Ski Mountaineering

Ski Leader Training, Dec 11-13,1998

Joint Trip with Orange County Sierra Singles
Leaders: Keith Martin. Virgil Talbott

Friday night all the participants had arrived at the Ullr by carpool. Fortunately, Tony Bird and I were able to get together for the drive up. Tony introduced me to a hole in the wall restaurant located in Olancha called the “Still Life Café.” It is located on the east side of 395 just south of the turn off to Highway 190. From the outside it looks like the last gasp of a broken down 1930's era gas station. When you step inside you discover that you have entered a charming roadside café in the best French tradition. Run by the husband and wife team of Malika and Michel Patron and assisted by her two sisters, the café serves reasonably priced authentic French cuisine. Tony and I nearly filled up on the bread served before dinner. We both had the lamb sausage, which was delicious. Many more stops are in order to try the other items on the menu. We did manage to resist sampling the wine list, which was extensive, since we still had several hours of driving left to get to Mammoth. Tony surmises that a portion of the permanent customer base for the restaurant comes from the management of the Crystal Geyser plant just down the road since it was bought out by Perrier.

Saturday morning we all got up early for a long day of training. Copious amounts of coffee were prepared by Donna Specht and by 8 am we were all wide awake and participating in the discussion portion of the training which Virgil conducted in the Lounge. Virgil conducted a map reading and navigation exercise to coincide with the anticipated day's training (a requirement of the Sierra Club Ski Mountaineering Test).

At 9:30 we all drove to the trail head. The day was glorious, blue skies, little breeze and warm sun. The first lesson for the day was that there was no parking at the planned trail head and the location where we actually did find parking had to be identified and an adjusted route plotted. Tricky Virgil. Soon we were skiing with Virgil demonstrating proper group management and protocol for skiing in deep snow. Participants were shown the technique of having the leader ski in second place with participants alternatively used to break trail.

Virgil also emphasized the importance of having the assistant always remain in the back so that should there be an emergency, the assistant would be in the best condition to go for help. Since I was the assistant, I heartily supported this policy. After skiing for several hours, including breaks for demonstrations and explanations, we reached a suitable location for Virgil to conduct the major portion of the training. We had all wondered why he was carrying a 5000 cubic inch pack which appeared to be full and which had broken parts of skis sticking out of it. We soon found out!

Virgil began taking portions of skis with broken bindings, broken skis, striped screws, and missing bails, and broke participants into work parties. To the group of potential SMS leader candidates consisting of Tony Bird, Tom Brogan, Pat Orris and Tani Barbour he gave a ski pole which was missing the bale, the strap and which was broken in the middle. How such a combination of damage could occur to the same pole Virgil did not explain. The ingenious participants opened their packs pulling out all sorts of tools and accessories. Soon each problem had been solved and the groups rejoined to each demonstrate their resourcefulness. We were all very impressed with each other. Virgil then assigned to the groups a series of scenarios involving injured or hypothermic skiers. Again all participated enthusiastically with reasonable and knowledgeable solutions.

As a final exercise, Virgil assigned each group the task of preparing for an unanticipated overnight bivouac using only what they had brought out for a day tour. A resourceful array of shelters was prepared using only the surrounding materials and snow. As Virgil pointed out, there is no excuse for knowledgeable Ski Mountaineers not to survive a night in the open. Snow is an excellent insulator which only needs to be molded into the proper shape. Interestingly, Virgil commented that the most dangerous time to be caught in the mountains is in the fall when there is no snow on the ground and yet you are exposed to freezing temperatures at night. The only real defense is a hot fire which must be started well before you are too hypothermic to light a match and prepare kindling.

By 3pm the shadows were drawing long and we prepared for our return ski to the cars. Shortly after starting we faced a real emergency as one of the participants fell and suffered back spasms due to an old back injury. I was well behind the group with the injured skier, but I was able to contact Virgil using the Motorola Talk About Radios which both Virgil and I were carrying. Soon members of the group returned, and we were able to assist the injured skier in self evacuation. What could have been major incident easily resolved itself into an additional exercise using the strengths of the group to help a fellow member in need.

By 5 pm we were all back at the Ullr, enjoying hot showers (sorry separate bathrooms) and then enjoying happy hour in the lounge. Urmas and his wife Becky, Tom Peterson, and Owen Maloy along with Tani's friend Richard all joined us. At 6 pm, Rex arrived from Matsu and by 7 pm we were all stuffed and giving away surplus food to other guests of the Ullr.

Starting at 7 pm I and Donna Specht respectively gave presentations on the requirements for leading trips with either SMS or OCSS. With help from Owen, I went through the steps necessary to be a Ski Mountaineer Leader. It is rather sobering to realize the personal commitment and expense one must go through to meet the Chapter and the Section Requirements for leadership. We roughly estimated that a prospective SMS Ski Leader could expect out of pocket expenses, not to mention time, of about $300 by the time they completed all the requirements. This may present one of the reasons why our section has been suffering from a very slow production of new leaders, not sufficient to replace the established cadre of Ski Mountaineer Leaders which has been slowly diminishing as people move away or have trouble finding sufficient time to lead trips. SMS Management will be discussing incentives to help members complete leader training. We also look forward to constructive and intelligent suggestions from the membership.

Following discussing the requirements for leadership, the group then participated in a scenario in which participants discussed appropriate responses to problems created during the ski trip from hell. I was first introduced to this concept when I took the written test required for completion of the requirements for the M rating. I have since introduced it as part of the Leader's Training with very interesting results. Most of the scenarios have no obvious correct answer. They probe the judgement of the leader during crisis, forcing the participants to define what are the priorities and how these priorities should be met. It is interesting the different slants one gets on a problem when many experienced leaders add their contributions, frequently from experience. This year's scenario had an uncanny resemblance to an incident recounted by Norman Clyde in an essay entitled “A Tragedy in the Sierra,” You can read the story in the recently published book “Close Ups of the High Sierra” by Norman Clyde, edited by Wynne Benti. By 10pm the discussions were winding down and we all headed for bed.

Sunday morning we all again awoke to hot coffee and scrambled eggs prepared by Donna. By 8am we were joined by Urmas Franosch (Mammoth Mt alpine/telemark instructor and US Nordic Demo Team member), John Dittli (mountain guide), and Tom Peterson (Mammoth Mt alpine/telemark instructor) who prepared us for the day's lessons. Urmas took the middle group with John handling the advanced group learning to ski straight down the fall line in deep snow between the trees. Tom took that portion of the group generally interested in flat touring skills. Urmas had scouted out the Mammoth area during the week before we arrived. He had found near perfect snow conditions in a tree covered slope above the cabins at the south end of Lake Mary. Soon the advanced group consisting of both SMS and OCSS members, were developing skills for challenging the fall line in back country conditions. After practicing all morning, and eating a bit of white stuff, we ate lunch under the darkening skies of an approaching storm. After lunch we skied up and over the ridge and back to the road around Lake Mary. By 3pm we were all back at the cars and ready for the long drives back home.

I would like to thank all the participants who took the time to join Virgil and myself for this training. The participants were Tani Barbour, Tony Bird, Alex Brainard, Tom Brogan, Woody Brown, Nonnie DeSurra, Michael Dodson, Phyllis Dodson, Halsey Green, Sue Harris, Ernie Hockenstein, Susan King, Roger Massoud, Bob Meador, Janet Nemmert, Pat Orris, Gwen Sharp, and Donna Specht.

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