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Facing Old King Cold
Bil Gilbert
March 14, 1977
You can play some games with people who are more or less all right, but for high-class freezing in Potter County, Pa., you had better find an absolutely suitable partner like Sam
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March 14, 1977

Facing Old King Cold

You can play some games with people who are more or less all right, but for high-class freezing in Potter County, Pa., you had better find an absolutely suitable partner like Sam

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Inevitably the question of why we were doing it came up and we answered that this was our idea of having some fun. Whether or not they have ever cuddled up in a drift, people know this is a lie. There is no way such activity can be fun in the commonly accepted meaning of the word—not fun like sinking a long putt, whizzing along on a sled or eating good sour-cream raisin pie.

At least part of the whole truth might have been offensive in our particular circumstances. One reason, the least attractive, for wandering about the subarctic mountains in the winter is showing off to people who do not, a group that includes most of the sane citizenry. Admittedly our cool woodsman image gave us some pleasure and impressed the snowmobilers, who until that moment considered themselves the ultimate winter masters. But if you go in much for that kind of bragging, you are always vulnerable. For example, anybody who walked into Potato City that night and started talking about a four-bivouac climb on McKinley, the last one of which was spent hanging by one piton and a chock made out of a freeze-dried pork chop, could have cut some big notches in the two of us.

There were better reasons, or so we hoped, for doing what we were going to do. When everything has been said about how sport, games and recreation build sound bodies and promote good citizenship and television careers, the fact remains that this kind of arbitrary, practically unnecessary activity has been popular with people for as long as we have been people, because it provides escape and therapy. For reasons of no general interest, Sam and I both were in need of escape and therapy, and for sundry reasons of temperament and experience, cavorting about in the winter wilds of Potter seemed like a quick way to get some.


For the past 35 years or so I have been fortunate in having a fair number of friends and acquaintances who have shared my needs and opinions about recreation, escape and therapy. With the passage of time, however, a lot of my old cronies have been struck down with bad backs, caught up in soft sheets and become too dead for this sort of thing. The circle with whom I can, or would want to, make winter snowshoe trips has dwindled down to four. At this time, one of these is doing something important for the governor of Alaska, another is an art student in San Francisco and still another is in Vermont looking for work in maple sugar. The fourth and only practical possibility is Sam. He lives nearby and is an orchardist who throughout the hard winter has been pruning apple trees from the bucket of a hydroladder.

You can play tennis or catch with people who are more or less all right, but when it comes to high-class freezing and fatigue, you have to have a partner who is absolutely suitable. Mostly, it is a matter of being and knowing that you are peers. For example, it will not do if only one can start a fire in a blizzard or properly set up a tent in a drift. The one who cannot will feel patronized and the one who can, unfairly burdened. Either way, tension and trouble will develop, and there is usually not enough energy, physical or psychic, to spare for this sort of thing. Especially, you have to have very compatible opinions about what is interesting, exciting and funny. Otherwise, in inevitable moments of misery you will turn on each other and simultaneously say, "It's your fault."

Beyond being very suitable in these respects, Sam is a notable horse, being 25. 6'4" and 230 pounds. Except for an occasional small NBA forward or an especially agile tight end, Sam is physically the most impressive man I know. He may be even more impressive than these professional athletes because he works harder than they do and has not been hurt so much. He can lift a garden tractor out of a hole or unload a hay wagon two bales at a time. Anyone who does not find such things impressive should try them a time or two.

Even at 25, when I was more of a horse, I was not such a one as Sam is, and now at twice his age I may not be half the horse he is, but there are different elements of peerdom. For example, we move along on snowshoes at about the same rate because I have been doing it for a long time. Sam can wrench a four-inch dead tree off its remaining roots, but we get a fire started in about the same time. Out of necessity I have given up wrenching and developed a pretty good eye for squaw wood, which can be broken over the knee. Sam meets the cold head on—toughs it out. I do tricks in my head to finesse it. We have different edges but the sum of them is quite equal, a fact we recognize and find appropriate but not a matter for competition or envy.


The morning, the next to the last one of January, was more or less what the previous night had promised it would be. There were drifts halfway up the first-story windows of the Potato City Motor Inn. The temperature stood at -14� and, what with the wind, the chill factor was about -50�. As we got ready to deal with the elements, some of the snowmobilers stopped by to wish us luck. More of them watched us with a kind of horrified fascination, like reporters watching condemned men. What mostly alarmed them was that we were not dressing for the cold as they did and, in fact, by their standards seemed to be getting ready for a beach outing. However, our needs were much different from theirs. Like ice fishermen and goose hunters, snowmobilers go out in very cold weather, but once they get there they don't do much except sit. Their problem is to conserve every bit of body heat they can. Therefore, they sensibly encase themselves in heavily insulated boots, suits and helmets which, in effect, form flexible thermos bottles. If a snowshoer or any other physically active winter sportsman were to do likewise, he would first be immobilized by the moonwalk-type suit, and if he could move, he would do so with considerable discomfort, even danger.

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