By Jessi Loerch
I spent all weekend rolling in the snow and learning to use an ice ax. In 65-degree-plus heat. I had two main goals: To not impale myself with an ice ax and to avoid a sunburn.
I did an excellent job with the ice ax. The sunburn? Well, it’s small(ish) and I’m sure it won’t blister.
I’m taking a scrambling course through the Everett Mountainers, and this weekend was our snow field trip. We spent Saturday and Sunday learning how to travel in the snow, navigate and use an ice ax.
While the snow was somewhere between the consistency of soup and mashed potatoes, it was still a great weekend.
I’ve been wanting to learn how to use an ice ax for ages. It will open up more hiking trails to me. There are some places I can’t hike, simply for a few hundred feet of snow that lingers all year. I wanted to change that.
Also, you immediately look 75 percent more bad-ass if you strap an ice ax to your pack.
The weekend actually started Friday night. We spent the night in the Mount Baker Lodge, then woke up to eat a big breakfast before heading out for the day.
The Mountaineers are all about safety, but you can tell the instructors also really love what they’re doing. The morning’s activities started off with a Three Stooges-style demonstration of how NOT to secure an ice ax to your pack.
We then tromped around the area, learning how to travel efficiently in snow, how to travel safely, and – most importantly – all the many uses of an ice ax.
Ice axes, it turns out, are useful for much more than just saving your life.
- Pointing out distant landmarks
- Securing your pack so it doesn’t slide down the hill while you’re eating a snack
- Knocking snow off of tree branches (not applicable this weekend, as all the snow had long since slid off the branches.)
- Poking someone who isn’t paying attention (Just joking. That’s not a Mountaineers-sanctioned use of an ice ax.)
- Releasing your boot from the a deep hole in the snow
- Drawing in the snow
- And, my favorite, air guitar.
Ice ax arrest is a method of stopping yourself if you fall – and before you slip off a cliff or smash into a rock.
On our trip, the snow was pretty soft, so it was hard to get up all the speed you needed to simulate an out-of-control fall. In some ways, though, it was ideal learning conditions. We got to try out all of the skills in rather forgiving snow. And, after we’d been practicing for a few hours, the slope was more packed down and a bit slicker, but by then we were all much more confident in our skills.
We practiced over and over. What do you do if you fall feet first? Head first? Head first on your back? With your ice ax in one hand? With your ice ax in both hands?
Then answer in all cases in basically the same: Get yourself flipped onto your belly, feet facing downhill, pick of the ice ax shoved as deep as you can get it into the snow and your feet spread, butt slightly up in the air.
It’s a workout, but it’s also a lot of fun, especially when your instructors have a sense of humor. The teachers for my group created a “Wheel of Fortune” game to test our skills.
We’d stand in front of them, they’d spin an imaginary wheel, and then give us our orders for how to throw ourselves down the hill.
“Ice ax in the left hand, on your back, head downhill, go!”
I won an imaginary trip to Hong Kong for my efforts.
One of the instructors even made up a chant.
“Adze to the left, pick to the right, turn over, dig in, fight fight fight!”
It sounds funny, but really, if you ever have to actually use an ice ax, you will literally be fighting for your life.
As the same instructor said later, “Certain death is an excellent motivator.”
I think I’m going to get that imprinted on a coffee mug.
We finished off the first day with a big dinner – after scrambling around the snow all day, it’s kind of shocking how much food we all could eat.
There was also a sing-along – featuring the Mountaineers’ resident singer-songwriter – that included one song praising the virtues of “iodine wine.”
We finished off the night with a fascinating, if extremely sobering, video about an avalanche that killed one person and nearly killed a second.
Next day, we geared up again and headed out to scramble out to Artists Point and Huntoon Point.
We had originally planned a different trip, but earlier snow, followed by the high temperatures, made for too much avalanche risk on that route.
Throughout the day we worked on compass use, more ice ax practice and just generally practiced traveling safely in the snow.
The high point of the trip was, naturally, the view of Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker. The sky was perfect blue, the air was clear, and we could see forever. It was hard to decide where to look. At one point, a hummingbird even flew past our heads. It was rather magical.
Then we headed down, looking for as many chances to glissade as we could. Glissading is the payoff for all the work you do climbing up. It’s basically sledding on your bottom, using your ice ax as a sort of rudder. It’s fun and on such a hot day, I was more than happy to sit down in the snow.
We ended the day with one more ice ax practice. Again, I was happy to roll around in the snow. By this point, it was really hot.
Next up is a scramble up a peak on Snoqualmie Pass. For this trip, it’s all about putting together everything we’ve learned. The students’ job will be to navigate up to the top of the peak without the instructors’ help. Points detracted for getting lost. Bonus points for proper use of the ice-ax air-guitar technique.
The Everett Mountaineers offer a scrambling course in the spring. If you want to learn more about how to safely travel off-trail, and climb pretty much any peak that doesn’t require roping up, this class is for you. Learn more about it here. Also, if you’re just getting into hiking, they have a free class coming up. Register here.