[Cdt-l] Snow Course 3/12 After Action Report

ned at mountaineducation.org ned at mountaineducation.org
Tue Mar 23 18:33:24 CDT 2010

With threatening skies overhead...

Yes, this snow skills instructional weekend started out like the last one two weeks ago. This time there were 10 daring souls, two instructors, and the same loyal snow dog bound for adventure into the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe.

It started snowing as we left the parking lot. The clearest sign of impending challenge was that the clouds were descending and blocking our view of the peak to the south, across highway 50. The flakes started out infrequent and small, yet, within the mile's snowshoe into the (seasonally closed) Echo Lake Resort General Store, they had developed into large, wet, and blowing goose feathers racing by at a 30-degree angle.

Once again, we took refuge under the overhang of the Store's front porch while we ate a snack and evaluated the storm and our intentions. We still had about six miles to go if we wanted to reach Tamarack Lake's base camp.

Rather than easing up, like at the start of the last Snow Course, this storm settled in and blew our hats off! It became an easy decision that, if we wanted to stay warm and dry, it would not be wise to step out into the wet flakes and battle the headwind, nor would it be smart to get exhausted trying, only to have to pitch camp with wet and freezing fingers somewhere down-lake (which we couldn't see because of the white-out), ending up with wet tents and gear (if we could pitch at all in the high winds), which only compounds our safety.

Just before deciding to make camp right there, six or seven poorly dressed snowshoers with dogs and improvised sleds went by us headed across the lake. One was wearing a very light shirt that was flapping open in the wind and pulling an orange, plastic kid's sled piled high with gear and being chased by a thin-skinned dog. I still can't believe that they continued on. This was like some classic movie where the novices struggle on into the storm only to be found huddled together and frozen when the snow melted next season....

We decided for safety, figuring that the storm was just starting, and pitched camp right across from the Store (in what in the summer would be the picnic area). The wind made it difficult to get the tents pitched square and taught and the never-ceasing snow got most tents pretty wet before their flys could be put on. Not the best situation since wet tents in the snowy cold often mean wet and cold people, too.

But not in this case as we all cozied-up in our tents to stay warm, dry out our wet clothing by hanging them from the ceilings (some tents were too low to accomplish this), and enjoy a nice, long, and extended lunch over cards, a good book, or friendly conversation. Meanwhile, others went off to fill their water bags or start digging out their tents (already).

During the evening and on into the night the storm continued. I'd like to say it "raged," but, actually, the wind calmed down and the storm completely stopped around 0300 Saturday morning. Lady J and I were outside about that time making sure all the tents did not collapse by digging them out again. Much to our surprise and great delight, the two young adults in the group, had already been out three times during the night to do just that and their tent looked free and unencumbered by snow. When the morning came, our camp looked like an ant's nest with 18" of new snow piled around each tent and trails running between them!

After drying out our bags and tents (you don't want to put one away wet) and enjoying a leisurely breakfast, we shoved off from the docks and began snowshoeing across Echo Lake at around noon. I was last to leave; my sled just didn't want to move. While I tried to assess what was wrong, those same six or seven poorly clad snowshoers and skiers with dogs and improvised sleds passed me heading out. They had had a miserable night, were cold and wet, and just wanted to get back to their cars to head home and dry out. They only made it to the trees between Upper and Lower Echo Lakes before they had to pitch in a vain effort to keep some of their party warm and try to dry out. They were not very happy.

Something was wrong with my sled. It wasn't sliding very well. I could barely find enough energy to get across the first lake's two and a half miles! Even the skins on my skis were amassing with snow making the moving of my feet extremely hard. Twice while going across the first lake I stopped, flipped the sled, and cleared the runners of ice and sticky snow. Eventually by the end, I had to ease my load amongst a few other hardy volunteers and my loving wife just to make it to the end of the second lake and the old Boy Scout Camp that had been there for decades (now eliminated due to the Wilderness designation). We were all pretty beat, though, when I decided to hold-up there for the night.

Along the way, while going down the lake, we noticed a few downhill backcountry skier's tracks in the fresh powder on the peaks above us. Occasionally, even, we heard their joyful voices echoing off the hillsides as they found a nice snowfield in which to make their long, swooping tracks downward. We remembered that it was just two weeks ago in the same area that a snowboarder got caught in an avalanche immediately after another snow storm and barely got out alive. His board didn't make it, though, as it got broken in two places during the white tumble through the trees down the hill. 

Just before dark, we held the avalanche slope safety analysis pit digging clinic on a steep slope nearby. With six strong men digging and moving snow, we had a great, eight-foot long by nearly six foot tall headwall cut into the side of the hill on which to notice all the previous snow storm's layering's. Just like last week, there was a very strong and cohesive accumulation of snow on top of a layer of depth hoar about four or five feet down, meaning a dangerous instability in the pack should we snowshoe across it while on a slope of 30 to 40 degrees. We would pick our route carefully tomorrow, we thought. 

Immediately after that, we discussed snow cave building, their designs, and how they are so much warmer than tents. Four of the guys decided that it wasn't too late to start digging and shaping, so they formed three stations in line and began to "bucket-brigade" the snow out of the tunnel so that in no time two remained to spend the night inside. One did! 

The cave entrance was dug from waist height to feet into the avy pit wall and about three feet in diameter and went in about six or more feet before turning up to make a place to stand. From there and at the height of the roof of the entrance tunnel, the sleeping platform was cut further back into the hillside while the new roof was arched even higher in one, great smooth dome above. The inside, now, looked like the inside of an igloo! The diggers were stopped from going too far back because they hit a large boulder, so the platform had to be more wide than deep so one could sleep on it. A vent hole was pushed through from the inside for air circulation, a tarp thrown down upon which to lie, pads and bag added and there one had it, a fine, quiet, windless, warm place to sleep inside the snowpack! 

After a night time low temp of just 12 degrees, we arose to head up to Tamarack for a little self-arrest training and lunch amidst the brilliant sunshine of that Sunday morning. Once again, adults became like children as we transformed a steep, fresh powder slope into a packed sledding hill. How do you do it? You start by trying to slide at all on your rear in the powder. Isn't very easy. As it packs down, the best is yet to come--sliding head-first on your back down the raceway to the bottom of the hill. Certain nylon jacket fabrics go faster than other's, and we held races amongst each other, Eventually the hill was smooth and "solid" and we reluctantly continued on with the self-arrest training. 

The day was getting away from us and we needed to be back at the cars before dark, so we had to hurry through the various body positionings of the training sequence, from seated, feet-first to on-your-back, head-first slides down the hill just to use your ice axe or self-arrest pole to stop before you hit the bottom. Once back at camp, those who had to leave early took off after packing up while the rest of us stuffed bags and tents and miscellaneous belongings, did a quick sweep of camp, and proceeded to follow. This afternoon the snow was wonderful and I barely even felt the 120 pound sled behind me as we crossed Upper and Lower Echo Lakes on back to the parking lot. As usual, a sadness crossed each face as we said our last "good-byes" to the lakes and peaks of the area and climbed out of the lake basin.

Days later, after everyone had recovered and muscles rejuvenated, students wrote back to say how much they had appreciated the Course, what they learned, and that they wanted to return. That's what it's all about, no matter the trials or the weather. 

When will you join us?

Ned Tibbits, Director
Mountain Education
P.O. Box 1477
South Lake Tahoe, Ca. 96156
    P: 888-996-8333
    F: 530-541-1456
    C: 530-721-1551
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