We tried to do everything right and were still caught out. The evening before, Ken and I reconned our route partway up the mountain. We packed our packs, hit the sack at dusk, and got an alpine start, knocking out the approach by headlamp. With the pink penumbra of dawn, we switched off the lights, pumped up the pace. We didn’t stop to talk or take pictures or rest. We had a section of 7mm rope but didn’t use it, aluminum crampons but didn’t need them. One ice axe and boot-kicking shot us straight up the snow.
We were on our feet and moving in seconds. A stygian storm had crept up behind us. We hadn’t dropped a thousand feet before a heavy sheet of darkness closed over. It started snowing: summer snow, wetter than rain, colder than ice, flakes like flying washrags.
The wind grew worse, driving walls of flying, horizontal sleet, and visibility dropped to a few yards. Wet snow, smashing into our bodies and blowing up under our jackets, melted to icy water against our skin. We swiftly became hypothermic, but there was nothing we could do about it. Keep descending, keep the heart pumping.
We began to lose coordination, our movements eventually becoming jerky and unbalanced. Now verglass was forming on the rocks. Even using ice axes like canes, we were slipping and falling hard in the talus. I banged my shoulder so badly I tore something.
By the time we reached our tent, the world was a freezing blur. Our jaws were so hardened we couldn’t speak. The tent was encased in frozen sleet. Our hands could hardly operate the tent zipper.
At first we just lay there, shivering. We were out of the wind and wet, but still soaked to the bone. We had to light the stove. With wooden fingers this was particularly perilous—the flames shot a foot high—but in 20 minutes our tent was transformed into a sauna, our wet clothes steaming.
We each tugged on our spare set of dry long underwear, huddled close to the stove, downed cup after cup of hot chocolate and listened to the storm lunging against the sidewalls of the tent. It took two hours to actually warm up—by then the temperature had dropped precipitously, to 15 degrees, and four inches of snow had fallen—but we played cards, cozy, our clothes hanging all around us as if we were kids inside a closet.
This is not the first time the humble tent—that simple, elemental fusion of arcing poles and paper-thin panels of nylon—has saved me.
One night, after a painful day of ice climbing, it began to snow. We were asleep, of course, and only woke when the weight of the snow had pressed in the sidewalls so far they touched us. Throughout the rest of the night we would occasionally mule-kick the tent through our bags. In the morning only a narrow wedge of light came through the ceiling. It had snowed four feet. Had we been in some other shelter—say, a snow cave—we would have been asphyxiated.
But circumstances need not be extreme to appreciate the architectural utility and sculptural beauty of the tent. Anyone who has been warm and snug inside a tent while a storm lashes the world just on the other side of its butterfly-wing walls knows the magic. The roar of rain upon the nylon, the purple glow of lightning, thunder bellowing—a tent in a tempest is Shakespearean. You’re outside, right in the middle of it all, but safe.
The summers of my boyhood were filled with such nights: my five siblings and I, Mom, Dad and Butterscotch, our curly-coat golden retriever, all together in a hundred-pound canvas tent in the wilds of Wyoming. One night it poured so hard for so long Dad and I had to crawl out and trench around the tent to keep the family from floating away. Another night Mom told us it was nothing and to go back to sleep but in the morning we found claw holes punched in the metal Hamm’s cooler. Sometimes we went camping for weeks.
When I was 12 I bought my first tent, at a garage sale. For $10 I got an orange pup tent with a blue vinyl floor, two flimsy poles and a handful of heavy stakes. I wore it out in a single summer; Mom sewed it back together during the winter. We did this for three years.
There was a period at university when I spent practically as many nights in a tent as I did in a house. All summers, holidays, weekends and a fair number of weekdays were devoted to climbing, and thus camping. During the semester, a tent was cheap housing. I’d pitch it in a hideout up in the hills and bicycle in to college. Shower at the gym, eat day-old bagels and half-price bananas. Living with a girlfriend worked, pretty much, although it required a domesticity that I had yet to develop, so after a fight, it was always a relief to return to the tent.
As a philosophy student enamored with asceticism, I had a brief, reckless affair with the tarp. I found it a lovely shelter—if there were no bugs, no wind, no rain, no sleet and no snow. Ditto the hallowed bivouac sack. Naw, tarps and bivy sacks are for people who’ve never used them. The tent—one of the most elegant inventions of mankind, right up there with the canoe, the bow-and-arrow and the bicycle—is the incomparable all-purpose shelter.
Humans were living in tents before they were human. In 1922 a tent made of animal hides draped over a wooden framework and held down by stones was found in the Grotto du Lazaret near Nice, France. This tent is thought to be 500,000 years old and built by Neanderthals. In 1943 in Moldova, Ukraine, a 44,000-year-old tent constructed of mammoth skins and mammoth bones was excavated. Tent sites and tent remains ranging from 23,000 to 10,500 years old have been found across Europe.
Prehistoric man was a hunter/gatherer. We were mobile, clever creatures who followed our sources of food, be they mammoths, reindeer or blueberries. The first shelters were no doubt natural features, such as caves. But a cave cannot move with the herds or the seasons, and troglodytes were not stupid. The aboriginal tent—animal skins stretched over branches, a fire in the middle—was necessarily one of humankind’s earliest inventions.
My daughters used to build ingenious “forts” with blankets, and I’ve seen similar behavior around the world. Whether they use camel-hair mats in Mali or colored cotton saris in Bangladesh, children so commonly construct tents that their talent appears innate. Much of humankind lived in tent-like structures for at least a million years. The tent is primordial architecture; it evolved with our brains. Only with the invention of agriculture, a mere 12,000 years ago, did permanent dwellings develop. Still, agriculture was only possible in regions with substantial rain. In arid parts of the world, the tent remained the primary shelter.
With significant variations, five prototypes became dominant: the domical, the ridgepole, the tepee, all used by hunting cultures; and the black tent and yurt, both used by pastoralists.
Alaskan Eskimos lived in the domical tent, the armature and membrane varying. Whale ribs and jawbones with tanned walrus hides were used near the Bering Strait, caribou hides tied over a willow framework sufficed along the MacKenzie River. Eskimos in Greenland, Baffin Island and Southhampton Island used the ridgepole tent—a sewn-hide velum pegged to the ground and stretched over a ridgepole supported by posts.
The tepee was home to tribes throughout the upper northern hemisphere, from the Samoyed, Khanti, Yakut, Lapps and Nganasani in northern Europe and Siberia, to the Sioux, Objibwa, Algonquin, Micmac and Inuit in North America. Velum material depended on the food source—reindeer, caribou, seal, walrus, bison (sometimes birch bark).
The yurt, by far the most advanced traditional tent, is, to this day, home-sweet-home for herding cultures across Central Asia, Turkey east to Mongolia. Much warmer and more energy efficient than the tepee, the yurt is a collapsible, circular wooden lattice, covered with mats. On more than one occasion I have taken shelter in one, eating leg-of-lamb or head-of-goat around a fire inside a yurt blanketed with three layers of thick felt, pleasantly besotted with fermented yak milk, and newly abhorring the thought of returning to my own high-tech tent.
On the other end of the weather spectrum is refuge from the murderous sun in a black tent. The black tent’s range extends from the shores of the Atlantic in Mauritania to the banks of the Mekong River in western Sichuan. There is more variation in black tent design than in any other traditional portable shelter—trapezoidal, rectangular, square, squat, tall (some will hold a hundred people, others no more than two)—but the materials and structure are universal: vertical wooden poles from which a velum of loosely woven black goat hair (or wool or yak hair) is stretched and bound tight with animal-hair guy lines. I’ve seen black tents in the Sahara pitched only three feet above the ground withstand vicious sandstorms, black tents in the Himalayas sag from the weight of snow, black tents in Tajikistan used as schoolrooms. Once, unwisely crossing Tibet with only a bivy sack, I made a point every evening of finding a yak herders’ black tent and trading buffalo jerky for a space by the fire for the night.
The tent was, and is, and always will be, the shelter of the nomad.
The modern iteration of the tent—arched poles and a taut nylon velum—was created by The North Face in 1975. That tent, modeled after Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, was called the Oval Intention. I owned one and it was beautiful. The design was proto-fundamental—like the design of the canoe. Tent materials are constantly improving, but the elemental design of the tent has not changed. Replace whalebones or branches with aluminum poles and reindeer hides or goat hair for super-light fabric, and you find that most modern tents have direct indigenous antecedents. The ridgepole is much like the A-frame, the black tent similar to the canvas family tent, the yurt a sturdier albeit much heavier dome tent.
In short, the simple two-man, 5-pound, $300 dome tent is the ultimate modern nomad’s shelter. It is an invitation to adventure. It can go anywhere you can go. It is the stealth shelter, a home wherever you find a flat piece of ground the size of a bed.
Alas, I live in a house now, like everybody else. It took years, but I was finally, if only partially, domesticated. Nevertheless, I’m certain of one thing: a tent is what a house dreams of being. Deep in the night, when all the lights are long out, I lie awake and listen to our old house sigh. Its massive size and heaviness weigh upon its soul: the same old neighbors, the same lumpy street, the same lame lawn. When a house finally sinks into sleep, it dreams of breaking free, and lighting out. I know how it feels.
Mark Jenkins is a field staff writer for National Geographic magazine and the author of four books, the latest being A Man’s Life. He lives in Laramie and puts up new alpine routes in Wyoming every year.