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
I love that you are still doing this wild activiity dear friend, and of course bringing your deep caring and skillful guidance to those in need. Love the photos. May you continue to go freely, safely and happily into these beautiful wild places. My heart goes with you…
Thank you, friend. You know these wild places well. Who was it who went to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to testify and help it stay wild?
I am IMPRESSED, Ann! This 62 year old would be hard pressed to walk that trail with NO SNOW. Inspirational! I’ve always loved the quiet winter hiking offers. Thanks for sharing and I’m glad you were with that group!! They were very fortunate !
Thank you, Pammie. Appreciate your words! Annie
Oh how beautiful….I love hearing so many details of this day. Thank you for sharing, for being the one who “sweeps” and tends to all. Your love and reverence to snow and the natural world make you a guide for all. Bless you and your joy and wisdom.
Thank you co-adventurer and lover of snow!
Thanks Ann! Nice to know you are still out there doing such things. I mostly stay close to home but do go swimming and for walks around Vancouver. Good for them to have someone with your level of care in the backcountry. I was thinking about you all the other day, as I use sarongs for swim towels, still have the ones from Women and the Planet…
Just goes to show they are strong! I also swim about 3 times/week—but in a pool. Not prepared to join our local open water swimmers—I have my limits (-:
I’m so glad that you are you!
Love these pictures, the story, and YOU!
Thank you, friend.
What a great adventure! I imagined myself there with you, thankful for your knowledge and extra wisdom. So pleased you were able to have a day in the snow.
Wish you had been there, too!
This is so inspiring! Thanks for demonstrating what’s possible.
You are welcome.
Love reading your blogs. Brings out my sense of adventure vicariously through them. Hard to believe first snow mid-December but thank you for capturing your outing so beautifully.
Yes, the first snow to stick was late this year, but always welcome when it comes!
As one who would most likely wear her snowshoes backwards, it does my heart good to know that you continue to offer yourself to adventures and would-be adventurers with such wisdom and wonder. Thank you for sharing.
And always you make me laugh. Probably no danger of needing snowshoes in Florida!
You are intrepid, my friend! I thought about you all day, and meant to check with Christina that you arrived home safe and sound. You are an inspiration, as I vow to continue to stay inside my cozy house and save my own intrepidity for warm and gentle weather. Love you! I’m glad I know people like you!
You who trek miles and miles in the high country are truly the intrepid one!
You look so in your element Ann! Thank you for these important reminders. We are getting snow in the mountains so I will be cross-country skiing again soon. All this is so important to keep in mind. Sending love and gratitude. xo
And isn’t it wonderful to be getting snow, my friend!
This glimpse into adventure on a fine winter day has inspired me to seek more time outdoors with people who love and respect Mother Nature.
May it be so for your own joy!
I loved following your adventure, hearing about your preparation (as we do for a vision quest), and your warm, kind assistance to others along the trail. Such a metaphor for life!
Meredith, so very good to hear from you! Holiday blessings.
SO glad you’re still able to stay active at 72! And glad they had such expertise along on this trip! I SO admire you Annie – not just for your outdoor treks, but also for your spirituality. Much love to you, dear one!
Blessing back to you, sister Minnesotan! Love, Annie
You are Wonder Woman Indeed!! Impressive Ann, I would have been a patient after the first 50 feet.
Oh, Judy, you make me laugh and I know YOU are still downhill skiing at your age!
We’re so lucky we live in a place where we can drive in the wee hours to SNOW and have the benefit of enjoyment, rather than the responsibility for management of it. Thanks for sharing about REI trips and mostly for stressing the essentials. Know before you go!
You inspire me in many ways.
Yes, I do appreciate REI for enabling so many people to try back country adventures. Know BEFORE you go, is absolutely the right phrase to hold onto.
How fortunate for your group to have you along as a very prepared participant. I remember feeling very safe on our vision quest even during unexpected circumstances. You are always present with your whole being.
Thank you, Cynthia. You are very kind . . . and that is SO you! Happy holidays to you and your family, Ann
Awesome! Thanks for taking me on the backcountry trip!
You are most welcome, Terry! I know you appreciate the finer subtleties of outdoor adventure.
What a story. Brings back memories, and I’m guessing, for me, memories will be the extent of the more grueling winter activities I used to do. So glad you keep being your adventurous self while also serving and supporting others without your experience and skill set. Sending love and wishes for all the amazing outings your health and heart can hold!
Blessings, Deb, back to you. Yes, I will keep doing these things as long as my body can manage in joy!
HA! REI should give you a bonus trip. I love how your sense of safety and knowledge for the whole community is so on point and alive and activated. It’s a good teaching. I love how much you love it all…
Dear Sara, I did have a great debrief conversation with the head of the program, because that is what we backcountry people do together—learn from each unique situation and apply that next time around. As you well know, the wilderness hands us ongoing learning opportunities!
We read this aloud at breakfast this morning. We were living vicariously the snow and winter-wonderland. It sounds like they were lucky to have you, and we smiled at the 72-year-old woman (who statistically being the one the leaders worried about) sharing wisdom with a young man.
Thank you for sharing this, dear sister! Looking forward to joining your breakfast table soon.(-: