When waking at night with a full bladder, a true winter camper will opt to urinate into a bottle and then hug the warm vessel of urine against her chest as she drifts back to sleep. You see, precious body heat – heat that might stop your fingers and toes from freezing as you sleep – will be used to keep any urine in your bladder at body temperature. Nalgenes, with their large volume and extra-wide lid, work best in these situations.
I know this because I overheard two members of the McGill Outdoors Club (MOC) discussing just such a situation as I sat in the back of a station wagon en route to the Adirondacks for a weekend of winter camping – zipperless winter camping.
I first contacted the MOC in the middle of November. I wanted to write a story on wilderness survival and, knowing nothing about the topic (I hadn’t been camping since grade school), I figured that an outdoors club might be a good place to start.
Sasan Ghinani, a second year Masters student and MOC executive, replied to my email: In a week’s time he’d be leading a trip to New York’s Adirondack Mountains, and he had saved me a spot. But the trip, he explained, had a twist. Apparently, the MOC has a few longstanding traditions. One tradition has members hike up Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York State, with a four-piece band in tow. Another has canoeists paddle through ice on Lake Saranac, shortly after the winter’s first freeze. And one of the more storied MOC traditions – the trip Ghinani wanted me to come on – involves winter camping without the use of zippers: no tents, no sleeping bags, no jackets, no fancy Mountain Equipment Co-op backpacks.
Three days after receiving Ghinani’s email, I make my way to a MOC meeting on the third floor of the Shatner building; I’m there to get more information on the zipperless trip and to decide whether I actually want to go. Several dozen students have shown up and, to my dismay, they all look much more equipped to deal with the outdoors than I do. In contrast to my boat shoes, everyone seems to be wearing serious hiking boots. Nalgenes, cargo pants, and extraordinarily large backpacks also appear quite popular. In fact, most of the students seem ready to jump up and go camping that instant. And as I take a seat in the crowd, I start to wonder if I’m in over my head. Ghinani’s opener does not reassure me.
“People have been dropping out like flies,” he says, referring to the trip. Everyone laughs but me.
Bring blankets, Ghinani says – “all the blankets you own.” And clothes – “more clothes than you think you can carry.” And boots – “winter boots are essential.”
I glance down at my boat shoes. I’d have to borrow a pair of boots. The trip costs $40. But The Daily had agreed to pay. My excuses are running out. Plus, camping without zippers, how bad could it be? I hand Ghinani two twenties and walk out.
And thus, the following Saturday, having just learned that I may have to spend the night with a bottle of urine pressed against my chest, I step out of a Ford Taurus, and am greeted by 4,000 foot mountains covered in several feet of snow.
Preparing to camp without zippers had proven difficult – everything has a fucking zipper. Even the six MOC members who had decided to come on the trip had found it challenging. And waiting beside our cars for Ghinani to return from the ranger’s hut, in subzero weather, jacketless, layered in sweaters, and carrying reusable grocery bags stuffed with blankets, well, we look like a bunch of amateurs. The park ranger seems to agree.
Ghinani had planned for us to hike Algonquin Peak – the second highest peak in New York, at 5,114 feet. After the hike, we would build a shelter and a campfire to, presumably, keep us alive during the night. That was the plan, at least, until he emerges from the ranger’s hut with a disappointed look on his face.
The ranger, upon observing our ragtag apparel and lack of appropriate hiking gear, was not going to allow us to climb Algonquin Peak. And in another blow, we’re told that it’s against state law to build a campfire in the park. (We later discover that we had mistakenly driven to the wrong campsite. A private facility, five minutes up the road, allows campfires).
By this point, I’m starting to wonder if going on the trip was a big mistake. I glance over at Ghinani, who, surprisingly, doesn’t seem too worried. In fact, he’s convinced the ranger to let us climb a smaller, less challenging, peak – Mount Phelps, a tame 4,161 feet – and he’s adamant that we can survive the night without a campfire. I’m not as sure.
Ghinani, who is built like a tree trunk and sports a pair of overly large and well-groomed sideburns, is no stranger to taking risks in the wild. Once, while paddling in whitewater, he came upon a canoe flipped over, pinned against a tree.
“Strainers are trees that fall into the river,” he told me, “and if your canoe hits one, the pressure of the water and the river pins you down there. That’s how most canoeists die.”
Assuming the worst, he dove into the freezing water to search for dead bodies. He didn’t find any, but he decided to stay in the river to remove both the canoe and the tree. “Nobody wanted to do the dangerous parts,” he said, “so I volunteered.” He was in the water for more than an hour and came out with hypothermia. “I was delirious,” he said, “I didn’t know my name.”
Ghinani is the definition of an altruist. I ran into him once at the gym and, in between sets on the bench press, he mentioned that he wasn’t doing cardio that day because he’d spent the past half hour pushing cars stuck in the snow up Docteur-Penfield.
So as we depart from the rangers’ station, en route to our campsite, I’m somewhat reassured by the thought that if anything bad does happen in the woods, Ghinani will at least be there to throw me over his shoulder and carry me to safety.
By the time we reach the campsite and drop off our gear, the sun has passed the midway point in the sky and we have but a few hours to ascend Mount Phelps and make it back to camp before dark. With this in mind, we push ourselves up the icy trail, stopping only briefly to take in the magnificent views and to gulp water.
Mount Phelps, located in the northeast of New York State, is part of 46 mountains that are collectively known as the Adirondack “High Peaks.” All but four are greater than 4,000 feet. To date, more than 6,000 people have climbed all 46 of the Peaks. Those that achieve this feat are entitled to membership in the “Adirondack 46ers” and a commemorative badge.
As we approach the top of Mount Phelps, breathless from a final scramble up a particularly icy slope, the trees give way to a clearing that provides a panoramic view of the area. White Face, the site of the alpine events in the 1980 Winter Olympics, is to the North; Mount Marcy, the highest of the High Peaks, towers over us to the South; and Algonquin Peak, the forbidden fruit, the sun setting behind its back, glares at us from the West.
“A picture is never as good as the real thing,” Ghinani offers, staring off into the horizon. We snap a few photos, pass around a granola bar, and head down the trail, determined to make it back to camp before dark.
Having just climbed a mountain, the mood of the group on the way down is noticeably upbeat. The MOC members joke about different techniques for shitting in the woods (the “friendship lean” involves two people and a great deal of trust), while I skip along beside the group, gleefully scribbling notes.
I’m starting to understand why people do these things – climb mountains, that is. Hiking a mountain gives one an intense adrenaline rush. In fact, I’m so wired that as we approach our campsite, with the sun slipping behind the mountains and the temperature rapidly dropping, I’ve completely forgotten that the trip is far from over – we still have to spend a night outdoors, in subzero weather, without tents, sleeping bags, or a fire.
Hypothermia progresses in six stages. Stages one and two are characterized by a decrease in blood flow to the non-essential organs, an aching in the fingers and toes, and uncontrollable contractions in the muscles of the body, or shivering, in an attempt to generate heat. In stages three and four blood flow to the brain is greatly decreased, decision-making becomes impaired, and fine motor skills are lost. By stage five, body temperature has typically dropped by more than seven degrees. At this point most people lose consciousness. Stage six is death.
Standing by our campsite, shivering, wondering when I would enter stage three, I start to worry that I might not make it through the night. My feet, which had gotten wet during the climb, are especially cold. I ask Ghinani if he has a backup plan in case things get worse.
“There are ways of keeping warm,” he says. “Body heat will keep you so warm, and if it comes down to it, and you’re cold, fuck, get down and give me ten pushups. It actually helps a lot.” He pauses. “If your feet are completely frozen and you think they’re going to fall off, you take your feet and you put them – I mean, it sucks for the other person – but you put your feet inside a person’s jacket, on their stomach.” Without a fire, Ghinani explains, this is really the only way to defrost cold feet in the bush.
Unable to imagine myself shoeless, feet pressed against Ghinani’s burly stomach, I opt to put on three pairs of socks and run laps around the campsite.
When spending a winter’s night in the bush, a quinzhee, or hollowed-out mound of snow, provides the best possible shelter. Quinzhees are entirely windproof, and with body heat and a candle the inside can reach two or three degrees Celcius. The downside of a quinzhee is that they take four or five hours to construct and are typically only big enough for a couple of people.
Winter camping with a large group usually calls for tents. Or, if you’re moronic enough to go camping without zippers, several tarps and a roll of twine can be used to construct a tent-like shelter. And, as I watch, this is exactly what Ghinani and first year student Marc Kojima proceed to do.
Kojima places a tarp on the snow to form a ground sheet while Ghinani runs twine between two adjacent trees. Over the line they drape a second tarp, stretching it over the ground sheet and tacking its end into the snow. It looks like a wedge of cheese. They call it an A-frame. I hope it will keep me alive that night.
Several camping stoves are lit and dinner is prepared. The food brings a feeling of warmth to the group, and the mood, which had fallen with the disappearance of the sun, lightens. As we sit in a circle, cradling cups of hot chocolate, headlamps shining into each others’ eyes, the survival stories start to come out.
“I’ve done 72 hours with nothing,” says fourth year student Chloe Dumouchel-Fournier. “You’re thrown in the woods and you have to build a shelter. I was unlucky and had pouring rain for 24 of the 72 hours.”
“Did you ever fast on a solo?” asks third year student Anya Bernton. Nobody had. Berton had been on a three-day solo and, given almost no provisions, she decided to fast for the duration of the trip. “After you start eating again,” she explains, “you barf a lot.”
“I did a solo,” Ghinani chimes in, “but mine was completely different than you guys.” Dropped off on an island, in the middle of nowhere, free from society’s watchful eyes, Ghinani decided to spend 48 hours in the nude.
“So I’m lying naked on my island,” he continues, “on a rock, right by the shore, and randomly there was another group of canoeists – I don’t know, teenage kids. And you could imagine how weird this looks: You’re canoeing in the wilderness for nine days, and on the ninth day you see a naked guy on an island.” We all laugh.
Ghinani’s story, although not really about survival, seems to top them all.
For the night’s sleep, we’d trucked 22 blankets into the woods. These included a queen-sized duvet and a sleeping bag that Ghinani had ceremoniously cut the zippers off of the night before. Before retiring for the evening I cocoon myself in three of the blankets. Underneath, I’m wearing three wool sweaters, two pairs of fleece pants, three pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, and a wool toque. I wrap another wool sweater around my feet, for good measure, and worm my way into the middle of the A-frame. I’m optimistic about my heat situation: I’m wrapped in a fucking sheep. How could I get cold?
I wake up three hours later – freezing. An icicle of drool has formed at the side of my mouth, and I can’t feel my toes. Stage six immediately comes to mind. I pull my toque over my face, bring my knees up to my chest and curl into a fetal position. I don’t move, or sleep, for another five hours. Thankfully, I never have to pee.
The next morning we find out that the temperature in the High Peaks had dropped to -15ºC during the night. In fact, before going to sleep we’d come across two campers, just down the trail from us, who had full zippered gear and a lean-to to sleep in, but had still broken the rules and made a fire. “We’re fucking cold,” one complained. They weren’t at their campsite in the morning. It looked like they had bailed during the night. I was pretty cold, and I hadn’t slept very much, but at least I’d stuck it out till the morning.
Two weeks later, back in Montreal, I meet up with Ghinani at Thomson House for a beer. We start talking about Chris McCandless, a college grad who wandered into the wilds of Alaska in an attempt to escape society. After several months in the bush, he ended up dying of starvation. McCandless’s death has since been made famous by the 1996 Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild and the 2008 movie of the same name.
“McCandless greatly underestimated nature,” says Ghinani, “which you should never do. The idea is romantic – being outside in the wilderness on your own. I can see eye-to-eye with him on that for sure. I can see his reasoning about wanting to go into the woods to escape society,” he says. “But in order to do that you have to be prepared. You have to know what you’re doing and how to do it.”
And what about our trip, I ask, remembering the high of the mountain climb and the low of the sleepless, freezing cold night. How did he think it went?
“Flawless,” he replies.