HAE logo HAND TO HAND SURVIVAL

by John V. Bellantoni, your cybah-spaced mountain correspondent

1983-1984 Franconia Notch, New Hampshire

It's the early eighties, and time for some real survival camping. Elementary style. Like an old school skateboard gathering dust in the cellar, it's fat wheels unfamiliar to modern skaters and weather beaten battle scars left out in forgotten silence, the high impact camping style of that era has long since been left behind. It's raw edge silenced by the march of progress, and technique lost to technological prowess, a story from that age is a reflection of now long forgotten winter days. Days when survival was fought hand-to-hand, and sheer determination shaped a wilderness adventure, the elegance and sophistication of a modern approach still decades away.

As we open up the history books to the winter of 1983-1984, we find Fife and JB driving up to NH for their third winter expedition. They are talking about old times...

Connectict River ValleyBack in 1981-1982, Connecticut River Valley was the staging ground for Fife's first winter campout. JB and Jim Fife both attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute, located of course, in none other but beauteous Worcester Massachusetts, the armpit of New England. By that time, JB already had nearly a decade of experience in winter camping trips, and was looking for someone who would be tough enough to go along on a trip. Powerfully built and evenly tempered, Fife was actually enthusiastic about the idea. "Fife was like the only dude I talked to about winter camping who didn't say, 'Man you are one fucking crazy dude!'" JB remembers.

So the two drove up to Gilford Vermont, and camped out within 200 yards of the auto, in a State Park that was closed for the season. The three day, two night trip featured a straight ahead, no technology approach. That high impact camping was favored by JB is no surprize. Ever since he was a youngster he was totally into survival camping and living off the land with little more than a knife and water bottle. And certainly there was also a significant element of "making necessity a virtue," a popular motif among students and starving artists alike. JB after all, was a student , so he had no money, and he had no equipment. Neither did Fife. There were no gas stoves, down bags, collapsible bow saws, snowshoes, BIC lighters, or any other equipment prominent in future expeditions. The guys battled two foot deep snow and the brutal winter elements with JB's $65 Eureka pop tent, wooden matches, food wrapped in tin foil cooked over the open fire, and a gallon of real apple cider for hot toddies. From then on Fife was a regular, and went on in later years to form the foundation of HAE.

The next year, 1982-1983, Mt. Bond was attempted by the duo without much success. It was a bitterly cold winter, but there was no snow on the ground. New boots and wool pants were added, as both JB and Jim had graduated, and gotten real jobs. They dumped the car at the Lincoln Woods parking lot where the East Branch of the Pemigewasset river crosses the Kangie, and hiked in all day to a camping area at the base of Mt. Bond. The following day the team tried to climb Mt. Bond, a formidable 4500 ft. peak, but were turned back early, within the first mile of trail. Earlier a horrendous storm with high winds had completely trashed the region, felling large trees like matchsticks. The summit trail was totally obliterated. Endless sidetracking and climbing around obstacles slowed progress to a crawl. With no snow on the ground, booting was extremely rough and prone to lots of ankle twisting. They were forced to abandon the attempt by mid-afternoon and retreat back to survive out a sub-zero New Years night around the campfire. They still managed to do some partying in celebration of the New Year, and the next day the hike out was straightforward.

Franconia NotchSo now almost exactly one year to the day later JB and Fife are once again standing in the Lincoln Woods parking lot. Both are pissed off at all the fucking two-plankers who were jamming up traffic west of Cannon Mountain Ski Area. Fuckers were literally lined up for three miles on the Kangie waiting to find a parking spot. "You know we need a sign that says "We ain't going skiing you fucking assholes!'" Fife said exasperated after several attempts to pass by the line were thwarted by dickheads pulling out quickly to block the way. Finally JB revs up the car real loud in second gear, and dangerously sliding into the opposite lane of traffic, with lights on and horn blaring, blasts by the long line of cars stacked up in the eastbound travel lane. Fife is hanging out the window shaking a snowshoe in one hand and flipping them the finger with the other. JB agrees with Fife, "You fucking yuppie assed dipshits suck dick so blow meee!!" he yells out his window as they drive by. Fucking two plankers are total bonehead losers, just like the other five billion or so idiots inhabiting the planet, and there is no accounting for them. So the guys share a smoke while backpacks are loaded up, and the incident is soon forgotten as they take to the trail. Ski trail that is. It's wide, flat, and loaded with cross country skiers.

Eventually they arrive at Franconia Notch trail and head up it, leaving the loser yuppie skiers back in the valley. It's soon a real wilderness, with a difficult, variable trail that is bootable, so snowshoes are lashed on backpacks. There are a number a stream crossings, each one progressively more difficult than the previous one. At a good sized stream, JB jumps hard and maintains balance while sailing deftly across by dropping a radical left foot hop-slide on top of an ice coated rock. The ice crackles under his twisting foot but does not break.

Fife is not so lucky. Going much slower, looking like a hesitant tightrope walker, his second step, deliberately taken, is adjacent to the rock, and on thin ice. JB tries to warn him not to step there but it is too late. Crack...splash! Fife left foot is deep in flowing water. He pulls himself out. JB always enjoys a laugh at someone else's expense, but this time he is not laughing. Breaking thru is a serious emergency survival situation. Jim's boot is full of water and already around the tread it's freezing up. Fife has maybe an hour at most before toes are lost to frostbite.

They hike up the trail maybe 50 yards. JB stops, looks around at the terrain and trees, then turns right and plunges into the thick woods for maybe 20 yards. The packs are dropped. Both start collecting firewood at a furious pace. JB's experienced eye has picked a good spot. It is a whole lot easier to drag firewood downhill than carry it up, and a steep uphill directly behind them is loaded with plenty of dry hardwood. Plus there is a good sized double tree right next to camp, perfect for snapping large branches into smaller ones. This expedition is years before the formation of HAE, so there are no saws, axes, flashlights, stoves, warm down sleeping bags, Thermarest air mattresss, or any other fancy equipment for that matter.

It is straight ahead, brute force, hand-to-hand survival. JB is in his element, and Jim is learning fast.

survival

Soon a campfire is roaring and Fife begins a time consuming process of drying out the soaked leather boot. JB finishes gathering wood to feed the hungry fire. Darkness settles in.

Surviving around an campfire in the middle of a winter night may conjure up images of a peaceful firelit interlude, but in actuality it's difficult, dirty, exhausting work where one rarely gets a second to relax. Gathering enough firewood in the remaining light of dusk takes an incredible amount of energy. Driven by fear, the hikers know that once it gets dark and the fire is going, there is little opportunity to venture much beyond the camp perimeter. It's bitterly cold outside the fires sphere of influence, all your stuff drying out near the fire needs constant attention, and lacking flashlights, a few steps in the wrong direction will quickly turn into a nasty bush scratching and eye poking experience, while freezing your ass off.

Near the campfire things are not much easier. The hiker is undoubtedly sitting on a roll of foam, perched on top of a moss covered log that was hastely dragged into camp. Unless there was enough sunlight to fashion and place stakes, that log is ready to roll at the slightest perturbation, dumping it's occupant either backwards onto snow, or forward into burning embers. Constantly flexed in isometric fashion, like a muscleman at a bodybuilding contest, the camper must maintain balance while ducking thick acrid campfire smoke blown about as the wind randomly changes direction. That is not easy to do when one is loaded up with stuff like a Chinese acrobat. Boots off, your feet become a drying rack, a sock flopped over one foot and a glove over the other, that also happens to be the foot maintaining balance by leaning against a boot propped up near the fire by a good sized, but loose, rock. Your elbow is hosting several other items drying out, dinner is being held from burning over the fire with your right arm, your left hand is flipping your hat and a glove draped over a stick, also moving plastic water bottles that are about to melt near the flames as well as quickly handing off the smoke or booze that is being passed around. When the wind turns in your direction you lean way back, trying to balance over all that stuff, until nearly facing the snow behind you, swearing and hoping that the wind will shift back some time soon. But maybe before it does...whamm! The log slips and sends everything flying. Your sock falls in the fire, bare feet hit snow and dinner tips over. Coughing with red-eyed, blood-shot eyes, completely engulfed by campfire smoke, you faceplant into the snow with a soft thud reminiscent of a moose dropping a turd in snow.

Eventually as the night wears on things calm down a bit. Dinner is over and stuff is dry. Logs have sunk into snow, or a second has been found to form a stable seat. The wind dies down to the point that a candle will stay lit. Temperatures drop toward zero and below. Hikers sit around the fire staring absentmindedly at dancing flames. Talk and laughter is sporadic, and muffled by the snow filtered wilderness, it rises and falls like soft wind playing with ice coated trees. A smoke is passed, some whiskey too. Plans for big winter expeditions are made, the guys talk of being able to survive for an entire week up in the mountains. JB is now finally relaxing from the days effort, and as the whiskey warms his stomach, he is warming up to tell a classic story of winter survival. A haebar glows as it is passed back and forth between the two.

"In the winter of 1980-1981, Mt. Monadnock was the goal, but neither me or Tim had the equipment, or wheels to get up there." JB starts in thoughtfully. "In fact, we didn't have shit back then. We started wintah' camping back in 1972 when we were both 12 years old, did an Operation Deep Freeze, they called it that, at Camp Resolute, that's a Boy Scout camp in Bolton, Massachusetts. Fucking froze my ass off bad. Every year we did a wintah' trip, mostly overnight at places like Rocky Narrows in Sherbon or the Army Labs up in Sudbury, that's where a lot of Boy Scout troops often went. We used shitty summer stuff to go in the winter, a coffee can to cook Ramen noodles, and had cotton bags in some smelly Boy Scout tent. Man I remember one trip to Rocky Narrows in January, we wake up to find the Charles River had risen like ten feet and the river was in the tent about to float us away!"

Fife bogarted the haebar and listened on.

MT Monadnock"Anyways after a few years Tim and I get booted out of the Boy Scouts for carrying axes, shooting off fireworks, and I think Tim made a killer wire snare trap that caught the Troopmaster's pet cat. But we kept on wintah' camping every year anyway, but nothing out of Massachussets. Nothing up in New Hampshire or Maine even though we had been up there all over the place doing serious survival camping in summer. We were dying to go to NH that year, we figured we were ready for it, so I kept bugging Mom until I talked her into dropping us off at Rt. 119 and Rt. 495 on her way into work. Can't figure why she agreed but Mom must of known that we were going to get up there somehow anyway. From there on we hitchhiked the rest of the way, past Jaffrey, and then walked the State Park entrance road. The guys who gave us a ride to the State Park thought we were fucking crazy. Anyways we get there and it's fucking way, waay, waaay nasty assed colder than all hell out. We get maybe two thirds of the way up the mountain and have to camp because it's getting dark. I got my summer sleeping bag, and cotton long underwear that I had bought at the Boy Scout Shop in Sears back like when I was still in the Boy Scouts, and I forget what shit Tim had, but it wasn't much better.

Fife interrupts "Cotton, you guys had fucking Cotton!?!"

"Yepper buddie, fucking cotton, blue jeans too. And my favorite Boy Scout Canteen." JB replies. "It was unbelievably cold, and the wood was not very good because we were up too high on the mountain. Got a fire good enough to boil water though. Anyway it was so cold...er...it was so cold that by the time you poured boiling hot coca into a cup and brought it to ya lips, you would have to crack ice off the top!" JB howls with laughter, but he wasn't really exaggerating by very much either. He continues, "I was shaking and shivering pretty bad by the time I get into my sleeping bag, and all night I fucking freeze my fucking ass off worse than I ever did and ever will. Novak told me later that he had poured some boiling water into my canteen, and then put it in his sleeping bag so it wouldn't freeze, and it fucking froze!"

"Your water froze inside a sleeping bag?" Fife asked, right on cue.

"Yah sure did, great equipment huh?" JB says. "But I think Tim's sleeping bag was better than mine, because I put the booze in my sleeping bag so it wouldn't freeze, and the fucking booze froze!"

"The fucking booze froze?" Fife asks, raising an eyebrow.

'The fucking booze froze harder than moose marbles lying on snow." JB chuckles. "So the next day we get up totally frozen stiff and try to get the fire going, but we are out of wood, and too cold to get more. We were going to stay one more night. Me and Tim look at each other and said at the same time, "Let's get the fuck outa' here!" We pack in two seconds, left a whole lotta' shit up there like the tent and stuff, and stumbled out as fast as frozen boots let us. We almost die waiting to get a ride back into town, and go to the first diner we can find. Took like two hours before I could even feel my toes. I read the newspaper there and it says that the nastiest cold snap in decades is sweeping down from Canada. The cook has the radio on and the DJ says it's minus 40 below, without the windchill factor, in downtown Keene, New Hampshire, like at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. That's fucking minus 40 below, way down in the valley at fucking lunch time, never mind how bad it got up on the top of Monadnock the night before. It must of been off the scale up there, and the wind was howling real bad too."

winter wilderness

"Hmmmm," Fife says, "Is that minus 40 below Fahrenheit, or Celsius?" he asks naively. JB just smiles and takes a swig, "Someday when it happens again out here you will find out!" He roars with laughter, and tickled to death with his cleverness, is now stumbling off to take a whiz like a gumbie faced drunk. Apparently the story is over, abruptly, and the crew, tired to the bone, crashes out to the sound of booming trees and crackling embers.

Morning arrives crisp and cold. JB is up and working on some wood, with the fire starting to life behind him. Fife eventually crawls out. The two pack and head up the trail. Around lunch time the duo arrives at Franconia Falls. A multi-cascade of sliver water roaring down over ice coated waterfalls, crossing is tricky, but successful. Snow shoes are on now, and after lunch the duo continues upward.

By mid afternoon, they are in trouble up at maybe 2700 feet. The trail cut sideways along the face of a steep ravine and as they gain altitude it is becoming increasingly clear that they are woefully under-equipped to handle that terrain. The wooden Tubs snowshoes do not have crampons integral with the binding, so they are constantly sliding sideways downhill as the snow shifts underfoot. At one point JB, who was up front, has a big section of snow avalanche out from under a gingerly placed snowshoe, his sideways slide into oblivion checked by a small evergreen shrub that he was lucky enough to grab. Dusk is approaching and the wind, howling around, has the trees wobbling left and right as if they were shaking their heads, saying no, no, no. JB looks around and realizes that in fact there is absolutely no place to camp in the rugged notch, and by now he is suffering from an acute case of backwoods panic.

The decision to bail is an easy one. Neither are looking forward to traversing back across the slope, but lacking knowledge of the trail ahead, going further was not an option. Back down at the Falls, they cross and find a nice place to camp. It is out of earshot from the falls, since the sound of flowing water annoys JB no end. They camp there for the next two nights.

By the second night they have built a real nice log camp, complete with staked log seats on the uphill side of the fire, and a large log barrier on the other three sides as a windbreak. The camping is difficult with deep snow and nightly sub-zero weather. But lots of fun too, with the entire day to take care of chores at one's leisure, and explore the area, without impending darkness forcing a rushed panic. It's last night in the woods, so they party on the remaining booze, smoke and food.

The next day they pack up and snowshoe out. On the way JB takes one final look at their camp. Forest destruction from high impact survival camping is everywhere, and the resulting wood used to built a camp that looks like urban development. "Man we should of got a building permit!" JB says on the trail. The stream where Fife fell in is now completely frozen over and the two stand right on it laughing about the incident. At the car they load up packs tiredly and head for fast food in town.

It has been tough 4 day/3 night trip that has seen emergency survival camping and a thwarted summit attempt. But as far as the guys concerned, the team has now graduated from the brutal school of winter survival. In following years they will not be denied a summit in the great northern winter wilderness.

Copyright 1999 John Bellantoni and HAE