Winter Camping


The sun hung low against the blue-white horizon of the Wasatch Mountains. It was late in the afternoon. The temperature was dropping, and to the west, storm clouds drew a dark curtain of gray. In a small basin near the top peaks a line of backpackers on snowshoes crossed through a maze of snow-feathered trees. It was December, months past the season for backpacking and camping in the mountains. A deep layer of snow, hardened by the cold and polished by wind, covered the earth and low bushes. The sound of backpackers walking in the crusted snow echoed in the basin.

The backpackers, members of Sandy Utah East Stake’s Summiteers, an advanced camping program for girls, stopped in a clearing. One of the girls, Susie Bigelow, wearing sun glasses for protection against snow glare, looked around and took off her pack.

“This looks like a good place,” she said.

Dallan Sohm, a priesthood adviser for the group and the husband of one of the Young Women leaders present, looked the area over.

“The snow’s deep enough for the shelter,” he said. “But we’ve got to hurry and get it built before dark.”

As they worked, shadows of frosted-white pines grew long and silver-gray in fading light. Icicles hanging from the trees caught the last rays from a pale sunset and sparkled like polished topaz. The temperature dropped with the sun. The girls’ cheeks were bright red in the freezing air.

They dug a rectangular pit in the snow, arched their snowshoes over it, and covered them with sheets of plastic. They added pine poles for additional strength. Tunnels were dug on both sides for entrance and ventilation. The shelter’s floor was covered with plastic, then with foam pads, and sleeping bags were laid out on top.

Finally the shelter was ready. It wasn’t very comfortable or even very warm, but it was warm enough to keep the group from freezing.

Above the basin, high winds tore clouds that fogged the mountain and left them ragged. In the basin there was no wind, and only the girls’ voices broke the cold stillness.

Looking back to the west the girls, all between 16 and 18 years old, knew the stillness in the basin wouldn’t last. The high wind was moving the storm east, toward their camp. They knew that before morning there would be snow falling in the basin—deep, fresh, powder snow. It was snow that would send cross-country skiers and snowmobilers down the mountain to warm cabins. The Summiteers stayed. This was why they had come high into the mountains in December, to learn winter survival and winter camping. They were ready for the storm and the cold.

One member of the group, Koryl Thornwall, later explained that the Sandy Utah East Stake follows the camp certification program developed for the Young Women organization of the Church. This program includes a four-year camp training program and a fifth Summiteer year for those who want further camping experience.

“The Summiteer program is for those who want to develop advanced camping skills. The winter camp is the climax in the program,” she explained.

The girls in the winter camp were all experienced campers. During the previous summer they had gone on a hundred-mile canoe trip down Idaho’s Snake River.

“We know what it is like to be out in the rain and wind,” Koryl said. “But winter camping is something new for us.”

Months before the winter campout the members of the group began preparing for the trip. They held classes on winter survival, learning about the dangers of cold weather and how to prepare for it. They learned how to prevent frostbite, hypothermia (a rapid drop in body temperature), and snowblindness, how to build simple shelters, how to dress to keep warm and dry, and what foods to eat.

During the campout they put what they had learned into action. After building the shelter and after a meal of high energy foods and hot chocolate, they crawled into their sleeping bags. Night came fast and dark. A small but icy wind started and grew in intensity. Inside the shelter it was crowded, but all were protected from the freezing night air.

In the morning they woke to find several inches of fresh snow, bright, sparkling, and satin white. After brushing it off their equipment, they cooked hot oatmeal for breakfast. Afterwards, they took the shelter apart, loaded equipment and supplies into their packs, and started down the mountain. By late afternoon they reached the road. Several parents were waiting with cars. The winter campout was over. The Summiteers had learned some new camping skills and grown closer to each other in the process. And once again they had come to appreciate the magnificence of their Father’s creations and the depth of his love for them.

They packed their equipment into the cars and were ready to leave. Then one of the girls looked back up the mountain and said, “Hey, next month how about a cross-country ski trip?”

[photos] Photos by Laird Roberts

[photo] Nancy Cooper discovers camping means taking it with you … all of it!

[photos] Clockwise from above: Ski poles stabilize Cheryl Blomquist on a slippery slope; Carol Bigelow’s glasses scatter the scene shine; Nancy gets snowed in for the night; snowshoe arches form framework for the cave’s roof; plastic over shoes keeps snow out; snow over plastic keeps cold out

[photos] Top: “Water, water, everywhere …” and every drop’s frozen! Susie Bigelow pauses after strenuous hike. Above: Stacked shoes and poles stand ready for next year’s use