I’m hurtling head first down an icy slope, tips of massive pine trees whizzing past my eyes as I wield my ice axe as hard as I can against the snow. My legs twirl around chaotically until I’m right side up again, digging the tips of my hiking boots hard into the side of the ridge. “STAB THE MOUNTAIN IN THE FACE,” my instructor, Eddy, yells from fifty yards away, and I do. I skid to a stop, my cheeks pink and tingly from their recent caress against the sandpaper that is a frozen peak at dawn. I regain my composure as I stumble to my feet, and I can’t help but pause and stare at the thick spider web of clouds licking the tops of neighboring mountains. I can’t feel my toes, and I’ve got the wildest, shit-eating grin on my face.
Last weekend, emboldened by all the peaks I couldn’t climb due to snow, ice, and avalanche warnings, I embraced the things I do not know and opted for REI’s Mountaineering Skills – Snow Travel – Level 1 class. I cannot express to you how happy I am that I did. Not only was the class incredibly informative, it also moved at a great pace, was an awesome way to meet like-minded adventurers, and contained huge amounts of fun!
The beginning portion of the day began with a quick tutorial on crampon technique and a brief lecture about snow travel from Nile, a sweet but fierce old-school mountaineer who has 409 peaks under his belt, most notably Denali. The instructors set us loose and had us practice uphill travel with crampons and an ice axe on slick, early morning snow, making sure we were comfortable ascending/descending, turning, and maneuvering the oh-so-sexy duck foot position (pied en canard).
The second bit of the day was where things really picked up their pace, as we learned how to properly glissade. For those new to mountaineering, like me, a glissade is when you glide down the side of a peak on a sled made out of your own butt. From a seated glissade, we were taught the technique of how to self-arrest, which is what I was most excited about. Throwing ourselves down the mountain both feet first and head first, the teachers had us quickly roll to one side and shove our ice axes into the frigid slope to stop ourselves before hitting the ground below. One of the things I loved most about the class was that we had ample time to try each thing we learned enough to start to feel comfortable with the skill. By the end of this lesson, I was getting running starts and purposefully switching my hand grip several times to see if I could still screech to a halt in less than ideal conditions.
After a quick break for lunch, we broke into groups (I dubbed mine the terrible twos), and got to work on learning snow travel in teams. We sidestepped up the now slushy afternoon snow, carefully following each other’s footprints to the letter. Being headstrong and probably a bit too alpha for my 5’2’’ good, I marched ahead, driving our group up most of the steep bank but quickly learned why it’s great to tackle mountains in teams – you get to switch off on the hard work of leading! Now, for me, the type-a overachiever, this is not an easy lesson to learn, but I’m glad I caught glimpses of it in this class, trading responsibility to let other people kick a staircase into the slush so that I could blissfully follow for a while.
In the squishy, mashed-potato snow of late afternoon, we got to glissade down even longer and steeper slopes after having traversed them in our teams, diligently swapping out the leaders. Because I’m a mad woman who doesn’t know when to stop, I thought this the perfect time to practice self-arrest at higher speeds, and it was inexplicably gratifying to have the opportunity to perfect potentially lifesaving mountain techniques with instructors present. I feel far more confident having had three different, highly-skilled people tell me I’m following the right movement pattern to properly work an ice axe than I would have if some random friend had just taken me up a slope and watched me zip down it a few times. For anyone serious about upping your snow skills and tackling bigger peaks this winter, I highly recommend finding your nearest REI store and asking them about their upcoming mountaineering classes!
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