Monday, April 18, 2011

Mountain Education Snow Course Day 3 (or) Learning to Fall Down a Mountain

Today was the third and final day of the course. It was definitely warmer out last night, but I wasn't taking any chances, so I slept with my boots in the tent. So much more comfortable to put them on in the morning when they aren't a pair of ice blocks. Unfortunately they were still damp from the soaking they took yesterday in the soft, slushy snow, so I definitely need to pick up a better pair for my thru-hike in the Sierras. These will likely be used as a replacement pair somewhere up in Oregon or Washington depending on how the new pair holds up. I did get some condensation in the tent last night, so that was a bummer. I'll have to try out the inner liner to see how well that manages the condensation issues. We all gathered around our snow table for one last meal together and then packed up our gear and left the basecamp. Ned brought us down to a moderate slope where we began to learn to use our ice axes. The process was: sit down at the top of the hill, start sliding down, self arrest to stop sliding down. Rinse and repeat. Self arrest can be critical through some of the snowy areas as it is the best and most effective way of stopping yourself if you lose your footing and take off down the hill.

Fortunately or unfortunately, due to the higher temperature last evening, the snow was relatively soft. This made it possible to stop yourself simply by digging in your feet as you slid, so there was less riding on a successful self arrest. On the other hand, it was a low risk environment to learn, so that was positive. I learned how to self arrest from several different positions, namely feet first with and without my pack, and then head first on my back. That was probably the most challenging as you are a bit disoriented and it isn't quite as intuitive which way you want to roll. Its actually quite interesting to think about the mechanics of how a self arrest works. First of all here is an ice axe. The pointed side is the pick, the broader side is the adze, and the point on the end of the shaft is called... the point. The idea behind self arrest is to dig the pick into the snow while holding the ice axe tight to your body and diagonally across your body from your shoulder to your hip. You need to keep it close in so that you can hang on once it bites in and pulls you to a stop. When you self arrest you need to roll over the shoulder holding the axe head so that the pick is the first part to contact the surface. If you roll the opposite way, the shaft will bury itself in the snow, potentially vaulting you backwards down the slope - not desirable at all. Once I figured out the basic idea behind the technique, it really wasn't too terrible to put into practice, although it did take a few tries to become consistent, and then quite a few more tries to do just as well with my off hand.

After a good hour and a half of practice with self arrest, we slipped on our packs and began the 6 mile hike out. It was MUCH quicker going down the hill instead of climbing and traversing it, so we made excellent time. We went back across the lake again, but this time there were definite signs of surface melting on the eastern side. Still nothing to worry about yet, but if this temperature holds for a few more days, I'd be a bit more apprehensive about crossing the lake like we did. We made it back to the cars around 1:45 and I quickly unloaded my pack into the duffel bags and said my goodbyes. I hope to see all of you out on the trail at some point, especially since you all start before me. Sourdough and Don start on Tuesday, so it'll be some time before I see you guys, and I'm extremely jealous that you'll be out on the trail while I'm doing problem sets and writing papers. Phil, I'll probably see you first since you only will have a couple days head start on me. Probably see you somewhere around Warner Springs. Pat and Sandy it was sure nice to meet both of you, and I look forward to seeing you out there. And of course, a huge thank you to Ned, Julie and Snowball for making us all feel like family and providing priceless instruction and guidance over the three day course. Thank a ton, I really enjoyed my time out there, and I hope to see you all soon!

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