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Field Journal: Winter Camping Out West

Posted by Alex Messenger

Field Journal: Winter Camping Out West

We left Duluth after one of the worst storms of the year...

...with travel crippled on both coasts, but our roads were open as we threaded the needle between systems and slippery roads. It was early January and we were on the way to the Outdoor Retailer Show, one of, if not the biggest outdoor shows in the world. We’d be meeting old friends and making new ones, finding more shops to support our Made in America waxed canvas softgoods, and talking about the future with press, media, suppliers, collaborators and competitors. But before we could embark on such a mission-driven week of trade shows, lights, and business cards, we needed some quiet mountain air.

The Frost River Van headed out to 2017 Winter OR Show

The weather in Duluth had been bitterly cold, below 0˚ Fahrenheit. The engine starter groaned before it finally caught, and Henry the Frost River van hit the road at 7:30am. Lake Superior heaved thick columns of steam and in the east, the sun kissed the horizon, bathing still pack ice in deep pink. We drove Henry to the old fishing pier to watch the show. We were embarking on a classic road trip, with long hauls, greasy cafes, camping, new vistas, old friends, and always adventure on our way to Salt Lake City. In the back of the van was all the gear for the show, along with a Frost River 4-Person Campfire Tent, End Cover and a 2-Dog stove. We were ready for cold nights.

We drove south on I-35 to Des Moines, then east, through Nebraska to Colorado, to the mountains and a star-studded clear night sky stop eighteen hours later at Chateaux Chamonix in Georgetown, Colorado. Only mountains interrupted the astral view, and when dawn came, those same slopes glowed.

We spent the morning exploring historic Georgetown,

once destined to become the capitol of Colorado in a time when the booming mountain mines seemed the state’s future. The quaint shops, old banks and cafes were inviting, their brick and stone structures and tall windows seemed frozen in time. If it weren’t for the old stone jail and walls of snowy pines surrounding the valley, we could just as well be in Red Wing, MN.

With Henry back on the road, we hauled over Loveland Pass, winding our way across the Rockies until we were rocketing across the valleys on the far side on our way to Moab, Utah.

In the middle of endless snow-covered desert, we pulled off I-80 to head south on meandering Co. 128. The road was desolate, graffiti sprayed across derelict rail cars and splintered houses, “Keep out!” “No trespassing!” We motored on, following the lazy wind of the Colorado River as it carved its canyon through the red rocks.

We explored caves, ruins of an ancient suspension bridge, and, as the light faded, we finally turned off at lonely Fisher Towers Rd.

We hoped our rear-wheel drive van would bring us dutifully along the 2.4 miles of snowy gravel road. Half way, we stopped at the base of a steep, washboarded slope and looked up, then back at the van. Henry’s up to the task…

We hopped back in and hit the gas. Halfway up, the tires started to slip. “Keep it going!” We eased the gas, bouncing up and over washboards, their deep troughs and the sagging ton of Canoe Packs, Backpacks, Tents, Canoes, and Bent Paddle Brewing Co. Beer pushing our snow tires down until they found purchase. “Come on!” Up and down, the van bounced along, clearing the dashboard of phones and maps. In a few breathless seconds, we were up on flat ground, the obstacle and our lonely tracks behind us.

“Let’s hope that’s the only one,” we agreed.

The rest of the road was smooth, and we pulled into Fisher Towers Campground in twilight, owls calling from the amphitheater of contorted red rock towers. Co. 128 was a distant dark line in the snowy desertscape and but for the few silent headlights meandering slowly across the horizon, we were alone.

We lit our headlamps and set to pitching the Campfire Tent. We’d brought the End Cover with smoke hole and a two-dog stove. We couldn’t collect firewood at the site or in the surrounding plains or deep arroyos, so we had brought a bundle of good, dried, seasoned wood. With the tent up, and the end cover secured, we set up the stove and started carving feather sticks and breaking the big logs down to small bits of kindling, batoning with a handy knife.

Soon the tent was cheery and warm, glowing in the desert blue.

We cracked our Bent Paddle beers and basked in the glory of the silence and crackle of our hearty fire. We slept in silence under down and a pair of Frost River wool blankets.

We woke to a desert blanketed in fresh snow, the red rocks obscured by falling flakes. Trails through the red rock towers and amphitheater offered views of deep, hidden canyons and dripping red icicles. We explored as deep as we could in the ice and snow before turning back to break the silence with the turn the engine and our journey back out.

Before long, we’d gorged on heaping plates of huevos rancheros and were looping up the long drive into Arches National Park. Rocky outcrops, covered in snow, stood tall, camouflaged against the grey sky. Henry bounced along as we explored the fantastic formations and made our way to the desert playground of The Windows.

Too soon, we were back on the highway, motoring through the emptiness on our way to Salt Lake. The Wasatch mountains raged with snow, and traffic slowed to wait for plow and slush. If it weren’t for the tall mountains, it would have felt like home, Duluth in the thick of a winter storm.

At Outdoor Retailer, we met with friends and made new ones, folks who want to share the Frost River story, who appreciate the value of solid brass, the utility of waxed canvas, and the longevity of premium leather. Before we knew it, we were packing up, and heading out of town with our new friend SASSY, a 12” tall wooden sasquatch that symbolized our winning of the American Made Outdoor Gear Award for US companies between 11 and 50 employees strong.

We were sad to leave the mountains of Utah, they’ve got so much to offer, but we had friends and family waiting for us to ski Colorado’s Rocky Mountains under the coming full moon.

Besides, SASSY had never gone backcountry snowboarding, so it was up to us to show him the ropes.

The road to Colorado was smooth, and we were met with a dinner of smothered Mexican food and a nice bonfire with friends and family, spending the night meeting, greeting and reconnecting.

We woke early, eagerly checking avalanche conditions for the aspects we’d be skiing, and which ones to leave for another day. We reviewed the charts, conditions and reports. We’d been following the snowpack over the course of the week, reviewing the avalanche tree. 50” of snow had dropped on the mountains the week before, but stability had been increasing and we were good to go.

When you’re getting ready to leave the vehicle, hit the trail or get on the water, it pays to review your gear and that of your tripmates. Just like in the BWCA, you rely on each other and your equipment, but in the mountains, it’s even more important. Avalanches are a power that must be respected. We checked each other’s packs for shovels, probes, and full water bottles, confirmed the avalanche beacons were working and that we had comms with our walkie talkies.

We took SASSY up that afternoon, skiing until sundown at treeline in the quickly setting sun. We practiced setting up our tent and stove at A basin near the beach, before being told we had to move camp. So, we practiced packing the tent, too. Our final pitch was under clear skies and a rising full moon just peeking over Mount Montezuma on A Basin’s east wall. We wanted to keep SASSY comfortable, so we kept the fire roarin’ and took shifts to keep the fire going all night.

At 5:45, we woke to the whine of snowmobiles: our friends had arrived for sunrise skiing on Loveland Pass.

Once the commercial runs opened, we hit the slopes all day. We did a mix of side country and resort skiing at Keystone, hikes to bowls, including Erickson’s Bowl, a wide open piece of sidecountry that sits above treeline, with an adrenaline-fueled drop in from a cornice at the top. For hours, we turned mellow lines in deep powder.

The next morning, we checked avalanche control and got the snowmobiles ready and on the trailer. Leaving at 4:45am we were at Vail Pass parking lot at 7:45, so early we beat the rangers. We paid our dues when they arrived, two old friends. We talked current conditions, grooming reports and where to meet up later, walkie channels and skied amazing white powder all day via snowmobiles and skinning for transportation. SASSY loved it. We saw six people all day.

It was smooth sailing until a dead sled sent us home. We cleaned up our oil and packed it out to keep the mountain pristine. It was time to head home. We got the sleds loaded and cracked some victory Bent Paddle to close out the day.

Before dawn, we’d packed our gear into Henry the Frost River van and after two weeks and 3,000 miles on the road, were headed home, back in Duluth before Day’s end.