Glacier Camping via Steel Powder Ponies
Photos and text by Colin Wallace
Pushing further back into the mountains means carrying more gear; reliable gear that better not let you down. When you’re selecting gear to spend the night there are two rules to follow: cotton kills and light is right.
Last spring I spent a couple nights on a ridge above a glacier camping open-bivy style; we were granted all access VIP passes to our surroundings with spectacular views, perfect weather and good snow. When the leaves are turning green in town and you’re wearing shorts to load up sleds, the neighbours shoot you some funny looks, but who cares? We were going sledding and winter camping at the end of May on a glacier; tarps off cheers bruh.
The highway was full of eager early season RV’ers looking to bring the traffic flow to a grinding halt at the slightest chance there may be the possibility of a glimpse of wildlife; but we turned off the pavement and onto a logging road to leave the camper parade behind . The sun cut through the windshield and made the dashboard dust on my old Ford almost glisten as it floated around the musty smelling cab. The lifestyle residue from another sled season bounced around in the backseat as we pounded up the gravel path past the usual winter parking spot. Shout out to the guy that chains up at the snowline on the road and makes it another 100 meters before getting stuck and really making a mess of the road. Every year there’s always gotta be one guy that makes 30 cm deep ruts in the road that last all summer.
Trying to strap overnight gear to a sled without a rack is like trying to poke campfire coals with a piece of string. My favorite rack is from Cheetah Factory Racing, I had close to 30,000km on my last CFR rack before it finally died. The new one I have
now is the Irack; solid, easy to install, and lots of attachments available from ski racks, to snowboard racks, and “made to fit” water resistant bags. I’ve got the Quarter Pound bag; it’s a monster and I was able to fit a sleeping bag, air mattress, food, stove, extra gloves, goggles, warm layers, emergency kit, and other random items.
Freezing to death is not cool (get it?).
If there is one piece of gear I can recommend spending as much as you can afford on, it’s your sleeping bag. From Cascade Designs I have the Thermarest Altair HD: with a range of -5C to -32C this bag will be the only one I use from fall till spring. For the cold temperature rating it is incredibly light and packs small; it also comes with a storage sack and a transporting sack. NOTE: It is important to hang sleeping bags when not in use in order to avoid packing the down insulation into a little rock hard ball thus making them useless. The most important feature for me in a sleeping bag is the zipper. I pee a lot at night so I need to be able to escape from my warm slumber sanctuary in a flash after playing the “I can hold it” game until the red alert alarms start flashing and ringing. Luckily, zipping in and out of my Thermarest bag was buttery smooth. Wind resistance was fairly tolerable thanks to the outer shell as we encountered a cold breeze on the first night on the glacier and the frost dried off it lightning fast in the sun when morning came. Overall, I give the Thermarest Altair HD sleeping bag an overall 8/10 for use when sled accessed winter camping.
Another great feature on the Thermarest bag was the interface system with the Neoair down filled air mattress: a couple stretchy loops on the bottom of the bag slip over the mattress so the two don’t get separated if you are on the move when you sleep. The only down side to the Neoair is that the material is a little on the loud side for whoever you are sharing a tent, hut, or snow cave with. Not really your problem tho and the light weight and comfort of this mattress makes up for any noise disturbances you might cause. A down filled matt is a must when sleeping directly on the snow as you need something to keep the air between you and the snow warm. I’m not going to get into it any more than that. It’s science. It works. I give the Thermarest Neoair a solid 9/10.
The last essential piece of reliable camp gear you will need in the winter is a stove. There are basically two types of lightweight and portable camp stoves: pumpers and non pumpers. Pumpers use white gas and I’ve experienced leaky fuel canisters, leaky pump seals, and problems working in really cold temps. I’ve lost confidence in pumpers. This is just my personal opinion but I prefer non pumpers. They use compressed 4 season fuel that come in lightweight, recyclable containers. Screw fuel cell onto stove, turn fuel on, light, cook, eat. Simple. No pumping, no fuel spills, no brainer. Also from Cascade Designs is the MSR Windburner 1.0L. This stove packs some heat will boil a liter of water at 3000m faster than you think, the best part is that there isn’t much of a problem with wind effecting the flame as the cooking pot screws onto the heating element creating a seal against unwanted breezes. The only issue I had with this stove is that you have a bit of a tall tower of gear by the time you attached the pot to the element and the element to the fuel cell. A more stable foot would remedy this problem. I give the MSR Windburner 1.0L a 7/10.
Another nice item to bring that you may not think about is a few waterproof bags to put things in. Seal Line makes a wide variety of sizes of water proof bags for isolating wet things from dry things to allow you to move comfortably in the backcountry. A fast drying towel for cleaning dishes, wiping dew/frost off in the morning comes in handy and PackTowel offers sizes to meet any need.
From our camp we had an incredible views of the Purcells behind us and the Rockies in front; an early morning coffee with a birds eye view of the sunrise inspired us to splitboard up to the peak above our bivy to take advantage of the last isolated pocket of north facing powder before it turned to corn, signifying the end of winter. Lounging in the noon day sun to admire the lines we painted on the peak turned into packing up and getting ready to head home, but not before we took full advantage of the incredible spring sledding conditions. Some slushy slashes, whips, wheelies, and a bail and we headed down to the truck to load up, drive home and put the steel powder ponies to rest until next season.