I went snow camping last night. For all you initiates out there, snow camping is when a group of boy scouts go out to some high-altitude camp site where there is a whole lot of snow, pitch tents on top of that snow, and try not to freeze their tails off while attempting to sleep in sub-freezing temperatures.
Well, last night was just like that, except for the sub-freezing part. The temperature was actually in the upper 30s, but the wind chill, I think, took it below the line.
Being the First Counselor in the Young Men's Presidency puts me in a position of responsibility for the boys in the ward who are between the ages of 14 and 16. The scouts go on this snow camp every winter, but this year their scout leader, to whom I am the assistant in all things scouting, couldn't go. No problem, I originally thought, I could handle that.
Then I was informed, the Sunday before the trip, that the plan was to have each group do their own meals. It took me about two seconds to begin panicking, as I have never been responsible for feeding half a dozen ravenous teenage boys before, and had no idea what to prepare. In theory, the boys are supposed to plan and prepare for themselves, but at the last minute that wasn't terribly practical. I called the leader of the priests (the 16-18 year-olds), the Young Men's President, and told him that it was just silly that we were doing meals separately and, in very clear terms, I told him that I desperately needed his help.
He was reluctant at first, but I was quite insistent. In the end, he did all the planning and purchasing and preparing for the meals. I am very, very grateful for that, and, having now seen how it can be done, I will be much better prepared next time.
We gathered at the church starting at 3:30 pm, and by 4 we were on the road. The drive was about an hour long, so by the time we got there, twilight was upon us. We drove all the way to the top of the road towards Mt. Pinos, and found an almost empty parking lot. It seemed not many people planned to sleep over night in the winter conditions.
The wind was blowing, and it was bitterly cold. We later found that the temperatures were in the low 40s, but with the wind chill I'm certain it was below freezing. We started loading our gear out of the vehicles and all the adults and boys carried several loads of stuff from the parking lot about 500 feet off the road to a camp site that we barely recognized as one. The snow was 2 to 4 feet deep, but the top of the snow was frozen into a slippery and hard crust. On occasion our feet plunged through the surface layer, but most of the time we remained atop the snow.
Once we got things loaded to the camp site (I only slipped and fell once, and that was far better than most), everybody variously went off to go sledding (yes, in the dim light), putting up tents, starting a camp fire, and eventually starting to cook dinner. I was greatly surprised to find that none of the boys were particularly skilled in the art of fire-starting, and it took us a long time to get it going, and then only after using some lighter fluid.
Despite the temperatures, we weren't exactly roughing it. One of the leaders brought a generator to power a spotlight, and several propane tanks, one of which he used as a standing heater to keep warm.
Dinner commenced chaotically, with garbage going in every direction. (That said, in the finest scouting tradition, the next morning we did indeed leave things cleaner than when we arrived, packing out quite a bit of garbage that we found upon our arrival.)
For dinner, we had barbecue chicken on hoagie buns, with potato chips and trail mix as sides. It didn't even approximate a balanced meal, but the boys ate it up, and I didn't have to prepare it, so I'm happily counting it as a blessing. S'mores rounded out the evening, though I was surprised to find that many of the boys were rather indifferent to them.
As people wound down for the night, the cold started making itself felt. The boys began filing away to their tents for the night, with three of them deciding to sleep out under the stars. Keep in mind that the temperature was hovering around 40 degrees, so it was cold. By about 9 pm, most of the boys were headed to bed, and I went that way myself, finally going to sleep by 10 pm.
I slept in my little tent that I've had since I was a boy scout. I have a lot of fond memories with that tent, which is no stranger to cold temperatures. Once when I was a kid I actually slept on Utah Lake, and I remember that being much colder than I was last night.
Last night I slept well enough, and was actually quite comfortable, despite the slightly lumpy snow upon which my tent was pitched. With the wind whooshing through the treetops and a gibbous moon waxing above us, it was very peaceful, even with a tent full of boys inanely yakking away about cars 30 paces away.
The next morning, I woke up at 6, but it was too darn cold to get out, so I went back to sleep until about 7:30. At that point, I supposed I should get up and be helpful, so I did and helped get breakfast started. We had "eggs in a bag", with bagels and pop-tarts also available.
Many of the boys spent a lot of time sledding, the conditions being nearly ideal: steep hills, icy snow, and windy pathways. Actually, when all was said and done, it proved to be a little too ideal, as several of the boys got spooked by hard landings and decided to call it quits before they got hurt. I think kids these days are less resilient (or more wise?) than I used to be, because I'm pretty sure I would have kept sledding until somebody actually did get hurt.
Later in the morning, several of us went snow-shoeing up to the top of Mt. Pinos. One of the leaders rented 10 sets of snow-shoes. With 15 boys under foot, I was really worried that we wouldn't have enough to go around, but very few of the boys actually wanted to go snow-shoeing, something I couldn't even fathom. For all of these boys, snow-shoeing is so far outside of their normal experience that I thought they'd all jump at the chance, but most of them actually complained about how they went last year and how they wanted to go sledding and how they didn't want to walk all the way to the top of Mt. Pinos again! Granted, this was the older boys talking, but I was still surprised, and quite a bit disappointed in them.
Nevertheless, with only 5 boys actually agreeing to go, there were snow-shoes to spare, so I decided to go, too, because, really, how often do you get to do things like that? I most certainly wasn't disappointed, either.
The hike up Mt. Pinos was about two miles each way, with a well-formed trail to follow. With the snow as deep as it was, we were a little concerned we'd have trouble finding our way, but there were plenty of tracks to follow and some of those in our party had been there before. In truth, we were able to actually make the trip shorter because we didn't stick to the trail but instead went over the intermediate hills towards the top.
At the top, it was beautiful. We found large open spaces that made me yearn for a snowmobile, a solar-powered radio antenna (which, oddly enough, wasn't distracting), and amazingly wide vistas. I was happy to be there, and when we got to the bottom, all who went were glad they did.
Those lazy boys who didn't? It was their loss. Apparently they spent most of their time just sitting around doing nothing, watching other people who showed up in the morning to recklessly go sledding. They reported seeing several ambulances arrive to take people off the mountain who had head injuries and the like. Thankfully, none of our boys shared that same fate.
We finally left to come home at around 1 pm. I had 5 boys in my van, and they were all fairly muted during the drive home. The one in the passenger seat to my right tipped his head back and immediately went slack-jawed as he passed out, his neck kinked in a weird swan-like pose. It was quite funny.
Even with my initial fears of being "in charge", it wasn't that intimidating. Most of the boys were helpful (though a few were downright lazy, actively seeking ways to not have to help), and they were very respectful to each other, to their leaders, and to those around us.
So, a few final thoughts. One time when I was moving something from the camp to the van, I walked by one of the young men, a very tall and sturdy athlete. He was standing beneath a tree with a shovel and digging the snow out from beneath it. Stacking the snow chunks up in a pile around the tree, I was at a loss to know what he was doing, so I asked him. His reply? He was building a snow fort. Why, you ask? His reply was heart-warming: "Ever since I was a kid I've always wanted to build a snow fort, so I'm building a snow fort." I was moved because here was a kid from Southern California making good on a childhood dream. It was, to my dismay, short-lived, though, because his peers mocked him and he soon gave it up. Such a pity.
Another time the boys were sitting by the cars watching others sled down the hills. It was hazardous sledding, which they had learned by experience earlier in the morning. One of the boys, who has a well-documented history of adrenaline-sport-related accidents (he got a fairly severe concussion a month or so back), was shouting out warnings to people who were doing things that were clearly unwise. At that moment, one of the boys deadpanned, "Listen to him. He's like the Holy Ghost, saying, 'Don't do it!'" The boys and I looked around at each other, and then we started laughing. We all recognized the irony.
All told, I had a very good experience, and I'm very glad that I went.