February 12, 2011

NOLS in Winter with R2D2

Bleep bleep bloop blap!
I spent the later half of January and a few days of February in an intensive NOLS training seminar.  And by intensive, I mean skiing powder in the Tetons most every day for three weeks.  The first week was a professional level 1 avalanche training which I found extremely useful and learned a lot from.  The final two weeks was spent ski touring a loop in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) where we were provided ample time to practice what we had learned during the previous week.

During the avy 1, we skied every day.  Most days were good, but one day was great!  We spent most days skiing on and around Teton Pass as the NOLS base is in Driggs, ID.  One day we went to GTNP, which happened to be the day it snowed about 14 inches.  My group skied a popular route known as Maverick and had some of the best snow I've ever skied.

Skiing Maverick in GTNP. Three cheers for Teton cold smoke!
Oh yeah, we learned a lot too.  The instruction was focused around how to assess terrain and assess and document the snow conditions found in the backcountry.  In only five days, I feel like I went from a beginner/intermediate to advanced/expert in my ability to assess snowpack stability.  In the words of Borat, "Great success!"

In preparing for the next section (the WIS, or winter instructor seminar), we decided that our team name would be the Rocketships.  With two groups of four and a group of three comprising the Rocketships, we naturally needed names for all the groups.  I ended up in the Millennium Falcon, after the famous Star Wars ship.  Coincidentally, Ava and I had just finished watching all six Star Wars episodes shortly before I left.  This started a theme for the trip that would pervade the remaining 12 days.

The first day of the next section was spent at Grand Targee Ski Resort, where we spent the first half of the day learning how to teach both alpine and telemark skiing progressions and spent the second half of the day learning how to make ourselves better skiers/teach more advanced telemark students.  The day was beautiful and I was pretty impressed with the 'Gee, as some locals call it.

Grand Teton from Grand Targee
The following 11 days were spent on a backcountry trip through the national park.  We spent a total of three nights in tents and seven nights in snow shelters as we traveled up Berry Creek and down Owl Creek in a ~24 mile loop.  After two days of travel we built our first snow shelter, which we spent three nights in.  There were 4 people in my group, so the snow cave/quinzee ended up being quite sizable.  A quinzee, for those who don't know, is basically a snow cave dug out of snow that has been piled up and allowed to harden.  This is quite useful in areas with shallow snowpacks.  A snow cave is simply a hole dug into the existing snowpack, so we did a little of both to build this one.

Inside our first quinzee/cave
We had beautiful weather the entire time at this first dig-in spot and skied every day.  It hadn't snowed since the epic day at Maverick, but it remained cold enough that the powder from that last storm was well preserved on some aspects.

Sledding loads from our first base camp to our second
We moved and dug in a second and final time on a broad ridge separating Berry Creek from Owl Creek.  This time the snowpack was about three meters deep, so we simply dug a snowcave.  That night, the temperature started to plummet.  I think it bottomed out at a chilly -30 degrees Celsius.  This was good experience because as an instructor on a winter course, you not only have to keep yourself warm in such conditions, but must also deal with students.  It wasn't a big deal, and a few of us went on an all-day ski tour when the high for the day was -22.

On the last day of the trip before heading out, we skied enjoyable powder on northern aspects, which was quite amazing considering it hadn't snowed measurably in two weeks.

Sweet north facing lines in 2-week old powder (mine are the furthest right :)
Continuing with the Star Wars theme:
On January 28th, after several days of overdoing the whole theme (my name was Chewie and the other three members in my group were Leia, Han, and Luke), we all woke up inside the snow cave to the sound of the Star Wars theme song.  After several seconds of thinking we were crazy, I realized that the sound was coming from my bag of papers/notes/etc.  Turns out the birthday card Ava had me bring along got set off inside of its envelope and happened to be a musical Star Wars card with a light up light saber on the front.  Best and most unlikely coincidence of my life.  After opening the card on my birthday the following morning, it was played nearly constantly as well as used to light up the inside of the snow cave in a beautiful shade of light saber green.

Prior to leaving our final dig-in location, several models were created including a death star, star destroyer, millennium falcon, and a life-size R2D2.  I can proudly claim the R2D2 as my own.  Hopefully the first picture now makes since to all who managed to read this far.

We skied out without incident, completing a riotous time in the backcountry with a fantastic group of people.  I'm now cleared to teach winter courses for NOLS, but perhaps more importantly, I feel compelled to spend at least one winter in the Tetons at some point in the future.

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