SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
December 14, 1981
A big meanie named Earl huffs and puffs but fails to faze a leadership school trek through Wyoming's Wind River range
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December 14, 1981

Just Blowin' In The Winds

A big meanie named Earl huffs and puffs but fails to faze a leadership school trek through Wyoming's Wind River range

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If there should be a truly serious accident, or a medical crisis such as an attack of appendicitis or a severe case of deep frostbite, there would be only one way to deal with it: evacuation. This, unfortunately, is easier said than done. NOLS parties never carry radios. The reason is obvious: Once in the mountains, most radio signals simply will not carry over even low ridges or hills. Thus, if an emergency requires a helicopter evacuation, the only way to summon such help is for someone to ski back out and notify the authorities. Evacuations are rare, but the chance for broken bones on skis is, of course, always at hand. One can never be too careful.

Whatever the hazards, the dark truth about winter camping is that you never get to bathe thoroughly. Oh, you might work in a quick wash with snow if you've got the heart and hide of a polar bear, but as a rule, if you are in the bush two weeks, you accumulate two weeks of the things that accumulate on unwashed skin. Tenzing had spent many weeks in such conditions, and he claimed that it is a manageable situation. "If you spend a few days in a snow cave with other people, it does get a little funky," he said. "We have been known to bring scented candles along to handle that condition. But the real point is, you never really notice your, ah, fragrance until you get back into warm air."

Lannie managed to grab a quick shampoo during our trek, but the frozen suds turned as stiff and spikey as a fright wig. And when she rinsed in the water from the ice-covered creek, she shrieked with pain. So cleanliness is not next to godliness in The Winds of winter.

And, as we learned, godliness itself isn't much of an attribute anyway when the god in question happens to be named Earl. Actually, during our first five days in The Winds he had been merely sullen most of the time. Then, the sixth morning dawned with a radiance that seemed sent by angels from a realm well beyond Earl's little fiefdom in The Winds.

Heinz, Tenzing and I emerged from our cold, gloomy quincy before 7 a.m. and were all but bowled back by the stark, stunning splendor of the day. We stretched, fetched water, then took a long ski over Horseshoe Lake in the rising sunlight, breakfasted on that yummy sticky stuff made of bacon, butter and cheese, and chewed on fried bagels. Tenzing did his centrifugal-force bit with the coffee, and life seemed almost too full to contemplate.

Then Lannie called a class to order to discuss the properties of snow—particularly as related to avalanches. She summed up the lecture by saying, "The only thing you know for sure about avalanches is that you don't know anything for sure!" (There have been only seven deaths on NOLS courses in the past 16 years. Three occurred in an avalanche in the Tetons during the winter of 1974, while the other four were the result of summer accidents.)

After the lecture, Heinz and I decided that on such a day of glory we should hike as high as possible to look down at whatever vistas might present themselves. Tenzing and Drew agreed to join us and said that we could climb nearby Union Peak (elevation 11,491 feet) in three or four hours. From there we would have a splendid view—from the Continental Divide all the way across the Bridger Wilderness Area to the Tetons.

We began the trek eagerly, carrying small day packs with water bottles and gorp for lunch. We skied across the lake and then began the climb through gentle meadows, through small stands of pine trees, moving swiftly and easily. Drew said, "We probably couldn't even penetrate through here if it weren't winter. What looks like a wide-open meadow with six feet of snow on it is probably a boulder field grown over with willow stands and brush that you couldn't chop your way through in any other season."

Soon we rose above the tree line onto a dazzling snow field that rose gently for a mile or more to the summit of Union Peak. The sky was still a bowl of purest blue, with only a puffy white cloud here and there, and once the white contrail of a jet made tracks across the blue. We climbed well above the trees, gliding steadily, totally without shelter for hundreds of yards above and below. And now Earl laid on his cruelest surprise of the trip—and revealed the true extent of his rottenness. He waited until we were totally committed to the summit and suddenly unleashed the wind. Behind us a dense, ominous bank of clouds rose over the mountains and chased toward us at a frightening speed. We continued to climb, for we were no more than 200 yards from the top. Ahead was a low boulder that offered the only bit of protection on the whole mountainside.

But Earl had us where he wanted us. The wind velocity picked up enormously, and so did the density of falling snow. Whipped by the wind, the snowflakes felt like iron filings. Snow filtered in behind the lenses of our glacier goggles and we slogged blindly upward until we finally reached the protective rock. The summit was no more than 50 feet above us. No one even considered trying to make it.

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