Monday, January 14, 2013

Louis: A blog about snow running

Every winter, people ask me if they should run on snow and what equipments they need to buy.  My short answer is NO. I don't recommend it.  Not because I think it's a bad thing, but because there are so many factors about running on snow, I don't have enough experience/skill to recommend someone to do it one way or another.  It depends on your experience, your skill, your risk management, and your equipment. Weather history, temperature, the time of day, the terrain, even the wind speed all come together to determine if the trail condition is safe for you to run on.

It is the classic question. Can we do more with less?  Can we be a minimalist and forgo equipments that we protect us when we need it?

We have this conflict for backpacking. There is the Conventional Backpacker and the Minimalist Backpacker.  Conventional Backpacker carries a list of standard equipments. Tent, Sleeping Bag, Extra Clothes, Extra Food, Extra Battery etc while a minimalist backpacker may not carry a tent and just enough food to last through the trip.  The idea behind it is that weight slow you slow. If you carry less, you can cover more distance with less effort.

Then we have the traditional mountaineer and alpinist.  I do the traditional mountaineering and I wouldn't even consider myself a mountaineer because I don't have the skill to consider myself a mountaineer. I know how to use ice axe, crampons, I know how to dig people out from an avalanche provided that they have a beacon, and a few other things.  And in order to be an alpinist, I wouldn't even know how to describe it.  Think of it as the elite of mountaineer. The technical stuff they do require skills and experience that I do not have the time nor the resource to do. 

Mountaineer Going up Mt Shasta - Yes I did stuff like this and can't wait to go back

Alpinist - A different animal. You need to have more skill and experience. Note: Ice Climber alone isn't consider an alpinist, but I can't find any good picture of an alpinist!

Before I go on about running on snow, watch The ascent of Alex Honnold.  Alex is a free solo climber that does climb without a rope or other protection. He forgo weight (equipments) to gain speed. You can call him a minimalist 

So... I am very sure none of you will ever try to do free soloing because the risk is too great for most of us. You are going to pay the ultimate price if you make a mistake and fall.  Plus, none of us have the skill, experience, and talent like Mr. Honnold.

Because he has the skill and the experience to do free soloing, the risk became minimal to him.  To him this is normal.  More importantly, he accepts the risk.  I have a lot of respect for this guy.

So what does this has to do with running on snow?  Everything.  You need to have skill, experience, and you need to accept the risk when you run on snow, or snowy mountain.  In order to run in snow, you need to be a minimalist.

It's all about knowing the risk, decreasing the risk and accepting the risk.

But let's talk about my experience with snow and my successful attempt to become a hiking minimalist aka a trail runner. 

My Experience With Snow
Pre-Wilderness Travel Course
Hong Kong does not snow so I never grow up with it, thus the lack of experience.  Sometime back in 1997 (when I was 19), I went to Mammoth to snowboard. It's was fun. If I get cold, I only have to snowboard down the mountain for a few minutes and I can order a bowl of clam chowder in a living room.

In Jan 7 2006, I went hiking with my friend Sheiline.  She wore running shoe, I wore hiking boot.  None of us has traction control.  Of course, out of the few places that I know, I picked 'ICE HOUSE CANYON'.  Well, let's just say they call it Ice House Canyon for a reason. I fell a few times and Sheiline fell more than a few times. It was very icy at the Ice House Canyon Saddle.  Sheiline said her feet were very cold.

Having the experience I have today, if this place is covered with snow, we will turn around because of the fall risk. If she falls and the slope is packed/ice, she will slide down several hundred feet.
The snow here is all packed... very slippery. Sheiline needed to inch her way with my hiking pole.
This is the last time I took anyone on the snow (except the people that has experience)

Wilderness Travel Course
When I took Wilderness Travel Course, we went snowshoeing and snow camping.  It is a life changing experience for me.  If I didn't meet Katie Dunn, I wouldn't meet Grace. If I didn't meet Grace, I wouldn't join Team In Training...

Mar 12, 2006 11:27am: Snowshoeing near Mt Waterman
Me with shell pant and Winter Gaiter. This is my second shell.... too heavy!
At 12:43pm, an hour after the first picture, the weather was started to set in. Taught me to have proper clothing.

Snow Camp - My Tent
Snow Camp - It's a bad picture, but this picture illustrate how snow can have 'pocket'. In this picture half of my feet was sunk into the a hole.

Introduction to Mountaineering
After Wilderness Travel Course, I started to get into mountaineering. I took a crampon/ice axe class from SMI International. I took an avalanche safety class.  In the simulation we did not dig out any victims in time, everyone died. That's when I confirmed that this snow business is serious.  Not only do I need to have experience, the people that I go with need to have the same experience.  I also did some rock climbing and canyoneering.

Oct 28, 2006 - Rock Climbing at Alabma Hills
Jul 1, 2006 - Canyoneering at Mt Baldy with Alpine Training Services

Mar 11, 2007 - Avalanche Course: Measuring the slope to evaluate avalanche danger 
Mar 11, 2007 - Avalanche Course: Temperature Test in different snow layers

Mar 11, 2007 - Kurt (Owner of SMI) runs a card through the snow to find different layers of snow.
Mar 11, 2007 - Load Test to see when the snow give way
Mar 11, 2007 - Rescue Simulation - We buried some dummies at this location. Everyone died.
Jun 17, 2007 - Then of course there is my famous picture of climbing up Mt Shasta

Me and my ice axe
Transformation from a hiker to a hiking minimalist (aka Trail Runner) 
In the hiking world, there is something called the Ten Essentials.
1. Map
2. Compass
3. Sunglasses
4. Extra Food
5. Extra Water
6. Extra Clothes
7. Headlamp/Flashlight
8. First Aid Kit
9. Fire Starter
10. Knife.

I always carries these items during my hiking day.  Since I started trail running, I stopped carrying the 10 essentials and only bring the one I need.

1. Map (When I go to new places)
2. Compass
3. Sunglasses
4. Extra Food
5. Extra Water
6. Extra Clothes (Most of the time)
7. Headlamp/Flashlight (Most of the time)
8. First Aid Kit
9. Fire Starter
10. Knife. (Sometime)

So I go from this... Louis the hiker to

May 16, 2007 - Echo Mountain - I carried my big backpack as conditioning
This... Louis the Trail Runner
Angeles Crest 100, 2012 - Me, David, and Summer. You can't see my small running pack, but I like this picture =P
Transformation from mountaineer to a snow trail runner?
Well I am not there yet.  Because of my mountaineering experience, I know how dangerous winter travel is.  Clothing and stuff I can deal with. Avalanche stuff I have an idea.  Terrain? On the most part I can tell if something is fishy.  About all, I can always turn around if I don't feel safe.  I think my biggest problem is the fall.  For a person who use crampons for traction and ice axe to stop a fall, those tiny running spike just doesn't feel that safe to me. I will probably still carry my axe, but I need to ditch my crampons and use one of these running spike... thus the minimization.

Petzel Crampons - my equipment
Kahtoola - one of the popular brand for running spikes.

Upon looking at the disclaimers of the product, it make me understand better about what this spike is capable and its limitation.

"Kahtoola, Inc., has designed its traction systems to enhance the safety and security of people walking, hiking, running, and climbing nontechnical mountains in icy and snow-packed conditions. For each use, you must determine whether your expertise, combined with the equipment and weather conditions, present a risk of injury. This product is not intended for use under extreme or “high risk” conditions.
Do not use these products in situations that present a risk of serious injury or death in the case of a fall. Some situations may require specialized footwear, technical training, and/or instruction in the use of safety lines, self-arrest devices, and/or technical ice-climbing crampons. You alone assume responsibility for the safe and appropriate use and fitting of these products and any risk associated with their use. Always exercise your best judgment and seek professional instruction and training if in doubt."

So to summarize it, "Do not use these products in situations that present a risk of serious injury or death in the case of a fall"  Well I do have a good idea of what those fall are, so we'll see. I'll try them on non-techincal terrain and see if I like them.  If they don't meet my standard, I'll return them. I accept the risk of falling with my axe and crampons. Not so much with the running spikes.

There are a few places that I want to go in the next few months, thus the reason to try snow running.  Regardless of me using crampons or spikes, safety come first.  I am taking things slow and see if I can make this 'safer' in my standard. I may, I may not. Regardless of the outcome, I will make sure I don't show up in news like these *_*

Three Hikers Resuced at Islip Saddle (fall 300ft down an ice shute)

Hiker and two dogs slid off trail down a 30 foot ice chute

Two hikers injured on Mt Baldy, one fell off from Devil Back Bone Trail

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