For the past hour, the ankle-deep snow that covered the trail had gently abraded the wax sealant on those boots, making them look practically new. They could have come right off a shelf at Eastern Mountain Sports back in North Conway. The attention I was giving to them was totally apart from the fact that the feet in the boots were numb, and had been for almost half an hour. The real concern came from the fact that those were my numb feet in the boots.
I continued my way back down the trail toward camp. After the exhilaration of spending a frigid night camped in the Great Gulf Wilderness, we had set our sights on a day climb up the Sphinx Trail to the summit of Mt. Clay. I had left Cincinatus, Pete, and Greg in mid-climb when I knew that the cold that had penetrated my boots wasn’t going to go away. I told them I was in trouble and turned around. It was my own fault; you don’t turn a three - season boot into a four-season boot just by adding another pair of wool socks. They just aren’t meant for that potentially dangerous fourth season. Winter was an especially bad time for poor judgement and I was paying the price.
The hike up into The Great Gulf had been fine, with an overcast sky and the temperature in the low twenties. After a few miles of uphill grade, we began to search for the designated campsite that was marked on the map. We had either gone too far, or not far enough, but the site with its tent platforms was nowhere to be found. The gathering darkness convinced us that it would be best if we pitched camp right where we were. We chose a campsite off the trail, sheltered on three sides by thick spruce trees with the open side commanding a beautiful view of the southwestern wall of the gulf with Mt. Washington rising above it. We cleared away the almost two feet of snow from an eight foot by eight foot square over which we strung the trail tarp. We then covered the edges of the tarp with snow, making a rather igloo-ish looking shelter. A ground cloth was put down inside, and we lined our packs along one wall. We put down our foam pads and unrolled our sleeping bags on top of them. Greg lit his stove and left it on a low burn to get some warmth into the shelter. If primitive Eskimos could heat an igloo with a seal oil lamp, a modern primus stove could do the job for us.
By the time we had finished setting up the tarp and had gathered a good supply of firewood, the overcast sky had cleared and stars were sparkling like pieces of crystal in the winter sky. With no cloud cover to keep in what little warmth there had been, the temperature began to tumble. We got a fire going and lit our other two stoves to prepare dinner. On my stove, a venerable old Optimus 8R, a pot of water was heating for tea and hot chocolate. On the other a larger pot was boiling away into which went lentils, rice, beans, and dehydrated vegetables. A frozen package of hamburger was cut into chunks, and along with some bouillon cubes, went into the mix. Greg went into the shelter and turned off his stove, while Pete and Cincinatus lit their candle lanterns, giving the nylon tarp a cheery yellow glow. They came back to the fireside and joined me and we stood around the stove, the beams from our headlamps shining down into the steaming concoction, as if the light would hurry along the cooking process. Soon enough, were in the shelter, our backs up against our packs, enjoying steaming bowls of trailside stew. With a hot meal in us, we went back outside to sit by the fire and smoke our pipes before turning in. The fireside was warm enough, but only on the side of you that faced the fire. My backside was suspiciously cold. I unclipped the pocket thermometer hanging from the zipper on my parka and walked about ten feet away from the fire and hung it on a branch. As we used up most of our supply of wood and the fire began to burn low, I went and checked the thermometer. I clicked on my headlamp and stared at the reading; minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Fifty-two degrees below freezing. I called over the rest of them and we looked at the thermometer. We rubbed our hands together and knew that it was going to get colder. It was only eight-thirty, and the night was young. The cold of space was radiating right down through that cloudless sky and there we were, under its full weight. Placing the thermometer just outside the entrance to the tarp, we crawled in and hunkered down for the night.
I got tucked in and was comfortable enough in my winter mummy-style sleeping bag, fresh long johns, wool socks and hooded sweatshirt. We left the candle lantern burning, and its light gave some illusion of warmth to the scene, but I could feel the cold creeping up from the ground, making inroads through my foam pad. During the night, that creeping cold worked its way into my sleeping bag, and every half hour or so found be turning over, getting the slightly chilled side of my body rolled over and into the warm air trapped in the loft of the bag’s insulation. During one of those rotations, I looked at my watch. It was three AM and I decided it was time to check on the temperature. Staying in my bag, I squirmed my way to the entrance of the shelter and made a quick grab outside for the thermometer. I hastily drew it inside and looked at it. Pete had been awakened by my moving around and slid over next to me. We both saw that the red line on the thermometer had fallen and landed with a thud at minus 30 degrees. I woke Greg and Cinci to let them know. The muffled reply from deep in their bags was a simple “Damn!” When the sun rose that morning, the temperature had only budged about ten degrees off of its low point and would be slow to improve during the morning hours.
We waited until well past nine o’clock before we made the first tentative moves toward getting out of our (more or less) warm bags. I rolled over and, with just one arm out of my sleeping bag, struggled to light my stove. Even though it was an outdated piece of equipment, it worked like new, but it was so cold that I had to take gas and ignite it at the base of the fuel tank in order to get it pressurized enough to light. I reached down into my sleeping bag and took out my water bottle. I had filled it with boiling water the night before and tucked it away in the bottom of my bag to help keep my feet warm and to prevent the water from freezing, as it would certainly do if left unprotected from the cold. Now, it was slightly below body temperature. I filled my pot with enough water for tea and oatmeal for everyone, put it on the stove and burrowed back into the sleeping bag to begin the awkward process of getting dressed. A half hour later, we were all up and about, our stomachs full of hot oatmeal and dried fruit and our eyes were lifted toward the summit of Mt. Clay, which peeked back at us through the overhead pine branches. At around eleven o’clock, the temperature had risen to just about zero, and we set off for an enjoyable day hike, without the burden of heavy packs.
I had experienced cold feet before, but enough jumping around and jogging in place would pump the warm blood back out into the extremities and all would be well. This time was different. The second pair of wool socks on my feet did no good when they were squeezed into boots that left my circulation constricted. There was no loft to the insulation that the socks should have supplied. The lack of circulation and heat retaining air had allowed the cold to get to my feet, and no amount of jumping or jogging was going to help as long as my feet were still laced into the too tight boots. Taking the boots off was not an option, at least until I made my way back to camp. I knew that a fire and down booties would be the answers to my problem, but the pressing issue was time. The stinging that had signaled the return of some sensation when I loosened the bootlaces had disappeared, and I wasn’t sure whether they had warmed or had gone numb. A futile effort to wiggle my toes and I realized that the answer was that they had gone numb.
With each step I took, I marveled at how I seemed to be gliding above the ground. There seemed to be no connection between my feet and the snow-covered trail. I could hear the dry squeak the snow made as I walked along, but it seemed so detached from steps which I could no longer feel. This sort of thing hardly ever happened to us. We tempted fate on these winter climbs, but always managed to walk away unscathed. Accidents happened, but never with any serious effect. One time Dave fell heavily, chest - first onto an upturned pair of crampons and the only damage was to his vest, which showed eight puncture holes on either side of the zipper, each with a protruding tuft of a goose down. A leaky fuel bottle had once been the cause of a gas fire in the emergency shelter that used to be up at Edmond’s Col. No damage done there, and the shelter had actually been warmed up nicely by the incident. On this very trip we had been unable to locate the designated campsite with its tent platforms and had been forced to make camp in the snow, sheltered beneath a trail tarp with only a ground cloth and half an inch of closed-cell foam pad between our sleeping bags and the frozen ground. We were hard-core and reveled in this kind of winter camping. We looked forward to snow and temperatures with a minus sign in front of them. But here I was, regretting the –30 reading of the night before and wishing that the small thermometer attached to the zipper of my parka would put a little more space between the top of its red column and zero. The thought ran through my mind again: minus 30 was sixty-two degrees below freezing.
I wasn’t afraid of dying because of this problem. It was nowhere near being a life-threatening situation. However, the danger of losing a couple of toes was real, and the possibility of more serious injury was lurking in the darker corners of my mind. These thoughts I pushed down, and I kept focused on taking one step after another, making sure of good footing as I followed the trail back down to camp. I wasn’t going to panic, for that would have served no purpose. A clear head was needed.
The trail wound its way out of the spruce trees and traveled across a clear slope, exposed to the full sunlight that was shining. There was an outcrop of rock there, and thirty feet or so below there was the frozen and snow-covered surface of the Peabody River, its water audibly gurgling along beneath the ice. The rock retained some of the meager warmth of the February sun, and I could feel a difference in temperature. I looked down at the thermometer and saw that the red line had risen to ten degrees in this pocket of relative warmth. I decided that this was a good place to take a break and try to work some feeling back into my feet. The sun felt good, and I sat down with the rock outcrop to my back, brushed away the build up of frost from my moustache and beard and soaked up the unexpected “warmth.” I unlaced and took off the right boot and placed it inside my parka, relying on the 98.6 degrees of heat I was generating to warm it. I started to vigorously rub my foot. It was as if I was rubbing a piece of wood. But after few minutes there was a tingling feeling as some sensation began to return. There was nothing close to actual warmth, but at least I could tell there was a foot at the end of my leg. As if it were too good to last, clouds began to move in, and the sunlight grew thin. I repeated the process with my left foot, then put the boots back on, lacing them as loosely as possible. I rose to my feet and started back down the trail which led back into the timber. There was some feeling in my feet for about fifteen minutes before they went dead again. But at this point I knew that I was only another twenty minutes from camp. I couldn’t wait to get the fire going, and get thawed out nice and proper. A cup of hot chocolate would hit the spot too.
After a while I could see the blue of the trail tarp ahead through the trees and in another few minutes I was in camp and quickly gathering kindling, piling it in the fire circle. Dousing the hastily collected wood with gas from my fuel bottle, I lit a match, tossed it onto the pile, and took a step back. It made for instant gratification as the flames burst forth and bathed my face with their warmth. I heaped more wood onto the growing fire and soon had my parka off, and was sitting on my foam pad, rubbing the warmth of the blaze into my feet. There was no result at first, and I had put my feet so close to the fire that the wool socks had begun to smoke. I pulled them away from the fire and rubbed them some more. The socks were nice and warm, as were my hands, but my feet remained stubbornly lifeless. I opened two chemical hand-warmers and placed one between the sock and polypro liner on each foot and then put on my down booties. I pushed back the thought of the consequences of not being able to warm up my feet, and I made that anticipated cup of hot chocolate. I dragged my sleeping bag out from the tarp and climbed into it by the fire. I sipped the cocoa and thought about the others and hoped that they had attained the summit and enjoyed a great view before the clouds came in.
Finally, the familiar tingling returned to my feet, and it grew until it was a stinging, then a burning as the feeling finally (mostly) came back into my feet. About an hour later, I could hear Cinci, Pete and Greg as they came back down the trail and into camp. They hadn’t made the summit. The snow above tree line was too deep, the clouds had rolled in, and they were concerned about me. We were good friends and they wanted to make sure I was all right. They had enjoyed the climb and had turned around without feeling too disappointed.
We lit our pipes for a leisurely smoke and looked around us. The icy, white silence of winter was beautiful, but not to be taken lightly. If you didn’t respect it, you were a fool. I had pushed it and played the part of the fool and was now thinking about a pair of four-season Fabiano boots I had seen in a catalog that Cinci had. It was time for an investment in new boots. Pete checked the thermometer on my parka, and said that the temperature had risen to almost twenty degrees. That was fifty degrees of difference between then and the night before. It would be better sleeping for sure. As we rummaged through our packs deciding what to have for dinner, a few intermittent snowflakes started to fall. We looked up at the grey sky, and decided that the flakes weren’t blowing off the mountain, they were falling fresh from the sky. Fresh snowfall overnight. We decided on a one-pot meal for dinner. Spaghetti with tomato soup mix thrown in after most of the water was drained from the pasta. Leave just enough water to combine with the soup mix to make a kind of sauce. Throw in some sliced cheese and pepperoni... stick to your ribs stuff. The next morning, we’d brush off the accumulated snow and have a quick breakfast. Then we’d break camp and head back down the mountain.
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