Monthly Archives: February 2013

Freedom of the Hills: The First Adventure

Over the years, I’ve read and re-read much of the classic mountaineering book Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, which a friend of mine suggested I read when I began rock climbing. I’d read way more than I’d actually experienced when I went on my first mountaineering venture in the Alps, however. Luckily, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-day alpine climbing course when I first arrived in Chamonix, France, but then I headed out into the hills with my new climbing friends.

mountaineering 1

For my first mountaineering trip, we hiked up to the Albert Premier hut above the Glacier du Tour near Chamonix, and we slept in a bivouac outside to save money. We departed very early in the morning to assure our safety and success, and by the time the sun came up properly, we were in the middle of a stunning landscape–glaciers, snow, ice, and alpine rock:

mountaineering 2

Finally, we were close enough to our objective, the Aiguille du Tour, to admire its immensity:

mountaineering 3

And after some hours of grunting and sweating, we reached the summit. Our trip leader Tim wasn’t afraid in the least to adjust his crampons on this precipice of rock at the peak’s summit:

mountaineering 4

We took in the views and reveled for a bit about our accomplishment before making the long descent back to the hut.

mountaineering 5

Later that day, I sat out on the deck of the chalet where I lived, dreaming up the next big mountain adventure…

mountaineering 6

Want to know more about how to find your own freedom in the hills?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:
“Book Overview of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills
For more than fifty years, Seattle-based The Mountaineers Books has been publishing the mountaineering classic, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Its current edition, the eighth edition, is edited by Ronald C. Eng. This book offers essential information and advice for anyone who would like to venture into mountain terrain…click here to continue reading

Finding Water in Winter and Alpine Environments

traci j macnamaraTaking a swig of water on a winter backcountry trip is a sweet reward for all of the work that’s required. Often hikers, climbers, and skiers must carry extra gear in the winter–a stove and fuel for melting snow into drinking water; a thicker sleeping pad and sleeping bag; a four-season tent; and more layers of clothing. All of this extra weight might not seem warranted…until you experience the solitude of a snowy winter night or the camaraderie of a backcountry winter camping trip with friends.

Here are a few scenarios when you might want to melt snow for water in the backcountry–either in the winter or in summer conditions. First…in the Alps or in other alpine environments; it’s often difficult to find water sources at high altitudes. But…if you can find a snow patch…

snow patch1

…then you can gather snow and melt it on your camping stove so that you have water to make noodles, tea, and (most importantly) coffee in the morning.

alpine camp

If you’re on a winter hut trip in Colorado, for instance, then you will likewise melt snow from your surroundings for cooking and drinking water.

10th mtn hut

Most huts are equipped with burly wood stoves and snow melt containers for this purpose:

hut trip snow melt

In the perhaps unlikely instance that you stumble upon a shelter on the ice shelf in Antarctica, such as this one…

kiwi shelter

…then you’ll quickly notice that snow is your most abundant natural resource. If the said shelter possesses a camp stove and fuel–as the above shelter, in fact, does in a super-slick compact kitchen…

kiwi stove

…then you’re in luck. You’ll at least have enough water to drink until you figure out what you’re going to do about food…

Want to know more about water in the winter?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:
“How to Find and Purify Water in the Winter”
Humans can survive for weeks without food but only days without water. In the winter, finding water and having the right tools to ready it for drinking can be a challenge; however, the winter season also provides an additional resource: snow…click here to continue reading

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.

A Snow Trench Variation and a Tour

I recently wrote an article for the Survival Skills website titled “How to Build a Snow Trench Shelter,” and I wanted to offer more information here about snow trench variations; I’ve also included a video link to a nice snow trench tour.

First of all, if you need to build a snow trench when the snow isn’t deep enough, you can shovel snow off of the ground into a big mound and then build the trench, as this person does here:

Some nice hints from the above snow trench construction include: first, shoveling the snow into a mound deep enough for a trench shelter (about three feet deep); letting the snow pile sit in the sun for a while so that it consolidates; digging the trench into the snow pile after it has consolidated; using sticks, branches, a tarp, and more snow for a nice insulated roof.

For a tour of a more traditional snow trench that’s built by digging directly into the snow, see this video:

Notice that a snow trench should be tight; the smaller the snow shelter, the warmer it is to heat up with your body heat. Claustrophobic? This isn’t the kind of shelter you’d like to hang out in for multiple days or nights, but it will keep you alive in an emergency or survival situation.

Want more details about how to build your own?
See my article on the Survival Skills website:
“How to Build a Snow Trench Shelter”
If you’re lost on a winter hiking, skiing, or snowshoeing journey, then knowing how to build a snow trench can be an important survival skill. Perhaps it’s getting dark, and you or someone in your group becomes injured, but you need to rest or sleep for the night…click here to continue reading

Antarctic Flying and Whiteout Navigation

Navigating in whiteout conditions while hiking, climbing, or skiing can be unnerving. But consider how airplane pilots in Antarctica must feel when they’ve got a planeload full of scientists or contract workers about to land on the Ross Ice Shelf near McMurdo Station:


One second, you’ve got a little break in visibility, and then you get socked in again:


And then you finally touch down in a clear patch and see that–luckily–there aren’t any cargo loaders or makeshift airport structures or people standing around.


Antarctica can be a dangerous place for aircraft, and in my four trips to and from McMurdo Station, I gained respect for the pilots and navigators who make successful flights in and out of this place and all over the continent each season.

I spent some time exploring the airstrip near McMurdo one day on which bad weather conditions kept the planes grounded:

airfield tower

This beautiful Basler…


…and a Twin Otter:

twin otter

I felt amazed each of the four times I watched a tiny aircraft drop from the clouds and then land on the ice shelf to pick me up when the season was over…


…and just as I always felt the thrill of landing on the ice shelf in Antarctica, I always felt the excitement of leaving to pursue the next great adventure.


So, you’re not a pilot flying in Antarctica?
But you’ll still want to know about some tools that can help you navigate in whiteout conditions.

See my article on the Survival Skills website:
“Whiteout Navigation: Essential Tools”
Navigating in whiteout conditions can be challenging and frightening. A whiteout occurs when conditions such as snow, fog, or sand cause a partial or total reduction in visibility. In a blizzard, snow may already be present on the ground, so when snow begins to fall from the sky, the horizon can disappear completely, causing great difficulty for a person trying to navigate through unknown terrainclick here to continue reading

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.

Snow Caves and Mountain Safety

Beaver Creek ski patrol recently held a mountain safety week that included many demonstrations about both in-bounds and out-of-bounds ski safety.

beaver creek patrol safety

I was most interested in the snow caves that they built at a few different locations on the mountain since a snow cave shelter can help someone stay alive in an emergency situation. I found two different styles of caves on the mountain–first, this type of cave which is built when a person burrows into a steep snow slope:

entry 1

The second type of cave I found was more of a trench-style cave, which is first built as a person digs a trench into the ground and then adds snow blocks over the top for an angled roof.

trench style cave

Both types of caves didn’t leave much room for comfort. The smaller the cave, the easier it is to warm up inside, but as I crawled into the entryways, I felt thankful that I wouldn’t have to stay the night in either of these caves.

snow cave inside 1

They were dark…and they didn’t have ventilation holes, so they weren’t make for actual habitation.

snow cave inside 2

Despite their small size and lack of entry tunnels or “doors,” I think that these caves offer good examples of the basic types of snow shelters that people can build in an emergency situation.

Want to know how to build your own snow cave?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:
“How to Build a Snow Cave”
Staying outside overnight in a snow cave to wait out a blizzard doesn’t exactly sound like it would be a comfortable experience, but being able to build an effective survival shelter in such conditions can be a lifesaver…click here to continue reading

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.