Idiot Tip: Emergency Snowshoes

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 10 December 2010

Many years ago a friend of mine moved to Meyers, nestled in beautiful Christmas Valley below Echo Summit. This is on the Southeastern side of Lake Tahoe. I was a downhill skier, and enjoyed much of what Tahoe offered during the Winter. I visited all the time, and especially during Winter. Though a backpacker, I had no Winter skills at that time.

Despite my lack of skills, I would punch up the snow filled Christmas Valley for day trips during mid Winter. During one of these day trips a number of factors coincided to put me in a pretty hard place. Local sunset had already occurred, temps had dropped unexpectedly and radically, I had pushed too hard and too far up the valley before turning around, I had become wet, and finally, to cap it all off, I had injured myself.

I had reached the base of my goal a couple of hours earlier: an elevated flat extended about 25 vertical feet above me. A frozen waterfall acted as a guide for water running down it's frozen cascade. I should have turned around there, but instead I moved off to the flank of the fall, and punched one arm, then a leg, then the other arm, into the snow wall.

After punching my way up to the flat, I found it flooded with water under a thin ice covering, which I broke through. It was not deep, but it finished off my boots. They were now officially soaked, and I was getting cold. Time to find a different way down, and get the hell out. Oh, and it was so beautiful...but not to die for.

After a couple of hours of hard hiking through thigh-deep snow, I crossed a weird piece of snow, and instantly broke through, landing very hard on my R. hip. I broke through and struck the top of the trunk of a broken snag. At first I thought I had broke my hip, but when the pain receded a bit it was apparent I had only badly bruised it. But I was now hobbled, and I would not beat the final sundown out.

I made it to the nearest tree I could find, and broke off fifteen inch sticks off of its lower branches, of one inch diameter, that would fit in front of the heel of my boots. I sat down, and tied a stick to the bottom of each boot, wedged tightly against the front of each heel.  I had to extend each stick about an inch past the inside of my heel, with the other end of the stick extending a foot out from the outside edge of the heel of each boot.

The finished product looked much like ancient Roman or Greek sandal leggings. The sticks extending outward from the sides of my boots eliminated about half of the depth I was sinking into the snow, and I was able to make good enough time to reach the snowplowed road, the South Upper Truckee Road, not long after astronomical sunset. Whew!

I still had to hobble about a mile and a half to my friend's cabin through bitter cold, but I was out of the snow and really relieved.

I learned two things that day: what evil snow looks like, (snow with something under its surface that is collecting infrared energy, using it to hollow out the snow into an Al trap) and how to tie emergency snow shoes to my boots. Both valuable lessons.

Oh, and I learned that I was a frkn idiot...But the pains of that experience burned some good lessons, some real common sense, into my dumb-ass.

The good news is that I was thinking well during the problem, and afterwards, if not before.

From that time I began collecting the gear and skills necessary to execute mid-Winter high altitude snow trips in the Sierras. I was hooked.

Start your first snow trips in Spring and Fall 

I started that Spring, after the threats of mid-Winter Storms receded. The next Fall I continued, snow camping before the deep cold of Winter fell across the mountains. After a couple of years of Spring and Fall snow camping,  I was geared and skilled enough to execute mid Winter trips. After that I added crampons and an ice axe to my kit, and learned how to use them.

Finally, I used all of these skills in a mid Winter ascent of Leavitt Peak, just South of Sonora Pass along the Sierra crestline. This has become one of my favorite places for Winter trips and travel.

I hike in from the East to Sonora Pass, climb up to, and traverse the Northern ridge of the Leavitt Massif over to the peak, then glissade down mountain to Latopie Lake.

From Latopie Lake there is a long, beautiful snow shoe trip down mountain past a menagiere of Winter Wonders, not the least of which is the several hundred feet of Iced waterfall where the Leavitt Creek flies off the cliff above Leavitt Meadow. It is so beautiful.

You can camp on the snow covered flat at the top of this massive cliff, which acts as an observation and picnic spot during the Summertime, for good reason. This flat has wonderful views of the frozen waterfall, Leavitt Meadow, the West Walker River coming out of the Sierras, and the cold dry mountains East of the Sierras.

Snow camping in the Sierras is a wonderful experience that I highly recommend.

You're going to love my next idiot tip...Hint: how does an idiot descend a steep section of ice field, with sharp boulders at its base, with no protection? You're going to love this one.



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