ODE TO EARL
Oh, who can change the cloudy skies to blue?
Who's responsible for rain and snow and dew?
A virgin we would sacrifice
If you'd just make the weather nice.
We hope you hear our prayer to you,
First, let's get the names straight. I am Bill. Heinz is my snow-cave mate. Tenzing is our trusted guide, cook and ode composer. He is not a Sherpa but a former social worker from Detroit. Lannie is an eternally cheerful strawberry blonde who is chief instructor for a NOLS course in ski touring and winter mountaineering. NOLS rhymes with trolls and stands for National Outdoor Leadership School. Alexander Hamilton was Lannie's great-great-great-great grandfather. Drew and Gary are the other two NOLS instructors. The names of their ancestors were not discussed. Rod, Dave, Steve, Russell, Paul, Bob, Daryl, Mike, Elizabeth, Ken and Linda are NOLS students on the course. Earl is the god of weather.
That is the cast of characters for this saga of a trek last winter into The Winds of western Wyoming—"The Winds" being the local nickname for the awesome Wind River range, which lies on the Continental Divide, just southeast of the more famous but less beautiful Teton range.
Now, even though there are a lot of people involved here, you will come to see—as I did—that there is no character more important, more pivotal to winter in The Winds than Earl. And, like all gods invented by men to explain away the horrendous vagaries of nature, Earl has the morals of a mugger. He is mean, unpredictable, sneaky, a rotten apple to the core. One never knows what irks Earl, just as one can never be sure what will please him. Tenzing (whose real name is Will Waterman) told Heinz and me of the occasion a couple of years ago that inspired part of his Ode to Earl.
It seems that a party of NOLS students, led by Tenzing, had been forced by one of Earl's fiercer blizzards to dig into snow caves and stay there, cowering before the force of the weather, for three days and three nights. "We got a little uneasy eventually," Tenzing recalls, "but there wasn't anything we could do to make Earl back off. At least I never thought there was anything to do. Then, on the third day, this one fellow on the course began to spend more and more time out in the storm. Finally, he was gone so long I went out to check on him. There he was, wind roaring around him, building this big snowman. I thought he might have gone around the bend, but then I looked more closely at what he had built.
"There was this big figure, with an arm and fist pointing upward, wearing a belt with a huge buckle on which I could make out the letter 'E'. It looked kind of like a Norse god. And lying at the feet of this big guy was the figure of a woman. Naked. At first, I couldn't make head or tail of it. Then it dawned on me. This student had built the image of Earl and then sacrificed a virgin to him." Tenzing shook his head in awe. "Next day, we skied out in beautiful sunshine."
Earl made no demands for virgins on our first day in The Winds. We began our trek in sweet sunshine from a roadhead located miles from any recognizable sign of civilization. We had been transported from Lander, Wyo., NOLS headquarters, in a fat yellow school bus and had then been rather unceremoniously unloaded along with skis, poles and our monumental backpacks. The packs each weighed about 60 pounds. The first impression you get when you strap something that heavy on your back is that an unconcious Sumo wrestler has just fallen from the sky onto your shoulders. Thus, we were introduced to the very sound, though highly ungainly, practice called "survival skiing." The point of this technique is not to be swift, not to be graceful, not even to cover a lot of ground efficiently. The sole aim of the survival skier is not to fall, because to fall means that you have to get up again. You say, so what? You say that you have known how to fall and get up again since you were a small child?
Wrong. You have not been getting up after falling in soft, seemingly bottomless snow at an altitude of 10,000 feet with a pair of skis lashed to your feet and that Sumo-sized pack squashing you down, down, down. That kind of getting-up-after-a-fall is the very stuff of high-grade nightmares.
So, early on, we learned to sacrifice all athletic elegance to the hope of staying erect. And instead of long glissandos and swift, swooping curves, we found ourselves proceeding along our first leg into The Winds at an ignominious trudge.
We had barely begun to get our trudges on track when Lannie called a halt to deliver her first instructional lecture. We gathered around, expecting to hear this bright-eyed young woman expound on some romantic or arcane bit of lore concerning life in a harsh and beautiful wilderness. As it turned out, Lannie's subject was neither romantic nor arcane. It was, however, essential. She began by saying, "We at NOLS are into minimum-impact camping in these mountains. When we leave, we want the place left as if we had never been here. We never build fires, except for emergencies, because we don't want to leave trees scarred up. We don't want rocks or earth scorched by fire rings. We cook on the stoves. We carry everything out that we bring in. Every plastic bag, every bit of garbage. But, you will notice, we do not carry toilet paper in any form."
There was a breathless moment of disbelief shared by Bob, Rod, Dave, Steve, Russell, Paul, Daryl, Mike, Elizabeth, Ken, Linda, Heinz and me. Could this be? We shuffled our skis in embarrassment. But Lannie continued on in an efficient, though politic, no-nonsense, straight-from-the-shoulder delivery that would have made her great-great-great-great grandfather proud. She enunciated "a policy of conservation and comfort" in the areas concerning "human discharge of fecal matter." She offered a simple mnemonic aid for remembering the four most important points in such things: D.D.P.P. This stood for depth (punch a hole deep in the snow with a ski pole, use it, then fill it up with snow); drainage (do not dig said hole anywhere near a stream and avoid doing so at the top of a steep hill); proximity to camp (go far away, but not so far away as to get lost), and privacy (for yourself and for others, find a hidden spot, preferably with a view through a screen of branches). As for the missing toilet paper, Lannie advised us that pure snow was really a splendid substitute—and though no one believed this at the time, it later proved true.
This important subject covered, we survival-skied through the afternoon and wound up in a pretty grove of trees above a wide open expanse of snow—a frozen lake. The sun lay a golden dazzle over everything, and rather than looking like the end of nowhere, this section of The Winds resembled nothing so much as the rolling terrain of a snow-covered golf course. We gathered to watch the instructors—Lannie, Drew, Gary and our own Tenzing—demonstrate the way to make a camp in winter. Most important in the operation was the big metal scoop shovel that had been issued to each group of three campers. First, a level section was dug out and stamped down to serve as the floor of the sleeping area for three. A tent fly was strung over the floor and—Eureka!—a bedroom existed where only wilderness had been before. Next, the trusty shovel was put to use sculpting a snow kitchen. This consisted of a level floor, a waist-high workbench for the stove and food supplies, and a lower bench for sitting. Once the kitchens and bedrooms had been constructed for the whole group, the place took on the look of instant suburbia, a real nice neighborhood, deep in the treacherous Winds.
Someone chopped a hole in the lake ice for water, the little white-gas stoves were lighted, and soon an air of euphoria lay over our hustling campground. We were bundled in layer upon layer of clothing against the withering bite of the evening cold. Surely, we had tamed The Winds: yet, I could not relax. The advent of night held an unmistakable sense of menace.
I had said nothing to Heinz, Tenzing, Lannie, Bob, Rod, etc., but, in fact, the whole idea of traveling for a week in trackless, winter-seized mountains was a prospect I faced with an ambivalence that bordered on trepidation. You see, I had recently experienced—painfully experienced—what I later came to think of as The Fiasco of the Six Toes.
It was late in the winter of '80, and I had skied into another mountain wasteland in another section of Wyoming with three men, all ostensibly experts in the winter wilderness. We skied long and far the first day and set up camp late in the afternoon in a sun-splashed grove of pine trees. As night fell, this cheery spot quickly grew as dark and hostile as a padlocked meat locker, and soon it came time to light the little stove to cook our dinner.
We reached for our matches. Matches? Matches? For a moment the insanely absurd possibility existed that the outfitter had forgotten to include matches in our packs, that we had come miles across a freezing moonscape with no way to light a fire. We dug through our packs, anxiously at first, then with a crescendo of heart-thumping fright. At last we found one small metal canister of matches stuck in an obscure pack pocket. But only one.
We spent several matches to learn that the stove we had brought would not work. So we wallowed off into the darkness in waist-deep snow to find firewood. The fire we built melted its way deeper and deeper into the snow and gave offal-most no warmth at all. My feet were very cold because my boots were very wet. We managed to cook something, I forget what, before the fire sank out of sight.
We crawled into our triple-winged, high-tech tent and zipped up our mummy-shaped sleeping bags, guaranteed to 50 below zero. Nice, except that, as always, once in the bag we had to snuggle up to our sopping boots to keep them warm through the night. Had we left wet boots out in the freezing air, they would have been like giant bronzed baby shoes by daybreak.
One of our party had contact lenses to remove before he slept. In his wing of the tent he lighted a candle with a match from our precious canister, took care of his lenses, then blew out his candle. A second later we heard an alarming sizzling sound. The smell of scorched chemicals filled the tent and our companion exploded with a very dirty expletive. Someone asked, "Did you burn up your lenses?" He replied that it was worse than that: When he screwed the cover back on the match canister he had turned it so hard that it had scraped against the matchheads, and had ignited our entire supply of matches. I lay awake most of the night, my heart slowly growing as cold as my feet.
Next morning, after a nice breakfast of cold sausage and M&M candy, we set out to return to civilization. We had no matches, so we had no choice. The day warmed up, and soon we were all carrying great loads of wet snow clumped on our ski bottoms. My feet had been wet for two days now, and I felt both pain and numbness. The trip took six hours. When I finally examined my feet, I was not pleased to find that most of my toes were no longer recognizable.
No fewer than six of them had undergone mutilation. Two were inflicted with a well-known cross country skier's scourge, black toenail, the product of constant scrunching by the boot. Two others had bloody blisters. And my two big toes had developed a bad, yellowish-white cast and were numb as stone. This worried the hell out of me. As it turned out, they had only been frostnipped, not bitten, but the numbness lasted for many weeks.
So, having lived through the Fiasco of the Six Toes, I did not view the prospect of this first cold night in The Winds with real enthusiasm. I needn't have worried. First, we were dressed to the teeth—and toes—in NOLS-issued clothing: wool over wool over wool on the inside, covered by nylon wind shirt and wind pants that were covered with a ski vest, a thick, Dacron-stuffed parka and insulated pants, plus two pairs of insulated "booties" over our boots, which were in turn covered on the outside by "super-gaiters." We looked like fat, colorful, roller-skating bears. It was estimated that each of us was traveling with clothing and equipment that would run in the neighborhood of $1,500 if purchased at retail prices.
This obviously wasn't a casual, seat-of-the-pants dash into the mountains. The expedition was, in effect, the product of a full-fledged American industry. The Wilderness Instruction Industry, you might call it. NOLS is only one of many such operations that prosper from the proliferating mass of people who yearn to wallow in the dangers of nature. Outdoor magazines are awash with ads for such wilderness schools. The oldest and best known is Outward Bound, which was founded in Wales in 1941, expanded to the U.S. in 1962 and still thrives, with 8,500 students a year.
NOLS was founded in 1965 by Paul Petzoldt, now in his seventies, who has been rightly celebrated for 50 years or more as one of America's finest mountaineers. He had helped start Outward Bound in the U.S.; then in 1965 he created NOLS, which he ran as pedagogue, patriarch and guru until 1975, when he left the school after a feud with the board of trustees over how NOLS should be conducted. In recent years the school has prospered under the direction of Peter Simer, 34, a graduate of USC in economics and an experienced mountain climber, skier and NOLS instructor who spent no fewer than 900 nights in the mountains during a five-year period from 1970 to 1975. Simer says, "When I started in this business you were considered a certified conservationist if you threw your tin cans into the bushes. Now we're into minimum-impact camping to a point where we consider the colors of our tents and packs so as not to cause any unnecessary visual impact on the environment." The NOLS approach to wilderness education emphasizes hard-core outdoor skills and an attitude of tender loving care for the environment. Outward Bound claims their primary goal is to use the wilderness as a background for developing personal confidence and, at times, for dealing with the emotional or social problems of individual students.
NOLS sends some 1,400 students a year on a variety of courses—from summer climbs on Mt. McKinley to expeditions in Kenya. Courses range from a "semester" (about 70 days) in Africa, which costs each student $2,700 in tuition to the two-week winter mountaineering course for $650. Far-reaching as it is, the school remains headquartered in the shabby old Noble Hotel in Lander (pop. 7,867), an unremarkable town that, like much of the West, used to be a lot more interesting than it is today. Once upon a time the main street of Lander was carpeted wall-to-wall with bawling, thundering herds of cattle being driven to spring pasture. There was also a year-around population of rich dudes, transported to the area by the Union Pacific Railroad from the effete East to shoot at herds of elk, moose, deer and big-horn sheep. The dude-hunter industry boomed so big in Lander that at one point the town boasted the most talented collection of wild-game butchers in America. Most of the great butchers of Lander have died off, but in a nicely ironical twist of history, the town boasts a remarkably large population of doctors (more than 45).
The dude population of Lander today consists mainly of fresh-faced tyros enrolled in NOLS courses. They average 21 years of age, most of them college products of the white middle class and many of them utterly unfamiliar with life in the wilderness. For all but the advanced courses, the school requires no outdoor credentials for acceptance, only a standard medical examination plus the money for tuition. Summer programs tend to attract a young crowd because school is out and students can participate. Winter attracts older folks of more unpredictable professional background and uncertain outdoor experience. This was definitely the case with our group.
For example, Bob was a bearded, bespectacled, fortyish Public Health Service doctor from San Francisco, who had never been on skis, while Daryl was a veteran of 11 years in the Marines, an ex-rodeo clown, a former Montana hunting guide with a bad knee. Russell was a tall, pale high school junior from Portland, Ore., who had skied since he was four. Paul was a restoration architect and sub-2:30 marathoner from Hawaii, where there is no skiing. Heinz and I had skied a lot and camped a little, and our combined ages totaled more than the sum of those of our four youngest colleagues. Heinz and I did not dwell on this, although from time to time we wondered what the hell two educated, well-off, middle-aged gents like us were doing slogging along all day at 10,000 feet in deep snow with a Sumo wrestler on our back, so that at night we could curl up in a snow bank and go to sleep embracing a pair of wet boots.
For that matter, what was the measurable value for anyone taking such a course? Heinz and I had shared a pot of spaghetti and a jug of wine with several NOLS instructors the night before we went into The Winds. They were a light-hearted, fun-loving crowd on the whole, but when Heinz asked what exactly they thought a student should gain from a NOLS course, a pall of seriousness fell over the group. A bespectacled fellow spoke in professorial tones, "I guess you could sum it up by saying NOLS students experience profound personal growth through stressful adventure." Someone else mentioned "the value of self-confrontation in an alien environment." Heinz swallowed some wine and looked thoughtful.
And what kind of people made up the bulk of NOLS instructors? All types—everything from an Iowa farm boy to a former broker for E.F. Hutton to a peculiarly high-keyed individualist who told people that his fondest wish was to "eat human flesh and die on another planet." Our own instructors were typically diverse: Lannie Hamilton, 25, graduate of a Connecticut women's college, had taken a NOLS ski trek as a teen-ager. She fell down 53 times "by actual count" the first day, but she learned to like all that pain and fresh air and later became a NOLS instructor because "I love laughing and I love teaching." Drew Leemon, 24, dropped out of his New England college in 1977 and went to NOLS because he found it "a hands-on experience." Gary Hauk, 26, of St. Louis says, "I'm nothing but a Boy Scout grown old."
Our motley crew found the first night in The Winds wonderfully uneventful and the name of Earl, the weather god, never came up. Tenzing dipped into our three-man store of high energy, carbohydrate-rich provisions to make dinner. It consisted of spinach noodles, ham cubes and Monterey Jack cheese cooked in a single pot over our white-gas stove. NOLS winter-camping recipes are simple, hearty, heavy fare. For proper warmth and strength a winter traveler operating at 10,000 feet or above should consume 4,500 calories a day—2½ pounds of food. Tenzing knew all the tricks of one-pot cooking. Thus, while some of the other camp groups were still sculpting their kitchens, we were gulping down a couple of thousand calories as night fell.
Miraculously enough, we were warm—warm without a fire. I had sweated a lot during the day, but because I was wearing layers of wool next to my skin, the moisture had been "wicked" away and had evaporated. Had I worn a cotton undershirt, however, it would have retained moisture, which then might have frozen and become, as Lannie put it, "like wearing an armor plate of ice." And my feet? The mutilated six toes were just fine, thank you. My boots were wet, which couldn't be avoided, but they were big, roomy, soft things, part of a vast store of equipment that NOLS has assembled in an old Lander lumberyard—everything a camper may need from sleeping bags to stoves to scoop shovels to socks. The boots, like everything else, are used over and over again. Each pair of NOLS boots is expected to travel some 300 miles a winter, 1,500 over a life expectancy of five years. Heinz, Tenzing and I crawled into our sleeping bags, assumed the standard fetal position, with our boots cuddled behind our knees and waited for sleep to come. It did—for Heinz and Tenzing. I listened to them breathe, snore and murmur until the day dawned dark gray. Then I fell asleep for 30 minutes or so. We breakfasted on a rich, sticky dish made mostly of bacon cubes, cheese and butter, washed down with aromatic French Market coffee, which Tenzing boiled in a pot and then whirled so the centrifugal force would send the grounds to the bottom. We cleaned the dishes with snow. Tenzing said the use of soap in a NOLS camp is carefully restricted because it would inflict more than minimal impact on the ecology.
We broke camp, and Tenzing carefully kicked down the walls of our snow bedroom and stomped over what had been our kitchen. Stepping back to survey the destruction, he said with satisfaction, "You'd never know we've been here. It just looks like a couple of moose have been rutting for a night or so."
Now the sun broke through. All was cold and golden. Tenzing pointed out some marmot tracks, then looked skyward to the graceful, gliding form of a golden eagle. We assembled for a lesson in skiing and waxing, which was run by Drew. "Are there any Tech-Weenies in the crowd?" he asked. After a short, puzzled silence, he continued, "Tech-Weenies are people who know everything about the latest equipment and everything about the most advanced outdoor technology." Drew paused, then said quietly, "Tech-Weenies give more trouble than anyone in the bush because most of them don't know nothin'." If there were Tech-Weenies in our group, they remained unidentified.
The NOLS-issued skis most of us had were hardly the stuff for Tech-Weenies. They were wooden surplus World War II skis, hickory boards originally cut for those tough, rollicking heroes of the 10th Mountain Division. Legend has it that Petzoldt practically cornered the market on these skis after the war, purchasing thousands of them. A lot of the skis went up in smoke in a fire in the Lander lumberyard in 1974, but a lot of them survived. So this is what we were skiing on—plain wood slats, no steel edges, no miracle-artificial waxless bases, no billboard lettering and Day-Glo colors to advertise brand names. Just good, clean, yellow wood.
Drew explained about waxes and the use of climbing skins for the steepest hills. Then we all hefted up our packs, staggered a while getting used to them and set out for our next campsite.
And now Earl stepped into the picture. He pulled a curtain the color of cold dishwater over the formerly bright sky and then sent down a thin, gray gauze of falling snow. The dreariness of the weather matched the dreariness of our trudging line, for this was the first long-distance, all-day trek. As the hours passed, the difference between experienced and neophyte skiers became painfully clear—and clearly painful. Worst off was Bob, the doctor, who had never worn skis before. He fell repeatedly; his beard, his face streamed and dripped with sweat, with melting snow, perhaps with tears. Each time he went down, he wallowed helplessly on his back in the snow. Painfully, he would work his way out of the straps of his pack, struggle to his feet, once again haul the pack onto his shoulders and begin to shuffle forward—only to stagger, totter and fall again. Other inexperienced skiers fell, too, though less often, and the Sisyphean dimension of their plight was almost too tragic to watch.
The front-runners also had their burdens, for the skiers who broke the trail usually sank to their knees after breaking through the crust. The process of plunging forward was so exhausting, so discouraging, that we changed trail-breakers every 20 minutes. And thus we moved, like a file of snails, into The Winds, covering no more than half a mile an hour at times because we could move only at the rate of speed of the slowest among us.
It was a grim and excruciating day, yet at the end, as we began to shovel out our campground, we had a sense of toughness, of resilience, of confidence. I mentioned it to Heinz. He shrugged and said airily, "What the hell did you think they meant by 'personal growth through stressful adventure'?"
Tenzing whipped up a dinner of beans and tortillas and rice; the meal was simply magnificent. It grew dark and snow continued sifting down, and now the whole group assembled for a lecture on cold-weather danger. It seemed that a campfire would be absolutely essential, but no, we were out here to make minimum impact. The gathering proved to be quite cheery—though chilly—for it was lighted by candles planted in snow in the bottom of open plastic bags which, in turn, protected the flames from Earl's capricious gusts of wind.
Lannie ran this lecture with a wad of tobacco in her lower lip. Her subjects were hypothermia and frostbite. Ordinarily, both can be dealt with in an unemotional manner, but when they are discussed in the dark of night, deep in The Winds, with snow falling and the temperature near zero, they take on the aura of ghost stories.
Hypothermia, Lannie explained, is the lowering of the temperature of the body core, first to the point of danger and, finally, of death. Heat loss occurs in a variety of ways—conduction (meaning bodily contact with something cold), convection (wind), evaporation of sweat or radiation (body heat escaping from a capless head, for example). "Shivering is your first warning that hypothermia might be setting in," said Lannie, spitting tobacco delicately into a cup held in her mittened hands. "From shivering, you eventually lose more and more muscular control. You begin to stumble. Your movements are stiff and difficult. Eventually you become absolutely supine. If your temperature gets down to 94° or 95° F., you won't be able to warm yourself up without some help—like warm liquids and bundling up in a sleeping bag with one, or preferably two, people. If you find someone in a coma, there's not a hell of a lot of time to do anything."
Lannie spit again and said that death from freezing can occur at a body temperature of 90° F. She also pointed out that a giveaway symptom of hypothermia is loss of mental awareness, an inability to make decisions and, eventually, a disorientation so severe that the victim may do something truly insane—such as ripping off his clothing even as he is about to freeze to death.
"It's weird stuff, hypothermia," Lannie said, "but remember, if you start to shiver, beware."
Quietly, Tenzing added, "Paul Petzoldt always said, 'Never trust a man who's shivering.' "
The group sat silent, eyes wide and hearts thumping. Lannie spit still again and moved on to the next tale of horror: frostbite. "What happens," she said, "is that when you are getting cold, the body begins to shut down the blood supply to the extremities—particularly the fingers and toes—in an effort to get more blood into the body core. A toe will freeze at about 26° F. Ice crystals form and disrupt the cells. This damages the tissues in the same way a burn does."
Lannie went on to explain that there were three degrees of freezing: 1) frost nip, which creates a white spot on cheeks or fingers and can be cured with heat from your body, 2) superficial frostbite, which actually freezes the layers of skin (but not the flesh) and turns into very painful, but relatively harmless, blisters, and 3) deep frostbite.
Lannie gazed around in the eerie candlelight. She spit in her cup, then said, "Deep frostbite means frozen to the bone. The flesh is like wood. It turns waxy white. It is one of the worst horrors known to man. Once it thaws, you get horrible blisters. The flesh turns black and blue and all kinds of yukky colors. Water oozes out of it. It smells terrible. If you get deep frostbite in the mountains, there is only one thing to do. Keep it frozen and ski out. There is a danger of gangrene. Once it thaws it becomes so painful that you can't even stand the weight of a bedsheet on it."
We sat hushed and uneasy. Lannie spit and then said, "It's not all bad. They no longer amputate frozen parts. If you hear a doctor say, 'We've got to cut those toes off,' you get the hell out of your bed and crawl out of that hospital. It is not necessary to amputate anything because once the dead tissue has been sloughed off, it will repair itself."
Gary Hauk, the instructor, spoke in an ominous voice: "I know a guy who froze his toe. The skin turned black as coal. One day in the hospital he reached down and pulled off a black cap of skin. Underneath it was a nice rosy pink toe, just like new."
We sat in awed, scared silence until Tenzing intoned, "Paul Petzoldt always said, 'Never trust a man with black toes.' "
Finally, we adjourned to sleep in the snow and dream of running blisters, frozen bone and fresh pink toes flourishing beneath black caps of skin. In the morning Earl had not seen fit to change his mood; it was gray and snowing. We set out at a quicker, more confident pace, climbing steep, wooded slopes for a couple of miles, then crossing a confusing assortment of small lakes and large meadows. We stopped for a trail break, munching gorp made of dried fruit and nuts. One tyro had mixed dried black-eyed peas in his gorp, mistaking them for raisins and he narrowly escaped with his teeth unbroken. A few of the better skiers climbed a nearby slope strewn with rocks and performed that most elegant of ski maneuvers—the Telemark turn. Drew floated and swooped down the steep incline with the grace and glory of a Wind River Nijinsky. A sense of something close to euphoria enveloped the group.
By evening we were camped on Horseshoe Lake, with mountains rising all around. It remained overcast, but Earl let up on the snow, and after a dinner of curried rice, bacon cubes and butter, we assembled again by candlelight in a grove of towering lodgepole pines. We had our hoods up against the night chill and looked like some kind of monks of black magic, gathered to cast spells over an innocent world. The subjects of this lecture turned out to be expedition behavior, group dynamics and communication.
"The secret to having good group dynamics in a situation like this is to communicate," said Drew "Keep talking to each other There is stress on the trail, sure there is, but if you snap at someone, then you should try and apologize a little later. O.K.?"
We nodded. Gary said, "It's just a matter of levels of maturity. This looks to me like a real mature group. Think in terms of community, right?"
Our hooded heads bobbed. Drew went on, "Try to be thoughtful of others, to go out of your way to be cooperative. If you see that a guy has a snot noodle in his beard, tell him. Don't let him go around looking creepy. Try and think of nice things to do for other people. O.K.?"
We nodded, and Tenzing chimed in softly, "Paul Petzoldt always said, 'Never trust a man with a noodle in his beard.' "
We slept beneath a tent fly that night, but the next day it was time to build a "quincy"—a man-made snow cave. What this meant was shoveling up a pile of snow roughly six feet high and perhaps 12 feet in circumference. After pounding this fiercely with flattened skis to make it solid and hard, the next step is to dig out a doorway about as high as a man on all fours, then scrape and kick away inside, shoving snow out the doorway until a bedroom chamber is hollowed out.
And that is where Heinz, Tenzing and I spent the next two nights, hip by shoulder by cheek by jowl. It was, to tell the truth, pleasant enough, although the sense of togetherness might have gotten a bit overwhelming in another day or two. Still, anyone who travels the wilds in winter has to be prepared to five under precisely such cramped and trying conditions. Tenzing said, "When it gets to 40 or 50 below with a wind for a few days in a row, you simply can't be outside. Your face gets bitten almost on contact with the air. You just touch the metal zipper clasp on a pack with bare hands or put your finger on a ski binding and you will get instant frost nip. All you can do is hole up."
The tales of fierce and killing weather in The Winds are legion. One longtime NOLS instructor remembered a horrendous blizzard with winds of as much as 90 mph which kept 15 people trapped in a stand of trees for two days because they were unable to make their way across a clearing 50 yards wide. Last summer a NOLS party was snowed into caves on Mt. McKinley for seven days. They finally emerged at the end quite sane, though short-tempered.
If there should be a truly serious accident, or a medical crisis such as an attack of appendicitis or a severe case of deep frostbite, there would be only one way to deal with it: evacuation. This, unfortunately, is easier said than done. NOLS parties never carry radios. The reason is obvious: Once in the mountains, most radio signals simply will not carry over even low ridges or hills. Thus, if an emergency requires a helicopter evacuation, the only way to summon such help is for someone to ski back out and notify the authorities. Evacuations are rare, but the chance for broken bones on skis is, of course, always at hand. One can never be too careful.
Whatever the hazards, the dark truth about winter camping is that you never get to bathe thoroughly. Oh, you might work in a quick wash with snow if you've got the heart and hide of a polar bear, but as a rule, if you are in the bush two weeks, you accumulate two weeks of the things that accumulate on unwashed skin. Tenzing had spent many weeks in such conditions, and he claimed that it is a manageable situation. "If you spend a few days in a snow cave with other people, it does get a little funky," he said. "We have been known to bring scented candles along to handle that condition. But the real point is, you never really notice your, ah, fragrance until you get back into warm air."
Lannie managed to grab a quick shampoo during our trek, but the frozen suds turned as stiff and spikey as a fright wig. And when she rinsed in the water from the ice-covered creek, she shrieked with pain. So cleanliness is not next to godliness in The Winds of winter.
And, as we learned, godliness itself isn't much of an attribute anyway when the god in question happens to be named Earl. Actually, during our first five days in The Winds he had been merely sullen most of the time. Then, the sixth morning dawned with a radiance that seemed sent by angels from a realm well beyond Earl's little fiefdom in The Winds.
Heinz, Tenzing and I emerged from our cold, gloomy quincy before 7 a.m. and were all but bowled back by the stark, stunning splendor of the day. We stretched, fetched water, then took a long ski over Horseshoe Lake in the rising sunlight, breakfasted on that yummy sticky stuff made of bacon, butter and cheese, and chewed on fried bagels. Tenzing did his centrifugal-force bit with the coffee, and life seemed almost too full to contemplate.
Then Lannie called a class to order to discuss the properties of snow—particularly as related to avalanches. She summed up the lecture by saying, "The only thing you know for sure about avalanches is that you don't know anything for sure!" (There have been only seven deaths on NOLS courses in the past 16 years. Three occurred in an avalanche in the Tetons during the winter of 1974, while the other four were the result of summer accidents.)
After the lecture, Heinz and I decided that on such a day of glory we should hike as high as possible to look down at whatever vistas might present themselves. Tenzing and Drew agreed to join us and said that we could climb nearby Union Peak (elevation 11,491 feet) in three or four hours. From there we would have a splendid view—from the Continental Divide all the way across the Bridger Wilderness Area to the Tetons.
We began the trek eagerly, carrying small day packs with water bottles and gorp for lunch. We skied across the lake and then began the climb through gentle meadows, through small stands of pine trees, moving swiftly and easily. Drew said, "We probably couldn't even penetrate through here if it weren't winter. What looks like a wide-open meadow with six feet of snow on it is probably a boulder field grown over with willow stands and brush that you couldn't chop your way through in any other season."
Soon we rose above the tree line onto a dazzling snow field that rose gently for a mile or more to the summit of Union Peak. The sky was still a bowl of purest blue, with only a puffy white cloud here and there, and once the white contrail of a jet made tracks across the blue. We climbed well above the trees, gliding steadily, totally without shelter for hundreds of yards above and below. And now Earl laid on his cruelest surprise of the trip—and revealed the true extent of his rottenness. He waited until we were totally committed to the summit and suddenly unleashed the wind. Behind us a dense, ominous bank of clouds rose over the mountains and chased toward us at a frightening speed. We continued to climb, for we were no more than 200 yards from the top. Ahead was a low boulder that offered the only bit of protection on the whole mountainside.
But Earl had us where he wanted us. The wind velocity picked up enormously, and so did the density of falling snow. Whipped by the wind, the snowflakes felt like iron filings. Snow filtered in behind the lenses of our glacier goggles and we slogged blindly upward until we finally reached the protective rock. The summit was no more than 50 feet above us. No one even considered trying to make it.
And our magnificent view to the Tetons 50 miles away? Hah! We could scarcely see 100 feet back along our tracks—and the tracks themselves were rapidly filling with snow.
Tenzing murmered softly, "Goddam you, Earl." I thought the wind took on a noticeably higher shriek after that remark. We sipped water, gulped gorp, tried to clean the snow from our goggles and decided that there was nothing to do but retreat.
Heinz swallowed and said through clenched teeth, "This wouldn't be the place for a virgin, would it?"
Tenzing said, "Only a virgin who can ski like hell!" and he shoved off down the mountain. It took the four of us about half an hour to fight our way down the unprotected slopes to the tree line and there Earl's storm suddenly went limp. The trees cut off the fearsome wind, and without it, the snowfall became a gentle, friendly curtain.
We paused for breath, and Heinz panted, "Earl sure knows how to lay on a really stressful adventure." We skied down in relatively leisurely loops. Amazingly enough, within half an hour—long before we reached the lake again—the afternoon turned as dazzling as the morning had been.
Back at camp, everyone was practicing Telemark turns on a warm sun-splashed mountainside, unaware that scarcely four miles away Earl had been cutting up like an ax murderer.
We mentioned the storm, but it made little impression. They had experienced no bad weather. The next morning, basking in Earl's finest smile, we skied back to the roadhead, and while the others re-provisioned for the second week of the course, Heinz and Tenzing and I rode back to Lander and civilization. That night, while Lannie, Drew, Gary, Bob, Linda, Mike, Paul, etc., stumbled into a cold and darkened camp for another one-pot dish of something or other, the three of us, freshly showered and shaved, dined on filet mignon and sipped a pleasant Beaujolais in a candlelit restaurant. We toasted each other and NOLS and wished each other more personal growth through stressful adventure. When Earl's name came up, as it had to, there was another ode:
Oh, who's the fink in robes of a deity?
Who dumps yukky weather with unrestrained gaiety?
He's a god who's most capricious,
And, at times, just plain malicious.
May you lose your toes to your own frostbeity,
WIND RIVER RANGE