Frozen Peanut Butter and Snowy Mountains
If you had the opportunity to spend four days backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park’s backcountry, would you take it? I can see it now – alpine lakes full of sparkling water, towering granite mountains that split the clouds, meadows carved by glaciers thousands of years ago…yes, please! Okay, but would you choose to hang out in the Rockies in, say, January?
I was presented with just that opportunity a couple of weeks ago, and I knew there was no acceptable answer other than an enthusiastic “YES”. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular in the country, and 2014 saw more visitors than ever before (over 3.3 million). But significantly fewer folks venture into the park during the winter months because, well, it’s really cold. Those that do, however, are introduced to a world of snowy solitude and magnificent beauty.
I won’t lie, I felt pretty cool as my boyfriend and I loaded up our packs at the trailhead and strapped on our rental snowshoes. Sure, the North Carolina plates on Dave’s Subaru gave us away as mere visitors (I refuse to use the word “tourists” here), but in my mind we were hardcore, burly [and, ahem, mildly terrified] mountaineers embarking on a great adventure. A final high five ignited our journey, and we were off into the snowy woods. The temperature at the start? A balmy 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
The adrenaline that surges at the beginning of such adventures is a powerful thing. In fact, it carried me through the first couple of miles. I was positively giddy. What’s that, my pigtail braids are frozen? Neat! Oh, my water bladder and hose are solid ice? Wow! Good thing they’ll melt later, because I’m pretty thirsty. Wait a second…temperatures over the next four days won’t rise above 20 degrees. Hmm.
As the adrenaline subsided, I began to realize that hiking in the snow is hard. Snowshoes are awkward. My pack was heavy. And perhaps the toughest thing about it all was the fact that the song “A Marshmallow World” was stuck in my head. Not that it’s a bad song; I kind of like it when it comes on the radio around the holidays. The problem is, I only know the first two lines – “It’s a marshmallow world in the winter, when the snow comes to cover the ground”. Over, and over, and over again. For hours.
We reached our first campsite around 4pm, which, in the world of winter camping, is dinnertime. But first, we set up the tent and quickly put on five million layers of clothes (no exaggeration, really). “A Marshmallow World” was soon replaced in my brain by the scene from A Christmas Story when Ralphie’s little brother, Randy, has on so many winter coats that his arms won’t bend or lower. I did my best imitation for Dave: “I can’t put my arms down!” “I can’t put my arms down!” It’s a wonder he’s still my friend after this adventure.
I waddled over to our makeshift kitchen and helped get dinner going. Beans and rice was on the menu, and boy did it look delicious. I’m guessing it tasted pretty good, but I don’t really remember because I devoured my bowl in about 58 seconds. You see, the faster I ate, the faster I got to retire to the tent and conceal myself in a fluffy sleeping bag. Once the dishes were “clean” (I think “frozen” is a better adjective in this situation), I crawled into that glowing yellow dome of nylon and zipped myself into my sack of down feathers, leaving only my eyes exposed to the frigid air. A quick glance at my watch confirmed my dreaded suspicion – 5:20pm. You’ve got to be kidding me.
To combat the potential boredom that accompanies hours upon hours of tent time, Dave and I brought cards, BananaGrams, and books to keep us entertained. “This will be so fun” I thought at the trailhead, “playing games in the glow of our headlamps, sipping hot chocolate.” It’s true, that would’ve been a blast, but it’s hard to play cards when you can’t take your arms out of your sleeping bag because it’s just. that. cold. [Note: we found out later that the low that night was -20 degrees. Yep, NEGATIVE twenty] Thankfully, Dave and I are both outdoor educators, so we carry all sorts of fun games in the backs of our minds. After several rounds of Would You Rather, Two Truths and a Lie, etc., it was 8pm – an appropriate bedtime for New Year’s Eve.
No sugarcoating here, the first night was tough. I woke up every couple of hours and, against my better judgment, looked at my watch. 10:08pm, 12:12am (Happy New Year!), 1:27am, 4:08am. The final time I awoke, the much awaited dawn of one of Colorado’s legendary 300 days of sunshine greeted me. We survived! Our celebration consisted of the most delicious hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted and granola with warm almond milk. Peanut butter was also on the menu, but as it turns out, peanut butter freezes. I learn something new every day!
We spent three more days exploring the forests and frozen lakes of Rocky Mountain National Park. We watched as elk quietly foraged for meals and marveled at the cloudless, electric blue sky. We studied the tracks left by the park’s permanent residents: pica, elk, mice, and mountain lions (wow/yikes). We told childhood stories of digging in the sand at the beach while we shoveled a hole in the snow for our tent that was four feet deep. We post holed in waist-deep snow when we didn’t wear our magical snowshoes and laughed as we struggled to climb out. I learned that snow does, in fact, burn when heated too quickly and tortillas freeze like bricks.
Somewhere along the way, I began to feel incredibly empowered. When I was cold, I put on more layers. If I was hungry, I ate rock-hard Clif Bars. If I woke up shivering in the middle of the night, I did sit ups in my sleeping bag. I realized that we were well-prepared; that we could do this for weeks if we wanted to (although the draw of hot coffee and breakfast burritos in town prevailed this time). Perhaps we really are “mountain people”.
All too often during the winter, I take a look at the dreary, chilly weather forecast and make the decision to stay indoors. The trail is replaced by a treadmill, and my beloved mountain bike sits dormant for days (or even weeks) at a time. But, as my adventure in the Rockies reminded me, the magnificent winter world is beckoning. With a little preparation, anything is possible. It may be cold, your food might freeze, and you may spend lots of energy climbing through the snow, but let me assure you, it’s worth it.
Get out there and play! Adventure awaits.
Liz Snyder, Assistant Camp Director