Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Snow Climbing

The past few weeks have been chock full of guiding and instructing snow climbing. Of all the "disciplines" of climbing, snow climbing is probably the most overlooked. Rock climbers and ice climbers consider the snow to be something that just covers the approach, or something that complicates the route. Peakbaggers often try and avoid the snow as much as possible. Even when forced onto the snow, otherwise accomplished climbers do not necessarily know what to do with themselves. The best strategy, I am finding, is to treat it as the unique and challenging medium that it is. Disregarding the huge avalanche component of snow travel (that's a whole 'nuther course, quite literally), it is still a complicated force to reckon with. Climbing up and down on snow is not the same as "just walking". The surface is slippery, variable, and often steep. The consequences of slipping are sometimes nonexistent, but sometimes very significant. One must assess which skills and equipment are needed for progress as well as for stopping a fall. Not to mention actually having those skills and equipment in place and well practiced.

To say the least, it is a full-on climbing discipline of its own and dedicated training and instruction helps. In the last month I have done seven different trips with at least a minor snow-travel instruction component. On most of those, snow travel instruction was the main thrust of the course. For years now I have brainstormed with students, other guides, and accomplished snow-travelers. The main challenge has been identifying exactly what makes snow different under foot and what skill, experience and judgement need to be accumulated before one can be comfortable, efficient and safe there. Secondary has been the discussion of the pedagogy of snow-travel instruction. Finally, there are the challenges associated with instructing snow skills on an ever changing medium.

I feel like we are getting it now: getting people psyched and well-prepared for long, comfortable, efficient and safe "careers" clambering about on big snowy mountains. It's an awesome feeling to significantly change another's capacity and abilities and perspective in an unfamiliar and unfriendly environment.

Highlights of this past month included a group of fathers whipping themselves down a steep slope and safely stopping these accellerating "falls". After each giggling lap back up they'd again plunge down like the little kids they're raising. What a trip! Another highlight was a summit of Mt. Ritter via the SE glacier route. Possibly the most classic wilderness snow climb in the Sierra, Mt. Ritter couldn't have been in better condition.

What does this all mean for the recreational climber out there? All I am trying to say is that climbing snowy routes on mountains can be an enjoyable experience with the right movement and risk-management skills and equipment. It doesn't have to be the oft-derided epic "slog". I mean, with the right conditions and terrain, one can slide down almost as fast as a skier can. And if it's almost as cool as skiing, that's pretty damn cool! Even if your goal is alpine rock climbing, or scrambling, or even high-country backpacking, coming up to speed with some snow skills can expand your options and make those snowy bits even more efficient. Learn to move well on snow and you save your energy and stress for the truly hard parts. Think about it...

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