I moved to the mountains out west over 20 years ago, a young woman in search of a ski bum adventure. I left the Washington, DC suburbs, drove cross-country to the small Sierra mountain town of Mammoth Lakes, California. What an adjustment that was, in many ways. But as winter gears up here in Colorado in the Rocky Mountains, I reflect on how ill-prepared and how naive I was about living in the mountains when I moved to Mammoth Lakes. The first thing that hit me was how incredibly cold it seemed all the time in the condo I lived in. I found out just how cold it can get the first few weeks of November in Mammoth Lakes, when I woke up in the morning, feeling chilled, and realized the temperature in the house was in the 40s. Yikes! I didn’t know what a down comforter or a wood stove was, or how I was possibly going to survive living in this place for another 7-8 months, because the reality is, in the mountains, winter can last from October through May. I got warmer covers for the bed, and learned to get my clothes ready the night before. I would then jump out of bed, sprint to the bathroom, and turn on the shower, using hot water as hot I as I could stand it. Then change into my clothes in the hot, steamy bathroom, run out and start the car to get the heat going, run back in, eat something quick and jump into the car headed for work. This was my survival tactic during that first cold winter.
The first few places I lived in the mountains of the Sierra all used wood stoves to heat during wintertime. The great thing about a wood stove is that the fuel source is readily available all around you, and it’s a source of heat that isn’t dependent on electricity or natural gas. Therefore if you lose power, you still have heat, an important thing in mountain country. The bad thing about a wood stove is that it’s messy, and you constantly have to rebuild the fire, because there is no possible way to stoke the stove with enough wood to keep it burning for at least eight hours. Which means that the stove goes out overnight, and it’s freezing cold in the morning or when you come home from work, the stove has gone out and it’s freezing cold, and you have to rebuild the fire all over again.
You also have to collect, and split a lot of wood (A LOT OF WOOD) in preparation for the 3-4 cords of wood you will burn during the winter. You will also need to split a lot of wood into kindling that you will need to keep rebuilding the fire. It’s constant work to collect, split wood, build your fires, and stoke your stove. But given the cost of heating using gas or electric, it is infintely cheaper and preferable to use some sort of wood stove. We, like our neighbors, do have a furnace hooked up to our propane tank, but try to use it as little as possible, to keep down the costs. And in our current home here in Nederland, we have a different type of wood stove, a pellet stove, that uses wood pellets and is partially dependent on electricity, but can burn those pellets for 24-30 hours continously, so no more freezing houses like my first experience in Mammoth Lakes. Still, there is work to be done, as pellets come in 40-pound bags that have to be stored and schlepped from outside to the stove. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of physical labor that goes on to keep your house warm for winter living here.
I’ve learned a lot since that first winter in the mountains, I know what to expect from winters now, and am more fully prepared. But preparation for winter is not just about heating the house, it’s about preparing ourselves for the elements when we were out there. I learned a lot about what to wear for the huge snowstorms and cold temperatures that first winter in Mammoth as well. More about that tomorrow….