What’s too Little Snow to Snowshoe?

I got out on the snow this week (which was fantastic!) and thought with the two-to-three inches of snow on the ground that it was not worth strapping on the snowshoes.  Walking was the only effort required, right!?  Well, I was wrong.

Walking in the lighter snow on the yard and the trails seemed like my boots were all that was necessary.  Moving through it was easy enough, but it was a bit wet and lumpy so it had the texture of clumpy sand at the beach under my feet.  My heel sunk and toes dug in deeper to push off.  It was not exactly an ordinary walk in the park.

Until now, I thought snowshoes were strictly for deeper snow (say six-plus inches, depending on your height and weight).  Snowshoes are meant to give the winter hiker the ability to float higher in the snow.  They prevent post holing in the snow and exerting more energy from high stepping it through the deep white stuff.

Now I think that even a bit of moderate depths, hiked over a longer distance as I have in the last couple of days, it is easier (requiring less effort) to do so in my slabs.  It might look a bit silly, but it is actually pretty efficient.  I sunk less and pushing off was less straining in the calve and ankle.

Anyway, those are just some thoughts for the snowshoers.  Have a Happy New Year and remember you can follow the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook and Twitter.

In Stowe, the Ice Axe is Optional

It is not always easy trying to satisfy my family’s desire for luxury and my personal needs for a wintry mountain experience during the holidays.  I can’t seem to talk the family into visiting Talkeetna, El Chalten or even Keene Valley any time of year.  They expect a warm bed, decent shopping, fine restaraunts and the option of room service.

However, even though I’d like an all-out alpine climb, I still look forward to fine dining these days now that I have been living an easy, professional life in Peaklessburg (probably for too long).  Thankfully, there are places to get the feel of both — at least we can with a little compromise of our expectations.

There are two types of mountain towns as I see it: wilderness towns, usually centered around parkland, and mountain resort towns.  Mountain resort towns usually offer skiing in winter and golfing, fly fishing and so forth during the rest of the year.  While wilderness towns, like Talkeetna, are preferable, some resort towns are on the edge of some great wilderness.  Whistler, British Colombia and Girdwood, Alaska are great mountain resort towns on the edge of major parkland.  But for the eastern part of North America, Stowe, Vermont, a mountain resort town, can serve the bill probably better than the rest, even the famous Whiteface Mountain near Lake Placid.  Lake Placid has been overrun by conventions and sporting events and makes the town often too crowded to enjoy in peace.

Stowe has a high degree of sophistication and resides in a valley of pine, maple and birch.  Once a quiet farming town at the base of Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield (4,393 ft./1,339m.), it has grown into a mature ski resort with a pleasant New England town.  You can ski, golf, fly fish and best of all, hike and get a taste of alpine in during the winter.  It’s great day up on Mansfield or Mount Hunger and then enjoy the town’s coffeehouse, Black Cap (formerly the Stowe Coffee House), which now roasts its own beans or then visit the Lounge at Trapp Family Lodge for some hearty cuisine and a Trapp Lager.

There are other destinations as well, such as the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory, which also offers 20-minute introductions to snowshoeing and conservation efforts, taught by a guide from the Umiak snowshoe and kayak outfitter, on Ben & Jerry’s private land.  It is especially good for people who have never been on snow before; come for the ice cream but learn to appreciate nature.

Last year the town has been enhanced with a true backcountry outfitter to compliment the numerous ski shops: CC Outdoor Store just South of town on famous Route 100.  While the staff of the ski shops did not know what gaitors were, CC Outdoor’s staff know as well as what gear you need to tackle Camels Hump (4,083 ft./1,245 m.) and its bald summit on a blustery day in January.

Again, with a little compromise, a decent, winter mountain experience can be had here while your family enjoys the town.

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A Reminder of Fay Fuller and Mount Rainier

The unstoppable Fay Fuller.

I came across this picture at a lodge I recently passed through.  I always appreciate it when a ski town or some other mountain village acknowledges mountaineering either for its heritage or the spirit of adventure and exploration.  It celebrates Fay Fuller.  The captions say it all…

On top it reads, “Fay Fuller / First woman to summit Mt. Rainier / August 10th, 1890.”  She did so at the age of 20. 

Below the photo it quotes her: “I donned heavy flannels, woolen hose, warm mittens and goggles, blackened my face with charcoal to modify the sun’s glare, drove brads into my shoes, strapped two single blankets containing provisions for three days from the shoulder under the arm to the waist, …grasped my alpenstock and was resolved to climb until exhausted.” 

After the quote it goes on to comment: “She refused any assistance in the climb and spent a steamy night in the summit crater.  She suffered only sunburn in her ascent.”

Fuller was a first in several other ways as well.  She was Tacoma, Washington’s first female journalist, where she wrote extensively about climbing in the region.  She also helped established the Mazamas that helped create Mount Rainier National Park. 

Fuller past away in 1958.  Her legacy has lasted well beyond. 

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The Risks We Take and the Joys of Home on Christmas

I just finished re-reading the New York Times best seller by Jon Kraukauer, Into Thin Air.  Each time I’ve read it, it’s left me with a horrible aftertaste about climbing.  It’s a shame because I really love the mountains. 

No matter how I sugar coat it by talking about character building or the experience among nature’s wonders, mountaineering is still a frivilous activity.  As Kraukauer pointed out, mountaineering is best enjoyed by those ignorant of the knowledge of climbing.  Some great pioneers have made historic FAs without knowing their right crampon from their left.  But it was usually their determintation that got them to the top first, rather than their experience or skill.  In any case, they clearly assumed the risk. 

We assume the risk of frost bite, falling, altitude sickness, exhaustion, attacks from wildlife and who knows what else each time we go out.  Of course, that is, as Krakauer put it, what makes mountaineering unique among all activities.  The risk of death stands out.  People have died playing basketball or football, but it does not hang around the activity like in our sport. 

Getting home from our adventure in the mountains is always sweet, regardless of whether the goal was attained or not.  After sleeping in tents, hanging on cliffs, waiting out bad weather or having to relieve oneself in odd places (and positions) the joy of being home is even sweeter than for people that rarely leave suburbia.  We treasure the carpet under our bare feet and the ability to poor a glass of water from a faucet. 

With the holidays upon us, the risks can be put into perspective again.  Now we get to enjoy the best of it.  Relish the accomplishments of the year’s hikes and climbs and enjoy some egg nog with your favorite accompanying fluid (Bailey’s anyone?) and family and friends. 

Now, that I am done with Into Thin Air I think I will turn my reading attention to lighter book, like Jeff Alt’s A Walk for Sunshine.  Then I’ll move on to Felice Benuzzi’s No Picnic on Mount Kenya, I think. 

Well, Merry Christmas.  I hope you all get the stuff from EMS or REI that you’re dreaming of!  I’ll write again next week…

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Trail Restoration and its Contradition

The American Alpine Club (AAC) is currently supporting a trail restoration project in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina.  For we hikers and climbers, this type of effort should be up there in our priorities for giving financially right after general efforts to preserve wilderness, like the work by the Alaska Wilderness League or Friends of Clayoquot Sound, for instance.  However, the idea of the need for such work is contrary to our sense of simplicity and enjoyment of the outdoors.

Trail restoration is odd when juxtaposed to our notion of valuing wilderness.  In an extreme position, wild places ought to be untouched, sacred from society or civilization and man in general, except for perhaps spiritual sojourns.  But more reasonably, we want to enjoy our wild spaces and geographical and biologically unique places on Earth.  So we permit modest intrusions, like foot paths, bridges and the occasional ladder.  It allows us access natural wonders without trampling them to oblivion.  God forbid that the land and biological things change too quickly because we visited, rather than by natural forces like tectonics, wind and water.

In the same way that a society requires rules and rights for the people to be free, our wild places need paths and limited infrastructure in order for we trekkers and mountaineers to roam wild.

Think about your favorite wild place and consider the infrastructure as part of your assurance that that place will be there for you in the future, even as the trails encourage more to come.

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Why the European Guide Certification is Still the Benchmark

You may have heard that the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) and the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) held their first joint meeting and did so in Boulder, Colorado in November.  The AMGA is a member of the IFMGA, which is also known as the UIAGM in French and IVBV in German, but the concept and demands of the IFMGA certification is a high standard and is also alluring to North American alpinists.

IFMGA was established in 1965 by guides from Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria.  At the time that was the “international” community of mountain guides; they worked to provide each other open access to the Alps over their own borders.  Today, European states are considerably more open to each other, and “international” may seem like a stretch.  Today, IFMGA guides are truly international, including a rare, exceptional few dozen in North America, including Canadian alpinist Barry Blanchard.

IFMGA guides must demonstrate proficiency in three key disciplines of mountain travel: Rock, Alpine and Ski.  The European inclusion of skiing for standards and expectations of their best mountain guides has always interested me, as a climber that grew up in the Northeast United States.  The culture in my part of the country allowed me to separate climbing skills from skiing (so I only learned to ski recently).  However, in Europe skiing and climbing, when it came to the guiding culture, high-level skiing skills were expected of the best hired hands in the business.

From all reports, the joint meeting was like any other business convention, which entails board meetings, committee proposals and discussions and some exhibits.  According to the American Alpine Institute Climbing Blog, the most contentious issue was that while AMGA guides have broad access in the Alps, the European guides do not receive the same open access in the United States.  This is interesting because, as I said, several Americans have sought out the IFMGA certification.

The certification if being a IFMGA Mountain Guide is badge of honor, and perhaps because of its European roots, has a mystique among North Americans.  The handful of American guides that have it often use it in their advertising for business (and rightfully so).  It is admittedly more difficult than AMGA standards.  IFMGA guide applicants must have several years of climbing experience, be sponsored by a IFMGA guide, and pass a rigorous multi-day exam in the backcountry while under the scrutiny of the certifiers.  The certification gives the guide membership in the IFMGA and makes them an IFMGA licensed guide able to climb throughout Europe.

Regardless of the differences, the IFMGA designation may be more valuable to guides in North America and elsewhere than even in Europe.  The Europeans set the bar high and all else respected that and have met the standard only in rare occasions.

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