Well I gotta say I have a new appreciation for the Inuit Indians. Living in the winter surely isn't easy. I've always been curious about it so I finally jumped in with both skis and checked it all out.
The National Outdoor Leadership School is an institution founded back in 1965 to teach people a few different things. One of their main focuses is to develop student leadership skills on several levels. (many different types of leadership styles) and also to teach students how to thrive in the backcountry while using a "leave no trace" ethic. The familiar saying of "take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints" comes from this curriculum. The US Forest Service and several other outdoor agencies subscribe to the NOLS program and it has really shaped what we strive for today in environmental consciousness. The school has expanded to every inhabited continent in the world, in several different countries. Quite the institution.
Anyways, through the prompting of my wondrous wife, I signed up for their Wilderness Ski Course, based out of Driggs, Idaho, leading up to the Tetons of Wyoming. It was a 13 day course, four of those days based out of their lodge in Driggs, then the remaining 9 days were camped out in snow, around 9000 feet. All in all it was a good course. It was heavily focused on the skill set needed to travel and thrive in the winter back country so it didn't focus too much on Leadership development. For that I was disappointed, but I can understand that the amount of information they are throwing at us in the short time frame they had, I don't see how they could improve too much.
The first four days were based out of their lodge in Driggs. Day one began the day you arrived with gear issue and food allotment for the field. -40 degree sleeping bags, triple layered synthetic filled booties for the feet, skis, skins, packs, sleds, 2.2 pounds of food per person, per day, gallon of fuel, shovel, probe, beacon...the list goes on. All total there would be around 70 pounds of gear per person. 30 pounds in the pack, 40 pounds in the sled. The good news was that as the trip went along, our loads would get lighter. Day 2 and 3 of the course were spent at the Grand Targhee ski resort taking telemark lessons and being videoed for further review back at base. We also had ample time for free ski time which was a blast. The first day at Targhee, things were a bit hard packed. Hadn't snowed for around a week. To me, being an east coaster, it was still awesome skiing. Then that night it dumped 5-8 inches of fresh (8 inches at top, 5 at the base). Holy moly did it make the tele turn that much easier. Awesome day. The only downside is that the fog rolled in, so during some of the traverses of the resort along the cat road, you couldn't see the drop off the side of the road. If you didn't hug the uphill side, you could just ski right off the cat track onto some heinous double black diamond. Needless to day, vision was limited. Still was awesome.
Day 5 we hit the trail. Van dropped us off at 6000 feet; we had 1500 feet vertical and four miles to go that first day. Took us about 5 hours. The first two miles following a creek side road, making no elevation gain, then the last 2 miles feeling like it was straight up. Really found myself wishing I was in better shape. Camp that night was in a saddle around 7500 feet vertical. We camped in Megamids, which are tarps that are tied out with a center pole for support. Once staked out and supported, the floor is dug out at an angle to increase headroom and square footage of the footprint. The nine students were broken into three separate tent groups. Each tent group was responsible for their own shelter, food, water. Two people would build the shelter, while the third member joined the other cooks to build a group kitchen in the snow. That first night was a quiet one. Everyone was intent on eating, drinking more water, and getting some rest. Learned a lot, but very exhausting.
Day 2 was more of the same. Another three or four miles, another 1500 vertical. Ooph is about all I can say about that. There was a bit of sweet/sour on the trip. The sour being high snowmobile traffic along our route. The sweet being the fact that the machines packed the trail, making travel much easier. Still though, given a choice, I'd rather break my own trail and not have to deal with the snowmobiles. That evening we arrived at our intended long term camp at a location marked on the topo map as Mud Hill Flats. Just shy of 9000 feet and views that can't even begin to be described. Teton Mountains in the winter, even in a lean snow pack year, can't really be beat.
We camped in Megamids again that night, building our quinzees the next day. A quinzee is an igloo for the mechanically disinclined, or for a snow pack that doesn't allow cutting blocks. Our snow pack was a bit granular. Took a lot of packing to get things to stick, so the quinzee worked best.
Three of us camping in it so we piled a snow dome measuring about 15 feet in diameter, just shy of 2 meters high. This snow was piled in a large dome shape and left to sit for a couple of hours. While it sat, we went off and skied. Coming back tired from our skiing, we discovered that we had another five or so hours of work ahead of us. We had to build a kitchen, storage area, access into the quinzee, and actually carve the quinzee out from the inside. Imagine if you will pile of snow that is bigger than the short bus I used to ride to school in. Now, in front of this short bus, dig a hole measuring 15x10 feet across, and six feet deep (known as the bomb crater). Once that hole is dug, make sure it's shaped with counters and benches (cooking, storage, and sitting). Great.....now start working on the actual living quarters. The six foot deep hole in front of the dome of snow was actually down to dirt. At this point, the top of the original snow dome is about 12 feet above your toes. Here, at dirt level we carved a dome shape door just over a meter high and inward about 3-4 feet. Once you tunneled in about 4 feet, you tunneled up for another couple of feet. That's just the beginning. The person digging we called "The Mole". Everyone wore avy beacons in case of a collapse, and every moment they were in the "cave", we had someone at the door. The doorman was to keep an eye on the mole, and to shovel all the snow that the mole bored out, up and out of the bomb crater. Keeping in mind of course that the lip of the bomb crater was 6 feet tall, plus the debris pile that you stacked up there. Needless to say, you were hucking snow a big distance. We moled and moled, eventually creating a cavern inside of the dome measuring around 10 feet around, 6 + feet tall. Using skis to bore a few vent holes, we called it home. Keeping in the dome shape and letting things sit for an hour to re freeze, it became solid as cement and just as strong. I don't think a mountain blizzard could have bothered us in there. Around 30 degrees, snug, quiet, comfy. Tons of work, but very substantial.
The following days of the course were filled with ski touring, skiing powder in the trees, and peak bagging. Avalanche instruction and environmental ethics filled any quiet time. On average, it took us two hours in the morning and evening to prepare food, eat, and melt enough water for everyone to drink, leaving our two pots full of water for the next meal. We carved a cabinet of sorts into a snow bank to leave the water pots. Buried in the snow prevented them from becoming re frozen. Go figure.
One of the highlights of Leave No Trace in winter was the disposal of human waste. Urine was pretty easy. Pick a favorite tree and keep it watered. Fecal waste was a bit more difficult. Not the burying part, that was simple. But rather the lack of toilet paper. You could pack some in, pack it out. (burning it on site is not really that simple). However, this was a NOLS course and if you don't have some sort of adversity, you feel cheated. I learned that snow can be used as toilet paper. Not the most pleasant affect, but still functional. I would have to say that I will never take toilet paper for granted again.
The course work covered Avalanche awareness level. We really focused on the avalanche triangle of weather, snowpack, and terrain, with human influence being the fourth subject in the center of the triangle. We did dig a snowpit, but there is so much info to learn there, it just can't be covered in that short of course. Just too much other information to learn. We did do simple searches for single and double burials. Our beacons were BCA Trackers. Seemed really simple. My ski poles were the BD Flicklock style that can be made into a probe. I compared the ski pole probe to real probes, and I'll never never trust just my poles to work in true avy terrain. There is no substitute for quality life saving gear.
The backcountry touring was very cool. I feel sorry for people that can't see the things I have seen out there. Just too beautiful to explain. I took some pics (slide film) and hope they come out. I met a lot of interesting people of all skiing abilities. In our group of nine students, we had one guy that was a good intermediate tele skier, but he preferred open groomers to the trees. Put him in the lumber and his skill just bombed out. We had at the opposite spectrum a young man that had never been on skis before...ever. He took falls after falls after falls after falls and came up smiling every time. Definitely the true "ripper" of the pack. That guy took more abuse from his efforts than anyone, and he had the best attitude of us all. A true hero in my opinion.
After the course I drove down to SLC, Utah and skied at Alta. I bet when they have snow, that place just ROCKS. As the case was, they haven't seen snow in three weeks previous, so things were a bit "firm and fast". I left Alta and headed up to Jackson Hole. Holy moly, what a skier's mountain that is. I have never gotten vertigo riding a chair lift until Jackson. Steep, exposed, and "full on". Definitely not the location for the beginner skier family. Running solo, I had a ball. Stayed out of the trees and stuck to the groomers and just wore myself out. What an amazing mountain. It was snowing from midmountain on up (total elevation of the hill is over 4000 feet from base to summit) so that made the conditions pretty tolerable.
I'll look for another NOLS course in the future. It was tough being away from the family for that long, but it seems my boy still thinks I'm great and my wife was happy to see me. If you have any questions about NOLS and the course, feel free to ask me.