About five years ago my childhood friend, Conor, summited Denali. When he returned, he would not stop hounding me to do a winter camping trip. Conor told me all sorts of stories about his time glacier camping. How when he woke up in his tent there was a freezing layer of ice all around him from his breath. How he would have to pee in his Nalgene water bottle for a little extra warmth at night and then wash it out with boiling water in the morning so that he could drink from it during the day. And of course the breathtaking views and solitude he experienced day to day.
Hearing those stories made winter camping sound a little too intense for me. I felt like it was not really my thing, but for some reason, I was still drawn to the experience because of how different it was from my day-to-day life. I was in my third year of working an office job in Boston and needed to shake things up from the monotony of my nine to five lifestyle. He assured me that he had the equipment and the knowledge we’d need to survive under extreme circumstances. So, with the basic reassurance that he would do everything he could to make sure I survived, I agreed to embark on this journey with him. The weekend before Thanksgiving we headed to the White Mountains for 3 days and 2 nights–and I began my journey of learning what it's like to live in the snow.
If you’re not familiar with the mountains in the Northeast, it's important to know that the White Mountains are an extremely raw and temperamental part of New England. Toward the end of November temperatures can drop well below freezing and the peaks and valleys have already developed the white color for which they are named. The “Whites” are also home to Mount Washington which held the record for fastest winds on earth at 231 mph. It is a place that is not to be taken lightly, especially in the cold.
Arriving at the campsite after dark, I felt ridiculous as I changed out of my work clothes into what would be my armor against the cold for the weekend. I was uncomfortably outside of my comfort zone, which in my experience, is a recipe for learning some of life’s most valuable lessons. As I laid in my sleeping bag watching my breath dissipate through the beam of my headlamp, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was really ready for the adventure I was about to undertake.
By the time we were finished, I had learned countless lessons, but these three (plus a bonus lesson!) really stuck out for me.
What I Take for Granted
Our first day of hiking was a 10-mile slog deep into the wilderness. The weather flipped unpredictably between rain and snow as we trudged along. Carrying a full pack of gear for the first time in a while, my body was sore in places I didn’t even know could be sore, and I had some difficulty maintaining a reasonable body temperature. After we set up camp, Conor and I set to work making our first dinner; Mac and cheese. He taught me how to work his camping stove and how to prep the meal without it spilling everywhere. After 10 miles of hiking and what seemed like an eternity waiting for our food to cook, I will never forget that first bite of hot cheesy goodness. As I sat there in my puffy jacket, miles from any human being, my bowl of mac and cheese offered me a surprising comfort I had never felt from a warm meal before. Just when I thought the meal couldn't taste any better, Conor whipped out a small bottle of Frank’s Red Hot, a miracle! Before we went to bed, Conor and I mixed up hot cocoa in our Nalgene water bottles. Lying in the tent together we were overcome by joy with each sip of watery hot cocoa we took. Back in Boston I wouldn’t have batted an eye at mac and cheese for dinner, chosen many different hot sauces over Frank’s and likely passed on the watery cocoa but at our campsite, these items were pure gold.
The Value of Knowledge
Over the course of our trip, Conor was constantly sharing his outdoor knowledge with me. Proper layering, navigation, and safety were just a handful of subjects we touched upon. I made myself a sponge and soaked up all of the information he sent my way. When I look back on this, his knowledge was so valuable because it took him so much time to cultivate it. He was sharing what he knew for free, even though it had taken him time, money and sacrifice to acquire these skills. Knowledge is fascinating because it is essentially priceless. It can be given out freely or have a price tag attached to it. The old adage “Knowledge is Power” is true, but too often this saying is associated with knowledge acquired in school. Knowledge is power but it's not just limited to a school setting. You can find it for free in the right places, but are you ready for it? It takes time to accumulate knowledge, but it can be shared easily in a matter of moments. How you apply your knowledge is up to you.
My friendship with Conor was a bond that had been forged by years of adventure and troublemaking. Had I not been so close with Conor I would not have been on this trip in the first place. We weren’t faced with any seriously inclement weather or injuries during our trip but had anything gone wrong we would have been relying on each other for survival. We had placed ourselves in a situation that was not to be taken lightly. Our trust was a two-way street. I had little to no survival experience in the outdoors, let alone during the winter, but I trusted that Conor had the experience to guide me through our trip. On the flipside, he knew I had the attitude and drive to persevere even if our journey became arduous. Without this trust between us, this trip would not have been possible. It was the cornerstone of us accomplishing what we set out to do!
Despite the discomfort I experienced during our trip, there was a lot of joy in my time spent in the cold wilderness with Conor. The feeling of being the only human for miles was exhilarating and relaxing at the same time. It was also the most quality time we had spent together in years. Completely one on one. Out of everything, the best part was finally reaching our first summit. As we reached the summit of Mt. Roosevelt, the clouds seemed to break just for us. Getting our first view of the surrounding Pemigewasset wilderness, I was presented with a beautiful metaphor for many struggles in life. With the lows that come with going outside of your comfort zone, you will be rewarded with highs.
A little bonus lesson I learned: experiencing that with a friend makes it that much better.