December 13, 2004
Itís all about safety. After ten days of melting snow, living in snow shelters, participating in avalanche awareness courses and scenarios with the National Outdoor Leadership School while on their Backcountry Snowboarding course, I have a much better awareness of the dangers that exist in the backcountry and how to avoid them. My new knowledge is not all-inclusive: but, it has given me a good start towards knowing what to expect and my limitations.
| Sweating the pulk uphill
Photo by Cameron Martindell
While there was plenty of riding and jumping over the duration of the course, the main focus was not to scout out the sweetest terrain or to come home having thrown the biggest kicker in your life. The course is about gaining the skills to plan your own epic backcountry expedition.
We started with three days of team building, food preparations and learning about the unique equipment we will be using, including splitboards (snowboards that split in half to form skis to ascend the hill). We also had a day at the Grand Targhee Resort to practice riding the splitboards. The practice time was especially good for those of us who have not been snowboarding all season and needed to warm-up. The skill level of the group ranged from those still unable to connect turns to pro snowboarding competitors.
On the day of departure, 15 of us, with about 100 pounds of gear each distributed between our pack and our pulk (sled), set off from the drop point. We then skied on our converted splitboards into the Snake River Range in western Wyoming. Initially, the going was slow as we adjusted to the odd nuance of pulling the pulk, which was attached to us by a waist-belt. Going up was simple technically, but it challenged our strength and endurance.
After we crested a ridgeline and headed down the other side, we were relieved of the weight of the sled and could enjoy gliding on our skis. What many of us hadnít expected was the momentary delay between our momentum and that of the pulk. As we slowed down, our pulk would keep going and give us an unexpected kick from behind. By afternoon, the awkwardness of skiing with a pack and pulk diminished and I was amazed at how fast everybody adapted to the shifting weight.
Along the way, at various rest and snack breaks, our instructors, Trevor, Ryan and Bill, pulled out the maps and discuss our route with us. They taught basic map reading and orientation skills to help us better understand all the squiggly lines and symbols on the charts. Throughout the trip, our instructors encouraged us to practice our map reading and route finding skills.
We arrived at our first camp in the mid afternoon well poised with a great view of the Grand Teton Range. The sun was shining brightly and we all constantly reminded each other to drink lots of water and apply plenty of sunscreen. Snow probes came out of various packs to check if the depth of the snow provided suitable snow camping conditions.
But we werenít ready to set up camp just yet. There was still plenty of sunlight left and we were keen to snowboard down the pristine slopes below us. The instructors were up for it as well and we all quickly shed the bulk of our gear and converted our snowboards. The slope was a gentle series of rolling terrain, but from hearing the excitement, which exuded from the gang after reaching the bottom, you would have thought we had all been deprived of fun our entire lives. The potentially daunting task of having to ski back up the hill we came down was quickly dismissed as well worth the run.
By the late afternoon, our tents were up and we were finishing off building a huge group kitchen. We were divided into three groups of four, plus the instructors in their own group of three. These groups were our tent and meal groups. The NOLS pantry style meal system was such that within each group there was eighty pounds of food. It was roughly sorted into breakfast, lunch (snack), and dinner categories. But as we became familiar with this mix and match style of cooking, chocolate chip pancakes tasted just as good in the evening as in the morning.
Sleep came easy that night after a solid day of pulling our gear up the mountain and shoveling mounds of snow. Little did we know how strong our snow shoveling skills would become by the end of the trip. We learned that much of snow camping is manipulating and re-arranging the snow to suit your needs. Some of us even took the idea of being able to customize benches, tables, counters, shelves, and what ever else we could carve out of the snow to the extreme.
First thing in the morning on the second day we had our second of a three part series in learning about our avalanche safety equipment - specifically, the rescue beacons. We had covered the basics at the NOLS branch headquarters, and wore our beacons for the long trip to camp. Now, with practical application upon us, we delved deeper into understanding the science behind the device and how to conduct searches. The mid-morning was spent in pairs, one to bury an active beacon (not attached to a person), the other to try and find it.
After practicing with the beacons, we packed our bags and departed for a great midday snowboarding tour. This time after exploring up and over the ridge from camp we found the snow on the south facing slopes very nice. After many years of snowboarding on groomed slopes of resorts and designated ski runs, I was finally starting to find my groove in dealing with this deeper snow. The southern exposure softened the crusty upper layer to allow us to easily break through and get to the loose corn snow below. We stayed on modest slopes, dogged through stands of aspen trees, and stopped just before a creek, from which every way was up. Again, the thrill of the ride hung with us as we converted our boards back to skis and happily glided our way back up.