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Our motley crew found the first night in The Winds wonderfully uneventful and the name of Earl, the weather god, never came up. Tenzing dipped into our three-man store of high energy, carbohydrate-rich provisions to make dinner. It consisted of spinach noodles, ham cubes and Monterey Jack cheese cooked in a single pot over our white-gas stove. NOLS winter-camping recipes are simple, hearty, heavy fare. For proper warmth and strength a winter traveler operating at 10,000 feet or above should consume 4,500 calories a day—2½ pounds of food. Tenzing knew all the tricks of one-pot cooking. Thus, while some of the other camp groups were still sculpting their kitchens, we were gulping down a couple of thousand calories as night fell.
Miraculously enough, we were warm—warm without a fire. I had sweated a lot during the day, but because I was wearing layers of wool next to my skin, the moisture had been "wicked" away and had evaporated. Had I worn a cotton undershirt, however, it would have retained moisture, which then might have frozen and become, as Lannie put it, "like wearing an armor plate of ice." And my feet? The mutilated six toes were just fine, thank you. My boots were wet, which couldn't be avoided, but they were big, roomy, soft things, part of a vast store of equipment that NOLS has assembled in an old Lander lumberyard—everything a camper may need from sleeping bags to stoves to scoop shovels to socks. The boots, like everything else, are used over and over again. Each pair of NOLS boots is expected to travel some 300 miles a winter, 1,500 over a life expectancy of five years. Heinz, Tenzing and I crawled into our sleeping bags, assumed the standard fetal position, with our boots cuddled behind our knees and waited for sleep to come. It did—for Heinz and Tenzing. I listened to them breathe, snore and murmur until the day dawned dark gray. Then I fell asleep for 30 minutes or so. We breakfasted on a rich, sticky dish made mostly of bacon cubes, cheese and butter, washed down with aromatic French Market coffee, which Tenzing boiled in a pot and then whirled so the centrifugal force would send the grounds to the bottom. We cleaned the dishes with snow. Tenzing said the use of soap in a NOLS camp is carefully restricted because it would inflict more than minimal impact on the ecology.
We broke camp, and Tenzing carefully kicked down the walls of our snow bedroom and stomped over what had been our kitchen. Stepping back to survey the destruction, he said with satisfaction, "You'd never know we've been here. It just looks like a couple of moose have been rutting for a night or so."
Now the sun broke through. All was cold and golden. Tenzing pointed out some marmot tracks, then looked skyward to the graceful, gliding form of a golden eagle. We assembled for a lesson in skiing and waxing, which was run by Drew. "Are there any Tech-Weenies in the crowd?" he asked. After a short, puzzled silence, he continued, "Tech-Weenies are people who know everything about the latest equipment and everything about the most advanced outdoor technology." Drew paused, then said quietly, "Tech-Weenies give more trouble than anyone in the bush because most of them don't know nothin'." If there were Tech-Weenies in our group, they remained unidentified.
The NOLS-issued skis most of us had were hardly the stuff for Tech-Weenies. They were wooden surplus World War II skis, hickory boards originally cut for those tough, rollicking heroes of the 10th Mountain Division. Legend has it that Petzoldt practically cornered the market on these skis after the war, purchasing thousands of them. A lot of the skis went up in smoke in a fire in the Lander lumberyard in 1974, but a lot of them survived. So this is what we were skiing on—plain wood slats, no steel edges, no miracle-artificial waxless bases, no billboard lettering and Day-Glo colors to advertise brand names. Just good, clean, yellow wood.
Drew explained about waxes and the use of climbing skins for the steepest hills. Then we all hefted up our packs, staggered a while getting used to them and set out for our next campsite.
And now Earl stepped into the picture. He pulled a curtain the color of cold dishwater over the formerly bright sky and then sent down a thin, gray gauze of falling snow. The dreariness of the weather matched the dreariness of our trudging line, for this was the first long-distance, all-day trek. As the hours passed, the difference between experienced and neophyte skiers became painfully clear—and clearly painful. Worst off was Bob, the doctor, who had never worn skis before. He fell repeatedly; his beard, his face streamed and dripped with sweat, with melting snow, perhaps with tears. Each time he went down, he wallowed helplessly on his back in the snow. Painfully, he would work his way out of the straps of his pack, struggle to his feet, once again haul the pack onto his shoulders and begin to shuffle forward—only to stagger, totter and fall again. Other inexperienced skiers fell, too, though less often, and the Sisyphean dimension of their plight was almost too tragic to watch.
The front-runners also had their burdens, for the skiers who broke the trail usually sank to their knees after breaking through the crust. The process of plunging forward was so exhausting, so discouraging, that we changed trail-breakers every 20 minutes. And thus we moved, like a file of snails, into The Winds, covering no more than half a mile an hour at times because we could move only at the rate of speed of the slowest among us.
It was a grim and excruciating day, yet at the end, as we began to shovel out our campground, we had a sense of toughness, of resilience, of confidence. I mentioned it to Heinz. He shrugged and said airily, "What the hell did you think they meant by 'personal growth through stressful adventure'?"
Tenzing whipped up a dinner of beans and tortillas and rice; the meal was simply magnificent. It grew dark and snow continued sifting down, and now the whole group assembled for a lecture on cold-weather danger. It seemed that a campfire would be absolutely essential, but no, we were out here to make minimum impact. The gathering proved to be quite cheery—though chilly—for it was lighted by candles planted in snow in the bottom of open plastic bags which, in turn, protected the flames from Earl's capricious gusts of wind.