With our base camp established somewhere over 8,000′ and a well earned night’s sleep behind us, it was time to get down to the business of training. As I mentioned earlier, this was the first winter backcountry trip for much of the team, so learning to travel over the rocks, ice, and snow was an important training objective and each day we hiked several miles to the higher slopes, changing our routes to provide plenty of time with both snowshoes and crampons. The MSR Denali Ascents really proved themselves in this terrain. The carbon fiber bodies were incredibly durable on the rocky slopes and the rails with their sawtooth teeth provided a solid grip on the rocks and steep slopes. This saved a lot of time and effort by eliminating the need to switch to crampons on all but the steepest and iciest slopes.
Our Survival Instructor spent some one-on-one time with the guys building snow shelters and the like, but most of our time was spent learning alpine travel and rescue techniques. We’d spent several days in the classroom and now it was time for some hands on experience. The first lesson was of course learning to read the snow. Anticipating and avoiding avalanches is a good thing, and not a readily acquired skill in the Sonoran Desert. We spent time learning to evaluate slopes and crests to identify danger zones, and of course digging avalanche pits to identify the snow layers and fracture zones.
Being rescue guys, we naturally spent the better part of a day practicing avalanche rescue techniques. Each of us had the chance to find the buried avalanche beacon, but most of the time was spent learning time tested methods such as avalanche poles. It takes a lot of patience and coordination to search a slope by probing with a 1/4″ pole, and the moral of the story is to learn to avoid the avalanche in the first place because once you are buried time is most definitely not on your side!
Even though conditions prevented us from reaching the glacier, Rod and his guys gave us in-depth instruction on glacier travel techniques. I’m sure it gets easier with experience, but traveling roped together is tiresome and not as simple as it looks. Just keeping your crampons off the rope seemed like a full time job at first! Simple things like walking are greatly complicated in extreme environments and the technical aspect of alpine travel must take years to master. I felt like I learned just enough to get into trouble and enough to know that I want some experts on the other end of my rope!
Once we “mastered” our travel techniques (sort of) it was time for crevasse recovery. The prerequisite to this part was actually a lot of fun since it mostly involved throwing yourself down the slope and arresting yourself with your axe. Body sledding anyone? Not so fun if you landed on your axe wrong, but you learned to avoid that pretty fast! Once we’d mastered self arrest, it was back to the ropes and across the slope. This time your two buddies would throw themselves down the slope and you had to arrest all three of you, dig in, anchor yourself, and then set up a rope and pulley system to pull them up the simulated crevasse. Exhausting, cold, and challenging, but a whole hell of a lot of fun!
No mountain trip is complete without a little climbing, and Montana didn’t disappoint!
Evening was a most welcome part of the day. This was our chance to kick back, warm up around the fire, and eat a hot meal. I’ve noticed over the years that however long and difficult the trail, after just an hour at the evening’s camp a peaceful, contentment falls over the group; there is no camaraderie greater than that found around a campfire deep in the wilderness. Simple things mean so much out there, like a shared cup of tea, while the complexity and insanity of “modern life” becomes insignificant as the stars fill the sky. The secret is to capture that feeling and carry it within you until the next opportunity comes to escape the world of concrete and steel for the majesty of the wild lands.
Unfortunately, all things must end and the day came to break camp. I was among those that voted to stay out another day, but we had a C-130 arriving in a couple of days and still had to get ready for our parachute training. So we shouldered our packs, some reluctantly and some happily, turned our noses down hill, and bade the wilderness good-bye.
In Part 3 of this series I’ll discuss our lessons learned and review some of the gear we took. In the mean time, just remember that if you are heading up north and need to fill out your party, I’m just an email away!
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About the Author: Tucson, AZ Realtor & Investor. My true passions however are hiking and whisky (although generally not at the same time). If you have a question about any of these just drop me a line!