Since our last post, where I had foot pain issues at Henry Coe State Park, we were invited by some friends, Don and Jenny, to an Equinox celebration at Big Basin State Park, one of our favorite parks in the Bay Area. We went both to be social and celebrate with friends with a more typical car camping experience, and also to try again to hike a fair distance to test our endurance. I am happy to report that although our GPS died, and we do not know the exact mileage, we believe that we hiked somewhere between 25 and 30 miles without crippling foot pain. That is not to say that my feet did not hurt, but I didn’t feel like I could barely walk without the aid of crutches (my alternate use of trekking poles).
That was last weekend. This weekend, we traveled to Lake Tahoe in hopes of finding a snowy hill to throw ourselves down. We must thank our friend Lubko who invited us to stay with him in a cute house by the lake. Also, our friend Don graciously lent us his Honda Element with snow tires and a set of chains to attach to them just in case. I don’t think my little Honda Civic would have been able to make it through the snow. But we were lucky. We arrived in good weather, and left in fairly good weather, but while we were there, several inches of fresh snow fell.
Lubko pointed us in the direction of a snowy hill that he thought would be a good candidate for practicing self arrest. It was typically used as a sledding hill. Dirt Stew and I got out of the car and donned our winter regalia along with the shoes that we would be wearing on the trail (trail runners), and micro spikes, which we bought to hike in snow. Then we took our ice axes, and climbed up the hill. Half way up, I stopped and with my ice axe in hand, threw myself at the hill. I simply sunk into the deep powder, not even sliding an inch. Dirt Stew joined me, and we climbed to the top of the hill and threw ourselves down several times without sliding an inch. We laughed and wondered if we couldn’t slide down this hill, how we would be able to practice. Lubko told us that if we went further up and to the left, the hill got a bit steeper up towards some rocks.
We trekked over to the steeper slope. Our feet fell through several feet of snow with each step, and sometimes we would fall into a particularly deep patch up to our waists. When we got to the steeper area, and this was certainly steeper than the sledding hill, we decided to roll down the hill on our butts first to sort of pack down the snow. This really helped out, and soon enough we had a sort of track of packed snow in which to practice.
There are many ways in which you can fall, and each one must be practiced. On your stomach with your legs facing down the mountain, on your back with your legs facing down the mountain, head first both on your back and on your stomach, and of course you must practice both right and left handed. The technique, which we watched many times on youtube videos is to wind up on your stomach with your knees digging into the snow, and one hand on the head of the ice ace digging into the snow, and the other one holding the other end of the ice axe close to your body. No matter which way you fall, you want to end up in this position.
We found that the hardest thing was to maneuver ourselves by digging the ice axe into the snow and spinning our bodies around. I really think, however, that this was made particularly difficult by the fact that the snow was very soft. In fact, we decided to run an experiment and see how much longer it took us to self arrest without using an ice axe at all, and in fact it was not much longer. The ice axe simply did not offer much traction against such powdery snow.
Watch this video where I practice a head-first self arrest. My feet should probably be further up off the ground. That was something I had trouble with.
We will certainly be practicing again next time we find snow (which is probably going to be Washington at the start of the PCT). I think it is important to practice in many different conditions, specifically different types of snow.
Other things we learned during this trip was that short hiking socks are not great in snow. The snow pushes your pants and long underwear up and leave your ankle exposed to the snow. Also, I think it is fair to assume that our feet will be soaking wet at all times. We intend on wearing trail runners, which are pretty much the opposite of waterproof. But at least they dry quickly. If anyone has any further suggestions on how to keep your feet at least somewhat warm while hiking through snow, I would be very interested to hear. During this weekend, I played in the snow with both my trail runners and some “waterproof” boots. The “waterproof” boots kept my feet toasty warm and dry for an hour or two, and once they got wet, they remained that way until…. well, actually they’re still wet. I’m toying with the idea of getting more substantial gaiters for the snow, but I’m not sure how much that will really help.
Once we were satisfied with our self arrest practice, we enjoyed the winter blizzard from the comfort of the heated indoors. It was so peaceful and relaxing to watch the snow flakes fall and accumulate on the trees around us. We haven’t had the “pleasure” of witnessing snow falling with such rigor in several years. I know everyone on the East Coast is probably groaning right about now. But in the morning, with a fresh blanket of snow covering everything except the blue Lake Tahoe, it felt like we must have traveled straight into Narnia.
We delayed our departure to wait for the snow to melt somewhat, and took a gorgeous hike amongst the snow laden pine trees. Our upper bodies were totally sore from the couple hours of ice axe training. In particular our triceps, lats, shoulders and pecs were sore. Goes to show how much upper body training we ever do. After struggling to shake some soap around in a bottle he was trying to clean out due to sore arm muslces, Dirt Stew announced that he was very happy we wouldn’t need to self arrest over and over again on the PCT. Hopefully.