Welcome to the Deep Freeze

Survive, thrive (and yes, have fun) in the cold by learning core skills

Class in session: Outward Bound participants haul provisions to their backcountry base camp west of Tenessee Pass. Photography: Cisco Tharp

Class in session: Outward Bound participants haul provisions to their backcountry base camp west of Tenessee Pass. Photography: Cisco Tharp

Winds, sounding like a squadron of F-16s, strafe saw-toothed peaks west of Leadville. With deep, mid-winter snowdrifts transforming the landscape into a frozen sea, it’s a raw, majestic panorama that’s seemingly uninhabitable. But not by Cisco Tharp’s reckoning.

Under a brash, blue sky sparkling with crystalline spindrift, he tunnels from his snow-smothered tent to fire up cook stoves for breakfast duty while inhaling air so frigid it tastes like peppermint. Then, one by one, other wool-capped heads woozily begin to pop out of snowy lumps where more tents lie buried.

Welcome to the winter survival classroom, Outward Bound-style. “The winter environment is challenging but amazingly beautiful with tremendous rewards,” says Tharp, a winter backcountry program director for Colorado Outward Bound School. “Being in an inhospitable environment that few experience is exhilarating. It’s like, ‘I shouldn’t even be here.’ But really, it’s a great playground on skis and snowshoes. You can go in any direction and go faster on skis. There is no summer equivalent.”

Though it’s no place for cheimatophobiacs – people with abnormal fear of cold – outdoor enthusiasts shouldn’t shelf winter in favor of milder seasons. As Tharp confidently explains, “If you’re cold and hungry, you’re doing it wrong.”

Doing it correctly is his business. With a university degree in Adventure Education and 11 years under his belt as an instructor with Outward Bound, Tharp marches into the winter high-country each season with up to 10 students – usually teens and 20somethings from all walks of life – to complete multi-day courses designed to teach winter survival techniques using proper gear.

High-calorie meals take on added importance during extreme backcountry conditions. Photography: Cisco Tharp

High-calorie meals take on added importance during extreme backcountry conditions. Photography: Cisco Tharp

Students are generally rank beginners, a mix of the curious and those who are considering pursuing some form of outdoor education. “A few are glad they don’t have to do it again, and some thrive and love it and want to become proficient.” While shorter eight-day courses amount to a singular “I did it” experience, longer 15-day courses are designed so students progress toward winter competency and even mastery. “In the end, they learn that winter rejuvenates their spirit and they relish the opportunity to try their skills.”

Instead of viewing winter snow camping as an exercise in pure survival, Tharp focuses on the positive aspects. No crowds and lesser human impact on the environment are all pluses, he feels. “And it’s really peaceful and playful. We have snowball fights, slide down slopes, make sculptures and generally have fun while learning how to survive in the cold.”

But laughing at sub-zero temperatures takes careful preparation, and Outward Bound students are drilled in the fundamentals of winter camping that can be summed up by what some instructors call the COLD credo:
C – keep yourself and clothes CLEAN and free of snow.
O – avoid OVERHEATING that causes perspiration and bone-chilling cold.
L – wear loose clothes in LAYERS to trap heated air.
D – keep DRY.

“Once you get cold, it’s hard to reverse,” Tharp explains, while detailing further the four primary intricacies of heat loss. “Radiation is heat escaping from your body, so wear a windproof shell. Evaporation from sweating cools the body, so to stay dry you use wicking layers. Conduction, which is heat loss through touching cold objects, means wearing protective apparel that includes proper gloves and footwear. And convection, such as wind, also pulls away heat, and you protect yourself with shelter and clothing. “We all have the fire within us that keeps us alive. It’s all about prevention,” he stresses.

A protected area complete with a sculpted snow bench serves as an outdoor kitchen. Photography: Cisco Tharp

A protected area complete with a sculpted snow bench serves as an outdoor kitchen. Photography: Cisco Tharp

There are other tricks that take the sting out of winter camping, Tharp advises. While cooking or standing in one position, use a foam pad beneath the feet. Try to set up camp out of the wind and above depressions in the landscape where colder air settles. At night, always sleep in a stocking hat, clean, dry long underwear, and use a mummy sleeping bag with two sleeping pads. For sub-zero climes, consider down pants.

Tharp reiterates about the fire within, about stoking the body’s furnace for maximum heat output – a point that gets cheerful compliance. Start out with cereal bars, bread and other carbohydrates that convert quickly to heat. For a longer “burn” that carries you into the wee hours, go with proteins like nuts, beef jerky and anything fatty. “Rarely in our lives are we encouraged to eat as much fat as possible, but this is the time to do it,” he says. Hot gooey deserts, chocolate – even a dollop of butter. “We make peppermint tea, add coco then butter with peanut butter to boost calories. It’s like a liquid mint Snickers bar.”

Resources
Colorado Outward Bound School
Over the past 50 years, COBS has operated courses to instill leadership, emphasize service and inspire self-discovery in thousands of students of all ages and backgrounds. COBS had its start in Colorado in 1962 when 44 inner city boys from 15 states discovered a world of forests, mountains, streams and wildlife – and the skills needed to survive in the wilderness. While those days of canvas rucksacks and leaky tents are long gone, COBS has grown to offer year-round wilderness courses such as the backcountry winter courses described above. Other winter-specific courses include ice climbing, backcountry skiing and snowboarding. cobs.org

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