“If you’ve got the warm gear, you’ve got it made.”  This was the mantra that got me through many of my early winter camping experiences in the wilderness areas of Kentucky and Tennessee.  In those Southeastern environs, you never know what you’ll get in the winter wilderness – mild temps and sunny or twenty below with freezing rain encapsulating the landscape in a cocoon of ice – all extremes are fair game.  Much of the time, I didn’t even use a tent in those days, electing instead to sleep in “rock houses,” the characteristic deep overhang features of many cliffs in the region, used by camping parties for millennia.

Regardless, the thing I learned to love the most about winter camping in such a populated Eastern state is that everybody else stays home!  I could visit the most popular trails with their spectacular waterfalls and stone arches, and I could camp a half-mile from the trailhead without seeing a soul except my own party all weekend.  Deal with the cold, and the rest is easy.

A couple of years after I moved from Kentucky to Washington, on the day before the Winter Solstice, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t yet camped in the snow, nor had I camped alone, since my move to the Pacific Northwest.  So the next night, I sought to do both in a forested basin up at Snoqualmie Pass on the longest night of the year.

I arrived at the pass only a few hours before dark, brimming with romanticized notions about sleeping out on the winter solstice.  I quickly donned my snowshoes and headed into the wild winter yonder.  The snow continuously accumulated on the summits and trees surrounding me as I slogged onward, feeling simply stoked for the solo night ahead.  Upon reaching a cozy-looking spot, I setup my tent, enjoyed a hot meal, and wrote in my journal for a while before realizing I was ready to get into my sleeping bag for the night.  I was all set to zip in, sip tea, and journal in bed for a while longer when I suddenly realized the one piece of gear I had left behind – my sleeping pad.  With the rest of my gear stowed away for the night, I sighed a deep breath and pondered how I could make the best of the situation.  Throughout the longest night of the year, I experienced the most wicked-crazy dreams through the otherwise sleepless hours, with only a nylon tent floor between my emergency-blanket-burrito and the snow.  A couple of days later when a friend asked me, “Why didn’t you just sleep on top of your pack?” I had no answer but a sheepish grin, filing away a mental note for the next such situation.

After many more nights spent sleeping out in the Washington winter, I must confess: I love winter camping in the Cascades and Olympics.  Many of the details appeal to me (including that there are so few people in even the most popular places, in Washington just as in Kentucky), but the part I think I love the most is the camping-in-play-doh factor.  Backpacking through a bonafide snow pack is the best!  You know all those fragile fields of wildflowers that you tiptoe around on the summer trail?  Well, tromp where ever you like!  Backpacking on top of a proper snow pack is the Leave-No-Trace guru’s dream.

Not only can you snowshoe or ski right through the middle of that fragile meadow, but the best part awaits you until you make your camp.  Do you want an elaborate dining table fit for royalty in your camp kitchen?  Build it!  Would you like to double the volume of your vestibule space in your tent?  Dig it!  And then savor this feature in the morning, with your legs dangling below your tent floor while you sit in the doorway, drinking tea and watching the sun rise.

While a deep snow pack has its distinct benefits, it also presents a few challenges.

©Mick Pearson

A couple of years ago, I was hired to co-lead a spring snow camping trip with a local high school’s outdoor leadership class.  The season was early April, but the maritime snow pack was still deep and healthy.  Our plan was pretty straightforward: snowshoe and camp for a single night up on a ridge overlooking Snoqualmie Pass.  We would tour around the higher elevations the next day before heading back to the van and driving home.

The plan was moving along just fine; we had climbed about a thousand feet from the elevation of the parking lot to make camp.  Dinner had been both delicious and smooth around the big kitchen table we sculpted, and we were comfortably bedding down for the night…when a winter-style snowstorm struck with a vengeance.

The other instructor and I awoke at about 2:30, realizing that our tent walls were beginning to sag under the weight of the heavy snow that was vomiting out of the sky.  We shook the tent from the inside, banging on the walls to shed the snow.  This worked just fine for a time; but as we yelled out for the students to do the same with their own tents we heard no reply save the wind.  I quickly laced my feet into my boots, grabbed a shovel, and cleaned the students’ tents off as silver-dollar-sized snow deluged me.  “You need to take shifts staying awake and banging on your tent walls.   It could collapse under all this weight,” I yelled into the tightly zipped tent.  Mumbles of confirmation floated out in reply, as I knew I was hearing them drift back to sleep.

We instructors needed to keep our own tent erect through the night, and we agreed that the students suffocating under a mound of snow and nylon qualified as more than the natural consequences of a teachable moment.  So, we took turns playing sentry through the rest of the night as the snow continued to fall.  One of us at a time, we stayed awake to bang on our tent every few minutes, periodically slipping on boots to dig the students out and make another fledgling attempt at awakening them to tend to their own gear and safety.

By about six the next morning, as the pre-dawn light was just beginning to rise, our quiet snowscape was shaken with the progressive pops and booms of explosives that the DOT workers were using to clear cornices over the closed highway.  I got out of my tent to have a look around.  The snow had stopped falling about an hour before, but a solid gray ceiling still loomed overhead.  All around us lay a fresh foot or more of fluffy, light dragon’s breath snow added to the snow pack.

From the ridge where we were camped, I could look down to see all six lanes of the vacant highway.   Pop, Boom.  Another round of explosives echoed around the pass.  I smiled as I watched and listened, knowing that my group was out of harm’s way on our ridge top camp.  We had enough food and fuel to last into the next day if the highway remained closed that long, which would have been nearly unheard of.

I called a friend on my cell phone and asked him to check the avalanche, weather, and highway reports for me so our group could develop a new plan for the day.  Within a few hours, we were tromping back down the mountain, watching the lifts at Summit Central turn with skiers and listening to the deep rumble of tractor trailers creeping along the highway below us.  Life and commerce had already been restored to the pass as if our exciting, sleepless night had been a dream.

I stick by my old mantra today, as I continue to camp around the calendar in the wilds of Washington; but these days, I use enough addendum to make it feel a little less catchy.  “If you’ve got the warm gear, and the training, and the experience to know your dangers and improvise, you’ve got it made.”

©Michael Cline
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