the vt prusik max over one, 6 over 1, 5 over 1, etc.

As a disclaimer, I’m not a professional rescue rigging instructor. I’m on a sar team and do the work and often I’ll need to understand something myself more clearly. Breaking it down step by step I can share that process with others, and maybe you can benefit from it too.

Before you put your life or anyone else’s life on a rope system you should (seriously) get professional training, including about any topic I’m showing you.

Basically the single vt prusik on a twin tension system can replace the tandem prusik belay (TPB). The TPB seems great except that it’s nearly impossible to maintain that level of focus for an entire operation. Slack and user error get introduced early. You can watch professional rescuers in training screwing up the TPB all day long. For years SAR teams have been comparing the twin tension with TPB model and it’s not hard to convince folks to move to twin tensioned vt setups.

Studies and videos show a critical problem of the TPB: long catches. Falling 8′ before the prusik arrests your drop can be the difference between you dropping into a ledge and decking, not to mention the dynamic load that is created and transferred. You can run a single asymmetrical (shown below) vt instead of two normal prusiks because with a normal prusik only half of the six loops are really holding the load. So two normal prusiks are needed to actually create six grabs. With an asymmetrical vt you get all but two loops to grab, coupled with better heat tolerance.

In general, a better is a twin tension system with a single vt prusik on both the main and the belay.

vt1

Step one. Start at the anchor side and keep wrapping towards the load. The amount of wraps you’ll make depends on the vt’s width and the host rope’s width.

vt2

Take the longer (load) end, and wrap it around as such.

vt3

Tuck the longer (load) end under the bar you just made, and pull. Dress it down, make everything tight and have both eyelets equalized.

A couple of other notes from my own research.

The VT Prusik is a brand name of Blue Water Ropes and cost ~$30 a piece. It is not acceptable to use some other sewn-eyelet cords and imagine them as VT’s. The studies you’ll read about are unique to Blue Water Ropes’ product so unless you know what you’re doing, stick with Blue Water. It’s about the material, strength, grip, and temperature rating: switching to random sewn eyelet cords does not give you that.

Conveniently there are two colors, tan and black. The 7mm is only available in tan, but the 8mm comes in tan and black. Make your life easier and buy 7mm tans and 8mm blacks so you can grab one and know what it fits.

The 8mm VT fits 9mm ropes and above, and is basket rated at 29.5kn.

The 7mm VT fits 8mm-9.5mm ropes, and is basket rated at 22.6kn.

Four VTs on your rack now cost you $120. But consider that the end-to-end rating of an 8mm is 20kn, allowing it to be used as an extender, basketed for quickdraw, etc.

a taste of the sierra high route and tips to remember

My friend and I took off for a section of the Sierra High Route last week and got back in the wee hours yesterday. The spring conditions gave us snow, granite, some dirt, and ice. We spent some time on the JMT/PCT as well which I’ve come to nickname “the highway” : full of people, busy, and usually littered.

It used to be rare to see a PCT thru-hiker, now mid season you’ll easily encounter 20 per day in addition to other trail users. Not a Disneyland mob by any means, but enough to break you from the isolation of the Eastern Sierras.

taking off

Me and my buddy stepping off on the Pine Crest Trail out of Round Valley, Eastern Sierras.

Forget daily mileage, think daily hours and your schedule.

A reality for cross country travel especially on mixed terrain is that you will go slow. Specifically how slow is a crap shoot, but slow it will be. Maybe 1/3 – 1/4 of your trail speed.

Far more important (trails or cross country / mountaineering) is your daily schedule. It’s really not hard to pack away a lot of miles if you start walking early and stop walking late.

branchriver

A valley we needed to descend into, without (a) dying in the river (b) falling off a cliff.

By midday you can start estimating how much farther you’ll get. Whether or not you want to shoot for that next pass, stop ahead of it, or push for some objective. But a general strategy for me (assuming ~8pm darkness) is “how about around 5:00pm we start looking for a good stopping place, and try to be driving in tent stakes no later than 6:00pm”.

If you’re feeling beat down, go slower. If you’re feeling pumped, push it. Either way you know that (by consulting your map and planning materials) that you’ll have plenty of time for evening and a comfortable place to crash.

silverpass

Silver Pass, Eastern Sierra in June 2018. Snow, ice, rock, and water: you’re not moving fast through here.

Get moving early.

There’s nothing fun about standing around a cold campsite in the early dawn hours. But if you went to sleep at “hiker midnight” (sundown), then you’re probably going to be awake by 5:00am if not earlier. It will be cold and you’ll likely have some ice and moisture on your sleeping gear. Provided it’s going to be a clear sunny day, pack it all up as is. Start eating a cliff-esque bar and get walking. You should have done everything the night before to make breaking camp be a 15-20 minute affair. Keep your trail clothes in your tent/bag/bivy so they’re not ice cold in the morning. Get walking. Sure, it sucks to start cruising at 5:00am but you’ll warm up and have more hours to work with.

By mid day you’ll have been walking for ~7 hours and can stop for a bit. Wash your feet off, maybe wash your whole body off in a stream. Put your wet sleeping gear out on a rock to dry in the mid-day heat. Charge your phone with your solar charger. An hour or so later, get moving again.

Also, mosquitoes tend to be extra-motivated in the hour right after sunrise: you’ll bail on them before they show up and since you’re moving they won’t have an easy time latching on.

bivy

My OR Alpine Bivy is great for sleeping, but hanging around for hours awake in it sucks. Get up, get moving.

June is a rough month in the High Sierra.

Intellectually I knew that June generally brings mosquitoes and high/fast waters. But there’s a difference between knowing something and really having it seared into your memory the way that can only be achieved with the firebrand of reality.

I am a mosquito magnet of epic proportions. It’s truly shocking watching them fly by others and head right to my juicy capillaries. Spring through fall carries mosquitoes in the Sierras but the spring thaw causes water to be nearly everywhere and thus mosquitoes are nearly everywhere. And mosquitoes can make the difference between a nice couple of hours hanging around watching a sundown versus hiding in your tent/bivy as they mercilessly attack your mesh netting.

waterfall

It’s hard to capture the ferocity of water in a still frame, but crossing this was the second scariest of ~20 water crossings we dealt with.

With all that melt comes the swelling of streams, creeks, and rivers. Bridges can end up submerged. Stepping stones to hop across are equally deep, tossing up whitewater. It’s worth remembering that in our county people die every year from drowning or the trauma that results of getting carried away in a river.

At best, your feet will be getting wet constantly, and if you take your shoes off to cross you’ll be taking the time to do that ~12 times a day.

branchcross

We crossed through this with similar conditions. Blown mist and out of frame to the left is the multi-hundred-foot drop on polished granite.

A benefit to June is that the days are long, allowing you sunlight by 6:00am and not needing a head lamp until nearly 9:00pm (in the Eastern Sierra). For thru-hikers in particular, this is pretty ideal.

You won’t eat much.

My friend and I knocked out 27 miles on our last day. Outside Magazine’s calculator says that I burned roughly 320 calories an hour, so 8,640 calories. That’s a lot, and nearly impossible to eat enough to support. When you’re walking and scrambling all day there’s not a lot of time to eat, and even if you could most folks find their appetite suppressed.

jmtresupply

Some fellow JMT hikers we met in 2015, sorting through their resupply boxes, Vermillion Valley Resort.

It seems really counter-intuitive but you’re better off with slightly less food than slightly more as you’re probably over-estimating what you’ll eat anyway. It’s of course better to be dead-on accurate but I’d rather stretch my meals a bit than haul a bunch of weight (food) around that I never use.

VwNMcdU

Beef jerky, dehydrated apples and bananas and much else are staples for me. I even dehydrate my pasta sauces, ground beef, and ground beef to make something resembling a real meal.

Figuring out what to eat and how much is a never ending quest. Most folks, especially if only going out for a couple of nights, are generally better off buying freeze dried food (Mountain House, etc) for their dinners. I don’t personally enjoy the stuff and find it expensive, but to each their own.

Be prepared for the long dark.

Winter backpacking sucks for me, chiefly, because of the incredibly long nights. The sun comes up much later, stays lower in the horizon offering up less heat, and sets earlier : the whole “winter” thing.

I generally need 6-7 hours of sleep to feel good, but 9:00pm plus seven hours is 4:00am and that’s if I don’t wake up early or pop up in the middle of the night for some reason.

If you can lay peacefully in the dark of your tent for a couple of hours with your own thoughts, go for it. For me I pre-load my phone with several long and dry audio books. Stuff on moral psychology, political autobiographies, etc.

Try not to think of night time as a cohesive block of sleep but rather a long span of cold and darkness in which you’ll be mostly asleep but also awake for portions.

niceface

I’ve started using a bivy, but on this trip I rocked a 2 person MSR Hubba Hubba NX. It was September/October and with the long nights it was nice having some room to move about.

Filtering water is probably not necessary.

I’ve watched cows crap and pee into a river that I’m getting water out of: you definitely want to filter that. But I’ve also seen snow melt from a 13,000 foot granite spire: you don’t need to filter it.

Backpacking gear companies make a fortune off of selling filters, and it’s hard to argue against the safety-first adage of “well you don’t know for sure that’s safe so filter it to be positive.” That’s true, sort of, but you trust your car won’t explode the next time you go to start it even though you don’t really know that for sure either.

Just read up on the data and make your own decisions. What you’ll find is that it is very rare to find dangerous protozoa (giardia lamblia being a chief culprit) in wilderness settings. What is very common however is people taking a dump, not washing their hands properly, and then grabbing some of their buddy’s trail mix. Further, the incubation period of gastroenteritis (aka “food poisoning” aka “stomach flu” aka “jelly belly”) can be hours, days, or weeks. So one week after a backpacking trip when you come down with diarrhea for a day it’s complete guesswork as to the cause.

If you travel along rivers known for heavy use, I’d bring a filter. If you’re watching snow melt drip off a granite slab, no one’s going to stop you for lugging a filter around and taking the time to use it, but base your decisions in data and not REI’s marketing. To which, I’ll leave you with these conclusions from the linked study:

Published reports of confirmed giardiasis among outdoor recreationists clearly demonstrate a high incidence among this population. However, the evidence for an association between drinking backcountry water and acquiring giardiasis is minimal. Education efforts aimed at outdoor recreationists should place more emphasis on handwashing than on water purification.

But of course, outdoor companies make a lot more money selling you $100 water filters than they do a $3 bottle of Campsuds.

filter

Me filtering water at ~12,000 feet, well above tree line, from a snow-fed stream into a tarn. There’s no evidence to support my actions.

The more you go, the better you’ll do and the more fun you’ll have.

The first backpacking trip I went on was in 6th grade. I brought, amongst other ridiculous items, a propane lantern. Cotton socks and ill-fitting mountaineering boots rounded out the disaster.

Until you know what you need and what you don’t there’s a tendency to bring items “just in case”. The penalty for all these unnecessary items of course is weight which directly corresponds to pain and fatigue which equally tracks with you hating life.

Similar to life in general it takes a while to learn what makes you tick versus what your neighbor is into. You both probably love indoor plumbing, but you might have a better mountain bike because that’s important to you as where your neighbor’s TV might be better.

I’ve seen people in the backcountry with stuff I’d never bring, and I’m sure they feel the same about me. But do try to lock in the general principles and common threads that nearly all wilderness travelers can agree on. Go with other people that have experience and learn from them, I certainly do. As soon as you get back and unpack, note the things you loved, the things that were debatable, and the things that you didn’t even use.

Hike your hike.

Maybe backpacking for you is getting somewhere to hang out and fish for a few days. Maybe it’s crushing miles. If you’re like most people it will be several different things and it will be based on your input and those that you’re with. Don’t get boxed into doing things that you really don’t want to do, but don’t make the world revolve around you either, if for no other reason that you won’t learn new ideas or have your boundaries pushed.

chillaxing

I like to crush miles as much as I like to lay on my ass and do nothing.

And hey, maybe I’ll see you out there sometime. It’s a mighty big backcountry and I hope you find it as good for you as I find it for me.

consider becoming a ham radio dork

Let me just tear this baind-aid off: amatuer/ham radio in the United States is almost entirely comprised of old nerdy (generally white) men.

You will never see a cool Hollywood action guy who has amatuer/ham radio as a hobby and while I’m sure this will offend some people it can be pretty insular too. Like any group, there are normal people but the hardcore folks are the loudest and most active therefore setting the tone.

From a practical perspective, even a lot of homeless people have cheap smart phones and hooked up to a public wifi they can talk to someone in 4K video chat on the other side of the world for free. To do so with an amatuer/ham radio requires a couple grand worth of gear, passing two tests with a fair amount of studying, and doing a better-than-laymen-level job of electrical routing and antenna construction.

hamscouts

Back when people traveled by hot air balloon and used radios the size of refrigerators to talk to someone in another country (who also had a radio the size of a refrigerator).

On any T-chart of plusses and minuses, what kind of terrible math would have you arrive at the idea that an amatuer radio license and all the hassle associated with it would be worth your time? Let me give you my answer.

It started on December 27, 2017. Our phone system went offline here in Mammoth. Data via the Internet, cellular voice and 3G/4G: all offline. The only way information was coming in was via FM broadcast radio and hilariously enough the town broadcasting was Bishop which I assume couldn’t get a message that we had lost communications up here.

In our hyperconnected lives, everything was offline. 911, that important conference call you had to be on, checking on an Amazon package you needed, getting an Amber Alert: all gone. So to was the nature of the outage. While surely just some glitch in some technical box somewhere or a backhoe that pierced a fiber line, there’s always that lingering question:

Is something big going on that I don’t know about?

Here in my office, armed with my ham license, I have the iconic $30 Baofeng UV-5R. The antenna is also $30, a magnetic mount that’s supposed to be on a car but instead it’s sitting on a 5 pound can of artichokes. My wife mistakenly bought them, I needed something steel to put the antenna on, and bam: it works.

dc13bd17-a3a8-4f53-9b55-9a31d1936cfa-large16x9_21918calfirepleasantfire

The #PleasantFire, burned near Bishop, CA in February of 2018.

Here in my office I listen to 92.5 Sierra Wave on that little $30 radio, which really has a pretty sweet music list. But the radio also cuts over automatically whenever there’s someone on the repeater network that connects all the ham radio dorks (of which I proudly am one) between Lone Pine and Carson City: the entirety of the Eastern Sierra, essentially.

One day while working in my office the radio sparked up and said “Hey, any of you guys see that fire over there by the campground?” Before Twitter, before Facebook, before the 911 call even went out, I knew about it. As the fire started growing I was able to contact other amatuer/ham folk who on a whole take public safety quite seriously, and get up-to-the-second news on road closures, evacuations, and the fire’s path.

Texting my friends down in Bishop, he was getting bombarded by bogus Twitter updates from random sources and gossip from neighbors.

In our hyper-connected world what you may notice is that while much more information is flying around the majority of that information suffers from terrible qualify. The ham radio dorks, however, risk losing their licenses and certainly their reputation if they pass on incorrect information about something important.

Amatuer literally translates to “for the love of”, and amatuer radio is no different. For some it’s heavy on the technology of radio, for others (like myself) it’s more so the civil preparedness model. At the same time that I get to be more valuable to my community, I also get more benefit for my family, my friends, and myself.

If you want to talk to some guy on the other side of the planet (99% chance it will indeed be a male), you’ll need to drop a few grand in equipment and really get into this stuff. But if you want to have a cheap, reliable, and effective way of communicating in your area and a bit beyond, it’s $70 and a pretty simple test.

Step 1: Find an exam near you. You’ll be taking the technician exam.

Step 2: Buy a little handheld radio, the programming cable, and a magnet mount antenna. You can stick it on top of your car, or on top of a file cabinet in your house. My 5lb can of artichokes works.

Step 3: Study for your test. You can buy a book, use a free app, and/or take free sample tests. I did all three because I’m a nerd at heart and liked learning some things.

Step 4: Download chirp, find the repeaters in your area, and load them in. These are the ones in the Eastern Sierra, as an example.

Step 5: Go get a pocket protector, fellow radio dork! We can sit around and make fun of the jocks now.

We all use and rely on technology that we don’t understand. You don’t really know how your car’s computer works and if you do then you don’t also really know the chemical structure of medications you take. We tend to get a working knowledge of things in our lives and call it good, specializing deeper in areas that require it, that we make money from, or that we have an interest in.

I think there’s a valuable argument to be made that medium range communication with other civic-minded folks, and not entirely relying on the rather delicate nature of cell phones and the Internet is worth a few hours and few dollars.

my sar medical bag

I was having a discussion with some folks about this topic so I thought “hey Eric, you should sit on your ass and write about it, bro.”

I really think buying medical equipment that you’ve never trained on is a bit silly: it’s akin to buying random tools at the home improvement store thinking “well you never know, I might just need this rivet gun one day.” Everything I carry is something I’ve used in the field or at home, and was part of my training from either basic first aid, my WFR, or my WEMT. When some dude is bleeding in front of you is not the time to stare at the piece of gear you got from Amazon and try to figure it out: take a class.

Also, our sar team has its own medical bags which I often use instead. We have a “first out” bag which carries basic airway, bleeding, and assessment gear. We have O2 tanks we can bring in, litters, vacuum splints, etc. But there’s only a couple of bags and if we’re on a search or otherwise not in a simple “the single injured person is at coordinates xxx.yyy, sss.tttt”, I don’t like running around in the field with my own personal wimpy backpacking first aid kit (my team’s minimum for me personally). Also, I use this for my family and keep it in my truck for whatever randomness the world provides.

medfront.jpg

I have allergies so I use unscented deodorant. TheMoreYouKnow.jpg

For starters, you can see it’s pretty small. The bag itself is sort of a piece of crap but it works and if something breaks on it I won’t be sad.

medopen

It’s not the size that counts. -_-

I put the stethoscope on top because I didn’t like how it was getting bent inside the pack. If I’m going to use it I’ll throw it down my shirt while I get other stuff ready so I’m not freezing someone to death with a 0 degree piece of plastic on their skin.

medlayedout

Not bad for a little bag, right?

So here’s my list of what’s in there, trying to group things:

Assessment, since you can’t fix problems you don’t know about and handing off patients to paramedics/hospitals with a “I dunno” response makes you rightfully look like an idiot.

  • BP cuff. I keep a pediatric at home and if I needed I can toss this on a kid’s thigh and get X/palp with a pedal artery.
  • Pulse oximeter. Handy not only at altitude up here, but also gives you a pulse nice and easy so you can move a bit quicker.
  • Thermometer. Temple and forehead, I won’t lie: this is mainly for home use with sick kids. It also doesn’t work under 50 degrees F.
  • Stethoscope. Getting good lung sounds is pretty important for diagnosing HAPE, pneumothoraces, etc.  Plus you can say “auscultate” which is pretty tight.
  • Pupil light. More often than not I use it to read something or stare down a patient’s throat.
  • Emergency Spanish for Fire/EMS. Small booklet, but good luck doing anything if you can’t talk to someone.

Bleeding. For the most part, by the time a sar team gets to you a massive arterial hemorrhage isn’t going to be treatable. Most sar responses are well outside the golden hour, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Also, I have this kit with me in my truck and have been to enough motor vehicle accidents to know that I can actually be there fast enough sometimes, even if just in a good samaritan role.

  • Tourniquet. Spooky and dangerous, these are actually back in vogue and for my training was the preferred mechanism of stopping an uncontrolled bleed. Refer to your training for usage and ischemia management.
  • Gauze. One roll because if you need more than one roll you need like a million, or a tourniquet.
  • Triangle bandages (x3). So these can double-duty as crummy gauze.
  • Bandaids. Sometimes it’s just that easy.
  • Povidone iodine pads. In my WFR training (where you may not have sterilized water) these little bastards can be squeezed into a water bottle killing off germs and making a diluted wound irrigation fluid that won’t harm skin.
  • Medical tape. Good for taping gauze/stuff down on wounds. Also good for deadlifting days to put on your shins so the bar doesn’t cut you up when lifting heavy. #SubtleBrag

Airway. This is actually fairly legit (in my opinion) to carry because for sar you tend to have long carry outs and if homeslice loses consciousness things can go bad quick.

  • I used to carry a whole mini-fleet of OPAs but a single NPA with a lube pack is way lighter, smaller, and more versatile. Yanking an NPA out takes a second and if someone is U on AVPU I’d rather have an NPA in than an OPA. Pulmonary aspiration of vomitus is a big deal with scary high death rates.
  • Valve mask. More applicable to motor vehicle accidents and random urban life than sar.

Medications. This is all about your protocols, your prescriptions, your scope of practice, and how much liability you want to handle. Again, some of this stuff is for me and my family’s use: do your own math and consult your training.

  • Aspirin, chewable 81mg. If a patient is having a heart attack you might just save their life or add a decade (or more) to their clock.
  • Diphenhydramine. Allergic reactions are common and life threatening ones aren’t the rare rainbow-unicorns from twenty years ago.
  • Electrolyte tabs. It’s pretty normal to find people exhausted and cramped up. An hour’s rest, some electrolytes, and fluids can make the difference between walking someone out and carrying them.
  • 500 MG amoxicillin (x6). Not for sar, but if on an extended trip into the boonies this buys me two days of bacterial combat to get them (or me) handed off to higher care.
  • Prednisone. Again nor for sar, but I’ve had my own life saved by this stuff so I keep it on me.

Doo-dads. Rounding out the edges, things that are handy.

  • My protocols, written down, staring at me in the face. It’s so easy to get carried away in the moment.
  • Pencil, rite-in-the-rain EMS vitals sheet. Use some of that medical tape to secure your notes to an unresponsive patient’s leg.
  • Gloves, cloth mask. BSI, PPE, scene safe! I put gloves everywhere so there’s no excuse not to wear them. Open the top pouch: gloves. Open the waist belt pouches on my frame pack: gloves. What’s up my butt? Gloves! Gloves everywhere, baby. Combined with a sharpie you can make cool balloon animals for kids with gloves too.
  • Tweezers.
  • Trauma shears. Nothing says “I care” like cutting someone’s $300 GoreTex pants off of them.
  • Vet-wrap for stability. The colorful stuff that you see on a horse’s ankle is called “vet wrap“. Dirt cheap, multicolored, and self-adhesive. You won’t be sad if you never get it back.
  • Triangle bandages. They come with safety pins and can double duty as gauze or making slings/wraps.
  • Burn gel. I’m not into most goofy creams and ointments but burn gel really does work and people really do burn themselves.
  • Antibiotic ointment (speaking of goofy creams). I know most hospitals like to work on non-gooey wounds so this isn’t really a sar thing. But if you’ve got a dirty environment and a couple of days until definitive care I can’t see this as a bad idea.

So there you go, that’s what I keep with me most of the time. Starting back at the top I recommend that you go out and get your training: WFA, WFR, EMT, RN, MD, DO, witchdoctor, alternative Eastern healer, whatever. Just learn how to treat others and yourself and equip yourself with tools for jobs you know how to do. Otherwise you’re that dude with an inch of dust on your rivet gun and no idea when or how to use it.

Oh, and a word about batteries. For my sar radio I have a six AAA spare battery pack in my pack, made up of lithium batteries which are really your only option in the cold. My pulse ox has two lithiums in it at, put the thermometer is so limited I keep the batteries out and just pop them in if I’ll use them, which is normally at home with a sick kid.

chains and winter driving in mammoth

Winter driving is a skill and not just in the driver’s seat. Knowing when you should drive, when you should wait, and what to toss in the car. Unfortunately for people visiting Mammoth (or any snowy mountain area) this just isn’t something they need to deal with all the time so those skills can be a bit rusty.

Step one: understand California chain control rules.

There are three levels of chain control, and you can see these by checking the highway status from Caltrans. Here’s the 395 (major Eastern Sierra highway) and the 203 (connects the 395 to Mammoth’s Main Lodge). Mid-storm, you’ll want to keep checking this every ~30 minutes because the chain control restrictions and road closures shift with the conditions.

chaincontrol

Typically managed by Caltrans with CHP around for troublemakers, you generally can’t talk your way out of chain control. Either you meet the requirement or you turn around.

  • R1 – Unless you have snow tires (with M+S stamped on the sidewall), you need to have chains or cables on one of your axles.
  • R2 – Unless you have AWD/4WD with snow tires, you need to have chains or cables on one of your axles.
  • R3 – Never really seen, and honestly you should turn back if you see this. Typically roads are closed past R2. I wouldn’t personally go out in R3 unless I  had sufficient equipment to bail on my vehicle and head out on foot, or wait out the entirety of the storm in my vehicle (fuel, heat, food, water, etc).

Cables count as chains, and modern cables work great. Practice putting them on at home and if you don’t have 4WD/AWD make sure you put them on the axle that the motor actually spins. If you have a 2WD car or truck make sure you know whether it’s front wheel or rear wheel drive and that’s where your chains/cables go. If you have 4WD/AWD there are religious arguments about whether you should chain up the front or the back: I’d recommend starting with the front.

Also, not all snow tires are created equal and not all AWD/4WD vehicles feel the same. I’ve had our AWD Subaru with Blizzaks completely spinning out unable to get up a climb. My twice-as-heavy FJ80 with KO2 tires jaunted up the same climb minutes later without the slightest hesitation. So just because you see a vehicle doing something doesn’t mean yours can, and the other way around.

snowtruck

Drive safe. Note that the snow berm on the right is higher than my truck.

Step two: drive slow.

I have a heavy 4WD, high clearance truck, with aggressive snow tires. If it’s really gross out I’ll rarely drive over 20MPH. Highway, neighborhood, whatever: drive slow. If you have chains or cables on they probably have speed limits too. Plus, packed down snow (after a storm) is generally worse than deep snow for slide outs, and the next night after it went through a melt/freeze cycle can be really slick. Drive slow.

There’s an expression in snowmobiling and winter driving: inertia (speed) is your friend going uphill, it’s your enemy going downhill. And definitely when going downhill there’s a difference between a slideout being an ego-bruising hour of shoveling versus t-boning another vehicle with kids in the back.

ABS (antilock breaking systems) work terribly in snow and ice, and your braking distance will be really magnified. One of the most common accidents is someone “braking” at a red light or stop sign only for the brakes to start ABS-jittering and the vehicle to happily roll straight into the intersection. Again, drive slow and watch the downhill momentum.

Step three: if it’s a storm or you see R2 conditions on the 395, take it seriously.

Bring a shovel (collapsible ones work), keep your winter gloves and jacket handy, and make sure you have a full gas tank. If you get near a half a tank, pull over at the next opportunity. Getting stuck for a couple of hours with your heater working fine is a little annoying, getting stuck with no heater can become an emergency in minutes.

If you do get emergency-stuck and it’s really dumping outside, make sure you keep the vehicle’s exhaust pipe in the back relatively shoveled out, the front grill relatively clear, and at least the occupied doors able to open if need be. There are deaths every year of carbon monoxide poisoning because the snow essentially traps enough exhaust gas under the vehicle which is where the air intake for the heaters pull from.

YJoPpWQ

My buddy’s truck high centered: tires spinning, compressed snow under the axles is now what’s supporting the weight of the vehicle. Have fun chiseling compacted ice out. Plus, it will just happen again as soon as he moves forward or back.

Step four: be visible.

White cars are cool but like an all-white snowsuit they are terrible for visibility. If it’s really reduced visibility, consider putting something on the back of your car to make it visible. And keep your lights on! If you’re having problems navigating the road, toss the hazards on. No one will get mad at you for signaling that you’re having a tough go of it and that you want to increase your vehicle’s visibility.

Step five: sometimes you need to wait it out.

The 16/17 winter here in the Eastern Sierra was epic by all accounts. We had the highest monthly snowfall ever recorded in the United States and even with our shovels, 4×4 rigs, traction devices, and related fancy gear, there were plenty of days where I looked out the window and just shook my head. We had to wait for the plows and blowers, we had to wait for the visibility to improve. Getting stuck really sucks when the conditions are so bad that people can’t even come help you.

The drive up the 395 is normally a total cakewalk requiring nothing other than typical safety. But mid winter in a storm things change fast. The thing you could have gotten away with six hours earlier can get now get you killed. Be safe, drive slow, and when in doubt just wait it out.

mammoth’s fort co-working space at main lodge

Back in October there was a pretty screaming deal on access to The Fort if you already had a season pass, so I snagged the no-longer-available option. The price structure has changed a bit but here I am with access until June. Typically I work from my home office: three phones, three monitors, two headsets, charging stations galore, a comfy chair, and a stand-up/-sit-down desk. I don’t really need a co-working space in Mammoth personally but the concept of being able to work from Main Lodge (one of the two Fort locations) just seemed too good to pass up.

TheFortLong

There’s a small 6’x8′ room behind me, but otherwise this is The Fort at Main Lodge.

The Main Lodge location is, frankly, perfect. As you can see in the photo you are quite literally spitting distance from Chair 6. Walking, it takes less than a minute from your desk to the chair. There’s wifi, lockers, places to stash skis/boards, a decently sized coat rack, and a sweet app that lets you unlock the door from your phone.

It’s relatively quiet inside and it’s at the end of a hallway that isn’t trafficked by most skiers/boarders so you can even kinda-sorta make phone calls from there, more on that below.

It’s also warm and dry which might not seem like much but folks coming in with snow gear on tend to create a lot of humidity as the moisture evaporates so it was nice to not be a dank sauna.

Four knocks against it I would make:

  1. Size. It’s small, and although empty in the photo above imagine three more folks in there (a total of five, counting me and the person at the far end) and you can see how it can get cramped quick. There are 8 lockers present, only a couple of which weren’t locked already, and I’m not sure how you could truthfully manage to have 8 people in there. Photos often show someone sitting in a chair with an iPad but modern work generally involves a laptop, a drink, a notepad, and your phone. My advice: get there early and don’t expect to show up mid-afternoon and have much to work with.
  2. The chairs are terrible. Although they look neat, I’ll bet you cold hard cash that no one reading this right now would want to sit in them for more than 30 minutes. They look good and trendy, but comfy office chairs exist for a reason.
  3. Zero kitchen. Mammoth exists to make money, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But most every workplace has a kitchen because it is just way too cost prohibitive to eat out for all your meals. That’s especially true at a ski resort where two hard boiled eggs and a cup of coffee ran me $9 yesterday. Additionally, some folks have dietary issues. Pretty much any workplace including, I’m sure, for the folks who work at Main Lodge for Mammoth, has an employee fridge and a kitchen of some extent. Perhaps just a microwave, toaster oven, and drip coffee machine. The Fort at Main Lodge has zero in that regard.
  4. Only one “sound proof” area for calls. Co-working spaces suffer from this problem in general: where do you make phone calls? You can be that obnoxious jerk who rattles off in a public area, forcing everyone else to put headphones on. Or you can be considerate and walk somewhere quiet. Some people aren’t on the phone a lot but it’s rare I think for most people to not need to be on a call at least once a day. There is the outside hallway but it’s only luck if you get privacy there.
TheFortLockers

Lockers! You can put your laptop and doo-dads in there while you buzz around on the slopes.

The Fort started up last year with two locations: main lodge and “downtown”. The downtown location is by far larger and better equipped. Main Lodge’s location is not just its advantage but it’s really its only advantage with a pile of disadvantages heaped on.

Real estate being what it is, it shouldn’t be a surprise that space at a ski resort’s lodge is a top commodity with contention all around for multiple purposes. And considering that The Fort only opened a year ago, I think they’ve done a terrific job with where they’re at.

 

The Fort’s integration with the ski resort is the blessing and the curse. Without that integration, there’s no way you’re going to be in such a great location, have the financial capital, the built-in maintenance and janitorial services, or the ability to do things like offer packages that combine a Cali4nia Pass.

Conversely, that integration favors the inclusive design of ski resort economics. You should be eating at ski resort restaurants, buying or renting your gear from the resort, staying at ski resort lodging, and otherwise staying inside the ski resort ecosystem.

For me personally I’ll look at the pricing next year to see if it makes sense. I’m not their target market of course, having a home office already in Mammoth. But I would hope that they continue to improve and that similar to most other work spaces (including co-working spaces across the country) thought is given to things like food and multi-hour comfort.

In short, employees at Mammoth Mountain don’t sit in one of those chairs or spend $5 for a cup of drip coffee, because that’s not the standard of a professional American workplace. Whether that’s what the Fort is trying to do, be a modern professional workplace more so than part of the resort’s economic ecosystem, is a balancing act I think they’ll be working with for some time. I’m looking forward to seeing how things progress.

i still hate heights

Any official operation we do as members of search and rescue is run by the Sheriff up here, and as such I can’t really talk about specifics. Also when I’m touching a patient both out of HIPAA and general decency I can’t talk about the person(s) involved very much. You can read up on the official story  with officially release details, and the Sheriff released this video for public consumption. I’m down there on the bottom.

So this story really isn’t about the rescue as much as it’s about what it’s like for this particular guy to get a call on my phone and find myself in a world that I’m still coming to grips with.

For starters, the part you don’t see in the video is where my buddy and I got lowered out of that helicopter, by a little wire, with all our packs and gear, onto those rocks, a half hour before that.

So let’s backup a bit to the point where I found myself at a lonely municipal airport, geared up: harness, mountaineering boots, helmet, goggles, radio, full pack. The helicopter crews start to rip the gear off slowly but surely: all the excess weight must go. Seats, spares, everything. Hauling my teammate and I up into the mountains takes a lot of power and to carry us the rest must go.

I’m surrounded by paramedics, the CHP flight team, other SAR members, and law enforcement. Radios crackle with updates, and I’m noticing that this all seems totally normal to them.

A little voice gets into my head:

It’s time you come clean and tell these people that you have no business here.

I try to shake it off, just figuring it’s the jitters. The pilot does his last fuel calculation and we load in. Sitting on bare metal, clipped to a bolt on the flooring, and holding onto the back of the pilot’s seat (the only seat left), the blades start slowly whirring.

leavingearth

My buddy and I in the back, red helmets, taking off.

The voice comes back, trying to bargain with me:

You’re on the team and technically you’re trained for this but this is the real deal. The is the stuff you see on Youtube. You’re not that guy. You’ve managed to get here, but you’re not supposed to be. You better tell them they have the wrong guy.

A classic case of imposter syndrome, I was feeling it in earnest. Putting myself on the couch, was it actually imposter syndrome or was it my deathly fear of heights scrambling for leverage? I even got worried that my feet would fall asleep being crunched up on the chopper floor. Wouldn’t that be hilarious: rescuer tumbles out of helicopter because his foot fell asleep.

I first decided to get into search and rescue, bluntly, because my daughter’s life was saved by a team like that. Maybe knowing that I’ll never be in the incredible PJ squad has me always feeling like I’ll never really be “enough”, and that it’s a cast of heroes that do the real work and my place is more centered around getting them coffee than being on the the pointy edge of the spear.

laurelhill

This was the first fire truck I ever ran a call on. Laurel Hill, Norwich, CT.

The first time I ever responded to a 911 call I was 18 years old running code 3 to a motor vehicle accident (“mva, car vs motorcycle” in dispatch parlance). I distinctly remember the feeling of “Oh shit, there’s no one else coming, it’s just us.”

I think for the average Joe Citizen when you call 911 you imagine this Hollywood-esque crew of Dwayne Johnsons rushing towards you, equipped with everything and flawless. But when you’re the one getting the 911 call it’s a very different story. You’re aware of your shortcomings. You’re trying to remember everything from your training. You’re trying to be aware of the things that won’t let you stay focused. You’re trying not to get hurt yourself but really you know you took this job because you wanted to help people and a bit of risk is part of the package.

LeeViningFall

My team and I, doing our thing, in the middle of nowhere.

The voice kept talking to me, but I went back to that realization I had as a teenager: this is your job and people are relying on you. If you don’t want to do this, quit later, but for now do your f’n job kid. You trained, you have a solid team that will back you up. They’re relying on you. The patient is relying on you. He’s hurt, he needs your help.

The crew chief hooked me onto the hoist wire and unclipped my tether. The spitwadded toilet paper in my ears did its best to muffle the rotor noise. I don’t remember going over the edge, but I do remember looking up at the underside of the AStar helicopter, dangling from its hoist wire: RESCUE was written in large, bold letters underneath it.

Touching down on the ground, I unhooked the wire. Meeting up with my other teammates we got started on our jobs. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I belong in this work, serving with these amazing people. But I sure as hell will try to keep up with them, not let them down, and take care of my patients. The voice in my head can quiet down and take a number.