A few weekends ago, I had the privilege of spending a night snow camping with the Pacific Northwest Outdoor Women group (PNWOW). PNWOW is “an inclusive community of passionate, adventurous women from the PNW”, and they plan adventures, provide a community for women to share stories, seek advice and discuss outdoor issues. Part 1 of this experience can be found here–if you haven’t read that one yet, pop over and read it first!
After taking some night pictures, I scurried back to my tent and settled in for the night. I crawled into the sleeping bag wearing most of my layers and thought, “I can’t believe it! I am going to be too warm tonight!”. This was a short-lived false hope. As I lay down on my sleeping mats, I could feel the cold from the snow start to seep up. I curled into a ball for about half an hour, hoping that my body would warm up my quilt but I soon realized I was losing heat faster than I was building it up. I could feel full body shivers build and then shake down my body, ensuring that I wouldn’t be falling asleep anytime soon. I had my “oh shit” kit in my car, consisting of the warmest parka known to man, but wanted to try for as long as possible with what I would actually bring to a backcountry snow night.
I had my 10°F sleeping quilt, 4-season sleeping pad, extra foam z-pad, and many, many layers. When I realized I was getting colder, not warmer, I sat up and changed my quilt closer to a closed sleeping bag system, pulled my down hood from my jacket onto my head, and grabbed my down mittens. I threw a hand warmer in each mitten and snuggled back into my quilt. This seemed to do the ticket because I was able to fall asleep. I woke up a few times in the night to readjust and felt a little chilly but was warm enough to sleep. Unfortunately, this was an unseasonably warm evening so I think I am going to have to beef up my sleeping situation in the future when the temperature dips a little more significantly.
I woke just before dawn and immediately knew I could not stay in my tent any longer. Though I saw part of the sunset the night before, we missed some of the most spectacular moments as we hurried back to camp. Dawn was waiting for me and I was determined to see night give way to morn on the slopes of Mt. Rainier.
I bolted upright, shoved my warm, dry feet into my still soaking wet boots, grabbed my camera and set off down the trail at a sprint. Soon out of breath, as I ran to make it to Alta Glacier before the sun crested the mountains, I began rapidly shedding layers. The path was obvious as I had been on it 12 hours before, and there had been no new snow, so I was able to hurry along. The sky was an incredible expanse of indigo while the bright white of the snow made it almost light enough to not use a headlamp. Reaching the spot where we watched the sunrise just as the sun was pushing up over the mountains made the shivering worth it.
The sun began to push past the Tatoosh range, lighting the sky in a brilliant violet and Mt. Rainier’s glaciers were covered in a bold alpenglow. The entire mountain came alive with light and the snow was blinding. I sat alone and felt more at peace than I had felt in months.
Considering the shin splint situation during my last backpacking experience, in which I contemplated calling search and rescue because I was in so much pain, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I needed to spend a pain-free night in the wilderness. We have completed countless dayhikes and snowshoes since then, but haven’t managed to spend an entire night outside since late August. I love being outside in any capacity, but backpacking is my absolute favorite. There is something about being still in a place, seeing it change as the sun sets and dawns again the next morning that fulfills me. Just spending the day outside, while often interactive, beautiful and clears the mind, it doesn’t compare to spending a full weekend in the wilderness, and I was more than ready.
I attempted to take a few pictures for the 52 Hike Challenge, but they didn’t quite turn out as I had hoped. Ultimately, I decided to give up and enjoy the moment.
Soon, I was joined by other PNW Outdoor Women, reveling in the mountain’s morning delight. As much as I was enjoying my solitude, finding more people to celebrate with made the moment even better. Much a metaphor for life, I realized both the importance of taking moments of quiet reflection for myself, but equally the importance of sharing it with a community. Invigorated by the sunrise, and basking in the new day’s warmth, promises of coffee and oatmeal lured me back to our campsite.
Sitting around our communal table for breakfast, the ambassadors gave us final tips, empowering us to snow camp on our own in the future. We finished our breakfast and began to pack up. First, shoving soggy layers into a backpack, then taking down the home I treasured for less than a day. I shoveled in the pit I had built myself, then covered over our table, attempting to erase that I was there, leaving no trace.
Prior to this trip, the idea of winter camping seemed so daunting. We have been backpacking for four years now, and I have learned a ton about sleeping outside in the summer, but the snow remained a mystery that I just couldn’t push past. Given the higher risks in the winter, including avalanche potential, significant storms, and my predisposition for hypothermia, I didn’t feel that my method of “winging it” as we used for summer backpacking would work so well. It was incredible to attend this clinic, with many intelligent, capable and experienced women to ask every question I could think of. While there are numerous online resources to learn how to snow camp, it simply doesn’t compare to getting feedback from the real-world experience. I was shocked at how empowered I felt to snow camp after just two days as I unpacked my wet pack at home.
Spending a full weekend out of my comfort zone facilitated growth in a myriad of ways. In addition to learning the practicalities of sleeping outside in the snow, I learned a lot from the other women in the group. I faced my shyness and fear of not being an expert, had some meaningful connections watching the sunset on Mt. Rainier and slept alone in a tent for the first time (surrounded by 35 women). After many months preparing graduate school applications, culminating in an all-weekend cram session the weekend prior, it felt incredible to really escape from deadlines. I love being in the wilderness and being forced to only deal with the here and now. As someone who constantly struggles with “not doing enough”, taking two hours to sit in the snow and just be in a beautiful environment was invigorating. I miss these moments from summer backpacking and I am thrilled to be able to bring them back for all four seasons. I am already starting to plan the next snow camping trip, as soon as it stops raining.
I may have worked to ensure that I left no trace on Mount Rainier, but this weekend certainly left a trace on me. This was an experience I will never forget and am grateful to PNWOW for facilitating, sharing and serving as an incredible source of inspiration.
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