|Feather River College||
"Got enough American cheese on your ankles there?" My friend and gear room co-worker Chase pointed at my feet and we shared a laugh. He was right, every piece of the ridiculous tape job I had done on my ankle joints looked exactly like the ready packed cheese squares a lazy sandwich maker may purchase at the supermarket. Ugh. The next day and a half was going to hurt. The time had come for the Adventure Based class at Feather River College to venture out into the snow for a day and a night. This event is called the Winter Shakedown, and the entire class was stoked. The Winter Shakedown's purpose: to discover what adjustments must be made to our packing choices and practice the skills necessary for a longer snow camping trip which will take place later in the semester. Though I recognized this objective, the only thing I could imagine was spending a day and a night in the ankle crushing agony of the torture device known as the 'telemark ski boot'. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but my poor bony ankles really felt like these boots had it in for them. Luckily, this awful feud between my ankles and the blue boots of death was soon to be removed from the forefront of my mind as an even greater adversary was about to present itself to me, and every other member of the class.
We arrived at the Buck's Summit parking lot around noon. The class piled out of the dual wheeled van and prepared to venture off toward an unknown backcountry camp site. Sunscreen was applied and sleds were rigged with camping gear in a fairly orderly fashion. I know it was fairly orderly because there were no comments regarding our preparation speed heard from our instructor, Rick Stock. Once all our gear was properly arranged in sleds and our backpacks were strapped tightly to our bodies we skied off in pairs along the Buck's Creek trail loop. My ankles were crying a bit but they were not weeping as before, when I had been required to walk across the hard asphalt of the parking lot to the snow. For some reason they felt slightly better with skis strapped underneath them. Take that, you villainous boots.
Student Lauren Huseby and the hut building clearing. Photo Credit: Sierra Speer
Rick eventually ushered us off the hard packed snow (ice...it was ice) of the trail and into a large clearing. Before we had left the college Rick had informed us that there would not be snow enough for the class to make snow caves to sleep in. Snow caves require a snow bank wide and deep enough to hollow out into a shelter capable of fitting several people, and there had been no new snowfall for a week or two. Instead of snow caves we were to attempt to build Quinzhee huts (pronounced kwin-zee) in pre-established groups of two. The only obvious difference between a Quinzhee hut and a snow cave is the outer shell. A snow cave is dug out of a ready-made snow bank, while Quinzhee huts require that the snow 'bank' be built before any tunneling may ensue. Luckily the snow in the clearing was sticky and soft, easy to shovel into a large pile. After a quick glance around the clearing myself and my hut building partner Jack chose where we wanted to build our Quinzhee. The majority of the clearing was bathed in early afternoon light. The growing shadows of the trees surrounding the clearing told that our spot would be in the sun the longest, which would provide us with warmth for a longer period of time. It was about one o' clock PM. The time had come to start digging. Jack and I pulled out our extendable-but-still-far-too-short-for-digging-standing-up shovels and took our first few jabs at the snow. 'Crunch'. 'Crunch'. 'Crunch'. Only about a kajillion more shovelfuls to go.
As I delved deeper into my poor excuse for a tunnel and began to shape the dome-like ceiling of the hut I felt more and more like an architect. I kept hitting my face on the walls, though. I wondered if architects did that much when they were building and designing stuff. I piled snow on the sled and sent it out of the tunnel for Jack to dispose of (we had a system: I would excavate our sleeping space while Jack pulled away the snow over this awesome snow stair system he had made) and told him, "I feel like an architect in here bro!" I got no response. He couldn't hear me on the outside of the partially excavated snow hill. Scary. I popped my head out of the tunnel and said again, "Man I feel like an architect!". He responded with, "You look like one, you know, with those sunglasses on." Ah. That's why I kept hitting my face on the walls. I sheepishly took the sunglasses off, noted that I could now see, and headed back to continue being a mole.
The next two hours went by pretty quickly. Rick again came by to tell us that we were all meeting at four O' clock and probably wouldn't be sleeping in a hut tonight. No, I thought, we were going to finish. After deciding this I worked furiously with my perfectly-sized-for-digging-laying-down-or-sitting-small-collapsable-shovel as I tapped into my inner mole...or maybe inner worm. At one point a quote from the movie 'Holes' entered my mind: "Moles don't eat dirt, worms eat dirt." Would eating the snow in between sled loads help speed the process? Digging in a cave for two and a half hours can get you to think some pretty weird things. At one point Lauren Tango (a fellow student in the process of building a perfectly shaped Quinzhee hut on the other side of the clearing) came by and shouted to me, "It's pretty intense in there huh?" I yelled back on impulse "Freaking terrifying!" I didn't think about that comment until later, but yeah, it was a little scary in there.
Jack takes a tour of our Quinzhee hut. Video Credit: Jack Lacey
As the final call went out for the class meeting I put a few finishing touches on the cave: A shoddily dug trench down the middle of the cave for ease in putting on our boots in the morning, a quick scrape of the walls and ceiling to round out their shape so as to keep drops of melting snow away from our sleeping area, and a poor attempt at leveling out the two platforms where Jack and I would be sleeping. I arrived at the class meeting late, but happy and full of pride that Jack and I had nearly finished our hut. We had succeeded! It was then that I realized I was soaking wet, and absolutely freezing. My hands were in a ton of pain as they were chilled to the bone from my sopping gloves, and I was sure my nose was beet red. The sun was almost gone. That day, though full of stoke-worthy success, had been a strange whirlwind of discomfort from feeling strangely hot to being freezing cold and nothing in between save some ankle pain. Ankle pain? In all the excitement and exhaustion of digging a hole in the snow I had somehow forgotten. HA! Take that, boots from hell.
Some hours later snuggled in my sleeping bag in the relative comfort of the Quinzhee hut I started awake. I recognized I was in the hut I had dug. I felt so proud. Then I felt...ugh. I had to pee. I swung my legs out of my sleeping bag into the trench next to me only to see...them. There they were, blue as ever, tongues akimbo as they smiled wickedly at me. The Quinzhee hut had been vanquished, but the two scourges of ankles everywhere remained, and they had found me in my weakest hour: trapped in a Quinzhee hut needing to urinate with no other form of footwear. Good move ankle crushing boots of death...good move.
Written by Jonathan Simenc