This winter is bringing some truly epic snowfall to California and the surrounding region. While that means there are great conditions for Skiers, it means just the opposite for people hiking the PCT. The chart below shows a comparison of the snowpack over the winter months for a couple of notable years.
It’s Pretty clear that the snowpack is at well above average levels this season. How does this effect my trip though? Of course, it means that I’m going to be hiking through snow often, but it has a few other secondary impacts that may not be so obvious. The first of which is that the increased snow pack will eventually melt and yield larger (meaning more difficult to cross) streams and rivers. This is particularly worrisome as river crossings have claimed the lives of a number hikers over the past few years. I’ll combat this by making sure to team up with people in the more dangerous sections. The second impact, which will actually make things a bit easier, is that the trail will have a few more water sources than most years. This means that a couple of traditionally dry stretches will be a bit easier to navigate and plan for.
In an effort to be on the more prepared side of things I decided to take a few snow skills courses over the weekend. My friend Brian and I headed up to Bear Valley, CA to take a few guided courses through SWS. The courses were recommended by a mutual friend who had done the courses previously. Bear valley has been hit with the unusually large snowfall this year with their current base layer at over 160 inches! Brian and I arrived late on Friday night to a small lodge located about 10 minutes from bear Valley resort. We were met with the following scene:
The training was split up into a two day affair, with the first course covering more basic snow skills. At 9 am on Saturday morning we met at the base lodge of the Bear Valley resort. There we found our guide as well as the other people who would be taking the class. The group for Saturday consisted of 6 people plus the guide. Brian, myself, a father and his two sons, and a woman named Lea. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only person who thought I would need this training for the PCT. Lea will also be hiking the PCT and will actually be leaving two days before me! After an info session and gear fitting we headed out to a snow covered slope for the skills training.
The slope was covered with freshly fallen snow, and by my estimate had a 40% grade; nothing too steep. We started off with the very basics, all the way down to holding the ice axe properly and installing crampons on your boots. Moving on, we covered self belay with the axe, which seems to be an incredibly important skill to have. Self belay involves stopping yourself before you begin sliding down the side of a hill — easier said than done.
After that we covered different methods of walking up and down hills with crampons. It may not seem like a big deal, but it turns out that the crampons give you so much traction in the snow that walking in them does not feel natural. It takes quite a bit of getting used too. We covered steps such as the French, the German, the Canadian/American hybrid, and the plunge step. Each one needs to be used in different conditions, and all have different efficiencies. Walking straight uphill, particularly when you have a heavy pack is just not tenable; using something like the french step is much more applicable. The French step involves walking up the hill sideways and crossing one leg over the other.
Learning how to walk properly in the conditions we had was much more difficult than anticipated. We had received a very light and fluffy snowfall the night before. Each step we took into fresh show was met with your foot driving into the ground almost knee deep. This is atypical of most alpine conditions as the day/night cycle will thaw/freeze snow, making it denser and therefore easier to walk on.
After walking techniques we moved on to self arrests, which is the skill I most wanted to learn for the weekend. ‘Self arrest’ involves stopping yourself when you are in an uncontrolled slide down the side of a slope. It is relatively easy to stop yourself, but difficult to stop yourself in a safe manner. When not controlled properly during an unexpected slide, your ice axe and crampons become a liability . Your crampons can catch on the snow causing you to start falling end over end, and the ice axe is a relatively sharp piece of equipment that can pierce you if placed poorly. We simulated falling down the hill by sliding down the snow and practiced self arrest techniques for three different scenarios: Sliding on your stomach face first, sliding on your back feet first, and sliding on your back head first. Each self arrest technique involved a series of similar steps: 1, gain control of the ice axe. 2, position the ice axe properly. 3, drive the pic into the snow. It may seem straightforward, but it is actually difficult to properly execute on this when you are sliding down a hill.
Day two covered a lot of skills that I won’t be using on the PCT, but may use in training sessions leading up to my hike. We learned how to build hauling systems for downed hikers in glacier scenarios, as well as snow anchors, and a few different natural belay techniques that can be used in alpine scenarios. All of these involve a rope, which is unnecessary for me to bring. Most of the belay techniques focused on being as fast as possible, as time is usually of the essence when mountaineering, especially in harsher climates. Leading into my PCT hike, I may head out and tackle a semi-difficult alpine climb such as Mount Shasta. Doing something like that would be significantly more difficult than anything I will face on the trail, but I want to put myself in the position of being over prepared.
The weekend ended up being a great success as I gained a number of valuable skills that I will take with me on the trail. Learning how to use my ice axe and crampons properly was a much needed confidence builder. I’m looking forward to taking the energy boost I got from this weekend and using it to prepare even more.