Freezing Our Tetons Off

A lesson in how fast mountain weather can change. Even in the front country.

Back in the Fall of 2017, two of my buddies and I went on a two week road trip to California from Calgary and back. Packing for the relatively warm weather of Yosemite Valley, we didn’t expect to encounter any sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures along the way.

In late September, we made our way into Wyoming. After nailing out a few day hikes in Yellowstone, we made camp at Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park around 8 in the evening. Day time temperatures in Yellowstone had been around 15 degrees Celsius making for perfect hiking weather. As we arrived in the evening, the temperature in Colter Bay hovered somewhere around 5 degrees. Chilly but tolerable. We happened to meet a man from Alabama (I swear he was a clone of Sam Elliot) who made a comment about us Canadians still walking around in shorts. “It’s supposed to get as low as 23 tonight”, he said as he puffed on his cigar. We did the conversion in our mind (-5 Celsius) and shrugged it off as an impossibility in September. Oh boy were we wrong.

We returned to camp and each cracked a beer as a light mist started from the sky. As the mist quickly turned to rain, we finished our beer and crawled into our summer sleeping bags.

I first woke up in the early morning. Somewhere around 1 am. I remember feeling freezing. Colder than I’d ever been. I woke up shivering I was so cold. My feet and hands were ice cold and painful. I turned on my cellphone light and noticed I could see my breath. I burrowed myself deeper into my sleeping bag as I noticed the other guys tossing and turning as their bodies became aware of the temperature change.

The next time I woke up, the temperature had dropped even more. My body and sleeping bag had become drenched with the condensation trapped in the tent. The shivering was stronger now. I realized I had to use the bathroom. Reaching for the tent fly I fumbled around missing the zipper numerous times. I muttered under my breath and stumbled out of the tent. I noticed ice from the rain crunching on the ground underneath my feet. The paramedic side of me realized mild hypothermia was a real possibility. Cursing myself for not preparing properly like I normally do, I removed my wet cotton based clothes and grabbed some fresh clothes and crawled back into the sleeping bag. Obviously not thinking clearly, I shivered myself back to sleep on and off for the rest of the night.

We all woke up in the morning freezing and groggy. In an almost stupor, we realized we had to get warm fast. Our coordination was slow and even once in warm clothes it was hard to get warm. Our bodies craved calories after shivering all night. Lucky for us, a spot called the Ranch House was nearby. If you’re ever in Colter Bay, I highly recommend you try it. Each of us probably had 4+ plates from their breakfast buffet over the next hour or so. The chocolate chip banana bread French toast is possibly the best I’ve ever tasted. Once sufficiently warm, we headed out hiking for the day.

Safe to say the day turned out well.

What Went Wrong

There were a series of mistakes that night that we learned from.

Always check the forecast, even when the temperatures seem stable.

  • Had we checked the forecast we could have bought extra blankets and also prepared the tent better for the impending temperature drop.

Alcohol before bed is a bad idea.

  • Any amount of fluid has to be accounted for before bed. Nothing worse than having to leave a warm sleeping bag to relieve yourself. Pee bottles are actually a reality.
  • Significant amounts of alcohol cause the body to lose heat faster.
  • Alcohol inhibits anti diuretic hormone making you more likely to have to use the bathroom.

Survival rating does not equal comfort rating.

  • The survival rating on my sleeping bag was 2 degrees Celsius. Even if it had been above 0, it still would have been freezing.
  • Comfort rating was between 5 and 15 degrees Celsius. At this point the outside air temperature is less likely to be a factor.

We learned about R value really fast.

  • R value is the ability of an object to reflect heat. The higher the R value, the more insulating the object is. This is especially important for sleeping pads as a large amount of body heat can be lost to the ground.
  • The R value of my sleeping pad was 2.2. Nowhere near appropriate for sub zero temperatures.

Eating high calorie foods before bed and during the night can have a thermogenic effect

  • Eating something before bed and during the night can help you keep warm. We began using this trick later during our trip in Yosemite.

Survival blankets and tarps are worth their weight in gold.

  • The very next night we used a trick I learned at a survival course. Placing a survival blanket underneath you at night can help reduce the amount of heat lost to the ground.

Condensation can be killer.

  • Ditch the cotton clothing for wool or moisture wicking garments.

Remove the dead space at the bottom of your sleeping bag.

  • It’s easy for your feet to become cold in the bottom of your sleeping bag
  • Win-win situation: place your clothes for the next day in the bottom of the bag. This provides insulation and keeps your clothes warm for morning.

Strategically place your tent to account for the wind.

  • We accounted for this by using another tarp to help shield our tent from the wind and rain.

All of these were important lessons to learn for later on in our trip. California had a cold snap and we experienced similar temperatures at 7000 ft in the Sierras later on. But of course, a little suffering just makes a good adventure and an even better story for later on.

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