Last week was the final classroom course for the 2015 Sierra Club Wilderness Travel Course. This is sad. Very sad. What will I do with my Wednesday evenings, if not nerd out with 20 other people about which backpacking stove is the BEST backpacking stove? (hint: it’s made from a cat food can).
Now, as my husband will attest to, I went back and forth (and BACK AND FORTH) on whether or not to take this class. What if my knee was shitty and not cooperating? What if people found out that I’ve transformed into a fat ball of archivist who sits at a desk all day desperately eating snacks, who also can’t hike 14 miles?? (Turns out, this isn’t quite accurate, I am very able to hike 14 miles, and in fact it’s fun). Thus, it was with trepidation that I signed up, telling myself that I still had time to drop it. Well, it’s good I didn’t, because it turns out that I learned a ton, some of which I covered in my a previous post. Instead of writing another long winded post about all the awesome stuff you’ll generally learn in WTC (I think I covered a lot of this already), this post will take you through the wild ride that is snow travel day and snow camp.
(Overview of the next several paragraphs, in case you can’t get through all the prose: traveling on snow is fun, and it’s isn’t as “wild” as I thought it would be. In a good way).
When I first signed up for the course, I very thoroughly read through the course overview on the website. I also looked at the schedule and noticed that there were outings titled things like “snow travel day” and “snow camp”. I’ve definitely spent some quality time in snow and up until this point, wasn’t terribly sure how I felt about it. Was it fun? Maybe? I recall renting snow shoes in college and thinking how it felt like I was carrying cumbersome weights on my feet. Was that fun? Maybe not. I thought, “we’re in Southern California, in a drought. What is snow? What is rain?” I spent some serious time reading other blogs posts about what to expect, particularly in relation to all the snow travel. A few people have written about their WTC experiences, similar to the way I’m now reflecting on my own. For example, Shawnté Salabert wrote about taking the class a few years ago, over on Modern Hiker.
By the time March 1st came around for our snow travel day hike I was feeling really excited, and in fact found myself HOPING for snow (yes, that’s right, HOPING). Fortunately, we got really lucky, and spent the day experiencing all types of precipitation, including snow, hail, sleet and rain. After meeting very early at a McDonalds, where many of our group attempted to drink cheap coffee, we headed up towards Mt. Pinos in the Frazier Park area north of Los Angeles, in the Los Padres National Forest. What awaited us was a very cold and beautiful winter wonderland (our thermostat showed 23 degrees!). It was an excellent opportunity to practice what we had learned about venting, water freezing and staying warm.
Photos (click to see bigger):
We had a great day practicing navigation, snow travel tricks, and trying not to freeze, followed by a quick group dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. It turns out, snow isn’t scary! It’s pretty and fun, as long as you know how to take care of yourself (which is what you are suppose to be learning in this class).
Up next, we headed into the Sierra Nevada Mountains for 2 nights and 3 days of snow camping. Now, of all the outings, I like many others, was very skeptical of camping in the snow. One time, at around age 19, I did that. It was an accident. I was camping in Rocky Mountain National Park in the spring, not realizing it could snow, and from what I can remember the experience was not entirely pleasant. However, your instructors do an excellent job of preparing you to deal with cold, snowy camp conditions, and by the time the outing rolls around, you’ve been talking about snow camp for over 7 weeks. In fact, you are oddly excited for it.
We left relatively early on a Friday morning, meeting at a Park and Ride and piling onto a bus. We headed up the east side of the mountains, taking a quick break at a rest stop with a lovely view of Mt. Whitney.
After getting back on the bus, we drove for another few hours towards Bishop, at which point the bus headed into the mountains (note: not all WTC groups and sections go to the same place. While I believe that snow camp always happens in the Sierras, there are many locations within the mountains where groups go). Our destination was Table Mountain Group Camp, a campground (closed to cars during the winter) on the way to lovely South Lake. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) snow camp wasn’t exactly as snowy as we’d hoped. After all, this is California, and we are still deep in a 4+ year drought (click for bigger images).
Despite that, we had a really great weekend. We spent the evenings chatting, sharing food, and participating in group activities like a fire starting contest (it’s harder than you think) and a knot tying competition. On Saturday, we packed up our snow shoes and headed up the road (and a trail) to South Lake, where we were able to actually find some areas of snow to practice snow travel AND have a snow shoe relay race. We used our snow shovels to reveal the new and old layers of snow while discussing avalanche safety, and practiced using avalanche probes to find “missing hikers” (or, a plastic bag of random things).
On Sunday morning, we had the option to go on hikes or relax next to the stream running through the campground. I opted to go on a shorter off-trail hike near the campground up a ridge where we found cactus, a dry lake and gorgeous views. We took turns navigating using our maps while practicing snow travel (mostly kicking steps). We left camp at around 1pm, returned to the bus, and stopped at the Pizza Factory in Bishop before returning home (Pizza never tasted so good).
I could go on and on about snow camp. It was fun, educational, beautiful, and only a little cold. While all WTC groups will have their own style for snow camp, overall you spend quality time working on skills that any hiker should have, especially those venturing to high mountains where cold and snow is a distinct possibility at any time of the year. However, I think the experience would have been slightly different had we had to deal with deep snowy conditions. Regardless, the instructors did their best to impart snow camp knowledge.
In the end, I’m positively enthusiastic about WTC. I’m a CONVERT. I’ve met some great friends, who I’ll continue to hike (and backpack) with and I feel more confident about my ability to navigate off trail and deal with adverse conditions when they might appear. As a fairly experienced backpacker, I found so much in this course to learn.
Bottom line: Take the WTC! It’s well worth the money and peace of mind.
Next time: I’ll keep lamenting about my sleep troubles, and I’ll tell you about sleeping on my back for the FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE.