A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Cardigan Winter School

March 2, 2009
Emilie Phillips

The New Hampshire AMC does two winter schools a year. At these schools they teach snow shoeing, back country skiing, winter backpacking, and in general winter safety. Tyson and I have taken classes at two of the winter schools. Last year we did intermediate back country skiing and learned about lots more stuff that we should be carrying in our packs to deal with emergencies. This January we took the leadership class so that we could lead ski trips for the AMC. This winter school, we taught intermediate back country skiing.

Cardigan doesn’t really have enough parking for everyone, so we carpooled 4 people in one car, Bill, Tyson, myself, and some guy Eric who apparently wrote the previous version of the Cornell Outing Club constitution before we had to revise it when I was there. The other reason why it was good to carpool was that it rained in the evening turning the small roads into icy hazards. We had the Subaru with studded snow tires, so we made it up fine. But neither Bill nor Eric’s cars would have made it.

Once everyone showed up, we split up into our groups and got to know people’s names and what they wanted out of the weekend. There were enough intermediate skiers that we planned to split them into two groups based on skill. Tyson and Bill with the more novice group, and Scott and I with the slightly more skilled group.

After that, there were snacks, and then generally people wandered off to bed. Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work. Instead, it turned out that some guy, not a part of our group, had called his wife from the top of the mountain late in the day saying he was lost. So, amongst those of us who were still up, we started preparing for a rescue. We verified his car was still in the parking lot. There was some coordination with Fish and Game. After I think an hour, we contacted the wife and got more details. He’d been planning to ski down the Dukes trail, but he hadn’t been able to find the top of it. He’d initially called at 3:30 saying he was lost, and again at 5pm, and since then no one had been able to contact him. There is spotty cell reception around Cardigan. The hut caretaker had seen him on his way up, and he’d also missed the bottom of the Dukes trail, but was going to take the Manning and meet back up with it. And the whole afternoon, it had been raining. The experienced AMC leaders sat at the table planning and writing down details. Two groups of 4 people were put together to go up the Manning and the Dukes to see if they could find the guy. Those groups self organized and made sure they had sufficient group gear to take care of themselves. Tyson was in one of those groups. The rest of us were held in reserve as I later learned to be part of a litter team if the guy needed to be carried out. This whole thing had probably started at 10pm, and at midnight, the two teams were fully geared up getting their last instructions, when the guy walked in the door.

So this guy had been ~1mile from the lodge, with a gps, reasonable outdoor gear, and lost for 9 hours. He gave some sketchy details of what had happened. Apparently his phone was lost in the snow. Tyson and Bill’s group came across his tracks the next day, and they only kind of matched up with what he’d said. And he did some bizarre things like post holing in his boots instead of wearing his skis.

So that was Friday! Rick, the head instructor of the workshops, kept referring back to this guy’s misadventure during the weekend as an example of why safety is important.

Saturday morning dawned with me having had 6 hours of sleep and now supposed to be a chipper instructor. The one good bit of news that we figured out was that despite all the rain the previous day, there wasn’t a crust on top of the snow. It was kind of heavy, but we could still instruct technique rather than just how to wear a helmet and pray. In the morning, there are some inside lectures, and then we took the whole big group of intermediate skiers and the advanced skiers out to the hill next to the lodge to see what people skill level’s were. One lady transitioned to the advanced skiers because she really wanted to learn tele-turns rather than some of the touring aspects. And we were left with an even 6-6 split on skill level. Scott and I ended up with two couples in our group, which at times was an interesting dynamic. I’m not sure if any of our people had been off of groomed terrain either on alpine skis or cross country. Most everyone in our group wanted to get better at turns or steep terrain. I still find that surprising because when I went to the winter workshops, I already knew how to ski reasonably well, and just wanted to learn the safety aspects.

We did some practice with wedge turns, and then headed out on a ski. For most of the day I played second fiddle to Scott just offering suggestions here and there where they were needed rather than running the show like he did. We introduced them to skins, which they thought were great. Although I think that’s partly because they didn’t have the most effective uphill technique. We practiced spotting trail junctions and finding where they were on the map. Then we skied back down hill. It was a little steeper than the first hill we had practiced on, but it was also totally untracked whereas we’d stomped flat the practice hill. So people had issues with variable snow conditions. And a wedge, the main turn most of these people could do, was not really the most useful turn in the mash potatoes. I tried a couple and then reverted to tele. So there was a bit of falling and frustration, but at the bottom they all sort of regrouped and team spirit cheered everyone back up. There were a few more teaching moments from there out, such as how to cross dips in the trail, and a few more missed trail intersections. But we were running late to get back for the afternoon lectures, so we generally just trudged back to the lodge.

As I said, I was generally just adding tips here and there during the day, but some of them are worth jotting down.
– First thing in the morning as we were putting skis on, one person asked what length pole was best since we’d said something about adjustable poles being great since depending on the terrain you want a different length pole. She wanted to set her poles to the right length at the beginning of the day since they required a screw to adjust them. This sounded surprising to me, so I took a look. It turns out her poles are flick lock poles which are the easiest things around to adjust. The screw she had been using was the tension adjustment on the cam.
– I didn’t figure it all out Saturday, but one of the ladies had only ever been resort or golf course skiing, she didn’t even go hiking in the summer. So I found myself having to explain what in the world a topo map is and how to read it.
– We did have one person get their NNN binding gummed up with snow. With some group help we figured out all the bits that needed to be cleaned out to get it to latch again.

Saturday evening we teach what to do in the case of an emergency. First the instructors do a skit. I got to be the gal with the broken leg who had to be carried out in a litter. Then the participants are split up into small groups and given scenarios to play act out. I didn’t feel like I had much to contribute there since during the leadership class the previous month, we’d all been told we needed to practice accident scene management a bit more. I think I might have come up with one suggestion.

Sunday morning we started by doing map work. Nobody had said that was one of their goals for the weekend, but they all seemed to need a little more practice. We went over the usual of how far did you go yesterday, how long did that take, why, when, and how to use a compass. And then we did some more detailed explanations of how to read and understand topo maps. It’s one thing to know that the lines indicate elevation, its another thing to glance at a map and immediately know what is a ridge, a valley, and how steep stuff is. Then we let them decide (with a few suggestions from us) what to do for the rest of the day. They ended up deciding on the same trip the other intermediate group did the first day. They didn’t want to do anything harder than they had done yesterday, which pretty much narrowed it down to the one trail.

Also based on what we’d seen the previous day, Scott and I were pretty sure they should practice some more turns. So before we headed out for the real ski, we stopped on the practice hill for a bit and essentially did a survey course of some other simple turns. The motivation we gave them was “remember how the wedge didn’t work in the deep snow yesterday, well here are some turns that might.” I think they all got to the point where they understood the concepts behind the turns, although not the execution quite yet. And there was much less falling down than there had been in the same spot the previous day when we did wedge turns which should be easier. So I think they improved.

After all that, we only had an hour and a half or so left to go skiing. They missed a couple more trail junctions, but they did fine coming back down the trail. Pretty much back at the start of the trail, there is an easy long down hill, so I skied ahead and stopped in the middle to get pictures. As people collected at the bottom, they cheered for everyone else coming down. After everyone else got down, they started yelling up at me to come down. I’d been doing my usually thing the whole weekend of occasionally trying crazy shit that had a 50% chance of looking awesome and a 50% chance of resulting in a face plant. So I could tell they were hoping for one last cool move. Unfortunately the trail wasn’t really conducive to anything that creative, so I just tucked down and tried to go as fast as I could straight down the hill. And what did I find greeting me at the bottom, but the group of them lined up on either side of the trail with their poles forming an arch over the trail for me to go under! That just made my day, my weekend, and made up for the fact that I hadn’t gotten to schedule a birthday party.

Then there was lunch, feedback, and cleanup. The students were all very happy with the weekend. I think I might have some of them coming on my trip in two weeks.

After that weekend of non-stop action, working outdoors with really enthusiastic people, it’s a little jarring to come back home and have to deal with the mess in the apartment and go to work where most of my co-workers wouldn’t care anything about my weekend. And what with the north-easter, I might not even make it in to work today. Normally I would work from home because the commute is awful in a storm. Unfortunately, we left straight from work Friday, and the computers weren’t going to fit in the car along with 4 people’s gear for a weekend. So maybe I’ll just take a vacation and go skiing for my birthday.