Before I met Doug in the picture above I hadn’t done any real full on wilderness activities other than go camping when I was in the Boy Scouts and then later, when I was in the army cadets during my early years in high school.
Doug introduced me to snow shoeing and snow camping back in the early 1980s, when I was living in Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada. One of the first hikes we did together was the Black Mountain loop in West Vancouver during the summer. This fairly easy hike emboldened us to try hiking and snow shoeing the same area during the spring, while there was still a lot of snow on the ground at the higher altitudes.
During the summer, the Black Mountain trail is fairly easy to follow, as there are psychedelic orange plastic trail markers on the trees. During our spring trip, we had decided to go to the top of the Black Mountain (which required snow shoes) and then down through to a pass to lower altitude to where there wasn’t any snow so we could camp over night.
Following the trail markers during spring when there is very deep snow was a different matter entirely to summer as the snow on the ground was so deep it covered many of the trail markers. Unfortunately, during that particular hike in the snow we lost our way and ended up being benighted at higher altitude in the snow. This was the first time that either of us had camped in the snow. Back in those days, I thought that insulating sleeping mats were for weaklings and I used to camp without them. Doug didn’t have a sleeping mat either, so we decided that we would tear off as many small branches from the surrounding conifer trees as we could to make a layer of insulation underneath the tent. It was very difficult to tear off the branches that we needed because our nylon covered gloves didn’t allow a very firm grip, so we had to take our gloves off to do it with our bare hands and of course it was freezing cold. To make matters worse, the tree branches were quite strong and flexible and were very difficult to remove. It was getting dark, fairly fast, so we were only able to spend about an hour gathering material to put underneath our tent, to make a dismally ineffectual thin layer of insulation.
What followed was probably the longest and most uncomfortable night I’ve ever spent camping. We’ve both didn’t get any sleep at all, because we couldn’t stay in one position long enough due to the fact that the point of contact of our bodies with the base of the tent was so intensely cold. It was the pits. So much for my first snow camping experience.
In the morning we finally made our way back down to the highway and went back into town. The first thing I did that day after I got back home was to go to an outdoor equipment store and ask them what was the best thing they had for sleeping on snow and money was no object. The salesman showed me an extra large Thermarest for $82, which was a lot of money for me back then, and I bought it without hesitation. Doug also brought a good sleeping mat a short time later, and with our new purchases, we decided that we were now equipped to go snow camping somewhere a little bit more ambitious.
For our next snow camping hike decided to go snowshoeing in Garibaldi National Park to Black Tusk via Panorama Ridge while there was still snow on the ground in late spring. Garibaldi National Park is a spectacular wilderness park on the way to Whistler about 70 km (44 miles) from Vancouver. The trail to Black tusk starts at sea level, where there wasn’t any snow on the ground at that time of the year, and goes up to about 2,100 m (6,900 ft) at Panorama Ridge. At the lower altitudes one passes through fairly dense temperate rainforest. At the higher altitudes there are far less trees, but there was lots of very deep snow.
Being Australian, I didn’t have very much experience with snow at all and although Doug was a Canadian he didn’t have much experience with snow in the wilderness. Whilst we both knew that avalanches were a risk we both had no idea of how to detect high-risk areas and what to do in the event of an avalanche.
On the way up to Panorama Ridge, some of the slopes were quite steep, and it was fairly heavy going with the snowshoes. As we were walking up one particularly steep hill we could hear cracking sounds as large sheets (about 10m or 30ft in diameter) of the fairly fresh snow about 30 cm (approximately 1ft) thick beneath our feet was breaking off and sliding over the top of the older compacted snow below. We found it amusing to turn around and ride the small avalanches down the hill. This happened about three or four times and some of the rides went for about 100 m (about 100 yards) or so. Of course, now many years later with the benefit of experience in hindsight, I realise how dangerous those conditions were and how lucky we were not to have killed ourselves.
On the way to the meadows near Black Tusk, were we planned to camp I passed a small tree sticking up out of the snow. Before I could realise what was happening, I had fallen about 5m (about 15ft) below the snow and was tangled up in the top of a large pine tree with my snowshoes and backpack, making it difficult for me to move.
It had been snowing quite heavily, and there was lots of light fluffy powdery snow covering everything and what I thought was a small tree sticking up out of the snow was in fact a large tree in a snowdrift. So there I was, tangled up in the top of the tree under the snow. Doug of course, was trying to help me get out, but he couldn’t get near the top of the tree, as the snow was too soft and he was in risk of falling straight through the snow, just like I had. Matters were further complicated by the fact that I had to somehow undo my snowshoes and get my backpack off, whilst tangled in the branches.
Since I was at the thinner top of the tree, my weight caused the tree to sway underneath the very soft snow. After about a half hour struggle I was eventually able to remove the snowshoes and backpack and throw them to Doug, who was waiting about 3 m away (about 10 feet) at the edge of the hole in the snow. This wasn’t a very easy thing to do because every time I tried to throw my pack, the tree would sway in the opposite direction and I couldn’t throw it very far. Luckily, Doug had brought long handled ice axe with him and he was able to retrieve my backpack before it fell back down into the hole past me to the bottom of the tree, which was about another 10 m (30 ft) below me.
I tried a few times to jump from the tree to safety but as I tried to do so, the force I was using caused the tree to sway in the opposite direction, canceling my efforts out. I eventually got out my predicament by swaying backwards and forwards in the top of the tree causing it to sway it towards Doug, who was waiting for me at the edge of the hole with the ice axe extended for me to grab on to. I don’t know how I would have got out of that situation without Doug.
Since those first few snow camping experiences in Canada with Doug I’ve probably been snow camping over a hundred times and have learned how to do it much more safely and comfortably.
this post was first posted on 5th of January 2008