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Survival training
posted by John : December 30, 2008

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Gray hair?

When Jeremy stopped to laugh at me shoveling ice and snow off the walk he mentioned he and two of his friends, Clint and Ray, were heading out for a snowshoe that night. I declined the invitation, but Amy happened to be right and even though we had just arrived home she encouraged me to go.

Who am I to disagree with my dear wife?

Apparently, Ray and Clint had tried to start a fire in the snow on a recent trip, but failed. This trip was supposed to be a visit to Annette Lake and redemption on the fire-building front.

For me, it was another trip into the woods, a chance to play with my avalanche transceiver, and if I learned how to build a fire that'd be a bonus.

We parked at the end of the plowed area short of the Annette Lake trailhead. Ray was battling with someone via cell phone while we geared up, but shortly we were following the well-established trench along the road. It was pretty clear a bunch of others had been there before us, but none were still there at 8pm.

We made quick work of the trail up to the Iron Horse and to the switchbacks. There was a light snow falling and it was fairly cold, but with the effort of climbing even the relatively mellow trail we stopped early to shed layers. As usual, I found myself snowshoeing in just a fleece with no gloves or hat. I even had the thigh vents open on my pants.

The broken trail had followed the summer trail perfectly up to the switchbacks and continued with a modest climb. All along it had been smoothed by a snowboarder with the odd snowshoe marks every once in a while. Somewhere in the switchbacks it became just the snowboarder.

Climb, climb, climb. Gee... it sure seems like there are more switchbacks than I remember. Sure, the last time I was there the amount of snow was significantly less. And sure, I didn't wind up strictly following the trail that time. And, sure, the time before had been on ice-hard snow on crampons. On both of those trips the trail was very well established.

Still, what could go wrong?

Well, nothing really went wrong, but the snowboarder wasn't really heading to Annette Lake. Somewhere along the line the trail stopped climbing and started traversing. The snowboarder was more interested in gaining elevation for the descent. We missed the main trail and kept climbing.

At some point the incongruity of our situation forced us to dig out altimeters and GPS units. Oh... we're already 200 feet higher than the lake? Really? Huh. Well, we didn't really want to see the lake anyway.

We did want to make a fire, though. We returned the way we had come thinking about the folks that would come the next day and might wind up climbing as high as we did only to find the trail abruptly stopped. If you're reading this... sorry.

We dropped a few hundred feet until we found a nice flat spot against a hill and started looking for wood. We collected dead wood that snapped in our fingers (mostly twigs), but a lot of it had ice frozen to it. With a stockpile ready to go it was time to start.

The first try was with cotton balls and vaseline. Ray used a magnesium stick/flint and steel to get a flame and the cotton balls went up nicely. However, the flames never really took off. Worse, what little fire we had going burned through the bows we had laid down as a base and the fire disappeared into the snow below.

Next up was Clint's Fire Ribbon. We had a more solid base of thicker branches and lit up the ribbon. It was... underwhelming. There wasn't really the intense flame that was promised by the advertising on the tube. Instead, it just sort of limped along. That fire gave up, too.

Jeremy came to the rescue, as usual. He had some trusty fire starter sticks that took a flame well and burned hot until we could get some of the cold wood we'd collected to go up.

All along, Tokul and Chase (Jeremy's dog) looked on in amusement that turned to boredom and finally loathing. Tokul didn't look too happy about hanging out in the snow while we played around. I draped my fleece over her back to try to keep her a little warmer. (Of course, it was frozen in an unnatural shape, but no worries.)

Tokul eventually retreated to the fringes of our work area and curled up. I draped the coat over her again and I think she was warming up. When the fire got going well I put the coat on the snow near the fire and she gladly curled up there. We hung out for a little while to warm up (my toes had just started to go numb). Ray dug a small snow cave, but the snow wasn't really deep enough to make a proper shelter. I guess that will have to wait until next time we go out.

On our walk out we found that the hardly noticeable, but constant, fine snow had pretty well obscured our tracks. Of course, we cut a new trench on the way home so perhaps someone would still be able to follow us on our mad trek. We were back at the cars around midnight.

Total distance for the last adventure of the year were 5.8 and 2,130 feet of gain. We were one for three for fire building and determined that compressed wood fire sticks are definitely better than either cotton balls/vaseline or fire ribbon. Just in case you wanted to know.

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