My last section at NOLS, backcountry skiing and winter survival in the Absoraka Mountains in Wyoming was one of the hardest things I've done in my life. As my group quickly transitioned from the luxurious life of rock climbing and base camp living and prepared for our winter section, our spirits were high. How couldn't they be?! If you ignored the fine details, we were about to be living in giant snowforts and shreddin' the slopes which had about 3 feet of fresh, untouched powder. The night before we left everyone in the group was wishing that it would snow and snow and snow so that we could live in a true winter wonderland.
Bad idea. Constant snow (more specifically, very wet snow for 8 of our 10 days) meant we never wanted to be outside as doing so nearly always resulted in wet clothing. And the only way to dry wet things is with heat...our bodies being the only thing with said ability in a winter environment. So we would put our wet clothing close to our bodies in an attempt to dry it. Surprisingly, this doesn't work particularly well.
Travel is also made even more challenging with immense amounts of snow. We wore a backpack and dragged a sled attached to us via poles and a waist belt. On our feet we wore backcountry skies, which are a lighter weight version of telemark skies. We would put skins onto the bottoms in order to grip the snow while we were traveling (skins are long strips of a velvet-type fabric with glue on the top side that attaches it to a ski). Our heels weren't attached so once we had all of our gear on, we could slowly move through the thigh-deep snow. The person in the front who broke the trail had the hardest job. They could last about 10 minutes before needing to step out for a break. So our progress when we weren't on snowmobile trails was very, very slow.
Building our giant snowforts, called Quigloos, shredding the gnar a few minutes from camp at 10,000 feet, and skiing up to the continental divide in a blizzard were all fantastic parts of this section. The real highlight was how the group responded to the aforementioned challenges. At first everyone was not happy and counting down thedays untill their flights home. But midway through the section, we stopped all of our complaining and moping, and decided we couldn't check-out early. We had to end our fabulous semester in style. It was really hard to look beyond the crappy living conditions and the nearness of our homes, but we regained our goofyness and optimism and skied out of the mountains in high spirits, proud of a succesful end to a terrific 95 days in the wilderness.