Two weeks ago, my Wilderness Travel Course group headed up to the Mt. Waterman vicinity on a very warm (~65degF) Winter’s day to practice techniques for traveling cross-country safely in snowy conditions. This was officially known as our Snow Travel outing. It was a time for students to get used to snowy conditions, and a time for leaders to evaluate how the students were doing, and whether gear was sufficient.
It was my first time touching snow, let alone cutting steps into a steep snowy slope! The falling/sliding aspect was a bit freaky, but I managed not to slip on any slopes in snow…
Since it had been so unseasonably warm up there, much of the landscape’s snow had eroded, leaving soft, pillowy soil layered with pine needles upon pine needles. I actually had to use the same movement techniques for the dirt that I had to use for snow to avoid falling on slopes. Coming down one 45-degree gully on the way back to the parking lot at the end of the day, the soil gave and I slipped and slid downhill some yards. It felt like I was on a pillow. I was sliding at a glacial pace, but getting leverage to stop was useless as the soft soil kept giving. I glided ever so gently into a tree, my foot barely touching the trunk was enough to stop momentum. It was the most comfortable fall ever.
We did manage to find a snowy clearing large enough to don snowshoes and tromp around with much more security than we’d had when kicking into snow with waterproofed hiking boots alone. The best part of practice was a snowshoe relay wherein we formed four teams of four students each, lined up in single-file. The first person in line stepped into a pair of snowshoes, prompting the others in line behind them to form a “pit crew” to secure the straps on the snowshoes as quickly as possible, and once secure, the snowshoer RAN across the clearing and back, and when they returned, the pit crew had to remove the snowshoes ASAP so that the next person in line could step into them and get secured to race. My team managed to get all four people across the clearing the fastest! It actually wasn’t too bad running in the shoes as long as I didn’t let my feet pigeon-toe, leading to a faceplant.
AND… most importantly, in the clearing, I got to make my first snow angel, and a tiny snowdude.
I completed the Snow Travel outing feeling reasonably good about being able to handle snow. My gearing was almost complete, my feet stayed dry despite being ankle-deep in snow and kicking repeatedly through ice, and carrying handfuls of snow around was FUN despite the searing freezing pain in my joints! So while it didn’t absolve all of my anxiety about the finale outing for the wilderness class — backpacking in the snow in the Sierra Nevada — it helped quell my fears a bit.
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This past Friday, the class met up at 11:30am at the same Park and Ride at which we boarded buses for Joshua Tree last month. I agonized and spent four hours straight on Thursday night packing my 70-liter backpack with everything I’d been told I’d need to survive the cold. Between agonizing, stomachaching, packing, preparing instructions and supplies for my parrot and squirrels’ babysitters, and general fidgeting, I got about three cumulative hours of sleep in. I hoped that I might sleep on the bus as it headed 4.5 hours north, but no such luck. Oh well, at least exhaustion would help me sleep better in a cold tent that first night, I figured.
Upon departing the bus at our destination in the early evening, we donned our packs and snowshoes, and proceeded into our first campsite to set up for the night, about a 100-yard snowshoe trudge from the bus point.
The forecast for the night was 16 degrees Fahrenheit before windchill, with high winds all night, gusting up to 60 miles per hour. Once our tents were up and staked so very securely in the constant wind, we gathered for a group night hike up the road about a quarter mile. The leaders wanted us to get moving to battle the bitingly unfamiliar cold that was eating through our layers. We realized that we were all suffering to some degree from altitude sickness, which I had tried to stave off by hydrating myself generously in the week prior. Nevertheless, though I managed to keep headaches and nausea at bay, I was extremely short of breath. It was disconcerting to only make it up a few steps on a very shallow incline before having to lock a leg to rest and heave for a bit.
After the hike, in my three-person tent with two tent-mates (a snug fit), I fell asleep finally feeling fairly warm with four layers on top, three layers on bottom, a beanie, and my hood from my hoodie up — in addition to my sleeping bag around me, which is rated for 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
I awoke an hour later to the feeling that someone was actively cinching a wide band around my chest. I was breathing, but felt like I was getting no air. I knew that it was all in my head, but I just suddenly wanted to get out of the situation — NOW. I couldn’t stretch my legs out fully because I had stored my stove fuel canister and boots in the bottom of my bag to avoid the moisture in them freezing in exposure. I rushed to unzip my sleeping bag and sat up, trying not to hyperventilate. The chill outside the bag hit immediately. I needed to pee. I needed to get out of the tent. I wanted to go home, so badly that there aren’t words.
The severity of my needing to pee escalating exponentially as I started to panic, I hurriedly thrust my feet into my still-cold boots, laced them haphazardly, and crawled out of the tent into the pitch dark, avoiding the trouble of putting snowshoes back on since time was at a premium. I lurched toward the campsite’s restroom a hundred yards away in the light of my headlamp, trying to stay on a path already beaten by other feet to avoid sinking into fresh snow.
The cold air in my throat and lungs jarred me out of my immediate panic, but I didn’t want to get back into the tent to be cooped up with strangers, forced to jam myself back into a cocoon. But the cold… the wind kept cutting. My face hurt. My hands, in insulated gloves and covered again by overmitts, hurt from the chill.
I crawled slowly back into the tent, trying not to wake my tent-mates as I rustled toward that wretched sleeping bag full of inanimate objects that needed to snuggle with me to stay warm, too. But my miserable quiet sobbing in making weak attempts to subdue panic eventually awakened the next person over, who tried to console me and tell me that it would be okay. But in my mind, she was a stranger, and I was so far from home. And cold. So very cold. I told my classmate that I thought that perhaps I would feel better if I ate a snack, so I reached into my pack and grabbed a Larabar. Since I hadn’t stored it in my full sleeping bag, it was frozen solid, so I gnawed on it forlornly, sitting up with my legs in the bag, torso cold, but at least I felt unsuppressed.
I ended up removing clothes until I was down to two layers on top and two on bottom, sleeping bag half-unzipped so that it only enclosed my lower body. I was quite chilled, but felt like I could breathe again. I spent about an hour measuring my breathing at a very, very slow rate to force my nervous system to relax. My external misery eventually forced me to turn inward, and once it slowed, my mind wandered in twilight. I drifted into fitful sleep, the howling wind jarring me awake as it battered the tent walls. I had fever-dream-like visions of little squirrel Pip on the sidewalk where I found him, and in a forest. There was no snow in the visions, just sunlight beaming through endless branches like stained glass. He was older, and very confident.
Our class spent Saturday backpacking in to Rock Creek Lake to set up camp for the night. My awe at the sublime surroundings was shrouded in exhaustion from trudging through new snow and old for miles, heavy snowshoes on my feet, and 37 pounds of my belongings on my back, with strangers who needed me to keep up a fast pace to reach the new campsite. I exhausted the water supply I brought from home, so I grabbed handfuls of fresh snow and dropped them into my water bottles, only to find in dismay that the weather would permit them to stay frozen as blocks of ice, only chilling me more if I drank the water that happened to thaw out.
Setting up camp at Rock Creek Lake was time-consuming and tiring given the continued wind. I was trying to keep a chipper exterior, but was internally raw from being out with other people (albeit very nice, supportive people) for an extended duration. I made it through the day’s activities and managed to participate at the campfire rituals at night, but this night was a far departure from the last. I had spent the day actually looking forward to being “alone” in my space in the shared tent, since I had enjoyed the meager calm that I had eventually found the night before, and hoped to expand on it after the strain of getting through the trip in daylight.
As soon as the campfire activities dwindled, I hurried toward the campsite’s porta-potty, which formed a line before I could reach it. The thing about this trip is that we had to stay ever hydrated to avoid worsening of altitude-sickness symptoms — but the moment I took even one sip of water, I had to pee due to the cold. So any greater volume of water meant a greater need to pee, and more quickly. And I had earlier downed almost 32 ounces of freshly-boiled stream water to keep myself hydrated.
When I saw the line at the porta-potty, I ran to my tent to grab a handy stand-up-peeing device that has been a godsend on my hikes. I found an inconspicuous place at the edge of camp and rushed to use it. As it turns out, my urgency and the cold combined to compromise my device-seating skills, and I discovered much too late that I was halfway peeing on myself. I tried to stop myself midway to rush to the restroom if I could, but my exhaustion won out, and I outright finished peeing despite my best efforts. I peed through the three layers I was wearing. As I stood in shocked, miserable contemplation of my situation, my legs began to get very, very cold as my wet layers started to freeze. I turned and ran/walked to find a pre-stomped path to get back to my tent safely, to avoid sinking into any soft, untrodden snow lying between me and my supplies.
I entered my tent as my tent-mates had just set down for the night. Desperate, I gently awakened the classmate immediately next to me and told her flat-out that I had just peed through my warm clothing due to a wardrobe malfunction, and asked if she had any extra layers. Thankfully, she had a pair of wool leggings that she didn’t need.
I spent much of the trip resenting my heavier-than-necessary pack, but here’s one place where I was glad that I came overprepared. I had bought a largeish package of biodegradable bath wipes and stuffed the entire thing into my pack, just because I like to have the means to feel clean. In the cold tent, I at least that the means to clean myself up, an extra trash bag to pack up my soiled clothing, and dry clothing to replace that which was lost — the wool leggings from my classmate, and a thin pair of wicking leggings that I had stuffed into my bag but not layered/worn due to my claustrophobia. I was chilly in only two thin layers, but it had to do. I arranged myself in half of the sleeping bag as I had the night before, and laid on my back, staring into the dark. The wind roared, endlessly pummeling the tent, but it was actually comforting. I activated my entire body in Mountain pose to help keep me warm, and I repeatedly drifted into and out of an easy, comfortable sleep. I spent many hours awake, contemplating openly and blankly as the tent shook and yawned against the weather, but oddly, I felt quite rested when I finally awoke in the daylight. I had just felt so little, out in Nature. It was terrifying the first night, but calming and peaceful, and even warm, on the second night. In the pitch dark, I just imagined the motion of the wind across this vast landscape that we had traversed, and the snow blowing off of the nearby peaks into the nylon tent wall inches from my face. I recorded some of the wind noise, but in listening to it, I had to turn my computer up to maximum volume to get it to sound anything like it did in the tent:
All of my whining aside: It was stunning and picturesque up there. I felt so fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the things I saw, even as I carried a heavy physical and mental load.
We packed up camp on Sunday at Noon, and eager to leave the cold, hiked back to our bus pickup point at a fast clip in snowshoes. There were loud sighs of relief, hugs, and a few tears of relief shed upon arrival back at the parking lot. Half of us napped and half chatted merrily as we left the mountains and stopped at a pizza place to stuff our faces, then got back on the road for another four hours toward home. Exhausted and a bit slap-happy, and looking for entertainment on the bus if we weren’t busy sleeping, many of us whiled away the hours by exchanging fart, poop, and pee stories. Emboldened by hours of hearing others stand up on the bus to share true confessions of times they couldn’t hold it on the trail, I got up and shared the tale of my recent a-pee-calypse in the frigid Sierra.
And if you had asked me eighteen months ago if I thought I’d be living on my own, parenting a baby squirrel, scrambling rock in Joshua Tree, backpacking in the snowy Sierra Nevada with a bunch of strangers, and regaling these strangers with tales of when my 34-year-old self peed my pants at camp, I most likely would have said No.