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We had barely begun to get our trudges on track when Lannie called a halt to deliver her first instructional lecture. We gathered around, expecting to hear this bright-eyed young woman expound on some romantic or arcane bit of lore concerning life in a harsh and beautiful wilderness. As it turned out, Lannie's subject was neither romantic nor arcane. It was, however, essential. She began by saying, "We at NOLS are into minimum-impact camping in these mountains. When we leave, we want the place left as if we had never been here. We never build fires, except for emergencies, because we don't want to leave trees scarred up. We don't want rocks or earth scorched by fire rings. We cook on the stoves. We carry everything out that we bring in. Every plastic bag, every bit of garbage. But, you will notice, we do not carry toilet paper in any form."
There was a breathless moment of disbelief shared by Bob, Rod, Dave, Steve, Russell, Paul, Daryl, Mike, Elizabeth, Ken, Linda, Heinz and me. Could this be? We shuffled our skis in embarrassment. But Lannie continued on in an efficient, though politic, no-nonsense, straight-from-the-shoulder delivery that would have made her great-great-great-great grandfather proud. She enunciated "a policy of conservation and comfort" in the areas concerning "human discharge of fecal matter." She offered a simple mnemonic aid for remembering the four most important points in such things: D.D.P.P. This stood for depth (punch a hole deep in the snow with a ski pole, use it, then fill it up with snow); drainage (do not dig said hole anywhere near a stream and avoid doing so at the top of a steep hill); proximity to camp (go far away, but not so far away as to get lost), and privacy (for yourself and for others, find a hidden spot, preferably with a view through a screen of branches). As for the missing toilet paper, Lannie advised us that pure snow was really a splendid substitute—and though no one believed this at the time, it later proved true.
This important subject covered, we survival-skied through the afternoon and wound up in a pretty grove of trees above a wide open expanse of snow—a frozen lake. The sun lay a golden dazzle over everything, and rather than looking like the end of nowhere, this section of The Winds resembled nothing so much as the rolling terrain of a snow-covered golf course. We gathered to watch the instructors—Lannie, Drew, Gary and our own Tenzing—demonstrate the way to make a camp in winter. Most important in the operation was the big metal scoop shovel that had been issued to each group of three campers. First, a level section was dug out and stamped down to serve as the floor of the sleeping area for three. A tent fly was strung over the floor and—Eureka!—a bedroom existed where only wilderness had been before. Next, the trusty shovel was put to use sculpting a snow kitchen. This consisted of a level floor, a waist-high workbench for the stove and food supplies, and a lower bench for sitting. Once the kitchens and bedrooms had been constructed for the whole group, the place took on the look of instant suburbia, a real nice neighborhood, deep in the treacherous Winds.
Someone chopped a hole in the lake ice for water, the little white-gas stoves were lighted, and soon an air of euphoria lay over our hustling campground. We were bundled in layer upon layer of clothing against the withering bite of the evening cold. Surely, we had tamed The Winds: yet, I could not relax. The advent of night held an unmistakable sense of menace.
I had said nothing to Heinz, Tenzing, Lannie, Bob, Rod, etc., but, in fact, the whole idea of traveling for a week in trackless, winter-seized mountains was a prospect I faced with an ambivalence that bordered on trepidation. You see, I had recently experienced—painfully experienced—what I later came to think of as The Fiasco of the Six Toes.
It was late in the winter of '80, and I had skied into another mountain wasteland in another section of Wyoming with three men, all ostensibly experts in the winter wilderness. We skied long and far the first day and set up camp late in the afternoon in a sun-splashed grove of pine trees. As night fell, this cheery spot quickly grew as dark and hostile as a padlocked meat locker, and soon it came time to light the little stove to cook our dinner.
We reached for our matches. Matches? Matches? For a moment the insanely absurd possibility existed that the outfitter had forgotten to include matches in our packs, that we had come miles across a freezing moonscape with no way to light a fire. We dug through our packs, anxiously at first, then with a crescendo of heart-thumping fright. At last we found one small metal canister of matches stuck in an obscure pack pocket. But only one.
We spent several matches to learn that the stove we had brought would not work. So we wallowed off into the darkness in waist-deep snow to find firewood. The fire we built melted its way deeper and deeper into the snow and gave offal-most no warmth at all. My feet were very cold because my boots were very wet. We managed to cook something, I forget what, before the fire sank out of sight.
We crawled into our triple-winged, high-tech tent and zipped up our mummy-shaped sleeping bags, guaranteed to 50 below zero. Nice, except that, as always, once in the bag we had to snuggle up to our sopping boots to keep them warm through the night. Had we left wet boots out in the freezing air, they would have been like giant bronzed baby shoes by daybreak.
One of our party had contact lenses to remove before he slept. In his wing of the tent he lighted a candle with a match from our precious canister, took care of his lenses, then blew out his candle. A second later we heard an alarming sizzling sound. The smell of scorched chemicals filled the tent and our companion exploded with a very dirty expletive. Someone asked, "Did you burn up your lenses?" He replied that it was worse than that: When he screwed the cover back on the match canister he had turned it so hard that it had scraped against the matchheads, and had ignited our entire supply of matches. I lay awake most of the night, my heart slowly growing as cold as my feet.