It was 13 degrees, snow whirlpooling in 50-mile-an-hour gusts around us. Looking to Bill, I said brightly, shouting, really, so he could hear me under layers of fleece and wool, “All we need to do is stay warm!” I buckled the hip belt of my backpack. “Our only job is temperature regulation.”
“Yeah,” Bill shouted back. “I’ve been thinking about not freezing to death all morning.”
We’d hatched the plan for this trip the week before. It was January, dark and cold. We needed a date. Just the two of us. Something surprising. Something to break the torpor of midwinter and mid-marriage.
“Think about it,” I’d said to Bill. “Our only task would be to stay warm.”
Twenty years ago, when both spontaneity and winter felt as if they’d last forever, I’d headed out into winter’s wilds with some regularity — to the Whites, Gaspé, the Adirondacks, the Rockies. When Bill and I started dating, I’d brought him along, though only once in deepest winter.
Bill is a self-declared fair-weather camper. But he also runs about 10 degrees warmer than I do, toasty and chipper in our 61-degree morning kitchen wearing nothing but boxers and a T-shirt, while I shiver and shuffle in wool hat and sweater, slippers and flannel pajamas. When I lean in for a hug, resting cold hands on his side, he jumps, but doesn’t move away. He’s game like that.
Now, set to climb above Vermont’s Bolton Valley to the Catamount Trail in Mount Mansfield State Forest, with wind chill at 13-below, I couldn’t make out Bill’s expression, his face and head covered by snow-frosted goggles and his hat pulled low. So I asked how he was doing. Happy and warm, he yelled as he buckled the second of his two hip belts, one for his pack, the other for our pulk, a tricked-out sled stabilized by poles, harness, and molded fiberglass runners.
Once upon a time, when our children were still packable, they’d filled the pulk’s cargo hold, warm water bottles snugged between their bundled feet during ski tours that pretty dependably lasted the length of a nap.
This day, our children, 12 and 14 and busy at school, my mother on duty for the night, our pulk was filled with the gear we’d need for our date, the weight of approximately four sleeping babies: two tarps; an avalanche shovel; a small saw; one two-person, four-season tent; two inflatable sleeping pads; two padded fleece-topped covers; food for at least two days; first-aid kid; repair kit; toiletries; a two-quart thermos filled with hot ginger tea; kitchen and cook-kit with matches, lighter, utensils, pot, plates, cups; a stove; fuel for the stove; extra fuel for the stove.
In our backpacks, we carried sleeping bags, rated to 20-below; a stuff sack apiece filled with extra clothes — base layers, socks, glove liners, overmits; a fold-up foam pad; more hot water; chemical hand warmers; extra lighter; extra matches. We’d spent a good part of the week organizing and packing the gear and supplies that would protect us from hypothermia, or worse.
But it wasn’t the packing, critical as it is for winter camping, that pressed on us pre-trip. It wasn’t rejiggered dropoffs and pickups and meetings. It was the weather. If we timed it right, it looked like we’d have a two-day window before a deluge of soaking rain and temperatures in the 50s moved in.
These 48 hours promised winter as we’d first loved it, with twirling winds and glittering snow. The sort of days, I imagined, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard had in mind when he wrote, more than 50 years ago: “A reminder of winter strengthens the happiness of inhabiting.”
And, indeed, as we climbed, winter shone before us in every direction. Skipping flocks of black-capped chickadees sing-songed in protected snow-draped boughs. The trail rose, then dipped, our skis, lined with synthetic climbing skins to prevent us from sliding backward, tracking quietly in dry, light powder.
In less than two hours, just as promised by Amy Kelsey of the Catamount Trail Association (whom I’d called for information) and our topo map, we came upon a flat, open stretch of yellow birch, spruce, and beech. We’d seen not a soul since leaving the parking lot at Bolton Valley’s Nordic center. There was not a breath of wind. We dropped our packs. Bill released himself from the pulk. I thanked him. He thanked me. We were thankful.
Then we were moving. Taking action before temperature change took hold, we pulled out the clothing we’d removed during our climb and layered up, our shells serving as a synthetic facsimile of the outer feathers protecting a bird’s downy undercoat. To warm up from the inside out, we drank half our ginger tea. We dug out our headlamps and pulled them over our hats for later use.
For now, the woods were lovely, light, and deep. In places, as in all healthy forests, they were also dead and dying. For several warming minutes, we glided through the trees, debating our options, until we agreed on a flat spot far from trunks or limbs that looked likely to topple or snap, crushing us in our tent, should the wind kick up. Orphan makers, we laughed, sort of uncomfortably.
We spread out a tarp, set up the tent, a sunny tangerine deal with crossed poles to stabilize against wind and heavy snow and crescent-shaped vents to mitigate condensation at either end.
As we worked, we checked in with each other. “How you doing?” “You warm enough?” The sun was setting, and, knowing that roughly 3.5 degrees vanish with every 1,000 feet in elevation gained, we figured temps were probably below 10 degrees. I felt the bite of the deepening cold on my nose and cheeks, fingertips and toes. Unlike the chickadees we’d admired along the trail, small birds whose ratio of surface area to body mass means rapid heat loss, I can’t drop my core temperature at dusk, stretching fat reserves to get me through the night.
After gathering the stuff sacks I’d need from the sled and leaving boots under the vestibule fly at the door, I crawled into the tent, another insulating layer, to make our bed.
Sitting on the foam pad, I slipped on waterproof, Gore-tex-soled down slippers. I blew up our sleeping pads, tucked them inside the padded, fleece-topped liners, which I then snapped together. I pulled our down sleeping bags from their stuff sacks and fluffed them for maximum loft. From a loop sewn into the tent ceiling, I hung a small lantern. Into pockets stitched into the tent walls, I snugged insulated water bottles, our map, and, then, taking the folding foam pad with me, I crawled out and into the night.
Far enough for sparks to cool before reaching the tent’s meltable fly, Bill had kindled a fire, having found plenty of dead, downed twigs and small limbs to burn. A few feet from the fire, he’d set up our stove, scarcely bigger than an ice cube when folded for transport, but when screwed to a fuel canister and turned to high, able to bring a pot of potato leek soup to a boil.
Bill, family cook and shopper, had laid out paté, Camembert, red wine, and a crusty loaf of bread. Glittering sparkles of snow frosted our feast as we ate. The fire warmed fingers and noses and toes. An owl called. Just once. “Did you hear it?” we asked each other in surprise. We nodded our bundled heads, giddy and awestruck, like kids. And then not. Yes, there is warmth in the cold, and also cold in the warmth.
In the morning, after hot coffee, oatmeal, and fruit, we packed up. Leaving the pulk and one of our backpacks stashed, we set out to explore. It had snowed lightly all night, four inches or more. Together, alone but for two other skiers who zipped past on a hill, we climbed at a leisurely, low-sweat pace. Through open glades and fragrant spruce narrows, we skied and talked, catching glistening views of Cotton Brook Valley and North Ridge, the Long Trail somewhere there along the spine, bright in the morning light.
At noon, we stopped for lunch — hot tea, sausage, more cheese, and heart-shaped caramel chocolates wrapped in cherry-red foil. Then, gleefully, we stripped the climbing skins off our skis. We flew down what we’d skinned up in a quarter of the time, shooting off into glades, whooping and calling in praise of the day’s perfect snow. January, we laughed.
The night before, neither tired nor cold, we’d stayed up later than probably even our kids had, our bags zipped together, our boot liners and shell layers drying and warming at our feet. The tent had glowed in ember blush, backlit by a full moon making light even through the heavy clouds.
We fell asleep easily and slept soundly, though at one point in the middle of the night, I was awakened with a start when a layer of snow slipped with a swish off the tent roof. I reached with warm hands for Bill’s and, puzzled, realized his hat had come off. “Here,” I whispered after rummaging for the missing hat, “put this on.” He pulled the hat onto his head, then slipped his cold hands into mine, the snow still falling outside.
Catherine Buni, a writer who lives in central Vermont, can be reached at catherinebuni.com.