Surviving a Frozen Night on a Mountain

As I’m writing this, Hudson’s on a bus returning from a military base a couple of hours away. He attended a pipe band music camp over the weekend with Her Majesty’s Royal Canadian Air Cadets. He’s thriving in the program since he joined last year, and this year I stepped up and became a Civilian Instructor Volunteer.


Owen and Hudson on the cable car in Jasper (circa The Days of Yore)


Hudson is active in just about every program they have: biathlon (where he made it to provincials first crack), marksmanship, drill team, military band, pipe band, and SurviveAir.



SurviveAir is a scenario event, where the team pretends to have been in a downed plane and have several challenges to compete in. The teams are marked on as first-aid, fire making, ground-to-air signaling, shelter building, etc.

Teams competed from all around British Columbia, Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and even from the United States, and I’m proud to say that our squadron won the event for the first time!

We’re hoping to repeat this year, and now I will be involved in a more official capacity, as opposed to just coaching Hudson at home.


Because, y’see, I had to redeem myself.

Way back when Hudson was four, he had been asking about going to the mountains. I finally cleared a weekend for him in early September, and off the two of us went.

When asked about my wife, several adjectives spring to mind, but a safe one that fits the bill is thorough.

Yes, my wife is thorough. And when one is taking one’s Son away from the nest, the Mother Hen’s instincts aren’t suddenly capped off.


Apparently, we plan for contingencies.

It starts with thoughts of comfort. A considerate air mattress, some favorite cookies in the cooler…

Then it turns to extras sweatshirts. Then coats. And gloves. Toques. Scarves. Raingear.

    • A gallon of drinking water isn’t enough so I’m issued five.
    • I get informed that we need those complicated wiener sticks that have a cranking handle, and that no backchat would be tolerated.
    • When I off-handedly tried to say that I didn’t need a coffee pot as we’re going in light and lean “commando style” and we’d just have our meals in the town, I was verbally clapped on the ear and told that Hudson might like a hot chocolate before bed.
    • And “Why don’t I leave the packing to someone who knows what the hell they’re doing?”

“Yes, dear.”

I grabbed my day pack and my kit, pulled the rear seat out of the van, and was ready in 3 minutes.

The Colonel went into the wee hours packing our minivan for an apparent trek across the Mongolian Plain. She lit the scene with five of the seven lights she meant for us to take. Provisions and gear spilled out across the driveway and onto the lawn. I’m not sure I didn’t see a Sherpa somewhere in back.

“Dad? How long are we going to be gone?!?” asked a concerned Hudson as he headed up to bed.



The only thing that stopped the infestation was that it began raining, and stuff was getting wet.


Jasper, Ho!

We left Spruce Grove for Jasper about 4 pm – a little lateish, but Hudson had gymnastics camp, and I had scheduled calls with two new Platinum members.

The last time we’d been to Jasper was when I did my first night scuba dive, and then the campgrounds were first-come, first serve. They didn’t take reservations, and we’d been fine getting there between 8 and 9.

So naturally, the first thing Mr. Ranger Sir said was “Do you have a reservation?”

“Uh…no, I didn’t think the parks took them”, I said.

Naturally, he said, “Yes, we started taking them a year or so back, and if you don’t have one, then I’ll have to ask you to move along.”

He gave us directions to a campsite 18 kilometers (11 miles) out that “should still have some room”. Having no better options, we sidled the minivan up a goat path and over a mountain. At long last we found, if not quite Shangri-La, a campground.

And yes, they had room. Lots of room. Nothing BUT room. As best as I could tell, everyone else must’ve fallen off of the goat path and were no doubt playing Donner Party, because there was nobody else at this campground.

As the Park Ranger Gal in the little booth was checking us in and handing us the bear warning pamphlets, Hudson commented that he could see his breath. The Park Ranger Gal mentioned that it was 4 degrees Celsius right now (39F), but should stay above freezing.


“Should stay”

As we had our choice of campsites, we chose one right next to the large washroom and shower complex, and Hudson and I agreed that because it was getting late and it had been raining all day, we’d have our campout in the back of the van instead of pitching the tent in the mud. It also gave us the option of running the van if we needed some extra heat.

Now I don’t know if your spouse loves you as thoroughly as mine loves me, but if so, you’ll have had the experience of being thoroughly loved right between a rock and a hard spot.

I went to pull out some rain gear, but the back of the van was so cram-packed with gear that it shuddered and creaked like an armed catapult. Finding my jacket was hopeless, but I managed to pull a windbreaker out for Hudson.


A beautiful little boy enjoying a cup of hot chocolate on the top of a mountain with his dad.


First, a fire…

The first step was to get a roaring fire going, not just for warmth, but also for cooking something from our wagon train’s worth of provisions. And while he wouldn’t say anything, I could tell Hudson was a little nervous about the dripping sounds coming out of the trees in the darkness.

Even though I rarely ever get to use them anymore, I have always prided myself on my outdoors and survival skills. I’m an excellent shot, and I can dress a rabbit with my bare hands. I have a working knowledge of edible plants, and I can trap small animals. Building an igloo is no problem, and since I was not much older than Hudson, I’d always prided myself on being in the ‘one match one fire’ club. For well over half my life, I’ve NEVER used more than one match to light a fire. In fact, I’ve won considerable bets because I can light a fire without matches four different ways – including using a flashlight battery and a piece of steel wool.


But this damn rain…

As I tried to split away the wet to expose the dry core wood, it squished water out like juice out of a breakfast grapefruit, and I couldn’t very well haul my four-year-old a half mile in the dark, in bear country, to find some dry tinder.

Also, the wood provided was thick chunks almost a foot across, and all the small stuff was soaked through. I had to split the logs as small as possible and build a steady blaze that would generate enough heat to light the big stuff…but all I had was a small hand ax.

Being from Saskatchewan, I had a fleeting instinct to douse everything with gasoline, but there was nothing to use as a siphon.



I hacked down to some wood that was merely soaked and peeled long strips of my empty soft drink cup and Hudson’s chocolate milk carton we’d had from our pit stop at a Wendy’s on the way here. Then, I rolled the wax-coated cup-paper strip into a sort of candle and applied the match. It caught readily and burned slow, and even though it was helped by the Wendy’s take out bag and French fry boxes, the sodden tinder just wouldn’t catch.

I had to go a second match. And a third. And a fourth.

“C’mon Dad! You can do it!!!”



It was the most emasculated I’d felt since grade 11 when a 100 lb Lydia Henrion beat me in an arm-wrestling match in front of my friends as I prepared to compete in shot put at Provincials. Okay, maybe that was more emasculating, but still, when one’s little boy is looking at you with adoration and unblemished belief in you, the last thing one wants to do is deflate the little chap.

I tried for nearly an hour, but my limited supply of small fuel just couldn’t get the big wet stuff to light.

Supper was cold wieners and graham crackers in the van, and then I put as much crap from the back into the front seats as I could.

Since it was still raining, I couldn’t set stuff outside – and wouldn’t you know it, The Colonel forgot to pack a tarp. Then I realized that I couldn’t stretch out, because even though I’d heaped the front seats with crap, there was still no room for me to stretch out, and I couldn’t get to the driver’s seat to start the van to work the heater!

I unfolded the air mattress and found that Karla packed the double air mattress, not the single. The double mattress doesn’t fit in the back.


And where was the foot pump?

Damn. I don’t know if you’ve tried blowing up an air mattress in the last 30 years, but this is not the same as those inflatable blow-ups we used while swimming. Today’s air mattresses are stout, heavy, rigorous, and about as easy to inflate past the second breath as is a hot water bottle.

Not that that makes them any more puncture resistant…

And we mustn’t underestimate the effects of an additional 6000 feet of altitude on one’s aerobic capacity. By about the fifth breath, I begin to get a little wobbly. At the eighth breath, the world began spinning, and by the 12th breath, my vision was beginning to get dark around the edges.

It seemed to take forever, but I finally got it huffed it up and it and wedged it into the van. I tried folding it but finally had to settle for it at about a 45-degree angle. Hudson, thinking this to be great fun, climbed to the high point of the air mattress, rolled out his sleeping bag, and promptly fell asleep. Three minutes later, he began sliding, ultimately spending most of the night tumbled down on top of me.

It was like trying to sleep in the trash compactor scene in Star Wars.




New problem.

I was dripping wet, both from the drizzle and from splitting wood, fighting with the gear, and inflating the air mattress. We had enough gear to make an assault on Everest, but now I was at risk for hypothermia, and the crap that was supposed to make this trip more comfortable was making me miserable.

Setting my jaw, I undressed, stifled a scream as the cold air hit my ribcage, and changed into dry sweats, a hoodie, and socks. The hoodie got tucked into the sweats, and the sweats got tucked into the socks. I slid into the sleeping bag and tried to get comfortable.

Two things cause me to lose my sh!t. 1) heights, and 2) confinement.

I don’t know if I have out and out claustrophobia, but the thought of crawling through a tight space makes me shudder. That scene in Aliens when Bishop had to crawl through the pipe to reach the uplink tower scared me 1000 times more than the Aliens did.




I digress…

Back in high school, I participated in a contest at the Moose Head Inn at Kenossee Lake. They brought in an Austin Mini and removed the seats and side windows, and the nightclub quickly formed into teams to see how many people could fit in the thing. I tried to make it out the emergency exit but was captured and press-ganged into a team. A team on which I was not the biggest person.

Common sense would say that the biggest people go first, and the smaller ones get crammed into whatever space is left. Somehow, I was able to convince my teammates that it made more sense to put my six-foot frame in last. My teammates began crawling in and lying down on the floor of the Mini. Eight, nine, 10, 11, 12.

We were the last team, and we were tied with another team at 17 people when it was my turn. I commended my soul to God and wedged my legs into that slight concavity above the top of the windows, but below the roof. I got in up to my waist, and as was my custom, began hamming it up for the crowd.


Below me, 17 people began to experience one of my worst nightmares

I could feel the occasional spasm and hear the occasional muffled scream from somewhere near the bottom. The DJ, Chico, who was emceeing the contest, announced that I had to be at least in up to my armpits to count.

Sensing that there wasn’t more than about three cubic inches to share between the lot of them, my 17 teammates erupted in panic. Horrified shouts, impassioned pleas, and death threats emanated from the Mini. Most if not all of the people underneath me tried to flail and thrash in their panic, which was hopeless, as no one could move.

The person underneath me; I think it was Cuddy, was taking large, heaving, ragged gasps. I got the timing down, and at the bottom of one of his exhalations, I thrust myself in up to the armpits.


All in

The panic in the car was now complete and all-encompassing, save for me, of course. I could move my arms, and I proved it by waving to the audience and blowing kisses to our well-wishers.

Looking back, it’s probably a good thing the none of my teammates could see me doing that. I expect they would’ve taken offense.

Chico pulled me out, and we began peeling my teammates out of the car. Oddly, none of them shared my celebratory mood at our victory.

Almost all of them were in tears. Two of the toughest SOBs I know were sobbing uncontrollably and had trouble standing when they were pried out. Some of them had eye tremors and ticks that lasted for weeks.

This episode highlights why I don’t go in for that kind of thing: one never knows when some arsehole might take it upon himself to create some mayhem. *cough*


Anyway, 20 odd years later,

I was having my own discomfort at having to get into a sleeping bag. Yes, I understand that it’s not the same as being trapped under hundreds of pounds of one’s peers, and yes, I could move my legs.

But I couldn’t move them enough.

  • What if I wanted to assume the Starfish position? Couldn’t.


  • What if I had the instinct to flutter kick? Can’t.


  • And how does one extricate oneself from the bag in case of an emergency? Do you slither out the top? Nope. I’m rammed against the base of a great cliff of useless camping gear.


  • Do you unzip the damn thing all the way to the bottom? I want sleep, not calisthenics.


  • How do you cope with putting an arm over your head? You can’t unless you want to lose the limb to frostbite.


  • Am I supposed to tuck down underneath so my arm can go up? Not on your life – then my feet would be even more bound up.


  • Besides, if you put your head underneath, it raises the specter of suffocation. Even if you make it through the night, the humidity in your breath has made everything in there damp and humid, and you risk going into thermal shock if you have to get up and take a leak.


  • And how come the zipper always ends up underneath me?


It’s not a sleeping bag; it’s a burial shroud!

Somehow, inexplicably, I got calmed down enough to get my heart rate back into double digits and tried to relax. The high-pitched squeal of panic got dialed back enough that I could take deep breaths and relax. Sorta.



Then the damn sleeping bag popped a leak!

Every third or fourth breath, a blast of frigid mountain air gusted around my feet and hoiked me back from the precipice of sleep. I couldn’t figure where it was coming from, or how it was happening. If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn that a cartoon chipmunk was pulling open the zipper at the bottom to get revenge on me for some perceived grievance.

And I resolved to tell our Dear Ms. Park Ranger Gal that the temperature plainly DID get below freezing.

In the end, I figure that I got about 3 hours of sleep, snagged in 10 and 12-minute increments.



Greeting the Dawn

Hudson woke up the next morning cheered and refreshed at first light, so I scraped the frost from the windows, and we high-tailed into Jasper and got a room at the place with a hot tub.


Owen and Hudson with some other nice folks on a scenic river raft trip


Once I got my core temperature out of the danger zone, the weekend was fine. We swam in the pool, we did the gondola ride up to Mount Cerebral Edema and hiked around the top. The Boy and I ate junk food, we went on a fantastic river rafting tour, and we saw lots of elk, deer, and mountain goats.



The only other snag was the photo radar ticket I got coming home. Karla and Hudson got pulled over six months previously, and ever since then Hudson’s been calling out every speed limit sign he sees to make sure she’s not going to get another ticket.

I figure I’ll just quietly pay mine and not bring it up…

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  1. Jasmine Hewitt

    Ok, I thought I was the worst when it came to varying sleeping positions. We now have a new contender…

  2. Melissa

    I am quite the mother hen myself with my two boys! I think there is nothing wrong with packing too much. It is better to be safe than sorry! Really enjoyed the story Owen. I couldn’t handle being in the cold at all. My husband always laughs at me because we live in Florida and I am using blankets when it is in the 70’s outside. Hudson is adorable by the way!

  3. Ani A

    Hmmm.. quite a story Owen! It was fun imagining you trapped inside the sleeping bag! I can’t stand the cold, if I were you, I would have been dead by now!

    • The Pencilneck

      Oddly, Hudson still remembers this as being fun!

  4. Ethan

    I feel your pain

    • The Pencilneck

      I’m finding that my age and desire for comfort are linked. As one goes up, so does the other!


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