When Jon and I moved into the middle of the high Rockies, we thought we knew a lot of things about living this lifestyle. What lifestyle is that? It’s a simple one. It’s life in the clouds, life with few people, life far removed from what most would consider “normal”. As it turns out, there are many things we did know. As avid and (almost?) expert level outdoors people, this simple mountain life lets us use many of our skills in day-to-day life. Many of the things we enjoy doing while camping or backpacking are just part of regular living up here. Like chopping wood, gathering plants and various natural remedies, going for hikes and preparing things for the future. What we didn’t expect was that all of these things would be kicked up a million notches. Pretty silly on our part, I suppose. But we both have a ribbon of romance twisted around ours brains, and we tend to think with rose colored glasses when it comes to the stuff we love most.
Most of the things that took us by surprise were quite obvious through the lens of hindsight. But some of it was not. Mainly, we didn’t realize how much goes into preparing for the snowy, freezing, gusty and dark winter months. Where we are located, winter starts around October and goes through May. So it’s a pretty big deal to get your shit together. A main issue for us, is that we moved her mid-July. Most living this way begin foraging and gathering in May or June. So we already were behind. Additionally, we didn’t understand the full scope, so we sort of went about our business of hiking and exploring and stuff... totally oblivious to the fact that we were wasting a lot of time we needed to gather and get ready.
On a very, very snowy morning, we delightedly wandered into town to see how beautiful it looked. We also woke up without power and wanted to warm up with a big walk. On Main Street we bumped into a man who lives here too (very rare) and he really opened our eyes to the seriousness of being prepared. He said in the winter times, power is not guaranteed and goes out constantly. Something that was later confirmed by two other locals. He told us that we must always be prepared to live without power. That means making a bathroom, having a source of heat, being able to cook, having light... all those things and many more. It was all up to us. Big things, considering the snowfall here can reach a few feet in one day, the average high temps in winter range from 8-10 degrees. And the lows? -18 to -6 degrees. It’s a massive part of why we were excited to move here; we love cold and extreme weather. But to think of that weather without power? Now that’s a little bit different. We also learned that in the deep winter months, we only get 4-6 hours of sunlight per day, so those average highs are not the common temperature. We also learned that about 70% of the people who live in this area go live somewhere else during the winter. They only reside here in the summer and early autumn. Because the winter is unbelievably harsh. We knew the winters would be harsh. But the reality of that, learning all of these little details, was pretty surreal to take in.
As I am writing this, we are under a massive wind advisory. Something that happens often. I have a fire burning passionately in our stove and the world is quiet, aside from the howling winds and popping wood. It is peaceful and it is comforting. But it absolutely is not for everyone.
I love this lifestyle. For as challenging as it is, it’s all worth it. And that can make it seem like the perfect life; something ideal and amazing and a thing to aspire to. But I think it’s important to be real about the hardships, because it is not always easy, fun and adventurous. It’s not always peaceful. Sometimes things like social media and photography shine this very glamourous light on this type of lifestyle. And that’s not always a good thing. Because most people would absolutely hate this. As demonstrated by 70% of the people who live this way going somewhere else for over half the year.
I would love to share with everyone what it means to prepare for winter here. Where we fucked up and what we’ve learned during our first autumn at 9,200ft, nestled in the mountains, far removed from... most things.
- Firewood. Where to begin here? We assumed we would be purchasing a few chords of firewood sometime in September or October. It seems to be what most people do. But then... some unexpected stuff happened and we found ourselves without any money. Wonderful. So, firewood turned into a mad scramble to gather fallen trees, dice them up, bring them home and then chop, split and stack them. It’s a ton of work. It’s hard and it’s time consuming. And we’re still working on it, because to get just one chord takes a lot of time. The good news is that we gathered a lot of quality wood that is long burning. The bad news is that it’s had no time to season, or dry. So while it’s from dead and dry trees, it isn’t as dry as it should be and will not burn as it would in an ideal situation. Our home is heated by fire. So this is a pretty massive situation. Any day where we don’t have commitments or plans has turned into a mad rush to collect and process firewood. I don’t know when we’ll have enough to stop gathering more.
- Gathering season is spring and summer. And since we moved here mid-summer, we basically missed the boat on that one. This isn’t a massive deal, but it would have been nice to have a freezer full of processed greens, mushrooms and roots, ready to be cooked in stew. Next year this is a going to be a major undertaking for me.
- Along with collecting and processing firewood, I have been collecting tree sap to make candles with. This is kinda of important for saving money. Because when we lose power, which we do frequently, we need candles to light the cottage. And when you burn through store bought candles for hours or days at a time, the price adds up really quick. Collecting tree sap is a free and convenient way to make candles. I should have started doing thing in the early summer to have enough sap to work with.
- Snow tires. But like, really aggressive, studded ones. We knew we had to get snow tires to live out here. It’s a common rule when driving in the mountains- you can get massive fines for not having the proper traction. And that’s just for driving through the mountains, not for living in them. So this was a super important thing. Where we live is on the top of a peak between two valleys. So to go anywhere we descend a couple thousand feet of steep, twisty roads. And to get back home, we must ascend the same crazy roads. Mountain weather can be really unpredictable, so we opted to have one car super set up for winter and the other we kept with normal tires. We really only use one car regularly at any rate.
- We need to keep enough food to keep us (and Bivy) fed for a week. At least a week. This seems to be a general consensus amongst mountain people. You must load up the cupboards, load up the freezer and keep extra water on hand. Because getting snowed in is a thing that happens, sometimes for a few days at a time. So we keep enough things to make two to three crockpots of two different stews. Canned things and frozen veggies mostly. Soups and stews are the best thing to have ingredients for, because you can prepare them without electricity. Also, stockpiling coffee and having a container of pre-ground for the French press.
- We had to stockpile things that are fun to do; books, crafts, etc. Because it’s unrealistic to think that every single day will be filled with adventure and fun outside activities. It’s important to do this before true, snowy winter gets here. Especially for things we had to order online, in case deliveries got delayed and that sorta thing. For us, this meant stocking up on books we want to read, getting piles of old magazines to make vision boards (create your life, yo), and some indoor workout things. For me, extra memory cards too. We go stir-crazy sometimes after just a couple hours with nothing to do. So having a bunch of things to stay busy is an important aspect of the dark, cold times.
So far, we’ve done okay in our winter prep. Not amazing by any means. But for our first winter, I feel like we’ve set ourselves up for success. And our expectations are realistic. I know there will be many things that spring up unexpectedly- so there will probably be a part two to this post in a couple months.
If you live in the mountains, or in very extreme winter conditions, let’s connect! I would love to hear from you; about your life and your experiences. Shoot me a message or leave a comment :)