Snow Course After-Action Report, 2/26
- 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 Haypress 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 voices, 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
South Lake Tahoe, Ca.
- Still more snow coming in - here's today's winter advisory for Sierras between Yosemite and Kings Cyn:
... Winter Weather Advisory remains in effect from noon today to
4 am PST Thursday above 5000 feet...
*a Winter Weather Advisory above 5000 feet remains in effect from
noon today to 4 am PST Thursday for the Sierra Nevada from
Yosemite to the Kern County line.
* Snow accumulations: 6 to 11 inches are possible.
* Elevation: above 5000 feet. The snow level will be near 5500
feet in the morning... then lower to 4500 feet during the
afternoon... and possibly as low as 4000 feet tonight.
Thanks for the detailed account, Ned.
John Curran Ladd
1616 Castro Street
San Francisco, CA 94114-3707