Tuesday, January 22, 2008

32 Hours in Snow

Spent the past day weekend at Meany Lodge with the Mountaineers, a regional outdoor travel and adventure group here in the Northwest. The lodge is one of several operated and maintained by the group, which was founded in 1906. On this Saturday and Sunday of a long weekend, Meany is packed with people of all ages. I’m here with a group of Olympia Mountaineers. Others are from Seattle, mostly, and other Pugetopolis locales. Lots of kids—infant to adolescents—all over the place, largely under some form of control or involved in one of the many available board games, cards and books. Lots of adults are here, too, including a crew to manage the operation and enough volunteers to do all the work. The Saturday night head count is 104

This trip began with a notice for a winter travel course here in Olympia. The course was four three-hour classes covering backcountry survival (the 10 Essentials), outdoor etiquette (shitting in the snow), skis, snowshoes and avalanche awareness. The last topic was particularly sobering. The snowpack in the Cascades this year is especially heavy. Three people are dead from avalanches in Washington this year already; nine dead for the season. The classes reminded me that I could easily die in winter conditions. I know from experience how indifferent conditions are to my lack of skill and preparations, winter would be no different, just colder and harsh. The instruction was brief but thorough and knowledgeable. Our instructors, Judson and Tom, invited local guest experts to discuss the various topics and demonstrate gear for about 40 people. They allowed lots of time for questions and arranged for a weekend field trip.

The field trip started for me at 3:35 am Saturday when I rolled out of bed, ate, loaded the truck, picked up friend Mel to meet Mike and Mary who drove the four of us to the Crystal Springs Sno-park just east of Snoqualmie Pass on I-90. We arrived at the parking area at 7:00 am just as first light was breaking in the east. The rest of our party arrived within the hour, about 15 in all. Many others are gathered in this large, open lot in the deep snow, the deepest I’ve ever seen. Snowmobiles scream by, leaving their trail of noxious fumes. We learn that the snow cat that was to haul us and gear up three miles to the lodge had lost its drive train and clutch the night before. Repairs were under way as we waited. Judson and Tom were frustrated at the delay, especially since they had made a point of Mountaineer punctuality and organization. Fortunately, everyone understood the situation. The wait was chilly and uncertain but was resolved soon enough. We were all were pleased when the snow cat rumbled into view.

The ride up was the first adventure. The snow cat was packed with people, going up hill with its clutch still out. The driver could somehow shift gears by losing momentum and grinding the transmission into place. We had to disembark at one point because the engine died and could not be jump started with a full load. Even so, the driver was able to stop on down grades and pick up walkers along the way. We all had to bail out just below Railroad Crossing on a very steep grade. At that point we walked the last few hundred yards crossing the BNSF tracks where two Diesel locomotives and a railroad plow were idling in the snow. Most of us reached the lodge easily. Friend Mel wandered about a mile down the railroad tracks until he came to the tunnel where he wisely turned around. Another member of our group wandered even further was located by snowmobilers in a few hours. Like I said, it is not hard at all to die out here.

At the Lodge, all readily apparent bunk space was taken, a bit of concern to those of us with no place to put our gear that was easily distinguishable from the huge mass of gear hanging from racks arranged all around the massive wood furnace in the basement. Since our immediate intent was to ski, a bed was not absolutely necessary. We quickly assembled for some ski fundamentals in the limited time before lunch. Judson showed us how to move about on skis and we skied a small circuit nearby. I found it all quite difficult, getting up the one small rise and even more so heading down the short grade on the other side. I had little sense of balance or control in all but the most benign terrain. I fell a lot.

Lunch revealed just how large was the day’s company. A battery of cooks prepared food in a well organized kitchen. Volunteers helped with food prep, set up and serving. Service was chow line style. The food queue quickly stretched the across the main hall and took a few minutes to reach actual food. During the wait, I met many others, chatted idly about the lodge and other topics. Lunch was grilled cheese sandwiches and a ham bean soup. Everyone washed their own dishes in a series of sinks, much like an Army field kitchen.

The afternoon was even more challenging. Snow has been falling since we arrived and is steady. Not thick or heavy but definitely steady, a colder version of what I saw in August. We went out a very short trail with even steeper slopes than earlier. I was very unsteady on skies. I got over and down a slope but only in the most tentative manner. Above us on a maybe 38 percent grade, skiers and snow boarders shot down the slope, executing a level of control and fearlessness that was well beyond anything I could dream of on this difficult day. One of these accomplished skiers was Judson’s 15 year-old son. Tom and Judson demonstrated how to assess snow pack avalanche danger awareness techniques. We measured snow depth over seven feet, isolated a snow column to test for stability. The results showed two possible avalanche dangers: a top layer about a foot thick broke off under testing and a second block, maybe 30 inches long broke off with further testing. We passed the second block around to understand how snow could bury and crush a body. Then we made our way back to the lodge. By this time I am getting pretty good at getting back upright after a fall and at side stepping my way down steep slopes. I make one halfway decent down hill run before I fall trying to avoid another skier. Judson says I chickened out. I probably did. I know I didn’t have the confidence to avoid a collision any other way. Besides, I am proficient now at climbing back on my skis. I am also very, very tired, sore and happy to get off my skis and head into the lodge at the end of the day.

Inside is all activity. The kitchen crew is cranking away on dinner. Everybody is everywhere, sitting at the many tables filling up the main room on the second floor. Others are in the dormitories on the third floor or the family rooms in the attic. The basement is the mud-room, filled with boots, jackets and other gear drying around the furnace. The basement also has most of the plumbing—restrooms and showers as well as a ping-pong room and a small instruction room with TV monitor and freezer. In the absence of a definitive bunk assignment, I claim one of two mattresses I find there. It’s right under the kitchen but I don’t care. It’ll do and means I don’t have to clamber down narrow stairs to use the toilet during the night.

The evening is a welcome rest after a hard day. The lodge has plentiful hot liquids—coffee, chocolate and cider—available, also chips and salsa while we wait for dinner. Dinner is enchiladas, rice and beans. Meals are usually accompanied by announcements, announced by the clanging of a cowbell and shouted over a background of conversations. At lunch, Chuck, who seems to be the most in-charge person around, warned us about the tracks, pointing out that freight trains are in full downhill coast as they approach the crossing from the west. “You wouldn’t believe that a 40 mile per hour freight train would be so quiet, so you need to really look.” In the evening, we talk more, eat dessert and watch ski videos made by members. I’m horizontal by 9:00 pm. The lights are still on so the three others sharing this room with me can find their way in. The floor above is noisy. The light and noise just become featureless background as I fade away, horizontal and inert at last.

Morning activity wakens me around 7:00. I wander up to the second floor for coffee. Breakfast prep is in full swing. I help set up tables and hang out with fellow skiers to plan my day. Most of the Olympia crew will snowshoe today. I had planned on skiing some but after yesterday’s difficulties, I am not looking forward to it. Still I resolve to go back out to the little training circuit for a while. Breakfast is French toast and fruit. My plans change when we learn that only those not capable of skiing or snowshoeing back to the parking area--the very young, their parents and the infirm—will find space in the snow cat back to the parking area. Tom and Judson decide that the walk out will substitute for the afternoon snowshoe trek. I plan to walk down the steepest grades and ski from there. The area has about six to eight inches of new snow from yesterday and is a gloriously chilly scene of deepest winter. The sun is poking through the clouds occasionally. Rather than tiring myself out skiing in a circle, I choose to hang out until our departure.

So we get extra sit around the lodge time, which is perfectly fine with me. I pack gear, read, talk and help set up for lunch which is a macaroni-cheese-tomato casserole with cornbread and salad. When it’s time to leave, I put my gear on the snow-cat, strap skis to may pack and head out with my group. A couple skiers do very well controlling their descent on the initial, steep grades. . The snowshoers have no trouble at all. Walking is not a problem for me in my ski boots. After about a mile, Tom tells me the grade is about as flat as it gets. The grade is distinctly downhill, not really any better than yesterday but today I am a little less tentative and manage to handle the grade and the snow. I concentrate on technique and movement, not traveling very fast but keeping up with the group. I get some good kick and glide at times and make a couple steady runs, I fall twice toward the end but recover quickly. Guess I learned something yesterday, after all.

At the parking lot, we wait for the snow-cat to arrive with gear and the transported. The day is cold, although I worked up a decent sweat coming down. The smaller snow cat arrives with gear only about five minutes ahead of the transit cat which has towed about 20 skiers behind it. Reunited with our gear, we head west and south to Olympia. I’m sore but pleased with the weekend; the company and experience were enjoyable despite the difficulty on skis or the early uncertainty of our arrangments. I'm glad I did this.

A day later, the balls of my feet are sore, left foot more so. I felt the pressure yesterday. The skis felt like hard planks under the my feet which flexed right on the hard surface. Otherwise I’m just stiff with sore muscles. No serious injury. Always good.



Blogger seventh sister said...

I got cold just reading this. Of course, we are experiencing a cold spell her, but nothing like what youget up there. No snow.

8:32 AM  

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