I love to snowshoe in the fields and woods behind my house. There is varied terrain and cover, and it is easily accessible. In deep snow and especially in a snowstorm or at night, it feels much wilder than it really is. I am safety conscious. I did winter some winter camping as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, including a 1 week snowshoeing trip in the College Grant. I have proper equipment. I know the risks: hypothermia and frostbite, getting lost, an injury, broken equipment, and water hazards. Other than the fields and woods behind my house, I never do winter expeditions alone. However, familiarity inevitably builds complacence and danger is not limited to the wilderness. It can lurk close to home, as I learned during my nightmare on snowshoes.
We were having a major February nor’easter, still snowing hard with 18+ inches of new snow on top of at least a couple feet of earlier accumulations. The center of the storm had passed, so it was blowing hard and the temperature was dropping steadily from the mid 20s to a projected minus 5 as the passing of the storm pulled in cold polar air behind it. Visibility was 20-30 feet. Dusk was a couple hours off. These were not ideal conditions, but I was home alone and bored, so I decided to suit up and go for a local trek.
The first couple hours went without incident. I was properly dressed, my snowshoes were in good shape, I had my headlamp to use as I expected it to be getting dark by the time I returned, and the woods were full of the magic that only a blizzard can provide. I was thoroughly enjoying what I intended to be a 3-hour loop out and back and began to circle back, already looking forward to an evening at home alone in front of the wood stove with a book and glass of wine.
During the return trip I came to a fair-sized clearing I didn’t recognize. It was probably 100 yards across but 300 yards long and dead flat. Tired and eager to be home and warm, I decided to cut across this field rather than skirt the edges and stay in or near the shelter of the trees. I don’t recall pausing to consider why this field was so amazingly flat, without a single bush, shrub, small tree, or snow-covered rock or hillock. About 30 yards into the clearing, I heard a crunching sound and had this awful sinking feeling. Yes, an actual and very real sinking feeling. I had broken through the ice of a pond or wetland, hidden under snow, and was in water to my waist. My relief at knowing I was not going to drown was quickly replaced by the problem of extricating myself.
I didn’t panic. I knew (in theory) about getting out of water after falling through the ice and tried to lunge forward to get my upper body flat so I could shimmy forward on a broad base. I used my hiking poles as ice-picks. It turns out, the people who recommend this have never attempted it in snowshoes. Snowshoes hinge at the toes. Any upward or forward movement causes them to open and act like a sea anchor. After several tries, it was clear I would not be able to get my legs and feet anywhere near the surface. Based on probing with my poles, I would have to put my face well under the surface to reach the snowshoe bindings to take them off. I wondered how long it would be before anyone knew I was missing. I seriously considered panicking.
Instead, I made sure my back faced the direction I had come from and then started a series of small jumps up and back, feeling a bit like an ice-breaker, until I was able to get myself up and lying horizontally in the snow and on firmer ice. I then rolled to the edge of the clearing and stood up. Taking stock, my boats were full of water and I was soaked to waist level. Above that I was snow-covered but dry. I had spare (dry) gloves to put on and extra hand warmers, which I promptly activated. Then I reached into my pocket for my cell phone, which I ALWAYS bring in a zip-lock bag, intending to call for assistance. It was not there, and I assumed it was either in the water or had fallen out while I rolled across the clearing.
My snowshoes, boots, feet, and legs up to my upper thighs were heavily encased in frozen mix of slush and snow, so my trip back home was slow and hard work, but I made steady progress. The exertion began to warm me up and I suddenly realized I was going to survive. When I arrived home after about 30 minutes of this I was in good spirits, though well aware that I had dodged a bullet. My challenges were not yet done, however. My feet were frozen pedestals and there was no way to get through the frozen mass to my snowshoe bindings or boot laces. I somehow climbed the steps to the outer back deck, navigated the screen door, the house door, the passage through the laundry room to the mud room and into the downstairs bathroom shower, where copious hot water did the trick. I left my soaked boots (still in the snowshoe bindings), socks, wind pants, pants and long underwear in a heap in the shower stall, changed into warm and dry clothes, stoked up the fire in the wood stove to ‘Florida’, got myself the glass of wine I had been thinking of earlier and a book to keep me from thinking about what might have happened, wrapped myself in a thick wool blanket, and lay on the coach feeling both scared and thankful.
(Oh, and my cell phone was sitting there, warm and dry in a zip-lock baggie on the dining room table, exactly where I had left it when I forgot to stow it in my jacket pocket.)