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December 1997

Paul Schurke: Chillin’ With The Iceman

Your odds of surviving, much less enjoying, a -30°F night in the woods rate right up there with a snowball's chance in you-know-where. That is, unless you make friends with a guy they call The Iceman.

Humans, on the other hand, aren’t cut out for winter. We cope by avoiding it or by using technology to ward off its worst. Standing in the trees, thinking of palm trees and chocolate, I hear voices along the river. I leave the tracks and ski back to meet the others.

-8°F

In a sheltered bay we stop to set up camp. The miles and the cold have taken their toll. The simple act of stamping out tent sites with snowshoes becomes a difficult chore, each of my feet feeling as if it’s encased in concrete. I am spent. Chilled. I can feel my body slowing down. I should have kept moving instead of taking a break earlier, maybe slipped on another layer. I should have taken some of the hard candy Schurke offered us repeatedly along the trail. I’m learning a lesson the hard way.

“The cold is an outstanding teacher,” Schurke had told us. “In the summer, you can bring all the wrong gear, do all the wrong things, and still probably have a pretty good time. In winter, you don’t have that luxury. The game of truth or consequences is never more clear than in the deep cold.”

What I need is dry, warm clothing and a meal. I rummage through my backpack-long underwear tops and bottoms, fleece pants and jacket, wind pants, a heavy parka, overmitt gloves with liners, a thick hat, hood, and new felt inserts for my pac boots-and head over to the campfire where dinner is already started.

A 150-pound person sitting on the couch all day burns about 1,600 calories. The National Outdoor Leadership School recommends that a person skiing, snowshoeing, or winter hiking take in 5,000 calories a day. “That is another of the great joys of winter camping,” Schurke says. “Eating!”

Winter menu-planning is like building a fire in your belly, he tells us. “You start with tinder, foods that your body burns quickly and that can give you a quick boost of energy, such as candy. You should always have a few pieces of candy in your pocket for during the day. Then you add kindling-complex carbohydrates, things that fill you up and burn more slowly, like grains, granola, breads. Those are good things for trail lunches. Dinner should be substantial, heavy in fat and protein. Think of that as your cordwood, something to burn slowly and keep you warm all night.”

Steaming cups of thick soup. Shrimp in a hearty cream sauce over pasta. A sweet, gooey dessert. More hot drinks. With each sip and each bite, I feel myself being warmed from within, coming back to life. There is laughter around the campfire. The stars grow brighter in the blue-black sky. I find myself unzipping the hood of my parka just a bit, the fire inside once again burning hot.

-16°F

With each breath my tongue tingles, as if I am inhaling peppermint. If I leave my gloves off for more than a few seconds, I feel icy pinpricks in the tips of my fingers. The moonlight on the snow is a soft blue with a thin shimmer of the Northern Lights beginning to play among the stars.

We put on snowshoes and leave camp in search of a small lake just over this ridge. We talk of finding wolf tracks and listening for howls, but we are moving just to be moving really, staying warm by staying active. Still, with dinner done it is hard not to think of the sleeping bag or a cup of something warm around the fire.

“We spend 90 percent of our lives in our ‘comfort range,’” Schurke says, as if he knows what I am thinking. “But subject yourself to things that expand your comfort range and your whole realm of being expands. Comfort and pleasure are directly balanced by pain and inconvenience. There is sheer ecstasy in a wilderness setting after a long day, feeling hot chocolate go down the hatch, hearing wolves howl, seeing the Northern Lights. All of it erases the memory of any hardship.”

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