Backbone Bivouac: A true tall tale

Have you ever spent the night outside in the Colorado mountains, in the heart of winter, at 12,000 feet, in a furious blizzard? No? Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t either. [Note: Matt Dunn froze Backbone Radio listeners to their seats with this chilling account on our Jan. 20 show. See left column for podcast starting Jan. 22.]

Prelude: I read an unforgettable book about Sir Ernest Shackleton, the British explorer of the Antarctic, whose ship, Endurance, became stuck in the ice in Vahsel Bay, Antarctica.

Months went by, with Shackleton and his men living on board ship waiting for something to happen. Eventually, something did. The trapped vessel was crushed by movements in the ice – forcing Shackleton and his men to abandon ship and set up camp outside on the ice. This took place on January 19, 1915 – 93 years ago this weekend.

Now – when a man in a sleeping bag lies down on the ice – unfortunately – body heat works to melt the ice. So – Shackleton and his men spent the next several months sleeping on slightly melted Antarctic ice – shivering in sleeping bags wet through and through – before heroically saving themselves in their now famous escape.

Reading these accounts at home in Colorado, sitting by the fire, I thought to myself – wow – that doesn’t sound like much fun. What would it be like to sleep in a wet sleeping bag, in the general vicinity of the South Pole, for a few months?

Well, I now have at least some idea – which brings us back to my story. In Colorado’s 10th Mountain Hut System – where you can ski uphill into a small wooden hut to spend the night – and then ski back down the next day – the most forbidding hut of them all is Skinner Hut – high above the town of Leadville near the Continental Divide.

Skinner Hut is described in a guidebook as “the most remote and hardest to reach” and as “situated at the top of a precipitous drop-off” and as “responsible for the most unplanned bivouacs.” A mere 10.7 miles uphill.

Eager for the challenge, our small crew set out on Randonee skis in the dark, 6:30am, Friday morning January 4th. As expected, it was already snowing – and as we trudged along, one ski after another, for the next 10 hours, it never for a moment stopped snowing.

Entering the last steep section before the summit, we noticed the wind began to pick up. It was getting dark again. The pine trees, heavy-laden with snow, creaked back and forth, with haunting voices almost human.

Finally arriving at the summit, in complete darkness at 12,000 feet, our team was now in the middle of a full-scale blizzard. The snow blowing sideways cut our headlamp vision down to 20 feet, sometimes less. We realized it was going to be difficult to find the hut.

And so we spent the next two hours combing the summit ridgeline looking for the hut, while trying to steer clear of the “precipitous drop-off” nearby. Around and around we went, using map and compass and GPS locator. We knew we were within 200 yards of the hut – maybe even closer.

We kept looking. But to no avail. At some point it occurred to us that the vaunted Skinner Hut was most likely completely buried in all the new snow – and that it would be impossible to find in the dark. We would have to wait for sunrise.

So the moment of truth had arrived – it was time to bivouac – as in, spend the night outside. Though each of the party had thought about bivouacking before – none of us had ever done so. And as the winds gusted up to 70 miles-an-hour, as the temperature continued to drop – our thoughts grew somewhat subdued.

Newspaper headlines? Television news stories? Heaven forefend -- talk radio tidbits?

At any rate, however subdued our minds, adrenaline levels were high and we took action. On the whole, we were prepared. We had the right equipment, we’d taken the training courses, we’d been reading up on these kinds of eventualities.

We found a likely-looking little alcove, surrounded by trees, somewhat out of the wind. Out came the shovels. We dug a 3-foot deep trench, set tree branches and skis and poles above the trench for the roof, and rubber-banded on a plastic tarp.

Then, inside, off came the ski boots, on went every layer of extra clothing from our backpacks –mittens, balaclavas, neck warmers, three hats each. We placed an “emergency blanket” on the floor of the trench, but the fragile material tore easily – it wasn’t much use.

Out came the down sleeping bags, and into them we went – along with a water bottle each, to keep them from freezing.

And so we hunkered down as the wind blasted the tarp above. It was loud. Snow would blow into our faces through its uplifted edges.

How long before one of those gusts was to blow the tarp off? How cold was it going to get? Would we have enough battery-power for our headlamps? Should we take the time to build a fire?

Questions, questions.

My thoughts turned to that cheery Jack London story, “To Build a Fire” – which I’d read long ago in middle school, yet have seemed to remember every detail ever since.

And as I began to notice the cold seeping in from below my sleeping bag, and soon noticed it had become completely wet on the ground-side – my thoughts turned to Shackleton and his men in their wet sleeping bags.

Aha! So THIS is what it’s like.

If they did all this for months in the Antarctic – without complaining even – surely we can do this for one night in Colorado. Some comfort in that, I suppose.

And so the hours went by. The crew was tired, but sleep was found only in fits and starts. We monitored our extremities for signs of excess cold – we gauged our respective levels of shivering. We kept checking in with one another to see how things were going.

A few hours into it – though cold to be sure, and certainly quite uncomfortable – the crew seemed to relax, realizing we weren’t really THAT cold, after all, and that the tarp was holding, and that we were going to be just fine.

Along about sunrise, we climbed out of our sleeping bags and stepped into our shiny fully-frozen ski boots. If there’s a more invigorating method of waking up in the morning, I don’t know what it would be. Temperature estimate – about 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Packs back on, on skis again, we began again our search for the elusive Skinner Hut. Five minutes later, we found it. Sure enough, buried under several feet of snow – invisible to our angles of view the night before.

Ten minutes later, we were inside, building a fire in the old cast-iron fireplace. A big, broad, magnificent fire. Truly. In the spirit of Shackleton, we joked amongst ourselves, about how it’s good to do these kinds of things from time to time. Keeps you from getting too civilized. Teddy Roosevelt would have approved.

But we also knew that, really, they don’t make ‘em today the way they used to. A little taste of the Antarctic is altogether plenty, nowadays.

So from now on, when we talk here about Backbone Radio being broadcast from “High atop the Continental Divide” – I’ll be thinking back to that night outside in the blizzard.

And believe it or not – the memory will be a good one.