Learning backcountry snowboarding with NOLS
It’s all about safety. After ten days of melting snow, living in snow shelters, participating in avalanche awareness courses and scenarios with the National Outdoor Leadership School while on their Backcountry Snowboarding course, I have a much better awareness of the dangers that exist in the backcountry and how to avoid them. My new knowledge is not all-inclusive: but, it has given me a good start towards knowing what to expect and my limitations.
While there was plenty of riding and jumping over the duration of the course, the main focus was not to scout out the sweetest terrain or to come home having thrown the biggest kicker in your life. The course is about gaining the skills to plan your own epic backcountry expedition.
We started with three days of team building, food preparations and learning about the unique equipment we will be using, including splitboards (snowboards that split in half to form skis to ascend the hill). We also had a day at the Grand Targhee Resort to practice riding the splitboards. The practice time was especially good for those of us who have not been snowboarding all season and needed to warm-up. The skill level of the group ranged from those still unable to connect turns to pro snowboarding competitors.
On the day of departure, 15 of us, with about 100 pounds of gear each distributed between our pack and our pulk (sled), set off from the drop point. We then skied on our converted splitboards into the Snake River Range in western Wyoming. Initially, the going was slow as we adjusted to the odd nuance of pulling the pulk, which was attached to us by a waist-belt. Going up was simple technically, but it challenged our strength and endurance.
After we crested a ridgeline and headed down the other side, we were relieved of the weight of the sled and could enjoy gliding on our skis. What many of us hadn’t expected was the momentary delay between our momentum and that of the pulk. As we slowed down, our pulk would keep going and give us an unexpected kick from behind. By afternoon, the awkwardness of skiing with a pack and pulk diminished and I was amazed at how fast everybody adapted to the shifting weight.
“The thrill of the ride hung with us as we converted our boards back to skis and happily glided our way back up.”
Along the way, at various rest and snack breaks, our instructors, Trevor, Ryan and Bill, pulled out the maps and discuss our route with us. They taught basic map reading and orientation skills to help us better understand all the squiggly lines and symbols on the charts. Throughout the trip, our instructors encouraged us to practice our map reading and route finding skills.
We arrived at our first camp in the mid afternoon well poised with a great view of the Grand Teton Range. The sun was shining brightly and we all constantly reminded each other to drink lots of water and apply plenty of sunscreen. Snow probes came out of various packs to check if the depth of the snow provided suitable snow camping conditions.
But we weren’t ready to set up camp just yet. There was still plenty of sunlight left and we were keen to snowboard down the pristine slopes below us. The instructors were up for it as well and we all quickly shed the bulk of our gear and converted our snowboards. The slope was a gentle series of rolling terrain, but from hearing the excitement, which exuded from the gang after reaching the bottom, you would have thought we had all been deprived of fun our entire lives. The potentially daunting task of having to ski back up the hill we came down was quickly dismissed as well worth the run.
By the late afternoon, our tents were up and we were finishing off building a huge group kitchen. We were divided into three groups of four, plus the instructors in their own group of three. These groups were our tent and meal groups. The NOLS pantry style meal system was such that within each group there was eighty pounds of food. It was roughly sorted into breakfast, lunch (snack), and dinner categories. But as we became familiar with this mix and match style of cooking, chocolate chip pancakes tasted just as good in the evening as in the morning.
Sleep came easy that night after a solid day of pulling our gear up the mountain and shoveling mounds of snow. Little did we know how strong our snow shoveling skills would become by the end of the trip. We learned that much of snow camping is manipulating and re-arranging the snow to suit your needs. Some of us even took the idea of being able to customize benches, tables, counters, shelves, and what ever else we could carve out of the snow to the extreme.
First thing in the morning on the second day we had our second of a three part series in learning about our avalanche safety equipment – specifically, the rescue beacons. We had covered the basics at the NOLS branch headquarters, and wore our beacons for the long trip to camp. Now, with practical application upon us, we delved deeper into understanding the science behind the device and how to conduct searches. The mid-morning was spent in pairs, one to bury an active beacon (not attached to a person), the other to try and find it.
After practicing with the beacons, we packed our bags and departed for a great midday snowboarding tour. This time after exploring up and over the ridge from camp we found the snow on the south facing slopes very nice. After many years of snowboarding on groomed slopes of resorts and designated ski runs, I was finally starting to find my groove in dealing with this deeper snow. The southern exposure softened the crusty upper layer to allow us to easily break through and get to the loose corn snow below. We stayed on modest slopes, dogged through stands of aspen trees, and stopped just before a creek, from which every way was up. Again, the thrill of the ride hung with us as we converted our boards back to skis and happily glided our way back up.
That afternoon, we shoveled more snow in the process of learning how to build our more permanent sleeping shelters called quinzhees. To build these four man shelters, we stood in a circle and shoveled snow to a three-meter mound. We then dug an entrance on the downhill side of the mound and proceed to hollow it out, very much like a snow cave.
After a few days of continued education regarding the avalanche triangle and carving up the pristine slopes, we packed up camp and hauled all our gear further west, deeper into the wilderness, along the ridge of the Snake River Range. Moving was an all day affair. This time we packed up our gear and pulled our pulks along the snowy slopes with the ease and grace of seasoned veterans, in stark contrast to our first day of discombobulated coordination. We also skipped the first night of sleeping in the tents as each group now easily constructed their own quinzhee.
Our new camp, like the first one, was also on the north side of the ridge, but 600 feet higher and offered access to steeper and more challenging terrain to snowboard down. In addition, the instructors enforced a stricter slope analysis and avalanche awareness .We continued our avalanche beacon training in the afternoon by setting up multiple buried beacons and conducting a variety of scenarios for teams to find and dig up.
The search and rescue scenarios were highly effective in teaching us the realities of avalanche danger and were equally humbling as the many factors that need consideration.
Of great importance was learning to avoid an avalanche. One of the more tangible classes involved digging a snow pit and analyzing the layers in the snow pack to better understand the stability of the snow and the possibilities of avalanche.
While all of these classes were comprehensive in their scope, the biggest lesson we learned was that experience is irreplaceable. Our instructors encouraged us to do a few backcountry trips with more experienced people, and in doing so, we need to take an active interest in evaluating the slopes to build a better understanding of snow.
Once settled into our second camp, the chores of living had all become second nature; we spent much more time snowboarding. It may baffle some as to why one would rather hike (or ski rather) up a hill for over an hour to only get a ten-minute snowboard run out of the effort. Why not just pay the $50 and go to a resort and take the chairlift up? Only when you have had your first backcountry run and carve through the virgin snow can you answer that question. The exhilarating and thrilling sensation is beyond description. The toils of the climb (although, many, like myself, quite enjoy the ups as well) quickly vanish from your thought as you salivate while converting your skis back into a snowboard. Deliberate pause is needed in the potential frenzy before bombing down the slope as you double and triple check your safety gear, the safety gear of your buddies, and the slope’s safety.
On our last day, we opted to make a big push from our more distant Camp II to the road where we were to be picked up. The winds had picked up overnight and were still blowing strongly over the ridge as we packed our gear in a semi-protected pocket from the torrent. Two of the students worked with the instructors in finding a safe route out. The plan was to duck down into the trees below the ridge for the morning and stay out of the wind. Our packs and pulks were only marginally lighter as we had consumed most of our food and fuel. The first section was so steep we put our pulks in front of us with our skis strapped on top as we booted (walked) down a short section, sometimes sinking thigh deep in the snow. By mid morning, the winds had ebbed slightly and we had our skis back on and pulks behind us again. With less wind we could travel closer to the ridge. By noon we were passing Camp I and starting our descent from the ridge into the Coburn Creek valley.
As we dropped elevation from nearly 8,000 feet to 6,600 feet, spring conditions became more and more apparent. We were well out of the wind now and the direct sun was warming and softening the snow below our skis. A long down section was gradual enough to ski with our sleds in tow, but as many of us found, a slight mis-shifting of the weight, or just a weak patch of snow would absorb our ski tips, often causing a forward tumble. The natural reaction is to put your hands in front of you to brace your fall. But this often proved to be a bad strategy. The slightly warmed snow from the sun would just absorb your arms and bury your front and face in the snow. The snow would then act like concrete. Movement would suddenly be impossible. The descriptions in the avalanche classes as how snow can act this way became totally apparent. You would lie there in quiet momentary contemplation as you realized you were almost completely immobile.
Some of us hit lightly enough to wriggle ourselves out of our predicament, but others required some extra help. The spring conditions became blatant as we reached the bottom of the valley and were traveling along bare patches of earth and the raging Coburn Creek. One student even lost her balance while crossing the creek and fell in.
We made it to the rendezvous right on time. The road that was snow-packed when we got dropped off nearly two weeks ago was now a bare and dry unpaved strip through the melting wilderness. Tired and smelly, we packed into the van and enjoyed sitting, despite the bumpy ride, for the drive back to the base. Hot showers and a pizza dinner awaited us, providing the luxury running water and somebody else doing the cooking.