One of the things I will most likely run into on the PCT next year is snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Since I have no idea what to do in snow other than, sled, build a snow man and throw snowballs, I jumped at the opportunity to take a free ice axe class from a complete stranger that simply posted about it in a PCT group on Facebook.
The class itself was at Hurricane Ridge out on the Olympic Peninsula, which is about 3 hours away. Rather than wake up extra early to make drive while half awake I decided to drive out the night before and spend the night in Port Angeles. This seemed like a great idea at the time but after spending an hour there and grabbing something to eat I was mildly depressed and afraid of being stabbed. A quick google search reveled that the crime index of Port Angeles is 3, with 100 being the safest 3 is also the percent of cities in the United States that Port Angeles is safer than. After learning that I decided to stay in my room and play video games.
In the morning I packed up and made my way to my car, ignoring the drug deal going down in the parking lot, and made my way to the Olympic National Park Visitor Center to meet up with everyone. When I arrived and met everyone Steve, who was teaching the class, pointed out the monitor showing a live view of Hurricane Ridge… it was pure white, luckily the road was open but the weather was going to be challenging. We piled into a couple cars and slowly made our way up to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. Everything was going smoothly until we saw a car coming down the road way too fast as it began to slide in front of us, everything seemed to move in slow motion as the car passed just inches in front of the car I was in before plowing into a snow bank. A little shaken we got out made sure everyone in the car was OK and the car was quickly pushed out of the snow bank to continue down the mountain. We made our up to the top, going even slower than before.
Hurricane Ridge lived up to it’s name being very windy with lots of blowing snow. We quickly grabbed the ice axes and snow shoes and made our way inside the visitor center. Due to the weather Steve started going over a few of the basics of handling an ice axe in the visitors center. Key points are:
- When picking out an ice axe it should come just above your
ankle when you are holding it by your side.
- Always carry the ice axe in your uphill hand.
- Carry the ice axe with the adze facing forward and the pick facing backwards.
- Ice axes are easy to attach to a gear loop on the bottom of your backpack. Just slide it in, twist so the pick side is facing inwards and flip it up towards the top of the pack so the spike is secured at the top with the head at the bottom.
Steve also demonstrated how to perform a self arrest which seemed a bit tricky to do indoors. After covering the basics we headed outside, strapped on some snowshoes and made our way to the ledge.
After Steve went over some of the basics again the fist thing we had to do was make a snow slide, somewhere that we could slide down and practice stopping ourselves with an ice axe. Going down was the easy part but getting back up was a little more challenging. Luckily there was about 10 of us so after a few passes we had a nice slide and a set of snow steps going back up to the top. Then it was time to practice a self arrests in every position possible sliding down on your tummy, on your back, on your belly head first, on your back head first and then eventually Steve just started pushing people over. I was at a bit of a disadvantage since my jacket and pants, while very waterproof, were very slick and I picked up speed rather quickly.
In addition to performing self arrests we also practiced performing a self belay, which should be how you actually stop yourself before you start sliding down a mountain and having to self arrest, but practicing self arrests was much more fun. We also practiced climbing up, traversing and descending from a small snowy hill. At that point we grabbed our gear and headed back in side. If you’re interested in how to do all this crazy ice axe stuff here’s a video that goes over some off the techniques.
Once we trekked back the extremely cold blowing snow and made it to the warmth of the visitors center Steve went over a few additional points about being out in the snow. One side point he made is that in recent years there have been a lot of less than desirable people hiking the PCT, the kinds of people that don’t pack out their trash or follow common trail etiquette rules and asked everyone to call them out if we someone being a jerk. Some of the things that I took away regarding being out in the snow were:
- If you’re camping on top of snow you’ll stay warmer by putting extra martial under your rather than on top of you
- Bury your water bottles upside in snow to keep them from freezing completely. Since water freezes from the top having the bottle upside down keeps the mouth from freezing solid.
- Don’t stuff your sleeping bag full of clothes to stay warm, this stretches out your sleeping bag and compresses the fill, which makes it less effective.
- If you get caught in an avalanche you have about 30 minutes before you’re dead and the snow becomes as hard as concrete.
After the class concluded Steve passed out some cans of PCT Porter and spent time answering other questions from the group (most of whom are probably out on the trial right now as I was the only one not hiking this year). When I asked him what we could do in thanks for facilitating the class free of charge he just said to pay it forward. So, if you you want to learn some ice axe basics and practice with me, i’ll be more than happy to show you what I know.. and then you push you down a snowy hill.