We were an inseparable team of eight determined to brave the Tongue Mountain Range in Lake George, NY. This mountain range is the home of giant rattlesnakes, unheard of elsewhere in the state, common in this one small location. As youtube videos of these creatures circulated, our crew dwindled to 7... 6... 5... And in the end only four of us scavenged the courage needed to face these deadly yet hibernating creatures. Me, two A's, and J gathered at my place Saturday morning and drove up into the hills.
Before we left, A2 called the local ranger to glean information about the area. When parking at the trailhead, there was nary a spot left, but only because one car parked the long way, and every other car followed suit. As we stepped out of the car, an officious green vehicle drove by and then screeched to a halt, hit reverse, and got out to greet us. As he and A2 approached each other, the ranger reached out as though to a long-lost pen pal, "You must be A2". Indeed.
Typically a ranger's job is to tell you to carry more safety gear, suggest things to watch out for, and shake his head condescendingly to make sure he gets his point across that a group is inadequately prepared and grossly over-estimating their abilities. This guy was the opposite. "Leave your tents in the car, you won't need 'em, you'll be the only people vying for the lean-to tonight". "You shouldn't bother bringing snowshoes. Microspikes wouldn't hurt in case it's icy, but you won't need snowshoes". (Even though the weather forecast was calling for a good 5-7 inches of snowfall). So on the recommendation of the ranger, we left half of our gear and all of our prudence in the car, and made our way up to the lean-to.
We quickly set to work gathering ridiculous quantities of dead, dry wood. A1 always brings the most amazing camping device ever invented: Lowe's Folding Saw. As A1 puts it, this thing is worth 10 times it's pack weight because few can resist taking it into the woods to give it a try. Pull that thing out of your pack, extol its abilities to the rest of the party, then sit back and relax, and watch the wood pile grow as everyone fights over who gets to fetch wood with it next.
During our approach to the top of the mountain, I had been bluffing about building a Quinzhee. Mostly I wanted to say the word Quinzhee. Quinzhee. Quinzhee. A Quinzhee is a simple snow cave. I'm not sure why one would ever build something like this. It's a hell of a lot of work. You end up soaking with sweat and completely exhausted by the time it's done. They say it's a survival shelter, but I'm pretty sure it's for suckers which I am. This day, there was only one problem. Only an inch or two of snow covered the ground, so this was going to be at best one of the make-shiftiest shelters ever. As I started digging, I found a small area where the snow was a little bit deeper than everywhere else, and chose this as my shelter location. I made huge swaths around the growing mound doggie digging in concentric circles until I had pushed all the snow from a 20-foot circle into a pile, with some help from J. The entire time, all seemed hopeless, but just as we swept the last few bits of snow on the pile, suddenly the mound took perfect (albeit minimal) shape for sleeping in. We stomped the snow into hard-pack before leaving it to sinter while we discussed our hiking plans for the day back at the lean-to.
A1 was in his happy place. Wanting nothing more than to enjoy the peace and quiet of the outdoors, he was ready to relax. J was ready to hike. We had plenty of daylight left, so there was little excuse but to go visit one of the nearby peaks. We took off hiking. A1 and J wore microspikes, A2 wore snowshoes, and I just had me hiking boots. As soon as we reached the first cliffy steep section, A2 stashed the snowshoes in favor of hiking without. The snow started coming down and leaving a giant blanket of perfect snowball ammunition everywhere. And I mean everywhere. After the first few snowball surprises, none went empty handed. The best defense is a good offence.
We made our way up to the first false peak, from which we had an impressive view of Lake George down below. We quickly pressed onward, and were faced with significant downhill twists and turns that our trail map gave no indication of. After climbing down a steep cliff, a beautiful cascade of glistening blue icicles presented itself, begging the child in us to destroy as much of it as we had the energy for. J and I couldn't resist the urge to hurl chunks of ice into the most vulnerable-looking sections, competing to create the most dramatic explosion of shattering ice. I'm pretty sure we all came out winners in this event. Except A1. Remember how he just wanted to relax at the lean-to? The look on his face said, "What are you 10? Let's get on with it already".
We continued to the second false peak, by which time it was getting late. We turned around with the real peak we were after looming overhead just a little further along. However, by now all of us were ready to return. The perfect packing snow collected into giant snowballs on the bottoms of microspiked feet. Nobody realized until the hike was over, but these subtle snowballs were causing no small amount of discomfort during the hike.
As exhausted as I felt, I did not want to waste all the energy I had spent building the snow pile earlier in the day to give up on what could be my one chance to check "Sleep in a Quinzhee" off my bucket list forevermore. So I grabbed a stick and hacked away at the mound. I spent 20 minutes and only dug two feet into the mound. I needed a tool. Back at the lean-to, I fetched the lid to my big cookpot. This turned out to be a magnificent Quinzhee-digging shovel. With my legs sticking out of the hole and my head in the middle of the hollow, I carved out 180 degrees of packed snow with every sweep of my arm. I had to crawl out and remove the shavings every once-in-a-while, but before long the snow cave was completed, and looked surprisingly livable. I stuck my sleeping pad and sleeping bag in the shelter, and returned to the lean-to for a well-earned evening around the campfire.
When bedtime came around, I crawled into my coffin-like shelter. Actually, a coffin would have been less claustrophobic than the Quinzhee. You can try to move in a coffin, but the walls will keep you trapped. In my snow shelter, I felt that if I made one wrong move, the whole thing would collapse and leave me half-naked and blind digging around the snowpile for my clothes, boots, glasses, and headlamp.
I tried sleeping for a while with my clothes on, but found that I carried enough sweat to give me a chill. I removed the damp clothes, but never felt quite warm throughout the night. My sleeping pad is only about half my height, and the sleeping bag is only rated for 20 degrees. A warmer sleeping bag or a longer sleeping pad probably would have made for a much more comfortable night. Oh, that and a larger Quinzhee.
I was really surprised to discover that the Quinzhee was brightly lit inside. Despite being completely bottled in an air-tight shelter with nothing but a small hole near my head... Despite being a thickly overcast night in the middle of the wilderness... Somehow a substantial amount of light reflected off the white snow everywhere and found it's way into my tiny home.
As I lay there trying to sleep, I heard a sound outside. That got my mind thinking about how horribly trapped I was. I have no idea where a rattlesnake would be sleeping right now, but maybe the same qualities that drew me to build my shelter where I did would be the same qualities that a rattlesnake would look for. Maybe I dug too deep and angered the cold-blooded killers. As we hiked earlier in the day, I watched a spider scuttle across the surface of the snow. It looked incredibly out of place, but I couldn't help but think when spiders were on the move, rattlesnakes couldn't be far behind. Or bears, for that matter. Angry, hungry, irritable bears, just out of hibernation. For them it would be like hitting the lottery to find a warm snow cave full of fresh meat. I slept with one ear open, listening for any toothy noses sniffing at the entrance to my hobbit hole where I lay utterly immobilized by my sleeping bag.
When morning came, I was the first one up at around 8:30am. We built a small fire, and had a long, leisurely breakfast and packed up all of our stuff. As a group we visited the Quinzhee one last time. It was time to test the structural integrity of the engineering marvel. I walked up the side of the hut and stood atop the roof as everyone gawked in disbelief that the roof didn't give. J approached and stood by my side. Then A1. Finally A2. We now have pretty close to 600 pounds sitting on a 6-inch ceiling of snow and the structure is showing no signs of weakness. After a certain amount of targeted stomping, I punch a boot through. Next J takes a flying leap and topples the castle once-and-for-all.
The journey home begins. The time is noonish and the weather is a balmy 40 degrees. The snow from the treetops is melting steadily, dropping little slushballs throughout the woods. Deer tracks perforate the landscape, perfectly preserved in the wet packing snow. We see one huge set of fresh tracks along the way. The trail is soft and steadily downhill, making for a pleasant and easy hike. Too pleasant and easy. Our guard is down, so that when we reach a long stretch of icy trail we are caught totally unawares. First I slowly slide to my butt and slide slide and don't stop. I am making my way down the trail, covering a surprisingly long distance slowly but uncontrollably careening towards A1. "Look out!!!" I yell. Not long after that, A1's feet fly up into the air. The other three of us have several seconds to stare as he pauses in midair before landing hard but safely on his butt and backpack.
Before long we are at the car, to our homes, and back to work the next day. Even after a lifetime of hot showers and heated homes, the body adapts quickly to spending a few days in freezing temperatures. The body is not so quick to get re-acclimated to life in the modern world upon returning. Chills, sweats, and dehydrated lips will be the norm for a while, but such is life in the Quinzhee.