Monday, January 24, 2011

Gust, Snow, Heart, Toe

by Greg

My primary concern is to not freeze to death. Followed closely by a concern to not lose any toes or fingers to frostbite. Valid concerns, I suppose, if somewhat melodramatic. But what do I know? It's January. It's night. It's winter cold. And I'm heading up the mountain to 11,000 feet with a sleeping bag strapped to the back of the bicycle.

At the moment, the bicycle is in the back of a warm van, and we're heading up the mountain on dark pavement that gradually winds into mottled patterns of grey ice and white snowpack. A fat orange moon pushes aside cheesecloth clouds and pours into the sky above the tabletop of a small mesa. We roll onto the top of the mountain, another mesa, much larger, its flat top an undulating blanket of moonlit snow and dark blocks of pine forest. The road sinks several feet deep into a narrow canyon of snowbanks cut by the plows, and my anxiety goes up a notch.

Mike is at the wheel. He's telling stories of other winter bike adventures, of mistakes made, of lessons learned. I'm listening with rapt attention for clues that will help with my own survival, trying be assured by his assurances. "It only got down to 11 degrees last night, and tonight should be balmy as well." Balmy? 11 degrees Fahrenheit? I suppose so, when it regularly gets double digits below zero up here. He told me earlier, "You can bring a tent if you want, but it's only more weight, and you won't need it."

When Mike talks about bikepacking in the snow, I listen. I know of no one who has put more time, thought, and energy into this obscure angle of "going for a bike ride," no one who has put in more miles over snow carrying everything he needs to stay out there and keep going. Compared to some of his travels, our plans for the night are extremely meager. We'll ride for awhile. We'll camp. We'll wake up and ride back.

Easy. Except I've never ridden a single mile on snow with a snow bike. And I've never camped in the winter snow. And without a tent? I've listened. I have no tent.

It's 9 p.m. when we pull into the empty fortress-like parking lot, its edges defended with heaps of snow. We pull the two snow bikes from the back and quickly snug down our gear. Then we're off, up onto the snow and onto a packed snowmobile trail, and I'm snow biking for the first time.

A snow bike is a bike with this important difference: the tires are hugely fat. Almost 4 inches wide, and that's before they squish out even fatter under my weight. The fat tires are part of what makes snow biking possible. Even the fattest "regular" mountain bike tire digs into the snow, sinks, wallows, making forward progress impossible.

Fat tires aren't enough to allow this kind of snow biking. Up here where the snow is several feet deep, we also need packed trails. I'm pedaling along the snowmobile trail in the moonlight behind Mike, trying to get a feel for my borrowed bike. The corrugated trail is fairly level, but soft enough that it feels like riding up a gentle hill. We roll slowly along through the calm, cold air. Snow glows all around us and falls into dark shadows that stretch from tall pines.

In the wide meadow ahead, Mike gets off his bike and in a moment I know why. The packed trail is covered with wispy light snow and the tires sink in. I'm forced to get off, too. "Looks like the afternoon wind drifted-in this part of the trail." We push the bikes, our boots sinking inches down to the firmer base of the trail.

We push through open fields of snow and ride a little where whims of the earlier winds have left the trail firm.The world is bright and we leave our headlamps off. It is a beautiful night. Quiet but for our own small crunch in the snow. Warm, I guess, as I subtract layers to keep from sweating. But not so warm that I'm motivated to set up the tripod to get a good night photo of us pushing our bikes along. The moon is bright enough. I'll get one later, I think. I snap a couple shots and we keep moving. But above, the sky quickly blossoms with clouds that thicken and grow until the moon is gone and the night is dark.

The wind begins to blow in waves that sweep past us and flow away again. We turn onto another trail and into the deeper darkness of the forest where the snow is firm and we are riding again. Mike rides faster than I do and soon I am riding alone through the trees. My dim headlamp is enough to show where the trail may be firmer and to follow his tracks as I pass other trails.

I settle into my rhythm. Level feels like a gentle climb. Small uphills feel like steep hills. Downhill on these gentle grades still requires pedaling to keep moving. Forest, snowfields, the wind and time all slide by and I am where I am, living my moment. And maybe, just maybe... trying not to think about the fact that we'll be camping out here.

Mike waits for me and we ride through another open area where the snow is soft but rideable, as long as I "ride light" and ride smoothly and don't sink in. We've been out for maybe three hours. I'm feeling the effects of the effort and lack of air at this elevation. It is time to call it a night.

Mike sees a likely place and we wade off the trail into deeper snow to some trees. He begins to set his camp, showing me how to set my own. I knock piles of snow off the lower branches of a couple trees to prevent "snow bombs" during the night. Then next to the trees where I hope some of the wind will be blocked I begin to stomp out a nest. The result looks suspiciously like a shallow, icy grave, and just my size.

Fifteen feet away on the other side of my trees and in his own world, Mike has inflated his pad, pulled out his sleeping bag, and might be sitting up in it eating something like dinner.

On my side of the trees, I'm not sure what I'm doing. How cold is it? How cold will it get? And how much would it matter if I knew how cold it was and how cold it will get when I have no idea what to do with that information? I had put on my down coat when we stopped moving, but I'm still getting chilly. Mostly, I think, from being a little sweaty from riding.

I carry on. I inflate my sleeping pad and put it in the nest. I un-stuff my sleeping bag. My pack is filled with extra clothes I thought I might need, but do I? I don't know. I elect not to change any clothes, but just take off my boots, throw them into the bottom of the sleeping bag, then climb in wearing my coat. By the time I do, my hands are icy and I'm shivering a little bit. That's not good, is it?

Just in case this is an emergency, I think I'd better drink some hot water from my thermos. And eat some of the granola I've brought along. Food is fuel and fuel makes heat, right? So I proceed to burn my tongue on the hot water and to chew up a little granola. But handling the metal thermos has made my hands even colder. I stopper the thermos and close the granola bag and hunker down inside the sleeping bag with my hands between my thighs.

Then notice that one toe might be numb, so start obsessing about that. Is it frostbite? Is this what Step One In Freezing To Death feels like, creeping upward from one toe? Then I notice that it's not even one toe. It's actually just the right side of my right big toe. And then I remember that this is nothing new. That toe, some circulatory flaw, perhaps, has always had a tendency to be numb in even the slightest cold. I have survived the Half-Numb Toe before. I will survive again. I hope. Still, I rub it furiously until it comes back to life.

Then, at last, I lay my head down on my backpack and sleep.

Or so I wish. Tiny shivers roll through my body. My heart is racing. Elevation? Excitement? My "pillow" is not the soft part of my pack, but perhaps the camera tripod, with its angular aluminum poking me in the head. I could move it, but the shape of the nest won't allow it, and besides, I'd have to put my hands outside the bag.

The wind picks up and blows through the treetops, knocking loose small snow bombs that were too high for me to reach. The bombs explode on the flap of sleeping bag over my head, or explode nearby where their shards and snow-dust blow under the flap and into my face. I do not sleep.

Almost suddenly I'm too hot. I'm cooking in my sleeping bag. This should not be surprising, I suppose, but I seem surprised. I'm fully dressed and wearing a down coat inside my sleeping bag, which to be fair, isn't just one sleeping bag. Due to my paranoia about the cold, my sleeping bag is actually three sleeping bags -- a fleece liner inside a warm-weather down bag inside a cold weather down bag. The cold weather bag didn't seem like it would be enough by itself. But the three together are baking me and my brain may explode at any moment.

I take off my hat. I take off the down coat. I pull the two inner bags down to my waist. I flip the sleeping bag away from my face and let the cold air pull away the excess heat. This lasts for a moment before the wind blows more snow off the trees and pelts me with the particles. The cold feels good, but I can't let myself get wet. So I cover up again and try to keep an open air tunnel between my mouth and the outside as I lay there not sleeping.

I begin not sleeping on my right side, but the air tunnel is pointing into the wind and snow is blowing into my face whenever a gust comes past. So I try not sleeping on my left side, which is pointing away from the wind but snow blows over the sleeping bag and drifts back into my face. This is somewhat better than snow blowing directly into my face. So I make the air tunnel as long as I can within the limited space of the sleeping bag and now the snow only reaches my face every two or three gusts.

In between gusts, I listen to my heart, I check to see if my toe is numb, I wonder if I'm dehydrated, I consider removing my pants because I think I'm still too hot, but wait! Is that a shiver? Maybe I'm actually cold and don't realize it and I'm going to freeze to death in this icy grave.

I raise the "roof" of my sleeping bag and look out. Dark trees and dim grey. I wonder if it is close to morning yet. But it is not at all close to morning. And it will not even begin to be morning for a long, long time.

More snow pelts down from the tree and more snow-dust drifts into my face.

During all this I do not think of Trina at all. She is home in a warm bed snuggling with two dogs. I would be there in that bed if I were not out here sleeping in the snow. I do not think of her because I seem to have passed into a state of complete self-absorption. My world has contracted into a varying cycle of gust, pelting snow, drifting snow, my heart, the heat, my toe, the cold, and Is It Morning? (It is not yet morning. Not even close.)

I rouse myself and look down the length of the sleeping bag, which is covered with snow or frost. I shake the white from the bag and lay back again to rejoin the cycle of the night. This too, becomes a cycle. I rouse, shake off snow, then return to the smaller cycle of gust, snow, heart, toe. Is it morning? (Not even close.)

A small snow-bomb pelts the sleeping bag over my ear and, shocked, I awake. Shocked, not at the snow-bomb, but that I may have been asleep. How long? How satisfying? The awakening carries the echo of the sleep, which lasted only an instant, not unlike the times when I have woken up while driving, still speeding down the road as if I had missed nothing. Then, in the car, I tried to fight the sleep as now, staring out of my air tunnel, I try to surrender to it and fail.

Gust, snow, heart, toe. Not even close. Not even close.

The snow beneath the trees melts into spring flowers. Thick summer grass grows up around me. The mushrooms emerge from late summer rains, then melt into the ground where they are covered with the snow of another winter. A year has passed. Then another year and another, the cycles turning as I lay in my icy grave with the winter snow pelting down upon me. Until at last the answer drifts back to me from snow that is more white than dim and grey. It is morning.

Mike! I'm alive!

We're up and moving. Squeezing air from our pads. Shaking off frost and snow. Stuffing away bags and lashing them to the bikes. Soon our fat tires are churning through the snow that has blown into the trail in the night, under a sky like dirty chalk.

My head feels like a boiled onion. Mike claims that he has slept no better than I, but how does he know? I did hear him snoring in the night and doubt that he heard the same from me. Still, neither of us has much interest in pounding and pushing many miles on soft trails in flat light after a long night.

Our ride in the night had looped us back toward the parking lot. It is a short mile of riding until we're done. We load bikes and drive back down the mountain toward breakfast and long naps.

Someone asks: How was it?


Would you do it again?



  1. I can so relate. At least I got sunlight and a little sleep on my snow bikepacking trip with MC, but otherwise it was pretty much as you described.

    Had to laugh out loud at the 3 sleeping bags. Why didn't I think of that?

  2. I can’t decide if you got me excited to do another winter camping trip or making me want to put it off until next year….. I think it might be more of the later.

  3. My latest internal review of the adventure suggests that my awkward night was mostly due to a combination of dehydration and altitude. Which, true or not, at least makes me think positively about trying it again. Though not after a day of not remembering to drink anything. --Greg