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Alpine Lake by Ben Summers essay

A large portion of the previous few troop meetings had been a series of instructional talks on topics such as layering, snowshoeing, and hypothermia by the older scouts as part of an effort to prepare the troop for their upcoming annual snow camping trip at Alpine Lake. As it turned out, this particular outing became one of my favorites.

At twelve years-old, I was still too young to officially join Troop 498.  Technically, I wasn't supposed to be able to go camping with the troop outside the Webelos invitational, since I was still an underage Webelo (and also terribly inexperienced at camping, let alone snow camping). However, Scoutmaster Bill Fuller made an exception and allowed me to come along, provided I had a parent with me. As a guest, I was spared the burden of planning meals.

The plan was to drive to a parking area that was about a mile away from the campsite, hike in, set up tents/build shelters, and then have fun doing whatever snow activities we wanted.  A mile didn't seem all that far, but I was assured that it would seem much further in snowshoes while dragging a toboggan with all of my gear.

After weeks of preparation with the troop, I felt confident that I would be able to survive.  I had gone to REI with my father and picked up some cheap snowshoes (and I mean CHEAP. 100% plastic with small surface area and finicky straps) and a toboggan.  Unfortunately, I didn't have any boots I could wear in the snow--the closest thing I had were regular hiking boots, so I brought along several extra trash bags and rubber bands to waterproof them. Since I had no experience building snow shelters and I was unsure if I would be able to complete one before it got dark, I planned on tenting with my dad. I also brought along my emergency set of clothes in case all of my other clothes got wet from sweat or snowball fights. The rest of my gear consisted of extra socks, a warm fleece hat, knitted gloves, and a bulky jacket

We arrived at the Alpine Lake parking lot (more like a dead end where the road got closed off because of snow) in the morning, and started gearing up in ~6 feet of snow.  I was finally able to test out some of my gear (or lack thereof)!

My toboggan was a little smaller than I anticipated; the dimensions were pretty awkward and made it difficult to pack in my stuff efficiently.  I most definitely should have practiced packing the toboggan beforehand. Oops.

My trash bag-rubber band combo was doing an excellent job at keeping my boots and feet nice and dry, but there was an unfortunate slipping interaction between the plastic bag and the snow...It was basically impossible to stand upright, let alone walk around. Good thing I had snowshoes to strap my feet into!

My snowshoes were designed with only one thing in mind: low cost.

They were essentially bright orange uniform plastic ovals, with little teeth on the bottom and a heel strap and a toe strap.

The idea behind most snowshoes is that you are able to lift up your heel off of the snowshoe when you take a step, meaning the snowshoe can remain flat against the surface of the snow and distribute your weight evenly.  As you take a step and your heel comes off, the ball of your foot goes down and presses the spikes into any snow or ice, giving you some sort of grip. The body of the snowshoe should consist of a lightweight frame and a tight membrane stretched over it, with a hole where the ball of the foot goes to allow the foot to rotate forward without destroying the weight distribution.

Unfortunately for me, my snowshoes were hard, smooth plastic, so every time I took a step and didn't land level, my foot ended up twisting to the side as my heel attempted to slide off of the snowshoe. Also, since there was no hole for the ball of my foot, each step I took would make the snowshoe on my trailing foot nosedive into the snow as my weight shifted towards the front of the snowshoe. As a bonus, the strap and buckle on the snowshoes would slowly loosen up, allowing my foot to come out at inopportune moments.

Since there was a great deal of snow on the ground, my only other option was to forego the snowshoes and sink up to my knees in the powder with each step. Not much of an option. Snowshoes it is!

Looking around at the other scouts, I noticed that everybody had either sunglasses or ski goggles for UV protection.  Briefly, I recalled a talk about the dangers of snow-blindness and wondered how I could have been so woefully unprepared for this trip.

Eventually I managed to get everything packed up and ready to go. We set off for the campsite. It turned out that my snowshoes worked O.K. if I took my time, but it was hard work planning every step. In hindsight, it would have been much better to just rent a pair that actually worked.

After a few steps, my toboggan flipped. Reluctantly I staggered back to it and righted it. A few steps later it flipped again. Ughh.

It turns out that my toboggan's center of gravity was much too high. This, combined with the fact that the bungee cord/rope I was using pull the toboggan was attached near the center-line meant that my toboggan very much preferred laying on its side as opposed to complying with my wishes and staying upright.

Not surprisingly, I found myself near the back with only the Scoutmaster next to me as I limped behind everybody towards the campsite.  After watching me struggle for what felt like an eternity, Scoutmaster Fuller stepped in and magically rearranged my gear and cut new holes in the toboggan and rerouted the rope so that it pulled evenly from both sides instead of from the center.

Huh. What do you know?  MUCH easier.

After roughly an hour of graceful staggering (during which I am proud to say I only flipped and fell a few more times), we arrived at the campsite by the lake.  Well, we arrived at the GPS coordinates of the campsite.  All I could see were trees and snow for hundreds of feet in every direction, save for a large open area devoid of trees which was the lake.

Scoutmaster Fuller, armed with his GPS, walked out to a seemingly random spot on the snow and told us to start digging there. Apparently he had GPS coordinates for the picnic bench (funny what experience, foresight, and planning will let you do, isn't it). The patrols broke out their snow shovels and started moving snow.


One of the scouts hit the picnic bench that was buried a few feet below the surface.  After another hour of digging, we had not only uncovered the bench, but dug out a shelter/cooking/eating-area big enough to fit all of us, complete with ice-benches and shelves and a giant tarp strung up over it all to block the wind and snowfall.

Once the cooking area was set up, the scouts dispersed to set up their sleeping shelters and eat whatever lunch they had brought. I think I had a ham sandwich. A few of the more adventurous scouts were digging snow caves, but the majority of us had gone with tents. At the time I had no idea, but snow-caves/igloos are much warmer than any tent because the heat your body produces warms up the small space to a toasty 32 degrees F.

After that, there was a big snowball fight. The only thing I remember is getting my gloves soaking wet and getting hit in the face a few times. Exhausted from the snowball fight, we all went back to our respective tents/snow-caves and rested/changed into dry clothes.

Coming out of my tent, the lake caught my eye. It was down the slope a ways past some trees. I had the brilliant idea of walking out past the trees to see what I could see. It was during this journey as I walked between a couple of trees that I discovered that the snow around trees is extremely soft and deep. I had decided not to wear my snowshoes because the trees weren't far, and as a result I was stuck for a minute or so making potholes as I tried to claw my way out.

I finally made my way past the trees (being careful not to walk too close to any more trees) and looked out on the lake. From where I stood, I could see the entire lake. About 50 feet away from me was the edge of the lake, where the snow stopped sloping down and became very flat. Since the edge of the lake was so far away, I felt safe walking a little closer to the edge.

Without warning, I let out an involuntary gasp for air as I found myself almost waist deep in the icy lake--Fortunately for me, it was still very shallow. Much too late it occurred to me that where the snow levels out ISN'T the edge of the lake; the true perimeter of the lake was back about 20-30 feet from where I thought it was.

I sloshed my way back towards the shore, making a beeline for a large rock that had not been covered in snow. Already shivering, I took off my wet pants and socks while standing on the rock, dumped the water out of my garbage bags, stuffed my feet first into the garbage bags, then the boots, laced them up as tight as I could manage, and sprinted as fast as I could through the snow for the tent where I knew I had my emergency dry clothes. Thankfully, my torso never got wet.

Even with my dry clothes on, it took a LONG time to warm back up to a reasonable temperature. Ice water is pretty cold! At that point, the only dry clothes I had left were the ones I was wearing(save for a pair of socks), so it was imperative that I keep them that way.

My boots were soaked and starting to stiffen up, and I didn’t want to put my nice dry socks into them. Instead I got out some fresh garbage bags and used them as a shoe liner. They kept my feet dry but my boots were still leeching heat out of my feet, making them painfully cold.

By time I left the tent, people were already starting to cook dinner. Noodle soup. I grabbed my mess kit and waited for the scouts to finish cooking.  Some hot soup would do me a lot of good!

There was just enough soup to go around. Once the boiling soup was ladeled into my metal bowl,  I cradeled it in my hands and relished the heat flowing through my gloves. At this point, taste was secondary, although it was still much too hot to eat or drink.  My feet were getting pretty numb, so I set my bowl down and tried to rub some feeling back into them.

I must have set my bowl down for less than 10 seconds, but when I went to pick it up, I noticed that something wasn’t quite right.  The bowl had sunk a few inches into the ice shelf! The heat required to melt that much ice came directly from my hot bowl of soup, which was now a not-quite ice-cold bowl of soup. Damn.

I choked down my meal and decided to go to sleep. After such a long day, I would surely fall asleep instantly and wake up refreshed and ready to start again.  I crawled into my sleeping bag and waited for sleep to take me.

And waited...and waited...and waited… I was too cold to fall asleep, tired as I was. I didn’t understand! I was in all dry clothes in a dry sleeping bag, yet all of my heat was being sapped away. I tried to roll over and found myself rolling uphill. I turned the other way and once again found myself trying to roll uphill.  I was sleeping in a ditch...that I had made with my body heat (much like the bowl of soup). I forgot my sleeping pad. How could I have forgotten my sleeping pad? I had no sleeping pad to insulate me from the snow. The only thing I had between me and the snow was the crushed down (from my body weight) of my sleeping bag. And so began a long, restless, miserably cold night of no sleep.

Not surprisingly, I was fairly tired and out of sorts in the morning.  Luckily, the only unforeseen problem I ran into was trying to tie my frozen laces.  After wolfing down breakfast, I was able to make the trek back to the cars in one piece, at which point I promptly fell asleep.

Despite so many things going wrong, that was probably the single most educational camping trip I’ve ever been on.  Believe me when I tell you that in the subsequent years that I went on the Alpine Lake snow-camping trip, I brought my sleeping pad 100% of the time, only set my food down when I was through with it, stayed away from tree wells, always practiced packing my toboggan beforehand, and most importantly never found the lake again.

Ben Summers   (Eagle Scout  since April 21, 2011)