Snow Travel Skills – Living to Adventure Another Day

Snow in October, it’s a rare treat in far Northern California. It has many of us excited about early season play.

I was introduced to snow hiking and snowshoeing about six years ago, and fell in love.

On several occasions my naivety could have left me severely injured or dead, but I think this incident was my wake-up call. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” My right foot punched through the snow and got trapped, snowshoe and all. Meanwhile my left leg was at this very awkward position. I felt helpless and would have had a difficult time digging myself out. Thankfully I had a partner this day, who lent a helpful hand. 

It seems every year about this time, hikers on long-trails find themselves racing the clock of Old Man Winter.  In the Northern Cascades, hikers play Russian Roulette. Some have the skills, most do not. Alternates exist, but border fever rages strong. Is it worth the risk? With permission from the photographer, I’m sharing these images as a way to further discussion about skills needed for snow travel.

What do you know about avalanche risk and survival rates? This is a route I like to snowshoe annually. I’d always been nervous about sliding down the steep slope but until I learned about avalanche risk, I had no idea of the gamble I was taking. (Note: minimal danger on this date)

The slope above our path.

What about cornices? I was hiking Section P of the PCT in California early season one year. It snowed while I was camped on the ridge above Castle Crags. The next morning as I hiked north, there was snow on the trail. When I reached the ridge above the Deadfall Basin, I was confronted with this cornice. 

As now a seasoned winter traveler, I knew about cornice danger. Below are a couple of photos that illustrate the risk. Step on the edge and down, down, down you go.

Getting back to my PCT experience, I took time exploring the slope hoping for a safe route. The trail is on the left below the peak, which if you look closely has a snow fracture, a slab avalanche biding it’s time. 

What did I do? I retreated. I wanted to live to hike another day. As a side note, I met a thru-hiker the next day who was following me (he’d jumped the Sierra). He saw my footsteps stop at the ridge, and thought maybe I was a day hiker. Having minimal snow travel skills, he plunged over the cornice. Thankfully he survived, but the experience scared him so badly he wanted nothing further to do with snow and got off trail. “I’ve been lucky many times, but I’d rather be prepared through education and experience, than rely on luck.

Are you prepared to cross snow bridges?

How are your navigation skills? 

Are you hypothermia aware and prepared?

Do you have the right equipment, training and experience for terrain and conditions? 

Do you have the skills to read snow conditions? 

As my friend Steve, an experienced mountaineer, said “the snow does not care if you are novice or have experience. Anyone entering the backcountry and traveling up and down or traversing moderate to steep slopes, especially north facing slopes should take a basic mountaineering course (ice axe clinic). The combination of an avalanche safety awareness and training course along with a basic mountaineering course plus rockfall awareness and some common sense may just be enough to save someone’s life as long as they follow safe procedures.”

And John, an experienced mountaineer and avalanche forecaster, had these thoughts “How long ago did the snow fall? What was the old snow surface layer? What is the old snow stratigraphy? What is the new snow stratigraphy? What was the wind like during and after the storm? What is the temp history?

Ned, another experienced mountaineer and lifelong mountain educator, shared this “Here’s the concern regarding deep powder snow on dry ground, early season (vs. on old consolidated snow): Rocks, logs, little trees, boulders, etc. keep snow from moving downhill (as in a powder sluff), but when the new snow is deeper than those low retainers, there’s nothing to hold the snow above them and they can slide if there is enough weight, steepness, poor bonding, or triggers (like the traversing tracks of hikers or skiers). An indicator of a really hazardous condition caused by deep, wet snow are those ‘pinwheels’ or little snowballs spontaneously created by the weight of the snowpack and its steepness.” Mountain Education, Inc. provides classes specific to PCT hikers.

Carolyn (aka Ravensong), not only an experienced mountaineer but one who lives and plays in the north cascades and who is playing a key role in trying to keep late season PCT hiker’s alive, shares her words of wisdom, “PCTers late in the season on early snow years are unfortunately at high risk for tragedy, which is significantly heightened by having no education or experience in winter conditions of the North Cascades- ‘Alps of America.’ PCTers may be entering the field of winter mountaineering in late September and October. When a base layer covers the rock of an avalanche zone and there is 6+ inches of new snow the avalanche risk enters the ‘red’ zone. No one one can be entirely accurate on when one will occur, even with years of experience. Most PCTers believe they know about traveling across snow from the Sierras ‘old snow’. They do not have the basic knowledge of ‘new snow’, key factors in choice of route and alternates, methods used by mountaineers in winter conditions, rescue process, risk to rescuers and most important understanding their level of knowledge and experience in winter mountaineering. Key factors can be found in Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, Chapter 22: Key Factors How to Stay Alive.”

Scott, a facebook friend, had these very helpful tips. “First rule of thumb is to stay off of new snow for 48 hours (in the Northwest anyway. Really cold places like Rockies present their own problems with slope instability at any time.) Second rule of thumb is to stay off of slopes between 45-60 degrees as much as you can. Third rule is to spread out so only one person crosses at a time. If one person sets off a slide, the other can watch and hopefully see where they end up so they can dig them out. MY rule is to know where not to stick your neck (or other body parts) while in avalanche country.

Take the Avy 1 Course.  “At the end of the course the student should be able to plan and prepare for travel in avalanche terrain, recognize avalanche terrain, describe a basic framework for making decisions in avalanche terrain, learn and apply effective companion rescue.”

What’s in your pack? Do you have adequate gear for emergencies? I carry a lot more during the winter than the summer as conditions just aren’t very forgiving (link to my list). Yes, that’s my blood!

Ready to make new friends?

Are you prepared for group think?  As Otter said, “Group mentality with humans is strange. People do stuff in groups they never would do alone.”

“Once the first person goes thru the others see this and follow. Sometimes they go places they shouldn’t and wouldn’t go by themselves, but they just go. It’s so hard to turn back after over 2500 miles. Imagine the difficulty in turning back…, let’s say you hiked 40 of the 60 and reached a place where you were too scared to go. You would have to not only hike back the forty over tough terrain. You would have to tell everyone you did not make it because you could not get past a spot that maybe they made it over. Because of these factors thru hikers don’t turn back as often as they should. Generally as a group I’m surprised we have had so few bad accidents. One person’s danger ceiling is another person’s danger floor depending on their expertise, experience and nerves. So you got to do what’s right for you and your group and not worry about what others are doing.”

There is a ton of information available on the internet, and through local resources such as gear shops, to help you gain the skills needed to become an experienced and competent snow traveler. The purpose of this post is to stimulate thought, action and responsibility. Please don’t become a statistic because of laziness or ignorance. 

It’s all fun and games until it isn’t. Knowledge is power!

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7 thoughts on “Snow Travel Skills – Living to Adventure Another Day

  1. Well written.

    Maybe those late season PCT hikers should read this before they enter Washington State. The fever ‘to finish’ is going to ‘finish off’ some poor uninformed hiker one day.

    Thanks for writing this, as from what I have seen there is some incredibly ridiculous risk taking this year especially between Rainy Pass and the monument.

    Hopefully the continued record rains (raining again today) with the accompanying snow is finally bringing the hiking season to a close. I applaud those that stopped short when conditions warranted. The trail will be here to finish next season, and no shame in knowing your limits and exercising due caution.

    Maybe we should NOT celebrate those that pressed on and made it without becoming applicants for the Darwin Award. I fear that all the FB “Likes”, and “cool Man!” comments just encourage others to make silly hiking decisions for the “thumbs up” internet accolades.

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