The voices called, far from the distance, muffled from the sound of pounding raindrops on the thin tents exterior. Louder and louder the voices began, almost with a sense of desperation. The sky was black and the storm was beginning to worsen. Perhaps cries for help from stranded hikers lost in the bitter, painfully cold storm. Concern quickly turned to caution as I leaned over to grab my camp axe. You can never be too sure when people are desperate. Caution became confusion when the words began to come together as they closed in on our position. “Hello!” the yell spelled out. “Is that you? Is there a Michael out there!?” “MICHAEL LARGENT!” the voices yelled out. What in the world I thought. Who could possibly know where I am, or who I was. I quickly unzipped the tent, letting in the piercing cold wind. The cold bit my face as I peered around the corner. My friend Dusty, and John! They had come out to visit us after all, but apparently were caught in the storm.
“Come on in” I yelled out, and called them into the safety of the tent. Soaked and freezing they crawled into the roomy two man tent, which suddenly felt small and claustrophobic. The rain had not treated them well. Their cotton and nylon clothing absorbed the water and had become frighteningly cold. They took some time to shed their wet layers and warm up in the safety of the tent. Luckily they had dry socks and extra layers packed in their small bags so they could change out.
We took this time to exchange stories, show each other some gear, and devise a plan for their escape. We would have invited them to stay but we only had two sleeping bags. They were already wet and their body temperatures were only holding steady because they were moving and generating heat. Staying overnight in their wet clothes would have surely caused hyperthermia to set in, as Jason and myself were dry, in sleeping bags and still cold. We passed along some snacks, share water and tips on how to get out, and wished them a safe trip back to their cars a few hours away. It was a cold, wet, windy walk back but still their best option. It was great to see them, although I wish the conditions had been better. They had my respect for sticking it out and coming out for sure. We said a quick prayer for their safety and slid back into our fluffy sleeping bags to try to retain our warmth. The temperature was dropping.
The thermometer was showing 29 degrees, the rain was now sleet, and the harsh wind became thunderous gales that were rocking the forest, and our tent. We laid in the dark, listening to the horrendous storm that had developed around us. Our sleeping bags were rated at 40 degrees, and our body temperatures were slowly beginning to fall. My feet were becoming cool, and my face was already cold. Ice chips were falling onto the tent. Sticks and leaves were sliding down the vestibules. I was concerned about the possibility of ice sickles forming and falling through then tent, but I didn’t say anything to worry Jason. We couldn’t move at this point, so I kept my thoughts to myself, and continued to listen to the roaring storm blow in.
The wind slowly grew more and more angry as the night continued. Our presence was not welcomed, and the storm was making it known. It was no longer creeping through the bushes, but now rampaging through the trees, roaring and hissing. The sounds of limbs breaking, and twigs being thrown about kept me awake. Lying on my back, I was honestly concerned for our lives. The storm was so thick, and the wood so dark that I couldn’t even see the tent I was laying at, but somehow it was like I could see everything around me, by listening to the sounds. Staring into the darkness of the tent, I could almost see what was going on outside by putting the noises together. I could hear the large tree that we were camping next to bending, and moaning in the wind. It’s arms straining to hold against the brute force of mother nature, but the fight was sounding futile. The wood would crack, and my legs would twitch in my sleeping bag, as if they wanted to run, but I had nowhere to go. Adrenaline would shoot through my body, and my pulse would jump. It was terrifying. My instincts said get out of this tent and run! My logic said this is the only shelter we have, and there is no way to move it at this point. I stuck it out, staring into the blackness of my tent, hoping that the woods around us would hold firm, that we may make it out of here.
Somehow, morning came. I had managed to slip away in the night and catch some sleep. It was morning now. I woke on my back. As I opened my eyes I could see the tent glowing in the reflection of the sun from the clouds. The tent was specked with twigs, leaves, and other debris from the storm. I looked around to see Jason still lying there, awake, but snuggled deep into his sleeping bag. That’s when I noticed that I was very, very cold. The sleeping bag didn’t hold up well to the intense cold of the night, and I was stiff. I could see my breath softly blowing from my mouth.
Apparently Jason has woke up around 5am, too cold to get back to sleep, and laid there until I began to move around. We had a small breakfast, and worked on convincing ourselves to crawl out of our cold sleeping bags, and into the colder air around us. The thermometer read 25 inside the tent. Signaling it was at least a few degrees colder outside of the tent. We were cold, but the only way to warm up was going to be moving. We began to franticly pack up all of our gear, and began to stuff it into our bags. When we slid out of our bags, and climbed out of the tent. The temperature difference was stunning. The chipper morning cold cut through our bodies like sharp knives. We were amazed to find a sheet of icing on the tent, glistening in the morning sun. The tent was frozen together, and breaking it apart was problematic. Attempting to take down the tent was painful. The poles and straps were so cold they sent pain through our hands. We were constantly stopping, and pressing our hands between our legs to try to warm them back up enough to feel what we were doing. Eventually, the campsite was gone, and our bags were packed. We hit the trail hard and fast attempting to break the horrid cold that was numbing our bodies.
My hands were aching, my ears and nose was numb, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying what I was. A beautiful, frozen play land of leaves, spider webs, and mosses passed by me as I worked up some body heat. The ice was glowing along the edges of fiery red leaves. The trees were frosted, and the northern moss shimmered with a frozen glint. Even the spider webs were beautiful, with small, miniature ice sculptures dangling playfully across their intricate weaves. The small streams were frozen, with the exception of a small natural spring that had overcome the odds.
As we reached the bald, mother nature submitted her apologies in the form a beautiful powdery vista complete with glowing mountain ranges, frozen grassy fields, and whitened stone rocks. However, her hospitality did not last long, as the wind was beginning to pick up, and the moisture in the air was forming into clouds. Still at a very high elevation, the clouds were at eyes height and we didn’t want any part of that. We continued down the path, taking photos when we could gain enough feeling back in our hands to do so.
The moisture in the air was forming up, and now crystalizing. The sharp shards were being blown into our faces by the harshening winds. The ice was sharp against my face, and especially my eyes and lips. I did my best to turn my head but it was not much use. The ice continued to hammer my face. It felt as if I was bleeding, as the ice was stinging my sensitive skin. A quick palm check here and there confirmed I wasn’t, but the sensation was still there. My hoodie was now freezing over, and my hands were numbing with the exception of the pain of the cold. Our only concern was getting below the tree line. Below the tree line we would be safe, and at least partially out of the elements.
Our steps were quick, and our bodies’ cold, but we eventually made it back below tree line. A sense of relief swept over us as we knew we only had about an hour before we made it to the car. We never intended to be camping in the snow, or in a raging storm, or in sub-freezing temperatures, but that’s how we ended up. The experience was scary, and painful, but completely worth it. Next time we would be more prepared for the unexpected, but this time we would writhe in the fact that we survived some very harsh conditions. We kept our spirits high and enjoyed every second of our misery. Sometimes you plan for everything, yet usually something else finds a way to creep up and surprise you. This is a fact of life when it comes to backpacking, and we are learning as we go.
When we made it back to the car we quickly shed our wet clothes, and cranked up the heater. We curled up close to the vents as our bodies struggled to absorb the heat. Leaning up against the hot spewing vents of my car, I thought about the trip as I heated my cold body. It took me the better part of an hour to get my hands mostly warm again, but it only took me the lesser part of five minutes for me to figure out that I couldn’t wait to go back.
Special thanks to Jason Thompson for manning up and sticking out the trip with me. I couldn’t have did it without you.
Also check the videos section for a video of the trip.