The Cold, Dark and Swirl of Snow
It’s not easy, to wake up in the dark, at the wee early hour of 5am, knowing that I need to ready myself for the shock of that frigid, single-digit temperature. It is a stinging cold, a bone-chilling cold, but at the same time, if I can be patient and not let the harsh, bitter cold bother me too much, and if I ready myself in the most meticulous and exact fashion, it is tolerable. And ultimately, it is just another day. This is a winter thru-hike afterall.
People have asked in both wonder and disbelief, “How do you do it?” Well, here’s how:
Let’s create the scene. I’m laid out under the protection of a shelter, a three-walled structure with roof. (Generally that is, but occasionally, and rarely, a stone structure as pictured above.) I sleep on a 66″ lenght pad with an R-Value of 4.5. When I blow it up on the most cold of nights, it crackles to life, moisture having frozen on the inside. I lay beneath two sleeping quilts, together suited for near zero-degree temperatures. To aid in the additional warmth necessary for a night’s sleep, I wear, from toe to head: socks, down booties, Baselayer bottoms, waterproof pants, synthetic skirt, Baselayer top, synthetic vest, hooded fleece, Merino neck gaiter, Balaclava and Fleece-lined hat. As I found out last night, this was not enough, but I believe last night could’ve dropped below zero, the coldest temperature I’ve seen thus far. Even the Smokies didn’t feel that cold, but my memory can blur the most inhospitable of moments. I suppose that might be one of the reasons I keep coming back to these thru-hikes…
Now to begin, I’ve fallen into the rhythm of waking without the aid of an alarm, between 4:30-5:30am. This morning, fed up with tossing and turning, I woke at 4am. I prefer the earlier time myself, as unlike summer when I can ready myself in 25 minutes or less, it takes a FULL hour for me to pack up. Sometimes longer if I choose to do my writing then. My goal is to be hiking between 6-6:30am. What comes next is a precise and systematic dance. Before I even emerge from the cacoon of warmth within my sleeping quilts, I pull on my down jacket, if I’m not already wearing it like I was last night. Usually I sleep on top of it, using it more as a pillow along with the rest of unworn clothes like my shell, windbreaker and extra socks that have been placed in one of the quilt’s dry bags. I then pull on my gloves, that are stowed inside my fleece, and adjacent to warmth of my body. I unsnap the closure on my synthetic quilt and pop my head out. Brrrrrr. Okay body…give me a minute will you, I think, because of course my body finds it necessary to use the privy(outdoor toilet available at many shelters) even before I’ve had time to wiggle and/or force my feet into my frozen boots. At least my socks are always dry, which is rather miraculous because even if they do get wet in the daytime, they dry overnight while nestled in the down booties. A baffling notion, I know. I usually try to deflate my pad and stow my quilts into their stuff sacks before the whole boot ordeal, which isn’t that bad, but does require opening the tongue nice and wide on the synthetic material the night before. I suppose it’s just to check off a few things on the list, or perhaps it has more to do with trying to avoid crawling back to bed, where warmth and comfort are still two peas in a pod under my sleeping quilts.
Once the privy is checked off, I can relax a little. I set a pot of water to boil for coffee and oatmeal, or sometimes, simply to warm up the liquid for what would normally be cold cereal. While that heats, I alternate between stuffing everything into my pack, with sticking my hands, gloves on, into my pockets to warm them back up. A slow, systematic dance it is. Clothing goes at the bottom. Then my down sleeping quilt. Then my food bag (the food for that day is in a separate bag I keep on the exterior ). Then my synthetic quilt and accessory bags, which include the toiletry bag and the electronic bag, which has a book and cables to charge electronics, though all the electronics themselves are stowed in my vest or fleece pockets so as to discourage the cold from depleting the power. Then, I take my down jacket off, pressing that into the small empty space that sits close to my neck. It fills in the space well, and reduces any movement of the pack which would otherwise make an irritating squeak. I then pull on my rain jacket, roll the top closed, snap the buckles and afix Squackers, my orange plastic duck, in a secure riding position for the day.
With my Stumptown Coffee brewed, in which I usually add a little hot chocolate mix and butter for added calories, I toss the fuel canister and stove into the back exterior pocket, food bag next to it. Water bottle and data book in a side pocket, and coffee in hand. With my trekking poles stowed under an armpit, I head up the trail with my hands in my pockets and the light of my headlamp leading me north. It takes at least a dozen minutes before I find homeostasis with my body’s warmth, and I welcome any uphill march that early in the morning.
This morning was different though, as it was just wicked cold. Like frost-bite warning cold. I checked the privy off my list, my dear bottom still in shock from the Arctic feel of the seat, but my boots were still frozen stiff and not giving the impression they’d thaw anytime soon. They were simply frozen, and my body unable to give off any extra heat to warm and mold their stiff shape to my feet. Unbudging. So I climbed back into my quilts, being 4am and all. I did some legs lifts, engaging my core, trying to generate heat. I decided to skip coffee because the stove’s fuel canister, being very low, wouldn’t work at the cold temp anyway. Cold, frigid cereal it was. It was a tough start to the day, my mind cranky from the cold and lack of caffeine. But by noon, it warmed up, and I was all smiles. It was a clear blue day, and a town day afterall. I dreamed of all the luxuries that I’d soon be so fortunate to have…