[Cdt-l] Snow Course After-Action Report, 2/26

Paul Healy paul.healy at gmail.com
Tue Mar 9 12:59:20 CST 2010

I attended Ned's snow course on the 26th.  In addition to be a good primer
on snow travel/snow camping,  It was great fun.   IMHO anyone planning a
thru hike of the PCT or CDT would benefit from training in the use of ice ax
and self arrest.  Ned's course offers a great way to work these skills.
Definitely worthwhile.


Message: 1
> Date: Tue, 2 Mar 2010 20:16:50 -0800
> From: <ned at mountaineducation.org>
> Subject: [Cdt-l] Snow Course After-Action Report, 2/26
> To: "PCT MailingList" <pct-l at backcountry.net>,  <cdt-l at backcountry.net>
> Cc: johnmuirtrail at yahoogroups.com
> Message-ID: <763635B33FEE4ED7B9F01F5409E32943 at PacificCrestPC>
> Content-Type: text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1"
> With threatening skis overhead, eight daring souls, three instructors, and
> one loyal snow dog left the Echo Pass Sno-Park parking lot along the Pacific
> Crest Trail and headed up the snow-covered road toward Echo Lake Resort
> (closed in the winter). The first hour was easy as we walked along,
> adjusting snowshoes and chatting freely while getting to know each other.
> By the time we arrived at the Resort Lodge it was almost 1100hrs and it was
> starting to snow heavily, so we took refuge on the porch of the little
> general store to get out of the wind and have a bite to eat while
> considering whether to continue on. Just to get to the porch, we had to
> climb down a 4 to 6 foot snow bank! We had known that a storm was coming in,
> but we thought that it might at least let us get to our destination,
> Tamarack Lake, only 7 or so miles in, before lettin' loose on us....
> As it might be, the storm wave lightened up after about a half-hour, raised
> our spirits, and we decided to venture out and on across the Lower Echo
> Lake, quite frozen solid and safe for travel. The lower lake is only about
> two-and-a-half miles long, but by the time we got to its end, we were pretty
> tired of the increasing wind-driven surface snow hitting our faces,
> therefore, we dove into the trees between Upper and Lower Echo Lakes to vote
> whether we all wanted to continue on or stop to wait out the storm.
> After another bite to eat to keep the internal fires going and our bodies
> warm, the vote was unanimous, we go on to the end of Upper Echo, just a mile
> further on. Well, I guess it wasn't the best timing because the winds
> increased in strength and buffeted us all the way across. Sometimes we
> simply couldn't see anything for all the new and blowing snow swirling
> around our faces and getting in our eyes! The route across was a straight
> shot and we made it in record time (you really didn't want to stop for
> anything!).
> Back into the trees for shelter and another vote. Do we have the strength
> and determination to finish the day's endeavor by climbing up the last
> mile-and-a-half and mere three hundred vertical feet (no big deal in the
> summer, right?) to Tamarack Lake, our base camp for the weekend? Once again,
> our gutsy group insisted on pushing on, so off we went. Little did we know
> how all the powder snow, high winds, and miserable visibility would make the
> going more than hard!
> Equipped with snowshoes and two poles each, every student rallied to the
> occasion with true brute will to power up the hill, through gullies, around
> small cliff-like walls, between trees, and along little ridges only to be
> periodically and literally blown over by gusts of wind and falling snow. I
> was pulling our 7-foot equipment sled and I rarely fall, but on one stupid
> little bluff, the wind caught me and over I went, falling into the powder on
> my side and being "sand blasted" by the roaring ice crystals. Lady J called
> back to me to see if I was "ok" and all I could do was to wave the
> affirmative, not being able to yell over the gust. Several other times, as I
> brought up the rear of the procession, for the most part, I looked ahead
> only to watch over and over again the group of eight suddenly spin and cover
> their faces right in their tracks to avoid another white wave of wind.
> Pretty much exhausted, we did make it to camp after a two-hour climb and
> quickly circled the tents while the snow continued to dump and blow. It
> wasn't easy, even for seasoned veterans! Anchoring tents in the wind on dirt
> is one thing, but in soft, new snow it is quite another challenge! This is
> not the time to assume your tent stakes will do the job. Improvising dead
> tree branches made into "deadmen anchors," we all were able to make our
> tents take the shape resembling their design, however, in the intermittent
> winds, this was the best we could do. Taking longer to get things right only
> meant that more snow stuck to tent bodies before flies could be put on top
> and starting with a wet tent was not a good one, so hurry we did! Most tents
> made it up well enough, gear was thrown in, and occupants sped off to get
> water from the nearby outflow creek before diving into their shelters and
> out of the elements. It was dark, now, maybe around 1830 or 1900hrs.
> Now, efforts turned to starting stoves, spreading out pads and sleeping
> bags, and getting hot foods into our cold and tired selves. Normally, this,
> too, would not have been a big deal, but when you're beat from the cold
> climb and muscles are starting to cramp up, even working with nylon or
> turning a stove valve is a feat! Those who were most cold stayed in their
> tents. Those who could go get water shared it with them or helped however
> they could. In the dark swirling snow, voices called out from tent to tent
> assuring each other that they were all right. At times the wind blew so hard
> against the tents their poles threatened to break. But as the night wore on,
> the winds calmed down and we awoke on Saturday to a beautiful, though still
> threatening, snowy but calm morning. We got about two feet of snow that day
> and night.
> During the night, one student needed help. As leaders, we bring large
> mountaineering tents that can hold five in one and three in another, just in
> case a hiker's tent fails or collapses. In this case, tent and gear had
> become wet and its occupant was too cold to make it through the night
> inside. In the dark, as we were just starting to go to sleep, I heard a
> voice outside our main tent asking if he could join us for warmth and
> shelter. After easily making room around the three of us for one more, we
> all slept fitfully.
> Day #2 promised to be better. Immediately, another student had trouble and
> needed help. He had gotten too wet during the night and needed to bail out
> of his tent. So, my son, John, and I quickly pitched our Mountain Hardwear
> Trango 3 tent and he and our midnight tent mate moved in to dry out. The
> winds had died down, yet the snow continued to fall gently between moments
> of sunshine, enough to dry out all the camp's tent's condensation issues.
> After waiting for the snow showers to stop and having a long and leisurely
> hot breakfast, we decided to try to snowshoe up to Lake Aloha, only a few
> miles away by summer-time measurements, to try to reclaim some teaching
> aspects of the trip. We would attempt to cover avalanche awareness, safe
> route selection skills, how to learn about snow pack stability by digging a
> snow pit, the proper use of your snow shoes while on traverses and your
> boots on ice, and about other hidden dangers while climbing just the few
> hundred yards up toward Hayp
>  ress Meadows and toward the old avalanche path there. About three hundred
> yards up the slope, we stopped to discuss route selection in order to avoid
> avalanches and dig that pit. Across the lake from our hillside loomed the
> Mount Ralston massif which made for good stories of avalanches seen there
> and slopes to avoid when hiking over snow.
> The pit revealed several crust layers down its six foot depth (we didn't
> dig all the way to dirt, so this is an educated guess) with poorly bonded
> snow layers between, especially at the four-foot-from-the-top level. There
> was the feeling that this slab would not hold well on top of that crust
> layer and could slide if sufficient force, weight, steepness of slope, or a
> trigger were applied to it. We knew that we were on safe snow, but we didn't
> want to stray onto anything steeper! It started snowing very hard again
> before we could finish the lesson and we decided to forego the expedition to
> Aloha, because we couldn't see where we would be going as the clouds had
> dropped into the trees above us. After a little discussion about how to dig
> a snow cave, we bailed off the hill and back to base. It was mid-afternoon
> and the storm was raging again! Although it might sound silly to be in your
> tent at this time of day, with the stove cooking and an early dinner and
> laughter in our voice
>  s, we entered the night in higher spirits because of it.
> Sunday morning dawned bright and warm! Like emerging bears from a winter's
> sleep, we crawled out of our tents, up the two or three foot new piles of
> snow around each, and greeted each other with concerned evaluation and
> encouraging excitement for the day! This was our last day. Really just a
> half-day according to the trip schedule, where all we needed to do was the
> Self-Arrest clinic in the morning, then pack up and head back to the cars,
> seven miles away. Yet there seamed to be no urgency and we all had another
> slow, hot, soothing breakfast and then got dressed in our, now dry, shells
> and gloves for the clinic.
> As we headed off from base camp, going down the slope a quarter mile or so,
> we noticed about a mile across the bowl we were in and over on Ralston's
> northeast flank four snowboard tracks had come down from the mountain's top
> to a slight bench about mid-way down. From there, only three continued on.
> Upon closer look, and past some trees in front of us, we found out why.
> An avalanche had been triggered by the fourth boarder and his track didn't
> emerge out the bottom of the slide! It was a wide slide that tumbled out
> onto Ralston Lake about four hundred feet below. If anyone was caught in it,
> they probably didn't make it out. We could see two little black dots moving
> up the right side of the slide. These people didn't seam in a hurry, so I
> assumed they were not starting a search and rescue for the victim. Then,
> just as slowly, they turned and snow-boarded down to the bottom and out of
> sight. We had no idea when the avalanche happened. Quite possibly that
> morning. As we snowshoed down the slope to where we teach the Self-Arrest
> clinic, we studied the slide from a distance, hoping for clues of the fourth
> boarder.
> Since we had received two or more feet of fresh powder on top of the
> existing foot we had snowshoed over on our way in on Friday, the slope was
> not hard enough for training. What we needed to do was pack it down and how
> else to do it but by glissading on our rears the fifty feet to the bottom!
> With this opportunity, child-like joy erupted across the hill as all of us
> spread out and slid feet-first. When that became easy, after many repeated
> runs, and as the snow packed down, the daring put their hoods up over their
> heads and slid down head-first on their backs, laughing all the way! This
> was faster! If someone's slide went the farthest, he or she was scored
> highest by fellow "judges" and applause encouraged the next to attempt the
> "course." What an excuse to be a kid again!
> After practicing our self-arrest skills in basic or starting position,
> seated and feet-first, all progressed to upside-down and head-first becoming
> more certain of what to do if they should fall on a steep snowfield this
> spring along the Crest Trail or elsewhere. The sun was bright and screen was
> applied by many before we headed back to base to gobble a little lunch and
> pack up camp. Some were even a little sad to be leaving. Despite the trials
> of the storm, many lessons had been learned and wisdom realized that would
> guide students confidently through their adventures ahead, but we had fun
> and didn't want it to end.
> The route home was difficult at first as there was a lot of powder to plow
> through on the way down to Upper Echo, but after three hours or so of going,
> we made it back to the cars in time to catch the last rays of sunshine
> before everyone went their separate ways, some to L.A. and the Bay Area,
> one, even back to Texas! It's wonderful how, even over the course of three
> days' adventure, perfect strangers become lasting friends. Such is the
> trail.
> If you're interested in more details about the avalanche we witnessed and
> the fourth boarder, follow this link:
> http://sierraavalanchecenter.org/node/513.
> If you're interested in becoming more proficient in snow travel, whether
> with snowshoes or without, navigating over snow while following a buried
> trail, or just snow camping, go to http://postholer.com/SnowTravel to view
> our up-coming Snow Course dates and read all the snow-related info there
> that will help you with your trip planning and realistic preparation for
> your next adventure ahead.
> A hearty "Congratulations!" to all eight students of Snow Course 2/26/10
> because you made it through one of the worst weather incidents we have ever
> experienced! (Donna, it really was worse than the one you guys had because
> of the wind!). Now, you all can say that no matter what the trail-weather
> throws at you, you will know what to do, how to prioritize emergency
> decisions, know what gear "works" in the worst of conditions and what
> doesn't, will be safe and warm, and can find your way through anything! Have
> a great summer and hikes ahead. Let us know if Mountain Education can be of
> further assistance.
> See you all at the Kickoff!
> Ned Tibbits, Director
> Mountain Education
> South Lake Tahoe, Ca.
>    P: 888-996-8333
>    F: 530-541-1456
>    C: 530-721-1551
>    http://www.mountaineducation.org
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