Ancillaries for Adventure – by Mark Rauschenberger
My favorite short story, unequivocally, is Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (Read it HERE). In it, London describes a headstrong man’s battle to survive against the harshest of winter elements when his foolhardy voyage across the great Yukon wilderness goes off the rails. Although not completely analogous to the backcountry adventures we might experience today, the general “man vs. nature” theme is one with which we as skiers can all identify. The lesson I take from this story every time I read it is to always be prepared for the unexpected. The reality is that each time we set foot in the backcountry, be it a serious multi-day ski tour or something as benign as slipping into the forest through a resort’s access gate, we are our own rescue team. Beyond the Holy Trinity of backcountry equipment, the beacon, shovel, and probe, there are a handful of additional items that can come in quite handy when a skier ventures beyond the boundaries of a resort. A well-thought-out pack will help ensure ease of travel, and when (more hopefully, if) the shit hits the fan, the items outlined below can be literal lifesavers.
As the man in London’s “To Build a Fire” discovers, there is nothing more crippling on a cold winter’s day than being wet. One solid tomahawk down a pillow line and your every exposed orifice is packed with snow. Spare items such as gloves, hat and goggles can mean the difference between heading back to the trailhead or skinning up and taking another lap.
Snow saws are routinely overlooked and I have often found myself as the only person in my group who has packed one. They’re extremely versatile and the savvy skier will find a list of uses for them. A primary use, obviously, is to cut snow. They’re great for making neatly shaped pits to check snow stability. Also, they’re great for cutting blocks to be used in a snow shelter or as a base for a cheese-wedge kicker. Likewise, a snow saw will make short work of tree branches and small trunks if you need to build a fire or provide added insulation to your snow shelter.
Although much less mechanical in nature than, say, a mountain bike, a touring setup does have a handful of moving parts. These moving parts, with use, have a tendency to break. It is important that your multitool include both phillips and flathead screwdrivers, a sharp, locking blade, and stout pliers. With this collection of rudimentary tools, a skier is able to solve many of the mechanical quandaries that could present themselves.
The member of your group with the foresight to carry a section of rope will always be remembered as a clairvoyant hero if ever an emergency situation arises. A jack-of-all-trades, the rope has myriad uses. With skis used as an anchor, a rope may be tied to a skier who cross-cuts a slope. Two skiers may use a rope to, from either end, cut a cornice and drop it on a suspect slope to test stability. In the event of an injury, the rope can be used to fashion a sling or a tourniquet. Additionally, in conjunction with salvaged wood, a makeshift splint is a possibility in the field.
The centerpiece of London’s short story referenced above, fire is both a primitive and priceless commodity in the depths of winter. Sometimes, after a long slog into a remote zone, all you want to do is sit around a fire with your friends. You have used your snow saw to dissect a fallen Lodgepole Pine and arranged the wood in a pit, now it’s time to start the fire. What did you bring? Lighters are unreliable. Matches are susceptible to moisture and don’t burn very long. The most reliable option is a piece of flint and a vaseline-soaked cotton ball. A seemingly antiquated method, the genius lies in its simplicity. The flint and steel provide a quick spark that is easily caught in the vaseline-soaked cotton ball. The hydrophobic effect of the petroleum jelly keeps the fibers of the cotton ball dry even when completely submerged in water and doubles as fuel to keep a sufficient flame burning for several minutes. Next thing you know, you and your friends are basking in the warmth of the flames miles removed from any faint signs of civilization.
Another fire-related item worth carrying is a candle. Small and lightweight, you will almost assuredly forget that it is even there. In the event that you need to spend the night in the backcountry, you can dig a snow cave and light your candle. The small flame sheds useful light and provides enough heat to warm the entire shelter. I have personally experienced temperatures as high as 30 degrees fahrenheit inside the shelter while the conditions were well below zero outside the cave’s thick, snowy walls.
On a stormy day in the backcountry it is terrifyingly easy to lose your bearings. Snow-blind, bereft of reference points, and generally disoriented, a backcountry traveler can quickly become crippled by anxiety. Carry a compass. Your lighthouse in a stormy sea, the compass’ needle will help you make informed decisions by arming you with reliable information.
Cell towers are multiplying at a rate usually reserved for rabbits. That remote peak you’ve been eyeing for the past three years probably has reception at the summit. In the event of a serious mishap, your cell phone can be used to pinpoint your location and fast-track emergency extraction. In addition to the pragmatic reasons for carrying a cellular device, iPhones double as damn good cameras. Pics or it didn’t happen? Now there is photographic proof that you reached the summit. An important note: make sure to utilize your phone’s airplane mode when carrying it in the backcountry, only using the network if a call is necessary. Not only will this preserve battery life, it will keep your phone from interrupting your beacon’s signal in the event of a burial.
The vessel into which all of this gear fits. There are a plethora of options, so choose one that best fits your needs. I prefer something that is slim enough to be comfortably worn on a chairlift, has enough space to carry a day’s worth of supplies, and features an Avalung. Another important feature is a separate snow-tool compartment. This keeps your emergency equipment neatly organized and separated from the rest of your gear so you aren’t wasting precious time digging for tools.
The greatest tool we posses, however, is sound decision making. Without it, none of these implements will be of any use. Be certain to always mitigate risk and think three or four steps ahead of every situation. Mistakes are compounded exponentially when you are miles away from help so exit strategies and plan b’s are worth their proverbial weight in gold. Also, take great care to be humble. As outlined by London’s story, hubris is a dangerous characteristic. The backcountry is a wild and beautiful place, and we are but visitors. Do not to let her pristine veil beguile you, the dangers that lie beneath are ubiquitous and grave. Travel wisely, travel safely, and ensure that you will be able to come back and enjoy this primordial dreamland again and again.
Words – Mark Rauschenberger
Photos – Chris O’Connell