Careening down the snowy hill, I roll onto my chest
Ice axe in hand, I halt in a successful self-arrest
Last weekend, I joined Ned Tibbits and 7 other aspiring cold-weather enthusiasts in the winter Cascades near Steven’s Pass. The Tahoe-based Snow Basics Course, offered through Mountain Education, came to Washington to help summer-time hikers better understand what it takes to travel through snowy conditions. We learned everything from how to pitch a tent on top of 9 feet of snow and what the clouds may be saying about weather to come, to how to use an ice axe to glissade and self-arrest.
As someone who goes to any means possible to avoid being cold, known to start shivering in 50 degree weather, I was a bit apprehensive to sign up for three days outside in freezing temperatures. In the end, my motivation to learn skills to help me complete a southbound through hike in possibly snowy conditions without having to call Search and Rescue outweighed my desire to stay warm over the weekend.
We headed out mid-morning on Friday. My hopes for good weather were high, as I held my focus on the glimmers of blue sky and sunshine breaking through the clouds. An hour later we were in the parking lot, snowshoes on our feet, heavy packs on our backs with snow falling relentlessly into our faces. The snow kept falling and falling and didn’t let up until about four in the morning. So much for that sunshine.
The first skill we learned after setting up our tents was how to sit in our tents and wait out a snow storm. That involves sitting. And waiting. And staying warm by any means possible. I quickly learned that my 10 degree sleeping bag that I thought could get me through anything was not enough to get me through this. I spent the evening and night contorting myself onto my extra small thermarest neo-air in the best way possible to keep every inch of my body off the frozen ground. Every fifteen minutes, the sound of snow pattering onto my tent would stop. That was my cue to give the walls a whack, shaking off the quarter inch of snow that had accumulated in order to prevent my tent from becoming buried. I slept amongst waves of shivers and dreams of my warm bedroom where heat was available at the turn of a thermostat knob.
Needless to say, my second night turned out to be much better than my first. I enjoyed a rehydrated dinner of pasta and veggies in a creamy butternut squash cashew sauce and spent a serenely silent night inside the snow cave with my new friend, Ralph. By that time I had figured out what it meant to wear all my layers – not just one of every KIND of layer – but both pairs of long underwear, both long sleeve shirts, a fleece jacket, fleece pants, two pairs of socks, down jacket, fleece hat, gloves, and then burry every inch of myself inside my sleeping bag. That works. If you're in a snow cave.
By the end of the trip I was again cold and wet but having so much fun plummeting down the snow-covered slope head first with my ice axe that I didn’t care. With my newly honed self-arresting and glissading skills, along with all the other practical cold-weather expertise gained from the weekend, I now feel much more confident heading out into the late snow season of the North Cascades.
Despite what they say on the Facebook PCT page, I’ve learned that lighter isn’t always better, especially if it means warmer. Maybe I’ll switch out my half-length neo-air for a longer one that keeps my ankles and feet warm. Maybe I won’t wear trail running shoes through the snow. Thank you Ned, for injecting a dose of practicality into my PCT planning.
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