Steamboat Springs Last week, near the frozen shore of Pearl Lake, a dozen fifth- and sixth-graders hurriedly dug snow trenches.
When completed, the children squeezed together inside the two separate trenches, careful to get as deep into the trench as possible in order to limit their exposure to the winter weather.
Fortunately, this was just an exercise.
But in the event of a real emergency, these 12 Lowell Whiteman Primary School students have the basic training that could help them survive outdoors in the harsh Colorado winter climate.
The two days of winter survival training, better known as "Winter Survival Days," have become an annual tradition for Lowell Whiteman students.
"(Winter Survival Days) convey developmentally appropriate skills for surviving a winter climate," Lowell Whiteman Spanish teacher and librarian Marianne Wanek said.
Wanek, who teaches summer mountaineering courses for Colorado Outward Bound, led the two-day exercise at Pearl Lake. Lowell Whiteman art teacher Keri Fearls and parent volunteer Ed Trousil assisted Wanek.
"We're just trying to give them crash-course basics, like how to stay warm, what to do if you're lost, how to build a shelter and how to use the bathroom," Wanek said.
The course began Monday with a lesson in packing for outdoor trips and a half-day snowshoe and cross country ski excursion.
Many of the 12 fifth- and sixth-graders had never snowshoed or cross country skied before Monday, Wanek said.
The group departed for Pearl Lake -- located north of Clark --early Tuesday morning and snowshoed and cross country skied to the Pearl Lake yurts, two wood-framed, tent-like structures with electric heaters, lights and bunk beds.
Though electric heaters and winter survival seem to clash, the trip was meant to introduce kids to survival techniques, not force them to use those techniques for two days.
"It's amazing how some local kids aren't even that familiar with the environment around them," Wanek said.
After a snack, the students were taught five different ways the human body loses heat and how to acclimatize to outdoor conditions. Next, the kids were taught the correct techniques for going to the bathroom in the wilderness.
"Many girls won't go to the bathroom outside," Wanek said. If they don't want to go to the bathroom, then they won't drink. And if they won't drink, they'll become dehydrated," she said.
Following lunch, Yampatika's Brett Dalke joined the group and demonstrated the art of building snow shelters and fires.
The students then practiced building their own shelters -- with mixed success. The snow trench was a success, but the snow cave collapsed with two boys inside.
But the collapse provided a valuable learning experience, said 11-year-old Chris Finch.
"Snow caves will not do well if they have more than one entrance," he said. "It can't hold up the weight because it's not stable with two entrances."
A big spaghetti dinner brought an end to the busy day, and minus a curious mouse in the girls' yurt, the night passed uneventfully.
Bright blue skies illuminated the spectacular forest surrounding Pearl Lake and greeted the students Wednesday morning. After breakfast and clean up, the second day of activities began.
Parent Ed Trousil designed a trail-finding activity for the students. Using compasses and a map, the students tracked a pre-determined loop around the yurts.
"If you get lost, go back to the last place you knew where you were," Wanek instructed the students.
Though the activity proved easy, it still served its purpose by teaching the students to pay attention to their surroundings, Trousil said.
For Wanek and many of the students, the highlight of the trip coincided with a jaunt to the lakeshore, where the students relaxed by water coloring. During the activity, a pack of five coyotes ran back and forth on the opposite shore, yelping and chasing one another through the deep snow.
"This is fun learning," Chris Finch said from the lakeshore. "It's really nice to be out in the wilderness and away from the city and all the cars and stuff."
A "professor hike" followed the water coloring. On the hike, each student instructed their classmates on characteristics of the surrounding wilderness, such as the hibernation patterns of animals and the conditions necessary to produce certain types of snowflakes.
The trip concluded with "Survival Olympics." The students were divided into two groups and raced to see which group could build the biggest pile of snow, dig the best snow trench and navigate blindfolded down a trail.
"A lot of (Winter Survival Days) is just for them to have fun," Wanek said. "I think it was a good time."
And it's an exercise parents value, too.
"Living in an outdoor environment, it teaches them to handle themselves in winter situations," said parent Katherine Hartley, whose daughter, Megan, was part of the trip. "It's a great experience."
"I think that the responsibility it teaches the kids is lifelong," he said. "There are a lot of survival skills they can use. There's a lot of things I've learned, too, and I've backcountry skied my whole life."
Back in the parking lot after two days in the wilderness, students and teachers gathered for a final discussion.
"I'd like to congratulate all of you for making it through winter survival," Wanek said. "Keep going out for adventures like this. Find more adventures in your life."