Adventure writer Morgan Tilton spends a winter weekend in Crested Butte, Colorado, for a polar training course from world-leading arctic explorer Eric Larsen.
Story and photos by Morgan Tilton
A winter campout can seem hellacious, even for the adventurous types – especially in one of the coldest regions in the nation: Crested Butte, Colorado. The tiny town’s region ranks among the top 10 most frigid places in the lower 48. Counterintuitively, those conditions are ideal for some. Enter the anomaly: Eric Larsen, a polar explorer, guide and Crested Butte resident who spends the majority of his nights in a tent. For Larsen, “cold is cool.” He holds the U.S. record for the most North and South Pole expeditions, including the world-record Three Poles Adventure where he became the first and only person to snag the North and South Poles and Mt. Everest – all in 365 days.
Larsen grits through insane conditions but also knows how to make freezing nights quite comfortable. To learn Larsen’s survival tricks, I joined a fast-track iteration of his Level 1 Polar Training Course. The basics, which I’d like to use for multi-day backcountry ski trips, are applicable to any style of winter adventure.
Are you camping with the family for a week or slamming a fast-and-light traverse? Define the group’s goals, then map out meals and cargo. Haul the gear and food using a sled and harness (skipulk.com pulk systems and sleds) with a no-weight agenda: Don’t leave anything behind, but pack only the necessities to increase efficiency, organization and energy. Choose apparel for the weather and always include a wind-protective layer plus fabrics that are insulating and breathable. Larsen prefers synthetic over wool blends for the wicking, yet quick-drying power.
“Being too warm is a huge risk,” Larsen says. “Sweat is our enemy. Getting chilled, which can lead to hypothermia, has a shorter window in winter versus summer. Controlling body temperature is critical, even for an hour-long afternoon hike, not just skiing.”
Constantly adjust your layers. Larsen starts with a base layer T-shirt, then puts on a lightweight long-sleeve base layer and medium-weight long-sleeve base layer to wick sweat. Next, the fleece and down jackets provide insulation. Then, he puts on a shell for wind protection. Finally, Larsen pulls on an expedition down puffy jacket (Baffin Nepal Jacket; $279.99) to be the outermost barrier.
“Take time to adjust layers,” Larsen says. “I’ve been in Antarctica on my fat bike and in a T-shirt, because I didn’t want to sweat too much.”
Repeat the system on the head, hands and feet starting with a light wicking layer. Pack an extra pair of socks for to change into when you’re in the tent so you have dry feet. For camp shoes, tote tall, -58 degree Fahrenheit-rated boots (Baffin Coco; $249.99) will keep those toes nice and toasty. And, don’t forget, eye protection is crucial.
Eat and drink at regular intervals, every 30 or 45 minutes with precise quantities to maintain energy levels. Larsen’s hallelujah snack is warm soup in an insulated Thermos, which provides a double-whammy of electrolytes and hydration. Energy and hydration drink mixes help to clear mental fog. Ultimately, Larsen says, “Be selfish. Care for yourself to lower risks for the entire group.”
Create systems – how and where to pack your gear, snack breaks, group communication, setting up camp, etc. – to increase efficiency and therefore enhance your group’s safety and chance of success. “Eat together: It means a lot when the rest of your world is a sufferfest,” Larsen says.
Scout for a section of consolidated snow out of the wind and away from a ledge. Set up the tent and shovel snow against the outer wall, which solidifies into a wind block. Larsen helped develop the MSR Gear Remote and Access lines for winter camping (All-season Remote 3 Tent, $899.95). Also designed by Larsen, the Thermarest Polar Ranger sleeping bag (-20F, $699.95) is built for extreme conditions and features side vents that enable arm use and temperature regulation, plus a snorkel to channel away condensation and to prevent cold drafts from hitting the snout. For additional warmth, sandwich two sleeping pads together beneath your bags. Get the snow boiling for cooking and drinking water. Add a bit of water to the bottom of the pot to quicken the process, and hang wet layers inside the tent to dry.
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