Drew Tabke shows a few tricks and techniques from his recent backcountry expedition in Alaska on how to set up a bomber camp in the snow.
IN LATE APRIL I spent 11 days snow camping in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska with the ultimate goal of climbing and skiing some big peaks in the area. Though we’d never undertaken a trip like this an environment as extreme as what we encountered in Alaska, my partners — Chopo Diaz and Claudio Vicuña — and I all had extensive experience living in snowy environments elsewhere in the world.
Thanks to this experience, extensive planning, and the right gear, we had a comfortable and successful trip. Here are some photos and advice on living like royalty in the kingdom of the gods.
Off the grid non-sustainable living
We brought three tents: one North Face VE 25 (2-3 person), a North Face Mountain 25 (2 person), and a Black Diamond Mega Light (floorless single pole). Claudio and I shared the larger tent. The tradeoff for sharing space is a tent that is warmer at night vs. more space when you're by yourself. Chopo had privacy but was a little colder. We excavated benches, a table, and storage space under the shelter of the Mega Light, which served as our cooking tent, living room, and shade from the sun on the hottest days.
Chopo Diaz and a $500 grocery receipt
Chopo Diaz shows off the receipt with all the food our group of three would take with us into Glacier Bay National Park, AK, where we would snow camp and ski for 10-14 days. Before we went by ferry from Juneau to our departure point in Haines, we purchased all provisions and remaining gear to save money and to guarantee we'd get just what we needed. We sat down together, planned out 14 days worth of meals, snacks, and the necessary fuel for cooking food and melting snow for water, and hit the town's enormous Fred Meyer. $500 later we were ready to go, loading all the provisions into my North Face Base Camp duffel.
I'm... Waiting for my man...
Lou Reed was waiting for his drug dealer when he sang those words. We were waiting for someone to deal us a high of our own, pilot and proprietor of Fly Drake, Drake Olsen. Here Chopo and Claudio sit on the runway in Haines with our small mountain of gear, while another group organizes their loads out of the pickup trucks behind us. Though we felt our load was extremely heavy, Drake told us we had packed pretty light compared to some groups. We were three people taking enough whiskey for two weeks, while other groups as large as seven people might take enough beer for a month. It took Drake two flights with his ski plane to bring us and our ~300lb load 60 miles west to the Morse Glacier.
The pain! The horror!
Typically people assume snow camping must be uncomfortable and cold the entire time. On the contrary, a well-built camp with the right gear can be as luxurious as the Hotel W. First, we spent extensive time tamping down flat snow platforms with our skis and feet as a few odd lumps can ruin an otherwise-comfortable bed. We put a tarp under each tent to keep the floor dry. A good 4-season tent like those we used has two walls, a bomber anchoring system, vestibules on two sides to keep the entry dry and store gear, and vents to allow circulation and prevent condensation. Our beds consisted of inflatable pads on top of foam pads. Finally, a 0° rated down sleeping bag.
To wall or not to wall?
We built the most prominent snow wall on the north-northwest side of our camp, as we decided that a typical weather pattern would send storms sweeping down upon us from the Gulf of Alaska. But, actually, due to an unusual southerly flow, most of the precipitation and wind that we received came from the opposite side. Even this weather was mercifully mild and we only had to clear snow from around our tents a handful of times. Quite the difference from horror stories we'd heard from other groups about battling storms night and day for weeks on end, tents collapsing under the force of snow and wind.
Nightlife on the glacier
Chopo and Claudio hang out in the kitchen tent after dinner. Two candles create an amazing amount of light and warm the tent up impressively well. An iPod that we kept charged with solar panels provided the soundtrack for eating chocolate and drinking whiskey and tea. Foam pads lined the benches and also served as a floor for whoever was standing at the cooking table - a trick Chopo showed us that kept our feet much warmer.
My everlasting light
Stoves are the most important piece of gear for snow camping. Without them there is no water. Worse, there is no coffee. We brought three stoves with us: a small "pocket rocket" type stove, handy for things like rice that need to be cooked with low heat and occasionally for thawing/drying unreasonably wet ski boot liners or gloves; an MSR Reactor, which uses a non-flame heating element and is also powered by compressed fuel - it was kept strictly clean for melting snow and boiling water; and an MSR XKG, a classic liquid-fuel type stove with a pump bottle - we used this for most of our cooking. Another great piece to add to your winter kitchen that we were lacking is a 1' to 2' square piece of plywood to make a solid, flat table top.
What time is it? The time of my life.
Snow camping by itself can be awesome - hanging out with friends in a spectacular environment with nothing to do but sculpt your home into whatever form you imagine, adapt to the elements, play games, eat, and drink. Add the best skiing you've ever done in your life and you have one hell of a good time.