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Chapter 17: “Cold Weather and Broccholesterol 200!”
April 2006

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A long time ago, in a place far, far away (Chapter 2) I wrote about winter survival training in Russia. At the time I didn’t put it on paper, but my mind was telling me “…never again!” Well, silly me; never came a lot sooner than anticipated. From February 6-17 I was trying to survive the winter AGAIN; this time in the Absaroka Mountains of northwest Wyoming.

JSC2006-E-18635 -- A group of astronauts participates in training in the Absaroka Mountains.Image at left: A group of international astronauts participates in training in the Absaroka Mountains of northwest Wyoming. Pictured near their base camp, from the left (kneeling), are astronauts Edward T. Lu, Koichi Wakata and Robert B. Thirsk; and (standing) Rex J. Walheim, Sunita L. Williams and Clayton C. Anderson. Image credit: NASA

We (Suni Williams, Rex Walheim, Koichi Wakata, Bob Thirsk, Ed Lu and I) were participants in an outdoor leadership training course. I had participated in one of these courses back in August 2002. But I am here to tell you that living in the mountains of Wyoming is a lot more palatable in August than it is in February!!!

An afternoon arrival led to a quick meeting with our tried and true instructors. We received an orientation of the facilities and an overview of how we were to spend the next two weeks; a daunting two weeks indeed. An early start the following morning had us checking/receiving our gear, stuffing our backpacks and loading supplies, skis and sleds onto a bus heading for a two-hour drive to the Northwest drop off point. It was here that we first “hit the trail,” but not without a basic primer on cross country ski travel, falling in snow (and getting back up!) and making snow angels (refresher training!). We then hiked a short distance from the drop off point to set up our first camp site by pitching tents and digging a “snow kitchen” from within the four- to five-foot drifts.

JSC2006-E-18633 -- Astronaut Clayton AndersonImage at right: Astronaut Clayton Anderson participates in training in the Absaroka Mountains of northwest Wyoming. Image credit: NASA

Day 3 was “up”...up to about 10,500 feet and Two Oceans Peak. Here we would live for about 3 days learning. Learning to build snow shelters, understand avalanche terrain, rescue people trapped in an avalanche and navigate using maps, compasses and Global Positioning Satellites (GPS)! It was the avalanche thing that had me the most nervous!

We also became “chefs.” Learning to cook outdoors in the winter time was indeed a challenge; technically and ”caloric-ly!” Our imaginations created some food combinations not easily located in fashionable restaurants…like Broccholesterol 200! This tantalizing dish was a mixture of mashed potatoes, broccoli, pepperoni, butter and cheese (did we cover all the food groups?!?). You could hear our arteries clogging up as we ate, but it went a long way to providing us with energy!

The instructors, based on our demonstration that we had mastered the concepts we needed to survive, then “turned us loose.” For the next four days we journeyed throughout Moccasin Basin, moving to and from our new base camp with the challenge of daily excursions to locate caches of food, fuel and other supplies. Daily temperatures ranged from -20 to +20 degrees Fahrenheit with some days of sunshine and others that gave us wind chills nearing -60° F and short periods of “white out…” when visibility was less than ¼ mile! We built snow shelters called “quinzees,” which were our salvation on the coldest days. Starting with a circle about 10 feet in diameter drawn on top of the snow, we tromped the circumference in our boots to pack the base wall.

JSC2006-E-18632 -- Three NASA astronauts participate in training in the Absaroka Mountains.Image at left: Three NASA astronauts participate in training in the Absaroka Mountains of northwest Wyoming. From the left are astronauts Clayton C. Anderson, Sunita L. Williams and Rex J. Walheim. Image credit: NASA

With this firm foundation set, we shoveled snow onto the circle to create a huge mound. Then, like gophers, we burrowed inside to hollow out our temporary homes. The trick was to have the floor slightly higher than the entrance opening. A few inches could make a huge difference in temperature and our ultimate comfort. Finally, cozy and warm (relative term here…the temperature inside hovered around freezing), we arranged our gear and sleeping bags to accommodate three people in each of two quinzees.

A five-mile trek on our last day brought us to the very same highway from which we had departed. I was never so glad to see traffic in my entire life! Tired, cold and hungry my thoughts replayed the highs and lows of our adventure. Thoughts of anxiety, apprehension and frustration had turned into pride, confidence and satisfaction. Life was good…but winter survival? Never again!

Until next time!