Nine Days, Eight Nights: A Winter Expedition

March 17, 2020

It’s the morning of Day 4 on Junior Four Point, but the sun has yet to show itself above the Baldface mountains to the East. With students still asleep in their tarps, the faculty strap on our snowshoes and head northward from camp in the predawn light, selecting solo sites along the way. At each spot, Nancy—who has led 17 Four Point trips at Gould— asks, Are these far enough apart? Every time I think, Really, this far?

Winter Expedition Solo

Going on solo is a Four Point rite of passage—sometimes dreaded, often a highlight of their winter expedition

We stomp out a small lollipop shape with our snowshoes at each site and mark it with a stick in the trail, to help spot it on the way back. We pass camp quietly and make a trail to the south with four more lollipops. Nancy tracks the route on her GPS. The whole circuit takes a mile.

Once the students are up and assembled around the campfire, she lets them know it’s Solo Day. The response is subdued. A few of them suspected it, although group leaders choose the day that best fits their group or itinerary. Some are not quite sure how to feel—Resigned, Anxious, Excited. They take a few minutes to take it in. 

Winter Expedition Camp Site

One of the first jobs, when a group sets up camp, is to dig out the fire pit, replete with snow benches and a backrest, like a 1970s sunken living room.

Solo is a chance for them to practice what they’ve learned over the last four days, not on the trail but at camp: how to string up a shelter, how to build a fire, how to stay warm in the woods in winter!

But Solo, and Junior Four Point more generally, is not really about survival, or even hard skills. It’s about facing anxiety head-on, about stepping out of our comfort zone, and finding out what we’re capable of.

Winter Expedition Summit

Most leaders try to plan a summit into their winter expedition, often as a day hike from a basecamp so students have lighter packs that day.

The faculty take turns walking the route, checking in only if a student has hung a flag at the trail. At the first site I pass, a blue camo bandana hangs on a sapling. I don’t really know what to expect. It’s my first Four Point, too, and I wonder if they’re ready to spend a night on their own. 

This student has strung her ridgeline, but not much else. It will be dark soon. She’s stuck, afraid she’s doing it wrong, that her shelter won’t last the night in this wind, that no one will hear her whistle if she’s in trouble. I try to reassure her, get her working again, and remind her someone will be by later with a hot water bottle — and then leave. 

The legendary John Wight

Some trip leaders, like John “Pop” Wight, have decades of wilderness experience.

Another has trouble lighting her fire, but mostly the trail is bandana-free. Once the last of the hot water bottles are delivered, the faculty turn in for the night. I don’t know about the others, but I find it hard to sleep. Would I hear a whistle? What if someone’s tarp doesn’t hold? Are they warm enough? (Their sleeping bags are rated for -40°f and it’s in the 20s, but still, I worry.) Daylight can’t come soon enough.

At dawn, all is quiet. Once we have a pot of water boiling in the morning, I walk the route to invite them back to camp. 

Winter Expedition Sleds for gear

Not all groups take sleds, and some resupply, but winter camping is not a lightweight endeavor.

Walking to the farthest first, I see each of the tarps still standing as I go by, students all snug in their sleeping bags. A few have giant snow craters nearby from their fires. I wake them each in turn. Some are groggier than others, but the smiles are enormous. They’ve done it, accomplished something some of them never thought they’d be able to do. Those who welcomed the challenge want more — to stay out two or three days!

It was a novel experience for most—to be without their phones, as they are for all nine days — but to be alone with only their own thoughts for company. And they enjoyed it! What a gift at their age. How many of their peers will ever have this opportunity? 

Map and Orienteering skills

Among the hard skills students learn is map and compass. Most groups bushwhack part of their route through the White Mountain National Forest or Mahoosuc Range, although each group has a unique itinerary.

On the final night, Camp 8, Nancy invites them, one by one, for a chat. Standing in the dark with our headlamps on, it feels a bit like the set of Survivor. Each student is asked to reflect on the trip, how she has contributed, her strengths, and what she might want to work on moving forward. Then, each is given a wristband that Experiential Learning Director Chris Hayward has tied with two types of knots — one for strength and the other for adaptability, symbolic of the traits needed to navigate a winter expedition, and in life.

The group opts to sleep under the stars. In part, I know they don’t want to set up tarps so their departure back to campus in the morning will be that much quicker. But it’s a full moon and a calm night. Nancy says that plenty of her groups have opted to do this before.

Digging a shelter for Winter Expedition

Students often dig out snow walls under their group tarps to help further protect them from winter weather.

They lay their sleeping bags in a row on a large ground cloth in a hardwood clearing, about a half-mile in from the trailhead. The moon rises as we finish dinner. The faculty turn in, but we hear the group still sorting their gear for tomorrow’s return. I start thinking about the week ahead and cannot sleep. Two barred owls have a conversation in the night. I watch the moon make its arc across the sky, but I’m not worried about the girls tonight. I know they’re just fine.


Snow shoeing in the birches

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