Sunday, March 15, 2009

Vail Pass: Surviving a Night in a Snow Shelter

So last night at about 10:30PM I finally lied down to go to sleep in my snow cave but I just laid there most of the night. It has happened before, I can’t fall asleep at high elevations. It’s a symptom of altitude sickness. Maybe I did doze off a couple of times for a very short period of time, but for the most part I was just laying there with my eyes closed waiting for morning to arrive.

As I laid there I was glad that I wasn’t feeling as sick I did last October camping at Rocky Mountain National Park. I guess I have gotten a bit more acclimated since then. Moving to Colorado from Illinois and going camping at 10,000+ feet in elevation back then made me really sick. I was so nauseous and had such a bad headache the night of camping and most of the next day too.

I can’t say that tonight I was toasty warm in my two sleeping bags (one +15 degree bag and one +40 degree bag) and the bivy. But I wasn’t really cold either. The first two hours I was comfortable but as the temps kept dropping outside my toes started to get cold. My toes are always cold when I’m camping. Finally I decided to get two of the hand warming packets opened. I wanted to put them inside my socks around the toe area. That wasn’t easy to do since I wanted to do this without unzipping my two sleeping bags and the bivy. My one sleeping bag is very fitted, it took me 15 minutes of wiggling around inside my sleeping before I managed to insert the heating packets inside my socks. But once that was done, it was wonderful. The warmth radiated all over my toes. The package said the heat would last up to 7 hours, unfortunately, it didn’t. After about 2 hours the warmth was gone and an hour after that my toes were back to being cold. I had two more heating packets handy but I didn’t want to go through the trouble of getting those inside my socks again. Morning was just around the corner, wasn’t it?

Very low ceiling inside my snow shelter (looking in the direction of my feet)

My head was totally inside the bivy and one of the sleeping bags, at times I had to unfold the sleeping bag and bivy and open up a small hole to get some fresh air inside. At those times I couldn’t help to look out of my snow shelter’s entrance and gaze at the sky above, glistening with stars. Toward the morning the sky was no longer navy blue and I could no longer see the starts. It was kind of grayish-whitish, I couldn’t tell if it was clouds or fog or just the color of the sky. Unfortunately I left my altimeter clipped to my backpack, and had no way of reaching it. So I couldn’t check the time or the temperature. But I was sure morning was near, with the sky so pale.

The view from my snow shelter in the early morning

The morning did came soon enough. I heard Mary packing up, she told us last night she had to leave early in the morning. It was about 6AM when I crawled out of my snow cave. At first I felt OK, even a bit warm. I had to take my jacket shell off because I was having some kind of hot flash. By the time I walked back from the clump of trees I designated as “my bathroom” I was freezing and nauseous. I was getting a headache too. I should have taken some Excedrin last night before attempting to sleep but I forgot so I immediate took some this morning and ate some crackers to settle my stomach.

The guys having breakfast in the "kitchen"

Collapsing the snow shelters, this roof went quick

This snow shelter roof held up pretty well

The sun was still hiding behind the mountains. Now that I‘ve been up for a few minutes it felt as if it was getting colder. I had all my layers back on now and my down mittens. I forgot to check the temp when I got up but at 6:40AM my altimeter was displaying 13 degrees. When the others got up they said that their thermometer was reading 0 degrees when they woke up. I’m thinking that during the night the temp probably fell below 0. They also said they had a hard time sleeping as well.

Mary got packed and left at around 6:30AM. It was just Tom, John and Mike now. They were making breakfast, I got some hot water from them to make some white tea. The warm tea felt so good on a cold morning like today. It warmed me right up, settled my stomach too. I was a bit worried that my headache would keep getting worst like it did back in October, and I’d have to pack up camp and backpack to the car feeling like crap, but after 30 minutes the Excedrin kicked in, maybe the hot tea and crackers helped also, my headache was going away. And then finally the sun came up from behind the mountain peak and started to shine upon us with glorious warmth. It was early in the day still but the sun felt so warm.

The guys were already packing up, but before leaving, they wanted to collapse the snow shelters so no one would fall in to them by accident. I didn’t really get to see the snow “palace” John and Mike had built for themselves since it was a bit further away from the other snow shelters. They claimed it was about 40 degrees inside all night. I believe it. The thing was huge, it had an elevated sleeping platform inside and as you came in to their snow shelter, you entered through a “foyer” and then behind the wall, that’s were the sleeping quarters were. This design helps to keep the cold outside air out. They did say that they had a bit of condensation problem this morning, maybe their shelter needed a vent. Just a few steps on top of the roof of this enormous shelter, and the roof collapsed.

Enjoying the view this morning

Mary was already gone, but her snow shelter was still intact. We were all surprised how sturdy her roof was. She did pack it down a lot while she was building her mound. It took John and Mike a few tries and lots of jumping on top of the roof, before it finally gave in and collapsed.

By the time the guys got packed I was feeling a lot better. They were ready to head back to the cars, I was planning on staying a bit longer. I had a lot of condensation in between my bivy and my second sleeping bag, I wanted to dry those out in the sun before packing them up. I also wanted to relax and enjoy the surroundings some more.

My sleeping pad, bivy with two sleeping bags inside

Ice in between the bivy and the second sleeping bag

When the ice melted, my sleeping bag was all wet, as was the inside of the bivy

Drying everything out in the sun before packing it up

The temperature were starting to rise already and I started to take my layers off. Two hours later I was only wearing my turtle neck and a fleece. Then I realized what I forgot to bring - my sun screen lotion. I put some on yesterday before heading out but I didn’t bring any more. Here in Colorado especially in the winter time, while surrounded by so much white and reflective snow, a sun tan comes very easily. I’ve had a slight tan all winter from snowshoeing but today especially at these high elevations I was feeling like I was getting a sunburn. When my bivy and sleeping bag were dry, I packed everything up, but I could not collapse the roof of my snow shelter so I had to fill in the hole with snow using my shovel. The backpack felt heavier today, probably since I didn’t sleep much last night. I snowshoed back to the parking lot, arriving at my car by 12:30PM. The traffic was kind of heavy getting back in to Denver, I made no stops and I finally made it to Fort Collins after 4PM.

My snow shelter is no more

Reflecting on this weekend, I have to say I had a lot of fun and learned a lot of things. It’s trips like these that really make me appreciate the simple things in life, like sleeping on a bed inside a warm room. Things that I probably never think about and take for granted most of the time.

I think I was pretty well prepared for this excursion. I got by not having anything to put on the floor of my shelter. Next time I do this I’d like to have something that is light and thin, maybe one of those cheap emergency blankets would work well. Placing my gaiters on the ground to step on with my socks worked pretty good, while I was getting in to my sleeping bag.

Besides forgetting the sun screen, I also forgot my silk glove liners, which was a bummer. They really do add a lot of warm. And I realized there are two things I really needed to get and not just for winter camping since it’s cold at night in the mountains even in the summer time. Those two things are a goose down jacket and goose down tent booties, or camp shoes. Everyone except for Mary and I, had a goose down jacket and I think everyone had goose down tent booties. These two items weigh practically nothing and don’t take up very much space, but are very warm and can make camping in cold weather very comfortable.

I do have to admit to two silly and needless mistakes I made. I was actually told about these two things, since they were very important things, but I got busy with other things and I forgot and had to suffer the consequences.

In my Winter Backcountry Essential’s clinic a few weeks ago I learned that in the winter time, when temps are below freezing, you should leave your water bottle upside down since the water freezes from top to bottom. That way you will always have some water to drink.

I had planned on doing that before I went to sleep, I had even planned on bringing my water bottle in to the shelter with me to make sure my drinking water didn’t freeze overnight. But with all the problems I had getting in to my sleeping bags and in to my shelter I forgot to do this. By the time I remembered I was already tucked in and far away from my backpack and water bottle. I knew that by morning the rest of the water in my Platypus would be frozen and now my water bottle too because I forgot to leave it upside down.

Those two extra plastic shopping bags came in handy this morning - I used them inside my frozen boots

The other very important thing I was warned about was not to leave my boots outside over night. I guess if boots are left outside, the moisture inside freezes and in the morning you have a pair of frozen boots. I wanted to put my boots inside the snow shelter, but there was no space. So I decided to put them in some plastic shopping bags brought with and inside my pack but I forgot. In the morning my boots were very frozen inside and so very, very cold.

I’m looking forward to building my next snow shelter. I hope Tom organizes another outing like this next March.


Anonymous said...

I used to get altitude sickness when going to the High Sierra. Acetazolamide helped.
A normal dose is 250 mg twice daily starting the day before reaching the higher elevations. Be sure to have lots of water with you though.

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.