I have survived the trail. But postholing up the drifted-in stairs, post-midnight, I am not safe yet. I am still alone and cold. And hut life is a hard life.
I get inside, I close the door, I nearly crack my head when I slip on the now snowy floor. I find the lighter and give thanks it’s right on the sill. I pause to shunt the blood from my shoulders to my hands. I’m moving fast, orienting to the darkness of indoors, the sparse necessities of this frigid hut under headlamp. I crumple a couple of paper plates in the wood stove then stack the kindling on top. I praise the people who left me these gifts, then—Lighter. Snap. Ignite. The paper alights, the wood begins to burn, but my hands are still numb, the marrow aches of my frozen toes, and there’s only enough wood to get this fire started, not to keep this hut warm for the night.
Next is Eisen Snow. Tough as he is, he’s been shivering since dusk, whimpering whenever we stopped, hungry, thirsty, trailing blood from icy cuts. Normally he is stoic amidst hardship, so this is serious. Cold as my toes are in my plastic boots, his paws crashed naked through the snow that bridged three of the four slushy creeks we had to cross on the snowed-over twelve miles to get here. I yank my sleeping bag out of my pack and wrap him in it, down donut. I add the last piece of split wood to the fire then press my hands against the metal of the stove. It’s starting to warm, but it’s not hot yet. I check my watch. It’s 12:43; I haven’t sat down since the car at ten this morning. But it’s not time for that. Not yet. I breathe a dragon's breath onto the tender coals and inhale deep smoke as the flame burns brighter. I put both hands inside the stove, fully surrounded by flame until—
I cannot stand it.
This is stupid. Don’t be stupid. Burns are worse than just being cold.
There is no chopping maul or long-handled axe, but only three heavy, maul-like hatchets. Maulchets. I posthole to the firewood pile and shovel two feet of sagging snow off the smallest-looking pieces of wood. I tip over the chopping block and set the first round atop. This spruce is just barely dead and clings to itself despite my mightiest blows with this instrument not really meant for this. Fucking maulchet. And for a flash, I think, what if I never can split it? What if this is it?
I swing with all I’ve got on the fifteenth standing hour of this fourth hardest day of all of my days and that crack of tree trunk cleaving is true love, is the best friend I’ve ever had, is happily ever after. These pieces will burn long for their resinous newness. You can tell their burnability by the sound they make when they split; another round is punky, cleaves too easily, will light fast and burn out quick. I amass a pile that’ll last through morning. It takes four left-arm-loads to posthole it back to the cabin, where I dump it inside and every time, nearly crack my skull on the stove again, ski boots skittery on the veneer of the floor.
I check on Eisen, his body is evenly breathing deep. The fire and the down are doing their jobs. And I am too. I am succeeding, surviving. I cram as much wood in the stove as will fit, then take off my boots and confirm it—
Waxy white toes but the capillaries still slowly, but barely, refill. They’re not dead, just damaged so I warm them by the open flame. I sit my cold butt on the cold floor and nearly burn my feet until I feel a feeling. Drawing them back, I notice the stack of Crazy Creek camp chairs, eight because that’s how many this hut sleeps. And I scatter them around the snow-soaked floor. Crazy Creek islands to insulate me.
And I’ve only had two liters to drink all day, saving a splash for just this moment, here in this hut above 10,000 feet. 2:33. I fill a pot with snow from just outside the door, then pour in my few drops. Powder snow without water in the pot will burn, and although eventually it’ll melt, it’ll taste like bad barbeque, like charred nothingness. It's gross, trust me.
As my water melts, I make us dinner. Hot slop for the dog, which he’s too tired and cold to move to eat, so he slurps it from the sleeping bag, wherein we both, soon will sleep.
My water, once liquid, is clean and tastes like snow, but wetter, so delicious at half past 3. And I'm warm enough to take off my coat. About to eat a hot meal, with wood to keep me cozy all night and my dog curled up tight, I quiet my frenzy to realize.
I am safe. I have survived.