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After a few falls, it occurred to us belatedly that there was no law or logic which required us to continue slipping along the side of the mountain following a non-existent trail. So we slid down the ravine to the bottom where, presumably, a small stream still ran under the snow and ice. There were some drift rows, windfalls, and occasionally we would break through ice arches and get into the watery slush below them. However, in general the stream course was level and an improvement over the mountainside. An hour or so before dark we came to a wide place in the ravine that recommended itself as a campsite because there was a pool of open water—the first we had seen that day—where a strong spring joined the stream. Curiously, a pair of middling-large trout were disporting themselves in this bathtub-sized pool.
You can stay warm while camping in extreme cold, but it takes constant effort and planning. The cold can never be disregarded. It affects and complicates everything you do. As soon as you stop traveling, the rate at which you produce heat declines, and any moisture on your person will begin to freeze unless you put on the down-insulated gear. This slows the freezing process but also makes you more cumbersome just when you have more intricate work to do. Hands are a big problem. There are a lot of things that cannot be done while wearing mittens or gloves—laying tinder, rigging a tent, untying frozen knots on food bags, some cooking and eating. Yet when it is colder than 10� below, as it was, it is painful, even dangerous, to work barehanded for more than a few minutes at a time. You pick at a job until your fingers turn stiff and awkward. Then you put them back in mitts until they thaw a bit before you get on with the job. We use a three-man backpacker's tent, which ordinarily we can put up in less than five minutes, but in the cold it takes 15—and they are 15 hard minutes.
Beyond making ordinary jobs slower and more difficult, excessive snow and cold create a lot of new ones. You cannot simply find a level spot and pitch a tent. First you have to hollow a cave out of a drift (as a windscreen and for insulation) and then tromp around on snowshoes to make a floor. Before you build a fire you have to scoop away as much snow as possible and then, on top of what is left, lay a raft of logs on which your fire will float, so to speak, in the snow. If you are careless about putting down a knife, a plate, a bootlace, it is very likely to disappear, either because it sinks into a drift or is covered over with new snow. (It snowed steadily the first day and intermittently the next three. The snow that fell was continuously supplemented by snow blowing off trees and from the ground.) To be fair, there are compensations, the major ones being that under these conditions you are seldom troubled by mosquitoes or nettles.
There is also a real sense of urgency about living in the open in very cold weather. Even with a good fire (and winter ones are often not the best), you cannot lounge about a camp. It is not good to sit down because of the moisture-to-ice factor. Everything—your breath, nose drippings, bread, a plate of boiled rice, a cup of coffee—freezes very quickly when it is removed from the immediate vicinity of the fire. You cannot take much time with any job—mending a snowshoe harness, for example—because if you do. you and the material are apt to freeze.
"I've been colder," Sam said as he was punching new holes in a very hard harness strap, "but the thing about this is all the work it takes to keep from getting cold. You can't relax. It's always waiting to come in."
About the only place where you can escape the cold for any appreciable time is inside a tent and a good sleeping bag. Much of winter camping is a race, the object of which is to get into this position as quickly as possible. Like so many other things, however, it is something of an obstacle course. The first law of going to bed in the cold is a negative but important one: take no snow into the tent. If you do, it will first melt, then soak your bag and finally turn to ice. In consequence, the 10 minutes preceding retirement are devoted to scraping ice and snow off everything. Then you ease inside the tent as gracefully as a stiff, tired, padded person can and sit on the tent floor with your feet hanging outside. So reclining, you pick away at frozen knots and in God's good time may be able to remove your boots. These are brushed free of ice and snow and stuffed into the foot of the sleeping bag. Heavy boots may be a bit knobby, but some nighttime knobbiness is preferable to spending 15 minutes the next morning beating on your boots with a stick to loosen them up enough to put them back on your feet. Anything else you are not wearing, but would like to wear in the morning, is put under the bag. Whatever it is, it will not be warm in the morning but it may be flexible. Finally, you put on a hat and dry socks, and squirm into the bag. You pull the drawstring tight around your muzzle, leaving only enough of an opening through which to breathe.
All of this is done in the dark while hunched over in a small nylon shell and while one is under considerable pressure to hurry. If you have removed one boot, you are well motivated to get the other one off quickly and both feet into down insulation. There is also some social pressure for speed. If you are the first one in the tent (there is no way that two people can manage this getting-ready drill simultaneously), you are spurred on by sharp queries—"What the hell are you doing now?"—from whoever is shivering outside by a dying fire. If you are the second one in, you are harassed by muffled orders which come from inside the cocoon—"Tie down the flap." "Hey, you got your knee in my stomach."
SIOUX ALARM CLOCKS
Outside of such improbable occurrences as the coming of an archangel, there is only one thing that can make a person who has worked his way into a sleeping bag get up in the middle of the night, go outside into -20� temperature, remain there briefly and then repeat the whole tedious getting-in-the-bag process—all of which brings up the problems of water in very cold weather. They are various and curious.