Winter Camping: When Hell Freezes Over

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Winter camping. It's a nice idea in theory right? A night out under the stars, sitting around the camp fire with your friends, staying warm and singing kumbaya. Can you picture it? Well, you're wrong.

First off, and yes this may seem obvious, its cold. But like, really cold. So the +7 degree rated sleeping bag you bought in Australia isn't gonna cut it. Neither is the half length foam sleeping mat you borrowed. And you should probably check to see that the winter tent you rented came with a fly. It's so cold your water bottles and food will freeze solid before you even make camp. Your breath will freeze the moment it leaves your lips. You won't feel your toes from the moment you leave the car till the moment you get back. Your fingers will be mostly numb and unusable, but will periodically thaw and cause intense pain making you wish they weren't there at all. You will spend most of your time collecting firewood to keep your enormous fire going. And you will lay awake all night cold to the bone and shivering, waiting and wishing for the next day to begin so you can escape this cold hell.

But hey, I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's go back to the beginning. To when this idea came to being. I was still lapping up sunshine in Australia while Lauren dreamed up the whole Kumbaya thing. Her best friend Katie and her 'partner' Alex were planning to holiday out West. Lauren was planning to show them the most brutal holiday they'd ever have.

Come January I had one month of experience in enduring the below freezing depths of the Canadian Winter. Katie and Alex were Northerners born and bred. On the other hand, my mate from back home Jared had just landed from a couple of weeks in tropical Cuba. Lauren's friends/victims were gathered and a cold snap had just hit the Canadian Rockies. The scene was set.

Snowshoeing down to camp. Approx. temperature -22C.
Snowshoeing down to camp. Approx. temperature -22C.

We leave Calgary on a typical cold winter morning. The plan is to head for the Icefield Parkway today to visit a couple of sites and try out the snowshoes we'd rented the day before. We spend the afternoon exploring an ice cave at the Columbia Icefield near Jasper before a storm hits. The mercury plummets and we make a hasty retreat to stay the night in Lake Louise. Unswayed by the previous days events, we wake early and head out again along the Icefeild Parkway. Today we turn towards Abraham Lake just outside Banff National Park. Even as the sun reaches its high point the temperature continues to drop. I read out the discomforting number on the dash. More than a few nervous glances are exchanged. Katie asks the question on everyone's lips "Guys, should we do still do this?".

Not wanting to give up before we had begun we park the car, make our final preparations and set out. The last I saw, the thermometer read -22°C. It is 1:00pm.

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Two minutes. That is how long it took for me to lose the feeling in my hands and feet. They're not just numb, but aching and painful and I wish they were not there at all. The snow falls lightly at first, but soon becomes heavy. The wind cuts straight through my clothes, my skin and my bones. Even in snowshoes I sink deep into the powder and every step is an almighty effort. Doubt starts to creep further and further into my brain in as we start the descent to the lake shore.

Some 3 grueling hours later we are hurriedly setting up tents and rolling out sleeping bags. That's when we realise our first mistake. The tent we rented is flyless. Then it's the second mistake. All our water (strapped to the outside of our packs) is frozen. Not wanting to dwell too long on these issues we decide to get our fire going. Everyone helps out collecting wood and after a few attempts and a lot of lighter fluid we finally have a source of heat. So begins the camp rhythm: collect wood, stoke fire, warm self, melt snow, sip precious liquid, repeat.

Even with a fire staying warm is a constant battle. If any part of your body is not within 2 inches of the fire you can be sure it will be numb. Yet the task of collecting wood is endless. The flames are greedy for more fuel. There is not the time, nor the will to take in the beauty of the Canadian Rockies. Anyway, it's snowing so hard you can't see the mountains. As darkness falls we realise mistake number 3. There is no alcohol. Morale hits an all time low. We thaw some food, cook dinner and turn in.

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That night must go down as one of the longest of my life. I lie shivering in my little sleeping bag in a state of semi-consciousness. I can't feel my lower legs, are they encased in ice? Is this what frostbite feels like? I pull the sleeping bag tight around my head leaving only my mouth exposed to the air. Cold engulfs my body. It crushes me. The hours crawl by. Mercifully the day breaks revealing clear skies. A layer of ice coats the roof of our tent and as we move it falls upon us like snow.

We stumble out of our tents and gather around the remains of our fire to recap the night. Like all of us, Katie had taken ages to fall asleep. Just as she had drifted off Alex frantically shook her awake.
"What is it?!" asked Katie.
"Oh, I thought you might have been dead".

Horror stories like this one are exchanged over our barely smoldering fire. Everything's a bit backwards. It's like waking from a big night of boozing. We laugh at everything because if we don't we'll surely cry. The grip of the cold has not yet let up. We eat partly burnt, partly frozen breakfast muffins from the coals of the fire and plot our escape from this cold hell.

The hike back up goes fast. I push my self beyond the point of exhaustion. Finally the cold serves a purpose. Shortly we arrive at the top of the hill. We take one look back down from whence we came but there is no feeling of nostalgia, only relief. Reaching the safety of the truck we all breathe a collective sigh and spend the best part of half an hour reveling in its incredible warmth. As the feeling returns to my hands and feet we start the journey home. "Well" says Katie "That was a once in a lifetime experience, cos you'll never catch me doing that again".

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