Winter Serendipity

    During the 1980's, while undergoing mountaineering search and rescue training with the Nordic Ski Patrol at Ricks Basin in the Tetons, we worked in pairs in completion of a nighttime map and compass route to locate, evaluate and prepare simulated "victims" for extrication from back country emergencies. We also practiced belaying of injured people from difficult situations. After constructing snow cave in a large drift for a two night bivouac and getting up a meal, we received our course assignments. I had been on a couple of these and had skied both in moonlight and with no illumination other than the faint haze of our Milky Way galaxy. There is probably no earthy experience through which one can gain a more impressive sense of the scale of the Universe and its majesty than being able to navigate in such a realm by the soft reflected light of stars so numerous and far away that they are just a soft haze. At the same time, the experience can be a bit scary, with the feeling of exposure this scene presents. I wanted to grab hold of something to keep from floating off into eternity, but for the assurance of the earth's gravitational field.
   In addition to the injury stations, we had a couple sites that required starting a fire with one match, from whatever natural material was available. It made you plan out the fire bed before striking the match.It was fun. There is a rather strange and relaxed sensation when skiing in such a quiet and subdued light, without the glare of daytime and prominent objects. At one point, while I was skiing cautiously through an opening in the forest, my skis suddenly went out from under me and I was sliding down a slope on my rear. I ended up in what was probably a snowbound creek bottom. It all happened in such quiet motion that I felt no undue anxiety. In the subdued light I had been unaware of a slight change in the angle of slope and got a gentle toboggan ride. Using a technique common in traversing slopes, I climbed back out with a forward, side-step method and continued the course. Later, with everybody safely back in camp, we settled into our snow caves for a very quiet and - secluded - night. There is probably nothing quieter and more isolated than the natural insulation of a snow cave. We plugged the entrance with our packs and kept a hole in the snow roof, so, if it snowed during the night, we would have air circulation. A single candle will suffice to read by and even produce some heat. Whatever the outside temperature, the cave will remain relatively warm. Sculpting a curved ceiling will prevent dripping during the night from melting and funnel it down along the sides, away from the bags, which are placed on a raised snow platform, allowing the coldest air to channel itself along the floor. A well constructed snow cave will make up for the time and labor of building it and can be virtually invisible from the outside in deep snow.