04 Apr A Guides Deliberations for Thriving in the Winter Environment
Part 1: Shelter and Water
What possesses an individual to take on the challenges of a mountain environment in the winter? The coldest season with the least daylight. Add in the additional hazards of avalanches, ice and rock fall, and cold injuries; it seems logical for one to steer clear of the mountains in the winter and perhaps seek out a sandy, tropical escape instead. Yet, many find elation in excellent ski conditions on peaks deep in a remote wilderness. For others, it tests their grit and moxie climbing snowy couloirs or ice laden faces and ridges. Some folks simply enjoy the peace and solitude of the alpine environment as it’s shrouded in a blanket of snow. Whatever takes you into the mountains in winter conditions, for multi-day ventures, you quickly discover it’s more challenging not to just survive, but to thrive in the cold harsh winter months. So let’s take some time to discuss some considerations, techniques and tricks to consider when embarking on a multi-day outing in a winter environment.
The first thing that comes to mind after deciding on an objective may be: what are we sleeping in and how will we hydrate? Fair question, as these are two of our most basic human needs. Are you planning on a light and fast traverse where every ounce will count; do you plan to set up a basecamp and pick off objectives from there; or, perhaps you’re on a slow moving elongated expedition. The style of moving in the mountains you choose can change the way you may approach your shelter and water situation. Additional considerations may include group size, fitness, and duration of trip, but it may be easiest to start with movement style and adjust from there.
It’s imperative to have an appropriate 4-season shelter if planning on engaging with the alpine in the winter environment for a prolonged period of time. Popular shelter brands you may frequently see in wintery alpine conditions include Hilleberg, Black Diamond, The North Face, Mountain Hardware, and Marmot. Spend any time at 14 Camp on Denali and you will quickly realize nearly all guided expeditions utilize these brands, they have been tried and true for decades. These structures are designed with the intention of withstanding high winds and heavy snow loads, where your typical 3-Season backpacking tent will get pummeled. Your shelter and its ability to withstand the harshest conditions mother nature can throw at it, is critical to your safety and success. At all times, it’s important to be mindful of all sharps such as ice axes, crampons, trekking poles, shovels, snowshoes, and ski edges around your tent, one little hole can jeopardize the structural integrity of the shelter. Although a well-stocked repair kit can alleviate this issue, it’s preferable to avoid this headache altogether.
The first thing to consider is the safety of your camp. Are you in a crevassed zone? First probe to make sure you are not setting up on any cracks in the glacier. Perhaps you are in or near avalanche terrain, is your sight at risk of any overhead hazard from avalanches? Consider any rock and ice fall from nearby cliffs or seracs. If below the treeline, make sure nearby timber is alive or do any of the trees have large dead limbs that could come off with enough stress? Your safety from overhead hazard should be consideration number one when setting up your campsite.
Upon arriving at camp it’s important to maintain warmth and rehydrate from a day on the move. Camp is a place to rest and recover from the previous day’s exertion. Time here may help team members acclimatize to a new altitude or recover and prepare for the next leg of your journey. Once you have deemed your location safe, it can be useful to consider the prevailing wind direction. Make sure not to set your tent door in the direction of the wind, as this will help keep any excess snow out of the tent, and the bootwell from filling in overnight. If needed, angle your tent with consideration to aerodynamics if high winds are in the forecast. If you have the option, use natural windbreaks such as patches of trees or rock faces to help alleviate the effects of the wind.
When leveling your platform, take the extra time to make sure it is flat. No one likes sliding off their sleeping pad all night or waking up with a tentmate unexpectedly spooning them due to a 4 degree slant in your platform. After “work hardening,” compacting snow and giving time for the snow crystals to rebound to one another, you will have created an easier base to walk around on while erecting your shelter. It is helpful to make this platform a bit larger than the footprint of the tent to make staking out your tent easier into this work-hardened snow.
If on an expedition, or setting up a basecamp, it’s very useful to have proper snow stakes, and to T-trench them well into the snow to keep guy lines and floor in place. If on a trip where the team is resetting camp each day, one may pair down the weight of snow stakes and utilize some of extra equipment for securing my tent. Using collapsible ski poles, ice axes, probes, shovel handles, or stuff sacks for deadman anchors can be effective. But think about future tasks, do not sandbag yourself by securing your tent with equipment you will need later that night or in the morning while breaking down camp.
The next basic human need that must be addressed when existing in the winter environment is water and food. Oftentimes, we may have access to running water by way of a creek or frozen lake. If this is the case, take advantage of this. If you are in a deep snowpack you may need to probe to find your source. Dig yourself an access point, or chop some ice to gain access to this sweet elixir of life. If digging into a creek, be mindful not to fall in, a wet boot boot can be a problem to deal with and potential risk of cold injury, but getting swept into a creek under the snowpack in fast moving water could be fatal, take serious caution when approaching. If necessary and deep enough snow, dig in steps to make water access safe and easy. If breaking into a lake, it’s generally the easiest to access near the shoreline, take similar precautions with the structural integrity of ice to keep yourself dry. With access to running water, consider bringing a Dromedary style bag for water storage while at camp to limit the amount of trips to your source.
If access to running water is not possible, you will need to melt snow for water. This process can be long and tedious, but crucial to your survival. Depending on your particular trip, you have two primary options for stove systems; an Iso-Butane canister style water boiler such as a Jetboil or MSR Reactor; or, a Whitegas stove setup such as a Whisperlite or XGK. Whatever you choose, the amount of fuel you bring is important. This liquid could be essential to your success, but can also add pounds to your pack and significantly slow you down while moving.
While running any stove, keeping it from wind will always improve efficiency, and many may opt to cook inside a cook tent, a vestibule or even inside the tent. With this being said, it is important wherever you are cooking to have adequate ventilation and to not be laying down while operating a stove. Camp stoves emit noxious gasses that can be fatal if exposed to in high quantities for extended periods of time. These gasses are denser than oxygen and settle to the floor of an enclosed area. Excessively breathing these toxic fumes may explain why some expedition guides are just a little bit on the kooky side.
If on a traverse, or camp to camp style trip, one may find it preferable to use an Iso-Butane Water boiler stove. They tend to be lighter and more packable. Next, you will need to consider how much fuel to bring. If the team is melting snow for water and also using the stove for coffee and rehydrating meals for breakfast and dinner, with very careful and thoughtful fuel consumption and runtime, you may be able to get away with approximately 2 to 3 oz per person, per day in fuel.
It’s important to understand how to efficiently operate one of these stoves in the winter environment. Keeping the canister off the snow and somewhat insulated will improve efficiency. A classic hack is to bring a small amount of copper wire, wrap this around the base of the fuel canister and through the flame while running, this can aid in warming the canister. Additionally, removing the stove from any wind and using it in a well-ventilated vestibule or shelter will improve efficiency. Also, try to only keep the stove lit and running once per meal to keep it hot and minimize the number of times you bring the entire pot to a boil. It should go without saying, but keeping your lid on the stove while running is important, too. I also find adding smaller amounts of snow to a higher liquid volume can decrease melt time and improve efficiency. When going to bed, sleep with the Iso-butane canister you plan to use first thing in the morning in your sleeping bag to prevent the liquid from freezing overnight. Lastly, if you are newer to these techniques, start conservatively by having a bit of extra fuel until you refine the subtleties of this delicate dance.
If weight is less of an issue on your trip, consider bringing a White Gas cook system such as a Whisperlite. These stoves are expedition ready, they are durable, and easily repairable in the field. If you break your Jetboil, your team may be in more dire straits, where issues with Whisperlites can frequently be fixed with the stove’s repair kit. Using more than one stove at a time can expedite melting snow, water boiling, and cooking. A team can use a larger pot for melting snow and also bring a more elaborate kitchen setup. The Whisperlite can also be more easily temperature controlled, so pots can be simmered and temperature can be regulated while cooking. When done properly, this stove system can make spending time in the mountains feel quite plush and meals can be more elaborate, which can often improve your quality of living if you are out for an extended period of time. Guided expeditions in Alaska may bring 1 gallon of fuel per person, per trip. This equates to roughly 6 oz per person, per day. If you are on a shorter trip and may not be cooking such elaborate meals for such long periods of time, look to burn 3-5 oz per person, per day when melting snow for water, and rehydrating meals for breakfast and dinner. Once again, cautious stove management and fuel consumption will be key in your success.
If on a basecamp stay trip or expedition, it can be nice to use a cooktent. Many folks like to utilize a pyramid style tent, or remove the interior of a tube tent, and dig out the inside to create a kitchen and communal space for eating. This keeps the noxious fumes out of your living space and in a designated area. This is common on expeditions or even basecamp style trips where the group is sleeping in multiple tents. Cooktents can help bring the group together and share meals in a warm protected environment. They provide shelter from the wind for improved stove efficiency and can allow for a more well-designed kitchen for elaborate cooking. Additionally, if the cooktent were to be damaged, your shelter for survival is not at jeopardy, just the ego of the team member that burned down the cooktent. Perhaps that individual ends up with a silly nickname like Backdraft.
The decisions a team makes about their shelter and cook system and fuel are some of the most important when planning for a winter outing. There are so many considerations to make, and the previous information is just a highlight of some of the most common considerations for the average winter endeavors. Food, shelter, and water are our most primal human needs and it’s logical to belabor these decisions when planning to exist in some of the most rugged environments, through the most challenging conditions. It’s important to keep in mind, winter conditions do not necessarily mean from the Winter Solstice to the Spring Equinox. Be proactive when planning, check the forecast and recognize that the mountains can throw us challenging conditions throughout the year. The better one plans before embarking on a trip in winter conditions, the more likely they won’t just survive their time in the mountains, but instead thrive, and truly enjoy the splendors of majestic high alpine.
Author: SMG Guide Kevin McGarity