Much of my pleasure in life is derived from climbing up the side of a cliff or running full-tilt down a rocky mountain trail or swan diving into a lake. I’m no stranger to bounding across boulder-strewn landscapes, bellowing: “The hiiiiiills are aliiive, with the sound of muuuuuusiiiic!!” like an athletic Julie Andrews with dude parts. Don’t ask why this happens; it’s just inspiration in the moment.
So when the offer came to climb Matanuska Peak and camp out for the night over winter break with a roommate and some friends, I was on like Donkey Kong. Despite the mass of snow blanketing the mountain. Despite the blistering cold and horrendous winds. And despite the fact we’d be climbing the day before winter solstice, when we’d have just about four hours of daylight to work with.
Screw common sense and any thought of self-preservation—let’s do this thing!
When beginning such an endeavor, it becomes obvious there’s a big difference between summer and winter hiking.
With summer hiking, you don’t need to pack much at all. Hiking shoes and a jacket. Maybe a Nalgene bottle or a Camelback. An emergency rape whistle should you happen to run into any forest dwelling pedophiles, or a bear. Stuff a couple Nutra-Grain bars down your shorts and you’re out the door.
With winter hiking, though, you’re loading yourself down. Or you die. It’s important to prepare for any disaster that could conceivably take place in an outdoor environment whose main goal is to bestow upon you neck-lacerating ice beards and limb-shriveling frostbite.
Bust out the layers of coats, the snow pants over the running pants over the long johns over the compression shorts, the hats and gloves and boots, and so many pairs of wool socks you could clothe all the children in Indonesia with the extras.
And on top of this vast Michelin Man bundle of clothing comes the gear. Loads and loads of gear, stuffed in, on and around creaking frame packs.
Snowshoes. Avalanche beacons. Ice picks. Crampons. Headlamps. Yeti repellent. Collapsible stoves. Sleeping bags. Toilet paper.
Never scrimp on the toilet paper. When it comes to wiping, brambles are not fun.
And don’t forget the food. Plus the tarps. And the tent. The natural choice for our four-man wolf pack was to bring a three-man tent to build up the body heat. It worked, for sure, but had us crammed in sardine-style so tight there wasn’t even room to scratch your nose, let alone roll over, and the excess heat served to melt all the collected snow on the roof of our tent into a lovely dripping faucet right down on top of us.
Experts say never to carry a pack weighing more than 40 pounds. If your bag weighs more you’ve overpacked, and made it that much easier for yeti to catch, sauté and eat you.
I can’t speak for the others, but my frame pack threatened to rip my shoulders out of their sockets and throw my hips out of alignment with every step I took.
Apart from overpacking, the main concern when approaching this mountain was avalanches. In the 2010/11-winter season, avalanches in the U.S. killed 25 people. This may not seem like that huge of a fatality number, especially compared to those associated with car crashes, heart disease victims and Jersey Shore viewers, but that’s still 23 more people than were killed by sharks last year, and 25 more than have ever been killed by abominable snowmen.
Luckily for us, we had no such snow-rumbling encounters. All we had to deal with were waist-deep snowdrifts and 80 mph winds threatening to throw us back down to the bottom of the peak.
It became not so much a hike as a breaststroke up the mountain, attempting to crawl against the howling storm around us and stay above the bottomless expanses of snow. Every now and then we’d come up for air, before being sucked back down again.
DID WE MAKE IT TO THE TOP? WERE WE ABLE TO FIGHT BACK AGAINST THE INSURMOUNTABLE ODDS AND CONQUER THE ICY MOUNTAIN?
Not one for leaving readers in a state of cliffhanger suspense, please refer to the title of this column.