Wild winter retreat stories from our readers

From the Sierra Nevadas to the desert of Wyoming, HCN readers find adventure.

 

We asked readers to share their wildest winter retreat stories about unusual winter travels. Read the winning essays below.


Special thanks to Lowa Boots for sponsoring this contest.

Teenage hubris and impromptu mountaineering
In the winter of 1983, we found ourselves stranded in an ice cave in the Sierras.

By Tim Green

Location of event: Sierra Nevada

It was 1982, and there may have been a book in the local library warning of winter travel, avalanche danger and snow caves. But we were 17 years old and hadn’t read it. That might explain our ridiculously long alpine skis, ’80s-style race boots, deer-hunting-style hard-frame backpacks, borrowed snowshoes, Frostline ski coats, Army-issue wool “knickers” and our prized possession, a Svea 123 backpacking stove.

The winters of 1982 and ’83 were massive, back-to-back El Niño events in the Sierra, with waves of moisture-laden snow pummeling the range. Our March objective was to hike a 10,000-foot-high peak several miles from a moderately traversed Sierra pass. We plotted our route in much the same way as anyone else at the time, using a single topographic map, a few photos from a summer backpacking trip and a healthy heaping of teenage hubris.

Our packs were awkward and heavy. The ground we hiked to the base of the peak was windswept and brutal. By the time we began our climb toward the couloir we expected to ski the following morning, it was pitch-black and dumping snow. We worked into the night carving a snow cave for shelter. We were soaked by the time we crawled into our bags. And though a bit scared, we were utterly satisfied with ourselves.

We’d seen a National Geographic magazine or two. We knew people did this kind of thing. We just didn’t know any of them. During that sleepless night, dug into the side of a snow plastered Sierra peak, we felt like we were the only souls for a hundred miles. For us, that was the point.


Winter is the perfect time to retreat
A barren and lonely landscape offers the space to contemplate.

By Chad Hanson

Location of event: Red Desert, Wyoming

Two mule deer does and two fawns migrate as a group along the Red Desert to Hoback Migration Corridor in western Wyoming.
With regard to the frosty months of the year, Henry David Thoreau said: “The winter, cold and bound out, as it is, is thrown to us like a bone to a famishing dog, and we are expected to get the marrow out of it.” That’s a challenge, of course: Bone marrow hides inside a coat of white armor. The prairies of the West grow lonesome and even a bit ominous in the winter months. Wind, snowdrifts and cold keep people from venturing into the wide-open. The plains of Wyoming can feel empty in the summertime, but in January the term “barren” feels appropriate.

In some ways, that makes winter a perfect time to retreat, reflect and contemplate. The Inuit people speak in the language of ice, and they repeat an old saying, “Wisdom can be found only far from others, out in the loneliness.”

I retreat to the plains when the snow comes. I go in search of solitude — and horses. Wild mustangs represent the marrow locked inside the bones of a Wyoming winter. Seeking and finding them feels like a dream out of the Pleistocene, like looking skyward from the bottom of a box canyon: Deep time. Horses evolved on the North American continent. The last ice age cemented the gap between Alaska and Siberia. The bridge allowed horses to leave, and it also made it possible for people to migrate here from Asia.

People and horses have been passing each other as spectators in the snow for 15,000 years. It’s a tradition I am happy to uphold. At some point, the phrase “dead of winter” became a cliché. On the prairies of the West, however, winters do not die. Wild horses still live out there. They are the marrow. They survive — and in so doing, they provide. 


A moonlit, snow-dusted desert
Because they seem so improbable, snowstorms in the desert are arresting.

By Meghann Burke

Location of event: Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Kanab, Utah

Growing up in the Northeast, I was accustomed to and enjoyed snowy white winters. When I moved to the southern Utah desert seven years ago, I found it to be quite the opposite of what I've come to expect of winter over the years. So when it does snow out here, I find the stillness and silence of the desert during a snowstorm profound and absolutely memorizing.

Towards dusk, I drive to the sand dunes located in a state park not too far from my home. There, I stand in awe as the delicate flakes that are so fleeting fall and turn the brilliant orange dunes a soft white. Undisturbed, the snow turns the landscape into a puffy quilt. All you hear is your own heartbeat and quickened breath from the climb to the top of the nearest dune.

As I stare out into the depths of sand dunes and waning storm, my mind is completely still. My thoughts fall silent. I allow myself just to be. As the storm fades out and the moon peeks through the diminishing clouds, the dunes turn a soft silver and reveal my shadow on the ground. 

I strap on my gaiters, tighten my running shoes and take off down the dune and up the next. I feel completely exhilarated. No headlamp is needed here tonight.


The weathered hands of giants
On traversing Wyoming’s long winters.

By Joshua Ross

Location of event: Wyoming

East of the ranch, the desert is a series of ridges and tablelands and draws carved by intermittent streams. Most days, I walk up one of the ridges, starting from where they begin in the river bottom. It’s like walking up the fingers of a giant onto the backside of his hand: ridge to mesa to yawning draw.

Cresting a knob recently, a knuckle on the giant’s hand, I stared into the eyes of a bobcat dining on a mule deer fawn. Startled, the cat floated off through the sage and snowdrifts like a paper lantern. In the upper chest of the fawn there was a round vacancy where the heart and lungs had been. The ribs were broken into a halo where the cat had sunk its tiny whiskered face into the shadowy world of the body. 

Out here alone, I’ve walked to within a few feet of perched golden eagles. At my approach, they always lift off the ground, and for a moment before canting into the wind, float level with my line of vision, huge and tenebrous, sizing me up with their otherworldly eyes. By now they must recognize me, as I’m sure the crows do. Most deer still bound away, but some are growing accustomed to me.

This desert is a sliver of the cosmos where the tracks of wild animals are inlaid like runes among bunchgrasses and prickly pears in the volcanic dirt. During the long winters, it seems that nobody but me travels here. Swept by powerful winds and drilled by the sun, snow of any lingering kind is rare. Reddish earth woven by ancient game trails, the highest points are heaps of stones and hoodoo formations. Among them, I feel a prickling on my neck; to the hoodoos, I don’t often stray. A wanderer must have boundaries, too.


Winter’s old haunts
In the desert, abandoned homes and mines are ghosts.

By Marion MacDonald

Location of event: West Potrillo and Florida Mountains wilderness study areas

We live in Tucson, and the holiday frenzy always sends us fleeing into the wild lands close to the southern U.S. border. We left Tucson the day after Thanksgiving in the pouring rain. The night was bitterly cold, with temperatures below freezing and winds gusting to 45 mph.

The sun popped out on Saturday, but it was still cold and very windy. We headed for Kilbourne Hole, a crater that formed during a volcanic eruption as a result of the explosive interaction of hot basaltic magma with groundwater. On a cattle path that took us down into the crater, we found relief from the wind.

We camped that night in West Potrillo Wilderness Study Area, a series of more than 40 volcanic cinder cones interlaced with small sand dunes, playas and lava fields. Gazing across the blackened plains at sunrise, I told my friend, "I don't know what it is I love so much about this area. There's just something about it." "It's nothing," he said. "Just so much nothing."

Over the next three days, we approached the rugged and remote Florida Range from the west. We crawled along dirt tracks and through countless fences to hike to the mysterious remains of long-abandoned mines and ranches. One hike took us to a remarkably intact stone cabin in a saddle at 6,400 feet, with see-forever views stretching far into Mexico. Another lead to a mine where more than one investor lost a fortune, as so many in the Southwest did.

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