Mountain Education Snow Basics Class

When considering a thru hike, a person needs to get in hiking shape, create a hiking plan (resupply, miles per day, etc) and develop a well rounded skill set.

I’m in decent shape and we have a plan. But I can always learn more mountaineering techniques. So I decided to brush up on my snow travel skills by registering for a snow basics course. Ned Tibbits, who leads Mountain Education courses hiked the PCT in the 70s and is a member of two Search and Rescue Crews in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Day 1

Carson Pass to Winnemucca Lake (2.5 miles)

We met at the Carson Pass Sno – Park and got right to it. Before we left, Ned touched on the differences between microspikes and crampons.

Long story short, if you are ahead of the herd, take crampons. The sideways stepping when breaking trail will require them.

But if you are in the herd and there are established steps already, microspikes are fine.

Once we started snowshoeing, it was pretty straightforward. Lots of hard packed snow which meant little postholing. And this was good because we were traveling over 5 feet of snow.

We took lots of breaks to learn about the trees in the area and do some route finding. Using Halfmile’s maps and points of reference, we figured out where we were and set a course toward camp. This is what I came to learn!

I need lots and lots of practice, but hopefully I’ll get there.

Another useful piece of information Ned bestowed upon us was that winds from storms come from the south (and southwest) while fair weather winds come from the North.

He also talked about what type of clouds indicate storms on the horizon.

The wind was howling all day, and as I write this cacooned in my sleeping bag, it continues to pound my tent. Thankfully I brought earplugs!

I’m hoping to stay warm through the night. Done should help with this.
I tried our homemade (and dehydrated) gluten free pasta with bison beef. Delicious!

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Day 2

Things learned during the night:

When camping on snow, my inflatable pad – with a R value of 3.5 is not sufficient enough to insulate me from the frozen ground.

With the relentless wind blowing cold air into my tent all night long too, my feet never got warm.

I wore Laurie’s fleece pants and my windshirt over my wool Long Johns, along with my buff around my neck and over my face to finally get the rest of my body warm enough to sleep. 

According to Ned, the coldest it got last night in his tent was 30 degrees at 7am but it sure felt colder in mine with the nonstop, bone chilling wind.

Everybody slept in this morning except me. I got my usual 1 hour of deep sleep, followed by constant tossing and turning and light sleep, until 6am. I finally crawled out of my tent to greet the morning sun around 6:30.

Besides the wind, it’s really quiet here, and it feels so good. I hadn’t realized just how much I missed it. It’s blissful.

Around 8 am I noticed Ned shoveling away in the distance. Curious, I laced up my boots and walked towards him. He was making a kitchen! Eager to help, I jumped in to form the backrest and wind break for our stoves.

I was hungry this morning. Which is a good sign given my funky stomach the last few days. I almost bailed on this trip fearing that whatever my system is fighting right now could lead to an unpleasant 3 days in the wilderness.

So far so good. And I’m glad I didn’t bail.

Today was travel day – of sorts. We snowshoed about 1 mile, stopping every so often to learn about the conditions and what to look out for in different seasons when traveling on snow.

Great takeaway message from today: When you see shine ahead, prepare for it. Same with signs of snowballs rolling down the mountains. This can mean icy and slippery conditions. Get ice axe / whippet out and have it ready just in case.

The wind was howling all day today. It made for chilly snowshoeing but pretty nonetheless.  We snowshoed to a high point from which we could see Lake Tahoe. So beautiful.

Oh, on the way up, we chatted up two snowshoers headed down. The gal’s trail name was Epic and she hiked the PCT last year! Small world.

We enjoyed snacking and taking pictures from the mound. We had reception so I sent a text to Laurie and my dad. Then I took out my maps and started to orient. Practice, practice, practice! Because practice makes better 🙂

Around 2:30pm we headed down the mountain, across frozen lake Winnemucca and toward our campsite. My insides were not happy and I left the group to go dig a hole. I usually don’t get attacks like that, where I have to go NOW, so something still isn’t right.

An hour later, I had to go again. Ned asked me if all was well and I had to admit that it wasn’t and ask for more tp as I was out. I had packed more than I thought I would need, but it wasn’t enough. Lesson learned. This wasn’t much fun for my ego, but hey, beats using snow to clean my bottom.

As we relaxed at our kitchen for about an hour, unbenounced to us Ned was digging a massive hole to teach us about avalanche dangers and how to spot them. The hole he had dug was tremendous – 5 feet deep and about 7 feet long.

He said he didn’t want to over exert us and that’s why he did it all by himself.

After a thorough review of what to look for and what judgment calls to make, we shoveled blocks of snow back into the hole and went for dinner.

Sunset was amazing again. The wind was almost nonexistent while Ned and I enjoyed good conversation over good food. The others chose warmth and cooked in their tents.

I’m hoping the wind doesn’t kick our asses again tonight. For my feet to be warmer, I’ve put a waterproof trash compactor bag over my sleeping bag. It should be very windproof also.

We’ll see…

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Day 3

Up at 6 am once again. This time to total silence. The wind was fairly calm last night. And my feet were warm! I think the lack of wind coupled with the extra protection from the trash compactor bag worked!

Before I continue, allow me to introduce my classmates. I realize I haven’t mentioned anything about them thus far. Bob is a Bay Area resident embarking on his own PCT thru-hike this April. He is starting 15 days after us, so I hope our paths cross.

Emily is from Arizona and plans to hike the John Muir Trail this June. As with Bob, I hope to run into her in the snowy Sierras as she makes her way toward Mt. Whitney.

And Cathy is from Illinois and wants to hike the PCT next year. Go Cathy. Make it happen!

We enjoyed another easy morning. No real rush today. On the docket was learning (and practicing) how to self arrest, then hiking back to our cars.

I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll say it again. Ned is a great teacher. He is very patient and willing to go over things as many times as it takes for us to get it.

It took many, many practice runs, but I finally left the slope confident in my self arrest abilities. For snow travel, this skill is a must. I’m hoping I don’t have to do a self arrest on the PCT (or ever) but I’m confident I’ll be able to should the need arise.

I also learned a few things about my gear. Mainly that my ice axe is too short to use as a walking stick while traversing steep slopes – is not intended to be that. But this was a problem because I found myself slouched over constantly as I sought contact with the slope for safety, which put me at risk of falling even more.

The biggest take away from this weekend for me was that no matter what ‘the experts’ say on blogs or forums or groups, until I try it for myself, I won’t know what works for me.

So instead of dropping your hard earned $$ on gear and equipment based on the experiences of others, I highly recommend taking classes such as those offered through Mountain Education to find out what works for you.

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From left to right : Bob, Emily, Cathy, Ned and yours truly

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10 thoughts on “Mountain Education Snow Basics Class

  1. Thanks for the writeup! I and my husband are also about to take one of Ned’s Snow Basics 3-day, 2-night courses in preparation for snowy conditions on the JMT this summer. Right now I’m sitting in our South Lake Tahoe hotel room on the eve of our class. Weather forecasts also call for windy, breezy conditions and I am hoping that our gear will be warm enough!

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  2. Did you use your regular tent or did you rent one of Ned’s 4-season tents? And were you using your zpacks 20-degree sleeping bag? Did you rent any other gear from Ned?

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    • Hey Claudine, I didn’t rent any gear from Ned. I used a 3 season REI Quarter Dome 2 tent and my Zpacks 20° sleeping bag. It was cold at night. 2 reasons for that..blustery wind and not enough warmth from my 3 season inflatable sleeping pad. It’s a great class and you’ll learn tons. If you sleep really cold, rent a 4 season tent and get yourself a closed cell foam pad in addition to what you already have.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Andy, thank you so much for the quick reply! We have closed-cell sleeping pads in addition to our inflatable Thermarests. We also rented a 4-season tent from Ned. I tend to sleep warm; the husband sleeps cold. We have 15-degree bags… so hopefully we’ll be warm enough. Your writeup was very timely and helpful. Many thanks again! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great info, details and story telling with plentiful, thoughtful narrative to relax with and enjoy. The photos were very nice and also now I’m Hungary from your food topics. Have fun.

    Liked by 1 person

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