Knowledge from Storms: Wheel Book February 2023 Entry

Training: Habitual Comfort

The space was small, cold, and damp. One small rectangular window, high on a wall, was frosted over with snow setting a heavy mood in the room. The ambiance was that of a backstage Soviet-era carnival where strong men trained for their feats of strength and, if memory serves, smelled the part.

Everything was hard, sharp, and angular as if it were there to teach you something. Some of the equipment looked like it was from a Spanish dungeon during the inquisition, with other pieces being utterly foreign. No music or motivational posters graced the walls, just the creaking of cold white-washed pipes in the ceiling. We were there to train without distractions and serve our penance for being mentally and physically weak.

The protocol seemed simple, utilizing bodyweight exercises in short, high-intensity efforts; it was called Tabata. The following 20 minutes were a cocktail of pain, wretching, and humility. After the instructor, our friend, had our full attention, he said the real work could begin.

Photo Courtesy: WFMFT

This event occurred when functional fitness programs were unknown to the broader public. Soldiers, police officers, and firefighters were desperate for training that prepared them for the untold demands of their jobs. This fitness movement has become a lucrative industry with the requisite corporate endorsements and misguided focus that seem at odds with the original intent.

To each his own.

That day of learning opened my aperture. Genuinely impactful training for real life isn’t just for the body – but just as much for the mind. The gym is a crucible where we can test both, but too often, we squander this gift and focus on easy efforts. We too often play to our strengths or drown out our screaming internal voice and mental struggles with distractions that will be sadly absent in our time of need.

Coddling yourself with false motivations, like music, doesn’t help when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task in the mountains. The good news is that deadlifts in the gym don’t just build physical strength; if done correctly, they also build the mind to endure difficult tasks. But if you always do the workouts you want in a permissive environment, you’ll miss the most impactful part of the effort.

The heart of winter has settled upon us, and now is the time to refocus our efforts. Force yourself to do difficult things in training that may be out of your comfort zone. Don’t listen to TOOL while running, turn off the heat in the gym or commit to a cold shower after a snowshoe circuit in the woods. The workouts that suck and are painful even to imagine are the ones that will make the mental callous thicker.

Suffering has become a lost art.

Now, I’m not suggesting training in the deprivation chamber every session, but you should implement it routinely. The physical side of training gets all the attention, but the mental aspect is just as critical. Create a challenging training environment to strengthen your mind and embrace the suck.

Don’t give in to habitual comfort.
These challenging sessions will make the training days where Britney Spears is serenading you easy in comparison.

Although you may not PR your bench press, and it may take you longer and hurt more to run a 5K on the treadmill, you’ll strengthen your resolve and innoculate yourself a bit more for the harsh life of the backcountry.

Gear Locker

The Snow Safety Triad

Traveling in moderate to steep snow-covered terrain is not without risk and requires special equipment and training to be safe. This snow safety equipment isn’t just for backcountry skiers and folks riding sleds but anyone who travels into the winter mountain arena. 

Avalanches can occur naturally but are often triggered by ourselves or other groups around us. You don’t even need to be in steep terrain. You can be affected merely by traveling below or camping in a runout zone. Awareness of your surroundings and some basic knowledge are required to stay safe when heading out into snowy terrain.

The three pieces of equipment you should take into the mountains when snow covers the ground are a snow shovel, a snow probe, and an avalanche beacon. 

A snow shovel should have a collapsible handle for storage and a sturdy aluminum blade for chopping frozen snow and ice. This versatile tool can create snow shelters, sleeping platforms, dig down to running water sources, and extract an avalanche victim. It can also be used as a snow anchor for a tent, a place to set your stove, and for collecting snow to melt into drinking water. 

A snow probe is a long, often 10′, collapsible pole similar to a tent pole that locks into place. Snow probes allow you to probe the depth of the snowpack to find a suitable spot to build a snow cave, help find running water under the snow, and pinpoint an avalanche victim before digging begins.

Avalanche beacons require specialized training to become competent and are critical to finding a person buried under the snow. The beacon transmits a location signal that other beacons can pick up when they’re switched to receive mode if someone were to be buried in an avalanche. Proper training is required to efficiently operate a beacon and understand the protocols required to effect an efficient rescue. 

An introductory avalanche course is highly recommended for everyone in the group and is the place to begin your snow safety education. This basic course teaches safe travel in snow-covered terrain, how to identify a dangerous snowpack and what to do if someone is buried. 

When venturing into the winter mountains, it’s prudent to be aware and prepared. Even if you do everything correctly, there are no guarantees. Having the proper training and equipment helps stack the odds in your favor and makes you a more competent backcountry traveler.



The Closet

Puffy Pants

I was dressed perfectly for movement but knew I’d need to layer up as soon as I stopped. My plan was to ski to the saddle, glass for mountain goats, then climb the ridge and hunt the top of the mountain with the wind in my face. 

As soon as I stopped to transition into crampons, I knew I’d made a mistake. The wind was howling, and it bit through my lower body layers. I knew I couldn’t stand around for long and hoped I’d find some goats out of the wind. Instead, I found a small herd with a good Billy on the windswept slopes with exposed grass. 

Putting on my puffy jacket, I cursed myself for not bringing the puffy pants. I only made it 45 minutes in the biting cold before I had to turn around and hobble my way back to the saddle, trying to warm up my cold, stiff legs. 

Lower body insulation can be tough to get right. Once committed, changing baselayer bottoms is challenging without exposing yourself to the elements. Remember, you want to dress comfortably cool for movement, so it’s best to be conservative with lower body insulation. You want to wear just enough to stay warm while hiking. 

Zip-off baselayers are okay, if not a little quirky, but they don’t allow an easy way to put them back on once removed. Puffy pants are more efficient for managing lower body insulation in cold weather. Adding this ninth piece of clothing to your system provides extra warmth and efficiency during cold weather. Quickly zip them on when stopped and remove them when ready to move again.

Good puffy pants have a roomy fit to layer easily, and full side zips to get on and off over boots. These static-insulated pants are great when stopped to glass, in camp, or as part of your sleep system. When it’s time to move, they are quickly taken off and stored in the pack. I’ve even stalked Mule deer while wearing puffy pants on the brutally cold and windswept Alberta prairie, trying to wait out an old monarch.

Choose puffy pants the same way you would a puffy jacket. Down-insulated pants are warm and compressible but may lack durability. Synthetic pants are a workhorse, and although they may be a bit heavier, can withstand cold, damp conditions better.

The legs possess big muscles that generate a lot of heat when moving, so they don’t require as much insulation as your core. But as soon as you stop, you want to keep your legs warm and trap body heat for maximum performance. Puffy pants make it super convenient to layer up or down as required to meet the demands of cold weather and should be a part of your winter clothing arsenal.

Patagonia DAS Light pants

Sitka Gear Kelvin Lite Down pants

RAB Photon pants


Western Mountaineering Flight pants


Backcountry Mission Planning

Outdoor Class and I are getting ready to release my first online course. This course has been a ten-year goal, and I couldn’t be more proud of how it’s turned out. Backcountry Mission Planning is 16 chapters long and draws on my 30+ years of experience in the mountains. Its focus is on preparing you for the upcoming big game seasons and becoming a more knowledgeable Student of the Game. 

Use code BARKOW20 to receive 20% off an annual Outdoor Class membership and get access to all the courses available on the Outdoor Class website.



The Word

Self-Sufficiency Isn’t Enough

I hoped the shivering would generate enough body heat to keep me warm, but the chills and headache told me otherwise. Racked with fever, I couldn’t do much but lay in my sleeping bag and sweat. It had been at least 24 hours since the blizzard hit our camp, and I’d felt lousy for about the same time. It’s crazy how suddenly the flu can smack you down, and just like the storm, it was raging.

Thankfully I had a great partner who was capable of managing the situation. Climbing outside every hour to shovel the tents from the weight of the falling and drifting snow. He kept managing the chores and forcing me to hydrate. We were to hell and gone from civilization, and no plane would be able to pick us up anytime soon. He knew I needed to overcome this sickness to extract on my own power. 

For three days, my buddy managed the camp, melted water, cooked food, and watched over me. I felt pathetic and helpless lying there, drifting in and out of sleep while my friend kept us alive. 

As often happens, the storm and my fever broke suddenly. It was quiet outside as light snow continued to fall without the angry wind. I felt weak but knew I’d recover quickly. My friend’s care over the last 70+ hours had assured I wouldn’t slip deeper into the metaphorical black hole than necessary. 

Feeding ourselves, staying warm, and maintaining equipment are vital to survival in the backcountry. We require a strong sense of awareness, knowledge, and the skills to adapt to dynamic outdoor conditions. But possessing the ability to care only for ourselves is just the beginning. 

We’ve all had bad days in the backcountry, sick from flu, dehydration, or altitude issues. To think we can manage all of this adversity by ourselves is a joke. A partner who can manage themselves with little effort and have the capacity to tend to a comrade is vital to safety in remote locations. 

I’ve had to shepherd friends out of the mountains suffering from altitude sickness several times. They were each quite sick and needed constant attention. They couldn’t afford for me to worry about myself and my personal needs, which became secondary to helping them. 

I remember staying up late one night after a buddy and I returned to spike camp from packing two deer. He wanted to go right to sleep, but I could tell he was dehydrated, losing cognitive function, and needed to eat. I cooked dinner and filtered water while he napped so we could operate the next day and hike back to the truck. Feeding myself, drying gear, and sleeping took a back seat to his well-being.

Training only in permissive conditions doesn’t provide the challenges and growth opportunities associated with performing difficult tasks. We need to build a reservoir of capability to manage ourselves and others in the group. As an instructor, often working in horrendous weather, you had to put your needs aside and care for a dozen or more guys before caring for yourself. You had to have your shit together and your routine dialed, and it taught me that being self-sufficient was only the beginning of the learning. 

Winter conditions cut through the bull shit and show us how capable we are at living in the mountains. Cold temps make everything more complicated and demands discipline to be consistently successful. Training in inclement weather provides the opportunity to build individual capacity and gain the ability to care for others. When each person watches out for the other, the team becomes unstoppable.