Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Snow Skills

For the third stop on the “southwest tour” before we start hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)….

Renee and I took a fantastic snow skills course in the southern San Juans of Colorado which covered how to travel over snow in the mountains, how to use an ice ax, and much more.  It was taught by Stacy Boone of Step Outdoors- who is a mentor for us, and also taught us a Leave No Trace Trainer Course a few years ago. 
Heading up to 11,000 feet, ice ax on my pack.  Photo by Stacy.
I have been wanting to learn snow skills for a long time, and since Renee and I are hiking the PCT this year, we decided now would be a good time to do it.   Even though it is a low snow year in the Sierras, that doesn’t mean we won’t encounter any snow on the PCT.  And even if I don’t use any of these skills this year, I intend to put them to use someday… like on future hikes out in Colorado, perhaps even the CDT.

We started with techniques to navigate and travel over snow.  I liked learning the cross step, duck walk, and kick step because they focused me to think about my form- making my kick steps level, keeping my balance, using my core muscles, and softly shifting my weight- so I didn’t have time to be scared of falling down the slope.
Postholing is when you sink down into the snow. Photo by Stacy.
The soft snow and weather conditions meant that sometimes we were postholing up to our hips.  This made it a struggle to get unstuck and make any forward progress.  We realized how exhausting and frustrating traveling over snow can be.  But then we discussed ways of getting through the frustration and managing our attitudes about how we react to the challenges that nature will provide us- essential skills because long-distance hiking presents significant mental challenges like this.
Resting near the summit. (I was too excited so I ran around taking photos.)
We also went for additional Avalanche Awareness training with Bill of the San Juan Mountain Guides.  Avalanches are a significant risk in Colorado, and the risk level was high during our course (A local ski patroller even died the day before in an avalanche).  Outfitted with avalanche beacons and mountaineering boots, we learned the signs and conditions to look for that indicate higher avalanche risk.  This training opened up my eyes and ears in new ways- I now understand what to look for when I travel over snow.  The avalanche risk is much less where and when we will be on the PCT, but still, I believe that this sort of knowledge makes me much better prepared for future snow travel and the skills for dealing with risk in the backcountry are universal.
Estimate the slope to see if there is a greater risk for avalanche.
Self arrest is a technique where you use an ice ax to stop yourself if you accidentally end up sliding down a steep slope.  I was apprehensive when I watched our instructor demonstrate sliding down head first on his back down a slope, and then turn himself around using his ice ax to self arrest.  I’M SUPPOSE TO DO THAT!  But when it was my turn, I planted my ice ax firmly, spun around, and stopped!  I’m hoping the self arrest technique will get into my muscle memory in the rare event I’ll ever have to use it.
Renee practicing self arrest. Photo by Stacy.
One concept that was emphasized was “mitigating risk.”  There are many things we could do to decrease our risk like traveling in the morning, or traveling at a faster pace in dangerous places.  Reflecting on our decision making processes at the end of the day also allowed us to learn from our experiences.  Asking “Did I get away with it, or did I get it done?” allowed us to distinguish if we just got lucky or if we made the judgement calls that will keep us safe in the future.
Mitigating our risk while crossing through tree wells by spreading out. Photo by Stacy.
When we were heading down out of the mountains the last day of the course, I realized just how much my outlook had changed.  Instead of looking up and thinking just how beautiful those snow covered peaks were, I could actually see things about the mountains I hadn’t before and I could imagine myself up there.  This definitely planted a seed- inspiring me to dream about future trips or mountaineering courses into snow-covered mountains.
Happy in the snow.
There are snow courses available many places, but I was really happy to take this course with Stacy- she is an excellent teacher and mentor.  She also showed great flexibility in adding additional lessons on other topics that we wanted to cover including foot care and blister kits, planning for water in So. Cal, and Leave No Trace practices for the desert and for mountaineering.  She spent hours discussing nutrition and going over my menus and resupply plans for the PCT.  She was supportive of my particular backpacking style and goals (i.e. no-cook meals, hammocking, and lighterweight philosophy), while also providing guidance and balanced perspectives.  Things like “you always want better food than everyone else.”   Her husband, Greg Boone (also a Triple Crowner) added to the discussions- having the two of them talk about their experiences, answering my endless questions, and offering advice was just priceless!
Near the top.


  1. Traveling on snow is definitely something that is daunting for me. The most snow we dealt with on the AT was on the Smokies where we spent awhile postholing on the back of Clingman's Dome. That was a very, very slow day.

    Can't wait to see your next adventure!

    1. I too have been very apprehensive about snow travel- but this was a big confidence boost. OMG postholing is just so incredibly slow- hard to comprehend! Wow doing it off Clingman's Dome must have been something else!