Firsts02/11/2020 12:05PM ● By Alesha Damerville
By Matt Tredway
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Standing in my gear room, I scan the array of equipment, preparing for a winter mountaineering experience. l lay eyes on a small brown backpack. This pack, now over 50 years old, accompanied me on my first backpacking trips with family, and on my first solo trips.
Staring at that little pack, the sad thought crosses my mind that it will continue to watch from the sidelines on future trips. While some gear can be replaced or traded away, for me there are pieces that have earned retirement. These objects maintain an honorary position: a constant reminder of time outside, a witness to times well-lived. The time, for example, when the pack came with me on my first solo backpacking trip, when I was 12 – the first of many times I’d feel like I was stepping into the unknown.
l had a couple of years of spring and summer outings under my belt when, at age 14, I thought I was ready to try winter camping. Armed with a few practice runs in the yard and all the print I could read on the subject, I headed for the Castles on a February afternoon. A beautiful valley only 25 minutes from home in Gunnison, it boasts wildness and fantastic rock outcroppings that resemble the turrets of a medieval European castle.
A classmate joined me for the outing. My parents, with an inexplicable trust, dropped us off at the snowy trailhead. Little did I know, this adventure would prove to be a pivotal rite of passage. Outfitted with wooden army surplus skis, a woolen outfit, a new down sleeping bag and a small shovel, l felt unstoppable. My trusty backpack was screaming at the seams with all the equipment inside of it.
Skiing in with the loaded pack was easier than anticipated. The exhilaration of the moment fueled the pace. Smallish and still not breaking the 90-pound mark on the bathroom scale, l was moving smoothly. While my pack weighed a good percent of that 90 pounds, l didn't notice. I was experiencing the weightlessness of independence. It was a clear, cold day, and winter seemed perfect for being outside. No dirt, no bugs, and all the animals that worried me in summer excursions were gone or asleep.
Trial and error followed. Setting the tent up was the first unanticipated problem. In the deep snow, it felt as if we were attempting to pitch the tent in a pond. Panic. A wave of doubt drifted through us; this tent was going to be critical to our success. We realized the trail we were on was hard-packed from the ski traffic. We followed suit, stomping an area of snow with our skis to create a walkable platform. Though our patience was tested for an hour, the snow finally set up, and our Frostline shelter was erected.
We knew a fire would be a mess, melting itself so far down in the snow that it would be of almost no use. Instead, we used a little gas stove that l had tested out the previous summer and fall. We heated water, melted snow, and soon the smell of damp nylon and Coleman fuel was overwhelmed by the aroma of cup after cup of hot chocolate. A large flashlight hung from the tent’s center, casting lazy circles of light and illuminating our breath. We whiled away the evening telling stories and sharing dreams, and as the light went from white to soft yellow, the presence of the oppressive cold shoved us deep into our sleeping bags for the night. Coats still on, and balaclavas pulled snugly over our heads, we were insulated from the cold, and the world.
Reality hit hard in the morning. A thick layer of frost had formed on the tent walls and it showered us each time the tent was even slightly jostled. As we stirred to life, it started to melt and drip steadily, and our down bags were getting wet. Inexperienced though we were, we understood this was a death sentence, and panic surged through us.
All the confidence we had gained the previous night quickly vanished. Bundling up and crawling out of the bags, we were smacked with the cold of the day. Our catalog of mistakes slowly unfolded. First, our boots were frozen solid. We added extra socks and tried in vain to cram our feet into the rigid leather.
The cold gained purchase on our feet and hands. Thinking a hot drink might be the answer, we turned to our little stove, but it refused to light. Lighting match after match, and with growing frustration, my fumbling cold fingers caused a little fuel spill and flames briefly ignited everything but the stove. A fuel-soaked mitten caught fire, releasing a small cloud of singed feathers. The tent then reeked of wet and burned wool, nylon, feathers and fuel. Complete destruction seemed inevitable once we saw those flames quickly tickle everything in the vicinity. We gave up on the stove.
The rising sun helped to lift our spirits a little, but the cold remained. Realizing that we should have stayed in our bags, we peeked back into the tent. The condensation and sloppy camping practices had taken their toll, and crawling back into our little icy home did not seem like a great idea.
Things could not have been worse, and were it not for trying to save face in front of my partner, l might have cracked at that moment. An onslaught of tears welled up behind my sunburned face. Painfully cold fingers and toes slowed every motion. Retreat seemed the best option, but packing up again was impossible. Everything had grown soaked with water and was frozen. Perhaps we could hold creeping cold at bay by staying in motion?
Maybe, we reasoned, we could ski up the valley while things warmed up. Unfortunately, our wooden skis were in the same shape as our boots and tent – they, too, had soaked up water. Long hunks of frozen snow were now welded to their bases. Last night’s self-congratulations now felt badly premature.
The only option was to wait it out. Dragging the sleeping bags out of the sagging tent, we found a sunny spot, bundled up and climbed in. Hungry and cold, we waited. Hours later, the sun had made all things pliable, and we packed our belongings for a retreat. Miles later, we encountered a couple skiing up the valley on a morning tour. We scared them off the trail as we flew down it at the brink of control. Their question as we zoomed by stays with me today: “Are there any more like you up there?” l like to think the answer has stayed the same to this day. “No, nobody like us!”
Returning to town and school, we were heralded as young adventurers by some, and as idiots by others. l was reluctant to share the gory details with those that held us in high regard, worried about eroding our newly found status.
Even after living through the emotional and physical wear and tear of those early trips, it never occurred to me to quit. In fact, quite the opposite. l knew l needed practice, and I needed to acquire knowledge. l continued those adventures year after year. The appeal of being out there on my own, or with a friend, far outweighed the fear.
I snap back to reality, sitting in my garage reflecting again. The artifacts on the walls, including that little brown backpack, are pieces of my history, all those inanimate objects are strands that helped weave my life’s fabric. Who would know that skiing, backpacking and climbing, stumbled upon at such a young age, would create the framework for a lifetime? I genuinely hope that we can make the same impact for kids now. It is the simple transition from fear to confidence, and seeing them realize what is possible.
Matt Tredway is the head of Everything Outdoor Steamboat, a program founded with the intent to get kids to spend more time outdoors.