by Andy Dappen

Nightfall was dropping like a curtain over the snowy ridge we were skiing. Tom Janisch and I were peering over a short drop we could jump but could probably not re-climb. Beyond this impediment, it was impossible to see in the dimming light what other obstacles we would encounter on the ridge below.

“If we jump this there’s probably no turning back,” I told Tom. “I’m not sure I’m willing to commit to that.”

Tom wasn’t sure either. There was another 2,500 vertical feet of steep skiing below us and we didn’t have a rope to descend other crags like this one that might block our passage. To push on might land us in a purgatory with no sensible line down and no reversible line back.

“Let’s bivvy here,” Tom suggested. “When we can see down the ridge in the morning, we’ll have a good idea of whether we can ski it or whether we should backtrack.

We dragged provisions from our day packs and prepared for the long night ahead…which is when we discovered that we were ill-prepared to weather the elements. The good news was our silnylon tarp that would cut the wind, trap some of our heat, and shelter us from falling or blowing snow. The bad news was the fire we were counting on to stay warm was not so easy to build in winter. Here at the 5,000-foot level, five feet of snow covered all the fallen wood we could normally collect from the ground. The dead wood we could find was still connected to trees, and was so springy and limber that after 10 minutes we had gathered a very scant pile. It was apparent we needed a small pruning saw to harvest firewood in winter.

Furthermore ,even if we could collect wood, containing our fire was going to be a problem. With so much snow, digging down to ground level was a problem, yet building a fire on top of the snow would see it disappearing into a hole of its own making. Finally, if we did get a fire going, how were we going to melt water to slake our thirst and refill our empty water bottles? In an all-out emergency we could melt snow on the blade of one of our aluminum shovels, but neither of us wanted to ruin an expensive shovel.

In the end we gave up on this bivouac, retraced our route, collected water from a stream on the return, and found ourselves back at the car at 3 a.m. But what if injury, fatigue, getting lost, or severe weather had actually forced us to spend the night out? The incident illustrated weaknesses in our preparedness for winter emergencies here in the Cascades. As a result, I’ve added a few items to my pack that other winter adventurers might also consider:

Silnylon Tarp. Whether you call it freezing, exposure, or hypothermia, getting shelter to conserve heat is the most immediate concern of a wintertime bivouac. A 6-foot by 8-foot tarp weighing 12 ounces will protect 2 to 3 people in a pinch, while a 8’x10’ tarp weighing just under a pound will shelter 3 to 5 people huddling together during a forced night out. There are many ways to configure a tarp depending on wind, weather, anchorages, and whether you’ll be building a fire close to the roof sheltering you. More about pitching tarps.

Left: saw blade with improvised duct tape handle and duct tape sheath (total weight 2.7 ounces). Middle: reliable firestarter. Right: eight-inch folding saw (weight with original handle, 6 ounces). 

Pruning Saw. Here in the Cascades we’re usually near or below tree level and fire is a realistic option for warmth, comfort, and survival in the event of a bivouac. The problem, as illustrated by my story, is collecting burnable wood that isn’t buried under the snowpack. Which is where a folding pruning saw with an 8- to 10-inch blade comes in. You can carry the entire saw but the slimmer, lighter solution is to get a high-quality saw blade, wrap the handle area with some duct tape to create a thin handle, and to make a sheath for the blade from tape as well. This leaves you with a very flat but effective cutting tool you can nestle along your pack frame that takes up virtually no extra space and weighs less than 3 ounces. I recommend the razor-tooth blades and saws made by Corona that are available locally at Lowes or Home Depot. Look for the razor-tooth blade of the RS 7360 from Corona, a 10-inch pruning saw, or the razor-tooth blade from an 8-inch folding saw like the RS 7255.

Lightweight steel baking pans from The Dollar Store (weight 5 ounces). Pan on right has had corners snipped and flattened for transport.

Firepan. With our deep Cascadian snowpack, keeping your fire from tunneling downward is sometimes a problem. You can build your fire on a flat rock sitting on top of wood joists that keep the rock from sinking once it heats up. But good rocks are often hard to find in winter, so a thin steel firepan weighing 5 to 6 ounce is useful when there are no rocks to be found. Such a pan can be crafted from a square or rectangular baking pan purchased either at the Goodwill or The Dollar Store. Use tin snips to cut the corners of these pans so the sides can be folded down flat. This makes a slim package that also nestles in against the frame of your pack and takes up negligible space.

Firestarter. Recently during a test to see how well my winter fire kit worked, I discovered my cheap lighter (a Bic) and my firestarter (a one-inch square of inner tube) were failing in the cold, breezy conditions of the test. Winds are a realistic possibility in a true emergency, so a reliable firestarter for harsh conditions is important. Now I’m carrying a few packets of firestarter purchased a Lowes (see picture above). I can ignite the wrapper of these small packets and they will burn quite effectively even in a strong breeze. Drop the packet in the fire pan, pile on some small branches, and a fire is burning fast.

Pot options. Left pot (capacity slightly over 1 liter) slides into the bottom of a stuff sack and can have spare clothes packed into and on top of it. Right pot (capacity about 2 cups) could be packed with spare socks and gloves inside it and spare clothes packed around it.

Metal Pot. Having a means to melt and heat water is the next critical task once a fire is built. Not only are you likely to need drinking water, but hot water can also be poured into water bottles that are then slipped under your coat to keep you warm. If necessary, the blade of an aluminum avalanche shovel could be sacrificed to the cause, but I’m now carrying a pot (without the lid) that’s an exact fit for sliding into the stuff sack used for carrying spare clothes. The pot slides into the bottom of the stuff sack and spare clothes are crammed into and on top of it. This adds 4 to 5 ounces of weight (use either aluminum or titanium), but adds virtually no volume to the load.

All this preparedness doesn’t make me enthused about spending a winter’s night out dosing around a smoky fire that will need tending throughout the interminable winter hours of blackness. Those of us who are out and about frequently, however, know that, occasionally, some roll of the dice will have us spending an unexpected night out. Now I’m much better equipped for the next time Tom and I find ourselves in a stupid place at stupid time.

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