What's All This Bivouac Stuff, Anyhow?

April 13, 2006
Okay, my old friends Mal and Jon and I were planning to hike up a big hill, Mt. Adams, near Gorham, N.H., in early February. On snowshoes. We'd have 3000 ft of snow to ascend, and it gets steep. We considered the potential terrain, like a lot of pack

Okay, my old friends Mal and Jon and I were planning to hike up a big hill, Mt. Adams, near Gorham, N.H., in early February. On snowshoes. We'd have 3000 ft of snow to ascend, and it gets steep.

We considered the potential terrain, like a lot of packed snow on the ground, which would be fine. But would there be a lot of new snow? A foot of new snow would really slow us down. Two feet of new snow would cause some serious problems, because in a group of three, each person has to do an average of one-third of the work breaking trail. Even if you have never hiked in deep snow on snowshoes, you would figure out pretty quickly that breaking trail is a lot of work. We all figured this out fast in 1955, when we started up this same hill.

Even a half-foot of snow is a good, hard test for a group of six or 10 people, as the relevant fraction is still challenging. With only three of us—as well as the possibility (probability) of one or two feet of new snow—what would we do? Give up and go home? Heck, no!

I figured out fast, as I contemplated this problem, that we would have to be prepared to bivouac up on the trail if there were bad conditions. We would have to set up a minimal shelter, lay out our sleeping bags, sack out for the night, and restart the next morning. We certainly wouldn't want to go back down to our car and restart from down there. That would be too slow. But I've heard of people who have had to do that, as they had no better plan.

GIMME SHELTER So, what's the shelter? A big square of plastic, about 8 feet square per person, would keep us from getting too damp or snowy. Wearing our snowshoes, we'd have to stomp down a shallow, broad hollow into the snow, even if the hillside had a steep slant. Next, we'd have to put the plastic sheet over our pack-frames and under our foam pads and then lay out our sleeping bags on top of that. And, we would have to pull the rest of the plastic sheet over us—and hunker down for a dozen hours. It's not exactly the same as sleeping, but some sleep may be possible.

Also, we would have to plan some sustenance. I've invented some light and quickly heated food—a dehydrated soup with precooked sausage and crackers for supper.On the trail, I would have to fire up our stove and heat some water. Then, after some coffee and/or hot chocolate plus a couple of breakfast bars for the morning, it would be back into the snowshoes and up and at 'em.

What if the only good bivouac spot is well below where we want to stop? We would set up our camp and take a break. Then we would walk up farther and keep breaking trail for a while until we almost got tired, or until it got kinda dark, and then go back and sack out. It's very important to keep from getting too tired.

After we got to our camp, Crag Cabin,-at 4200 ft, we would have no great amount of trouble with snow. Up above the timberline, the fluffy snow blows away, mostly. We would just put on our crampons and walk, per my recent column on that subject (ELECTRONIC DESIGN, Feb. 2, p. 20, ED Online 11919 at www.electronicdesign.com). The descent would be trivial. Even if we got one or two or three feet of powder, it would barely slow us down.

So while I have rarely done much bivouacking, I sure know what to do. All we needed were some good plans and that 7-oz square of plastic.

How did this work out? We had very little snow, and that was hard-packed. So we left our tarps in the car and had no trouble. We never even put our snowshoes on! But we knew we were prepared for anything. For the complete trip report, see Part 17 at www.national.com/rap/nepal/index.html.

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