Monday, February 13, 2012

Wonderful Day at White River

Two years ago I took a ski mountaineering class through the Mazamas, a local mountaineering education club.  Although I really enjoyed the class, and loved the idea of skiing outside the resorts, I didn't do any backcountry skiing at all last year.  This year, I vowed it wouldn't happen again.  The Mazamas let former students come back and help with the current year's class.  I really wanted to gain more experience, so I happily volunteered to be an assistant.

Our group heads into White River Canyon

Ski mountaineering is basically hiking, or climbing mountains, with your skis on (also known as backcountry skiing).   Skiers (and boarders) are always in pursuit of fresh powder and skiing outside of the resorts gives one a better chance to catch some freshies.  But of course there are no chairlifts in the backcountry.  In order to ski down, one must first climb up ("earn your turns"). 

Getting instructions from our leader

To enable the skier to go uphill, backcountry skiers attach a wonderful device called a climbing skin to the bottom of the ski. The skins are pieces of heavy fabric with the nap running in one direction. If you travel in the forward direction, you slide with ease. However, the nap prevents a backward, or downhill slide.  Skins work amazingly well - I'm always totally awed by how steep a slope I can traverse with nary a slip.  The underside of climbing skins have a wonderful sticky glue that enables them to adhere tightly to the ski bottom.  It does not let go (unless you get your skins wet by dropping them in the snow - which I learned the hard way!) 

Practicing turns on the flats

In order to propel yourself uphill, the heels of your boot must be untethered to your skis. For ski mountaineering, there are three types of snow-riding devices to choose from: the telemark ski, where your heel is always free; the alpine touring (AT) ski, in which the bindings unlock at the heel for uphill travel, and then lock down to enable the user to ski downhill; or the splitboard, which is a snowboard that separates into two pieces for uphill travel, and clamps back together into a snowboard for the ride down.

Trying out our turns on the slope

The Mazama ski mountaineering class teaches students everything you need to know to stay safe in the backcountry.  Avalanches are always a concern, and they devote an entire weekend to this subject.  Also covered is gear selection and maintenance, reading the weather, and building emergency shelters - just in case you are stranded in the boonies.

Skiing straight uphill.  Ugh!  It's hard work!

The weekend before last, the students got the chance to practice all the skills they'd been learning in class.  It's called "field day."  I remembered attending field day the year I took the skimt class, and how much fun it was.  I made sure my name was on the volunteer list.

Wonderful mountain views

Field day 2012 was held at the White River Sno-park.  This winter recreation parking area is located next to the mighty White River, that roars down the side of Mt. Hood.  On sunny winter days, this place is gorgeous.  And - lucky for all of us - field day dawned to clear, sunny skies.

Digging snow shelters

First thing in the morning, the skimt students and assistants gathered in the parking lot.  It was quite a group  of people, all hefting large, colorful backpacks with ice axes, shovels and other assorted gear strapped to the sides.  Everyone had a pair of skis - mostly AT skis, some teles, and one lone guy with a splitboard.

Young tries out our shelter

We strapped on our skins, and headed down the trail.  A short distance away, we came upon a low ridge with short, gentle slopes.  The group split into four smaller subsets, and spread out along the ridge to practice uphill travel.

A deep shelter

Skiing uphill is hard work!  It doesn't take long and you're breathing heavily, drenched in sweat.  It's the ultimate cardio workout.  Our group leader demonstrated how to travel along the side of a hill in a zig-zag pattern.  Every so often he would perform a kick turn and head the opposite direction.  Traversing a hill is less strenuous than climbing directly up.  To prove this point, our leader had us ski directly up one of the slopes.  Now THAT was some work!  By the time we reached the top, everyone in my group was huffing and puffing. 

My group poses for a photo with our little shelter

After lots of uphill travel practice, we gathered around our head leader Jeremy to learn about the proper way to attach and remove skins.  Jeremy is an skimt rock star.  He can attach and remove his skins with the skis still on his feet!  He also showed us how to use your ski poles or an ice ax to arrest a fall.  If you fall on an icy slope, you want to be able to stop FAST!  If a person picks up too much speed, they could slam into a rock or tree, or slide into a crevasse.

Time to tour

Then came the fun part.  We traveled to a small gully, split into small groups, and practiced building emergency snow shelters.  If in the backcountry you're caught in bad weather and need to hunker down, it's important to know how to create a place to stay safe and warm.  Most shelters consisted of digging a trench into the hillside and covering the top with a tarp.  It was a blast digging up the snow and fashioning a little space.  Made me feel like a kid playing in the snow again. 

Me looking towards our destination

A couple of the groups built large elaborate shelters (there were architects among them!).  We joked that those were the "street of dreams" shelters.  Our little humble trench was dubbed the "street of affordable dreams."  Myself and two other women had a great time creating our little snow cave and I was kind of sorry when we had to fill it back in.

Digging an avy pit

By this time it was afternoon, and time for a "mini tour."  Jeremy led our group along the river to a far snowy knoll.  The hope was that the sun had softened the snow enough for a nice trip down its steep slopes.  Although the ski towards the knoll was kind of drudgery, the sunny skies against the white snowy backdrop was spectacular.  The light was so good, I did a quick stop to create some Kodak moments.

Climbing up the ridge

Before we traversed to the very top of the knoll, Jeremy had us stop and dig an avalance pit to test the snow stability.  We divided into three groups, each digging a pit into the side of an icy hill.  Jeremy watched our progress from the top of the ridge.  He was rummaging around in his backpack when suddenly a tupperware container popped out.  The bowl quickly slid down the icy slope.  At the bottom, the slope flattened out as it met the river.  The flat slope slowed the tupperware's pace, and for a minute we thought it would stop.  But then the bowl hit an icy patch and zipped straight into the river!  It was so funny - one of those moments you wish could've been caught on video.  Jeremy skied down to the riverbank, but any attempt to retrieve the dish was in vain. 

Still a long climb up!

After testing the snow in our pits, we determined the snow was nice heavy Cascade concrete.  All the recent rain and freeze-thaw cycles had welded it into a solid block that wasn't going anywhere.  The downside was the sun hadn't softened the icy crust on the very top of the snowpack.  But Jeremy led us up the side of the knoll, determined to get some turns in.

Finally a chance to ski downhill

It was kind of hairy skiing up the side of the steep, icy knoll.  Two of my classmates elected to stay back, and as I climbed higher, I was thinking they made the right choice.  I don't like skiing in ice, especially on my tele skis, but especially on a slope that had been groomed by Mother Nature.  Yes, I understand when you're in the backcountry you have to be able to ski in any condition that's thrown at you, but I also know to turn around if something is outside of your comfort zone.

Makin' pretty turns

So I ended up stopping about halfway up the knoll.  I wasn't alone.  A couple of my classmates did the same.  Now came the tricky part.  Removing your skis, taking off your skins, and getting your skis back on - on an icy slope.  I made sure my skis didn't slide away, but both my poles took off a short distance downslope (but I was able to retrieve them).  One of the guys on top had one of his skis get away, and it slid all the way to the bottom.  Bummer!  Instead of skiing, he ended up sliding down on his butt.

I was so nervous to ski on the ice, I ended up side-slipping part way down.  But then I noticed other classmates making turns with ease.  I tried a turn and found, although it was a little icy, my edges could grip the snow.  The rest of the way down was no problem.

Sunset on Hood

The rest of the ski out was lots of fun.  What took us most of the day to reach traveling uphill was a 30 minute return trip.  Although the snow was icy and bumped up, the slope was just the right angle that we never got going too fast.  We whooped and hollered as we zipped through the trees.  Before I knew it, we were back at the parking lot.  The sun was beginning to go down, and its last fading rays lit up Mt. Hood in a brillant pink tint.

What an amazing day!  It was great to spend a sunny winter day having fun in the snowy outdoors.  This sure beat fighting the masses at a crowded ski resort.  I can't wait for the next tour. 


  1. That looked like a lot of fun (and hard work.) What a great way to spend the day. I really liked the part about digging the shelters!

  2. So beautiful and so much fun! I did lose my skis down the hill once :P So stupid!

  3. Looks like an amazing day. Snow shelters function able and fun. Like being a kid again I would imagine. That last shot wow. Beautiful


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