"You don't want to go up to Dolly Sods. It's bad up there. You oughtn't to go."
The woman in the Park Motel in Petersburg, West Virginia, had been serious. I thought of her now, while camped in the snow of Dolly Sods Wilderness Area at over 4,000 feet -- the top of the Appalachian Plateau. It had been calm and clear when Kenny and Colleen Powers, Bill Saupe and I had snuggled into our sleeping bags, three miles from the pick-up truck we'd left four miles up an unplowed road on the side of the mountain. The nearest telephone was six miles away at Laneville.
While drifting off to sleep I'd thought of the countless stars, as you can see them only from a mountain top when there's not a major city within a hundred miles. But, for the third time now, my sleep had been broken by a howling wind, the crash of chunks of rime ice that pelted our tents, and a soft pitter patter against the flapping nylon.
"You awake, Bill?"
"Thank our lucky stars we had the good sense to put our tents in the trees," I said. "That wind seems pretty much at treetop level. Damn rain. How are we going to ski out of here tomorrow?
"Sounds like freezing rain or sleet." Bill groaned. In the inky darkness I rolled over, and my hand brushed the top of the tent.
The top of the tent! What's the top of the tent doing four inches from my face? I pushed against the nylon. It was heavy, and obviously collapsing.
"Bill, that's not rain. It's snow!"
We had just realized another of our errors in winter camping, and we were starting to count the lessons. We had mistaken the pitter patter for a light rain or sleet. Now, we knew that it had to be snowflakes propelled by 50 to 60 mile per hour winds.
"Remember that lady at the Park Motel?" Bill asked. "It's blizzarding out there and one of us has got to clean off the tent. Snow on a collapsed tent can suffocate you if the fly doesn't breathe."
Bill did the dirty work. He was experienced, sort of, having spent two nights under a lean-to in Vermont in January 1977. Kenny, Colleen and I, like Bill, had plenty of three-season experience, but this was our first winter camping.
Bill fumbled around inside his mummy bag for his cross-country ski boots (we slept with our boots and water inside the bags so they'd stay warm) and struggled to put them on. Other than the boots we slept fully dressed in layers of wool. You never want cotton, including jeans, or most synthetic cloth next to your skin when winter camping because those materials are cold and clammy when wet. They steal your body heat and can kill you. Cross-country skiing gets you wet, from perspiration, and only wool keeps you warm when it's wet. To keep the itch away use either DuoFold long underwear, which is part wool, or ventilated wide-mesh underwear, which allows perspiration to evaporate. I had DuoFold below my waist with red-white-and-blue wool pants I'd picked up at the Salvation Army for two dollars, and above the waist I had a wide-mesh undershirt with a light lambs-wool sweater as my first warm layer. From the wool socks on my feet to the Eddie Bauer "Balaclava" face mask that Mom sent years ago and I never thought I'd use, I was warm.
Bill unzipped the door and ducked into the blizzard. Our heat stayed in the tent because we'd had the sense to face the door east, first on the expectation that if a wind came up it would come from the west and second because we confirmed that expectation by noting that the rime ice on the trees clung only to the eastern sides of the branches.
"We've got six inches of new powder out here," Bill yelled, "and it's still coming."
"Better check Kenny and Colleen's tent," I yelled from the comforting warmth of my bag as I thanked my inexperience.
The minutes passed, and a slight fear crept into me that Bill might not have found his way the short distance to the other tent. Then the door on our now propped up tent unzipped again, and Bill tumbled in on his rump, while holding his feet in the air outside the door. Seal-like, he clapped his feet together to knock off the snow and then slid himself inside and zipped us back into our cocoon.
"Their tent is fine. That's another lesson for us. Our tent is flatter; it catches the snow. Theirs has steeper sides. It may catch the wind a bit more -- bad news if you're in the open on a mountain -- but it sheds the snow."
"Let's see. How many lessons have we learned?" I asked. "Our two flash lights worked fine at home but not when the batteries got cold. Should have carried them in our pockets. That's No. 1."
"And we should have cooked in the tents by setting the stoves on an Ensolite pad," Bill added. My Svea stove and his Gaz stove are excellent three-season backpacker stoves. Both fired in the cold but were too inefficient to boil water outside for our dinners of cocoa and Kraft macaroni and cheese. Lesson No. 2: cook in your tent or carry a winter stove like an Optimus 111B or a Coleman Peak 1. (Because food odors attract animals, never consider cooking in your tent during other seasons.)
After the stoves failed and wood was too wet to burn, we'd stuffed ourselves with cheese, crackers and "gorp," a mixture of peanuts, granola, coconut, raisins and M&Ms. Cheese is 60 percent fat, according to Colleen, who had packed four pounds of it for two planned lunches. Fats and carbohydrates are the diet of winter camping. You burn about a thousand more calories per day than usual. So lesson No. 3 was to bring high-calorie food and have plenty that doesn't have to be cooked.
I struck a waterproof match. 2 a.m. We were only halfway through the night, and lesson No. 4 was that mountain weather changes fast. We listened to the wind and dozed off.
Breakfast was the same as dinner, with all four of us in Kenny and Colleen's two -- person tent. The continuing blizzard told us the only sensible thing was to forget about skiing on. We packed up, headed for the road on the perimeter of the wilderness area, and skied for the pick-up. Colleen was blown over immediately when she moved onto the open, unsheltered road. There would be no stopping to stand, as we had the day before, on the edge of the scenic overlooks along the Allegheny Front, to look across and down on the peaks of the snowy Appalachians.
Saturday had been spectacular. Except for an occasional four-wheel-drive or off-road vehicle on the unplowed perimeter road, we had seemed alone on the alpine plateau beneath a bowl of cloudless blue sky. I thought of yesterday's quiet broken only by our skis and an occasional junco darting among the red spruce, the cranberry bogs and the blue-berry bushes.
Now the birds were nowhere to be seen, and I looked only at Bill breaking trail ahead of me. This was winter at its worst, but we still worked up the usual sweat of cross-country skiing. Halfway to the pickup, we stopped in 50-mile-an-hour winds to strip off a layer of wool. The most important part of staying warm is staying dry. You have to let the perspiration evaporate.
The final mile was easier as we skied downhill where the perimeter road followed a valley. The snow fell gently now, though the storm still roared over the higher ridgelines. We had camped in the harshest weather available to Washington wilderness lovers. Saturday and Sunday were poles apart. We had loved the Saturday experience and learned from that of Sunday. But nature's final coup was yet to come. We never thought to fill the truck with gas before heading up the mountain. With a tank nearly empty of gas and full of humid air from the valley below, the gas line froze. Lesson No. 5.
For four miles we pushed and coasted the truck down the perimeter road skirting steep embankments to Laneville. "As novice winter campers, this truck is the only problem we can't solve," Kenny said. "I can deal with the storm. But this damn unreliable technology -- I'd just as soon leave it here to rust." For the first time we all got frustrated. Colleen pointed out how a woman would have better sense than to drive a truck four miles up an unplowed road in the first place. She was right, and somehow we all now seemed only half the people we had been, up on alpine plateau, with both blue sky and blizzard.