Snowed In

The view of the San Juan Mountains from this crest was incredible.

By sunrise over two feet of snow had collected on the north-side of the cabin, yet there couldn’t have been more than a quarter-inch on the south. The wind had been howling at over 50 empieches throughout the night, and scoured the frozen earth that was our door step. The remains were deposited between the cabin and the outhouse. Some even got inside the john when the door blew open during the storm. Add the fact that the underlying pit acts as a wind-tunnel and you’ve got yourself a pretty adventurous midnight pit-stop. A warm coat will keep your core and upper body warm while thick snow-pants and boots prevent the legs from trembling, but nothing protects the cheeks when you’re “ass-out” in a blizzard.

Not much snow on anything south-facing.

The only cracks in the cabin were minuscule and south-facing, and although they were hardly noticeable to the eye they still let in enough to allow a thin layer of ice to develop at the foot of my sleeping bag. Snow also penetrated the cracked rubber seals in the front door and accumulated in a small pile on the floor. Naturally, our bottom-bunk was against the southern wall and only six inches from the front door. Apparently the bed above us didn’t even require a blanket because – a) Obviously, warm air rises; and b) I’ll bet the cold air coming in at my legs was strong enough to force all the good stuff upward. But the wood stove did it’s job well, as it has for many years, and the air remained warm everywhere else. Except, of course, for those few combined hours between the fire dying and one of us waking up to re-stoke it. It can get pretty cold before someone finally takes initiative, but the more you brush it off and try to sleep through, the worse it gets.

Prep work

The next morning I rigged the wall and window with newspaper and duct tape. I assume my half-ass repair job will remain in place for years to come. It did the trick, and required minimal effort. As the saying goes, “If you can’t duct it, f*** it.” Speaking of simple solutions: What’s the best way to get a snowmobile out of a creek? And what if the track won’t spin because it’s full of rocks from that creek? Keep reading…I’ll get to those details in a bit.

Makin' it fly!

The previous evening we enjoyed a quick lap on a small summit across the meadow from where the cabin rested. It was the first line we noticed upon arrival, and being so close and accessible, we all wanted to have a go at it. From the crest, the views of the San Juan mountain range were insane. I wasn’t able to capture a photo because my camera was at the bottom with Ashton, but the mental note taken was written in script and with a Sharpie. The snow was packed firm and necessitated jump-turns toward the top of the ski, but the bottom was more forgiving. The ride out was long and tedious due to its variability, but great practice for the novice rider in our crew.

A quick evening ski.

This was Ashton’s first winter trip into the wilderness. Even with all the ruckus that went down this weekend, she’s still stoked to get out and do it again. Next time with a little more snowboarding, of course.

On our way home we eyed some nice north-facing glades across the meadow from where the cabin rests. With the approaching storm we knew the winds were likely to blow hard for the next day, maybe day-and-a-half. Tree-riding sounded like our only viable option, since anything with exposure was surely to be wind-blown. With regard to the beginner in the group as well as an all-around hunger for face-shots, we opted to save everyone the time and effort that skinning requires and to instead just shuttle laps with the snowmobiles. The approach to the top of the hill was mellow and we could enjoy multiple laps this way. Thing was, one of the sleds would need more anti-freeze if we planned on abusing that much power. And the anti-freeze was in the truck. At the trailhead. 15 miles away.

Prepping for the anti-freeze recovery mission.

Back to the first morning… We waited in anticipation for our friend to return safely with the anti-freeze. We waited and waited. And waited. Wondering, hoping, and trying not to imagine the worst. Little did we know the batteries in his radio had died almost immediately after leaving the cabin. We thought maybe he had gone to town with the truck. For gas, most likely. Or perhaps he was sitting at the diner enjoying a warm and greasy breakfast while snickering to himself. Wouldn’t that have been sweet? But neither were the case.

Awaiting a friend's safe return.

The snow had blown in so deep in some areas, and visibility was so poor, that he actually turned around after a few miles to head back. Shortly after he U-turned he got the sled stuck in a creek. It just sank through the snow. He spent half an hour digging it out, and finally prevailed. But only a few hundred feet after take-off, the same thing happened. This time there would be no liberation. Surely frustrated and by now beginning to feel chills, he proceeded to walk the 2.5 miles back to the cabin through thigh-to-waist-deep snow, sweating and miserable, likely pushing himself along with thoughts of a warm fire and the cup of mocha I promised him when he’d taken off into that blizzard almost four hours prior.

I’m sure there were regrets as well, because all imaginations tend to wander, but I hope they were only intermittent and sporadic between thoughts of the biscuits and gravy I was preparing, which were coincidently hot and ready when he finally came through the door. Although he was cold, wet and quiet, his silence spoke paragraphs. It was obvious what he had just endured, and he warmed himself by the fire while his breakfast slowly cooled. He sat calmly by the wood stove for the first ten minutes, only letting up with gasps of “I’m so sorry,” or “I shoulda never left the house.”

Into the shadows...our first and only evening outdoors.

An hour or so later, after recovering from the morning and warming the chilled bones, three of us marched off into the white abyss. No camera on this one. We were purely searching and recovering. The ladies were instructed to stay put, no matter what. Regardless of our return that afternoon, DO NOT LEAVE. The winds were too high and the visibility was too low for anyone to risk going anywhere. Of course, the three of us were the only exception. Our plan was to locate the sled and attempt to recover it. If not, we would mark it’s location with a large branch or other object to make it easier to find when the storm finally cleared. Sure enough, we found the snowmobile but unfortunately could not retrieve it. It was completely submerged in snow when we found it, and by the time we finally left you could have fit a full-size pick-up truck in the pit we had dug. After slogging around in that creek for almost an hour and feeling helpless against both the machine and the weather, we eventually gave up. The track was full of rocks from the creek bed and would not rotate. The thing wouldn’t even budge.

The sled was buried somewhere down in that creek bed.

As soon as we all agreed there were no more options available, our focus immediately changed to getting out and warming up. It was becoming colder and the sun would be setting soon – although we joked that lack of sun wouldn’t matter much because the visibility was already so poor. There would have to be a return trip for the snowmobile, and it was going to have to wait until the storm cleared and someone could come back with more resources. That would be another day. When we returned to the cabin we were exhausted, aching and dank. The walk was another one of those “…it’s just around this next bend” kind of treks. The snow was deep and heavy. The legs, worn and weak.

In the midst of all this I vividly remember pausing for a moment while breaking trail. I turned back and squinted my eyes, smiled and hollered out over the blazing winds. “At least we’re splitboarding! It’s nice just being out here, walking in the woods!” I sincerely meant every word, and my teammates were quick to concur, despite the looks on their faces that hinted otherwise. I probably wore a similar expression, but deep down I felt invigorated and robust. Thinking back, at the time I was well aware of the cabin’s distance and knew we would be indoors soon enough. Had I been lost or further into the storm, perhaps spirits wouldn’t have been so high. After all, it is pretty standard to feel an extra shot of energy when the finish line is just around the bend.

Snowed in...

While anticipating our return the girls had polished off a bottle of wine and each made good progress in their novels. The fire was roaring and the cabin was spick n’ span when we barged through the door. It didn’t take long to restore the place to its former state of wet and clustered. We apologized, but they were more than understanding. Recuperation required a large, hot meal and a certain amount of good beer. We shared stories about our own backcountry adventures and had some good laughs, and our tired minds soon wandered into the oblivion of our dreams.

Always remember: Good company fills any void, especially one that stems from uncertainty.

I love my splitboard.

The next day when we awoke the wind was still gusting at upwards of 40 mph. There was no way we would ride anything for pleasure today. Our only focus would be getting everyone back to the truck safely. The storm had not yet passed as we hoped it would, and our exit plan seemed a bit sketchy. The best idea we could muster was to skin the five miles to the “road”, which was usually groomed between storms, then shuttle individual trips to the trailhead on the remaining snowmobile. This plan would have worked, but we all would have been pretty worked. Breaking trail for five miles through fresh powder is a killer workout. Not to mention the rookie in the group, whose muscles just aren’t as developed for that type of exercise. And only one of us would have been lucky enough to skin five miles. The others would do at least that, if not 8-10. Once we reached the trailhead (which would have likely been after nightfall), I would then drive the three hours home in order to get two of us to work the next morning.

Skinning over to talk to the "neighbors".

None of us were looking forward to this day, but we all knew it would have to happen one way or another. The next big storm was on its way toward us, and it we didn’t get out immediately there may not have been another exit for at least a few days.

Luckily for us Southern Colorado boasts some of the finest citizens in the country, and a couple of stand-up guys came to our rescue. They were old friends of a friend of ours, and when they heard through the grapevine where we were staying they decided to strap up and come check on us. Sure enough we were in good need of some assistance.

The sun broke for the last hour of our ride out.

The clouds broke as we loaded our gear on their machines, and together we were able to ride in pairs/triples the entire way out. It was a long and bumpy ride carrying all that gear on such a rugged road, but much less strenuous than an all-day skin would have been. It was such a relief to rendezvous back at the trailhead with our entire group, all safe and sound. We had lost a snowmobile, but that was material. That can be replaced. The following storm arrived just as the sun set that evening, and as we drove away we witnessed the dark clouds disappearing on the horizon behind us. I pictured myself trekking slowly through the dark, one foot in front of the other, cold and miserable, with thoughts of warmth and comfort.

The Elwood Cabin

**The sled came out yesterday. It was hauled out by another more powerful machine, and required a lot of rigging, wiggling, man-power and ingenuity. Hopefully it doesn’t cost too much to repair.

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