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.