Surviving a Snow Storm

Snow Storm

Snippets 132.  In 1815 George Head, the assistant commissary-general of the commissariat of the 3rd division of the Spanish army, undertook a journey across North America, snappily titled Forest Scenes and Incidents in the Wilds of North America, Being a Diary of a Winter’s Route from Halifax to the Canadas. His diary was published in 1829. The journey was at times extremely dangerous, and the following quote details an occasion when Head was caught in a terrible storm and had to fight to survive:

At this juncture one of the party, a strong, and apparently athletic young man, began to complain of lameness in his knee, which had swollen and had become very painful. Still, however, we went on, and it grew darker and darker, till a heavy fall of snow, driven by a powerful wind, came sweeping along the desert track directly in our teeth; so that, what with general fatigue, and the unaccustomed position of the body in the snow shoes, I hardly could bear up and stand against it. The dreary howling of the tempest over the wide waste of snow rendered the scene even still more desolate; and with the unmitigated prospect before us of cold and hunger, our party plodded on in sullen silence, each, in his own mind, well aware that it was utterly impracticable to reach that night the place of our destination.

But, in spite of every obstacle, the strength of the two Canadians was astonishing; with bodies bent forward, and leaning on their collar, on they marched, drawing the tobogins after them, with a firm, indefatigable step; and we had all walked a little more than seven hours, when the snow storm had increased to such a pitch of violence, that it seemed impossible for any human creature to withstand it: it bid defiance even to their most extraordinary exertions. The wind now blew a hurricane. We were unable to see each other at a greater distance than ten yards, and the drift gave an appearance to the surface of snow we were passing over, like that of an agitated sea. Wheeled round every now and then by the wind, we were enveloped in clouds so dense, that a strong sense of suffocation was absolutely produced. We all halted: the Canadians admitted that farther progress was impossible; but the friendly shelter of the forest was at hand, and the pines waved their dark branches in token of an asylum. We turned our shoulders to the blast, and comfortless and weather beaten sought our refuge. The scene, though changed, was still not without interest; the frequent crashes of falling trees, and the cracking of the vast limbs as they rocked and writhed in the tempest, created awful and impressive sounds; but it was no time to be idle: warmth and shelter were objects connected with life itself, and the Canadians immediately commenced the vigorous application of their resources. By means of their small light axes, a good sized maple tree was in a very few minutes levelled with the earth, and in the mean time we cleared of snow a square spot of ground, with large pieces of bark ripped from the fallen trees. The fibrous bark of the white cedar, previously rubbed to powder between the hands, was ignited, and blowing upon this, a flame was produced. This being fed, first by the silky peelings of the birch bark, and then by the bark itself, the oily and bituminous matter burst forth into full action, and a splendid fire raised its flames and smoke amidst a pile of huge logs, to which one and all of us were constantly and eagerly contributing.

Having raised a covering of spruce boughs above our heads, to serve as a partial defence from the snow, which was still falling in great abundance, we sat down, turning our feet to the fire, making the most of what was, under circumstances, a source of real consolation. We enjoyed absolute rest! One side of our square was bounded by a huge tree, which lay streched across it. Against this our fire was made; and on the opposite side towards which I had turned my back, another very large one was growing, and into this latter, being old and decayed, I had by degrees worked my way, and it formed an admirable shelter.

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8 Responses to Surviving a Snow Storm

  1. Ged Maybury says:

    Wonderfully written. Compelling, evocative of that time, that place and that storm.
    I’ve been out in winter, in snow, in a forest far from road and house, walking and walking in the hopes of reaching the hut before dark (we did). My knee packed in but there was no better option but to suffer, and hope.
    We got warm, dry, ate, slept, and walked back to civilization the next day.

    What these people went through must have been 40 times worse, of course.

    As always – thanks for curating these little treasures.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, I could only imagine what it would be like withstanding such a climate. I love the outdoors and have wanted to try survival type situations, other than backpacking, but I could not imagine trying to do it in the middle of winter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. I think there is a fine line between challenging oneself and going too far with that!


    • Ged Maybury says:

      If you’re young, fit, well-equipped and are surrounded by at least a few seasoned hands, go on! Give it a try. Going into alpine regions now is a hundred times safer, as long as you’re not trying for a Mount Everest-style experience.
      I was an associate member of a tramping and mountaineering club (which is still going strong) and had a good guide (who is still going strong, even at 63). I even wrote a book about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Ged, and congratulations on having a book published on the subject!


      • Ged Maybury says:

        Thx. It was a thing, to be sure.

        Now here’s the whole delicious irony:
        I wrote the story – could not get it published, but eventually got in touch with the man who took me snowcaving way back in 1971. He championed my story and managed, via his club buddies, to get a foreword written by none other than Sir Edmund Hilary, the famous NZer who was first to reach the top of Everest (I’d met him when I was at high school, also 1971).
        But that *still* didn’t swing a deal anywhere!

        A few years later I’m sitting having tea with my one of my publishers, the very elderly Christine Cole Catley, and I mention my book and Ed’s foreword. She sat up at once. “I’ll publish it!” – Just like that.

        Then the punch-line: *She had been a personal friend of NZ’s most famous man – BEFORE he became famous. !!She and he went mountaineering together!!* (in the South Island of NZ – where I grew up).
        Could the world get any smaller? I don’t think so.

        Liked by 1 person

      • What an amazing story and thanks for sharing it here 🙂


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