How to Embrace the Winter Crazy on Alaska’s Hatcher Pass

Anyone who genuinely embraces the outdoors will agree that an icy hellscape of winter bitterness is no reason not to go camping. Think of Admiral Bird. He had himself locked in a room in Antarctica for six months. Actually, he went nuts and had to be rescued.

So maybe don’t think of Admiral Bird. But during these long winter nights, a good, hearty expedition could be just what we need to stay on the rails. As such, here’s a dispatch from Hatcher Pass in Alaska from the solstice, not so long ago:

The snow is finding its way into the tent, and I’m still not sleeping. The wind is raking the pass with ferocious velocity.
“Wow,” I think to myself. “It’s getting saucy out there.”

The tent, a summer model, flaps like a loose jib – the relentless rattle making sure I don’t sleep. And why should I? It’s the longest night of the year in Alaska. Myself and a fellow reporter at The Star decided to spend it in Hatcher Pass, a 3,500-foot bowl of arctic madness.

Winter in Alaska has a way of seeping under your skull and putting a hard zap on your head. If you’ve cleared one, then you know. The most common piece of advice from the sourdoughs is to “get out as much as you can.”

So, here we are, out. The sun set four hours ago. We have 16 to go. Since we hiked in and set up in the snow with the intent of facing the Alaska winter full-bore, I figured it wouldn’t be right not to bring a bottle of Southern Comfort. Steve saw fit to bring white wine. Good thinking. White wine should be served chilled.

We finished the wine immediately, and went straight on into the Southern Comfort. We stood for three hours by the blazing Duraflame log I packed in out of general principle. The extra three pounds paid off. It sat astride Steve’s snow shovel, glowing warmly as we both made repeated and sometimes simultaneous grabs for the bottle – all the while swapping elevated yarns of the past.

That was hours ago. Now the wind was howling outside. I poked my head outside to see if there was any light emerging. The full moon lit the bowl, revealing pure white, like a rock near Neptune. A blast of wind lifted the tent above my head. The only thing holding it to the ground was an ice ax, and the weight of my body. I wrested control of the tent and set it back down.

“Maybe if I try not to sleep,” I thought. “Maybe that’s the idea.”

I pulled on my Sorrels and popped from the tent like a soap bubble. Outside, our gear was strewn wildly in every direction. We had crawled into our tents without keeping house. Snow drifts race by like laughing kids, sneering at me for wanting to challenge the night.

“How bad can it get?” I thought. “Snow? White-out conditions?” I remembered earlier I suggested we take a compass reading, just in case a whiteout put us in a sightless void. But we abandoned our attempt to dig out the compass – apparently along with all the other gear.

I found my mittens about 30 yards from camp, and then located my first-aid kit, which contained a baggie of high-yield pain medication. I took three, hoping to settle down. Instead, I stayed up for two hours, eating pretzels and chocolate, drinking from my only unfrozen canteen. I still had some booze in me.

“Yes, water,” I thought. “This is it.”

The wind continued, punctuated by Steve’s snoring. Distance rumbles suggested avalanches. In the dark, the bag of candy yielded one surprise after another. I giggled at the taste of a cherry Jolly Rancher.

Steve continued to snore.

“How can he sleep through this?” I thought.

Hours later, I realized that I’d been dreaming about tubing the Salt River in Arizona, which could only mean that I had actually managed to sleep. I felt like I’d accomplished something.

Finally, the sun made an almost imperceptible suggestion on the horizon, and I decided to get up and start packing. The wind was worse, now with longer gusts. At times, I had to turn away and just stand until it passed. It made packing an experience all its own.

I noticed Steve’s backpack, half buried in snow, and picked it up and shook it out. Then I staggered a few feet to the left and located a strap in the snow and pulled on it. It was connected to Steve’s camera, now encased in snow. I kicked his tent.

“How ya doin’?” came a voice from inside.

“Hey, man, the sun’s up. Let’s haul ass,” I shouted.

Steve crawled out and inspected his camera, shaking it. He confirmed it still worked by taking a series of photos of me flying my tent like a kite.

Once we got our gear relatively together, we headed out for the truck, under a pronounced haze of hung-over wooziness. We had done it. We had settled in for 19 hours of shivering bravado – two grandiose word hacks out to the prove the obvious: that two guys with gear and a long cold night are not content to drink at home.

Photo credit: Wikimedia