Monday, March 17, 2014

Mountain Education: Snow Basics Course

I have been backpacking for quite a few years now, but primarily as a 3 season trekker.  I get cold easily, so winter has been a time for indoor activities, and dreaming of warmer days out in the backcountry.  But the hiking season for the high country tends toward being pretty short if one allows snow to be a deterrent.  So I was intrigued when Mountain Education offered a Snow Basics Course course at Stevens Pass.

This course was advertised as a "3-day, non-technical, extended weekend, basecamp oriented outings introduce you to the general knowledge, awareness, and skills needed to safely camp in and travel over snow with confidence and peace of mind."  Since it is not uncommon to encounter at least some snow along the PCT and in the Olympic Mountains even into late spring and early summer, this seemed like a good opportunity to become better equipped for the snow travel I currently do, as well as potentially becoming comfortable enough with the snow to be able to extend the hiking season at least a little bit.  So I signed up for the course this past weekend and was not disappointed.

We actually met at the Dinsmore's Hiker Haven the evening prior to heading up into the pass for a presentation by a couple of the local SAR folks.  This was a good addition to the course, with the added benefit of having some time to get to know Ned, our instructor, and the rest of the students before heading out.  Most of us  spent the night in the Dinsmore's bunkhouse, and then headed up to the pass Friday morning, in a pretty steady rain.  But by the time we hit the pass, the rain had turned to snow.

We started Friday off by getting some pointers on wearing and using snowshoes, and then loaded up and headed up a snow covered road about 1.5 miles to Grace Lakes.  The trip was pretty mellow with lots of breaks for instructional talks, as well as to prevent the more aggressive of us from working up a sweat.  One thing that Ned continuously emphasized was the need to stay warm and dry; dry both from the external environment as well as the environment inside your rain gear.  While I did know this, it was not generally something I heeded, so the constant reminder was good.

When we got to the lakes, buried under several feet of snow, we learned how to prepare a location for pitching a tent, how to safely cook in a tent, how to detect and prevent snow accumulations on the tent, and then hunkered down out of the snow for a while.  Eventually we came back out into the snow and down to the lake to get water.  This involved digging a hole through the snow and then punching through the ice with an ice ax or tip of a pole before filtering or dipping out water.

Base camp for the trip.  There are 4 more tents out of the frame, so we were quite a little village out in the snow.

Pumping water out of a hole in the lake.

Since some of the folks had gotten cold and wet during the day, mostly from insufficient shells, boots and gloves, we mostly hung out in our tents the rest of the day, had dinner when ready, shoveled newly fallen snow away from our tents, and then turned in for the night to the sound of freshly falling snow landing above our heads.  That and the sound of tent walls being whacked from within to knock off the snow.  The night was long, but I was warm and reasonably comfortable and I felt really good about that.  All in all a good first day and night.

I discovered that nothing happens very early in one of these classes. I finally rolled out at about 8 and discovered that only 2 of my classmates were up yet.  Since the snow had stopped I fixed breakfast outside and enjoyed the scenery while the rest of the camp slowly came awake.

Needed to do some digging out after the first night.  Kitchen setup to the right with a view out over the lake.  

Looking out over our lake.  A real winter wonderland.

About 10 we loaded day-packs, donned snowshoes, and headed out for a cross country jaunt.  Along the way we received instruction about watching and evaluating the weather, how to build emergency shelters, how to evaluate a slope for avalanche danger, and map reading.  Several times along the trip we took out maps and found our location based on what we could see around us, and then tried to identify the direction to the next targeted location.  It was a wonderful day to wander around the Grace Lakes basin and it was early afternoon before we made it back to camp for lunch.

View of the North Cascades from atop one of the Stevens Pass ski lifts.

Saturday afternoon was spent in a pair of activities.  First we all dug into the snow on a hillside to look at the layers of snow and ice and evaluate the potential for slippage between layers.  The intent of this is to be able to assess the danger of avalanche.  Looking back, I am somewhat unclear as to when I would actually do this, but it was interesting to actually see the layering and to get a better idea of what causes avalanches.

The second activity of the afternoon involved building snow caves. This activity was optional and part of the class quickly opted out, but I found the process to be a blast, at least for a couple of hours.  I managed to tunnel back around 7-8 feet and had a chamber large enough to sit up in by the time I grew weary of the exercise.  Ned and a couple of the other students actually finished their cave and the two students spent that night in it, reporting the next morning that it was dry and had been warmer than their tents the previous night.

By this point it was early evening and the weather was starting to turn on us, so we mostly hunkered down in our tents, fixed dinner, and dropped off to sleep.  After a pretty dry day, it rained most of the night before turning back to snow early Sunday morning.

Sunday was another slow starting day, but by 10:30 we were all up, had breakfast and had broken camp and started down the road for the parking lot.  Near the parking lot we came to a steep side road and stopped there for the last training exercise.

Preparing to play in the snow one last time.

We spent several hours here practicing ascent and descent techniques, followed by glissading, and learning self arrest techniques.  This was easily the most important segment of the class for me.  I have been on some dicey slopes on the snow where I really would have liked to have known how to self arrest. After several hours rolling around in the snow I feel much better about my chances of stopping an uncontrolled slide.

While I had some serious misgivings about this course upfront, primarily because of the weather forecast, the weather was much better than anticipated, and the course was low key, very informative, and has left me feeling much better about being able to travel and camp on the snow.  It may have even extended the hiking season for me a bit.  And, to top it all off, I managed to stay warm and dry the whole time, except for my hands.  This was a profitable way to spend the weekend.

2 comments:

  1. Ed
    Excellent recap of the weekend with a great bunch of hikers and yes it was a very profitable way to spend the weekend.
    Thank you for helping me relive our time in the snow.
    Jon Belcher (Gandalf)

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  2. Hi Ed!
    You captured the weekend perfectly. I am so glad I took the class. I learned what I had hoped to learn and had the pleasure of spending time with a great group of fellow backpackers. Thank you for sharing the pictures. I wish I could have been at dinner with everyone afterwards, but I needed to hightail it home before the pass got worse. I hope to meet you all on the trail, so we can share tales of our adventures.
    Terri Stewart

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