I love overnight hiking. It allows me to take on longer trails, enables me to spend more time to appreciate nature and disconnect from the busy life.
Winters in the mountains are usually pretty quiet. Most of the wildlife has either traveled to warmer climates or gone into hibernation, the sap of the trees and bushes made its way down to the roots until the temperature rises again in the spring. The layer of snow that covers everything dampens all sounds and creates a feeling of stillness and peacefulness. A few hikers might brave the cold for a day trip.
On a cold winter day, I decided to hike a 14 mile round trip up in the mountains of the Chugach National Forest. It ends on a 9 mile-long, 4-mile wide glacier-fed lake between 4000ft mountains. A small public use cabin is tucked away in a cluster of tall cottonwood trees by the water.
I’m quite familiar with the trail, as it has been one of my favorite hikes, summers or winters alike, which made it easy for me to know what to pack. From experience, I learned to carry with me only the essentials, as a backpack can quickly fill up to an uncomfortable weight. I wasn’t counting on too much snow on the way, as it is a much frequented trail, especially by snowshoers. Accordingly, I only brought a pair of hiking boots and a spare pair of socks. I knew the cabin to get very hot at night from the small wood stove located at the center of the room. Therefore I decided to only bring a sleeping bag with not much extra clothing.
Unfortunately, things don’t always go the way we expect them to and my omissions turned out to be very risky to my own safety.
As I mentioned before, it was a cold day, between 10 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit. I knew myself to get overheated easily and not to get bothered by the freezing temperatures.
The trail was clear for the most part, until I reached the last couple miles where the wind had blown 3 feet of snow back on the trail and covered it entirely. I kept sinking in the snow as I continued on, which was not only very tiring but also got my pants, socks and shoes soaked. All of this wasn’t very alarming as I could picture myself in front of a cozy and warm fire at the end of the day, where I could dry my clothing overnight.
After a slow and steady progress going through the snow, I finally made it to the lake and shortly after, the cabin.
I proceeded to make a fire in the wood stove when I realized that the leftover wood usually put away in a large box were all green logs and branches, a bad start. Everything was frozen and wet outside so there was no use in collecting more firewood.
It took me about half an hour to get a fire going, but nothing that I could be proud of.
The cabin was about as cold as it was outside, the walls covered with a thin layer of ice. My water supply was freezing away by the minute. It was getting late and I was nowhere near getting warm. Most of my clothes were wet and it was impossible to dry them without a risk of burning them at the same time. I think I’ve probably never been that painfully cold in my whole life.
Searching around in my backpack, I finally came across my heavyweight Minus33 base layers that I had kept at the bottom from a previous trip. What a relief!
I was still cold from the lack of energy and stress I’ve had to deal with for the past few hours, but at least I knew I could get through the night without too much worry. And I did! With the aid of my sleeping bag, I was able to get warm enough to get some much-deserved rest and forget about this tricky situation.
It is one of those times when nature challenges you and there is no easy solution. I have learned to respect it more and more from that kind of experiences and I am grateful every time for the quality gear I have been able to acquire, such as my Minus33s!