Sunday, January 27, 2013

White River Rematch

Three years ago, I took a backcountry skiing class through the Mazamas, a local climbing education club.  Still feeling very much a rank beginner, I returned to help with last year's class.  I learned lots more, and had so much fun, I decided to volunteer again.

Gathering our group at the trailhead

Two weeks ago, the current class had its first field day.  Field day basically gives the students a chance to try out their gear before undertaking a long tour, and learn a few basic survival skills.  Check out my post from last year's field day right here.

Trying to pull the skins apart

Field day was held at the White River Snowpark.  Yep - the same place as my ill-fated tour of last month.  (If you missed the post, you can read all about it here.)  Although a tiny bit apprehensive about returning to the scene of my troubles, this time I was determined to stay upright on my skis, no matter the conditions.  Falling was not an option!

Putting on the climbing skins

Early morning found students and instructors gathered in the parking lot.  Everyone was split into groups and I paired myself with two instructors who happened to be experienced telemark skiers (coincidentally both named John).  After traveling a short distance down the trail, we stopped for a demonstration on climbing skins.

The sun comes out just in time for a Mt. Hood sighting!

Climbing skins are essential gear for backcountry skiing.  They are made of heavy fabric this is attached to the bottom of skis with a sticky glue.  Climbing skins are amazing - they enable a skier to travel uphill without sliding backwards.  You can ascend a fairly steep slope with nary a slip.  But if you've never used skins, it does help to have some basic instructions on how to use them.

Practicing an uphill traverse

The "Johns" and I had our students practice removing and reattaching their skins.  After a couple of tries, everyone had their skins securely attached.  Now it was time to do some uphill traveling!

Skiing straight uphill

First, the students practiced traversing up the side of a steep slope.  Since it's way less energy to climb by switchbacking, this is the preferred climbing method.  This point was driven home when John and John then told everyone to ski straight uphill.  We all reached the top gasping and sweating.  Whew!  What a cardio workout!

The weather couldn't have been more perfect

It seems every time I've visited White River Canyon, the weather is always beautiful and sunny.  Today was no exception.  Although the day began cold and foggy, it wasn't long before the clouds lifted, and Mt. Hood made her grand appearance.  It's such a fantastic view of the mountain.  In between practice sessions, I snuck as many scenery photos as I could.

Smiling faces

Not only was there endless sunshine and blue skies, but the ground was covered with at least half a foot of light fluffy powder.  The snow sparkled like diamonds in the bright sun.  We all looked hungrily at this wonderful pow, hoping to get a chance to ski down it.

Follow the leader

But for now the direction of skiing was up, not down.  The class practiced kick turns, traversed uphill some more, and then headed into the woods for lunch and snow shelter construction.

Makin' tracks

One of the skills practiced at Field Day is the art of making emergency snow shelters.  If you're out on a tour, and suddenly lost, stranded, or have an injured person, it's important to seek shelter.  There's lots of ways to construct a shelter.

Finished snow shelter

These guys dug a shallow trench, and using their skis, propped a tarp over top. 

Creative use of skis to make a shelter

These two students were even more creative.  They dug a deeper pit and used their skis and poles to form rafters.  Then they stacked chunks of snow and ice on top to form a roof.

Popping out of the shelter like a groundhog

A small and cozy little place to ride out the storm!  When this guy emerged from his shelter, we all said he looked like a groundhog popping out of his hole.

Digging a cave into the hillside

This group dug a snow cave into the hillside.

Lined up on top of the slope

After everyone had built their shelters, it was time to practice one more skill, the self arrest.  If you're skiing and fall, it's important to know how to stop yourself from sliding down an icy slope.  You don't want to slide off a cliff or into a crevasse.  Although some skiers use an ice axe, the Johns demonstrated how to self arrest using a ski pole.  Then it was time for the students to try it.

Packing down the nice powder to make a slippery surface

But although the newly fallen snow was wonderful for skiing, it wasn't very good for practicing self arrest.  It was so thick and powdery, the students could hardly slide at all.  So all of us got to work sidestepping down slope, attempting to pack the snow into something a little bit slicker. 

Our work didn't help.  The students tried to slide, but the soft powder stopped every one one of them.  It was actually very funny.  I made a short video with my camera to capture everyone's attempts at trying to get some speed down the hill.

Heading back to the parking lot

We finally gave up on the self arrests.  Having a little bit of time still left in the day, the Johns decided to embark on a mini tour.  We skied through the forest until reaching its end.  Here the landscape was wind-scoured and icy.  Thankfully, we turned around here, took off our skins, and had a wonderful ski back through lovely powder snow in the wind-sheltered woods.

And....I'm happy to report, I made it all the way to my car, AND DIDN'T FALL ONCE!  (Take that White River!)

What a great day to be outside, enjoying the sunshine and snow.


  1. That is so awesome and I'd love to try that type of skiing sometime.

  2. Nice informative post- I've only done a little cross country and I learned some things

  3. Congrats on your 'win' over White River:) Very interesting post!

  4. Looked quite an exhausting day. Will you be doing more volunteering now that you have 'conquered' White River?

  5. Awesome photos! I bet it was a good workout. So neat how you do survival training as well.

  6. Love it! But remember - if you're not falling, it's not off-piste skiing! :)


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