Saturday, I watched both the sunrise and the sunset. I woke up at 4am to begin my
drive to Bear Valley, California to take a mountaineering course. The day before, I leisurely fit my crampons, experimented with sock thickness and gaiters. Nighttime rolled around faster than I expected and I ended up hurriedly gathering my things. I gave up on the idea of bringing all my PCT gear and opted for just bringing the mountaineering gear I needed plus a little extra.
I woke up in the dark, thankful that I had not yet started hating the song “Africa,” which is still my alarm. I tip-toed to the kitchen to find breakfast without waking the dogs. Normally, en route to the kitchen a floorboard squeaks enough to wake them, but I think it was too early for them to be bothered. I managed to get out undetected and was on my way in trafficless San Francisco, heading for the mountains.
My parents still “do not approve” of me hiking the PCT, mostly my mom. Despite this, they are both surprisingly enthusiastic and helpful. They really don’t want me to go through the snow. My dad was extremely disturbed that I was planning to carry an ice axe, you are not going to need it, because you won’t be able to get through the Sierra anyway, and it’s extra weight. You’ll just end up hurting yourself with it, you don’t even know how to use it!
My parents rules, approval and suggestions always contain some great piece of advice, the trick is finding it. When I disagree with them, I have to listen and sift through to discover their underlying reasoning and advice. So I did that, with the practice of someone who has been doing this since 16. It was clear: a) this year is going to be a particularly hard year to get through the High Sierra, b) we are worried about you and nervous, c) we want you to be ok with failure if it is necessary, d) we want you to be open to other options, e) we want you to be conscious of risk management and not forget your own safety blinded by your goal, f) YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND YOU ARE GOING ALONE!!
Having registered these very valuable things, I started to plan: a) I know it is going to be a hard year and that makes me nervous and excited too, b) see the answer to a), c) I don’t want to plan to fail, but I am aware many things are unpredictable and I will address them as they come, d) in the back of my head is the option of a flip-flop, but again I will address that if and when the time comes, e) I am aware of this and will try my best not to be held back by fear nor to be too big-headed, f) I SHOULD PROBABLY LEARN SOME SKILLS! So I bought my ice axe, crampons and signed up for a introductory mountaineering course. Of course, I did not tell my parents this until about a week before, Hey, I will need the car next Saturday all day if that is ok. That should be fine, why? I am taking a Mountaineering course. Oh. Ok, that’s good. I didn’t tell them because I knew to them that meant I was going to do the High Sierra.
Choosing a Mountaineering Course
Finding a Mountaineering course was not easy. There was not a lot of time. I started looking about a month or so ago, and I had to find one that was before my trip. I received recommendations to check out Mountain Education. They will meet you along your PCT hike to teach you the skills you need. You will do Mount Whitney together as well as hike over the highest pass. It sounded ideal in many ways, but there were a few issues I had with it. The course is 6 days, in which you will be going at the pre-determined pace of the course, not squeezing in an extra miles. You have to bring certain approved gear that I do not plan to bring i.e. boots, a Whippet, and creek crossing shoes. You will summit Mount Whitney as a group at the scheduled time, meaning no real option for a sunrise hike up. Lastly, the price tag is $900. Now, all in all none of these things are bad, they just were not what I was looking for.
I continued my search, now looking for something relatively local to attend. I found Mountain Adventure Seminars, which operates out of Bear Valley California, about a 3-3.5 hour drive from San Francisco. Given my limited options, I deemed that drive entirely feasible. They offer a one-day Crampon and Ice Axe Workshop: “Learn how to climb and descend steep snow slopes using crampons and ice axe. A variety of techniques will be practiced including how to prevent a slip from becoming a fall (aka – self arrest). This course provides the basics for aspiring mountaineers headed to Mt. Shasta, Mt. Rainer and beyond, including PCT hikers. Skills Covered: Crampon & Ice Axe Skills, Rest step, Self Belay & Self Arrest, Glissading.” That sounded like me! The course was also only $135, as compared to the $150 per day for 6 days of the other course. $135 is pretty cheap as Mountaineering courses go, so I was pleased. I tweaked the suggestions on their packing list slightly and threw all my stuff together and there I was on the road.
What Little I know
I tired of listening to pop songs on the radio as it began to sizzle with static behind each hill the road winded around. I switched to CDs and kept myself awake belting the lyrics to songs I knew so well from having put on a mixed tape for my mom. The sun was coming up; I could tell by the orange hue that had taken over the sky. Then, there it was, coming from behind the mountains. Bright gold, reminding me of the shininess of a Twix candy bar wrapper. It was so pretty, that I stared at it even though I know you are not suppose to. Eyes back on the road, I had to resort to sunglasses. I was getting giddy with nerves. I had no idea what the class would be like, or who would be there, or anything. My parents were right, I had relatively little snow experience.
I ski. Which is great, but not much like mountaineering, especially since I have yet to go backcountry skiing. I have gone backpacking and accidentally ran into snow, which I then had to camp on after getting mild hypothermia. I have gone winter hiking/snow shoeing a handful of times, ice climbing once and glissaded down a whole mountain once before I even knew what glissading was (we called it butt sliding and it was great–we got down the whole mountain in just 45minutes). So, when I pulled into the gas station parking lot we were suppose to meet at, I eagerly approached the people next to me. Hey, are you guys taking the mountaineering course. They were and were pretty friendly, though not quite as interested in talking as I was, but they were not alone, it was still quite early in the morning and they were getting ready. I did not have that much getting ready to do so I just waited.
Our instructor showed up and we had a quick gear run through, he issued me a helmet and we rushed off to the mountain to get a chance to walk on the hard snow before the day’s bright sun turned it all to soup. I headed back to my car and a blue jay flew from my trunk that I had left open. I glanced down at my GORP (snack) bag, now decorated in holes. Hey! I yelled, at this point at nothing in particular. I sighed, then I laughed. Examining the bag, it was clear it would hold up fine. I climbed in the car and joined the caravan.
It seems oddly fitting that we were going to the Bear Valley Ski Resort to practice because
that is where I had my first ever trip away from home. I was in first grade and our school went on a ski trip. When my mom helped me pack my bag, she gave me underwear with days of the week printed on them so that I did not get mixed up :P. I told the instructor about this trip and he is familiar with the school. He tells me, they are still doing it, but with older kids.
Our first task is putting on our crampons and walking around to get the feel of them. The instructor, Aaron, is surprisingly accommodating of my lightweight thru-hiking gear and is sure to add plenty of asides on what skills I will need in particular, how my experience will differ and how my gear will need to be used. I wiggled my cold toes, but as soon as we started moving, they warmed up. We began walking around with a beautiful view.
Ways to Walk
Aaron had us thinking about walking perfectly and walking mindfully. At this point, I think there is no doubt that we all are, as we are not very used to walking with dangerous spikes on our feet. We practice walking sideways as well as with out feet pointing downhill, which can help engage more of the spikes. Then we start learning the French Technique, which resembles the grapevine. I ask why not just do a shuffle instead and Aaron responds that he will think about it, but by the time we are going up hills the cross over step starts to feel pretty natural. Here are the types of walking we learned.
French Technique: Your Ice Axe is Adze forward in your uphill hand ready for a potential need to self arrest. Your uphill leg is slightly forward and bent. Your downhill leg is back and straight or bent. You move your ice axe forward, uphill and plant it. Then you take your downhill leg and step forward crossing your uphill leg. This is your off-balance position and you stay here as little as possible. Then the uphill leg comes through until it is in front again and you are back in the starting position also called your in-balance position and a much better place to stop.
Rest Step: Assume the in-balance position and straighten your back leg and stop for a few seconds or longer.
Switching Sides: To switch sides assume the in balance position. Then plant your ice axe. Move your downhill leg forward and kick the toe into the mountain. Then take the original uphill leg and splay it, kick it so that the medial side of you leg and foot are facing the mountain. Finally step through with the original downhill leg, which will now become the up hill leg and turn the ice axe around, so that the Adze is once again facing forward and in position to help you self arrest.
German Technique: You plant your ice axe and kick one toe in towards the mountain and then the other slight higher up. Repeat.
Hybrid: You plant your ice axe, kick one foot so the medial side is towards the mountain and then the other so the toe is towards the mountain. Repeat.
Heel Plunge: Go down the mountain with all your weight falling on your heels so that they dig into the snow making a little ledge. Plant your ice axe behind you for support.
We practiced going up and down slopes in small teams, alternating our positions because the person in the front has to do the most work as they are making platforms for those who follow them. I struggled with heel plunges, I think because of my foot angle and because I did not have a pack on so did not weigh that much. Aaron had me practice extra because I will need to do a lot of heel plunges on the PCT.
This is about when I applied sunscreen for the first time. A mistake I am paying for today with an intense lower half of my face sunburn, but it was a good lesson to learn. I am allergic to sunscreen and the only kind I can use is no longer being made. I only have a little bit left. I will have to use that little bit and be creative about covering my skin. I am planning on using my Buff, but any other skin covering suggestions are welcome. It’s the reflection of the light from the snow that is the big problem.
Self Belay and Simple Anchors
After lunch, we put on our climbing harnesses, a piece of equipment that I definitely
won’t have with me on the PCT. Then we tethered out ice axes to our harnesses with a leash. The pros of attaching your ice axe to yourself are that you cannot lose it and you can use it to make an anchor of sorts. To do this you plunge the ice axe shaft into the snow as deep as possible. Then you can solidify some platforms for your feet and rest. If you were to fall, the ice axe would keep you from falling down the slope. You can also take your pack off and loop a shoulder strap around the shaft so that you can access your pack without risking losing it and rest without a pack on. If the snow is too stiff to plunge the shaft you can use the pick and give it a good thwack until it is solidly driven into the snow. This method is not as secure, but I found it quite fun to do as it reminded me of ice climbing.
The cons of attaching your ice axe to you are that if you fall and let go of it, you will have a sharp object following you down the hill and there is also a danger of tripping on the leash.
Glissading and Self-Arrest
There is more of an art to sliding on your butt than I had known when I first did it. Rule number one of Glissading, Aaron began, never glissade wearing crampons. I mean never. Rule number two… there is none, have fun and be careful. He told us, you can kind of ski glissade down on your feet, but to me that seemed like an awfully far ways to fall should something go wrong. We all positioned ourselves sitting on our butts with our legs slightly open. He explained that if you can build up a bit of snow between your legs then you essentially ride on that snow, which can help cushion your ride and increase the longevity of your glissading pant’s life. You can use your feet to steer and slow yourself a bit. For more control and braking ability, you can position your ice axe in a self arrest-ready position and use the spike to dig into the ground to slow yourself. It’s kind of like an oar in a canoe, he explained. I loved this comparison because when I was working as an outdoor educator in Massachusetts, half of our trips were canoe trips so it felt very familiar. You can change the angle in which you dig it into the ground to increase or decrease the amount you are slowing.
Now it was time for self arrest, perhaps one of the most important parts of the course. Aaron showed us how to hold the ice axe, covering the spike with one hand, laying the shaft across your chest and holding the head so that the Adze faces your shoulder and the pick faces away from you. We hiked up the slope a bit and took turns sliding down on our backs, getting the ice axe into position and then rolling towards the ice axe onto our bellies, looking away from the pick, locking off on our arm holding the head, lifting our feet and digging in our knees until our bodies eventually settled into a stop. Remembering to look away from the head and keeping your feet up were hard to do, and are important so that you don’t hit your face or accidentally get your crampons stuck in the snow and break your leg.
Next we self arrested while sliding down face first on our stomaches. He showed us what to do. Get the ice axe out of the snow, position it in front of you in the self arrest position and then dig in the pick, your body will flip around and you will start to stop. We watched him do it and then it was time for us to try. It felt like there should have been some middle step between watching it happen and falling face first down the hill holding an ice axe, but there wasn’t and surprisingly it worked out ok.
Finally, it was time to go down on our backs head first. For this one, you get the ice axe into self arrest position, then jab the pick into the snow near where your hip is on the side you are holding the head. You crunch up your body a little and your legs swing around and you start to stop.
Snowmobiles had taken over the slopes that day, but had mostly stayed out of our way. At this point though, some guys who were likely trying to show off, started encroaching on our space. They got within five feet of our practice space for self arresting. If you think sliding down a mountain face first carrying an ice axe is scary, try doing it with a loud motorized vehicle only a few feet from you. So, we were eventually driven from our area, luckily this coincided with the end of our day. We packed up and practiced some skills as we hiked back out of the basin we were in.
Back in the parking lot, we said goodbye to those friends that you make after only a day together, but with whom you are unusually close because they held you by your feet over a snowy slope before releasing you to slide down it. The following day, many of the students will take another course learning about anchor building and rope teams. I got back in my car, sighed as I cruised through the mountains and passed orchards glowing with afternoon sun. I stopped to buy myself an ice cream sandwich, some gas and eventually was welcomed home to San Francisco by the setting sun.