Food during the frontcountry portions of the trip is simple. Everyone alternates in helping to prepare food during these times but things get really interesting when you’re out in the outdoor portion of the trip. Here, since you’re in the cold, and, of course, near-freezing, unless you’ve planned well, you need to eat a lot more. Even if you’ve planned well and are warm, you still need to eat more food on this trip. None of our IIT scientists understand how it works, but its a fact of the trip, which means then that you need to bring as much food for the three days in the cold as you would for all of COR.
You end up pretty much eating or cooking pretty much continuously while you’re out in the cold. Unlike COR, where you’re lucky to have enough to eat and are always scrounging for the last smear of peanut butter out of a can or fighting to eat that last little bit of couscous, you bring an enormous amount of food, and there’s enough for everybody, with your leaders telling you to eat more. No more talking about efficiency, planning ahead, and thinking of the group. Here you’re trying to eat as much as possible to stay warm, adding butter to everything. You spend a lot of time cooking, but it gives more time for experimentation with things like Buttered Peanut Butter Pepperoni Chicken Alfredo, Buttered Butter, Buttered Pepperoni, Fried Brownies, and the like.
Related to food its important to note that water isn’t as simple to get as it was on COR for cooking and drinking. Instead of just filling up bottles from a stream and betadining you have to melt snow first. Yes, there is snow, by the way. At your campsite, you have a special area of snow “set aside” for melting, which you melt in water to avoid burning it. Supposedly you can “burn” snow if you just try to heat it in a pot. None of us had or have any idea of what that means, but you have to slowly add snow to a pot of water instead, a long process that usually requires one person to be working at all times. And it means you need a lot of fuel to run the stove all the time, too.
But one thing makes all this easier. Bears are hibernating in the winter, so there’s no need for a bear fence. Rather you can bring food anywhere and are in fact encouraged to do so. Go ahead leave it on your ice table, in your pocket, in your bag, in your sleeping bag. Your only concern is it or your water freezing as you have to start with melted water to melt more and you don’t want to spend longer melting your sausage than necessary. So most of us slept as if in a pantry, our sleeping bags lined with bags of sausage, chocolate bars, nuts in our pockets, and the like.
And midnight snacks, they’re almost mandatory!
But you have to have a place to do all this, so let’s talk campsites. Like COR you’re always on the move, always a sojourner, but on this trip only one of your campsites is outdoors, the rest of the nights spent in various churches around northwestern Wyoming. The outdoor component is made far easier by this singular nature but you’re encouraged to build up this campsite, partly for utility, optimized for you to stay warm, but also for various artistic purposes. Your campsite is supposed to be civilized, a point which was again and again hammered down as a focus by our instructors and something our group took on with full force.
Each group camps out somewhere east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in what is again the coldest part of the state. Eight campsites are scattered around within slightly rolling hills over a range of several miles. But again unlike COR, you don’t even have to far for this one campsite. The farthest campsite is two miles from the vehicle trailhead used, the closest one mile. Although it is a little harder to move around in the snow, there’s not just snow, but there’s a lot of it, covering the ground five feet high last year and possibly even more now. Without skis, you can’t get anywhere at all unless you dig tunnels or canyons through the snow.
Everything on your campsite is made out of it, packed down and hardened over for durability. During the first day of set up you spend most of the time packing it down, simply by piling up snow with shovels and then walking over and over on top of it for compression. A night of the cold begins a process of hardening and you’re left with a material to work with for the next day.
The next day you return from a final warm night in a nearby church basement, where you’ve been staying for the past few days and dig out from where you’ve piled up and compacted snow. You end up with two dig out piles of snow fifteen feet high on the outside with space for six people to sleep in each, a massive snow table with snow seats around it for a kitchen, a snow refrigerator (though it’s actually for keeping food from freezing…), and a snow chapel with a snow altar and possibly snow pews for Mass.
You can rush all this and do it rough, but there is a risk if you don’t make your campsite civilized. Slapping everything together so you can start cooking is tempting, especially given how much time you will have to spend cooking, but can lead to sagging, shoddy, and malformed buildings. Snow is strong enough of a building material that these aren’t existential risks to your group but they can be morale risks should other groups see a messy looking campsite and you become but a laughing stock. Jeremiah Davis Smith, one of my group’s leaders, saved us from this eventuality quite simply, pre-planning with 3D schematics, measuring everything out according to this plan before we started building with laser surveying tools, and then constructing and polishing off every corner and curve with professional ice-sculpting tools as gamma-ray laser cutters and electric sanders modified to be cordless and waterproof.
It worked well, but other groups worked even harder, trying not only to win the competition for the best chapel, the winner, of course, featured on the cover of the WCC Pigeonhole (but IIT is proud to be hosting images of this year’s winner!), but going a little far in everything. Their quinzees, for example, looked more like castles than piles of snow and were complete with atriums, separate rooms for each person, multiple kitchens and indoor storage for their excavators. It seems the use of these may have contributed a bit to their success, but it seems you can use whatever you want to in building your quinzees as long as they’re made out of snow and there are two of them, one for men and one for women, and the instructors declare them structurally sound.
A group two years ago, for example, decided to bring a crane along on the trip and construct not just the tallest quinzee ever, but one practically a snow tower. Simply put, the thing collapsed after several hours of work, almost risking the group to have to spend a night out without shelter. No one was hurt, but the mad rush to build a more regularly sized quinzee is something WCC doesn’t want anyone to have to try again, hence the new “all constructed objects must be structurally sound but destructible upon will” clause you will all find in your handbook guides to the trip.
Once you have a good-looking campsite, it’s time to use it. Your time out there is not just cooking and melting water as mentioned already, but there’s plenty of time to try out your skiing skills (on a figure-eight exercise path you’re told to construct), play Bunny-Bunny for hours, and go on short skiing excursions to visit some of the nearby campsites of other groups. When it becomes dark each night, groups congregate to spend hours playing games and talking inside their quinzees, before a final, late-night ski is required of all to work up a little internal heat before sleeping and ensure everyone goes to bed warm.
Sleeping is encouraged after all this, but unlike COR and its focus on efficiency and effectiveness, the Winter Trip handbook features one of the best lines ever written in the English language: “Sleep Until the Sun Warms the Earth”. It sounds like a line from some 1960 Beatles or Beach Boys song, but even if it isn’t, no one can deny that it’s poetic at least. Some of our more poetic staff members at IIT have tried to turn it into a full song, but the best part is again that it’s what they want you to do. Of course, they don’t mean sleeping in until spring, as you’re only supposed to be out there two days, but 8:00 or 8:30 was the interpretation most groups had of this line, and ohh was it glorious compared to those infamous alpine starts on COR or days when a “Driver” personality was LOD. It’s still cold, cold all the time, cold everywhere, but “feel that sun cumin’ and enjoy the heat that does come before repeating everything.
Inside the quinzees, if done right, they’re far from cold and are almost t-shirt environments. However, your sleeping bags, just to be safe, are the warmest the school has, and you have to bring two sleeping pads for insulation. No ones taking chances, as some people brought portable electric space heaters with them. But some again have found this trip to be warmer than COR, which makes our analysts wonder how badly they were dressed for it by comparison.
After two days and two nights or so of all this it’s time to get back to the frontcountry, where you are soon off to an indoor swimming pool. But first, the campsite has to be leveled, something for which its good to bring a few explosives or at least a bulldozer along as your snow buildings have continued to harden to ice and then to ice concrete and then to almost diamond-like toughness. Smashing everything down does take a while but is required to eliminate the danger these structures present. For if you don’t destroy your building when you leave, ice truckers driving through the area could run into your buildings blindingly get, trapped in the cavity within, and drown in the snow.
Now our drivers don’t go through this area anyway, and we use advanced peneradar systems to detect and avoid hazards and no one else should really be driving through that area at all (its not on the routes of any of our competitors). However, it seems this precaution is undertaken also to prevent others or animals from using your creations as they could soon become structurally unsound and you wouldn’t want to be responsible for their deaths should something happen.
Once everything you brought out with you is packed up and you’re again on the road (IIT, by the way, will be lending several ice trucks to WCC for Winter Trip this year for transport), you go to a pool for the afternoon as we said, and then go for a day of downhill skiing, where a class picture is taken, and then you return to Lander, following the fastest, most-intensely-rapid-fire quiz I or any of our class had ever experienced about skills taught during the week and from the handbook. Thank God for the conic curves you’re soon about to get to in Geometry as I don’t know how any of our grades could have survived without applying them. Dr. Zimmer may say Winter is like Finals Week for wildlife but it sure felt more like finals week for us during these brief academic portions.
Again just rejoice that they’re brief, and you’ll soon be back to regular classwork in Lander, as the regular semester classes start two days after you get back.