Frostburn: An Adult Extreme Camping Adventure

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February 8, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Winter scene at Cooper's Lake Campground near Slippery Rock, Pa., site of the annual Frostburn winter festival this week.

Winter scene at Cooper's Lake Campground near Slippery Rock, Pa., site of the annual Frostburn winter festival this week.

Frostburn. It is a juxtaposition of ideas — an avant-garde artist's collaborative, a survivalist's subzero arena, a kegger in the woods, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Even the name itself is comprised of paradoxical words — "frost" and "burn."

In its third year, Frostburn is a dead-of-winter outdoor camping festival mostly for adults.

Held at Cooper's Lake Campground, a private, family-owned campground near Slippery Rock, an hour's drive north of Pittsburgh, Frostburn has attracted roughly 100 participants each of the last two years. Tarka said this year's event, five months in the making and slated for Feb. 12-15, has already sold 150 tickets at $50 or more each, with the total expected to challenge 200.

It's the brainchild of "Avocado" Tom Tarka, a 36-year-old chemical engineer from Carrick, Pa., and a group of friends who are veterans of the annual Burning Man Festival held each summer in Black Rock Desert, Nevada.

Burning Man is part extreme camping adventure, part artist convention, part hellacious party. In more than two decades, it has grown to a massive gathering of close to 40,000 revelers. Tarka wants to recapture that communal feeling of good times and common hardship with Frostburn.

"When you're at Burning Man in Nevada, you're fighting the elements — there might be 100-plus degree heat or 80-mile-per-hour winds making dust storms so heavy that you can't breathe," said Tarka. "You have to prepare for the conditions, and that sense of adversity and battling the elements, it brings people together.

"We wanted to bring the spirit of Burning Man back to Pittsburgh — but if you do it in the summer, you'll just be out in a field camping. So we thought what kind of natural adversity do we have in Pittsburgh? And naturally it's pretty cold in the winter time."

Frostburn co-organizer, Kimmy Bellora — also a Burning Man alum — loves the challenge provided by the harsh conditions and the creativity inspired by the landscape.

"People create different spaces to keep warm. One of the great ones was a sweat lodge, which got up to 120-degrees," she said. "Another fun one is the Bubble Dome. It was like an igloo covered in bubble wrap and crazy colored lights where we hosted tea parties."

She said the campground becomes a big frozen playground for adults to express creativity that gets lost in daily life.

"We give them a blank slate and a campground and they can do whatever strikes their fancy to create this world around them." Bellora said. This year, there will be an added emphasis on more interactive art, including "fire art."

There are scores of Burning Man spin-offs around the country, but to Tarka's knowledge, this is one of the few done in extreme winter cold. Word-of-mouth has spread through the Burning Man community and Frostburn has had participants come out from as far as San Francisco. This year they're expecting a group of Carnegie-Mellon alumni based in Seattle as well as a group of Canadians.

"We'll see how they fare against the Pittsburghers for the cold-weather battle," he said.

The event is silly fun: witness a massive snowball fight, an annual Mister Rogers sing-along, the subzero plunge into the lake, a GPS treasure hunt, flaming tetherball and an Atari tournament on a 15-foot screen.

Activities are artistic in nature. Installations are brought and set up, and art and music are created on site. A 25-foot snowman is built each year and set ablaze, the centerpiece for a huge campfire, and a homage to the culminating event of Burning Man.

It is also a test of mettle: Last year the mercury dipped below zero and that didn't include wind chills. Keeping warm is a task unto itself, but the participants create thematic camps that help to that end. One is a sweat lodge, another is a giant volcano, the inside of which is a cozy rec-room with kitschy decor.

"Its empowering learning that you can camp in zero-degree weather, you have to fend for yourself and be responsible," said Tarka

But make no mistake, Frostburn is a party. Plenty of spirits will be passed around from campfire to campfire, but doing so comes with a caveat.

"Smoking and alcohol physiologically, they make you colder. You have to make sure you're doing everything right if you want to stay roasty-toasty, We bring our beer in a cooler without ice to keep the cold out," he said, laughing.

Doing things right includes constant hydration and eating, and careful monitoring of one's own core temperature.

"You have to keep hydrated and keep eating because you'll burn through several thousand calories just keeping warm — you need a nice mix of fatty foods, proteins, sugars," Tarka said. "But you also can't overheat, because then you'll sweat, get wet and freeze. You have to mitigate your temperature by removing and putting back on layers."

The theme of the weekend, Tarka said, is participation.

"It flips a normal festival on its ear. Usually you go to look at art and listen to music and eat food. Here you make the music, make the art, make the food. It doesn't matter how humble or expensive it is, the real point is to participate rather than just be a spectator"

Another major theme of the event is what Tarka calls the "de-commodification" of society. Frostburners bring what they need and barter for what they don't have, or rely on the kindness of strangers. Nothing is for sale at the campground other than firewood.

"Having to deal with extreme weather conditions, there is a chance that you could in fact die, so that puts a little edge on it," Tarka said with a chuckle. "It's nothing to worry about if you're adequately prepared, but you have to think about these things.

"People don't think about the joys of winter camping: no bugs and no poison ivy."

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