West Currier escapes from life’s distractions into an igloo

STORY AND PHOTO BY DANA HUCH

Along with the actual pandemic has come a consequential pandemic of widespread ennui, excuses and unenthusiastic throwing-ins of the towel. But surrendering to the opportunity for a socially acceptable laze-cation was never an option for West Currier.

When the Woodside Priory School junior isn’t busy with school, it’s hard to guess where he can be found. Possibly doing a 16-pitch rock climb up the Grand Teton in Wyoming and perching 3,000 feet above the Jackson Hole Valley on a rocky precipice. Perhaps belaying over chasms thousands of feet deep. Or maybe building an igloo-like structure and living in it for three days, which was his most recent adventure.

“I just think it’s healthy [to spend time in nature],” Currier said. “We’re — especially now — on computers all day and we’re very distractible. It’s nice to take a trip away, get a bit more grounded, get off your phone and just have a good time in other ways.”

Currier has been camping with his parents and three brothers for as long as he can remember. The whole family has an appreciation for nature escapes from the usual fast pace of school and work life, but snow camping is another beast. Persistence in the face of soaking socks and gloves is something West, his brother Cal and father, James, have in common.

West Currier is pictured on his journey to the campsite. (courtesy West Currier)

In February, the three Curriers set out for their third annual three-day snow camping trip in an area near Kirkwood Ski Resort, just south of Lake Tahoe. The family woke up at 3 a.m. to drive to the snow then hiked out with homemade sleds carrying equipment, arriving at the site just in time to construct their shelter before dark. 

By venturing into the wilderness (not to mention without a tent) they trade out homey comforts for rugged and primitive substitutes like the igloo-house they sleep in. They spent the afternoon building a cave of snow called a quinzhee by amassing a snow bank and digging it out to be hollow. This process typically takes four or five hours.

James and Cal Currier are pictured in front of their quinzhee. (courtesy West Currier)

“The main challenge is that you’re wet the whole time,” Currier said. “With a tent you can always get a moment away from the dirt or rain. With snow camping, your shelter isn’t particularly dry or comfortable because it’s made of snow. There’s not really a break from the raw wilderness.”

But the struggles of raw wilderness are opportunities to overcome tangible adversity, which is a grounding experience. Instead of worrying about deadlines and the ergonomics of a constantly occupied desk chair, snow-campers’ minds are occupied by practical needs. Currier finds the challenges that arise in nature a refreshing contrast from the everyday noise, he said. And in moments when there are no problems to be solved, the space for stillness expands.

“It’s so much slower paced than our normal, day-to-day lives,” Currier explained. “A lot less happens than you’d expect. When you hear stories and look back, you always remember the exciting moments, but when you’re out there, it’s a 14-hour day and … there’s not actually a lot to do.”

West Currier is pictured cooking bacon over a fire. (courtesy West Currier)

This different cadence brings awareness to the inner peace reflected in nature, and Currier said the mornings are an especially strong connection point because “everything’s waking up” and there is a quiet serenity that is missing from the stagnating routines of life at home.

He recalled a fond morning memory from camping in a lake region of the Sierras.

“The sun was rising over this lake that was covered in steam and there were fish jumping and birds chirping,” Currier said. “We were like, ‘Oh God! Are we in heaven?’ … We just sat in the doorways of our tents looking out for hours.”

After some time, Currier said you settle into this mode of living and become a resident of the wilderness, liberated from the distractions of modern life.

Naturally, a place without these distractions is also a place without its comforts. But for Currier, the allure of nature life exists not despite but because of the hard work and determination it requires.

On one occasion, a storm of rain, wind and lightning transported the Curriers’ entire camping setup into a nearby lake and they had to recover it all after the storm had passed. He summed up his recount of what many would consider a disaster with the surprisingly unsarcastic comment, “That was fun.”

Days like this make him feel grateful for the comforts of indoor life that he usually takes for granted, Currier said. The nonstop obstacles of wilderness life bring a new glow to dishwashers and comforters when they return home.

Currier plans to continue taking on new opportunities to retreat into deep wilderness. He said he is excited for the possibility of a three-week Himalayan adventure with his dad and brother in the coming summer. (Monsoon season may be a hindrance, but will not stand in their way). Another ambitious plan in the works is to hike Mount Whitney (30 miles, 14,505 feet of elevation) in one day.

Currier explained that there’s something thrilling about being in a completely undesirable wilderness circumstance. It’s a different reality from slumping mundanities, and replenishes life with a reviving inhale. He embraces the unexpected struggles of rugged outdoor life like wet boots and sinking quinzhee roofs with enthusiasm.

“Part of the reason I love snow camping is not because it’s super enjoyable but because you can really enjoy the struggle of it,” Currier said. “You’re like, ‘What are we doing? We’re living in an igloo and sitting on snow benches!’ It’s kind of crazy and you just enjoy the craziness and enjoy the hardship.”

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