It was still dark as we raced along the interstate outside Camp Verde. Some fresh snow had fallen during the night, and there were plenty of slick patches on the road—“black ice” as it is called—especially over the bridges and overpasses. We saw this as a good omen, because snow and ice are precisely what we had in mind when we were planning this trip.
“Turn that up,” shouted Cliff from the backseat.
“So, you’re wake,” answered Doug. Cliff had been sleeping since we picked him up. Cliff worked a nightshift as an orderly in the psyche ward at the state hospital in Phoenix, but he was able to get off at 4:00 a.m. so that we could get an early start.
“This song certainly fits,” I said as I turned up the cassette in Doug’s car stereo. We had been listening to a compilation of U2 songs, and next up was “New Year’s Day.”
“Do you remember this video?” asked Doug. “I hope that’s not gonna be us!” Doug was referring to the images in the video of the band riding horses through an ice-encrusted forest. The fellows are dressed in heavy fur coats, and both their faces and the horses’ snouts are engulfed in thick clouds of vapor as they breathe the chilly air.
My friends and I had two more weeks left of our winter break from college, and since we were all avid campers, we figured what could be more fun than a winter backpacking trip? So here it was, New Year’s Day, 1986, and we were driving to Flagstaff to spend two nights camping in the forests of Locket Meadow at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. We had backpacked in these forests several times before, in addition to hiking some rather grueling trails in the Superstition Mountains and the Grand Canyon. Plus, I had studied a book called Walking Softly in the Wilderness: The Sierra Club Guide to Backpacking pretty closely—especially chapter 23 on winter camping, which I had practically memorized. These factors, as well as all of us being in our early 20’s (and like most young guys, still possessing the deep-seated belief that we were somehow magically immune from harm), convinced us that this would be a really fun idea. Our plan was to arrive in Flagstaff long before dawn, grab some breakfast, and drive up to the trailhead just as the sun was rising in order to maximize the limited number of winter daylight hours.
Although most of the forest roads were buried in snow at this time of year, we knew the road to Locket Meadow would be open because it was also used by semi-trucks hauling black volcanic pumice out of a mine located on the edge of the mountain range. Since it was so early on a holiday morning, we had the road entirely to ourselves. We parked the car, unloaded our gear, and proceeded to suit up for the journey. There were our backpacks, of course, which were particularly heavy for this trip. But there were also the snowshoes we would need to walk around, as well as a plastic flying-saucer-shaped sled we brought along with even more gear loaded on it. According to chapter 23 of Walking Softly in the Wilderness, we were going to need a lot more gear than we usually brought for a summer backpacking trip, and since we didn’t have a team of sled dogs to carry our things, this orange disk would have to do.
For all of us, this was our first time wearing snowshoes. It’s one thing to try them out in a sporting goods store or in your living room, but it’s entirely different wearing them on top of a four-foot snow bank with a fifty pound pack on your back while hauling a sled. Let’s just say it took a while to finally get the hang of the darned things. You must walk with your feet far apart, otherwise you’ll step on the other shoe and go toppling into the snow. Or if you fail to lift your foot off the ground high enough, your snowshoe might get caught on a tree root or the edge of a rut or a snowdrift, which also sends you toppling into the snow. The road into Locket Meadow is only about four miles long, which makes for a nice leisurely walk in the summer. But add in the deep snow, the snowshoe-mastery learning curve, as well as the weight of all the extra equipment, and a hike that would ordinarily take a couple of hours wound up taking us all morning. So by the time we made it to the campsite, it was well past lunchtime and we were all thoroughly thrashed. We were learning fast that, given the cold and the snow, it simply takes longer to do things outdoors in winter. Chapter 23 of the backpacking book mentioned this once, but I was beginning to wonder why the author didn’t place a sterner warning about this in large bold print on every single page of that chapter.
Another factor we failed to consider in our careful preparation was how the mountains were going to affect the amount of useable daylight. Locket Meadow is situated at the bottom of bowl-shaped valley surrounded by the San Francisco Peaks. This means that by mid-afternoon, the sun will have already dropped behind the mountains, which not only limits the amount of daylight available to set up camp; it also means that once the sun falls behind the mountains, the temperature plummets about thirty degrees in thirty minutes. While we were hiking in, we were working up a good sweat, plus the temperature was in the forties. By the time the sun had set, the temperature was in the teens and we were hurrying to set up camp before we froze. Ideally, as per chapter 23, you want to dig a pit down past the snow and all the way to the dirt rather than placing your tent on top of the snow. The book didn’t really say why, but we knew we were going to find out soon enough because we didn’t have enough time to dig the pit completely. We found a low-lying area next to a fallen tree and did the best we could given the circumstances. Besides, we figured that we could always re-do things in the morning after getting a good night’s sleep.
By now it was late afternoon. We climbed into the tent and got comfortable in our sleeping bags, which were made of thick down and quite warm. The only parts of us that weren’t warm were our hands and faces, so we spent the next fifteen hours hunkered inside our sleeping bags wearing our hats and gloves. The first few hours passed easily enough. We boiled up a big can of chili and ate dinner. We played some card games and read books by the beam of a large overhead lantern. Then rather than trying to keep ourselves awake, we made the mistake of dozing off for a few hours. I say this was a mistake because when we all woke up it was only 11:00 p.m., and here in this valley, we wouldn’t be seeing any daylight again until close to 9:00 a.m. the following morning. We were also beginning to realize why the backpacking book had insisted on digging past the snow before setting up a tent. The snow we were on had melted and packed into a rock-hard sheet of ice. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the floor had frozen smooth and flat, but we were trying to sleep on top of the lumpiest and most jagged chunk of floor imaginable. The best any of us were able to do during the long, windy, bitterly cold night was try to find a semi-comfortable spot to lay and doze for a few minutes—all the while praying that none of us would have to go outside to take a leak.
The night crept slowly on. Somewhere near 5:00 a.m., Doug turned on his Walkman and listened to a radio station out of Flagstaff. The DJ reported that the temperature in town was ten degrees, which means that since we were a few thousand feet higher than this, the temperature outside our tent was probably near zero. The reality of these Siberian conditions became painfully clear when, three hours later, the sun finally peeked over the nearby ridge and we got up to dress. We soon found that nearly everything was frozen: our boots, our water, our crackers, oatmeal, Poptarts, canned goods, the gear in the sled…everything. So not only had it been a long night, it now promised to be a very long day. It was at this point that Doug spoke up.
“I’m outta here!” he said.
“Me too,” said Cliff.
“Wait! We have all day,” I said. “We can reset the tent, warm up some food. It’s not so bad…”
“The first thing you can do is burn that camping book of yours,” said Doug.
By then, Doug had already started packing up his things. He was in such a hurry to get back to his car that he didn’t even wait for Cliff and I to finish breaking camp before heading off ahead of us. The hike out of the meadow went much smoother than the previous day’s march, partly because the going was mostly downhill and partly because we had finally gotten used to walking in snowshoes. Doug was waiting inside the car for us when we arrived with the heater blowing and the music turned up. Soon we were in Flagstaff eating lunch at Jack-In-The-Box, and a few hours later we were back at Cliff’s house in Phoenix where his wife was busy making us all a warm dinner. That night, we watched the classic mountain man movie, Jeremiah Johnson, and when the scene came up where Hatchet Jack is frozen to a tree holding a Hawken rifle in his cold, stiff fingers, I couldn’t help believing that we’d all gained a bit of insight into how he must have felt.