YELLOWSTONE – Last Day

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Map says about 7 miles, WP 36 to WP 44. Clearly we have steep, treed terrain to get to the meandering meadows below. I’m not psyched about the ski. I’m in lighter boots and skis than I want for this descent. Carrying a 50 lbs pack feels like skiing chonky powder with my camo slippers. It reminds me of skiing with an old friend, Thor Anderson, in the Grand Traverse. He was able to descend Aspen Highlands with edgeless cross country skis at full speed. Another friend, Lyosha, can ski through trees a foot apart at maximum speed with a pack. I have neither the nerve nor the skill to achieve these so I just get tense.

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In full survival ski mode I safely make it down the steeps. As the angle slackened the route became frustratingly up and down. I had envisioned a steep ski into beautiful meadows. What I got was a bunch of low angled ravines that required herringbone steps through dense undergrowth. I was ready to be back. The trip was good but there was underlying conclusion in the air. David’s illness was a thing he managed heroically but it took some of the fun out of it.

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I like my life. I have a great job, I’m reasonably heathy, and I live in Moab. I also have excellent friends, most remind me that I have lived a pretty lucky life. I’m not sure if that means I’ve had a great experiences or whether I’m just lucky to have lived through them. As I ski through the minorly frustrating undulating thickets I remind myself that my best memories are of times I am fully immersed in the moment. With a gentle personal scolding I am able to adjust my attitude to seeing the beauty in which I am skiing and push the anxiety attached to daily life down the trail. It may be the proximity to civilization. It may be the stream of work deadlines that seem to emerge in direct proportion to my proximity with normal life. It makes no sense to think of the outside world when I am skiing through paradise.

Properly oriented I was again awed skiing across the flats. We’ve been following the Fire Hole River. Its had developed into a serious ravine near our last camp then switched into a meandering maze with thermally heated feeder streams through the meadow. I’m guessing the snow pack up high was between 4-7’. Here it looks less than 3’ and had animal tracks criss-crossing everywhere.

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Thermals had huge patches of ground melted of snow. Buffalo dung was everywhere. This elevation had a much different feel. For the first time I sensed the habitat of bears and other large critters that had me questioning my position on the food chain. Clouds were low and a lovely light snow ushered us back into reality.

Near the end of the meadow the map indicated trails and bridges. David thought we would have skier tracks by now. Five miles to go my mind simply wanted the easiest skiing out of here, skied trails were much easier than breaking trail. Trail hashes and an indented, snowed over path lead us right into perfect buffalo habitat. Thermally warm, lots of water and some grass. The sense of bears edged into a primordial portion of my anxiety prone, evolved brain.

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My pack, boots, and gear had found their serviceable equilibrium. My body and psyche have fully adapted to semi truck purpose. My systems were dialed and I was fully in the flow. It took a few days to get here. A part of me is proud I can (still) do these trips. Some people are naturally agile (see paragraph above about skiing skills), others simply have a strong back and a weak mind. Through endless steps I can ponder that to death, as if it mattered.

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Though the day started slowly we were cruising now. David was still struggling but my compassion meter was dipping into the yellow. I wasn’t angry or disappointed, maybe impressed – but short of carrying him or his pack there wasn’t much I could do besides not be an ass.

As we skied across the first perfect NPS bridge I felt the tentacles of normal life grabbing at my heart. I reacted by getting lost and doing a mile loop around a lake. All this with trail markers everywhere. Turns out I missed a 6’ wide trail just after the bridge. David relieved me of my Daniel Boone position and plowed a 0.32 mile (now operating with GPS) short cut through the woods. About 50’ from the obvious trail we got fully tripped up in down-falled trees with 3’ unskiable clumps of snow on them. Eventually David wound up head first in a pit of snow, swearing. I offered to help but his taxed demeanor indicated he was to extract himself. I skied around and headed down the trail.

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I was skiing across snow and bare thermal areas without removing my skis at this point of the trip. I looked up and had my first encounter with humans that had showered recently. They looked so clean and put together. A fit family of four. ‘Did you come in on the Shoshone Trail?’ asked the father? ‘No, we skied in from Idaho’, I replied. As a pack designer I noticed the dad was wearing a modern-ish 30-liter pack and his semi-petulant teenage son carried only a water bottle. My pack is 65-liter storage container with Jethro Bodine style crap hanging all over it. I wondered about deductive thinking and where that question came from. Perhaps my rig looked like a day pack for the super prepared, perhaps I was socially starved and was incapable of rational thought…

Passing Lone Star Geyser more skiers appeared. Some looking like this ski thing was an unusual occurrence – which I took to mean we were really close to civilization and safety. The geyser marked the less-than-four-miles-from-done point. It also had a perfectly groomed ski trail leading 2 miles to the road. David was looking worked. I must have looked like a horse that senses the barn because he said ‘I can meet you at the lodge’. ‘Nah, let’s meet at the road then ski in together’. The groomer had put two perfect ski grooves at the side and they were perfect for the diagonal stride I used to spring to the road. My pack felt weightless as I zoomed down the trail past bewildered tourist-looking skiers and snowshoers. In my mind I had the fitness and skill of two decades ago racing in Montana. Fully motivated.

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The road brought me one step closer to modern mindset equilibrium. NPS signs indicating the obvious were everywhere. Years ago I rode a snow coach to Old Faithful for an overnight ski. The rig was patented in the 1940s and had all the charm of the park itself. Intimate, real, and socially encouraging. Looking left I was kind of floored to see a tracked Mercedes Sprinter van sitting 6’ off the snow packed road. Logo filled like a Tour de France support car, it was as impersonal and comfortable as business class air travel. A nostalgic part of my heart was broken.

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Interestingly enough David was about 1 minute behind me! We exchanged a few common thoughts on civilization and turned our skis down the perfectly groomed road to the lodge. Again I pushed – and so did David. It was easy and really kinda fun. Like dressed snow mobile tours passed by always with lots of room for us. My body persona was that of determination.

Skiing into the lodge area proper I re-constructed the walls needed to engage socially. No more farting or peeing with my skis on. David was in front now so I followed him into the architecturally clique log lodge. Time to turn down my senses and relax into the comfort of running water and warm spaces. My eyes felt like they represented the funny transition I was experiencing. I couldn’t focus on the check-in forms nor was I able to be attentive during our introductory speech. Everything was clean and crazy comfortable. There was an aura of wildness around us even larger than the periphery of our odor.

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Ultimately it took about 13 seconds for me to switch into the loveliness of meals served and hot showers. This was a short trip, without many objective dangers. More a beautiful scenic ski. I am lucky to be able to have had this unique experience and lucky to have a life worth wanting to return. Funny how such a short time away gives such license to comment on normalcy.

RJ

RJ and I at the conclusion of 17 hours of paddling across Lake Michigan. He handled all communication on that trip too.

PS: Thanks RJ for managing all the communications. Regardless of the risk it helps free my mind in the wild knowing such a competent person is handling things on the other end. Here’s to many more safe trips and a hope we do some together!

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PPS: And to my number on fan…

YELLOWSTONE – Camp 3 Map

The Goods…

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YELLOWSTONE – Day Four

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I must be in Maine. The inside of the tent has icicles and icy rime hanging from everything. Temps near freezing I sense a migration of moisture penetrating every piece of down gear I have with me. Though I’m snuggled warmly in my sleeping bag with the comforts of batteries, lighters, toothpaste, camera and GPS, there is a definite change in humidity. Surprising with all the steam around…

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The tent we are using is a prototype I developed a few years back that is single wall using a waterproof but non-coated or laminated shell. Theoretically it should be ideal for cold weather use as it would move moisture through the high tech fabric avoiding the rain forest effect I’ve experienced in my favorite old Biblers. Practically it proved much less effective below 20 F than in the dry, warm desert I live in. It does sport a bulletproof pole structure that I am confident would handle high winds or major snow loads. I am able to contemplate all these great ideas as the rime falls on my face, with clear skies and not a hint of a breeze.

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All micro-weather phenomenon aside, it was pretty easy to make the most of a dreary situation. I slipped on my outer booties and trolled the geo-thermally heated gravel bar where my stove sat – covered in rime. The sky had a low ceiling but there were hints (I really hoped) the sun was slowly burning away the misty thermal inversion.

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I grabbed the heated fuel canisters from a micro hot springs and brewed up as much water as I needed for hydration and breakfast. I brought my first go at Starbucks instant coffee and enjoyed a 2x size, with 2 table spoons of sugar and instant cream, in my beautiful pink Love Muffin Cafe mug. Far from the treat of having breakfast there every morning but a great memory. Breakfast is a spectacularly un-imaginative gruel of organic maple oatmeal, brown sugar, and 2 spoons of powdered baby formula. I will not run out of calories.

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Dave looked pretty good this morning. He didn’t demonstrate much on the appetite-regainment program but an early morning soak made everyone happy. All team rah rah noted it is still hard for competent men to actually divvy up gear so the hurting party requires less effort to get through the day. Since David is so competent it would make sense he pulls all his own weight if he possible can. We didn’t discuss load sharing so we just got rolling. It was though because the sun had burned away the inversion and it was again super comfortable.

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Retracing our steps across snow and muddy trails and a river crossing started the day slow but I was not worried. David was moving slow but forward momentum was being made. Within the hour we were on the 2000’ ski skin climb up to the beautiful plateaus at 8400’. Valiantly David got out in front and broke trail uphill. I sensed his disappointment in being sick but at this point I was simply happy to be alive and seeing this amazing terrain.

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Warm days in the winter can be very frustrating. The sun was pretty warm by mid-morning and where it hit the snow between trees on our graded climb the surface became dense and waterlogged. Translated that means sunny patches makes snow sticks to your skis, skins and ski pole baskets and shady patches freezes the mess together. A hard ski kick or pole swat against a tree usually frees it up but as things got warmer it was a tedious mess. Eventually I just started swearing at my skis and eventually blessed the forest with a first class rant – absurdly foolish but no one heard me.

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Around the geological time these geysers were made I did some road bike racing. Since then I have a peloton habit of following people really closely whether skiing, rafting, running or biking. The toll of David’s condition surfaced briefly when he rightfully pointed out that I was skiing over the back of his skis when he led and that he usually liked a little more room in the back country. This dialogue had an edge similar to a memory I have from paddling our sea kayaks across Lake Michigan a few years back. We were at the point in our crossing where I was concerned I might not be able to sync up available energy and actual distance. I thought (could have been a little hypo-glycemic induced) he was not going in the straightest line between our waypoints. When I called him on it we exchanged a few words then he informed me I was wrong. I got sulky (short lived) and quickly saw the errors in my ways. Also on the ski thing I saw his point but did so without sulking.

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The remainder of the day was stunningly beautiful. We skied through un-treed high plateaus that made my feel profoundly fortunate to experience them. It was simply breath taking.

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David managed to pull his own weight. In a way it was nice he wasn’t 100% because it took all performance pressure off me and I really took in the scenery.

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As the day extended into dusk we skied longer than usual. We were moving off the plateaus into tougher treed topography through ravines and having to navigate more accurately. David planned our navigation with exceptional insight. Every time I wondered what was up with the route it showed uncanny insight and foresight into the terrain and how best to get through it. We worked really well together using a GPs to get directional readings between waypoints and using our analog compasses to navigate. Still the day got long and the trickiest terrain was done in the cold shadows of dusk.

Uncharacteristically our camp 4 WP-36 felt like it was on a side hill in the middle of the woods. I had this feeling we would ski around for a while looking for a better site if I didn’t make a move so I dropped my pack and started stamping and digging out a platform. It was a bit of a strong arm tactic but jacking around sounded awful to me. Besides were both on the edge of cranky and getting warm food into us would help.

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We had intermittent cell phone connection, which pulled the vibe out of the backcountry, but allowed me to confirm our ride back to our cars and hear a voice other than mine or David’s. I had some brown water left so I fashioned a snow chair and watched the stars over the meadows 700’ below our perch. Orion’s belt had helped me navigate on many occasions and its indifferent presence again reminded me of my tremendous good fortune.

The tent platform on the side hill worked out well.

YELLOWSTONE – Day Three

WP 08 to WP 13, Mile 12 to 19, 7 miles

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David woke up still sick. When I questioned him about what was happening he said it was stomach/ gut. He hadn’t thrown up but it was largely by force of will. This development put me in a bit of a quandary. I would like to preface that I believe things like this happen despite our best intentions. As a trip partner there is a responsibility to protect and support each other regardless of the situation. So I held Dave in no contempt for not feeling 100%. I just wanted to make sure we recognized and made good decisions in light of these dymanics.

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We still had very sketchy cell phone service and I let our communications guy, RJ Masselink, know what was going on. He would text everyone that cared my message. “We’ll be out of touch for a few days, David is sick, and we may take one of our two possible bail outs”. In these conditions a little unsettling on the receiving end of that message but quite a bit less than radio and phone calls from dire situations in the past. The objective dangers were very low and their potentials rather benign.

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As much as I could tell David was capable of continuing to ski – at some level. Forward movement complied with our plan but each glide step brought us further away from civilization. At this point we were a few miles from phone coverage and 15 miles from our cars. I ask what he wanted to do and he responded to continue forward. He was pretty determined to reach the hot springs – Mr Bubbles.

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I had been thinking that was an uncomfortable name for a hot spring. It was also challenging for me to tell people that was our objective when skiing with another dude. Yeah, the holy grail brings images of kids, flatulation, and a bath tub. It would possibly cover the effects of our freeze dried food and the sulfer smell would guarantee flatulence anonymity. Still the visual was tricky.

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We decided to move from our campsite at WP 08 about 5.5 miles to WP 12, which had a planned emergency bail out option that put us within 15 miles of Old Faithful. But it would skip the farting pond. We moved slowly across the flat, stunningly beautiful meadows. Dave was clearly hurting but I was beginning to believe he was unable to complain nor utter anything close to a whine.

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As we rested at the first bail out option at WP 12 I contemplated our options. Weirdly enough David was not real talkative as he visibly struggled to eat then keep it down. We agreed to move to the next bail out WP 15 at mile 21 but I required probably more explanation than necessary to understand why we didn’t just move toward Old Faithful by the easiest route (I thought). My underlying concern was the possibility of David or I if I caught it, not being able to ski for a day or more. We could still move now but what if that changed?

Easy terrain gently changed to crossing increasingly deep and complex ravines. We were nearing the edge of the giant plateau we had been effortlessly skiing across and eons of erosion was making the going more interesting. When we eventually reached the second and last bail-out WP 15 option I had a new idea.

Ian Adamson, adventure racer extraordinaire, once explained to me how the team routinely rotated gear weight to compensate for team member’s energy and performance levels. I poached this idea and proposed it to David. We had been discussing camping on the plateau at WP 15 then skiing down to the spring and back that night without a pack. Seemed like a lot of work and we would have to ski after soaking. Instead I suggested we ski to the spring and camp there. If he was feeling poorly tomorrow I could put his pack on mine and we could climb onto the next plateau that way. Or I could do two trips up the climb out. I was also really uncomfortable leaving our packs and skiing through very remote areas with little or no gear.

People I have been to the edge with I think would agree I am a very conservative person. I dislike recklessness and try to think things through. Being totally on our own didn’t seem like a good place to ski without our gear, or safety net. I’m not sure this weighed as much to David but a blown out knee 3 miles from our packs would be a much different hypothermia scenario than if we had sleeping and bags and stoves at hand. That same practiced conservatism has kept me off more than one summit in my life, sometimes at the disgust of my partners.

Luckily David bought my idea. We skied to the edge of the plateau and started our steep descent at WP 22. The day’s weather was brilliant. 30 F temps, perfectly quiet, and not a cloud in the sky. The snow pack changed dramatically from sunny to shady aspects. I’m not much of a fan of low cut BC NNN boots. They feel like my camo slippers. Today was no different but I made it down the 25 degree, tree lined slope with only a blow to my sunny disposition. David made it look way too easy.

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For the first time we saw open water in thermal heated streams. Translated that means narrow bands of water 6” deep cut across our planned route. Each side of such unimposing streams had 6-8’ of snow walls going into them – or impossible to cross. OK, not impossible but mood-alteringly difficult to accomplish even without the flu. Luckily the toughest crossings offered us snow bridges of requiring moderate skill to cross and promising only getting wet with failure.

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At the point of the map where 3 rivers met we were supposed to find a bridge (easy to cross with skis!) at WP 24. It was a single log with feet of snow somehow attached to it. The banks of this crossing were melted upstream so David took off his skis and hopped slippery boulders across. I crossed the strangely lukewarm water barefoot as I had seen earlier my conservative attitude was outgunned by David’s excellent sense of balance (not a new concept after skiing down from plateau!) We re-skied on grass in the warm sunlight.

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David broke trail uphill with understandable enthusiasm as I got my junk show back together. We were in a place with a much different feel from the high plateaus, within a mile of the spring. Rivers and steam were everywhere. Terrain was steep and undulating. Skins were needed to navigate toward to spring. His stomach took a toll on his pace sunny disposition. I could see there was no humor in his day, replaced by straight up suffering. I easily passed him and followed the huge steam plume on the horizon.

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We had to cross a few muddy sections of trail and finally I saw the spring. Or I though it was. Even at about 40 F steam was everywhere. So much that I couldn’t make out the lay of the land. Skis off again I crossed the steaming river with my boots on and walked to the steam wearing my pack, carrying my skis in my hands. As I neared the steam, waking on loamy grass I passed small fumerals and springs boiling to the surface. There must have been a surge, or eruption in the spring. It got scary loud and bubbled what looked like feet into the air. Through the steam I realized I was a few feet from a spring or geyser that would boil my skin off in a minute.

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I put my skis back on and skied to the opposite, windward side. With the perceived safety of several feet of snow under me I finally saw the magnificent view of a boiling cauldron, blue and just feet from my perch. Other worldly. David had caught up and was on the snow exploring the 3 pools of boiling water. It was a small deal maybe 20’ across at the hottest section.

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From the geyser a manmade pool emerged through the steam maybe 100’ upstream. It had a bubbling component but also appeared to have a cold stream water pouring into it. We found a convenient place to camp and headed to Mr Bubbles. I was till a little spooked by the scalding geyser so walking to the bathing pond was done with great care. It was kind of Boiling River-esque in that it was hard to find a uniform temperature. Front side hot back side cold… Beat the daylights out of camping in the snow!

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We also benefitted greatly from being able to re-organize our gear on thermally heated gravel bars, me in barefeet! The juxtaposition was not lost on me. It made the whole idea of winter camping palatable.

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Again we were in bed by 7:30 even with a second soak. Making sleeping bag time only ten and a half hours. David was still green around the gills but he was super-heated. He said it had been more than 15 years trying to get to this spring in winter. Tomorrow I was ready to carry David’s pack out the 1500 to 2000’ out of the valley to the next plateau if needed. Of course he didn’t complain but it was also clear he was far from 100%. From the moment we stepped out of the cabin until we skied into Old Faithful we were in it together. We’ll do whatever is needed to get out together.

Map C2b

YELLOWSTONE – Day 2

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WP 00 to WP 08, Mile 00 to 12

We got out of the cabin in fine fashion. We each got a shower and the wood stove was plenty warm. Our start was a little iffy as we skied through dense trees taking a theoretical beeline approach instead of back tracking around to the snowmobile roads. Once on the roads it turns out the snowmobile roads had just been groomed and nothing had been on it since. The surface was so smooth our skis had trouble tracking on even the slightest off camber sections.

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Needless to say we made our first 8 miles in outstanding time. I wound up my pace to just past pretty dang slow and kept it there for hours. It took a while to see our first snowmobilers. I was really surprised how quiet the new machines are. Not all sledders and skiers see eye to eye on things so I was extra careful to be respectful of them as we moved across terrain they took great care to maintain. Everyone was considerate, we got several waves and even a few cheers!

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Sled tracks ended at the park border. It was pretty cool to lessen our connection to modern input. David’s route had us ski up a gentle slope until we gained the 8000’ – ish plateau that defined the geographical nature of this part of the park. The slope was gentle enough to rely on the waxless feature of our skis part of the way and skins on the steeper sections.

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At 5-6 hours into our day we were in a burned out section of the plateau, having left the treed slopes and snowmobile road to get to it. Navigation waypoints were a bit further apart but we could see a long way. The Tetons loomed through the trees at our distant right.

We set up camp in a huge meadow, 12 miles in and pretty pleased with ourselves. There had been no evidence of wildlife and surprising few bird sightings. The only tracks seen have been squirrels and an occasional small cat track. We opted to take no more precaution with food than to put it in our backpacks. I stamped down a platform for our tent and David dug a trench and platform for our kitchen.

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As afternoon edged toward evening the temps turned markedly cooler from our daytime temps of 30-40F. After setting up the tent I pulled off my boots, changed socks (dried my day-used socks by stuffing them over my shoulders inside my jacket), pulled on huge down booties, pants and jacket. By the time we started dinner it was hard to have fingers out of gloves for more than a few seconds.

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I recommended using Jetboil stoves with compressed gas canisters. They had been solid and dependable in Pakistan at elevations and temps more severe than we could encounter here. Still my old rig was barely sufficient. David’s newer MiniMo Jetboil did better but we had a full time cooking job keeping canisters warm. A marginally workable solution but a bit from ideal.

My biggest beef with winter camping is how long I spend in a sleeping bag. By 6:00 PM we had eaten, the sun was giving no thermal value, and we really had nothing to do. The math is easy – 12 hours in a bag. Sure I was a bit tired but really – 12 hours. What a drag. And something happens to my 50+ year old eyes after being outside all day that affects my near vision so I could not read without a headache producing squint.

Into the tent we went. I wear 2 jackets, down pants and booties inside my bag. My outer down jacket (aka The Problem Solver) has 2 gas canisters, sun screen, toothpaste, my freeze-proof (NOT!) pen, GPS, phone, and camera and extra batteries in its pockets to keep them all functioning. Makes rolling over… interesting.

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I try to poop and pee before I climb into my bag. I find it really discouraging to have to climb out of my bag and do either in the coldest part of the night. In alpine situations I use a pee bottle but neglected to take one this time. So I ended up playing a mental game of complete denial through the night. Instead of waking up to nature’s call I was woken up by David moving around like he was ill. I asked him what was going on and he said he was feeling sick. This could be interesting.

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