For the better part of my childhood (and by childhood, I mean age five or so to the present day), anytime I was cold for more than about an hour, I absolutely insisted I was being frostbitten. Despite my tendency toward melodrama, I have always enjoyed cold weather activities, even the ones I suspected might result in frostbite.
And so, armed with approximately 4,000 calories per day, I was excited for a ten-day expedition into the Alaskan Interior. In order to mentally prepare myself for a week and a half of frigid, sleepless nights, I diligently (frantically) checked the weather at Sheep Mountain Airport, the closest weather station to our destination, each morning preceding the trip. It was always really, really cold.
But no matter how cold Google told me it was at Caribou Creek, nothing could have prepared me for how cold it was actually going to be. I’ll get to that in a minute.
The APU vans dropped us off at the Pinochle Creek trailhead just after 1500 (military time makes time in the field feel infinitely cooler) last Tuesday, which meant we had about an hour and a half of daylight left. We traveled about a mile and a half down a snowmachine trail until we found a suitable campsite, then hurried to set up tents and get dinner going.
I slept super warm that first night thanks to my unbelievably expensive NeoAir Xtherm, which is a fancy sleeping pad that cost as much as half my rent. It might sound ridiculous that my one of my priciest pieces of gear is a sleeping pad, but trust me on this: when it’s below zero and you’re sleeping on snow, you want as much air between your sleeping bag and the ground as possible.
My least favorite part of any camping/backpacking trip is that brief period between my sleeping bag and the day’s hike. Unfortunately for me, the majority of winter camping is that period. You want to be traveling and setting up camp during the warmest part of the day, but everything takes longer when it’s well below zero. In order to be moving by 0930, you need to be up and at ’em by 0700, because the following checklist will take you two and a half hours:
- Extract self from sleeping bag, which is frozen solid and the zipper to which will not budge.
- Locate headlamp. Coax button into “on” position.
- Put on so, so many more layers.
- Remove ski boot liners from end of sleeping bag, where they spent the night to avoid freezing. (It didn’t work.)
- Fire up MSR Whisperlite stove, a multi-step process due to frozen pumps and other non-working parts.
- Melt snow for water. (You need some starter water from the hot water bottle you slept with last night. Otherwise the snow will burn. This is a real thing.)
- Thaw/cook whatever highly caloric item will be this morning’s breakfast.
- Stuff frozen sleeping bag into its too-small stuff sack. Good luck with that.
- Take down tent. This means hacking into the frozen ground to remove the lines you’ve buried to keep your tent fly off the walls off the tent.
- Pack personal items into backpack.
- Pack sled; attach to pack.
- Skis on.
So it’s kind of a long process, unless you’re my friend Hannah, who manages to get herself packed and ready each morning in what seems to me an unfathomably short time, a skill she attributes to having thru-hiked the PCT a few summers ago. A person like Hannah is exactly who you want to travel with in the backcountry, because in addition to being very competent, she will never let on that she is annoyed with my National Lampoon-style struggle to pack up in the morning.
We usually traveled about four or five miles in a day. This doesn’t sound like much, but I’ll let you decide how far that distance feels with a forty pound pack and an unruly sled to haul around behind you. Day Two was our longest day, clocking in at just over seven miles, the majority of which was up and over a mountain pass. It was pretty brutal.
Aside from the backbreaking work and frigid temperatures (it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun!), the first four days of our trip were downright pleasant. Breathtaking views of the Talkeetnas, literally dozens of moose and ptarmigan sightings, and good company were enough to outweigh the prospect of shivering ourselves to sleep for the twelve hours we spent in our tents each night.
Day Five dawned calm and clear, which in case you’re unfamiliar with the concept of insulation, meant it was pretty damn cold. It took even longer than usual for everyone to get going that morning, so the sun was setting by the time we rolled in to our next campsite. People were cold. Like, really cold.
Like, forty degrees below zero cold. The word cold really doesn’t even do justice to how cold that is.
This is probably an appropriate time to tell you that I sustained a cold injury while in the field. By cold injury, yes, I mean frostbite. Unlike every other time I’ve said this in the last 23 years, I am absolutely serious here.
I noticed the tips of my big toes were a little waxy and mottled-looking as I changed my socks before bedtime (a positively geriatric 1930) on Saturday night, so in addition to my super heavy-duty mountaineering socks, which are NFA, I slept in down booties and toe warmers and pushed my hot water bottle all the way down to my waxy little feet.
Sunday morning arrived—you guessed it—calm and clear and with two blue toes, and by Monday morning, it was clear that my toes weren’t going to stay unfrozen enough to travel safely. A few satellite phone calls later, I was being whisked to the trailhead via snowmachine, along with one other frostbitten student. (Sidebar: I had to ride out in the sled hauled behind the snowmachine, which was akin to a real-life game of Mario Kart. Think of this as the coldest, most terrifying amusement park ride in existence.)
Upon reentering civilization, I spent several hours waiting to be seen at the emergency room, surrounded by some of the most annoying people you could possibly imagine. The ER visit felt like overkill, but the Outdoor Studies department head wanted to make sure we didn’t have any lasting tissue damage, and also probably wanted to confirm that we weren’t going to sue anyone.
The next day I saw a frostbite specialist. This doctor is apparently who you go to if you a) have frostbite and b) are in North America, and his office is conveniently located mere blocks from the APU campus. He confirmed that I do, in fact, have frostbite, and forbade me to spend this weekend skiing at Alyeska, where all the cool kids will be thanks to a 2-for-1 lift ticket deal on Super Bowl Sunday. I am also not allowed to go ice climbing. All the activities you might associate with frostbite (or even mild chills, really) are verboten, it seems. I have a follow-up appointment next week, at which point I am hoping for a green light to have fun again.
I debated posting anything about this incident, mainly because I am a little embarrassed about the whole thing. How did the rest of my class manage to avoid frozen fingers and toes, while I had to be evacuated from the field? Am I going to pass a class on winter wilderness skills when I apparently don’t have any of those? Does this mean I shouldn’t pursue a career in outdoor education?
I spent some time mulling over these questions as I battled boredom waiting for the rest of my class to return, and I came to the following conclusion: I would not classify my frostbite experience as fun, not even in a doesn’t-have-to-be-fun-to-be-fun kind of way, but lots of competent outdoorspeople have dealt with frostbite issues. And, as my friend Gil pointed out, “Mount f-ing Everest is generally warmer than what you experienced at -40.” That made me feel a little better.
I am not looking forward to the next few weeks of no-skiing-allowed, but I have learned a valuable lesson: Alaska is always NFA, especially in the Interior, and especially during the winter.