HATCHER PASS: do winter camping.

Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2001

HATCHER PASS (AP) -- The wind came cold from the north in the night, driving loose snow in rippling waves along the valley floor. Overhead, the twinkling stars had long since disappeared behind draperies of scudding clouds.

Snug in their sleeping bags inside a massive quinzee, the young adventurers from Boy Scout Troop 8 of St. Mary's Episcopal Church never noticed the deteriorating weather.

They had found shelter from the storm in a primitive structure designed to combat nighttime squalls determined to swirl cold snow into any opening in a tent or bivouac sack.

And what, the uninitiated are likely to ask, is a quinzee?

Imagine a cross between a snow cave and an igloo, and you'll begin to get the picture. The origin of the word is said to be Native American. The closest meaning in English would be something like ''snow-mound hut.''

The quinzee begins with a pile of snow.

In this case, Troop 8 scoured a ridge along a frozen creek to come up with a 5-foot-tall heap of snow. Then they took off for some snowboarding and battle-sledding.

This is the most important step in quinzee construction.

The snow pile has to consolidate, which takes one to six hours, depending on the temperature differences in the snowpack. Shoveling mixes together snows of different temperatures. The snow hardens into a cohesive pile as the mound moves naturally toward thermal equilibrium.

In this case, the snow mound the boys piled up in the morning was solid enough to walk on by the time they stopped having fun in the late afternoon.

That made it time to engage in the serious labor of quinzee construction.

Teen-agers Graham Evans, Dylan O'Harra, Jesse Crocker, Tyler Yates and preteen James E. McConnaughy grabbed their shovels and quickly worked themselves into a warm glow digging into the snow mound.

First, they dug down nearly to ground level on the edge of the mound. Then they started tunneling.

''Graham, dig a little deeper,'' O'Harra instructed.

And Evans dug deeper and deeper and deeper.

Pretty soon he was several feet back into the mound and in need of help to remove the snow piling up behind him. The others took turns with that.

Before they were done, the boys had hollowed out a sleeping space 8 or 10 feet long and 3 or 4 feet wide. They'd done this many times before, said Doug O'Harra, Dylan's father and one of the adult supervisors on the trip.

''Sometimes,'' he said, ''they'll go sledding until midnight, and then dig until 2 a.m. before they finally go to bed.''

Beats television for Alaska winter entertainment, Evans said.

For these guys, winter camping isn't a struggle; it's an adventure.

Several of the scouts are working toward 200-below merit badges. Most have already met the standards for a recognition of 100-below.

''I've gotten three of those so far,'' Dylan O'Harra said. ''This will be my fourth if I get one this year.''

To qualify, scouts must camp out in the winter for a cumulative total of 100 degrees below freezing. That can be 100 nights at 31 degrees, or as few as two nights at 18 degrees below zero.

''I think the coldest we've been is 10 degrees below zero, two nights in a row,'' Dylan O'Harra said. Dad Doug said he has no doubt the boys have honed their winter-camping skills to the point where they could comfortably survive in much colder conditions, but it wouldn't be much fun.

Snowboarding and sledding at 20 degrees below zero are fun for a few hours, but not for an entire day. It's simply too cold. And the object here is to have fun -- one of the premises being that cold is as much a psychological challenge as a physiological one.

People who are having fun -- be it skiing, camping or even ice fishing -- are less aware of the cold.

Remove the element of fun, though, and even 20 degrees can become daunting. Standing around at that temperature bored and unhappy will start properly dressed people shivering.

The scouts of Troop 8 know this.

''Battle sledding is part of the camping,'' Dylan O'Harra said.

OK, so now you're wondering what the heck is ''battle sledding''?

Pretty much what it sounds like, the sort of sledding you'd expect if you put together a bunch of boys bursting with the normal aggression of adolescent boys. They vent it while sliding downhill in sleds.

The object is not just to get to the bottom of the hill, but to keep the other sledders from getting there. This can involve such things as ramming the other guy's sled or jumping on the other guy's sled or even jumping on the other guy.

The competition is friendly, the protective gear inherent. Everyone is so bundled up in layers of winter clothing and the snow is so forgiving that it would be hard to get hurt. That is more likely to happen sled jumping, which is another way these guys have fun.

They get on a sled, rocket straight down a hill, hit a bump and try to see how high they can fly.

That, too, helps make winter camping fun.

''We go camping a lot more than some of the other troops,'' Dylan O'Harra said.

It might have something to do with the fact that this group does everything it can to make the camping fun. The contribution of adult chaperones doesn't hurt.

While the boys were battle-sledding and snowboarding one January evening, Charles Evans -- Graham's father -- was tending a bubbling Dutch oven full of succulent stew. It cooked over a crackling fire made from firewood that a group had skidded up a hill on the sleds with their camping gear.

Around the fire pit, Charles Evans supervised the construction of a wall of snow that became benches for sitting. When darkness came, as it does early in Alaska in January, he fired up a Coleman gasoline lantern that bathed the scene in warm light.

It wasn't quite as snug and comfortable as a cabin in the woods, but it ran a good second. It kept everyone out eating, talking and goofing off until after 10 p.m.

Then the boys retreated to the warmth of sleeping bags spread atop foam pads spread over a tarp in their quinzee. Charles Evans and John McConnaughy, the third of the adult supervisors, slipped into an almost equally protective snow cave they'd dug in a drift along the bank of the creek.

And Doug O'Harra retreated to his snow trench, which kept him out of the wind but partially drifted in with snow during the night. It was a reminder of why it is a good idea to wrap that sleeping bag in a bivouac sack or some other form of protection when sleeping out in the open in the winter.

O'Harra, who'd done that, slept as comfortable as a caterpillar in a cocoon, although he admitted he woke at one point wondering if his trench would drift in solid. He thought about shoveling it out, he confessed, but he was so warm and cozy in his bag that he went back to sleep.

Getting out of the bag would be left for morning, and that's the real challenge in winter camping.

No matter how you cut it, no matter what you do, the thought of crawling out of a warm sleeping bag into a cold, often hostile environment, is a challenge. It was even a bit of a struggle to get the boys out of the quinzee for another day of playing in the snow, although the smell of a hot breakfast helped.

O'Harra had the Dutch oven going this time, filling the chill morning air with the smell of his breakfast pie -- eggs, Italian sausage, chopped potatoes, green chilies and chopped onions, topped with biscuits.

These guys do know how to do winter camping. -

(Distributed by the Associated Press)

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