Player Piano – The Frozen Tightrope

The Frozen Tightrope

Deep down I’ve always been an outdoor cat. The thing many people may not realize about Wilmington Delaware is that you can go to an inner city HS and also go camping within like a 15minute drive.

My grandfather performed maintenance on the Hagley Estate. An interesting little note about Northern Delaware history is just how impactful on the way of life that the Dupont family has been.

My grandparents rented a small farmhouse in Yorklyn, 15minutes outside of Wilmington Delaware but an entire world away. The farmhouse was a tiny 2 bedroom house with a springhouse outside for water and a cesspool down the hill.

I grew up right on the edge of the city but I spent most weekends in my youth at my grandparents. The little house sat on a few acres of property where my grandmother grew most of what they ate. The property itself was a few acres for a garden, barn and such. But it was surrounded on all sides by relatively wild. The Forrests stretched for as far as a young child needed to roam, explore and such. So,… fundamentally, I was an outdoor cat. And I still am.

I attended Wilmington HS, also right on the edge of the city. School Busing which is a controversial topic for some was a double edged sword in Delaware. For me, personally it was great. I have attended Catholic Schools (until I was kicked out. But that’s a story for another time) Suburban public schools (which were fairly negative) and an inner city school (which was kind of great)

Going Away And Getting Away

When it came time for college I went to Temple university, not at all because it was the only school willing to accept my out of state tuition and overlook my GPA and instead rely on my SAT scores (suckers)

But anyone who has lived on Temples Main campus before it was gentrified knows that North Philly in the early 90s was the full city experience. All due respect to my friends from other big 5 schools but North Philly was an environment of its own.

And I loved it…. Until the weekends. I had come to rely on time in nature and living on main campus wore me down quickly my Freshman year.

So by December when my cousin called me to tell me they were thinking about going camping at Red Rock Mountain I didn’t ask questions I just said yes. He said he and a couple of friends would get everything together and come pick me up from campus on the way up.

Spoiler Alert:

Never, ever, and I mean ever, trust someone else to pack your equipment for a winter camping trip. Just don’t. Now back to our story

It’s Friday night and being 17/18 year olds, my friends are late as usual. I remember it was dark when they picked me up from the Dorms on Broad Street and I hopped in the car and said “you have a sleeping bag for me right, its gonna be Cold” I was assured everything was fine.

It was probably after 10pm when we arrived and it was cold but not brutal. The overnight temperature that night was below freezing for sure because our gallon jug was water was frozen solid the next morning. Average December temperatures for the peak are a high of 34 degrees and a low of 19 Fahrenheit. I’d say this was a relatively mild first night. 

As we set up tents in the dark I looked for my sleeping bag to which I was handed a GI Joe sleeping bag from the 80s. This was essentially the kind of child size sleeping bag you’d buy at Walmart for 15$ with a weather rating of 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It was too late to build a fire considering we had no firewood and I got very little sleep that night oh and the zipper was broken, so it was essentially a tiny thin polyester filled blanket.  But I’m tough…. It was fine. As it turns out, two of my buddies had what are called Mummy Bags. 

Sleeping bags essentially have 3 main categories, Summer, 3 season and Winter. Their bags were Winter bags, comfortable in temperatures down to about 15 degrees farenheit. A 3 season bag is good for nights down to around freezing. 

Day 2 – The Signs were all there

The Next Day we all agreed it was a cold night and we didn’t want to freeze our butts off. It was a fantastic morning, the sun was shining and we set about chopping firewood. By 10 am or so we were chopping furiously and tee shirts were all that was needed and still we were sweating from exertion. We stopped over to the Park Rangers office to get the campsite officially rented ( even though we were literally the only people in the park)

See, Red Rock mountain is in the middle of northern PA, its a small mountain between Wilkes Barre and Williamsport. At 2500 feet of elevation, you can camp on top of the mountain itself at a campground. But no one wants to do that in winter.

Upon arriving at the ranger station, we were set upon by a few deer. They were so desperate for food they walked up to us to beg. We had some bread from the store in town and they ate right out of our hands.

Everything Changes

So after a quick trip to the store we got back to preparing for a campfire. We chopped wood until about 3pm when everything changed. A cold front came through and within 5 minutes the temperature dropped roughly 30 degrees. We were still cutting wood when it came through, we went from sweating to freezing in minutes and decided to run back and get the fire started.

We Built a roaring fire and sat around getting stupid as teenagers will do. By 5 it was dark and we started talking about how dumb those deer were and how easy it would be to hunt them. We may have sharpened sticks and run around the woods at night trying to get some deer meat. Thankfully, our nonsense was not rewarded and after a while we stumbled back to camp and settled in for bed.

Now let me say it is nearly impossible to describe just how much colder night 2 was than the first night. After about 45minutes in the tent I was certain I was going to freeze to death. I left the tend to go back by the fire. The fire was ringed by flat rocks and we had built up the fire much larger than normal so the rocks were quite warm.I bundled up and laid next to the fire to stay warm. Over the next few hours I would constantly turn myself to keep from freezing. I was so close to the fire and it was so cold that the part of my body facing the fire would be warm but the side facing away would be frigid. I spent all night trying to stay alive.

Better Off Dead?

At one point I distinctly remember thinking (it would be much easier to just be dead)

I found myself laying on the rocks around the fire at points. I had to Clutch my broken GI Joe sleeping bag around me and keeping as close as possible to the fire.

When morning finally came, I got up and everyone looked at me in horror……. The first thing I noticed was that my sleeping bag was burnt. Large sections of the polyester had melted and charred and holes were everywhere…. Then my cousin pointed to my jacket, a big down starter coat from the 90s  and sure enough, it was burned everywhere. Both sleeves, front and back were covered in charred burned holes some 6 inches wide.

Then to my boots… my boots!!!!! They were burned through the tongue and bottoms. Everything was ruined. The morning warmed up but not nearly enough to have any fun doing anything. Even my sousin and his friend in their mummy bags said they had never been so cold in their lives. We packed up and drove down the mountain. When we finally got to the nearest town we walked to get food, coffee and such and the thermometer outside of the gas station read 18 Fahrenheit. It was 11am by the time we arrived. 18 Fahrenheit at sea level at 11am.

To this day I have no idea how cold it had been that night, I just know that it is the night I nearly froze to death and burned to death.

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