It’s a Fine Line
Outdoor winter adventure is beautiful in the mountains of western Washington. White mounded trees, animals that whiten for camouflage, the presence of tracks so the activity of animals can be discerned, and mountains with their extraordinary mantle of white. Minnesota-raised, my child winters were full of sledding, skiing, skating and snowshoeing. Winter was fun! To access that snowy wonderland from the rainy, green lowlands of western Washington I head up in elevation for a few adventures each winter.
Winter adventures pose a greater level of risk than wilderness outings in warmer seasons. A mistaken route choice can lead you into avalanche territory. Improper attention to weather conditions can find you in driving wet snow, loss of a sense of direction, and hypothermia in less than 30 minutes. This greater call to preparedness and attentiveness is part of what I DO love about winter adventures.
Snowshoeing at 4,000 feet in the season’s first big snowstorm
The first big, ski resort-opening snowstorm of the season in Washington state occurred mid-December. On the first day of that storm, I joined an REI lowland snowshoe trip to Mt. Baker, a place I have been both summer and winter. (At 72, I prefer not to go alone into the winter wilderness.) Having someone else drive was a delight—especially when mask-wearing protocols were carefully followed. We arrived at the Heather Meadow downhill ski parking lot in moderate snow and wind—a world of white far above the green grass back home. Everyone scrambled into layers of gear before stepping out into the 25 degree F. (-4 degrees C.) temperatures. I carefully slid hand warmer packages into heavy weight gloves and then joined everyone.
After being issued snowshoes (loved trying out new gear!), poles, and gaiters, nine participants and two guides were on our way up the snow-covered, rolling slopes leading to Artist Point. Within the first fifteen minutes, it was clear one participant had not carefully read the “vigorous trip” label as he struggled to keep up. One of the guides took him down to the Heather Mountain Lodge for the remainder of the day.
When, our remaining guide stepped out of the tracks and came back to check on each of us, I quietly explained that I had a current Wilderness First Responder certification and would be happy to remain at the back of the line-up and serve as “sweep”. She thanked me and gratefully accepted the offer.
Landmark in a snowy landscape
We slowly made our way up through the trees until we reached the Heather Meadows Visitor Center—closed, of course, but a guidepost on the snowy landscape. Although visibility was poor, our guide pointed out avalanche chutes and gave us an educational talk about the Northwest Avalanche Center and what information we should check before heading into the mountain backcountry landscape.
Stopping for lunch
The group made good progress and stayed together well. Once we traversed a steep ridge, we were just below Artist Point. Blowing and drifting snow made visibility poor so our guide circled us up near a group of trees in the lee of the wind for a lunch break.
The always helpful Washington Trails Association guide lists Heather Meadows ski lift to Artist Point snowshoe as a four mile, 1,000 foot climb. It details the importance of knowing your route and avoiding avalanche-prone areas. It was reassuring to have our guide with her GPS navigation and radio that connected us directly to rescue, if we needed it. My guess is that in our 90-minute climb we had come up from our 4,100 foot beginning about 800-900 feet.
Stopping for lunch is important, AND it is a moment of vulnerability. We had been issued small insolite pads to keep us from sitting directly on the snow and getting quickly chilled. I knew not to sit down because I get cold very fast, so I ate standing up. Before eating, though, I pulled a light weight down coat from my pack and put it underneath my waterproof outer layer. While eating my sandwich, I noticed one of the participants had put on her warm underlayer, but had not zipped it. Then I noticed that her bare hands holding her sandwich were beet red, so I asked if she would like some help zipping up her jacket. She was appreciative. Her friend volunteered to give her a set of hand warmers.
In 20 minutes our guide encouraged us all to finish up and get ready to head down. “You won’t burn as many calories or stay as warm going downhill, so move around while you are waiting for everyone and keep on that underlayer you just put on.”
A moment of vulnerability
When one of the younger men stood up, he instantly got dizzy and had to sit back down. Here was a point of vulnerability for the group—What if he cannot walk out by himself? Our guide asked us all to keep moving and stay warm. I snowshoed around, talking to each person while the guide stayed with the young man who was now actually, in WFR terms, a “patient”.
Wandering over to the guide, the young man, and his girlfriend, I asked what he had for breakfast and what he had eaten for lunch. It did not sound like a lot of food for a rigorous snowshoe in the cold and wind, so I asked if he had a protein bar, which his girlfriend did. After eating half of it, he tried to stand again and found he was still light-headed.
As a trained Wilderness First Responder, I have begun thinking about possible rescue scenarios. Our guide had a radio to contact the other guide in the lodge. I had a bivy sack the young man could climb in and get seated on insolite pads to keep warm until help arrived. Then I started wondering who will stay with the “patient” if he needs rescuing and how the guide might expect to help the rest of us keep warm.
On the next try, the young man was steadier on his feet, so we started the trek back down. We progress slowly enjoying the snowy beauty. It was fun to watch the numerous backcountry skiers make their way uphill on their climbing skins or swishing around us as they carved their beautiful turns in the accumulating powder snow.
It was a gorgeous day in the winter wonderland with important reminders to BE PREPARED. Yet again I am reminded of the fine line between winter wonder and potential emergency.
For my reminder and for others, a list:
Must bring on a winter trip
Extra layers of clothing
Packaged hand warmers
Waterproof jacket and pants
Gaiters to keep snow out of your winter warmth boots (not hiking boots)
A means to navigate if snowing and blowing snow descend (GPS or compass)
Extra food and water (in a bottle that won’t freeze)
First Aid kit
Must check before going into the winter mountain back country
Weather report for your area
Someone knows where you leave your car and what time you will return, and don’t travel alone!
An honest assessment of your own physical strength and stamina