We sat in awed, scared silence until Tenzing intoned, "Paul Petzoldt always said, 'Never trust a man with black toes.' "
Finally, we adjourned to sleep in the snow and dream of running blisters, frozen bone and fresh pink toes flourishing beneath black caps of skin. In the morning Earl had not seen fit to change his mood; it was gray and snowing. We set out at a quicker, more confident pace, climbing steep, wooded slopes for a couple of miles, then crossing a confusing assortment of small lakes and large meadows. We stopped for a trail break, munching gorp made of dried fruit and nuts. One tyro had mixed dried black-eyed peas in his gorp, mistaking them for raisins and he narrowly escaped with his teeth unbroken. A few of the better skiers climbed a nearby slope strewn with rocks and performed that most elegant of ski maneuvers—the Telemark turn. Drew floated and swooped down the steep incline with the grace and glory of a Wind River Nijinsky. A sense of something close to euphoria enveloped the group.
By evening we were camped on Horseshoe Lake, with mountains rising all around. It remained overcast, but Earl let up on the snow, and after a dinner of curried rice, bacon cubes and butter, we assembled again by candlelight in a grove of towering lodgepole pines. We had our hoods up against the night chill and looked like some kind of monks of black magic, gathered to cast spells over an innocent world. The subjects of this lecture turned out to be expedition behavior, group dynamics and communication.
"The secret to having good group dynamics in a situation like this is to communicate," said Drew "Keep talking to each other There is stress on the trail, sure there is, but if you snap at someone, then you should try and apologize a little later. O.K.?"
We nodded. Gary said, "It's just a matter of levels of maturity. This looks to me like a real mature group. Think in terms of community, right?"
Our hooded heads bobbed. Drew went on, "Try to be thoughtful of others, to go out of your way to be cooperative. If you see that a guy has a snot noodle in his beard, tell him. Don't let him go around looking creepy. Try and think of nice things to do for other people. O.K.?"
We nodded, and Tenzing chimed in softly, "Paul Petzoldt always said, 'Never trust a man with a noodle in his beard.' "
We slept beneath a tent fly that night, but the next day it was time to build a "quincy"—a man-made snow cave. What this meant was shoveling up a pile of snow roughly six feet high and perhaps 12 feet in circumference. After pounding this fiercely with flattened skis to make it solid and hard, the next step is to dig out a doorway about as high as a man on all fours, then scrape and kick away inside, shoving snow out the doorway until a bedroom chamber is hollowed out.
And that is where Heinz, Tenzing and I spent the next two nights, hip by shoulder by cheek by jowl. It was, to tell the truth, pleasant enough, although the sense of togetherness might have gotten a bit overwhelming in another day or two. Still, anyone who travels the wilds in winter has to be prepared to five under precisely such cramped and trying conditions. Tenzing said, "When it gets to 40 or 50 below with a wind for a few days in a row, you simply can't be outside. Your face gets bitten almost on contact with the air. You just touch the metal zipper clasp on a pack with bare hands or put your finger on a ski binding and you will get instant frost nip. All you can do is hole up."
The tales of fierce and killing weather in The Winds are legion. One longtime NOLS instructor remembered a horrendous blizzard with winds of as much as 90 mph which kept 15 people trapped in a stand of trees for two days because they were unable to make their way across a clearing 50 yards wide. Last summer a NOLS party was snowed into caves on Mt. McKinley for seven days. They finally emerged at the end quite sane, though short-tempered.