Why Would I Push Myself Down a Snow-Covered Mountain in Tahoe?

Good evening hikers, explorers and capsaicin lovers! First, I’d like to say thank you to all who read my last blog about my trip to Zion. It was really encouraging to see so much support from the hiking community on the blog and on Facebook. The hiking community is indeed great to be a part of 🙂

Now then, on to the good stuff! Two weekends ago, I took a long weekend off from work and drove up to Lake Tahoe for a snow and ice travel / safety course through the Sierra Mountaineering Club (Course Numbers SIG 1.1 and SIG 1.2). Originally, I had registered for a course through my local REI store, but I overslept and missed the departure time. I knew I still needed the skills for my John Muir Trail thru-hike, however, so I took the class.

The cost for the weekend was $180 for the class and $110 for dormitory style lodging at Clair Tappaan Lodge. Not too bad considering the class might save my life! Plus, I was in beautiful Lake Tahoe, meeting new people and getting out of my comfort zone.

I got there Friday afternoon for check-in and was immediately shocked that I had to hike my gear in, walking on top of the 4 foot or deeper snowpack from storms in the previous weeks. Treacherous! But I made it to the entrance, checked in, and got talking with one of the female volunteer staff helping to clean up the dorms from a rowdy group of kids.

We got talking as I was unpacking, and I clarified the policies and procedures of the lodge. Then, we got talking about our outdoor experience and how she got to be where she was at. She had been all over, exploring and living a wild life. The idea of volunteering with free room and board appealed to me, but I knew getting out of student loans would be tough.

We seemed to hit it off with friendly conversation and I enjoyed it. Reaching my hand out to unfamiliar people, bonding over tales of adventure, and learning what the other person is about are really cool experiences. I suggest that anyone try them!

Soon after, I got ready for the evening, walked around in the snow, and took it all in. The temperature was in the 50s for most of the weekend, making for an unexpectedly warm trip, especially with all the snow on the ground!

Look at all that snow!
Look at all that snow!

We had dinner, I met some more people, helped build a fire in the fireplace and went to sleep. It was the earliest I had been to bed all week and it was amazing! Living in the outdoors seems to help me get back on a normal sleep schedule. Maybe someday I could live out there permanently? I mean, a man can dream, right?

The next morning at breakfast, I ran into some of the people from my group. We went through introductions, I cooked up some breakfast (opted out of the included meal plan), and we got chatting. Some people were from socal, others from the central coast, and still others (the majority) from the bay area. I was my normal, awkward self, but socializing wasn’t too difficult since we all shared similar passions.

Most of the group already had experience with snow sports and rock climbing, so I felt somewhat inferior. But hey, I was here to learn and I was let in the class, so let’s learn!

The first few hours of indoor instruction were repetition of the syllabus, and I grew concerned. I just paid good money for a class and here we are reading off a syllabus? It felt like college all over again! But I kept my mouth shut and continued listening. Seeing the prospects of where my skills and future classes could take me, I got excited and motivated to push on. Plus, the instructor knew more about mountaineering than I did, so listening may be helpful!

Next, came a few knot-tying lessons. Girth hitch, clove hitch and prusik, to name a few. The names were creative, but the knot diagrams just confused me. More feelings of inadequacy! Luckily, one of the guys helped me with a few of them and I got the hang of it. The prusik was my favorite knot! Moves one way along a rope, but not the other. How cool! There was an alternative to the prusik that required grabbing the knot to move in either direction, which was pretty cool as well.

Learning is difficult for me unless I’m allowed to intuitively explore the subject. Many times, I’ll choose a harder path toward a solution, but it’s the only way that makes sense at the time. That’s why I give up a lot. I don’t get it, the pain is too much (mental or physical) and I stay stagnant. But the theme of the past year or so is to keep pushing on. Keep learning and keep living. I’ve found a passion, and for today, I’m going to keep learning it while having my own experience 🙂

After lunch, we set off outside, donning our crampons and ice axes on our packs. I chose the Grivel G12 Crampons and Petzl Glacier Literide Axe, thinking the axe would help me save weight when it comes time for my thru-hike. I was sorely mistaken in my choice of ice axe, but more on that later!

In my pack, I brought my Jetboil, some coffee, my first aid kit, a couple clothing layers, and 4 liters of water. Boy, did I overpack! Almost immediately, I was post-holing, where my foot plunged up to my knee or higher in the snow while everyone else was trotting above. It was frustrating, but probably good experience for the trail!

We found a slope in front of the lodge and started walking up, practicing the step methods like duck walk, French method, plunge step, and making our own switchbacks up and down the hill. It was tiring and frustrating to continually be last place (not that it was a race, but the instructor kept starting the next set of instruction before I was finished), but I kept suiting up and showing up, attempting to ignore my selfish thoughts and push myself. First we tried without crampons, then with. It felt pretty cool to be walking around in crampons. I floated on the snow easier, and was more confident in my footing. Post-holing still happened, but my spirits were lifted 🙂

After practicing the techniques on the less-steep slope, we hiked around to a larger hill. The snow was deep, and we combined switchbacking with climbing straight up, taking turns breaking trail. Some of the classmates went their own way, I almost fell backward down the hill (and got chided for not being mindful of where my ice axe was), and eventually I ascended to our turnaround spot. The snow wasn’t as deep at the top, and my crampons hit rock, but that’s what steel is for, right?

Coming down, we practiced downclimbing and some more switchbacks. I was stoked to have completed day one of the course, but still felt like I had a lot of growing and learning to do. Isn’t that the point though? Always striving toward an ideal? Nevertheless, we debriefed and set off to get ready for dinner.

Overall, my gear performed pretty well. I managed to puncture a hole in my Mountain Hardware Stretch Ozonic Rain Pants while high-stepping with crampons, which was frustrating, and I had to resort to using a classmate’s extra ice axe that was longer than mine, but I came out alright. My good friend Joel helped me snap out of the funk after the class during a phone call by having me switch my attitude to one where I was still learning. I was still gaining skills and experience. And, I conquered some badass stuff that I was too afraid to even consider a few months ago! There we have it! I’m out here living life. Stuff breaks, accidents happen, joy happens. It’s all part of the journey.

Reflecting in the dorm, I met this guy relaxing for his AIARE Avalanche Preparedness Course the following day. We got talking about our adventures and plans. A nice enough guy, the conversation continued for about a half-hour. As I was walking down to dinner, he said something to the effect of “we’re all a little quirky socially.” It made me feel right at home. Here’s this guy I’ve never met before, telling me that outdoors enthusiasts are all a little “off”. It’s not an absolute, but the shoe definitely fits me. Once again, I felt like I was finding my tribe.

With my cooked Backpacker’s Pantry meal, hummus, and a weird spirulina wrap from a health food store, I made my way downstairs for dinner. I saw some people from the day before, and eventually people from my class started rolling in. I asserted myself and asked a table if I could sit with them since the Indian Princesses and their Dads were taking up half the dining room. To be honest, the tipsy dads were making more noise than the girls! Nevertheless, they were having fun and I was forced to meet new people. I make it sound so painful, but it was actually pretty positive!

One of the women I was sitting with was particularly stunning to me. So I made conversation, asking her about what activities she would be embarking on, where she was from, etc. For an introverted dude, I think I did alright! She was up for a back-to-back weekend of skiing after just starting the hobby. Pretty neat! I told her about my class and talked with the others at the table about my planned John Muir Trail trip. There is a fine line I walk when talking about my endeavors to not be too egocentric. Yes, I’m stoked to be doing what I’m doing, but sometimes, I let the fire inside burn a little too bright and I inundate people with adventures and plans. I am stoked to have the fire though. It’s a good feeling. She also commented on what I brought for dinner, saying something to the effect of “you’re hardcore!” That made me feel good, but embarrassed at the same time. The ideal here for me is to accept compliments proudly without coming off as arrogant. So many things to stay mindful of, but the resulting growth is worth it.

After dinner, two of my classmates invited me to play board games. I would have rather turned into a ladies’ man and won the girl from dinner over, but that was not in the cards (nothing like that happens instantly, you know). So I enjoyed the time with my newfound companions and socialized until it was time for bed. Over the course of that night, I really felt like I started bonding with my classmates. They weren’t berating or humiliating me for being slower than everyone. They didn’t tell me to pack up and leave. We treated each other as fellow human beings on a common journey. For that, I am grateful.

The next morning, we had to check out of the lodge before starting our second day of instruction. Thankfully, the two guys I had played board games with the night before were willing to let me carpool with them to the Donner Summit Snopark. I said my farewells to those who weren’t taking the class, and headed out. On my way to the car, on the slippery trail, I passed by the woman I was speaking with the day before. I awkwardly said hello and wished her luck on the slopes. She reciprocated and we went on our merry way. At least I could add some positivity to someone’s life!

Once everyone got to the park and had all their gear, we set off on the Castle Peak Trail. The snow was deep, the trail was surrounded by trees and I was mostly enjoying myself. There was still a lot of post-holing, but I accepted the situation and trudged forward.

An Amazing View Along the Trail!
An Amazing View Along the Trail!

After about a half mile of hiking, we gathered close, talked about the risk of inclimate weather (rain/sleet) and set off to hike off trail up to our self-arrest training location. The snow was loose packed above the knee in height, and we took turns breaking trail. Once it got to be my turn, the slope got steeper and it was pretty difficult. The positive of this situation was that I was getting good cardio, someone took an awesome photo of me, and I, accomplished another thing I rarely thought about doing.

My Proud Moment of the Weekend!
My Proud Moment of the Weekend!

When we reached a clearing, the instructor had us march up and down the slope until it was slick enough for us to slide on. Eek! Chances of imminent injury were rapidly approaching! I continued following direction, and eventually we had our track 🙂

The instructor first showed us glissading, where you slide down the hill on your rear end, lifting up your feet. When you want to stop, hold the ice axe across your chest, axe pointed out, and roll on to it. Didn’t seem too difficult, but fear of losing control has a way of shifting reality! I started slow, having difficulty lifting my legs (yay for weak abs!) but I kept trying. My form was terrible, and my axe was way too short for me. After the instructor told me I would likely impale myself, someone let me borrow an extra axe they had, which was very nice and supportive of them. Nice gestures make the world go round people! And I especially need to remember that. Eventually, I got the hang of the technique. I still didn’t go too fast, as I like to be in control, but I’ll get better with practice.

Up next, we slid head first on our stomachs down the hill. Freaky! Some of the guys charged it, and I took it easy. I struggled with the technique, and wished the instructor would give more affirmations, but he had this uncanny sense about him. He seemed to know right when I was getting frustrated and would offer a suggestion or give me an attaboy. It wasn’t much, but it kept me pushing. Keeping in mind what my friend Joel told me, I started congratulating and getting pumped for the people I was with. The team bond was growing! Some were confident, others timid, but we stuck together and waited our turn. The camaraderie was forming in an amazing way and my attitude started shifting.

Stepping it up a notch, we slid down on our backs feet first. The trick was to lift my feet up, hold the ice axe across my chest with the axe portion pointing down toward the snow. When I was ready to stop, I planted the axe, and swung my body around on top. The final touch after stopping was kicking my feet in and propping myself up in case an external force tried pulling me down. Gradually, I got the hang of it, but I struggled keeping my helmet near the axe. More practice is needed, obviously!

Trudging through the fear, we reached the final position of “falling” as we slid ourselves down the hill head-first, on our backs! What?!?! Now I have absolutely no control of where I’m going! No bearing on my location! But I did the deal, pushed off slowly and eventually was able to plant the axe properly and swing my body. Awkward movements for sure! At one point, I couldn’t stop myself and was terrified I was going to launch over the snow pile at the end of the run, into the snowpack and hurt myself. But I didn’t. Pushing through the fear, I went down again! And again! It was a good feeling.

We took a lunch break, and of course, like Murphy’s Law, that’s when I got injured. I saw a nice tree and thought I would sit by it. As I neared, my foot plunged up to my thigh in snow and I twisted my knee. What the hell! Here I am performing acrobatics as I’m sliding, and I twist my knee sitting down for lunch? Go figure! A couple of the team members helped me out in my helpless state, and I was able to eat lunch and recover. Luckily, I was able to keep training as the pain subsided, probably due to adrenaline and brain magic. I’m still healing from that a few weeks later, but the body is doing what it does, how cool!

The final practice of the day was performing all three of the maneuvers discussed above, but with crampons on. Here, I had to be very careful to not let the spikes hit the snow while going down, lest I cartwheel into oblivion. The crampons gave quite a bit of bite and confidence, making for a solid ending to the self-arrest training. We then practiced downclimbing to observe a cut out piece of snow that the instructor cut to show us snowpack layering that may cause instability. Being late in the season, the snow was mostly bead-shaped toward the bottom, like silica. The top was somewhat unstable due to the recent storm and warm temperatures, so we made sure to stay away from risky cornices. By the way, I like that word, cornice. It has a nice ring to it 🙂

Got my Head by the Axe and Feet in the Air. Yay Technique!
Got my Head by the Axe and Feet in the Air. Yay Technique!

To conclude the day, we hiked to a small summit. The journey was worth it, and in that moment I felt very unified with the group. We were all in our element. It started raining and sleeting, but my shell jacket and backpack rainshell kept things dry. At the top, some of the snow was gone, making for interesting crampon travel, but when I reached the top, I was all smiles. Everyone was. There was a common pursuit and a common payoff! In this sense, I like team sports. The only thing we’re up against is each other’s attitudes and nature. The competition is internal, and I like it. Once again, I’ve found my crew.

Photo-op as we Climbed to the Summit.
Photo-op as we Climbed to the Summit.

 

The Summit!
The Summit!

 

The Whole Gang at the Top!
A Group of us at the Top!

On the hike back to the cars, I took my crampons off, and soon wished I hadn’t. I slipped and found myself trying to self-arrest with trekking poles. That was scary! I felt completely out of control, but I got up and made my way down the steep snow. One of the women waited for me just enough to gain distance so that I wasn’t left completely alone, which was pretty cool. As I came down, I saw everyone speeding off in the distance and got a little disheartened because my pack weight was contributing significantly to my excessive post-holing. Eventually I caught up, shifted my attitude and talked shop with the instructor and another team mate.

The Steep Descent.
The Steep Descent.

While the post-holing was by far the worst part of the journey, I feel it was necessary in my character building. Stuff isn’t always easy, but the payoff is great. I talked with many of my team mates about my John Muir Trail pursuits and they were all very supportive. Once back at the cars, we said our goodbyes, lolligagged a little, and made our way home. It was bittersweet, but I had just done something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing a year ago, let alone six months! I keep growing on this journey, and the pushing through fears and walls is starting to pay off.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re a trooper. Thank you for your support! Stay tuned as I keep training and remember; take a hike and spice up your life!

-Doug

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2 Comments

  1. April 7, 2016
    Reply

    I enjoy your truthful and open heart writing. Thanks for sharing your adventure, the early years in your mountaineering education are pure gold. You’ll be happy (and sometimes embarrassed) to look back on these memories when you are a seasoned vet. Happy & safe trails, and good on you for seeking quality education!

    • Doug Busack
      April 7, 2016
      Reply

      Your comment made my day! Thank you! You’re right. These experiences are the things memories are made from. Campfire stories, if you will. I still stick pretty close to defined trails, but can’t wait to embark upon backcountry mountain travel as my experience grows. Happy hiking to you as well!

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