer. Don’t listen to Yogi on this one. They rocked.

Leaving Twin Lakes included an adventure of its own. Ley had a dotted route cutting off about a mile, but potentially went through some swampy stuff around one of the lakes. There was a longer route with a bridge and an easier graded trail up to the steeper stuff. Memphis chose the wet feet route, I chose the dry feet route, and E.D. delayed deciding by making a phone call.

On the way up toward Hope Pass, I ran into six older women who wanted to chat. They had known each other for awhile and several had on Melanzanas.

Hope Pass was marked by a cairn with prayer flags.

Hope Pass seemed to go on forever on an overstuffed stomach, however, the storms abated. Right before the pass, I could hear the wind howling, but didn’t quite grasp the extent until I stood on top of the pass clamping my hand on my head to keep possession of my hat. I did manage to take a few timed photos and hung out there until my face felt sufficiently battered by the wind.

Descending Hope Pass was the first time in a long time that my knees began hurting. The south side had a very steep grade. I had to stop and stretch the muscles around my knees a few times.

I ran into Memphis at a stream toward the bottom. There was an opportunity to see some historic building that he was very excited about and a dirt road alternate parallel to the trail.

I continued on the trail and eventually stopped to sit at the junction of the trail and the end of the dirt road alternate in a I-have-to-eat-now moment. Just as I finished chomping an unappetizing, but effective cliff bar, E.D. and Memphis appeared and wanted to camp early. I threw my pack on and we agreed to stop for the first decent campsite we saw.

Surprisingly, that was not far down the trail. It even boasted a fire pit and a stream. We all set up and Memphis immediately set about to make a fire for the early stop. We all cooked, chatted, and slept an extra hour or two that night.

Lake Ann Pass seemed like the top of the world.

In the morning, we charged uphill to Lake Ann Pass. It was another long, steady climb with nothing but rocks toward the end. We definitely had stopped at the best campsite on the way up, which made all of us pleased. Lake Ann Pass gave us a whole new valley of scenery to stare at in awe.

The rest of the day, we spent descending and meandering around in large aspen groves. We passed one strange individual. He was obviously a hunter and not very chatty, although not threatening under what appeared to be segments of an elk he had shot and compartmentalized in large bags on his external frame pack.

We wanted to get up toward Cottonwood Pass to better get across 14 miles above treeline the next morning. This meant that we had to climb 2,000 ft at the end of the day into the waning sunlight. We managed to finish the climb and find a not so great campsite right off the road. A large group of loud people came up to park and look at the brilliant array of stars. They howled at the moon.

Coming up to Cottonwood Pass and the view of the next day’s ridgeline.

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Hello everyone!

My blog has become significantly behind. The reason for this is, is that I’ve been pushing to beat the snow through the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. The decreasing daylight made this a bit harder. I have managed to do that and am now down in New Mexico picking various spiky plants out of my feet, collecting piñon, and finding tarantulas. 

I will be back-blogging the adventure, so stay tuned!


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Tamar came with us on the Highline trail and it was great to have her along. We went up steeply from Fifty Mountain Campsite and traversed several steep snow drifts. Since we had ice axes and microspikes, we used them. The snow was still fairly hard in the morning, so it was harder kicking steps. It was nice to alternate between drifts of who had to kick. It was a lot of on again off again with the microspikes.

The Darkness kicking steps over a snow drift.

The two parts we had been warned about were a drift called Cattle Queen and one called Ahern. Cattle Queen was a piece of cake compared to the other steep stuff we had already done that morning. It was still solid and not steep. We couldn’t hear water under it yet.
We found a meadow that looked over to Ahern Drift and ate lunch there examining the short, but very steep section. Since we were some of the first few to be permitted for the Highline trail, we had no idea what to expect.
In the way between the meadow and the first, we crossed a few other drifts and found one gigantic Cascadia footprint in the mud. Someone had been here and it was most likely a thru hiker.
We stopped before the drift. Some very melted and refrozen colossal steps went across the drift. They were very obviously made by someone well over six feet tall.
The Darkness: “Who wants to kick steps?”

Me: “I’m game, but if you’re super excited to, I’d be fine with that, too.”

The Darkness: “I’ll put you a beer if you kick the steps.”

Me: “Done.”
She speaks my language!
The first few steps were softish. The “steps” already there were so big that those of us in the 5’2″ realm needed two extra steps between the somewhat existing ones. Then the second somewhat existing one would be for the wrong foot. That meant that we could rekick only every other already somewhat existing step.
I begin being able to kick ten hard kicks per step.
The Darkness: “Make that two beers.”
I asked her to keep an eye on our progress so I could have a more narrow focus of making solid steps. I’d rather not use my WFR skills if one of us fell and had trouble self arresting.
The Darkness: “About 40%”
The wind started picking up.
The Darkness: “There’s a small storm brewing over there coming toward us, but it’s super isolated. What do you think?”

Me: “I haven’t heard thunder…I say keep going, you?”

The Darkness: “Yup”
Ten minutes later it sprinkles. Then hails.
Me: “Remember how we stopped early yesterday so it didn’t do something like hail on us?”

The Darkness: “Yeah. 50%.”

Me: “I think it jinxed us.”
A large gust of wind came through and I had to back step for balance. The middle of the slope was very icy. Once the gust stopped, I began trying to kick steps again. Fifteen kicks and I barely have a step. I make sure I’m stable and use the ice axe to hack out a step. Much nicer. Foot placed. Ice axe moved forward. Next step is the same. Hack hack hack. Then the snow goes back to too hard but not icy.
The Darkness: “60%”

Me: “We should probably have helmets on for this.”

The Darkness: “These epiphanies you’re having are fantastic.”
The hail stops. Slow but steady. The slope gets steeper. A foot sized rock is in my way.
Me: “I’m going to knock this rock down.”

The Darkness: “Do it. 70%”
I knock the rock and all three of us watch the rock tumble for over a minute past the snow and continue tumbling down the rocks.
We’re almost to a small moat.
Me: “My body wants to stake the most, but my brain says that’s a dumb idea.”

The Darkness: “My body’s saying go but my heart is saying no…”

Me: “… If you wanna be with me, baby there’s a price to pay…”

The Darkness: “… I’m a genie in a bottle…”

Me: “…gotta rub me the right way…”

The Darkness: “90%”
The snow got softer. The steps got easier. Then solid ground! I sat down shaking with hunger and ate. Tamar was cold so she hiked uphill a bit to warm up. A new storm was brewing with some powerful wind and we were glad to be over the hardest part.

The rest off the Highline trail was fairly smooth with one nasty patch of blowdowns. We parted ways with Tamar at the junction where she could get to the road and we could go to Many Glacier.
The Darkness and I ate dinner before hiking over Swiftcurrent Pass. For me, that was breakfast cookies. Tasted delicious.
I was slow up Swiftcurrent Pass, but coming down over the other side was spectacular. There were some snow patches, but it was easy to find the trail again. Cut into the side of the cliff, the trail wound down switchback after switchback trading glimpses between a wall of waterfalls and beautiful sky blue lakes which reflected the mountains.
As soon as the snow drifts stopped, I switched back to my sandals and my feet breathed a sigh of relief. Dry socks and sandals felt so great. It even made my knee scream a little less.
We stumbled into the Many Glacier car camping campground to find our “backcountry” site which was labeled as such despite the plethora of RVs in close proximity. This was also different, I learned, than the hiker/biker site. However, flush toilets were great!
We managed to set up our tents and pass out.


Ahern Drift on the right.


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“Don’t say we’re hiking to Mexico at the border crossing, Yogi says they won’t believe you,” I reminded the car.”We’re just hiking through Glacier National Park, right,” The Darkness agreed.
As we approached the Canadian border, border patrol asked us the usual questions and we answered.
Border Patrol: “Where are you going today?”

Me: “We’re going to hike through Glacier National Park”

Border Patrol: “So, you’re driving another six hours then?”

Me: “Um, no the Glacier National Park right there…I can throw a rock into it.”

Border Patrol: “Ah, Canada has a Glacier National Park, too eh”
After we get through with a minor misunderstanding about bear spray, we made it to Waterton Lakes National Park (in Canada) and find a parking lot near Waterton Lake. The Darkness and I reorganize our packs and eat a bit. My amazing Mom, who offered to drive my car back to Seattle, helped and watched.
Right as we started to leave, it began to rain. Mom did manage to take a picture of us before we set about trying to find the trail. The first park was actually paved, which we got a kick out of.
We walked along the west side of Waterton Lake up and down over the cliff sides for several miles talking and being lightly rained upon.

Border monument

Then, out of nowhere I saw a privy! How convenient! And just a little bit further was the border monument. The rain had stopped for a bit and we took the opportunity to take a bunch of photos.
After another few miles, we came to the campsite that we were supposed to stay at according to our permit. The border patrol station we had to check in at was a mile further. I was hungry and wanted a snack, so we took a twenty minute break at the campsite and set up tents.
As we walked toward the border patrol station chatting, two bulky dudes came toward us, the bigger one treading lightly in five fingers.
Border Patrol”Can you both read?”

Us: “Yes…”

Border Patrol: “The sign at the border says come immediately to the border patrol station”

Us: “That’s where we’re heading now.”
There’s never any point in arguing with border patrol.
Border Patrol: “Can we see identification?”
We hand them our passports.
When he flips open the passport The Darkness hands him, he says,
Border Patrol: “Have you really been to the south pole?”
I knew immediately then that something was wrong and that one of us had my Mom’s passport and she had one of ours. We went with them to the actual station.  At that point other agents proceeded to use other methods of verifying The Darkness’s identification with her driver’s license while another agent told me where I could get a singular bar of cell service. I went to make sure that my Mom could get into the US and we didn’t have to hike the 9 miles back and switch passports. One of the border patrol agents said we should just keep hiking because they couldn’t actually deny entry to US citizens. I did not know that fact. Finally I managed to get through on roaming and after hearing mom got in, we continued back to the campsite, convinced they had cameras there. I suspected a pair of boots hanging in a snag near the food hanging pole.
On day two, we left the campsite with cameras and motion detectors and hiked over toward the highline trail. We had a steep climb ahead of us. The Darkness was ahead as we checked a sign for a trail junction and walked past it.
The Darkness: “Bear!”

Me: “Shoulder hump… It’s a grizzly…”
We both started talking to it, bear spray extended and it paused to look at us. A long moment passed and the bear seemed to decide that we weren’t moving (even though we were slowly backing up) and it turned around and went down the trail in the direction we wanted to go. And that’s the closest I’ve ever been to a grizzly…about 40 feet. Too close.
After seeing a griz that soon in the day, we felt more focused as we proceeded. The trail read quite brushy, but easily identifiable. After crossing a short stream, we heard something moving. As we rounded a bend we saw a backpack…just a human. So we didn’t startle him too much, we approached and said,
Me: “How are you doing?”

Guy: pauses to think. “I’m old.”

Me: “That’s a good response. I’m Veggie.”

The Darkness: “I’m The Darkness.”

Guy: “I’m Wayne, where are you two heading?”

The Darkness: “Granite campsite, you?”

Wayne: ” That’s a huge day! I’m just heading to Fifty Mountain Campsite. It’s always full of grizzlies!”

Me: “We’ve already seen one by the ranger station today.”
Wayne let us pass him and we discovered that I tend to move uphill a bit faster and she moves downhill a bit faster, so I led uphill when,
Me: “Bear!” It didn’t see us. A very distinct shoulder hump on an extent large mass lumbered in our direction. ” Hey bear…” I wanted it to realize we were there.

The Darkness: “That’s a big bear…hey bear…”
The larger griz looked at us for a moment, opened its mouth then ran straight uphill into willow looking bushes. That one was about fifty feet away…still too close.
When we got up higher, the trail started playing “now-you-see-now-you-don’t” with the snow in the trees and I put the damn trail runners on instead of my sandals to kick a few steps. I figured that if I was carrying them, I should use them. My feet rebelled…it felt wrong.


Bear prints!

We got to a large snowy meadow and crossed it toward Fifty Mountain Campsite. The meadow turned back to grass and yellow wildflowers toward the end filled with small boulders scattered about. I kept staring across at the rocks when one moved. Not a rock. Bear.
This one is about 200 feet away. It’s lumbering around eating some plants. We stop. It smells us and climbs on top of a rock to watch us. We sit and watch it. We decide that we should eat lunch and watch the bear across the meadow. We can’t tell what type of bear it is from that distance without binoculars. The bear leaves and heads toward the campsite. A few minutes later, another larger bear, with a very clear shoulder hump lumbers across the meadow toward the first meadow bear. Four bears in one day!
After lunch, we walk toward the campsite and where the last two bears went. As we peak at the campsite, the sky behind is looks like it’s going to explode. The entire horizon where the clouds moved from looked dark and had filled with thunderheads. We had a discussion. It was already 2:30pm and we still had another 12 miles to our campsite over Cattle Queen and Ahern Drift.
We decide to stay put despite what our permit says because we didn’t know how much more snow we would have to cross since no reports had been made about the Highline Trail when we got permitted for it. We set up only one tent in the back and hid under the trees for only a brief amount of rain.
After a bit, we went down near the “food prep area” and found Wayne. He thought we made a good decision. A woman named Tamar comes and the four of us have the campsite all to ourselves.
Right before we go to bed, Tamar says, “I think I’ll come with you two in the morning over the highline.”

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There comes a point in a thru-hike where a hiker’s metabolism passes the amount of calories that the hiker can carry.  Thru-hikers often run on a calorie deficit while in the woods, then need to binge on food in town to make up lost calories.  Let me say clearly that hikers will eat as much as they can carry comfortably and by no means try to limit the calories eaten on trail.  In fact, most food goes through a filter: each food item carried should have a minimum of 100 calories per ounce in order to maximize calories and minimize food weight.

Usually, I realize that I’ve come to this point when I need to eat three scoops of straight peanut butter immediately before bed or I’ll wake up at 2:00am so hungry that I have to eat.  Awhile later, there comes a point where I must find other foods with high calories because I’ll start to gag on peanut butter after eating one pound of it every four or five days.  The point without peanut butter becomes a critical one because it’s hard to beat 190 calories and 7 grams of protein in two Tbsp.  When this happens, I need olive oil to add to all food and I’ll drink the extra olive oil before leaving town.  On top of all the calorie deficits, my feet are probably starting to hurt again more than usual.

During the winter at TSS, I became so busy that I didn’t even have time to shower.  Between an intense class, Ecological Inquiry, and our Winter Teaching Practicum, I found myself accidentally going five or six days without showering.  I field taught for the first two weeks of the Winter Teaching Practicum as well as trying my best to spend my evenings working on Ecological Inquiry work.  After spending a whole day teaching kids how to cross-country ski or snow shoe while simultaneously teaching them about winter ecology, mammalian survival strategies, winter plant adaptations and keeping the kids warm when the temperature barely reaches -5 degrees Fahrenheit, the last thing that I wanted to do was homework for another class.

But wait! There’s more! The entire Ecological Inquiry class based itself in student group inquiry.  While I field taught in Kelly, two of my teammates taught young kids in Idaho, and another taught high schoolers in Jackson.  We had to communicate via google docs, email, and Facebook.  Let’s not forget sleep!  My brain began hurting again a bit more than it had.

There’s even more!  This winter, TSS popularized the term “flexi-pants.”  Every time snow changed our plans, all we would hear from any higher-ups was “Get your flexi-pants on!”  Imagine hearing that after not having time to shower for five days.

A moose outside my window.  The snow came up past the bottom of the window.

A moose outside my window. The snow came up past the bottom of the window.

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Beep Beep.  Beep Beep. 4:30 am wake up.  It’s still dark out.  My sleeping bag is warm.  Shit.  I want to go hiking.  I want to go hiking.  I sat up.  Step number one.  I drank some icy water to wake myself up on the inside.  Step number two.  Haley and I got breakfast water starting while sitting in our sleeping bags.  Step number three.  Wake JD up for breakfast and begin eating.  Step number four.  Run outside and go to the bathroom quickly.  Now we’re up.

The rustling of backpacks, boots, and sleeping bags filled the morning stillness.  Not many talked since no one had seen the sun yet and the morning cold still iced our bones.  Headlamps flickered in all directions as we packed day packs for a morning adventure.  Because of the dumping of snow the previous few days and the warmth predicted for the afternoon, we would have to start very early in order to have better snow travel conditions.

We split into two groups to cover more ground with a smaller amount of people.  Sean took Haley, Heather, James, and Jonah up on the Cameron Glacier while Roger took Ryan, JD, and I up to climb a peak or two behind the hut, in a direction we had only gazed upon and not explored.  Tracy took a knees-rest-day since they split with pain worse than splitting firewood, Hidde woke up feeling sick, and Kyle just wanted a rest day.


The four of us headed out through the fresh snow and over snow-covered moraine to get to the first slopes to climb.  We began long, relatively steep zig zags to gain elevation and not burn out our calves.  The first hints of dawn had begun when we left the hut and as we made our way up the slope, the sun began to rise through a purple-pink sky which lit up the layers upon layers of mountains surrounding us.

Taking a five minute break every hour or so, we shoveled down more calories to keep us warm and walking.  Roger doesn’t seem to like breaks much and kept pushing hard to get higher faster.  He did have a reason for doing so; as the sun came over the mountains, it began warming the snow and we began to sink more.  We found small, high meadows and a few slopes with waist deep snow which we postholed through.  Trying to stay near chunks of exposed scree, we had an easier time from not postholing, but then we had to watch our footing more in case the loose scree just gave out under our weight.  We began connecting partially exposed scree patches to each other trying not to find more waist deep snow.  Postholing exhausted us and by the time we hit the third peak, we knew we didn’t have much climbing left in us.  Getting to that last peak, the snow was so deep that I began almost crawling up.  I found that I sunk less if I used my shins as a crude snow shoe instead of my feet because it spread my weight better.

Our “rest” on top of the peak was really a “shovel food in the mouth and find the safest route down” since we could see so much from there.  A few of the slopes we climbed up, we now had to avoid because the wet, warm snow had not bonded to the bottom layers and could slide easily.  We headed toward a drainage and then followed that down.  In just a few hours, the snow had melted significantly: water ran through the drainage under the snow and the snow-covered scree slope that we started on now had only a small three inches or so on it.  That part was the worst because every step became loose and it jarred at the knees painfully.

We got back to the hut for lunch which all of us were ready for as we had about run out of snacks that we had brought up.  Conveniently, the other group got in about 15 minutes after us and we all ate together outside since the sun shone so brightly we only needed a long sleeve shirt on.  When we had trouble figuring out which of the bags of powder was which, Roger joked saying, “Just do what any good drug dealer does, dip a finger in and try the product!”  While we traded food and bargained around for our favorites, Roger and Sean had a little powwow planing session to the side of the hut.

They decided that we should move about 200 meters across the river for “mental stability” and avoid the hut area, so we packed up and moved that afternoon.  Right as we tried to set up the tents, the wind picked up something fierce.  With it came some drizzly rain and we all stayed in the tents the rest of the night not wanting to go out in the windy rain.

The next day, due to shitty, rainy, overcast weather, we had a rest day where we all stayed in our tents pretty much the whole day, occasionally jumping to another tent to see different people.   Eventually, when the rain ceased, we had a small gathering where we decided to change valleys the next day and head over to the Ashburton Valley, adjacent to the Cameron Valley.  Big move day on the mind.

Layers upon layers

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In the wee hours of the morning, we awoke groggily to about an inch and a half of snow resting of top of our tents weighing them down and making them heavier and wet.  Rubbing the eye snot out of our vision, we managed to cook some breakfast, or rather just heat up water to dump over some oatmeal and make instant coffee or tea.  That’s about all we managed on the breakfast front.  Figuring it would take more time than usual to pack up, we woke up two and a half hours before we needed to meet up to leave.  We needed it.  It took forever to dig up the ten snow anchors that held the tent in place all night.

Roger and Sean had seen a weather report when we got re-rationed and knew a weather bomb would come in sometime during the day and we should retreat down to the hut area.  However, when we staggered over to the meeting place, the sun shone high in the sky and it was clear as a bell outside.  So plans shuffled around and we got to practice falling on ropes with full packs on, which, by the way, is super awkward.  At least the snow was soft to break some of the falls as we passed through a little obstacle course Roger and Sean eagerly set up and one of us would fall at their signals.

This went on until the weather bomb decided to show it’s ugly face and everything began to get whiter and whiter.  Visibility began dropping steadily and we quickly made our way back to the hut and our food cache.  Once we uncovered it from the rocks, we set up our tents and bolted inside to make hot food and drinks to warm us all up.  We all voted to stay in that night as long as no one else came in.  They didn’t.

Instead the weather bomb dumped over a foot of snow and all three poles in the four person tent snapped and someone woke all of us up sometime in the middle of the night to run out and take down the all the tents.  Groping for boots, headlamps, and jackets, we managed to get up around 4 a.m.  Immediately after stepping outside, everyone seemed to pause as we went up to our knees in fresh powder.  No one seemed to understand fully what happened since we were all still half asleep.  No 5:30 a.m. wake up to hike call!

When we woke up a few hours later, visibility had decreased to about 10 feet maximum and all we could see out the window was a featureless bright white.  The wind blew so strong that no one even wanted to go as far as the privy (which stood maybe 30 feet from the hut and we couldn’t see it.

Twelve people.  One hut.  Lots of gear.  No space to move.  Roger decided to teach us how to predict the weather to grab our attention away from killing each other.  Then Tracy read the Hobbit out loud to a few loyal listeners while Heather, Jonah, and Hidde tried to do an ab workout in their bunks and I wished I had headphones.

The next day started out the same.  Whiteness.  Everywhere.  Instead of having to get up to break down tents in the middle of the night, we had another surprise.  Only four people double bunked that night, so Roger chose to put his sleeping mat down on the floor.  We all chuckled as he went to sleep with his headlamp and sunglasses still on his head, ready for action.  Then, out of no where in the dead of night, CRASH! Everyone but Ryan jerked awake to figure out what made the defining noise.  Luckily, the hut was small and it didn’t take long to figure out what was out of place.  JD lay on his back, still half in his sleeping bag, inches from Roger’s head.  Roger just blinked a lot as if he hadn’t quite wrapped his head around it.  JD had been on the third bunk up and had rolled off, catching his leg on the second bunk and landed on his back, sprawled out on the floor.  Surprisingly, he got up unhurt after he realized what happened and went back to bed.  Although, some bunkmate shifting happened so he could have his own bunk…on the ground level.

The morning dragged on like the morning before until suddenly the whiteness began to lift slowly and we could see the privy.  Then we could see further and further and the sun broke through with blue sky right behind it.  Quickly, Roger and Sean scrambled to organize a glacier scout mission.  At that point, I wanted whatever had fewer people in it.   When most people went with them, I decided to walk around camp outside with Heather and JD while Kyle chilled by himself in the hut with a book.  It appeared that everyone needed space after being shut in for a few days.  We made a snow man from the fresh sticky snow and a snow angel.  Kyle saw and came out with hiking poles to put in as arms.

When the other group came back, we buried a few avi beacons and raced around to dig them up making all kinds of trails in the blanket of snow.  Of course that ended the only way it possibly could: a snowball fight!  And thus, cabin fever ended. For now.

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My watch alarm beeped obnoxiously by my head at 4:30 a.m.  The stars shone brightly.  No sign of the sun had yet appeared in the sky.  Half asleep, I began to get things ready with Haley while JD lifted his head and watched us for a moment while we began to heat water for breakfast, then he went back to sleep, deciding not to go that day.  Two days of dehydration and one of moderate hypothermia had taken a toll on him and he wanted to sleep several more hours.

With our headlamps, we made breakfast in the vestibule of the tent while sitting in our sleeping bags because we found it too cold to completely get out of them.  Neither of us functioned very well that early.  Haley had not had her coffee yet.  Enough said.

After eating the nice warm granola and oatmeal mix, we rumbled around getting dressed and getting day packs together as dawn broke over the mountains.  JD somehow managed to sleep through all of this.

Breaking out of the tent, we moved to our perspective groups.  I was heading with Roger, Heather, Tracy, James, and Kyle up toward The Marquee 2100m.   Roger wanted to have us practice climbing while on rope on steep slopes to increase our comfort levels.  The other group made up of Haley, Jonah, Hidde, and Ryan went with Sean in the other direction to work with the avalanche beacons.

Again, we learned that Roger hates tardiness and he tried to leave without several people for the third time.  It was worse than my mother was growing up–she would just scold me, Roger just left.  If you weren’t there, so be it…it sucks to be you.  I’m pretty sure that Sean warned him that we had a slight punctuality problem and Roger just decided to rid us of it shock-doctrine style.

Another thing about Roger: he likes to go fairly straight up, less zigzagging and get to the point.  We did just that for an hour, until he decided we could take a water break and rope up.  Since the sun had not hit the slope we climbed, the snow still held excellently as we kicked out sturdy steps.  On the bad side, it made us fairly cold and we couldn’t stop for long.

We climbed on the rope for another hour or so, then as we grabbed some trail mix snacks and water, Roger taught us how to build snow anchors.  I found it fascinating what two feet of snow could hold!

Eventually, we got to the top of the ridge and got an amazing 360 degree view of the Cameron Valley.  The sun hit us and instantly warmed us up from our past few hours of freezing feelings.  We all looked around in awe, then:

“Guys, I can’t feel my foot,” Kyle said.

“I’m having a little trouble with mine too,” Heather echoed.

Roger sighed a bit and looked around at us, “Guys,” he started, in all seriousness, “this is when you find a buddy with a warm stomach who is not cold.”

Everyone glanced around.  I had already done that for a friend a year earlier and had gotten over the grossness of other people’s feet on my stomach, so I volunteered.  The two of them sat down and put their cold, stinky feet on my stomach for a few minutes while we passed around snacks and admired the view.

We started to go further a bit later.  When I postholed from the warmer snow, I realized I did not have my left gaiter on.  Perplexed, because I had not taken them off all day, I had no idea where it had gone.  I spoke up and we went to search for it.  When nothing appeared, I had no idea what had happened to it.  Somehow, I hoped that in my tiredness in the morning, I had left it by the tent and had just not noticed I only had one on since I had not postholed until the top.

Heading down to beat the melting snow, Tracy felt uncomfortable because her knees were bad and hurting her on the descent.  Knowing knee pain all too well, I stayed near just to give her a little comfort when Roger came up with a better plan.

When Tracy saw his idea, she laughed and said, “You’re putting me on a leash???”

Roger looked at how he had tied the rope around her waist and then to him and then replied, “Don’t say ‘leash’; I’ll loose my job.  It’s a short rope.”

Right.  Short rope.  Sure Roger.  Whatever it was, it worked and made Tracy feel more comfortable descending.  At each break, we lathered on more layers of sunscreen since we not only had it coming from the sky, but also the reflection off the snow below.

When we got back to camp, I went back to the tent to search for my missing gaiter, hoping that I just had a dumb blonde moment and left it there.  In the meantime, James had McGiver’ed a few solutions to make a gaiter out of miscellaneous items I could spare in my pack.  Every five minutes descending, he would turn and ask me if I had certain random items.

Fortunately, I did find a gaiter.  Unfortunately, it was Haley’s and not mine.  Now, more confused than ever, I worked on sorting out things until about 15 minutes later when the other group came back and Haley said she had accidentally grabbed one of my gaiters.  Basically: we each had two gaiters, they were just mixed up in our scramble to try to be on time and I just pulled a dumb blonde moment.  Great.

After lunch, we built bigger anchors and tested them by running and sliding with all of our weight.  We found this all very amusing until it started to drop freezing rain on us.  Then we all ran back to our tents and cooked dinner in the vestibule sitting in our sleeping bags.

The freezing rain turned to snow and the wind picked up that night.  Around 7 or 8 p.m., Sean came around testing our anchors.  He made us redo a few and proceeded to stand there with a hot drink while Haley and JD dug out the anchors to reset them in the wet snow while I continued making water from snow for us to drink that night and the next day since we had used most of it to make dinner.

“Are you going to just stand there and critique us or are you going to help,” Haley finally said as Sean told her to redo something that she had just redone.

Sean dove in and helped after that.

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When we awoke, we found a fresh foot of snow blanketing the landscape in all directions.  The clouds had lifted to only cover the mountain tops and finally left the valley exposed to plain sight.  Excited, we looked around at our surroundings in a new light, laughing at the bright, beaming purple door of the hut which seemed like a stark difference to the white that enveloped us.

Since the day before seemed to take more out of us than we planned, Roger and Sean decided to teach us essential skills, i.e. the basics.  For this, we took day packs of snacks, water, and extra layers and hiked a little less than a mile to a nicely graded slope on which to practice.  We had to climb over a large streak of moraine to get there and from the top of it, we saw down valley all the way back to where we got dropped off from the bus.  The scene had changed completely from the day before.

The first half of the afternoon, it felt like we were kids playing in the snow, sliding down, screaming and having fun.  Except we began to learn more advanced ways of stopping ourselves in technical terms.  First, we had to run and slide, digging our elbows in, proving that we could stop without the ice axe.  Then, we worked with the axes, which worked a hell of a lot better and we stopped much quicker.  Once a bunch of us had gone, we had good tracks made and sliding became faster and of course, more fun.

Our favorite slide quickly became the toboggan slide where we all sat down in a line holding onto the person behind us’ legs and launched ourselves down like a human bobsled.  Of course we had Roger video us on someone’s camera to watch us all fly down screaming, then bail off all different directions before the rocks.

After a snack break, we hiked uphill toward a peak 2100 meters just to get the feel of picking good lines and paces through the snow that everyone could sustain, switching people breaking trail.  When we came up to some exposed rocks, we stopped to boulder around a bit which was quite difficult in huge mountaineering boots.

Going back down, we plunge stepped until we got closer to our tracks, then slid down the rest of the way.  Back at the hut, we cooked up some snacks.  Quesadillas quickly became the warm, quick snack of choice.  I modified it to a peanut-butter-illa by substituting peanut butter for cheese.

While we chatted about avalanches and what caused them, we heard other people outside.  It surprised us a bit, but we made room quickly and moved back out to the tents.  Cameron Hut was so comfortable, but we gave it over to the other two who lived up in Auckland and had come down to climb a peak over the weekend.

The next day, we had our first helicopter re-ration which was a whole new experience since we had basically carted our re-rations around in the form of food babies before.  It did come just after 7am in the morning, so we all drowsily managed to get out of bed and wait.  Amy, the program supervisor came over too as we quickly dumped several large bags of food into a large pile in the snow and gave the bags along with our trash back to the helicopter people.  Before we knew it, the helicopter left and we now had to sort through all the food.  Three people set about doing that task while the rest of us began heating water for hot drinks and cooking up some breakfast.

Hiking up

After some grub, we played around with the avalanche beacons, harnesses and other miscellaneous gear while Roger and Sean plotted.  They decided we would hike further up into a small side valley and camp up there on the snow to teach us how to better deal with the cold since they seemed to think that we needed a bit of an ass kick.

We separated out three days of food from the eight days of re-ration and made a cache that we buried under rocks to keep the kea birds from stealing it and packed everything else up.  With our newly heavier packs, we all were glad when we found out we only planned to go about a mile and a half up, but gaining about 500 or 600 meters.  I wished I had my ipod, at least to stick one earbud in and rock out a bit to forget the 50ish pound pack that I threw on my back.

The sun came out that morning and exposed the mountaintops which we saw for the first time and motivated me to move along, examining what the clouds hid the past few days.  We went up all in one group which became a long string of people moving at different paces following the same tracks.  Breaking new tracks would make an unnecessary effort.

When we saw a few boulders, we stopped and picked out spots to dig our tents in.  After making flat platforms for them by stomping the snow down, we set up the tents and had to bury the anchors.  Hiking poles worked excellently for this because we could dig long holes easily with the ice axes, wrap the string of the anchor around it, place it in the snow, then re-bury it.  This process took quite a bit longer than we expected and turned out to be fairly exhausting.  While some of us set up the tents, others went to dig out a kitchen and a latrine.  A large indent about three feet deep constituted the kitchen which had patted down counter area on one side to cook on, and another area on the lower side to sit on so not too many cooks were in the kitchen.  The latrine, on the other hand, was basically a large hole to duck into with a smaller hole to squat over.  It also had a fantastic view down the valley and across to other peaks.  It made for a fantastic morning bathroom experience.

After dinner and making water, we all turned in early to hang out with our tent mates because no one wanted to hang out outside of their sleeping bag once the sun went down and the temperature dropped.  Since we did not camp near a water source, we had to make it from snow which took an extended amount of time and fuel.  While we labored to make water, Roger and Sean split us into two groups to start a morning adventure to which we were supposed to be ready to leave at a whooping 6:30am.

Cameron Hut, New Zealand

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