THE SUN DISAPPEARED behind the mountain at three twenty-seven in the afternoon.
Prior to that, the day had been gloriously benign. There’d been warmth to bask in. Sunlight had dazzled off fresh snow. The ice that had built up inside my tent during the previous night had completely thawed away. Thermals had been removed, sleeves had been rolled elbow high. But after it, with the sun’s life-giving kiss gone, the temperature fell off a bottomless cliff. Within seconds, winter gnawed at my fingers. The suddenness of the change was shocking. Darkness hadn’t yet fallen, but the day was over.
An extraordinarily long night had begun.
Wasting no time I jumped to work on my defenses, pulling on layers, thermals, fleece, hat, gloves. I stowed away my sleeping bag, moving it from where it had been hung to dry into the shelter of my tent. I wrapped water bottles within insulating layers to keep them from freezing. I rearranged gear for ease of access, battened down the hatches, then paused, considering the night ahead. I’d set up camp where the tent would catch morning sunlight fairly early. But ‘fairly early’ still lay at least sixteen hours away. A long time… that would feel even longer.
I was here, back in the wilderness, for a two-night outing – for an early-winter walk that had two primary goals. The first was to ‘just be here’, to lose myself once again in a now-familiar home, to enjoy an overnight snowfall then savour the sparkling wonderland certain to follow. The second reason was to try out a new tent, a rare and extravagant expense for me, a shelter that I hoped would become my first-choice for backpacking trips no matter the season. It came highly recommended from various ‘authorities’ whose opinions I trusted. It was a pyramid-shaped tent – ‘a mid’ – manufactured by Mountain Laurel Designs. Reportedly sturdy in strong winds, easy to pitch, and spacious inside for its light weight, I had high hopes for my new ‘Duomid’ – the tent’s official name. There was just one doubt: it lacked a solid-fabric inner. “Meh, it’s not needed,” fans of the tent declared. So I was trying it out to see.
The first test – the ease of pitching – was passed with flying colours. I didn’t make it to the trailhead until dusk and by the time I’d walked a mile to where camping was allowed daylight had practically gone. Snow was also falling hard, adding to the challenge. But pitching the tent proved to be ridiculously easy. It was done in minutes, even though I’d only practice-pitched the tent once. In fact, no tent I’ve ever pitched anywhere in over thirty-five years of backpacking even in perfect conditions has gone up faster. In comparable winter storm conditions I’d often become numb of hand and foot before getting camp set up. But not this time. It was score one for the Duomid… and it was a huge HUGE score.
Shortly after, the second score became apparent. The flutter of falling flakes landing on my roof didn’t fade away as it often does with other tents but kept on going. Snow that settled on the tent didn’t build up and begin weighing it down but instead mostly slide off. It meant there was less snow insulation, but more favourably it removed the threat of the tent being crushed. It meant I could sleep easy and not spend the night banging the sides to shake snow off. I liked this new tent. Oh yes! It seemed perfect.
But then came the score against.
Without an inner tent to trap warmth it didn’t take long before the outside cold began penetrating the inside. And it didn’t take long before frozen breath began furring the walls. Soon, the tent was ice-encrusted inside and heartlessly frigid. By dawn the temperature was ten Fahrenheit outside (minus twelve Celsius) and not far off that inside. Ten days earlier I’d camped in exactly the same conditions in a different (but heavier and much slower-to-pitch) tent, and the temperature had remained above freezing all night. And all because that tent had a solid fabric heat-trapping inner.
Still, I slept well. Cold air usually does that for me. Striking camp turned out to be as wonderfully easy as setting up camp had been, even with an ice-encrusted tent to pack away, and the day on foot that followed in the gleaming snow-shrouded wilderness was everything I’d hoped it would be… and more. It was also warm. No, arguably, it was hot. It was summer in feel, despite being winter in appearance. What a treat!
Mid afternoon I set up my second camp close to treeline at 11,800 feet, and as before the tent went up in moments. Sunlight blazed and my new tent soon lost its coating of ice. There was even time to dry my sleeping bag. It had become wet during the previous night; the bivvy bag I’d used hadn’t been as breathable as I’d hoped, resulting in ice and moisture within it, leaving the sleeping bag unpleasantly soggy. But happily the hot Colorado sun soon put things right. Draped over the tent, my sleeping bag rapidly dried, and I sat outside while it did it in extreme comfort, savouring the pristine landscape and its two most remarkable features: absolute stillness and rejuvenating quietness. It was early winter at its absolute best.
All was perfect, for a while… until the sun dipped behind the mountains. Then the difference was like night and day.
Within minutes the temperature had plummeted to ten Fahrenheit. By sunset it was down to five F (minus fifteen Celsius). To postpone the long night I went walkabout for an hour, revisiting a favourite lake, but eventually I retreated under cover and the interminably long hours of frost and cold and darkness began. To be clear: I LOVE wilderness camping and I LOVE winter camping… but it would be dishonest to say that these loves weren’t severely tested over the next fifteen hours. The so-called pleasures that followed were notably ‘marginal’. They were extremely type two.
The tent’s interior was soon once again coated in ice and furred with frost. My sleeping bag once again began growing damp. The tent’s olive green walls – so essential when stealth camping and ethically right for not blighting the landscape for others – soon felt grim and depressing. And the savage cold soon bit hard. Bursts from my stove only delivered temporarily relief. Without an inner to retain the warmth what little warmth there was vanished the moment the stove was out. My twenty-year-old sleeping bag that I’d often used in far colder conditions proved itself unequal to the task of use inside an inner-less tent. A rising wind began blowing, and although the tightly-pitched tent barely moved it still moved just enough to shake off a fine powder of ice with each gust, ice that fell constantly onto my face, sleeping bag and gear. I slept, but not even close to as well as the night before. Time all but stopped. Goodness it was a long and unpleasant night.
I spent some of it day-dreaming of the solid-fabric inner that I lusted after but didn’t have. It would be a cheery sunflower yellow. It would trap heat. It would be breathable – my moisture-laden breath would pass through it and I’d stay warm and dry inside. And it would keep off the ice-powder that the wind continuously dislodged. “Meh, it’s not needed,” others had said. The manufacturer only made a net inner. They didn’t appear to believe there was a need or a demand for a solid inner either.
Well, I for one needed it.
Eventually, a month or so later… well, the next morning at eight oh two, sunlight struck. It was like night and day. Within moments the temperature soared. Warmth and light and optimism returned. I burst into song: “Good day sunshine”, then laughed aloud. Gloves came off. I smiled and smiled and smiled. I couldn’t help it. I stepped outside into a warm wonderland for breakfast and coffee and celebrated where I was… and even more celebrated that the night was finally done.
And, as I meandered my way back toward the trailhead, I thought about the inner I’d try and make. If the manufacturer wouldn’t do it I bloody well would. I loved my new pyramid tent. I’d use it a lot. But it wasn’t a perfect year-round tent for me… yet. But we’d see about changing that.