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.

aiare avalanche 1

Today was the third and final day of my “avy 1” course, taught by Sierra Mountain Guides. This marks the second wilderness-y course I’ve taken where the school portion was in an RV park’s common area, the first being my WFR.

While it’s still fresh in my head, here’s my thoughts on the course. Most of this is the AIARE curriculum mind you, none of my negatives are at the feet of Sierra Mountain Guides. In fact, they’re a super top notch organization. My instructors were experienced, personable, and solid at teaching.

avy11

Avy 1 is a whole bunch of people poking around in the backcountry. Part of my class.

There were maybe ~24 students in the class with four instructors, and folks traveled from San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles for the course. Only a few of us were locals. Additionally, the snow this season has been utter garbage so it was hard for our instructors to really show us dangerous snow conditions because frankly there is almost none in the Eastern Sierra right now.

What went well and what I think the big takeaway is that I learned the framework of how to properly prepare a safe backcountry trip. I learned how important your companions are, how much you need to gel with them, and how much risk you can dodge by terrain selection. If you eyeball the fatal avalanche data, you can note that slides under 30 degrees are rare. And 30 degrees is actually pretty steep, if you look at something like “the wall“. So if you stick to intermediate-esque backcountry runs (with nothing bigger around or above that can run-out into you) you’ve effectively eliminated your avalanche risk: poof-walla.

There’s obviously more to learn in 3 full days time than the above paragraph, but hopefully it shows that there are smart terrain choices you can make that slash your risk considerably.

avy12

Digging and studying snow pits.

Possibly the least interesting part of the course for me was the snow-science itself. On SAR I’ve learned that everyone has some stuff they’re really into and other stuff they’re just not as excited by. Maybe you like rigging, maybe you like medicine, maybe you like snowmobiles: you probably aren’t interested equally in all three but in SAR you have to be trained on a dozen different disciplines whether you’re into them or not.

It was very cool to learn about the layers that exist in the snowpack and how they relate to avalanches. But ultimately there is no magic fortune cookie at the bottom of a snow pit that will tell you whether something is safe. You just get more data:

  • Data from the terrain (angle, aspect to the sun, etc).
  • Data from the avalanche advisory bulletin that covers that area. Ours is the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center.
  • Data from poking your poles / probe into the snow.
  • Data from looking at the snow. Was there an avalanche 100 yards away from where you are now? Is there a big ass cornice staring at you? Etc.

In reality you need to know the faceting and depth hoar processes as building blocks to understanding what they do in a snowpack which of course means you need to know how to identify them in the first place. If you’re venturing into avalanche terrain, and even just knowing what avalanche terrain even is, you really should get trained up.

Thinking a little harder, another thing about this course versus most of my medical ones is that in medicine it’s about people’s lives. It’s important and you cannot screw it up. With avalanches it’s almost always about allowing people to recreate and have fun, which just doesn’t have the reality check that exists in rescue medicine.

I guess I’ll see you in the backcountry, but I’m sticking to the coward slopes. They’re safer on the way down and easier on the way up.

my super cool coat rack

We’re living up the lazy days of summer right now in Mammoth Lakes. Temperatures hit 80 during mid day: a regular Mammoth heat wave. But #WinterIsComing so it’s time to button up all the outdoor and winter-esque projects. Even taking a whizz outside becomes a challenge, what with the gloves and snow pants. Imagine trying to do some finish carpentry.

A big thing I wanted to do was put in a new coat rack. Something stout, woodsy, and with tons of hooks. Something I would see every time I walked in or out of my house, and something I would use multiple times a day. Something like this:

finishedcoatrack

My finished product.

To start with, we had a piece of crap that came with the house. It had four pegs (one that broke), a mirror, and a sort-of shelf. It was also small. A family of four could make it work, but when friends came over it was a zoo.

oldcoatrack

The old coat rack. Hat and shades to show scale.

I started my project nearly a year ago over at Drake Wood Milling. In the “forest products” area of Mammoth’s industrial area, I left a couple of unanswered voicemails and eventually just hung around like a poltergeist in the typical uncomfortable and socially awkward setting that is industrial work areas.

Any sailors know what it’s like to walk around in a boat yard. Sure, it might be your boat on the straps and your money paying the invoice but basically you’re a nuisance and everyone wants you to leave.

Once I met Bob Drake though he couldn’t have been any more helpful or fair. We picked out a slab of wood with “living edges” and chopped it to size.

drakewoodproducts

Bob Drake doing his thing on my future coat rack.

The slab I got was roughly 70″ long and 30″ wide, although the width fluctuates due to the natural variability of the trunk. I wanted the bark edges because they look dope as hell but had to figure out a way to treat them.

I opted for Ace’s spray-on clear polyurethane to hit the bark on the sides and Minwax’s Polycrylic for the exposed wood. It doesn’t really have to deal with UV, but it does have to deal with abrasion. I wanted something physically durable, shows the natural wood, that can be easily touched up, cleaned with water, and if I re-apply in the house won’t gas off xylene.

templatewall

My template (and drill) on the wall.

The damn thing weighed over 100 pounds and could easily have another 50 with stuff hanging off so it needed to be ridiculously secure. I took a cardboard box, split it down the middle, and used it for my template. Pilot holes went into the studs which were the conventional 16″ spacing.

templatewood

Moving a piece of cardboard around is much easier than moving a 100lb slab of wood.

The real pro-tip I’d have for anyone doing this is to consider the fasteners. I opted for bolt-head 3/8″ lag screws with 1″ OD washers, counter-sunk using a 1″ spade paddle bit. Reverse the paddle bit for the first centimeter or so to keep chunking to a minimum, then advance slowly with minimal pressure, doing maybe a single revolution in forward then back to reverse.

But start those holes with a small (~1/4″) bit (the same one you used on the studs). The spade bits need that small hole to act as a pilot. Until the countersunk 1″ holes are in, the pilot holes exit the back of the wood, and the small pilot holes are in the studs, don’t reach for your big bit that will actually accommodate the real screws.

bighonkingscrews

1″ OD washers not pictured. These bad boys aren’t going anywhere, and while pulling it off to repaint the wall won’t be fun it’s certainly designed to do so. 3/8″ x 5″ 

Once on the wall, I had massive 1″ holes staring at me where the bolts and washers were exposed. I grabbed the fasteners and finish products from the local Ace, but the Do-It-Center had the 1″ plugs that I was lucky enough to be able to pound in. A few coats of finish on them, start them in the holes, a piece of sacrificial wood over them flat, and then pound. To remove and re-access the fasteners rock a < 1″ spade bit after you put a small pilot hole, then break them apart.

holesinwoodnotplugged

On the bottom left there, sort of in the middle of the shot you can see one of the eight 1″ holes countersunk in.

For hooks and exposed hardware I wanted to stick with the rustic thing and fell in love with bent railroad ties. They’re recycled from old railroad lines and hand-bent by small craftsmen. We eventually settled on some local-ish hand forged iron deer figures for our shades and keys.

hooksoptionsrailroadties

It’s amazing how much work can go into making something look like no work was put into it at all.

Our shoe organizers are mounted underneath the coat rack (not pictured), so my next project might be to mount some small fans in the top which will circulate air up to the coats and hats hanging around. Something dripping with caked snow still belongs over by the heater but some air circulation blowing on the coat rack should help things considerably. The same low noise muffin fan I used for my boot-glove-stuff dryer will probably get enlisted.

So hopefully that gives you some ideas if you’re looking to build a coat rack of your own, especially if a massive assortment of winter gear is par for the course.

summer vs winter

Summer finally got started a couple of weeks ago in early August. The insane 16/17 snowpack left much of the High Sierras covered in snow all the way through July and the melting snow created happy breeding grounds for mosquitoes. When not sliding on hardpack snow you were getting eaten alive by bugs: party time.

But no matter: I could still go for a run, ride my bike, climb a rock, and drive off road. These things and many like them are laughable pursuits mid-winter. There’s a lot to be said for just hopping in your car and driving away, without thinking about warming it up, scraping ice, timing the snow plows, and digging. The digging never stops.

20170820_122859

Super cool part of living in Mammoth: “going out for a walk” looks like this.

But just like that, the thermostat space heater in my office clicked on the other morning. Instead of having our bedroom window wide open at nights it’s been slowly closing more and more until last night when (with three blankets) I woke up cold and shut it completely. Pellet prices go up in a month. There’s less than 90 days until Mammoth opens for skiing/boarding. In short: #WinterIsComing.

And winter is a pain in the ass, don’t get me wrong. Everything is harder. Your hands are in gloves nearly all the time so doing any kind of detailed work outside (automotive, construction, etc) is brought to a halt. Travel schedules get blown out, and portions of your home (like a deck or yard) become effectively off limits.

But with that comes simplicity as well. Armed with a season pass, a board, and some insulated clothes I can spend copious amounts of free time shredding. With my new splitboard this year and snowmobiles (cool kids call them sleds) for sar I need to qualify on, there is a lot to do. The days are shorter and the activity options reduced so “lazy summer days” are a thing of the past. It’s time to hustle either to stay alive (pellets, shoveling, driving and not dying) or time to hustle to enjoy life.

snowholycrap

Winter. One night did this.

When you walk out and see your truck sitting there looking like the above, and you have a list of a few things that need to get done that day, things get very straight forward.

I had a friend who told me that people who live in far northern (and far southern) climates tend to be harder working and more industrious than our more equatorial and horse-latitude dwelling brethren. The idea being that in areas with harsher seasons you have to figure out your winter plans and equip yourself during the summer or you simply won’t live to see spring. Conversely in a more mild climate you can get still go out mid winter and find some food, plus you won’t freeze to death.

Obviously modern society has negated this a bit and not a lot of folks are dropping dead in our mountain town of malnourishment. The Donner Party excluded, the rest of us can find something to eat at Vons.

I’ve been reluctant to write about the 16/17 winter because of how powerful it was and like a victim of abuse every cloud still makes me jumpy imagining three feet of snow is about to drop. Not knowing what’s in store for next winter is part of the fun: will it be another snowpocalypse, fueled by some new twist of climate change? Or will we get barely any snow and my cool snowgear will just collect dust as I lament the snow-less terrain.

Stay tuned.

lots of sar training this spring

Every since joining the Mono County SAR team, I’ve been working closely with existing members and my 2017 cohort. In no particular order, here are the various skills we’ve been dialing in:

  • Ice and snow anchor use and placement. Flukes, pickets, and snow bollards.
  • Rock pro anchor use and placement (climber speak for “protection”). This is for 20 kilonewton (2.4 ton) rescue loads, typically consisting of at least two sets of three independent banks of protection. You should be able to hang a Honda Civic off our rescue rigs.
sarchopper

Rescue teams being able to radio a chopper in loaded with a paramedic and hoist should make you feel better about paying your state taxes.

  • Running top speed and jumping down Bluejay, landing on our back traveling head first, sliding to our doom. No worries, just use that ice axe and self arrest without piercing your femoral artery.
  • Helicopter insertion and patient hauling, courtesy of the awesome H40 crew at CHP’s Central Division. Popping smoke grenades, grabbing the hooks without getting zapped, rotor wash everywhere, and giving your patient a fastpass ride: it’s hard to not get stoked when you see that work out smoothly.
littercarry

San Diego Mountain Rescue, performing a litter carry. I’m in the back there somewhere.

  • Tracking training (which is nearly an art form), complete with sage-on-the-hill trackers who will track people in the woods just for fun and to see if they can. One guy on our team has a sandbox of sorts at his front door and asks everyone to leave an impression so he can keep seeing different tracks.
  • Blood borne pathogens and what they mean to a first responder. Want to catch some hep c? What about working on patient A, then going over to patient B without changing out your gloves, spreading whatever goo patient A has on patient B?
  • Radio training, to include all repeaters and frequencies used by air crews, law enforcement, and municipalities throughout the county.
  • Mountain navigation, chasing down small markers scribbled on small pieces of wood across a forest and scree field. As a Navy trained sailor with a USCG captain’s license, I had to work hard for this practical and written test.

Nevermind the examinations, gear signoffs, medical provider qualifications, immunizations, pack signoff, and take home tests.

And we’re not even close to halfway done with training at this point. Really it’s just enough to turn our 2017 cohort into a field effective team for the summer.

loadedup

The back of my truck is in go-mode for the summer. Pack, uniform, “maybe” gear. Even spare undies.

Then there are the self-study sessions groups of students will do for practicing various skills, typically high angle rope work and patient care.

July marks the typical beginning of rescue season. Right now the Lakes Basin is pretty inaccessible because of snow, PCT thru-hikers are skipping the High Sierra (my backyard), and major campgrounds are scheduled to only be open for two months this year.

So even though the backcountry is pretty treacherous right now, road closures and applaudable risk analysis have kept most folks from getting into trouble. That said, the sheriff could be getting ready to hit the call-out button right now.

*As a rule, I will not and cannot discuss any particulars of search and rescue operations that approach the realms of patient privacy and law enforcement. 

the 2017 spring melt

It’s our first year living in Mammoth, and we’ve had one hell of a winter. Over fifty feet of snow fell, and I literally shoveled that entire amount from my driveway and probably a third from my roof (the rest melted / or shed by itself). I still don’t want to write about the 16/17 winter because I’m always looking over my shoulder that it’s not done. In fact there’s ~6″ of snow forecast for this weekend, in May. Just a few days ago I got high centered in snow, again. Rumors persist that the mountain will stay open for ski and snowboard operations all year, and Tioga Pass may not open at all.

Above are shots from roughly the same vantage point of Mammoth Creek Park. On the left is late April, on the right is 1.5 weeks later in early May. So while winter may not be done yet the melt is certainly happening. Barring rain or some freakish event, when snow falls December-February it’s basically not going anywhere unless you physically remove it. By about the third week in April though the sun is high enough in the sky that it starts cooking the snow off fast enough that you can safely put the shovels away. Well, maybe leave one out for the steps.

byebyeigloo

The remnants of our no-kidding igloo from December. 

The animals are also going bonkers. In winter, you have two main issues: snow and ice. The bugs, bears, plants, and all other forms of life vanish and you get winter all up in your grill.

Just last night I was in my truck when the neighborhood asshole big fat black bear rolled down the street like a stoner text messaging, not paying a damn bit of attention to what was ahead of him. In this case: me. About two car lengths away I spotted him, he spotted me, and we both darted in opposite directions. I came back armed with bear spray and bravado but the 8,000 calorie a day consumer had vanished.

There’s a bird trying to peck a hole into my house this morning. I put some more siding over there, and now he/she has moved to another target. I throw wood chips at it.

Funny enough though there hasn’t been much mud: just look at how bone-dry that park picture is above with the amount of snow that melted into it so quickly. The soil seems to accept water really well and flat meadows are the exception not the rule up here in the Eastern Sierras. So the water is either flowing like crazy somewhere or filling something up. You’re either flooded or dry, as most likely you’re on an incline of some sort.

I would definitely caution any would-be homeowners to look seriously at localized flooding. If you can’t clearly see how the water would drain, it probably won’t. And I mean a lot of water. Like thousands of gallons a day sort of water.

Another would-be homeowner tip: ensure the front of your house faces south. Seriously. The sun is god’s show shovel and it never gets tendinitis or a sore back.

easter

If you can see asphalt anywhere, it’s spring. Lyra is standing on our “yard”, down there somewhere.

And with that, all eyes are on for summer. Sure, there are snowflakes that will still fall this year but instead of looking at a massive wall of snow outside my window, all that’s between me and nature is the window screen, with the sounds and smells of the Eastern Sierra coming through.

It really is a privilege to live here and even with the bears, ice, woodpeckers, voluminous amounts of snow, and soon-to-be forest fires of the summer, I’m happy to live here.

the art of getting high centered in snow

In sailing, a joke exists that there are three types of sailors. Those who’ve grounded, those who are lying, and those who will soon. Much the same exists for driving offroad and getting stuck.

YJoPpWQ

My friend here is not having a lot of fundra. Me in the background, my FJ80 Land Cruiser behind with the lights on, the tiny car way back is discussed below.

If you drive graded dirt all the time or limit yourself to mall crawling, “recovery” can seem like a worst case scenario. But at least for me in the 16/17 winter up here in the Sierras I’ve pulled three vehicles free, shoveled out half a dozen, and high centered myself thrice (counting today). I have a winch, strong attachment points, big ass shackles, a real no-shit shovel, two recovery straps, some chains, and traction pads. None of that keeps you from getting stuck but it will give you a fighting chance to get out of it.

Things get snow-stuck in all kinds of ways, but usually the most pain-in-the-ass is the high center. Simply put, you compact so much snow underneath the bottom of the vehicle that you create (via the pressure of your axles/difs/undercarriage/etc) a solid block of ice that is supporting all the vehicle’s weight.

This of course is a problem because if the cool new made-of-compacted-snow jack stands under your truck are holding you up guess what isn’t? That’s right, your tires. So your tires sit there spinning happily in the air, laughing at you and all your locking differential technology. In fact, the more the tires spin, the deeper they make their little holes, compressing the snow further and further under the vehicle. It sucks.

pixelatedsnow

After getting through a rather horrible patch. Note the streaks in the middle. That’s the differential and axles dragging across compressed snow.

When high centered, your options are limited. You can attempt to shovel out the snow which is fully caked under your vehicle, but remember it is highly compressed to the point that you are nearly going at ice blocks. Plus, you’re coming at it from the sides and will have a hell of a time getting an angle. I’ve only seen this work when one axle is stuck. If both are, which means the entire undercarriage is, read on.

You can use a winch or a buddy’s truck with a strap, but basically you’ll need to drag the vehicle where it’s got to go. As a bonus you can toss some traction pads under the tires (the orange things strapped to my spare tire in the picture above). An upshot with snow is that for the most part it’s fairly slick so once you get out of the augered holes that your tires have made, you should be able to move.

UPSTug

Mid winter, I got a chance to yank the UPS guy out of a snow bank.

The third mechanism falls into road-building albeit no dynamite required. If you have a hi-lift jack (and bumpers/sliders you can attach to) then you can lift the vehicle up and off it’s high centered mess, jamming rocks/dirt under the tires to make a solid track for the wheels to travel on. Likewise, you can shovel out the part in the middle (ahead of the vehicle) where you would get high centered again. This is grueling multi-hour work to even make it 100′, depending on the snow conditions.

If you’re dangerous, stupid, and lucky, you could always try using a blow torch to melt the snow. Make sure you film this so if you ignite the gas tank the video can go on youtube and make a lot of money for your family.

Obviously the easiest thing is simply to avoid the problem in the first place. If the snow is more than a foot thick (or taller than the bottom of your axles), don’t go into it. Remember that snow cats exist for a reason; wheeled vehicles can only do so much in snow.

Additionally, be careful about driving around early morning. The snow is harder then so you’ll float a little better. The same route when tried a few hours later could prove impassible. In the first picture above, way in the background there’s a subaru; it’s not going anywhere for weeks. I’m assuming it got out there on a cold icy night, and is now surrounded by soft spring snow.

For more information, feel free to read up from folks who’ve done this much more often than I have: it’s not like there’s one way to get stuck or unstuck. Open your mind, brother.