Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory. – Ed Viesturs
Do you really want to go into the backcountry alone?
Jack London opens his short story “To Build a Fire” with the words, He travels fastest who travels alone. In the off chance that you do not know how that one ends, now is the perfect opportunity to find out.
Why partner up? There are two big reasons:
- A partner serves as a voice to help keep you honest about i) navigation ii) your physical condition iii) cutting the planned route short iv) whether you need to hunker down for the night before things take a turn for the even worse.
- If you suffer an injury, a partner is able to i) provide first aid ii) help you remain mobile, if your condition allows iii) put in a call for SAR, if you have been rendered unconscious and signal communication is available iv) walk out to alert a SAR team of your condition if signal communication is not an option.
The questions you should ask yourself.
Now, some would say that you should never go into the backcountry alone in the winter. At a minimum, you should ask yourself the following questions.
Are you planning on going into avalanche country or on making the Presidential Traverse?
If you are considering a trip anywhere there is a danger of an avalanche, or if you are considering a strenuous and unpredictable journey like the Presidential Traverse, then the emphatic answer is, “No, you do not want to go alone!” It is as simple as that. If you know anything about either of the two then you already know that, of course. But it bears mentioning just in case you do not.
How are your landnav skills?
Unless your answer is, “Good to excellent,” you do not want to go out alone. And I mean good to excellent with a map and compass, not with a GPS and/or smart phone. Batteries die, cloud cover interferes with satellite signals, and there may or may not be cell reception out in the woods. Subscription to iNeverSolo or SPOT is certainly recommended, but do not forgo the analog navigation aids, regardless.
Do you own proper winter boots and gloves/mitts?
When the body starts to chill it prioritizes blood flow to the vital organs and extremities are left to fend for themselves. Your footwear is arguably your most important piece of cold weather gear, because if your feet go so does your ability to walk. A hefty pair of gloves or mitts is important to maintain the sort of finger dexterity to do things like, well, build a fire, and to keep your hands from turning into blocks of frozen meat if you end up out for the night.
Can you build a snowcave?
If not, you need to learn before going out. A snowcave will not keep you comfortable, but it will keep you alive. As with a knot, it is something you need to be comfortable making long before you need it. Imagine yourself cold, hungry, and anxious. That is not a good first time to do anything, much less something your life depends upon.
Can you build a fire?
And I mean in the snow and wind, out of wet wood, and with numb fingers. As with building a snowcave, you need to know how before your life depends on it.
Do you own a stove?
Chances are that should you end up hunkered down for the night that you will have run low on water and will need to melt snow to stay hydrated, and proper hydration is a key to staving off hypothermia. Warm liquid is a great physical and mental comfort, and tea or coffee can help deliver caffeine to fend off sleep through the night.
Do you own a puffy layer and a Mylar blanket?
A space blanket weighs next to nothing an takes up very little space. Puffy layers—or belay jackets, if you want to be jargony about it—come in two varieties, down fill and synthetic fill (PrimaLoft being perhaps the most common type). Down fill jackets compress down more than synthetic fill jackets and have the superior warmth-for-weight ratio of the two. Down insulates poorly when wet, however, so if you go that route, be sure to keep your jacket stowed in a dry bag. And there is no harm in stowing a synthetic jacket in a dry bag. They do insulate better than down when wet, but not as well as when they are dry.
Do you have a pack to carry it all in?
Something I discuss at length here. Owning and knowing how to use all of the kit above obviously does you no good if you can not carry it with you.
Have you told someone when to start to worry?
If you are convinced that you are able to give satisfactory answers to all of the above, there is a final and non-negotiable task. Find a conscientious person you trust and do the following:
- Hand and/or email her or him a copy of your planned itinerary.
- Tell him or her when to expect a call from you.
- Let her or him know what to do if that call does not come.
The cold has a force all its own. You can negotiate with fatigue, and hunger, and pain. You can not negotiate with the cold. Surviving an unplanned night out will convince you of that fact. But experience is a hard teacher. First she gives you the test, then she gives you the lesson. If you want to go easier on yourself, I suggest one or more of the following readings.
Giesbrecht, Gordon G., and James A. Wilkerson. Hypothermia, Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries: Prevention, Survival, Rescue and Treatment. 2nd ed. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2006.
Howe, Nicholas S. Not Without Peril: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire. 1st paperback edn. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2001.
London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” The Century Magazine 76 (August 1908): 525–34.
Roberts, David. Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Stark, Peter. “As Freezing Persons Recollect the Snow–first Chill–then Stupor–then the Letting Go.” In Outside 25: Classic Tales and New Voices from the Frontiers of Adventure, edited by Hal Espen, –49. New York ; London: W. W. Norton, 2003.