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Thread: Winter Camping Above Treeline

  1. #1
    Member MindlessMariachi's Avatar
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    Winter Camping Above Treeline

    Hey Folks -
    I know that according to the rules camping above treeline is allowed as long as there's 2 feet of snow. I have always wanted to do this. Has anyone here actually done it? Candidly, what I'd like to do is dig a quinzee up on some peak. (They're warmer than a tent, sturdier than a tent, and you don't have to carry a tent. Also fun to dig). I've done tons of quinzee camping but never above treeline! (I would expect a lot of weird looks as I shovel away and people are hustling through the wind)
    Curious for tips and war stories about above-treeline winter camping.
    Thanks!

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    Senior Member richard's Avatar
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    I’ve never heard of a “quinzee” before! I assume that it’s some kind of cave type structure. Someone please educate me? I’d love to know about this.Is it similar to making an “igloo” like we used to do when I was a kid?

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    Senior Member dug's Avatar
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    I think it would be difficult to dig a quinzee (IMO) as getting enough good snow and in a sufficient area would be difficult. I've used them a couple of times down low, and have camped above treeline often, but never combined the two. I've dug into some drifts and made a good kitchen/hang-out area off a summit ledge, etc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by richard View Post
    I’ve never heard of a “quinzee” before! I assume that it’s some kind of cave type structure. Someone please educate me? I’d love to know about this.Is it similar to making an “igloo” like we used to do when I was a kid?
    Make a giant pile of snow. Sit around for an hour as it sinters. Dig out a cave in the giant pile of snow. Wring out clothes and convince yourself it was worth it.

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    Senior Member jniehof's Avatar
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    I think the rule is camping *on* 2 feet of snow. It'd be tricky to demonstrate you still have a two foot base after digging out. Gathering the snow also sounds like it would be difficult to do if there's any wind, and would probably require tramping over a pretty large area of fragile vegetation. Four-season tents are the usual means of camping ATL.

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    I used to work with the local scouts and a winter activity was Quinzees and Igloos. The snow conditions were rarely good for igloos and even tough for Qunizees. The snow tends to freeze thaw daily and its non uniform. We built a few Quinzees over the years and its real easy to get cold and wet. Definitely not something to use one night while hiking. My bet if folks are building snow caves, they are taking advantage of terrain features like digging in behind large boulders where snow gets trapped.

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    I haven't dug a snow cave since I was a kid.

    I strongly suggest a partner to handle the rest of the camp chores. I expect you are going to get really warm, really quickly, from the labor and then potentially sweat into your base layers. So bring a "post digging" replacement base layer.

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    Member MindlessMariachi's Avatar
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    Hi Folks!
    First - on the subject of quinzees - I've done a lot of nights camping out in quinzees with success! You need not get soaked while building one, but the trick is to only attempt it when the weather is pretty cold - that way the snow you're crawling around in won't get you wet, and also work at sort of a modest pace so you're not working up a big sweat. As such, they can take a while to dig, so no, you're not going to cover a ton of miles - quinzee digging will be your central activity of the day. That said, sometimes it can go pretty quick if you can find a good snow drift to burrow into. I've done them solo and with others.

    On the subject of above treeline - they work best in deep powdery snow that if you were to take your snowshoes off, you'd sink into - so maybe not the ice that's often near the tops of 4000 footers. But the powdery snow that's often found among the pines as they give way to above-treeline would work prettty well. But that's a good point though about being in a place where you can actually be on top of 2 feet of snow (not digging down into it). I guess to do it you'd have to find a glade with really deep snow. Perhaps a few scouting hikes in late winter are in order.

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    Senior Member ChrisB's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JoshandBaron View Post
    Make a giant pile of snow. Sit around for an hour as it sinters. Dig out a cave in the giant pile of snow. Wring out clothes and convince yourself it was worth it.
    As I recall, Valley guides who run Winter President Traverse trips sometimes construct a cave shelter on the leeward side of Sphinx Col.

    This is a dangerous place to be and very exposed in winter. I personally would not count on finding a shelter there unless the person who built it told me exactly where it was. And as far as building one there, not for me.

    A better bet might be someplace in the south west snow fields on the summit cone. And of course you gotta carry in/out the nasty stuff.
    Nobody told me there'd be days like these
    Strange days indeed -- most peculiar, mama
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    Senior Member hikerbrian's Avatar
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    Couple of thoughts. First, I've pitched my tent above treeline in the Whites in winter on several occasions, and on two occasions it has been sufficiently miserable that I won't do it again, barring special circumstances. I'd rather lose 1k' elevation and sleep comfortably than save the hour of walking just to not sleep all night. Most recently, we broke trail through extremely deep snow from Appalachia all the way to Madison hut. Having fought that hard to get to that point, we didn't want to lose any elevation and chose to dig out platforms in some deep drifts and pitch there. Wind was steady when we pitched, but it picked up considerably after dark such that my tent was getting blasted all night, and I was pretty nervous. Four-season Nemo - I was pretty sure the tent could handle it. Pretty sure. Further, even though the vestibule was on the leeward side and we were dug in at least 4 or 5 feet down, the spin drift coming up the valley was so heavy that it was constantly blowing under the vestibule flaps or in through the vent we had in the vestibule while we cooked. It was a huge hassle. We could have sealed the vestibule off tighter but chose not to for (I think) obvious reasons. After breaking trail all day we were exhausted, but we still had to fight just to make dinner. And then with the wind blasting us all night and the associated noise and anxiety, we slept little that night and were mentally and physically exhausted the next day. Had we dropped the 1k' to Valley Way tent site, in spite of losing some elevation, we'd have slept comfortably and felt rested for day two.

    I find that I'm rarely in the mood to screw around above treeline in winter. I want to do everything as efficiently and quickly as humanly possible, right until I'm snuggled into my sleeping bag in a sheltered spot with hot water bottle between my legs. The prospect of digging and moving snow for, what, an hour or two at the end of a long day while daylight is fading and I'm probably low on calories and getting blasted by the wind is utterly unappealing. I think HAVING a snow cave above treeline - provided you've got a fantastic escape route direct from your cave - would be great. Building one, not so much.

    My experience is there are no shortcuts to staying safe in the Presidentials. It's just hard work. I think in net, the quinzee/snow cave adds more work than it saves. That said, I've pitched several times in Sphinx col, and that spot is uniquely suited, I think, to building a snow cave. It drifts in heavy there, and you could probably just dig into a drift without having to pile up any additional snow. But I would NOT head up to that spot without a tent as backup. It's a pretty committed location. A bail out through the Great Golf would be epic, so you're committing to coming back over the ridge at some point. I think you'd want a tent as backup in case snow conditions aren't right or you're just too gassed to dig for another hour.
    Sure. Why not.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MindlessMariachi View Post
    Curious for tips and war stories about above-treeline winter camping.
    Thanks!
    My only advice is that IF you plan on building an igloo that sleeps three people at the summit of a 5000 footer, make sure the weather forecast is for temperatures to remain below freezing overnight and no rain is in that forecast. Otherwise, be prepared for the igloo to collapse at 0230 (approx.).

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    Senior Member weatherman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by hikerbrian View Post
    Couple of thoughts. First, I've pitched my tent above treeline in the Whites in winter on several occasions, and on two occasions it has been sufficiently miserable that I won't do it again, barring special circumstances. I'd rather lose 1k' elevation and sleep comfortably than save the hour of walking just to not sleep all night. Most recently, we broke trail through extremely deep snow from Appalachia all the way to Madison hut. Having fought that hard to get to that point, we didn't want to lose any elevation and chose to dig out platforms in some deep drifts and pitch there. Wind was steady when we pitched, but it picked up considerably after dark such that my tent was getting blasted all night, and I was pretty nervous. Four-season Nemo - I was pretty sure the tent could handle it. Pretty sure. Further, even though the vestibule was on the leeward side and we were dug in at least 4 or 5 feet down, the spin drift coming up the valley was so heavy that it was constantly blowing under the vestibule flaps or in through the vent we had in the vestibule while we cooked. It was a huge hassle. We could have sealed the vestibule off tighter but chose not to for (I think) obvious reasons. After breaking trail all day we were exhausted, but we still had to fight just to make dinner. And then with the wind blasting us all night and the associated noise and anxiety, we slept little that night and were mentally and physically exhausted the next day. Had we dropped the 1k' to Valley Way tent site, in spite of losing some elevation, we'd have slept comfortably and felt rested for day two.

    I find that I'm rarely in the mood to screw around above treeline in winter. I want to do everything as efficiently and quickly as humanly possible, right until I'm snuggled into my sleeping bag in a sheltered spot with hot water bottle between my legs. The prospect of digging and moving snow for, what, an hour or two at the end of a long day while daylight is fading and I'm probably low on calories and getting blasted by the wind is utterly unappealing. I think HAVING a snow cave above treeline - provided you've got a fantastic escape route direct from your cave - would be great. Building one, not so much.

    My experience is there are no shortcuts to staying safe in the Presidentials. It's just hard work. I think in net, the quinzee/snow cave adds more work than it saves. That said, I've pitched several times in Sphinx col, and that spot is uniquely suited, I think, to building a snow cave. It drifts in heavy there, and you could probably just dig into a drift without having to pile up any additional snow. But I would NOT head up to that spot without a tent as backup. It's a pretty committed location. A bail out through the Great Golf would be epic, so you're committing to coming back over the ridge at some point. I think you'd want a tent as backup in case snow conditions aren't right or you're just too gassed to dig for another hour.
    What Brian said. I've been able to compare above treeline locations in the Whites and Rockies in winter- camping here above treeline is a piece of cake by comparison. In my opinion, the combination of enough snow that stays on the ground to build a quinzhee, little enough wind so emerging from your shelter is not an epic in itself, and a location that is sheltered enough to be even slightly fun in the Whites is a relatively rare occurrence. There are probably a few great days each year that have that combination, but you're very lucky if you find them.
    --would rather be hiking than typing.

  13. #13
    Senior Member B the Hiker's Avatar
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    Winter camping is a wonderful experience, but as others have noted, doing so above treeline is something, I would suggest, to be done only if necessary. As someone who has done it, there is a lot of exposure, and you need a tent that can withstand pretty strong winds--that might appear even when the forecast does not suggest they will. There is a lot of exposure!

    On that note, an additional challenge is that it can be hard to obtain the snow one needs to melt. Above treeline, it tends to blow off quite quickly, and what is left can be quite hardened.

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