Jon Finley's   Snow camping "mis-adventures"


mount05.jpg (20122 bytes)Where should I begin..... Should I tell you how Cory and I first met? Or, should I just tell you that both Cory and I are a little crazy when it comes to staying in shape and adventures? Anyway, the point of all this are the snow camping trips we go on.

In 1994 we decided that instead of our normal snow camp-out in Hart's prairie (Flagstaff, AZ) we would camp-out up on Mt Humphrey at 12,643 feet. Cory and I had planed the event to be in February (Friday 25th and Saturday 26th) but Cory had his knee operated on in January and February 25th wouldn't give him enough time to recover.

I went solo on the 25th to see it I could make it up to the top. I started out on the slopes at about 9:30am.  Snow conditions on the trail were poor.  Even with snowshoes I was still sinking 1 to 2 feet into the snow.  I finally lost the trail and started bushwacking straight up the mountain.  By the time I was finally starting to get into better snow conditions higher up on the mountain, I was too tired to go much further.  At about 6:00pm I made camp just below tree-line.  I dug out a 4 x 8 foot pit 3 feet deep and laid out Cory's bivy bag with my pad and sleeping bag stuffed in it and climbed in.  I set up my HAM radio antenna off the top of my ice axe, started up my MSR stove and started melting snow both for drinking water and for dinner.  I had a freeze dried something for dinner that tasted terrible!  I slept well though (other than being attacked by a vicious mouse who badly wanted my fig newtons).  After breaking camp the next day, it was a fairly easy hike back down to the ski lodge. Only a few areas where there were icy conditions.

Cory's knee was soon healed enough that we were able to plan another outing for March 25th and 26th.  We decided that we needed to be on the slope no later than 8:00am (which meant leaving Phoenix at 5:00am).  However, we didn't actually leave Phoenix until 6:00am, so we were still finishing final packing and loading up of the packs at Fairfield ski lodge at close to 9:00am.  Because we were going to be staying over-night, Cory parked his Pathfinder away from the normal parking areas over at the side of the parking lot.  Snowbowl hadn't had any snow for awhile, so the parking lot area was clear and dry.  Weather reports had forecasted a storm moving in to the area across Friday and Saturday, but the storm was only supposed to skirt the area and leave only minimal snow.

As we were finishing up getting ready, the temperature dropped, and clouds started moving in. To ordinary SANE folk this would have been a warning.  We simply said "Cool, snow conditions should be great for climbing!".

It was shortly after 9:00am when we started up the Hart Prairie ski slope.  We had decided that it would be faster and easier if we went straight up the ski slope to the base of Agassi cat-walk and then cut left, up the side of the bowl, and over to Mt. Humphrey.

We weren't quite ready for the affect that an altitude change of 8,000 feet would have on us, that and our 45 lb. packs, so our hike up the slope was going slow.  We took a break on the Hart prairie cat-walk to eat some sandwiches and take in some more water (we had no idea that this would be our only good meal for the trip).

We took our time crossing over from Hart's Prairie to Midway on the cat-walk, which gave us the opportunity to take some pictures and do some filming with Cory's mini-8 camcorder.  At Mid-way it was starting to snow, and the wind was picking up.   The colder temperatures made the ski slope icy and harder to climb.  Cory had ice crampon, so changed into those.  I only had my snowshoes, so attempted to use those to go up the slope, but to no use, I was still slipping too much. Cory had me take the snowshoes off, and from that point on, he kicked toe holds in the snow for me to use as he led the climb.

By now it was 2:00pm.  We were in full Goretex with all of our layers on.   The wind had picked up and the snow was coming down hard. Visibility was down to 30 or 40 feet. Because we were still with-in the tree-line we only had to deal with occasional wind gusts, but some of these gusts we estimated to be at 30-40 mph.  If you were lucky, the wind gust would hit right after you had already placed your ice axe for the next series of steps up.  We took a short break with-in a small clump of trees (stunted like bristlecone pine).  Cory had taken off one of his mitten shells to make some adjustments to clothing and pack when the wind whipped it away from him.   He searched briefly for it, hoping that it had gotten caught on a nearby group of rocks, but no luck.  We each had brought extra gloves, so he just wore 2 pair on that hand.

4:00pm. Finally the top of the upper bowl was in sight.  We were out of tree-line but still protected from the direct wind by part of the upper bowl.  Visibility was down to about 15-20 feet.  As we reached the top of the bowl the storm front hit.   The winds picked up to somewhere between 50-60 mph.  Snow was being driven straight across and up the mountain slope at us.

Because of the poor visibility Cory at first thought that we had reached the top of Mt. Humphrey.  I was unfortunately able to point out part of the bowl rim that was still going upward towards the summit.  We continued on for a short period until we came to the saddle portion that starts the final climb towards Humphrey.  It was now close to 5:00pm and we were too far from the top to continue upwards, and I was too tired at this point to go back down.  With weather such as we were in, the smart thing to do would be to have gone back down.  However, we had not eaten anything substantial since 10:00am and very little water for the amount of work we were doing.   I was getting weak.  The wind had been knocking both of us around for awhile and  I had fallen more than once because of the wind.  After one violent gust of wind that knocked me down again, I wasn't able to get back up.  I had hit my wall.

Cory and I realized that we weren't going to be able to go far from where we were at that moment to find shelter.  That would be the hard part, there simply wasn't any shelter to find.  No trees or overhangs to break the wind or snow.  Cory finally found a large boulder where the wind hadn't scoured all of the snow away and started digging out a ledge.  I was finally able to struggle out of my pack and try to   help him.  We were only able to dig down about 2-3 feet and provide a partial windbreak.  We made a partial wall towards the wind for our heads and started throwing in all of our gear.

We laid out our Goretex bivy bags threw in our pads and bags and climbed in still wearing all of our gear.  Finally out of the wind, we both started unrolling things.   THIS WAS THE REAL HARD PART!  Imagine having a 1 by 2 foot area that you were laying within with one other person who was trying to get a dime out of the front pocket of their very wet and tight jeans.  Same sort of thing here. Cory and I both struggled within our bivies trying to get everything laid out right so we could climb into our bags.  I gave up, climbed out of the bivy bag, blew up my pad, unrolled my sleeping bag, threw them both back in, then crawled into what I hoped was going to be a warm cocoon.   I was frozen, but knew that I was in a better situation just being within my bag (I was to find out later that Cory struggled with his bags until almost 2:00am.).  I never did get warm with as wet as I was, but I was comfortable.

6:00pm. Visibility down to 10-15 feet. I had brought my hand-held HAM radio, and had a contact schedule with my wife (Ruth) back in Phoenix.  I had checked in as we were climbing and was keeping her up-to-date on our progress.  It was time to check in again.  I asked Cory if he had any Messages.   He wanted to have Ruth call his Mom and tell her that he loved her.  To REALLY understand his message you have to look at our total situation.  We didn't have enough of a wind-break to light our stoves, therefore we couldn't heat water to refill our water bottles or cook dinner with, and we were out of water.  We were wet, cold and had no idea of when this storm was going to break.  Cory thought we were going to die (but he didn't tell ME that).   Cory was worried about me because I was exhausted.  I was doing fine,  I was resting and comfortable and was in the process of doing a sanity shut-down.  In my mind I was elsewhere simply camping out in my sleeping bag, trying hard not to think about the storm around us.  For the most part that was what I told Ruth when I checked in with her on the radio.  "The storm had hit....no, we didn't make it to the top.... We're both in our bags, and in for the night. We're OK."

We settled in for the night.  Because of the partial wind-break, snow would stop and drop directly on to us on our ledge.  This was OK, in that it kept us from direct contact with the heavy winds and cold that the storm had brought (and the snow blocked both the sound of the storm and gave us some additional insulation from the cold).  I estimated that the temperature was about zero.  Wind-chill was off the chart for the temperature with 50-60 mph winds, but probably somewhere around 75 below.  The only two problems we both had was finding ourselves hyperventilating because of the altitude and having to clear the area over our heads from gathering snow.  Every hour we would have to shake off at least a foot of new powder.  I'm slightly claustrophobic and when I can't easily move my head or see outside I get a little frantic.  I could tell that Cory was worried also. He kept asking me across the night if I was OK, and what time it was (I was about ready to throw my watch at him because he asked me almost every hour, EXACTLY on the hour).

At some-point during the night Cory (who was still in the process of trying to get into one of his two sleeping bags), stood up still within the bivy bag to make adjustments (I was asleep by this time). He tells me that he fell over backwards and has hanging head-down on his back over the ledge wall with only his legs from his knees down keeping him from a very fast trip downhill. His arms were still outside of the bivy bag, so he was able to get back up without too many problems.  At about 2:00am the storm let up.   I woke up to the sound of Cory digging  (it didn't help that he was also calling me to "look at the beautiful scenery" - yep, we were loosing it alright!).   It was pretty out though.  The clouds had cleared off enough that we could see a hazy sort of outline of Mt. Humphrey.  Everything was stark white, blanketed by new snow.  Even the wind had died down.  I said "that's nice Cory. Hope you enjoy it" and tried to go back to sleep.  Cory finished digging out a better ledge area for himself (sort of a bench seat/easy chair setup) and finally crawled into both sleeping bags.

The first time wasn't enough, sometime during the night, Cory again stood up in his bivy bag to make some adjustments. He fell backwards again, but this time his arms were wrapped up inside of the bivy bag.  BIG moment of panic on his part.  When Cory first got his arms out of the bag and tried to pull himself back up, be broke through part of the ledge wall.  He was able to finally scramble back up into his "pit" area and he was so nice.... he never woke me up once!  Although, by the way his heart was probably pounding the noise should have woken me.

Early Saturday morning the storm hit again.  More hard winds and driven snow.   Cory woke me up at about 6:00am asking me what time it was and if I was still OK.   I was, but I wanted more sleep.  Neither of us had slept well.  Cory wanted to know how much longer I thought the storm would last, and when we were going to leave. I said "probably 'til Tuesday" (it was Saturday morning then) and "just let me sleep a little longer and we'll go.  Maybe at 6:30am".  I laid there a little longer, realizing that I was still cold, wet, hungry, thirsty and didn't have any reason to stay where I was any longer.  We got up, broke camp and started down the mountain.

Because we were moving slow (both of us were weak) we didn't actually start down the mountain until almost 7:30am.  I checked in briefly with Ruth at 8:00am and we continued down the mountain.  I fell several times hiking down because of hidden ice under the snow and because I was still tired.  Cory led the way down, but listened to guidance as I tried to direct us back to the ski slope the fastest way we could go.   We had almost three foot of new powder to wade through going back down the mountain slope.

We knew that we were OK when we finally broke back out onto the Agassi ski run.   Life was good again.  As we were crossing back over to Hart's prairie on the cat-walk a female ski patroller stopped and asked us what we were doing.  We told her.  Her reply was "Boy, you better be careful!" - Like duh! We were down weren't we?

We got back down to the parking lot at about 10:30.   Finally the adventure was over.... Wrong! Because of all the snow, Snowbowl plowed the parking lot.  We had parked in an area the snow plow doesn't usually plow, so the driver plowed us in.  We had a four foot wall of snow blocking the truck from front to back.

Finally.....by 11:30 we had dug ourselves a driveway, driven the truck out, loaded our gear into the back and settled in to the truck to head home.  We hit Burger King for our first meal in over 24 hours and headed out of town.  As we drove south we discovered the extent of the storm.  When we had come up to Flagstaff early Friday morning the only snow had been at Snowbowl itself.  Leaving Saturday afternoon there was heavy snow down past Stoneman Lake turn-off.  We had somehow weathered out a major winter snow storm (well, for Arizona anyway).  Usually Cory and I are both snow lovers and will stick around to play awhile longer in the snow.  This time we made a bee-line straight back to Phoenix for sunshine and heat.

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