Snow 1- The Dampening

We are taught to check the weather and the conditions—is this a trip that should go forward? In an ordinary weekend one look at the forecast would mean a new plan. Rain, rain, and more rain, followed by snow. But this is WAC and we have a tight schedule, so everything I know about trip planning goes out the window. If it isn’t dangerous—we go.  The snow pack is saturated but consolidated. We’ve checked avalanche forecasts and sent out a rabbit team. At seven am there we are, 32 students and just over 20 instructors, hardshells covering our bodies and pack checks in progress. My pack rests against Paula’s car and I go over the list with each student. Compass. Extra batteries. Headlamp. Check check check. By the time I finish finding my group the pack list paper is almost transparent and my marker refuses to mark. Rain beads on everything.


We start the hike out to Artist Point in a light drizzle, surrounded by clouds. It’s been a while since I hoisted on this pack—inside I have gear for snow camping instead of a day rock climbing, with a few extra layers I grabbed from my group and shoved in on top of my things, just in case. I get a hundred feet in and remember that my ice ax is sitting against Paula’s car and I scurry back, embarrassed but happy to remember now, when the car is still visible, rather than at camp when I’m supposed to be an example of how this is done.  By the time I hit the trail again I’m in the far back and the line of students snakes out in the distance and vanishes into the mist. It’s quiet and white. There is a river somewhere, there are mountains in the distance, but all I see are shadows far off and the bizarre flatness that diffused light creates on a snow field.


We hike in for fifteen minutes, an hour, a lifetime.  It’s impossible to get your bearings and everything is hush and the sound of your blood and breath. Every rise vanishes in to the mist. I remember what this felt like last year and I know we have to be nearing camp but nothing looks familiar.  Then, in the distance, I can hear Pat’s voice and I know we are almost there.  As he talks it seems to be coming from everywhere at once and I try to pick out his shape in the crowd but we all look the same –Gortex clad and laden. The rabbit team tents are maybe a hundred feet past where he stands and are barely visible.


Once at camp we find a spot and Paula makes the rounds of the students while Shams and I shovel a platform for his tent. We deadman the stakes and carve out the foyer space for our packs. Slowly around us a tent city is forming—students crowding close and instructors slightly further apart. At 11 am shouts ring out and we gather in our groups to start the day. Already our packs are wet and I’m wearing the second pair of liner gloves I brought.


Our group is scheduled to start at snow anchors, then self arrest, then ascend/descend, wrapping up at kitchen. We tromp over to Mike Daly and he goes over various types of belay and snow conditions. It’s refreshing how familiar this is to me. I am still skeptical about snow but I’m not as coltish as I was a year ago.


The day passes in the kind of rain that stops feeling like rain because everything is drenched. It feels like my glasses are fogging constantly but when I take them off nothing changes. And yet everyone remains positive. At self-arrest students fling themselves down the steep slope and come to a stop with their axes in the snow and march back up to do it again. Some love this, some are hesitant, but everyone is trying. One student grins and launches down the slope and when she stops there’s a brief commotion. She’s dislocated her shoulder partially but seems unphased—only frustrated that she’ll have to take a step back. I am amazed at everyone’s resilience.


As the day wraps up I head over to check on a few of the students in my group and see that their tent is crowded in by snow and the walls are slack. There is snow in the forecast overnight and a slack tent could mean collapsed walls and a rude awakening. I grab a few other instructors and we work to prop everything up—setting in the poles correctly and guying out the rain fly with makeshift lines of runners and trekking poles. By the time we finish everyone is wrapping up at their various stations and the students are beginning to gather for the cooking competition.


A typical meal in the mountains, in my limited experience, is usually some form of dehydrated food and a precious avocado. Snow 1 throws all of this out the window. There are students making fondue, students hand rolling sushi and, my favorite, the fresh pho that Amanda carefully constructs on the snow table in front of our group. She carefully layers rice noodles, vegetables and broth in to my bowl. It’s fresh and spicy and warm and amazing. Fresh pho. In snow. Miraculously it’s stopped raining. Everyone stamps their feet and laughs and tries dishes that other groups are making. Amanda keeps serving everyone but herself and I ban any new tasters until she has something in her own bowl.


Off to the side, one of the students is shivering but instructors are pulling together warm clothing, extra sleeping pads and hot water in Nalgene bottles. The instructors pow-wow after dinner and make the call—the rain is just too much. Spirits are high but we’re looking at the weather—rain and snow predicted over night with a drop in temperatures—we’re going to cut Sunday short and head home three hours early.


That night it snows. Paula wakes up and the tent is inches from her face—we had forgotten to guy out one of the lines and the tent has partially collapsed. Shams digs us out and Paula does the rounds of student tents—there’s snow and some tents look a little sad, but nothing has outright collapsed.


Snow continues throughout the day as we rotate between ice axe arrest and ascend/descend. The weather seems ok but we stick to the call and are soon breaking camp, getting ready to tromp back down to our cars. A pack goes on the sled along with wet ropes and Shams takes off as the rabbit. Absolutely everything is damp. We glissade down steep sections of the trail and slog home. My glasses are fogging again but when I take them off it isn’t much better. As we approach the parking lot I look down—you can see the river snaking along below us. In the lot there are a few skiers who look at us in confusion. Some of us are still wearing helmets with our name tags on them and we take over the parking lot with shouts and laughter. As we drive in to Glacier the sun peeks out and it’s back to real life.


“high visibility” for the weekend


The kitchen with tent city in the background


smiling despite the rain


Cooking competition is a go!


Laura on her way back up the arrest slope


Post-collapse on Sunday morning


Camp Kitchen


I swear I didn’t look this angry most of the time.