Baby, it’s cold outside

A clip from The Knickerbocker News in Albany, Jan. 14, 1982.

Forty-one years ago this week, my colleague Doug Fitzgerald and I started NCCC’s first Winter Practicum. It was a student-planned two-week winter expedition. Unlike this winter we had plenty of snow and cold. How much? How about three feet of snow, with temperatures of minus 37 F?

The twelve students arrived on campus the day after New Year’s and spent a week planning their trip. The first order of business was to organize themselves into committees to tackle 15 or so tasks, ranging from planning and purchasing food, to planning the itinerary, to weather forecasting and recording, to post-trip wrap-up. They had six days to plan everything before we headed out for a week of cross-country skiing and a week of snowshoeing.

It was a great group of eight men and two women. They were also guinea pigs in that they were the first NCCC students enrolled in the Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program. While I’d been on plenty of cold weather expeditions, I’d never outfitted and led a group of students on one.

We had a limited budget and had to stretch it. We rented skis and boots from Eastern Mountain Sports, which looked like antiques compared to today’s backcountry ski gear: narrow skis, three-pin bindings and boots that were less rigid than Indiana Jones’ whip. We used two 20 F sleeping bags, one inside the other, hoping they’d keep us warm enough in the sub-zero temperatures. They kept us from getting hypothermia, but that’s about it.

We spent the first week in the Five Ponds Wilderness Area, the suburbs of micropolitan Wanakena. There was plenty of snow and we headed out with heavy packs and skinny skis, down the trail towards High Falls. We spent a frigid night near High Rock, where the low was a mild 28 below zero. Why do I say mild? Because it was the warmest of the first three nights of our trip. The next night was 32 below, followed by 36 below. The fourth night was a mild 18 below, and for everyone’s safety, we decided to return to the college for a couple of nights before trying again. (Ironically, they were the two warmest nights of those two weeks.) Once back on campus I said, “Okay folks, what are we going to do now?”

A clip from The Knickerbocker News in Albany, Feb. 11, 1982.

Someone said, “Let’s plan the next week around creating a basecamp and taking day hikes from them.”

Someone else said “And let’s build quinzhees at each one. That’ll allow us to sleep warmer.”

Quinzhees, of Athabaskan origin, are snow shelters made by piling up the snow, letting it set for a couple of hours while it naturally hardens, then carving it out. The wonderful thing about quinzhees is how warm they are. I remember playing euchre in shirt sleeves in a quinzhee one time when the temperature outside was minus 15 F. They get no colder than 28 F, no matter what the outside temperature. That may not sound warm to you while sitting in your 72 F living room, but trust me, when it’s minus 30 F outside, the quinzhee is 58 F warmer. That’s downright balmy.

After warming up and finalizing our new plans, we headed into the High Peaks. The packs were heavy, the snow deep, and the mountains steep. But that didn’t keep us from making good time and setting up a camp on the lower slopes of Gothics Peak.

The group went right to work building quinzhees. They shoveled big piles of snow into circles ten-feet across and over five-feet high. With the three-foot snow depth, it didn’t take long. The two hours waiting for the snow to firm up was time well spent as we drank mugs of hot chocolate.

When it’s time to carve out the snow, you want to make yourself as snow-proof as possible. You tighten up the drawstring on your windpants and snug up the hood of your windgear because you’ll be lying on your back as you dig your way into the snow. To further your discomfort, it falls on your face as you claw away with your shovel, cook pot, or other digging utensils. Once you get a critical mass dug, you throw it out, much like a dog digging out a hole to store its favorite bone. Hopefully you’ve got a partner with a shovel outside the entrance carefully retrieving what you are throwing out and piling it so you can build benches and a kitchen later. Once dug out you put in the finishing touches by carving out small shelves for candles and odds and ends and smoothing down the walls so if it gets too warm inside, they don’t drip. (If you get too many people inside there is danger of a meltdown.) Quinzhees are amazing. They are bright inside, easily illuminated by a small candle and strong. Once built and lived in a bit they harden and support the weight of a person standing on top of the four-inch ceiling.

They do have one danger, though. Not life threatening but chilling: They can collapse. Only once have I had one collapse once built. And that was during a thaw. On the other hand, during construction if you aren’t careful, you can poke your shovel through the wall, triggering an avalanche of snow.

One such victim was Saranac Laker Kerry Stratton. Kerry was the youngest student on the trip and was lying on his back digging away with a shovel, when he dug too far. The shovel poked through the ceiling, dislodging a three-foot square chunk of snow that crashed down on him. The rest of us burst out laughing. When Kerry stood up, with his head poking through the hole, it looked even funnier. Although there was no danger to Kerry, he didn’t know that, and was a bit shaken, so he started lecturing us on the danger he was in. Because it was the first of many times I saw a quinzhee collapse, I suppose I should have been more sympathetic.

Thirty years later I learned that Kerry went on to become a career Marine. He was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism, outstanding achievement, and meritorious service. At the time the quinzhee collapsed it was scary for Kerry, but by the time he retired, I’m guessing it didn’t even rank in the top 1,000 of his scariest experiences.


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