This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
This is a tale of two campsites.
I spent my first winter in Alaska revisiting the hiking trails I'd fallen in love with over the summer, and found myself doubly smitten. Winter hiking offers a special kind of thrill if you're willing to haul extra gear and learn about snow safety.
That love of winter hiking progressed into a desire to try winter backpacking. One day last March, I decided to go for something low-risk. I grabbed a friend and my four-season tent, and we headed to the snowy Eagle and Symphony Lakes trail.
We started snowshoeing around 11 p.m., veering off trail after a couple of hours to set up camp in the valley. Postholing in thigh-deep powder, we were grateful for whatever flotation we could get on top of the snow.
Several stomps later, we had a flat surface to pitch our tent on. We stowed our gear, crawled inside, ate a few slices of pizza and fell asleep to the hushed whisper of snow calmly landing on the roof of our shelter.
In the morning, a blanket of white covered the landscape. Collecting the gear we left outside overnight required a brief scavenger hunt, but all in all, it was a mercifully uneventful trip.
Fast-forward about two weeks.
I set out alone on another late-night start after work, this time on the trail toward Rabbit Lake above the Anchorage Hillside. Where there was snow, it was sloppy and loose. The wind didn't seem bad, so I pressed forward.
After 1 a.m., short of the lake, I spotted a stretch of seemingly flat ground and decided to call it quits for the night.
That mild breeze I felt while hiking then turned into a series of full-blown gusts. The sound of the wind pounding my tent thundered in my ears, and I wondered how I'd ever fall asleep. Eventually, exhaustion took hold.
Half an hour later, I woke up to my tent sliding downhill.
Have you ever felt that sensation? It's an experience not easily forgotten. You have no sense of the world outside your tent. You're a passenger blindly going along for a ride.
Once I realized what was happening, I dug my elbow into the snow through the floor of my tent to stop the sliding. In the opposite corner, I dug in a heel. I kept my back against the uphill tent wall to brace the fabric against the wind, which was threatening to send me, tent and all, end-over-end farther down the slope.
I considered my options. Heading home would be easy. Relocating my tent would take a little time but be worthwhile. Only a stubborn fool would stay where they were.
I made my bed. Might as well lie in it.
I stayed in that position, playing the world's worst game of Twister, for two drowsy hours before giving up. Stubbornness is not always a great trait in the outdoors.
When I packed up my tent, I saw that it had slid all of 15 feet. In the drama of my mind, though, it might as well have been 1,500 feet.
In retrospect, there are countless things I'd do differently, starting with where and how I decided to camp.
Weather conditions can make or break your trip, and your shelter.
When it comes to our capricious Alaska conditions, make no assumptions. Find the best weather data available and account for change. A colleague once found a perfect place to set up bivouac sacks under a tarp in the falling snow. Overnight, that snow turned to rain. They found their gear floating in puddles around them the next morning.
Someone else I know (whose name you might recognize) hadn't checked the tide book and measured his campsite carefully enough before setting up camp on a kayaking trip in Prince William Sound. He woke up to seawater under the tent.
If I'd gone farther up the trail, I could've used the wind break by the lake. If there had been a lot of snow, I could've built my own wind wall.
I've also had more than one friend see tent poles rendered useless after being hammered by wind. One seasoned reader recommends carrying larger-diameter 6-inch pole tube segments for repairs.
Keep it down — your tent, that is.
Rocks can certainly be used to help secure your tent where the ground is clear. I'll do this where moving rocks will have minimal impact on the landscape. In high winds, using multiple guy lines can provide added security. In winter, shoveling into snow and digging in with snow anchors or snow/sand stakes, if you're in the deep, would be especially secure.
When there's a lot of wind and thin spring snow cover, well, I still haven't figured out the best solution out there. Maybe praying to the mountain gods would help.
Don't just look at the ground under your tent.
What does the terrain look like around your chosen campsite? Camping at the base of a slope might look epic, but I wouldn't want to tempt fate by sleeping in the path of an avalanche runout zone or falling rocks. That means keeping an eye on Chugach crud and sliding rocks on glaciers in summer.
If I had paid closer attention that night on the Rabbit Lake trail, I would've seen how wind-affected the snow was in the area where I was camping — a warning sign of winds to come.
There's a time and place to be stubborn. Is this really it?
At times, the conditions are so brutal, there's not much you can do to secure your tent. Some would say that at that point, the wise choice would be to turn around. Others would tell you to stay put and make the best of your situation. For those deep in the backcountry, you may not have a choice.
As someone who hikes at odd hours in variable conditions, I know as well as anyone how tempting it can be to cut corners when you're tired.
Then I think about sliding downhill in my tent, and I shudder. That moment — which was the product of laziness, inexperience and ill-preparedness — I hope to never repeat again.
So sometimes, when conditions are rough at the trailhead and I know they're not likely to improve, I'll bail and go home. Other times, I'll pick a different trail.
But if I'm dead set on sleeping out there, I compromise. I'll ditch the tent entirely — and bring a bivy instead.
See? Maybe I'm not so stubborn after all.