Winter Survival: Then and Now

Winter Survival Skiing

How do you feel about winter? For people who like the change of seasons it’s a turnaround. With passage of the winter solstice comes the advent of longer days and the promise of spring. For skiers winter is prime time –  a short window that opens in December with Champagne powder and closes in April with spring slush. For bears it’s hibernation time. These days I’m closer to the bears than the seasonal change folks.

When I lived in Sun Valley and later in Salt Lake there was a delicate balance at play. It was cold but when it snowed I had easy access to the world’s best skiing. Wake up. Look out the window. Check the temp. Check for fresh snow and go. When there wasn’t fresh powder I could sip hot buttered rum and read by the fire. It’s all about finding that sweet spot, the balance in life.

For the last few years I’ve lived further from good skiing and bear-like hibernation is more my style. I wish I could be more like the bear – burn off some fat while I wait for the spring run-off. It seems to work the other way around for me. My body senses the cold and adds the fat for insulation. No luck in the hibernation strategy.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I hate to be cold. When I think of being cold I think of the two weeks I spent at a place with the unlikely name of Pickle Meadows. There are no pickles in Pickle Meadows. I don’t know the origin of the name but the location near Bridgeport, CA is the site of the Marine Corps Winter Survival and Escape and Evasion School. In 1961 I spent two weeks there. Jesus, it was cold – January in the high Sierra with a few feet of snow and the temperature close to zero. Something of a rude transition from Laguna Beach where I was living at the time.

Winter Survival

The Marine Corps thought winter survival camp would toughen us up and give us a taste of what it would be like if we got shot down over hostile mountain territory. They were working off the experience of airmen in Korea. They didn’t know that the next war would be fought in the steamy jungles of SE Asia. That’s military planning for you.

Nevertheless, there we were; Pickle Meadows in winter. In the truest sense it wasn’t life or death hardship. We knew it had an end date, but let me tell you three days in drifting snow and subzero temperatures on the eastern slopes of the Sierra with only a hunting knife to find food is not the California vacation I was looking forward to.

I was teamed up with two other pilots and we played the game by the rules. Our three-man team was dropped off in a remote area in three feet of snow and told to evade the “Aggressor” team while making our way back to base camp with just a compass and a topo map. If the Aggressors caught us we would be taken to their POW camp for incarceration, interrogation, and other humiliations. Not a happy scenario. This was a realistic exercise and we were appropriately apprehensive.

Winter Survival 2

As we made our way stealthily along it seemed like a cool (no pun intended) game. We followed rabbit tracks hoping for a kill, but rabbits are faster and smarter than Marines. After a night huddled together under a tarp in the snow with no food the game turned into what it really was, a survival exercise. On day two we spotted a porcupine nibbling at new shoots at the top of a Ponderosa pine. “C’mon Marines, let’s get that fucker.” Hoop and holler. We lashed one of our K-bar hunting knives to a long branch and drew straws for who would climb the tree for the kill.

My wingman, Pete Kruger, drew the short straw and we hoisted him up to a branch where he could start the climb. It went well until he got within striking distance – directly under porky. It looked like a done deal until porky got stabbed in the ass, and let go of the trunk. As he fell, Pete whose reflexes were also good let go, and we watched the two of them bounce through the branches until they came to rest about the same distance from each other as when they were at the tippy-top of said tree.

After a little more sparring Pete impaled porky and the two of them fell to the snowy ground. If you are ever confronted with a winter survival situation, don’t go for porky. We almost lost Pete in the hunt and the cost benefit of the effort was low on the benefit side. As instructed in the classroom, we boiled the bejeezus out of porky to purge the pine resin from his system, and after he was thoroughly cooked we scrapped the resinous scum off the top of the tin can pot and chopped him into three pieces. When all that was done our unanimous assessment was that porky has no nutritional value, the texture of a squash ball, and the taste of pure pine pitch. Not good.

The end of the Pickle Meadows survival exercise is an all you can eat steak and eggs breakfast but that didn’t come to pass until after another harrowing 24 hours. We should have known the game would end badly. It did. We evaded the Aggressor force, which probably pissed them off, but as we were nearing camp after three days of evasion we were “captured” and spent the next 24 hours in the POW compound where we were alternatively stuffed into wooden boxes smaller than we were, hammered with loud cacophonous music, blinded by bright lights, splashed with icy water from the snow melt barrel, and “interrogated” by bullying, good guy/bad guy teams. It was a taste of what capture might be like and trust me you don’t want any part of it. I have the greatest respect for guys like John McCain. We have radically different politics but he is a god in the survival pantheon. Pickle Meadows was no Hanoi Hilton.

So, the long story is all about how much I hate the cold. Winter has become an endurance contest for me with a few bright spots interspersed. I’ve got a bad case of SAD (Sunlight Affective Disorder) and love the sun so much I’ve had 5 melanomas removed to prove it. I understand the snowbird thing – retirees heading south to Southern California or Arizona – but I’m holding out for that perfect ski day.  Tomorrow, two friends and I are headed for Whistler. The forecast is good – temp about 32F with snow flurries. It takes me back to 1985 and the picture that opens this blog. Lynn Campion took the photo on Lower Christmas in Sun Valley. Big fun.


  1. Shoulda opted for Navy, just kosher pickles and no Meadow.

    We’re about to leave our flowery bower and head to the beach where I’ll swim and Willa will do her patented drowning simulation

    Come join us, forget Whisler


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