Five years ago I talked three of my buddies into trying out winter backpacking on snowshoes. Truth be told, I didn’t have to do too much convincing. The season for regular backpacking trips into the Sierra Nevada had come to an end and we were all looking for a way to keep enjoying the same experience through the cold months.
Difficult wintertime conditions posed the biggest obstacle. Nights are long and chilly and the prospect of spending 12 or more hours in small tents wasn’t very appealing. The breakthrough came when I found that the National Forest Service offers rustic rental cabins that can only be accessed by snowshoe, cross-country skiing or snowmobile during the winter.
These cabins offer shelter and heat, but few other amenities. Staying in one is much like a summer backpacking trip.
The destination is remote and solitary, and the scenery is magnificent. Hundreds of rustic cabins – most of which are available in the summer and a few of which remain open in the winter – can be found at www.recreation.gov/.
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This year the weather didn’t cooperate. Our planned destination was the Colton Guard Station, a former ranger residence at 8,500 feet is the Uinta Mountains of Utah. When I called the nearby ranger station to check snow conditions a few days before the trip, the report was that there wasn’t much snow on the ground.
After discussing several options to re-plan this year’s trip to a destination with snow, we decided to stick to the original plan. Most of the options were too far away, too close to civilization, and/or too expensive. As we discussed these options, the conversations we had made it clear that what we had learned to value about the snowshoe trip wasn’t snow at all. Four years had taught us that although the snow is beautiful and refreshing after a hot Central Valley summer, what we really appreciate about it is how it makes vast areas into near-wilderness in the winter. When roads close and snowshoes are required to reach destinations, most people find something else to do. We’ve learned that these winter wildernesses are great places to enjoy, renew and deepen the friendship we’ve developed over the years.
I think there are five reasons for this. First, it’s an adventure to get there. The physical and navigational challenge of reaching the destination requires teamwork and overcoming challenges. Second, it removes us from the daily distractions of work, smartphones, Internet and TV. Third, the daily tasks of life in the wilderness – boiling snow for water, splitting firewood and maintaining fires for heat, cooking meals – all challenge us to work together and to enjoy the work. Fourth, enjoying natural beauty is more rewarding when it is shared with good friends. Possibly the most important reason, though, is that the opportunity to have several uninterrupted days to talk and enjoy each other’s company around the fire or over a friendly game of cards is renewing and it makes us better people.
The fact that this year’s cabin wasn’t as well-maintained or equipped as most of the previous ones didn’t decrease the experience. Traveling 5 miles over conditions that ranged from hard-packed snow to fresh powder and bare dirt was more challenging than most of our other trips had been. A snowstorm that hit as we began the return journey from the cabin to our vehicles brought wind chill that was the equivalent of about -15 degrees. It was hard, but it was one of the most memorable and team-building experiences we’ve had.
When we finally reached the trucks, we had a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that we’d probably only experienced on one other trip. One of the main topics of conversation on the journey home was planning next year’s trip.
Winter brings dangers and difficulties that aren’t experienced on other backcountry trips. To have a safe trip, it’s necessary to have a lot of knowledge about how to judge weather conditions and be prepared for low temperatures. It’s not something to be undertaken lightly. But neither are serious friendships. When friendships and challenges are combined and the friends involved have positive attitudes in the face of adversity and enjoy learning new skills, the results can be very rewarding.