Neither the yogi nor the mountaineer accepts what society presents at face value; each sees further options and transforms society's offerings to meet his needs. To the mountains I take a careful selection of technology. If I don't design and make a piece of equipment myself, I usually modify or adapt it in some significant way. In the summer I hardly take anything. In a frameless pack I stuff some clothes, a sleeping bag, a poncho, a light polyethylene tarp, mosquito netting, a pot and perhaps a stove, toss in some books and then fill it with food. Once the edibles are depleted, I easily pass for a day hiker. Winter forces me to bring much more.
In summer I use light footwear and vacillate between wearing running shoes and lightweight boots. In either case I use something from all man-made materials, usually manufactured in the Orient. Synthetic materials are strong and inexpensive. The problem with Oriental footwear, ostensibly of all man-made materials, is that invariably one component isn't of man-made material, namely, the thread, which is of cotton and isn't very strong. The first thing I do with a pair of these imports is to go over the seams with rubber cement; sometimes I add a few stitches at critical points, using polyester thread. In winter I wear insulated, army-surplus rubber boots. These have their insulation sandwiched between two layers of rubber and are extremely warm until the rubber starts to crack. They can be left in the cold without stiffening and go on and off quickly and easily. In the Adirondacks I've broken through streams in zero-degree weather and filled my boots, but with these, I need merely to dump out the water and keep going. This isn't possible with traditional leather boots. When the protagonist in Jack London's story, "To Build a Fire", [Footnote 1] wet his boots and couldn't build a fire to dry them then and there, he paid for it with his life.
Unfortunately, these army boots are becoming harder and harder to find; those I do find are thirty years old or more. Nothing else has been manufactured which is anywhere near as good for prolonged stays in the cold. The alternatives are mountaineering double boots and felt-lined boots, both of which I've tried, and both of which work but require more fuss and attention. The mountaineering boots have stiff, lugged soles and a closer fit. Although they're superior for technical climbing, they have complex lacing systems and the inners, at least, must be taken into the sleeping bag to keep them from stiffening. Felt-lined boots are very comfortable and are easy to lace, but the liners need to come into the sleeping bag to dry. They're more suitable for living in a cabin with a wood stove for drying them. For the moment I still have some old army boots and take two pairs with me for the winter. One is a pair that I've used and has started to crack. I wear it at the beginning of the winter and at other times when warmth isn't critical. The other pair is newer. With the older pair absorbing some of the roughest wear, the newer lasts the winter.
Inside the boots I wear two pairs of wool socks. Because drying clothes is such a problem in winter, moderate weight socks are preferable to heavier ones. In summer loose jeans suffice to protect my legs, but these days I must sew my own in order to have ample room around the thighs. In winter I wear wool pants with snow pants made of nylon pack-cloth over them. In extreme cold, I wear woolen long underwear underneath. When inside a cave or a tent, I shed the pants and wear a cloth wrapped around my waist, Indian style, which is more comfortable for sitting in meditation. I also wear Indian attire when lounging outside on warm, sunny days. I find the Indian loincloth a more practical garment than sewn underwear. It's just a strip of cotton cloth, folded and tied. After washing, it can be stretched out and dried more rapidly than anything else.
Above the waist I wear as many layers as appropriate, beginning with a cotton T-shirt, a sturdy long-sleeved shirt of cotton-synthetic blend, an army wool shirt, a loose woolen sweater and a synthetic insulated vest. On top of whatever else I happen to be wearing, I wear a hooded nylon parka which I've made extra long, with a drawstring around the bottom. While sitting, I can pull the parka over my knees and close the bottom with the drawstring. It's loose enough so I can withdraw my arms from the sleeves and fold them close to my body. When I'm all drawn into the parka, I'm well-protected from wind and cold.
For extreme cold I have a down "Lionel Terray" parka, made in France, which has lasted me since 1962. In America top mountaineers aren't popular heroes; equipment tends to be named after famous mountains or ranges, like my "Mt. McKinley" sleeping bag. In Europe, where mountaineers are idolized, equipment is named after them. I can proudly wear my parka, named after one of the best Alpine and Himalayan mountaineers of his time, and draw the same inspiration an American boy gets when swinging a baseball bat with a star slugger's signature upon it. Lionel Terray was killed in an unfortunate accident many years ago and his name no longer adorns mountaineering equipment. The reason I still have a parka with his signature on the label is that I rarely use it above zero and even then, I wear it under the nylon shell parka. When I see people in cities sporting heavier down parkas than mine in temperatures near freezing, I wonder what they would wear if they had to face some real cold. Down has unfortunately become a status symbol; its current exorbitant price reflects this. But, with the care I give it, my old "Lionel Terray" parka should last a few years more.
On my head and over my ears, I wear a wool hat. At the end of my last winter in the Adirondacks, on a warm day while I was walking bareheaded, somehow I lost my hat. Even though I would reach the road the next day, I decided to make a replacement when camped that night. I had a pair of long wool socks which had holes in the heels but were fine around the calves. I cut semicircular pieces from the top of each sock, stitched them together and produced what may be the world's only 100% genuine stocking cap, which served as my lightweight wool hat for the next five years. It's sufficient for the summer, but I do take along a heavier cap for winter. I also bring a face mask for extreme conditions, but on my recent trips, I've never worn it. If it's severe enough outside to warrant its use, it's safer, and surely more pleasant, to stay inside my cave. Still, I'm glad to have it available, just in case a sudden gale catches me on the rim of the cirque, or if some emergency forces me to leave shelter.
To protect my hands I use wool mittens covered by a shell of coated nylon pack-cloth palms and uncoated nylon pack-cloth backs. The place which gets the heaviest wear is the join of the thumb with the palm. When sewing these shells, I reinforce this point as much as I can. The isolated thumb is the first part of a mittened hand to get cold; in extreme conditions, I draw it in next to the other fingers and fumble about with the old simian grip. I prefer thin wool mittens that dry easily and wear as many as three, one on top of the other, underneath the shells.
Working with mittens is awkward; winter equipment should be designed to be manipulated with mittens on. Most of what's sold caters instead to style and ignores the reality of cold and heavily layered hands. I'm very careful about the types of straps and buckles I use and make straps long enough so I rarely have to pull them out of the buckle. Even if equipment is made with mittened hands in mind, it may still be more efficient to take off mittens for a moment and accomplish a task quickly. In the cold, your time without mittens is brief indeed. You must know exactly what you intend to do while they're off, do it rapidly and then get them back on in time. Furthermore, you mustn't lose the mittens in the process. Thus, I've sewn a large pouch in the front of my parka and discipline myself to putt my mittens inside it, no matter how tempting it is to set them down on some convenient little ledge.
I carry my equipment in large frameless packs. Frame packs are good for carrying heavy loads on clear trails, since they keep the weight high and away from the back, but, they're a disadvantage away from trails. They snag on branches and, on rough terrain, their high center of gravity makes balance difficult. Frameless packs that fit close to the body work better but require more care in packing. The design I use is simple. It consists of one large compartment with two independent draw strings on top that close tightly whether I have a full load or a smaller one. I sew one outside pocket on either side just big enough to hold a poncho or a water bottle, and loops and straps for attaching an ice axe and crampons. I make it from coated nylon pack-cloth, double the bottom and reinforce all critical points. When I'm traveling light, my sleeping bag fits inside, but when I'm fully loaded, I strap it over the top. A frameless pack is more manageable in many ways. When I'm hitchiking, it fits nicely into small cars. I can throw it inside my tent and once unpacked, spread it on the floor for extra insulation. Finally, my trips often involve carrying more than one pack. An empty frameless pack folds into nothing and fits nicely inside another pack.
For locomotion, I use snowshoes, an ice axe and crampons. The alternative to snowshoes is skis. Of the two, skis are more fun and faster downhill. They also traverse steep snow slopes more easily. Snowshoes are better for climbing. They go on and off quickly and strap nicely on top of a pack. In this terrain, where windswept rock alternates with deep snow, they go on and off all too often. Any boot fits in their bindings; skis require special boots. Snowshoes don't cut as much into steep slopes and are less likely to set off slides.
Avalanches aren't much of a worry where I stay. Mostly, the wind blows so hard that snow has little chance to accumulate. Every once in a while something does come crashing down a gully; after a snowfall with light wind, come numerous little slides. However, the classic movie avalanche, in which a whole mountainside goes sliding down, and which, with the divine grace that allowed the Jews to escape the wrath of the Pharaoh's army, manages to sweep away the pursuing villains just as the fleeing heroes reach the safety of a pass, is a rarity in the mountains. For such avalanches to occur, the slopes must be so loaded with unstable snow, that the experienced mountaineer, for fear of lesser avalanches, does not venture forth. I've seen only one avalanche of major proportion since I've been here. In November 1983, after a night of heavy wet snow, towards dawn I heard a rumbling. When I emerged from my tent after daylight, I saw a huge arc spanning the main snowfield of the cirque and a pileup of snow below me. My cave and my tent site are located on a rise off to the side where there's no possibility of being hit by an avalanche. Smaller slides are more the concern of a mountaineer, especially the ones he starts himself. With snowshoes you naturally work carefully along the edge of unstable slopes, while with skis you tend to crisscross all over.
In the Adirondacks I was on the move and wore my snowshoes daily. Now that I spend the whole winter here I rarely use them, since the snow is usually wind-packed enough to support me. I use them for walking about only after the rare deep and windless snows and even then, I could get by without them. I try to come up before the first deep snow; the only time I must use snowshoes is on the way out. Overall, the utility of snowshoes wins over the grace of skis. I've thought of bringing a pair of skis just for recreation, but after sitting here for five winters and watching the wind carve the snowfields into slabs and gullies with two-foot drops and rises all over the place, I see that although these slopes could be negotiated on skis, I couldn't really let myself go and have fun at it. The run from the cave down to the trees is excellent, but on days clear enough for me to ski down and obligate myself to climb back up to the cave, I would rather be climbing above me to the rim of the cirque.
Rapid descent is rarely a problem. The sitting
Snowshoes were traditionally made of wood and leather. Care was needed to avoid breaking the wooden frame. The leather stretched terribly when wet. My current pair is made of aluminum and heavy coated nylon. The aluminum frames are strong enough so the snowshoes can be used as a bridge. Ironically, my snowshoes are named "Sherpas". Snowshoes were developed by the American Indians; the Sherpas of the Himalayas never saw a pair until they were brought by climbing expeditions. The "Sherpa" snowshoes are slightly off balance and tend to sink in too much in front. They were the first metal frame snowshoes on the market. Subsequently, better ones have come out, but I haven't yet seen fit to replace mine. The snowshoes have metal hinged bindings which came with "claws" of protruding metal to grip on ice, but the "claws" soon bent and would ball up on wet snow. I sawed them off and went back to the old trick of making slots in the bindings where I could stick halves of old crampons. The crampon halves grip excellently on ice and protect the snowshoes on sections of bare rock. When they aren't needed, I can pull them out of the bindings and glide downhill without picking up snow.
The ice axe is the mountaineer's all-purpose tool. It's the brake that keeps him from sliding to oblivion. It's the probe which tells him whether the surface upon which he wishes to place his life is firm reality or vacuous illusion. It's his universal security blanket. In the face of danger, whether edging onto an uncertain slope or confronting a bear, the fingers automatically tighten their clutch about it. It's a deadly weapon not perceived as a weapon, the weapon used to assassinate Trotsky. When hitchiking with it, people who would never dare stop, were I carrying a machete, gladly pick me up. For years I used a wooden-handled model, but recently I bought myself a metal-handled one, which may not last as long, but which is half a pound lighter. I keep the old wooden-handled one here as a spare.
Crampons, the spikes that mountaineers strap onto their boots, used to come in fixed sizes; every time you got new boots you had to get different crampons. Now crampons are adjustable and even as a boot wears, you can sometimes bring them in a notch. Crampons allow you to walk on steep ice and hard-packed snow. They're fine as long as they're -ons, but when they're -ons and -offs and -ons and off- and -ons, they can be exasperating. In the wind-swept terrain here, snow and ice alternate with bare rock; crampons are a liability on rock. Thus the bindings are critical. There are two types of bindings, a single long strap securing both heel and toe, and separate straps for heel and toe. In situations where they stay on all day the single strap system has the advantage that the crampons can be tightened with a single pull on the buckle. Here, where I must frequently take them on and off, the separate strap system is more convenient, even though I must watch more places for developing slack. Because changing does require a stop and does take a few minutes, I often find myself stepping gingerly on rock with cramps on, or cutting a few steps across a steep gully with cramps off. The most difficult situations come when a thin layer of ice coats the rock. Then a choice must be made, either to keep them off and clear the ice with the axe, or to keep them on and hope that the ice doesn't flake off the rock by itself. Crampons may be critical to my leaving at the end of the winter. I could always get out down the back side of the range without crampons, but the quickest way out goes over a high ridge, where crampons are usually needed.
Crampons work best when sharp; I keep a file for sharpening them. With all the mixed climbing I do, the crampon points wear down rapidly. A single kick that strikes a rock can ruin a point. Since most of the gullies I climb have rock interspersed with snow, I often kick into snow but hit rock instead. In fair weather, I move cautiously in rocky places, but when I'm descending with a storm moving in, I must go as fast as possible and not think of the sparks struck by my crampons. If I were to keep my crampon points in true ice climbing sharpness, a pair of crampons wouldn't last a season and poor
Many considerations determine the design of a tent, principally strength, portability, ventilation, ease of erection and ease of entrance. Currently, my winter tent has three pairs of poles, each made of tubular sections, and having 4 sections in the front poles, 3 in the middle and 2 in the rear. It's just high enough for me to sit upright and to maneuver. The tunnel entrance is oval-shaped and higher than the tunnels I've seen on commercially manufactured tents, so getting in and out is easier. The fly attaches to the tent with snap hooks which can be manipulated with mittens on; it did take searching to find the right hooks. The fly has its own lines for extra strength.
A winter tent must be designed to vent moisture. Moisture comes from many sources, from the breath, from cooking and from the residue of snow that sticks to your clothing when you come in from the outside. Cold air holds little moisture. [Footnote 2] At low temperatures the question becomes not whether moisture will condense but where it will condense. My tent has two sleeve vents, one at each end, placed up as close to the ridge as possible. The slope of my tent aids ventilation. Warmer air rises towards the peak in front, goes out the vent and is replaced by air coming in through the lower back vent. When it's cold, frost still forms along the ridge of the tent. I've sewn little loops from which I can hang a candle anywhere along the ridge of the tent. The heat from the candle dries the fabric and also draws moist air up and out towards the vent. I use candles as much, if not more, for heat as for light. When the temperature drops far enough, the tent frosts no matter what I do. Then I must carefully scrape off the heavier deposits of frost with a spoon. Keeping the tent dry inside is vital to winter survival; limiting the moisture that comes inside is as necessary as sending it back out. I carry a small whisk broom to brush snow from my clothing, keep a little sponge to mop up spills and cook with a modified pressure cooker to reduce steaming.
Staking a tent down can be tricky in winter, since conditions vary from hard frozen ground to soft snow. I take two types of stakes with me, the plastic "I-beam" and the semicircular spears drilled full of holes. The "I-beam" stakes can be pounded into the ground and, if angled properly, can hold in packed snow. The semicircular spear stakes hold in softer snow but bend if pounded. Depending upon conditions, I use one type to secure the crucial lines and the other in the less critical places. When possible, I anchor the tent to trees or other immobile objects, or tie it to snowshoes or an ice axe buried in soft snow.
Even though a tent may seem precariously secured when erected, a few days later, when it's time to take it down, it'll be frozen in and you'll have to chop it out. This must be done with great care and attention to the prepositions you employ; you must chop the tent out without chopping it up. You must begin by following the lines out to the stakes and aim your blows beneath the stakes to loosen them. Then you must uncover the corners of the tent and make your chops below the level of the floor to loosen the corner stakes. Once the corner stakes are pulled, you can usually peel the tent away from the snow to which it has frozen and quickly stuff it into your pack before the wind blows it away.
Erecting a tent on snow by yourself is a delicate and time-consuming task. First you must make a platform. This involves stamping out the platform with snowshoes, then removing the snowshoes and packing the platform with boots, and finally smoothing the platform with snowshoes back on. At any time you may discover a rock or a buried tree in the middle of the chosen site and be forced to begin over somewhere else. However, if you just throw up the tent without carefully making a platform you risk discovering the hidden object sticking into your back in the middle of the night. The final platform should be firm enough to stand upon without snowshoes. It's also nice to let the platform consolidate for a while before using it.
When pitching a tent alone on snow, you really pay the price of being solo. Two people can put up two tents in a quarter of the time it takes to put up one by yourself. While stamping the platform, one can pack with snowshoes while the other stomps with boots. While erecting the tent, one can manage the front while the other manages the rear, thus eliminating all the trips between front and back that you must make when working by yourself. One can arrange gear inside the tent while the other passes it in. The difficulty in manipulating a tent is a crucial factor that dictates caution when moving alone in winter.
No matter how well you stamp the platform, after a few days you'll be sleeping in a trough and you'll have to redo your platform. In the old days, you would put down a layer of boughs before erecting your tent, but with today's concern for the vanishing wilderness, you should skip this, unless you happen to find a fresh green tree snapped by the wind, whose boughs you can take. In the Adirondacks green trees were down all over the place, but in Colorado fallen green trees are hard to find. Even inside the cave, I face a weekly chore of leveling my tent platform. I slide the tent over to one side, chop away the ice that forms under the tent, put down a layer of fresh snow, pack it with boots, smooth it with snowshoes, and then slide my tent back upon it. Here, I use my snowshoes more for smoothing my tent platform inside the cave than for walking around outside.
Caves are an alternative to a tent. Up here there are numerous boulders which would protect you from rain. The problem is to find a shelter with a comfortable floor. The first cave I found, the one that forms my home in the summer, had a natural dirt floor. All I had to do was to remove a few little stones and it was ready. It's a small cave in which I can stretch back and sleep, but only in its front is it high enough to sit up straight. Nevertheless, it's nicely located with grassy slopes about it and has a wonderful view. For winter it's useless. Inside it gets packed with snow and the area outside is so wind-swept that not enough snow remains to build a structure about it.
The second cave, my winter home, is more spacious. It's formed by a forty-foot boulder propped on some lesser ones. In front is an open area with a high ceiling, but the cave gets narrow and lower towards the interior. The floor consists of rocks of various sizes. Originally there was no place to sleep inside, but I brought a dozen packloads of sand from a nearby slide and made a soft level area, large enough for one person to sleep. In early July the spot is wet, but for the rest of the summer, it's fine. In winter, once it's sealed by snow, I occupy the open area towards the front. I stamp a level snow platform to cover the jagged rocks that in the summer are the floor. This rock-roofed, snow-walled structure is really a joy. In pure snow structures, the roof is continually lowering upon you and you must continually rebuild the structure.
There are two ways to make snow shelters. You may either burrow in and make a cave, or cut blocks and make an igloo. The igloo is the finer art so most of the time mountaineers resort to the burrow. It's best to start a snow cave in the steepest bank around that's still stable. First you must dig straight in on the horizontal. After you're in a few feet, dig to each side to form a "T". If conditions are bad, you must get your pack inside as soon as you can, but otherwise it's nice to hollow out as much space as possible before moving in. Once inside you can keep on digging and enlarging the cave. Snow hollows are enlarged as much by packing snow as by removing it. Anything that you do with snow, shoveling it, tossing it, or sitting on it tends to break its crystalline structure and reduce its volume. Even hard-packed snow takes up less room after it's chopped up with a shovel and stamped down with the feet. If the weather is bad you can toss snow out the entrance until it closes and then keep enlarging the cave by packing the snow inside.
Building an igloo is a real art. Over the years, I've improved, but I'm still not good at it. The Eskimo, like a skilled stone mason, carefully cuts his blocks to shape and builds a dome in his traditional way. I, like a simple stone-wall builder, cut blocks any way I can and then see if I can fit them together into a viable structure. My creations are more conical than domed and look like a whitened version of the stereotyped African hut. I don't use igloos as shelters per se, but as above-ground entrances to my tunnels. The wind here erodes substantial blocks of snow; I must often pile additional blocks on the windward side to keep my structures intact.
Snow can be dug using most anything; snowshoes, ice axe, pots and pans, or hands and feet, but a shovel works better than anything else. In 1983 I brought a Taiwan version of the army entrenching shovel since I didn't see an authentic U.S. Army one around. The Taiwan model looked just like the real thing but by the third week, the metal at the join of the handle with the blade had fatigued. I attached the wooden handle directly to the blade but the nail I drove to secure the handle, cracked the handle; in two days it was broken. Then, on a clear day, I went down to tree line, cut the straightest of the gnarled, knotted trees growing at that altitude and fashioned a handle which lasted most of the winter. After it broke, I made another handle with the remainder of the wood, and finished the winter with that. The handles I made were strong, but clumsy. They were overly thick and had to be attached directly to the blade without any offset. That winter I learned how important the offset of the handle is to the functioning of the shovel. In 1984, I brought up a full-length digging shovel, which made life a whole lot easier. I could dig standing erect and could toss heavy chunks of snow. I could clear the snow that had accumulated just outside my entrance, while standing comfortably inside. I also found a genuine U.S. Army-surplus shovel and took it along for digging in confined spaces, like the rear of the cave.
My experience with the imitation army shovel is typical of my experience with many Taiwan-made goods. In the store, they seem attractive, not only for their price, but because they often replicate pieces of equipment that are no longer available, or have been replaced by some more stylish model of poorer design. However, I usually find that one component of the equipment fails, such as the metal on the shovel or the glue that holds the soles to the boots, even though the cost of making that component is insignificant. Sometimes I fantasize a scenario that the Taiwan Army, knowing that it cannot hold out for long against an invasion from the mainland, has designed equipment programmed to disintegrate shortly after their inevitable surrender. But, I know, in fact, these imitation army artifacts are manufactured for export and the Taiwan army is well-equipped by the U.S. government, perhaps with the very surplus items I long to buy. Yet, I must acknowledge that the Taiwan-made machete I use for cutting blocks has stood up well to rough wear.
My fantasies of building a split-level, three-bedroom, two-bath, snow cave have all been destroyed by the steady descent of the ceilings of snow cavities. It's enough work to maintain my entrance tunnel, which by the end of the winter is twenty feet long, and a toilet alcove to one side. While tenting, I don't need indoor facilities since I'm close to the weather and can take advantage of the little lulls in the storms to jump out and relieve myself. When sealed inside the cave, I'm insulated from the weather and don't know what it will be like when I break out. If I were in a place that I didn't plan to return to, I could simply bury my excrement in a hole in the toilet alcove. Since I use the same area in the summer, I must cart it away. At this altitude shit decays very slowly. I can point to a pile eight years old that hasn't yet decomposed. In summer I do all my shitting in one place, a crevice between two rocks. I have a similar crevice which I use in the vicinity of the winter cave, but by mid-November it's covered with snow. Afterwards, I use a rocky area further away.
I shit outside whenever I can, but in the dead of winter, that isn't very often. The first winter, when using the toilet alcove, I would use plastic bags, but they were a nuisance to carry, and sometimes the mice would rip them apart. The next winter I brought a bucket and then felt comfortable shitting inside. Getting out often takes ten or fifteen minutes of hard shoveling; afterwards I have an uphill trudge through snow to the toilet area. Therefore, on many days, when I could hold it in until I get out, I find it more comfortable and hygienic to use the bucket and then make my way out in a relaxed manner.
Here shit freezes quickly and emits little odor. Usually the draft comes from the back of the cave and goes out the entrance tunnel, so odor doesn't carry from the toilet alcove, which branches off the entrance passage to the space where I live. However, in both 1983 and 1984 I had to move into the cave before my entrance tunnel and side alcoves were completed and, for a little while, I had to put up with odors. This was only temporary, like the situation in the packed trains of India. There trains have both their entrances and their toilets at the ends of the cars. When a train pulls into a station, it's usually a struggle just to squeeze on; more often than not the furthest in you can get is right next to the toilet door. But you bear the accompanying odor, for the trains stop frequently. People are always getting on and off. After a stop or two, you'll be able to maneuver your way to the middle of the car, and may even get yourself a seat.
Nowadays I make my own sleeping bags. Over the years, the design on commercially-made bags has deteriorated. Formerly bags were made that fit close to the body and had only a short zipper, just enough to let you in and out. At present ready-made bags seem to be designed primarily so two of them can zip together. They're made wider than need be and have full-length zippers through which much heat is lost. The advertisements for them emphasize their loft, that is, the thickness of their insulation, and give them temperature ratings according to their loft. I've found that once a certain loft has been achieved, heat is lost more through the openings in the bag than through the insulation itself. The zipper is a place that air seeps through. This seepage can be reduced through careful placement of baffles in front of the zipper, but the best effect that can possibly be achieved is that of no zipper at all; I doubt that even the best of baffles can achieve this. A short zipper is needed, both for getting in and out and for comfort when the temperature rises, but a thirty-inch zipper is sufficient. The sleeping bag should hug the body closely to reduce extraneous circulation of air. It need only accommodate one body, plus the few items like a water bottle, which must be kept from freezing in winter. The wider a bag is, the heavier it must be and the less efficient is the use of its insulation.
Down is the traditional filler of good sleeping bags, but by now, synthetic insulation is better for most purposes. The worst circumstance for a sleeping bag is when wet; synthetic insulation functions better when wet. It doesn't clump, as down does, and it dries quickly. When dry, the insulating qualities are comparable. Down gives more loft per unit weight, but synthetic insulation requires less stitching and fabric to hold it in place. Unfortunately, commercially-made synthetic bags often have extraneous stitching to make them look like down bags. The one definite advantage of down is compressibility. Down does take up less room, but is it really such a liability to have a synthetic bag stick up higher on top of your pack?
For years, in winter I've used a 3 pound down bag that I bought in 1968. With its half-length zipper and close cut, it has been the prototype for the bags I make. It has been above 19,000 feet in the Himalayas and beneath 20 below in the Adirondacks, but after years of service the down has lost its resilience and the fabric is covered with patches. In the spring of 1985, I decided to put it into semi-retirement. I made a new synthetic bag with three layers of insulation, which stays permanently at
Foam pads are needed for sleeping on snow. The loftiest lightweight sleeping bag compresses to nothing under the weight of a body. The pads must be of the stiff, closed-cell type. If a pad compresses, as well as the bag, it serves no purpose; if a pad absorbs moisture, then soon it will become a block of ice, no warmer than the snow beneath. I find that two pads, each 1/2 inch thick, under me is about right; I used to carry two pads with me when moving during the winter. Now that I stay put for the winter I bring even more pads. The pads usually come only 24 inches wide. It's nice to have the whole tent floor covered with pads so I can move about more freely. I store the extra pads here.
I cook on a Svea gasoline stove. When the MSR stoves, which are extremely light and can burn kerosene and many other fuels, as well as gasoline, first came out, I thought their design was clever and bought one. After testing one, I decided that the procedure for starting it was too complex and could be trouble with cold hands. The Svea stove is the utmost in simplicity. To light it, all you need do is to pour some fuel on it and strike a match. It sometimes sputters or even blows itself out, but the heat of the burning gasoline warms the hands enough for another try. The one item which came with the MSR stove that I use with the Svea is the wind screen. It's just a cylindrical piece of sheet metal which fits around the stove and the pot resting on it. Not only does it protect the flame from wind, but it also reflects heat back to the pot and directs the hot vapors from the stove up along the sides of the pot. I estimate that this shield reduces fuel consumption here by 25% and suspect that on both household gas and electric stoves, putting a shield around pots would produce a similar economy.
In the good old days, many gas stations sold white gas from a pump at prices comparable to motor fuel. Then the oil companies cut the supply and now white gas is sold in tins as "Coleman Fuel" at triple the price of gasoline. To add insult to injury, the warning label contains the phrase, "HANDLE WITH THE SAME CARE AS GASOLINE" as if the contents were something else. In summer or any time I burn the stove in the open, I use unleaded gasoline from the pump, but unleaded gasoline does have its additives, which seem to clog the burner and produce fumes. Cleaning the burner is little problem; given the price differential, I can save the price of a stove before the stove gets totally gummed up. However, the fumes are unpleasant, if not dangerous, in confined places like snow caves. Thus for winter, I find myself forced to buy the overpriced tins of white gas. Even the "Coleman Fuel" containers are worthless. Their spouts are positioned so you cannot pour without spilling and, once opened, they don't close tightly. The first thing I do with a tin of "Coleman Fuel" is to transfer it to a better container.
To light my stove, I use short stick matches. If everything is working well, I need only two or three per day, one for the stove and one or two for candles. If the stove starts acting up, I can easily consume a dozen matches before getting it lit. Thus I always bring twice as many matches as I really need. At winter temperatures gasoline isn't the volatile liquid it is at higher temperatures. [Footnote 3] Thus I ignore the usual cautions against pouring it with open flames about. If a candle is burning when I want to pour fuel, I let it be. I always fill the stove soon after extinguishing it, before it's cold.
When I'm on the move, I carry a light, four-quart pot. It takes a lot of snow to make a little water; anything smaller is inadequate. Here, I use a modified, four-quart steel pressure cooker. Except for the rare occasions that I cook rice, most of my food requires minimal cooking. I find mushy, pressure-cooked food to be obnoxious and use the pressure cooker, not as a device for building high pressures and reducing cooking time, but as a tight-sealing pot that reduces steaming. The first thing I did to it was to discard the top weight that wobbles around emitting steam and to replace it with a bolt. Two places remained where steam could escape, the safety valve and the indicator which rises when pressure starts forming. I found that the indicator took longer than necessary to pop up and emitted steam in the process; I filed it down so it had less distance to move and sealed more quickly. Little puffs of steam leaked from both the safety valve and the indicator, but that was tolerable.
Then, in April 1985, I used the pressure cooker to store some extra food. When I returned in the summer, I found that the resident marmot or somebody had chewed out the safety valve in an unsuccessful effort to get to the food. I carved a wooden plug to take the place of the safety valve. I wondered whether it would fit closely enough to make a seal, but the wood swelled to form a perfect seal. I also wondered whether, while cooling, inverse pressures would form without the valve and whether the pressure cooker might become impossible to open, but the indicator lets enough air back in so inverse pressures don't form. Now I consider the wooden plug to be a permanent part of the pressure cooker. Once the pressure indicator rises, I turn down the stove. With anything other than rice, I soon turn the stove off. With rice, I leave my stove at minimum flame and frequently press down on the pressure indicator to make sure the pressure isn't building. This customized-for-the-mountains pressure cooker requires attentiveness. It's not for someone who likes to put a pot on the stove and walk away. The pressure cooker retains its heat and cooking continues even with the flame off. After turning the stove off, I use the pressure cooker as a hot iron. If my mittens, my sleeping bag or anything else is damp, I run the pressure cooker over it to dry it. Once the pressure is down, I often put the pressure cooker inside the sleeping bag to warm and dry it.
My tent floor on snow is never really level; to support my stove I've cut a thin cross section of log with the faces angled at about 15 degrees to one another. With it, I usually can find a spot where the stove can rest and be reasonably level. The piece of wood also insulates the pads covering the tent floor from the heat of the stove. When I'm using an ordinary pot with a lid, I must always watch to see that the pot doesn't tip over. With the pressure cooker I needn't concern myself about tipping because the lid closes tightly. Since any motion I make shakes the tent floor and hence the stove, the pressure cooker allows me to move more freely when the stove is burning; in return for having to monitor the buildup of pressure, I'm freed from the concern about tipping the pot. Most of the time the stove is melting snow and warming water; only a fraction of the time is the pot building pressure. Overall, the pressure cooker lessens the attention I must give to cooking.
Each time I use the stove, I try to melt enough snow to give me sufficient water for the following day. This gives me some margin just in case I have difficulty with the stove. I store the water in a plastic bottle kept inside the sleeping bag and allow the water to get hot before filling the water bottle. The heat from the water bottle dries the bottom of the sleeping bag; needless to say, it feels good when the feet go up against it, but by the next morning its warmth is gone. Snow melts more easily if there's a little water at the bottom of the pot for a start. Otherwise, the snow recedes from the heat at the bottom of the pot and, until some water forms, heat transfer is inefficient.
Finding pure snow to melt is often a problem. In the woods new snow quickly collects a layer of pine needles and animal droppings so you usually have to dig to find clean snow. Even here, the wind picks up dirt and grit which litter the snow. Inside the cave I generate hair and lint which soon seem to cover the place. However, in one place towards the rear of the cave, an ample supply of snow accumulates. I use it for my water supply and make a special effort to see that it doesn't get dirty. Melting snow consumes time and fuel. Whenever there's a warm sunny day, I put a pot of snow out in the sun and hope for a bit of melting.
I carry a small 1-1/2 inch diameter metallic-coil thermometer, calibrated to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The body can also tell temperature but the thermometer is both more sensitive and more objective. A rise of a few degrees in temperature during the night usually indicates a weather change, most likely for the stormier. The body is a poor judge of temperature at the extremes but the thermometer can tell just how far below zero it really is and caution against undertakings that might be dangerous at such temperatures. It also provides a check upon the vitality of the body. If the body thinks it's colder than the thermometer reads, perhaps the body is overly tired.
In the mountains, there are only two times, day and night. You know when these times change, and when the sun is out or the stars are clear you also know the time between. The watch is useful to tell how much time remains before a change of day and night. My sense of time is good; my guess is rarely off by more than an hour. However, on an overcast day, while on the move or wandering away from base, it's important to know whether one hour or two hours remain until dark. Before electronic watches, the watch was truly the master and demanded winding every day. A battery-powered watch gives freedom from it. I have an old LED display watch, the type that shows the time in red when you press the button. I go for days or weeks without checking it, but when I need the time it's there. After I bought it, I removed the wrist strap, burned a hole in its plastic case and tied it to a string. Since electronic devices function poorly in the cold,in winter I keep it in the pocket of my wool shirt.
I'm myopic; my glasses are my instrument of sight. I can function without them and have gone for periods without them just to see how things went, but I do function at a slower pace. Without them, I can move around, but cannot pick the best route up a mountain from a distance, and must get really close before spotting an edible mushroom. My glasses and a spare are part of my equipment. Unfortunately, the eyeglass industry is ruled by fashion; lately I've had difficulty finding simple, sturdy, practical frames.
Eyes do need protection from bright sun on snow. For a wearer of corrective lenses there are two choices, either goggles that fit over glasses or special glasses. Glasses frost up in the cold; keeping both glasses and goggles clean is twice as much work as cleaning glasses alone. When I went to the Himalayas, I got special dark prescription glasses. There, at higher altitudes, the glare was blinding; here I've been passing the winters without using them. I'm in a cirque facing north and am in shadow much of the time. The wind clears the rock faces of snow. Much of the field of vision is free from glare. By controlling my gaze and avoiding prolonged focus upon snow or in the direction of the sun, I usually make do with clear glasses and enjoy the world in its natural color.
Besides the mind and pen and paper, the recording instruments I have are a camera and a battery-powered computer. My camera is a single-lens-reflex with automatic exposure and a flash attachment. Like all electronic equipment, it functions poorly in the cold. I first brought it along in 1984 and, in October, after the first few shots, the batteries were dead. I had bought spare batteries for both my watch and my camera, but somehow the ones for the camera were left behind. I decided to try putting watch batteries in the camera. The watch batteries were thinner; I had to put a crumpled piece of tin inside the camera's battery holder to fill the extra space. At first, I tried taking the batteries out of the watch and putting them in the camera, but those batteries didn't work. I then tried the unused set of watch batteries and they did work. Just to complete the cycle, I put the old camera batteries into the watch and they worked. Therefore I knew that my watch batteries were weak, but also that after a set of batteries can no longer power the camera, they can run the watch for a time.
I protected the camera as best I could and warmed it near my body before using it. There are several types of pictures to take here. I can point the camera in any direction, focus at infinity, set the automatic controls for either a half or a full f-stop extra aperture to compensate for the brightness of snow, and come out with a spectacular photo of mountain scenery. The mood of the mountains varies with weather and season; I still haven't captured all its nuances. Yet, taking the mountains is the least important photography I do, since it doesn't have any intrinsic connection with my existence at
In 1984, I took a number of photographs in October and November, but stopped once the deep cold hit. Beside my concern for the batteries, manipulating the camera is difficult when very cold, and the lens frosts quickly. In January, the old watch batteries stopped functioning. I replaced them with the old camera batteries but these lasted only two weeks. I had to decide how to utilize the set of batteries that were sitting in the camera, the last of the batteries; I opted to forego the watch. While I'm living in the cave, the watch isn't essential to my well-being; I wagered that I could save the bit of battery charge needed to run the watch on the trip out. In mid-February I started taking pictures again. The batteries failed at the beginning of March. I tested them in the watch and they worked. Nevertheless, I put them aside until April when I was ready to make the trip out, for if I had had to travel on an overcast day, the watch might have been important.
In 1985 I bought two sets of spare camera batteries and made sure to bring them along with me. I no longer felt constrained to take pictures sparingly and freely took pictures of myself, despite the expenditure of film that this entails. Still, since I only had a normal, 50 mm. lens, I often found myself backing into walls inside my cave and leaning over precipices outside. In 1986 I bought a wide-angle, 28 mm. lens and was able to take many photographs which had eluded me the previous winter. I also brought a twenty-foot air tube shutter release to supplement my foot-long shutter cable. The long tube is more difficult to set up than the cable and furthermore, is subject to tangling. Although I still used the cable whenever I could, the lengthier tube allowed me to take a number of additional photos. Since the tube is plastic, I was afraid it would clog with frost or crack in the cold, but its only misfunctioning came with heat. If I took it from the cool of the cave and immediately set it up in the sun, the solar warmth would sometimes create enough pressure inside the tube to trigger the shutter. Once I caught on to this, I took to warming it before attaching it to my camera. In 1987 I added a 135 mm. telephoto lens to my outfit. Although an array of accessories might further increase the variety of photos I might take, the main impediment to my photography, especially of myself, is the slowness of feedback. For example, In December 1985 I was afflicted with a near lethal case of stiff upper lip which lasted the winter and marred rolls of film. Only after they were developed did I notice it and not until the following winter could I correct it.
The computer I write with is made to run on four AA cells, but I've rigged it with wires and alligator clips to run on a 6 volt lantern battery, which I can keep warm either on top of my pot while I'm cooking or next to my body at other times. With the computer I find myself putting out a much better rush of words than with a pen. Its memory is limited [Footnote 4] ; the most I can write at a stretch is the equivalent of six double-spaced typed pages. Then I must save what I've entered on tape, for which I've brought a microcassette recorder. After becoming accustomed to disks, you forget how much slower it is working with tapes; it takes six minutes to tape the full memory and the same time again to check the tape. Once I'm down, I can transfer my writing onto disks, make corrections and quickly get a printed copy. At present, I wouldn't wish to spend as much time in the world below as it would take to transcribe a handwritten manuscript. The disadvantage of this system is that once I tape a passage, I must erase it from the computer's memory before beginning the next; it's impractical to review what I've already written.
Although I use the cassette recorder as a peripheral device to the computer, it does have a built-in microphone and could be used by itself. At first I thought I might make a tape of the sounds of
Design is what allows me to live peacefully in harsh surroundings without preoccupation with survival; yet design itself can become a fixation of the mind. Every once in a while, I think of how nice it would be to have a working periscope. When I'm sealed within my cave, I have no idea of what's happening outside. During heavy storms, the end of the entrance tunnel gets blocked and I have no way of knowing when the storm is over. I can usually poke through the snow blocking the tunnel with my shovel, but then I'm able to see in only one direction; blowing snow often fools me into thinking that the storm is still on. A periscope that I could push up through the snow would enable me to see in all directions and discern whether it's still storming or some snow is just blowing about under a clear sky. However, such a periscope would have to be a substantial piece of equipment to withstand the force of the wind. I would also need some way of removing the ice that would form on it immediately after it's poked outside. It's unlikely that I can obtain, or else construct, a reasonable instrument, but during times when I'm confined for days on end, this is the sort of thing the mind conjures up.
Not only do I sink to thinking about futile designs, but others try to foist extraneous equipment upon me. I've been offered all sorts of communications equipment, ranging from walkie-talkies to carrier pigeons. A friend who saw my little computer before I brought it here offered me a solar battery charger to use with it. I tried the solar battery charger in town and saw that, given its slow rate charging and the infrequency of strong sunlight here, it would be useless. It needed to be turned to face the sun, and furthermore, I would have to rush out to protect it during storms. The lantern batteries I use to power this computer work wonderfully and last well. They aren't much heavier than the solar battery charger, and cost a fraction of the latter's price. I've thought of harnessing some natural source of power, but if anything, I should harness the wind, which unlike sunlight, is a constant presence, and use the energy for heat. If I could get a wind generator that would put out enough power to melt snow for water, it would save me ten or fifteen pounds of fuel per year, and might enable me to bathe more often. However, to make a unit that could withstand the cold, the icing and the extreme gusts of wind would require some sophisticated engineering; it would certainly require more effort to build than carrying up the fuel that might be saved. Most of the design work is done while I'm below, but there are always weaknesses in any design. While here, I often think of improvements or additional things to bring. Some consideration of design is necessary because better design does result in less impingement of external conditions on the inner state.
The total of my equipment isn't excessive. For moving in winter I take about forty pounds of clothing and equipment. By now, I have forty or fifty pounds of equipment stashed here; the canisters for storing food, a few heavies like the shovel and the pressure cooker, and spares like second boots, stove and tent. Since each year I carry up several times the weight of my equipment in food, I wouldn't hesitate to bring even more equipment if it would simplify my living. However, there's a spirit of keeping the equipment minimal. For example, I've thought of replacing the tent with some rigid, animal-proof structure. Unlike my fantasies of a periscope or a wind-power system, I could buy materials and have one in a day. With aluminum T's and rigid plastic panels, I could make a dismantleable structure, held together by wing nuts, light enough to bring here in a single carry, but for now I would consider such a shelter too heavy in spirit. I could go even further, bring some cement and have a fine rock hut, but this also would violate the ethic of the wilderness. The design has stabilized. Many changes were made between 1983 and 1984, but fewer were made in subsequent years.
Once I'm here I must make do with what I have. Equipment does wear. In the course of the winter, I must make many repairs. Needle and thread are the most basic repair equipment. In the cold you don't make fine stitches. I bring large needles with large eyes and usually double the thread twice. Other repair items I bring are duct tape, wire, nylon cord, rubber cement, knife, pliers, file and a hack saw blade. To some extent, pieces of equipment can duplicate each other's function. The ice axe can be used for digging and the shovel can be used for aid in crossing steep snow, but neither ice axe nor shovel does as well in the other's function as it does in its own. If the whole of design is sound, then if any one component fails, it can be repaired, substituted for or done without and the system will continue to function.
Almost all my sewn equipment and some of the rest I make myself. The saving involved is small; the reason for making the stuff myself is purely for better design, strength and workmanship. Getting materials is a problem; it's frustrating to see some fabric that I cannot find at retail, incorporated into a finished product. My best source of fabric is in the Soho district of New York at a shop that does repair of outdoor equipment, maintains a stock of assorted materials and is willing to sell some by the yard. The color of my order is orange; I prefer that my equipment be that color. Orange used to be the standard color for climbing gear because of its visibility. The warm glow of a bright orange tent through the mist is a welcome sight. But fashion now rules the manufacture of outdoor gear; orange has been replaced by greens, golds and other shades, and is harder to find. My suppliers in Soho know they have at least one fanatical orange buyer and usually have that color in stock.
I don't have my own sewing machine, but find no difficulty in borrowing one. The average sewing machine is dreadfully under-utilized. People get one with the intention of making their own clothes. However, the retail markup on cloth is high and the saving involved in sewing your own is minimal; unless you really want things unavailable on the market, sewing doesn't pay. Since most prefer to be in style, home sewing machines languish in the closet. The main weakness of home sewing machines is the shortness of their arms, making it tricky to sew large and bulky items, especially sleeping bags. But if I studiously consider the order in which I sew the seams and carefully feed the fabric through, I find myself able to make most anything on the smallest of machines.
In 1984, I moved inside during the October storms. However, November was a month of no snow and high wind. My experience of 1983 had taught me the right direction for my tunnel and also the advantage of constructing the tunnel by joining a series of igloos. I made the tunnel as planned but had to face the erosive power of the wind. I piled block after block on the windward side to keep my passage from being eaten away. Gaps developed between the rock of my cave and the snow; I had to plug these up as best I could. Having the long-handled shovel and the machete made it easier, but equipment alone is not the solution. Design is not only of material, but also of the mind. Living up here is a matter of making do with whatever is available, facing the problems as they arise and remaining open to all possibilities.
In 1985, early storms made me move into the cave sooner than before. However, these storms were followed by a clear spell from October 15 to the end of the month. My previous experience had taught me the importance of getting the tunnels built as soon as possible. One igloo was finished even before I moved inside and, to finish the tunnel, I attached three more to it. There was no shortage of snow; since the snow I used for blocks was heavy, the roof of my tunnel descended more slowly than in other years. For the toilet alcove, I attached three more igloos to one side. The daily October sunshine did start eating away at my snow structures; I covered them with a second layer of blocks. I did less walking than I would have been inclined to do in previous years, but had myself a better dwelling for the winter.
Unfortunately, my water supply dried up early. On October thirteenth the level of the puddle was so low that I couldn't scoop up any water without stirring up enough mud to make it undrinkable. On the fifteenth it was dry. However, the glacial slabs behind the cave have a number of little pits and pockets where water from melting snow collects. I would run about with cup and jug collecting a few ounces here and a few ounces there. Since no new snow was falling, I would scatter snow from nearby banks onto the rock to melt the following day. The water had an unpleasant lichenous taste but it was great for baths and washing clothes. By the end of the month I knew my route. I had discovered the places where water collects and had learned the time to collect water from each. On a day with strong sun I could collect as much as five gallons of water. Since the temperature inside my cave stayed between 30 and 32, I could keep water overnight without significant freezing.
The last of October was sunny, but too breezy to bathe. I filled my two jugs, a five gallon and a two gallon, and stored them inside. In November the storms resumed. Ice started to form in the jugs, but I discovered that if, while cooking, I put the jugs near the stove, enough ice would melt to keep me from falling too far behind in the game. The sun came out for a little while on November 12; I took a quick bath that day. That happened to be the sunshine for the month. The temperature dropped to the teens outside and into the mid-twenties inside. Since my jugs were slowly freezing, I used the remaining water for washing clothes. About two gallons of it were already ice. Without sun, I was reduced to drying the clothes by hanging them around the stove; it took two weeks before everything was dry.
In 1986 my tunnel system was close to complete before I moved into the cave. The toilet alcove was ready for use. I had to attach only one more igloo to extend the entrance to its proper length. The snow was light so my snow works settled substantially. Yet it's much easier to pile blocks on top of an existing structure and raise its ceiling than to build from scratch. The storm that nearly inundated my tent left plenty of snow around the cave to quarry for blocks.
On October 23, the day after I moved into the cave, I went to the puddle for water, but found the ice, which is normally blown clear, under a five foot drift of snow. I dug through and cracked the ice. The water level had sunk dramatically. I had brought only the two-gallon container. Since the puddle looked as if it might be dry the very next day, I filled that container and returned immediately with the five-gallon one. Before I finished filling it I had stirred up enough of the bottom mud to make the water unfit for drinking, but it was all right for washing and bathing. Cloud and light snow kept me from using any of it until the beginning of November when I did my laundry on a breezy day. I was sparing with the water and managed to save a gallon in the hope of a final water bath, but before I could use it, cold winds converted it to ice.
In 1987, the early November storm which drove me into the cave finally gave me sufficient snow for building. Once it let up, I extended the tunnel to full length and attached a toilet alcove. While I was doing this, my earlier passageway, built from October's meager snows, continued to settle until they were waddleways four feet high. Then a week-long mid-November storm struck. In the brief times I could be out, I piled blocks of snow over my tunnel so I could carve its ceiling higher from the inside. The end of November and the first few days of December were clear and calm. I strengthened my structures but also found time at midday to sun myself and do yoga exercises in a protected moat a ten minute walk from the cave. Once my fortifications were complete I made some late afternoon climbs to the rim. Yet I'm glad to have finished the work before taking the excursions for the cold windy weather that soon began lasted without significant break until mid-February.
1. Jack London,
Vapor Pressure of Ice. ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Temperature Vapor Pressure of Ice ---------------------------------------------------------------------- øC. øF. mm. of mercury --------------------------------------------------------------------- -30 -22 0.285 -25 -13 0.474 -20 -4 0.774 -15 5 1.239 -10 14 1.948 -5 23 3.011 0 32 4.581 ---------------------------------------------------------------------At low temperatures the sharp drop in the vapor pressure of ice leads to much condensation and little transport of moisture by air. Thus proper ventilation of a winter tent is a necessity.
3. A decrease of 25ø F. cuts the vapor pressure of hydrocarbon mixtures like gasoline roughly in half. [Return]
4. 16 K of RAM. [Return]
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