I am one step closer to snagging the Wilderness upgrade for my EMT-Basic certification. While I don’t plan on officially upgrading for at least another year [far too nomadic to get true work experience] it’s empowering to add to my stash of rope tying, pulley rigging + snow traversing know-how. More importantly, I’ve learned a lot more than just how to string up a 6:1 pulley or best practices for building ice anchors.

Since the internet is the last place you want to learn all the details about technical mountaineering I’m going to share the more emotional side of mountaineering…things I learned about myself + the mountains while I was out frolicking in the mountains in the name of “college credits”.

Physics is actually useful outside the high school classroom.

Pulleys aren’t just for tugging a bucket of kittens up in the haymow, contrary to my childhood beliefs. Turns out creating a pulley system to drag a passel of kittens around is barely the tip of what the spinney pulley tool can do. On the technical level, the rudimentary pulley you’re probably imagining [unless you’ve been distracted by the kittens, it’s okay, I won’t judge] is called a 1:1 with a change of direction. It does absolutely nothing to reduce the amount of strength required to pull up that bucket of squiggling floofs.

This is where physics comes into play. Now, physics is one of those classes I’ve managed to avoid my entire life. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even take a physics class in high school [instead, I took all of the biology classes] so learning the ins + outs of a pulley system made my oxygen starved brain hurt as we laid the rope out in the snow atop Loveland Pass.

If you actually want to work a “mechanical advantage” into a pulley system you’ll need to use physics…where the bends, knots + pulleys you place on the rope will give you more pulling power. Two pulleys, two prusik cords + a few biners attached along your rope will create a 3:1 mechanical advantage system…which means for every three feet of rope you pull the load at the other end will move almost exactly one foot up. Makes perfect, sense…clear as mud, right?!

Exactly…it makes little to no sense when it’s just words on a page! Even when it was all hands-on I had to build about 13 mechanical advantage systems before I understood how they worked. If you actually want to get into this stuff…take a class! Do not depend upon a YouTube video or a quick “at the trailhead” demo from someone. Physics is hard, mechanical advantage systems are confusing…trust me!

Ice [+ snow] is crazy strong!

When I think of ice I think of the stuff that comes out of the fridge door,or the crystals that form on ice cream I forgot all about in the back for the freezer. Basic, day to day ice. If you tell me to put it into an outdoor context I think of lakes + rivers or wintry roads; both of which come with some crazy risks. As someone who has never climbed on ice or depended upon a wedge of ice to save my life, my brain immediately associates ice with danger [or food!]. I consider it to be rather fickle + unpredictable.

While ice does change a lot as the weather + sun angles change throughout the day “good ice” is actually incredibly strong. It turns out that an anchor properly set up [using an outward surface area measuring roughly the size of a sheet of paper] is strong enough to support the weight of multiple people…if it is set up properly in “good ice”. [yup, “bad ice” is a thing…it’ll kill you!]

Of course, there is a ton that goes into setting up a proper ice anchor — angles, ropes, ice screws, ice sounds, sun angles — but if you know what you’re doing you can do a lot with ice. On a personal level I have very little interest in ice climbing as a sport, but knowing how to navigate ice + utilize the water Mother Nature froze solid could save a life in the snowy backcountry.

Gravity is unforgiving…

Last month we spent a fair bit of time throwing ourselves down a slippery mountain slope with our ice axes in hand to practice a variety of self arresting techniques. It took a few tries, but by the end of the session we were all pretty confident in our ability to put our ice axes to use.

Last Sunday every ounce of that confidence was blown off Loveland Pass. As part of the crevasse rescue course we were simulating a situation where a team of two was traveling across a glacier when, suddenly, one person feel into a crevasse. In my team, I was the first to self arrest. I was feeling pretty good…until my partner threw his weight into the rope, continuously. I dropped to the ground + jammed my ice axe into the snow as I frantically kicked my feet into the snow to create a three-point anchor between my feet + axe. In theory, this should stop my partner’s fall.

In reality, I slide…then I slide again…then I lost most feeling in my left leg as my harness settled hard onto my hip bone. I threw my upper body weight onto my ice axe, I kicked my feet…I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing, by my partner kept falling. It was terrifying.

IMG_20160410_125544two other teams working their way through the scenario

Now, my partner wasn’t actually falling down a crevasse or even throwing himself over a cornice [an earlier simulation we did], he was just sinking all of his body weight into the rope on flat ground. My brain didn’t care, it was still a legitimately scary experience. Holy crap, glaciers are no joke! Gravity is for real…it does not give a single shit about how hard the ice is or how much your harness is hurting you or whether anyone lives.

Once we anchored ourselves, “saving” our partner from a deadly fall we needed to create an anchor in the snow that would allow us to remove ourselves from load bearing rope to check on our partner + start a rescue. Speed was important, but after fighting to find my own anchor I had to stop, breath + fight back a few tears before I could yank out my anchor + get to work. I needed to reset my brain; tucking away the emotions + digging up a few logical thoughts. When it was all said + done we both survived the scenario…then redid it about 5 times. For me, this was all about a lot more than just the process of tying knots. I rediscovered a profound respect for Mother Nature + everything she will through at you when you’re feeling a little too confident.

Mother Nature does NOT care about your feelings.

Speaking of Mother Nature…she doesn’t care about your feelings. Not your teary-eyed emotions, not your frozen finger tips. I love Mother Nature + I like to believe she loves me back by allowing me to experience her version of the world every day but she does not care about my feelings. I can not change that, but I can prepare for it.

In all of my outdoor education classes this past winter we spent a fair bit of time outside, usually in the snow. We were training to spend time in the wilderness, there was no “snow day” back up plan. If it snowed or blowed…we went outside into the weather. [however, on the last day when the wind picked up we did head indoors for a portion of our final testing since it involved a lot of “hurry up + wait” downtime]

unfortunately, photos do not show wind…it was windy + wind is about as forgiving as gravity [it isn’t forgiving, at all]

Everyone will have their own methods + tricks for surviving long, cold days. For me, it involves a lot of layers, pre-hydrating, snowy walks to get the blood moving + endless snacks. Over time I have learned the telltale signs of hangry rage or pain-induced intolerance. I’m still working on picking up on theses signs earlier enough to completely avoid a bad attitude but I have figured out how to quickly react when Grumpy Gus does show up. This is something you’ll figure out about yourself over time — don’t give up on yourself, just adjust + trust you can survive, with a smile…eventually!

At the end of the day every little lesson boiled down to one thing — never, ever lose respect for Mother Nature + the power of the great outdoors. But, at the same time, don’t let that respect grow into so much fear you won’t go outside. Educate yourself, practice your skills, gain experience, snag a few like-minded friends, explore more…


Patrice · April 15, 2021 at 9:48 pm

This was awesome to read about. Thanks for sharing!

Anthony · April 19, 2021 at 6:10 am

I’m happy you held back the tears on our glacier travel fall arrest + anchor build! You did great, I will admit I did pull really hard and ran back a few steps that’s why you slid.. Ben told me to ease up lol. Maybe I was just being a little too rough for ya?;)

    Heidi Kumm · May 2, 2021 at 2:31 pm

    Ha. It was a long day…it’s hard for me to be quiet for so long! But no, you did well…the reality check of glaciers was worth it! 🙂

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