Out in the white: Locals describe experiences with camping in the snow
Summit Daily News
When Copper Mountain resident and Summit Stage driver Kim Fenske slept at 11,000 feet on Mount Massive at the turn of the year, it was the most extreme winter camping he’d ever done.
“I’d never gone out in negative 20-degree weather overnight,” he said.
It’s an entirely different ball game to camp in the heart of winter, said Fenske, who’s been heading into the silence and solitude of the wintry backcountry since he was a Boy Scout.
“The mountains look fantastic, and on a blue-bird day, you can see forever,” he said about his favorite part of winter excursions – the summit. “It’s breathtaking – literally and figuratively.”
But resting in that weather is much different than being active with hiking and downhill or cross country skiing – and it requires being prepared.
Wilderness Sports owner Tom Jones said it’s a progression of expertise to be able to camp safely in winter. Jones spent about 10 years after college seeking out the steeps and deeps of the Gore Range on telemark skis, though he said he hasn’t done much winter camping for about a decade. He said hut trips are a good way to become accustomed to being out in the winter environment before taking to the shelter of a tent.
From having the right gear to having the right know-how in backcountry terrain, there’s a wealth of knowledge to gain before hitting the snowy trail – like first knowing how to be self-sustaining in the summer wilderness. Like finding the trail and orienting oneself using distant points to continue moving in the right direction. Like knowing that hikers are generally in a state of constant dehydration when on the trail. Like adjusting layers to prevent sweating – and then freezing – on the trail. Like understanding snow and avalanche safety. Like knowing how to insulate your body at night to stay warm in below-freezing temperatures.
“I was more comfortable out there than I am at home sometimes,” Fenske said. “All you need is insulation around your body. You don’t need to change the environment around you.”
But Jones warned to be ready for a lot of darkness – daylight in the heart of winter expires at about 5 p.m., which means a lot of alone time before bedtime.
But, Jones said the sense of accomplishment is one of the factors that drove him to continue winter camping.
“It’s cool to know you’re out there in the extreme elements but you have everything you need to be able to survive in your little cocoon,” he said, later adding that the weather is often much colder than expected.
Fenske’s knowledge of how trails are laid out helps him judge where they lead, when they turn and identify signs of maintenance, since “it’s not atypical to lose the path a little bit.”
But if he’s the only one out there and is the only one breaking trail, he’s not as concerned with getting off track. He’s more concerned with the experience of being outdoors and being able to find his way back.
Most of the experience is the sights and sounds of the forest in winter, Fenske said, such as encountering wildlife like elk, coyote, pine marten, ptarmigan, bear, and snowshoe hare – even lynx.
“I saw my first lynx this season at 11,500 feet,” Fenske said, explaining that he poked his head out of his tent early in the morning and watched a lynx cross the meadow where he camped.
For Jones, the solitary ski runs was the best part of being in the backcountry – whether it was alone or with friends.
“You have snow above your knees and it’s a powder day every day,” he said.
Sights and sounds in the “blanket of winter” is also a different experience, Jones and Fenske said.
“All you hear is the clicking of your snowshoes. Other than that, it’s very muffled because the snow absorbs it all,” Fenske said, adding, “You don’t smell a whole lot, especially in winter.”
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