Winter Camping: The shakedown

Learning new skills has always been something I enjoy. My mind gets restless and I love to know more about the world we live in and how to live in that world.

Roll on our first winter camping experience…

Healy Pass meadows is a pristine spot surrounded by 2500m peaks and flanked by the striking Monarch Ramparts to the west. The approach to the proposed camping area was about 10km with not insignificant amount of elevation gain. The forecast was to be cold, really cold and we found ourselves with overnight temperatures around -18 degrees centigrade.

I think the rather challenging experience (not so much environmental but rather learning and personal interactions) started during the preparation section.  Rather oddly we’d been asked to bring our packed bags the day before we traveled.  Most of us felt this was somewhat of waste of time with the more pressing issue of what the setup of a camp was expected to look like and how we could best organise ourselves.  Of course it was good to check if certain personal items were suitable alternatives to the generic packing list provided.  Clearly this didn’t work as well as it could have, given what was actually packed by some of us.  The rest of the time spent preparing involved getting food organised (but not so much in the way of explanation of how to cook it – sure we had a booklet but still, when was the last time you read instructions? 😛 ), making sure that our MSR Whisperlite stoves worked (perhaps a better idea to really understand how they worked and how to maintain them); and making sure the tents (Mountain Equipment Trango 3 and Trango 4) didn’t have any significant holes in them (certainly a worthy use of time).

Sadly we didn’t get a demo from anyone of “what’s in the bag”.  It’s always very interesting and super useful to see what someone, who’s well used to an activity, packs for the trip themselves.

Key Elements of a Winter Camping Packing List:

  • Osprey Atmos AG 65litre backpack
  • Sleeping
    • Western Mountaineering Puma MF (-32) sleeping bag
    • Exped Downmat HL (R7 rated)
    • Rab Silk Liner
  • Clothing
    • Arcteryx Cerium SV Hoody – down jacket
    • Rab Argon – down pants
    • Icebreaker merino long-sleeve t-shirt
    • Black Diamond CoEfficient Hoody
    • Black Diamond  Deployment Hybrid
    • Black Diamond Dome Beanie
    • My Package long johns
    • Lenz heated socks
    • Spare merino ski socks
    • Down Camp booties
    • Light liner merino wool gloves
    • Black Diamond mid-weight soft-shell gloves
    • Black Diamond Super Light Mitts
  • Ski Gear
    • Atomic Vantage 95
    • Burton AK Freebird
    • Mammut Alyeska GTX Pro Realization Pants
    • CTR / Adrenaline “multi-tasker” Balaclava
  • Bits and bobs
    • BD Headlamp
    • Powerbank
    • iPhone
    • Camera (which I wish I’d used more)

The key challenge for me in the planning was having the right layers for standing around (as I knew I’d be warm enough on the move) and with limited space.  In the end I did over pack, but it’s always good to have various bits of gear to try out to best know what to use in the future.  There were a few things that were most certainly a necessity for at least some degree comfort.  Some of the least useful items to appear on the trip where; leather fashion shoes and sneakers (around camp), sleeping bags with a 650 fill power (regardless of it’s temperature rating), and fairly limited team spirit.

After a fairly strenuous skin up to the meadows, with 25kg packs on, the first order of the day was to pick out a suitable campsite.

What did I learn?

From the experience (and the ones that were to follow) there were some things that would have been super useful (and what I realised you don’t really need – I’m such an over packer):

1. Stuff I really could have done with:

  • Thermarest Z-Lite sleeping pad
    • An easy way to ensure that you’re really protected from the cold of the snow
  • A light daypack
    • Black Diamond Blitz 28l is what I ended up with
  • Some kind of foam for a seat
    • Sea to Summit inflatable insulated seat
    • Or the back of the BD daypack
  • Cooking / Water
    • The group setup was challenging and using white gas stoves and took forever to make water.
    • A good solution, space permitting, is the MSR Reactor stove (I would also include a little neoprene/HD foam cosy for the isopropane canister to reduce frosting, and perhaps even a little hand warmer tucked into it to keep the pressure up.

2. Stuff I really didn’t need or could have done differently

  • Ski Touring Pants: I’m looking for some ski touring pants as a substitute for the Gore-tex as they get sweaty, and the Mammut are somewhat heavy.
  • Sleep System: The bulky, and very warm, Western Mountaineering is an amazing bag, but with the proposed pad combination I could have done with a lighter bag.  It seems a more minimalist version is to sleep in the down pants and jacket.  I prefer not to wear so much in bed but it’s likely to reduce bulk and quite a bit of weight (depending on the quality of the alternative).  On a subsequent trip, one of the guides used a -9 (degrees C) bag, although it wasn’t as cold and most likely slept in all his down.
  • Sleeping arrangements: Being in a group meant we had little choice in the sleeping and cooking arrangements.  The tents are bomber tents but heavy.  I was sharing with one other in a Trango 3.  There was loads of room, and thankfully my tent buddy was great.  Later I got landed with two different guys.  I got so fed up with one of them I choose to buy a single skin tent (Rab Latok 2) and would have cooked on my own if I could have.  It was incredible how much drama a certain individual could bring to even the simple tasks of sleeping and cooking.
  • Cooking arrangements: Cooking together in a camp kitchen had it’s benefits, although this seemed mainly to be the social aspect.  On our final expedition we cooked in tent groups which was just so much more efficient and relaxing, at least for me.  In that case I choose to bring along a MSR Reactor stove (for melting/boiling water) and a MSR Pocket Rocket 2 to simmer the dehydrated food in a pot (collapsable Sea to Summit).  This wasn’t without it’s issues, but I’ll go over some of that in a gear review later.

3. Lessons learned

  • It is a little sad to say but it’s a pretty standard thing that folk don’t always read documentation given to them.  The experience told me that I really should have paid more attention to that, instead of expecting the guides to go through it with us.
  • The camp kitchen was a really contentious issue.  With only two stoves on the go and 14 people to feed and melt water for it was a nightmare.  The food was under-hydrated and we left dehydrated due to the lack of water.  The solution wasn’t even so hard.  Simply having the entrance in the middle of the trench and cooking stations at either end would have completely resolved the problem.
  • Group dynamics are indeed challenging when it comes to making suggestions.  I think it’s a lot to do with where authority is perceived to come from, and partly to do with loud and overbearing personalities taking over.  Sometimes you just need to get on with stuff, and debate really isn’t necessary (although ironically the times you do get on with it debate seems necessary).

Overall, I enjoyed the experience and would love to be back up in the backcountry camping out in the spectacular mountains.  Being pushed to make tight turns in the trees definitely pushed my comfort levels.  Although we all questioned the sense in this given that there were some beautiful clean slopes down which we could have done laps to practice our powder technique… especially as some of us really weren’t up to the level required to be in the trees without potentially doing some serious damage.

The whole thing did, in fact, put us in good steed in terms of getting the most out of the remaining trips that required winter camping, probably by shaking us up a little with the realisation that we actually had to actively seek what was best for us, and get the information we required.

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