Sunday, December 02, 2007

On the Arctic blast

This is the point in the hike where I began to feel underdressed, and just a little bit frightened. Several minutes before, I had been standing in the Douglas Ski Bowl, just below treeline at an elevation of about 2,500 feet. I watched in stark wonder as the wind coursing at my back ripped streams of snow off the ridge and carried them hundreds of feet into the deep blue sky.

Just an hour earlier, a weather station at Sheep Mountain - a 4,000-foot peak less than five miles as the crow flies from where I stood - recorded 100 mph winds and a temperature of -8F. Standing among the last protective strand of trees in the Douglas Ski Bowl, I could almost understand what that kind of weather looked and felt like. An eerie howl echoed down the bare slopes and blasted the tops of trees until I was certain a few would tumble. Clouds of gritty, sand-like snow swirled over the top of the ice sheet I was standing on, old snowpack that had frozen to a solid sheen. The obscured sun cast a chocolate-colored glow on the mountainside, and I thought I should take a photograph. But as I removed my mittens to rifle around in my inside pockets for my camera, I could feel my fingers instantly stiffen, as though I had stuck them inside a flash freezer. I quickly pulled the mittens back on. I could not believe the windchill. The scene was more evocative of the moon than a place on Earth, and in that moment you really couldn't have paid me enough money to climb above treeline. Luckily, today I had the luxury of making that choice. So I took one last breath to end my hard climb, pulled my face mask on, and turned around to face the gushing wind.

When I left the house earlier, the thermometer read 12 degrees - down from the 17 it had been first thing in the morning and steadily dropping. But 12 degrees didn't seem too bad, and I dressed to hike hard uphill ... a single leg layer (snowboarding pants), liner socks, wool socks, winter boots, gaters, long-sleeved shirt, midweight polar fleece jacket, Gortex shell, mittens and a hat. The clothing served me well on the climb, but it became apparent fairly quickly that it wasn't enough to block the wind blast on the descent. Needles of icy air punctured my layers and scraped at my skin. I tried to bundle up as much as I could ... closing all my vents and maneuvering clothing around exposed patches of skin. Common sense told me I had a short walk home and I was plenty covered enough to avoid hypothermia, but as soon as the body's comfort level deteriorates, a fear factor sets in. I couldn't help but be afraid. So despite the frosty glare-ice condition of the trail, and despite the impact downhill running has on my knees, I began to jog at a fast clip. Gusts of wind stole the breath right out of my throat, but the jogging worked. I pretty quickly jolted by body temperature back up to a toasty 98.6, and I only slipped and fell once.

That seven-mile hike netted lots of valuable learning experiences. I had to stop and pee three times in two hours because I drank so much water, mostly for fear that my Camelbak hose was going to freeze up. Then, after I pulled on my face mask and ceased the endless sipping, the nozzle froze anyway, despite being wrapped in Neoprene and a plastic cover and stuffed inside my coat. I am still not good at doing things with mittens on, and the temptation to remove them was too strong. It is easy enough to bring fingers back to life after short freezing exposure, but definitely best to avoid it if I can, so I need to look for better ways to layer up my hands. And above all, I need to take windchill very seriously. It is not an arbitrary number on a weather report. Windchill is a very real temperature situation.

As far as camping in this weather ... I am now officially, genuinely frightened. I no longer have that self-assured swagger I carried with me during my ill-fated flat fest last week. I will have to talk to Geoff and see what he thinks about heading out tonight. Maybe there is a certain dignity to starting out in the backyard. Baby steps. And when I do set out into the wilderness to camp in this crap, I will be one humbling hiking experience wiser.