Story #1 in an ongoing saga. A funny, ‘what not to do’ while enjoying the outdoors.
They say that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Well I also say ‘everyone has value, even if only as a bad example.’
Well, let me be your bad example. I will be presenting a few stories of some of my more notable misadventures that I have learned from, and hopefully some of you will also…Enjoy!
Arrogance kills quicker than Ignorance…
I pride myself on carrying an effective emergency kit when I hike and backpack. Part of my kit includes at least 3 ways to start a fire (flint, wind proof matches, lighter) as well as some form of tinder (chemical fire cubes, wax impregnated cotton, fatwood, etc). I have attended a few winter survival schools where we were required to build a fire with a single paper match and it had to burn for at least an hour without burrowing into the snow and extinguishing itself. I also make it a point to practice making emergency fires at least a few times a year using available materials and each of my fire starters. So I was quite surprised when I was unable to make a fire during a backpacking trip last fall.
It was late October and I was hiking a trail I had never visited before (Ingalls Pass Washington). At the trailhead there was a light dusting of snow, but by the time I got to the pass that lead to the valley I was planning to explore, the snow was so deep I had to crawl in some parts (kicking myself for not bringing snowshoes) in order to make it to the crest. After seeing the steep terrain and even deeper snow on the other side, I chose not to descend into the valley and instead went back to set up camp at a spot I noticed just below the pass summit. I cleared the snow away from a nice flat spot under some trees with a lovely view of the valley below. On one side of my bivy was a large rock and I built a windbreak on the other side out of snow. Between my bivy and the rock I assembled what dry and semi-dry wood I could scrounge for a fire. I had to dig through quite a bit of fresh snow to accomplish this and got a bit wet in the process (I know better…but knowing and doing are two far different things). As evening fell a warm front moved in and temperatures rose to just slightly above freezing. This was very bad because it caused all the fresh snow in the trees to start melting. I foolishly assumed this would not last and toughed it out. Also, being overconfident of my fire starting skills, I did not think to protect the wood I had put so much effort into collecting. By the time I had finished cooking and eating my dinner I was rather damp and getting cold. I pulled out my flint/steel fire starter and attempted to light my fire. After a few failed attempts I tried matches and then my lighter…no luck. I then resorted to using a chemical fire block, but even it was unable to get the damp wood burning (especially since water was still dripping on it).
About 6:30 PM I decided to slip into my bivy to get warmed up, but found that it was not quite as waterproof as I had assumed. I along with my sleeping bag were both rather damp, and the water continued to drip out of the trees. At this point you may be asking why I had not just moved my camp out from under the trees. The simple answer is that I foolishly assumed the temperatures would drop soon after dark (they did not) and I did not want to go through all of the work of digging out a new shelter especially since the snow was deeper away from the trees. There was enough fresh snow that I needed to clear it away, but not enough that I could use to make a snow shelter with the gear I had on hand (a ‘Snow Claw’ backcountry snow shovel http://www.snowclaw.com/), without investing at least a few hours of hard wet work with no assurance of success.
By about 7:30 I was completely bored and still shivering in my shelter. I realized I had hours before sunrise. I had a choice to make, I could stay where I was for a long cold night risking hypothermia, or I could hike back down the unfamiliar trail, in the dark, risking getting lost or injured. I chose the later.
I found I actually enjoyed the hike out! Hiking in the snow at night is actually really cool! During the hike through the snow I repeatedly had to stop so I could admire the view and savor the quiet seclusion. My headlight, even on its lowest setting, lit up the snow like I never would have believed. The view of the glowing & sparkling untracked snow around me combined with the solitude (snow absorbs sound very well) made for a delightful hike, and I was sad when I reentered the dark dampness of the trees for the last stretch before reaching the parking lot. I actually considered dropping off my pack and spending a little more time wandering around in the snow.
I learned (or was reminded of) a few valuable lessons:
1. The only thing worse than ignorance is overconfidence.
2. If you are going to go through all the trouble of collecting firewood…protect it!
a. Don’t assume just because you have cool fire starting tools and skills that your can overcome any conditions.
3. Don’t assume your shelter and/or fire will get you warm… try to stay dry anyway.
4. No matter how much trouble it was to make your camp…freezing to death is still worse than having to do it again!
5. I can be an idiot! [oops, did I say that out loud?]