“Snow Chute,” by Skip Whitcomb, oil, 12 x 10 in.

Newsletters from the Plein Air Painters of America are usually interesting, but the latest one caught our eye because of some tales from veteran plein air painter Skip Whitcomb.

Whitcomb has been around, and you can’t paint outdoors for too long without amassing some war stories.

“Every place carries a certain element of risk,” Whitcomb told PAPA. “The degree depends on your definition of ‘comfort zone,’ I guess. Lack of judgment has probably resulted in more problems than any particular geographic location. The following situations illustrate examples of ‘the thrill of the hunt’ outweighing good judgment.

“Home of Bluegill Muskrat,” by Skip Whitcomb, pastel, 18 x 24 in.
“Home of Bluegill Muskrat,” by Skip Whitcomb, pastel, 18 x 24 in.

“Thirty years ago, two winter experiences about 10 days apart stand out. One February morning while snowshoeing with my painting gear along an isolated section of the Fraser River, I fell through a snow bridge and into the river. Wedged under my arms into the fork of a downed tree, the water was mid-thigh deep and I couldn’t reach my snowshoes to get them off. After about 10 minutes of twisting and turning I managed to get first one snowshoe off, then the other, and climb back to the solid snow.

“Camp Below Breaks,” by Skip Whitcomb, oil, 7 x 9 in.
“Camp Below Breaks,” by Skip Whitcomb, oil, 7 x 9 in.

“The second incident, a few days later occurred in the backcountry on Berthod Pass. I snowshoed about a half mile, through 10-12 inches of fresh powder over 7-8 feet of existing snow, up a drainage to the convergence of several avalanche chutes, while maintaining a respectful distance from any possible slide path. One of my snowshoes snagged something under the surface and pitched me head first into a tree well. Upside down, the more I struggled the deeper I sank; it felt like quicksand. After the initial panic subsided and I figured out how to extricate myself from this frightening predicament, I swore never to venture alone into the winter backcountry. Now I send my painting partner(s) out to test the snow bridge first! These two anecdotes bring to mind the late great John Wayne quote: ‘Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid.’ I want to believe ensuing years have brought some modicum of wisdom.”

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