Lessons of Aasgard 2

by Andy Dappen

Unforeseen problems often beget unexpected solutions.

My blizzard-induced blindness spikes my anxieties about getting down safely, but Jan quickly recognizes she can’t take a backseat role in this descent. She recognizes she must be the eyes of our effort and moves from being an anxious passenger to an active participant in whatever happens. From behind me she scans the gauzy white world before us for the gray pyramids of cairns marking the descent route through the slabs surrounding us.

When she sees a cairn, she points me in the right direction. Without my glasses I grope my way down ahead of her with less speed than usual and this benefits Jan – she doesn’t feel hurried and she can see exactly where my feet stick or slide. This boosts her confidence and her performance. It’s a different example that to hurry-up you sometimes need to slow down.

Occasionally we encounter areas where the visibility is too poor to make out a distant cairn. These become anxieties for Jan that I offset. I know the route through these slabs fairly well and even though whiteout conditions and snow covering the trail has changed the appearance, I sense when we need to move left or right. “Let’s go this way for a while,” I yell to her through the wind when her visual scan comes up empty. “We’ll come back to here if we don’t find more cairns.”

The strategy keeps working. Between Jan’s eyes and my mental map, we stay on course despite the raging wind, shadowless light, and the new snow obscuring the route.

Some 500 vertical feet down from the top, we see the twosome who started down before us. They are 50 or 60 yards off route to our right and have taken shelter behind a cluster of large boulders. I wave to them and one gives an acknowledging wave back. This kicks off a mental moral debate. They are partially sheltered and have overnight gear, but I wonder whether they need help. If it’s route finding they need, I’m moderately confident now that Jan and I, working together, will continue crabbing our way down to safety. If they need anything else, we have little to offer. All our clothing is on and if we don’t keep moving we will quickly chill and become a liability to ourselves and others.

Their gestures don’t reveal the need for help and the traverse over to them will require several minutes of careful stepping across snow-covered rocks. Not at all sure that I’m making the right moral choice, I decide our safety net is already strained. I stay on route and keep heading down.

In total it takes us 80 minutes to drop 800 vertical feet and descend the slick portion of the pass where staying on route is most important. By the time we reach the talus fields where wandering off route would be slower but not dangerous, we find ourselves below the worst of the wind. We still have a tedious trudge down slippery, snow-covered talus, but I’m no longer worried about becoming the subject of a story in tomorrow’s newspaper.

Even now, immediately after finding ourselves below the hazard zone, I’m incredulous that on an October hike in a familiar place, our systems were stretched so thin. I’m also wondering about all the thru-runners we saw earlier. Through speed, did all of them get below the tricky slabs leading down to Snow Lakes, or did some of them find themselves inadequately prepared to deal with the day’s curveball?

Lessons of Aasgard

A few extra pounds in the pack of a day hiker isn’t nearly as noticeable as it is in the pack of a runner. Consequently day hikers shouldn’t get overly rabid about transforming a 10-pound daypack with excellent emergency contingencies into a six-pound pack with marginal contingencies. Here are some thoughts about what the well-prepared day hiker needs.

  • The Ten Essentials covers the fundamentals. Carry food, some water and chemicals for purifying more water, warm clothes, rain coat and pants, map and compass, sunscreen and sunglasses, lighter and firestarter, a hat for warmth and a hat for sun, first-aid materials, repair items, a lightweight headlight, and a lightweight knife.
  • ‘Warm clothes’ is season dependent. The coat, hat, and gloves for early spring and late fall should be thicker than those carried in summer.
  • In cold weather remember that ‘as go your hands, so goes the rest of you.’ Glove liners that are adequate for the expected temperatures are the starting point. On Aasgard, we discovered that waterproof mitten shells would have added very little weight to our load but made a light-year of difference in keeping our hands dry and our fingers functional.
  • Slip prevention is injury prevention. MicroSpikes, weighing about 12 ounces per pair, would have given us two or three times the slip prevention coming down Aagard. If snow is in the forecast, MicroSpikes should be in the pack.
  • Build-in bivy potential. When day hiking, carry a silnylon tarp (10 to 12 ounces) or a lightweight silnylon cagoule (10 to 14 ounces) – both can be used as personal rain protection as well as rain and wind shelter for a small group.

Speed is the ally of trail runners and weight is the enemy of easy, efficient running –double the weight of a running pack and you halve the running pleasure. Still, runners need some emergency contingencies, so here are some thoughts about treading the line between speed and safety:

  • Movement keeps runners safe and adequate food, plenty of water, and replenishment of electrolytes keeps runners moving. Reduce your water weight by treating water on the go. Iodine tablets are the lightest form of treatment. Aquamira drops are marginally heavier, leave water tasting better, and are easier on many runner’s digestive systems.
  • Exposure (hypothermia) kills benighted trail runners far faster than thirst or hunger. Some emergency clothing (long-sleeve shirt, windshell, hat, and gloves) and fire-making tools (a lighter and wind-resistant fire starter) are all vital safety items.
  • For both emergency shelter and rain protection, carry either a 5’ x 7’ or 6’x 8’ silnylon tarp with a few stakes for pitching (10 to 14 ounces). As an alternative, carry a silnylon cagoule that can be used as personal raingear or as a shelter for 2 or 3 runners.
  • So you can keep moving in the dark if you’re delayed, always pack a lightweight headlamp like the Zipka from Petzl. This light weighs 68 grams (with batteries) yet puts out 80 lumens of light.
  • Carry several feet of Leukotape P rolled over on itself. Use it to prevent blisters, cover abrasions, and protect cuts. The tape also makes a temporary patch for repairing torn clothing and equipment. Ten to fifteen feet of very lightweight cord (and a means to cut it) will also repair a multitude of gear problems like broken shoe laces and delaminating running shoes.
  • Good navigational aids (e.g., map and compass) will keep you from getting lost and reduce the odds of using most of the items listed above.
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