The Gold Lake Sno-Park Survival Experience

January 13, 2008

We didn’t ask for much, just a good day trip in the snow gone wrong. Like Gilligan’s ill-fated boat, The Minnow, four intrepid travelers set out on a three-hour tour and found ourselves marooned. The concept was to construct and face a catastrophe in practice mode before it actually existed. The primary goal was NOT necessarily to be prepared for a trip disaster that forced a solo skier to spend a night stuck in the snow (that was the secondary goal); the primary goal was to raise our consciousness about how we go about our trips, the dangers we face and just how much we need to be watchful and cautious when venturing into the wilderness, to such an extent that the disaster scenario never arises.

The assignment was simple and handed out on a piece of paper to the four intrepid adventurers (Laurie Funkhouser, Steve and Melissa Billings and leader Doug McCarty):

Taking just our 10 essentials and whatever else we NORMALLY take on a day trip, along with a thermos filled with a hot drink, we proceeded into the Odell Lake overlook region near Westview Shelter and then, as individuals, faced this task:

It is late afternoon with only two hours of usable light; it is snowing and likely to snow heavier as the night goes on. You have been separated from your group, taken the wrong path, have equipment failure (say, a broken ski), but no injury, AND you have no reasonable hope of being found/rescued until tomorrow morning. Now, with only the contents of your backpack, you need to improvise a shelter and methodology to make it through the night, which will be approximately 12~13 hours long.

We discovered three important things about snow country survival, a single most important survival technique, and made a list of six extremely valuable items to have in case the unthinkable happens.

The first thing we found out was that it does not take two hours to construct a shelter. Probably the most comfortable shelter (stomped depression in the snow covered by a tarp anchored by “snow pegs”, sleeping pad, heatsheet bivy sack, down jacket with hood) was finished in less than 20 minutes, the others were finished before the first hour was up. So, if you have two hours of usable daylight, you can use the first one trying to make a little more progress back to civilization.

The second thing we discovered was that no matter how comfortable the makeshift shelter, the idea of lying down in the snowy woods was just not appealing, in fact it had more than a little bit of grimness to it. Robert Frost’s view of snow and death (“lovely, dark and deep”) came to mind, facing the silent woods. Perhaps William Cullen Bryant’s view in Thanatopsis, is worth quoting here, since it actually mentions Oregon’s woods:

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms

. . . When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit . . .

Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound
. . .
Thou go . . .
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

As survivalists, we should of course skip Dylan Thomas’ view (“Do not go gentle into that good night . . .”) since all the shouting and rage he suggests would sap vital energy for surviving in the woods, although it would make for a dramatic finish. Frost’s depressing suicidal woods, Bryant’s comfy final lie-down with nature, or Thomas’ rage against the dying of the light—these are not happy thoughts.

The third thing we were forced to contemplate is how long a night in the snow would actually be. Our day January 13, 2008, would see a sunset at 4:57 p.m. and would not see the next frozen sunrise until 7:45 a.m. on the 14th, a cool 14 hours 48 minutes in the Willamette Refrigeration District. Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson, “there’s nothing like the prospect of sleeping on a bed of frozen snow for such a time to focus the mind.”

In any event, the executive summary of the most important survival technique on a day trip is laughably simple: plan and monitor the trip carefully to avoid making the six or seven mistakes (late start, poor equipment, no maps, weak participants, etc.) that it takes to lead one to a disaster. In most disasters we know it is never a single mistake but rather a series of mistakes that lead into the abyss. Learn to recognize the series of mistakes before they snowball (pun intended) into a crisis. Turn back well before the attempt to push on to a trip goal endangers more than just a concept.

Finally, in the unhappy event of a disaster, from our hands-on, on-the-spot research, here is the executive summary of the most valuable items you would be likely to actually carry in your daypack, in any season:

  1. Some sort of blade with a saw edge. Steve used his saw blade (Gerber, $5) to construct a fairly nice horizontal tent support on which to lay his tarp structure. Doug used his saw edge (Swiss army knife, $20) to harvest tree branches to use as “snow-anchors” (tent pegs) for strapping down his tent fly. Sharp edges are also key for trimming the guy lines that secure your tarp top (see below); teeth and ski edges somehow just won’t cut it (pun intended).
  2. A sleeping pad. Each of us had one, each loved it. You use this to insulate your 98 degree body from the 32 degree snow pack. You can improvise with a smaller seat pad and back pack and branches, but the full pad is preferable.
  3. A plastic ground cloth or heatsheet. This item is absolutely key, although the superior device is a 3.5 ounce emergency bivy sack (Adventure Medical Kits) that Doug had; cost: $13, comfort level: priceless. The emergency bivy sack weighs next to nothing, and gives immediate conservation of warmth to the survivor. Doug climbed into his to check it out and immediately settled down for a longish (45 minutes) winter’s nap on the snow. You could, too.
  4. A jacket and hat combination to keep torso, arms, neck and head warm. The most effective is a down jacket with hood, which basically becomes one half of a down sleeping bag. You probably have one around the house; it’s worth putting it in a stuff-sack and packing it. Also good were an REI ear flap hat, a woolly cap, a fleece beanie, and a crowd favorite (three out of four survivalists agree), the fleece Head Sokz (approximately $40).
  5. Warm feet. The removable padded booties from plastic ski boots were excellent at keeping feet warm in the bivy and promised that the morning would not find frozen boots resisting entrance.
  6. A little thermodynamics goes a long way. It is invaluable to have a little knowledge of thermodynamics as it relates to heat rising and pooling in closed overhead structures (tarp tops), cold falling and pooling inside closed “bucket-like” structures. The upshot: batten down the upside/mountainside of your tarps to a) allow the cold air descending the mountain to continue down and not enter your abode while b) holding onto as much of your body heat/warm air in the warm air canopy, AND dig a cold air drain through the snow at the bottom of your shelter to make sure the cold stuff has an escape route.

We each learned and relearned some things in the trip, and all recommend that day trippers think long and hard about what they carry and the trips they take. It only takes an exercise like this in the snow to really appreciate a hot shower and flannel sheets on a January evening, safe at home.

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