The 2017 Summit Adventure Instructor’s Course

The Summit Adventure Instructor's Course is a 12-day back country training expedition that focuses on wilderness navigation, technical rock, and snow travel skills.

I’d connected with the Summit Adventure Instructor Course because of a friend, and ended up getting to know the executive director, Tom Smith. I was invited to the board, which was a great honor. I just love what they do. I’m always trying to improve my skills in the mountains, so I decided on the Instructor Course, which is a 12-day course in the Yosemite backcountry. The curriculum involves wilderness navigation, off-trail navigation, snow skills, and rock-climbing skills. In our case, there was still an epic amount of snow everywhere, which made for a lot of fun.

There were four of us in all: Tom Smith, the executive director at Summit Adventure, Alex Whitmer, Annabel “Chris” Joyner, and myself. We met at base camp and started getting food and packs together. We would be going for 10 days, which makes for a lot of food. My pack ended up weighing over 65 pounds with all the food and snow gear; Tom gave me the nickname Refrigerator thanks to the pack.

The next day, we started out at the Mono Meadow and went down into the valley. The theme of the hike quickly became creek crossing, given the runoff from this year’s snowfall. It was a record-breaking year for precipitation in Yosemite.

After about three miles, we ended up going off-trail. It was our intention to reach the crest of the Sierra, maybe all the way to Red Peak. We did a series of planning exercises with a seven and a half minute quadrangle map, finding where we were, where we wanted to go, and the best way to get there. It resulted in quite a bit of leaving the trail.

A few things from the trip that I found interesting: Going off-trail with a 65-pound pack is rough. Some of the days we hiked for eight hours and only went three or four miles because we were going straight up and down over rough terrain. Even when it wasn’t straight up we were fighting boulder fields, marshland, water, piles of dead forest, logs that were crisscrossed over one another in a maze, and chinquapin, which is a ground cover with spines in it that tear at your calves as you walk through.

The Infamous Illilouette

Water was the main obstacle on this trip. We encountered water and had to find some way to cross over. In some cases, we’d find a creek that was just too big to cross, or we would have to scout out the creek to find where it forked. The entire time we had tried to cross the Illilouette Creek, a creek that I affectionately called “The French Bitch.” She was too fast to cross, too cold, too dangerous. I hated her. Every time we came close to her we had to turn away and find another route. I learned a whole lot about navigating natural barriers like the Illilouette.

Eventually, we made our way out of the chinquapin and into the snow, which was a relief. The lake where we camped was frozen, which was unusual for the time of year.

For such a small woman, Chris was a tough young lady and pushed through it like a champ. This picture is of Chris huffing it up a steep snow slope with a monster pack that accounted for a big percentage of her body weight.

Tom taught some great snow skills training like crampon technique, using snow spikes, and protecting traverses with an alpine coil. We got on some steep slopes, but we ended up not getting out to the crest of the Sierra itself, given all the time lost navigating water, marshland, and boulder fields. It was beautiful nonetheless, and the weather was great. It never got below freezing anytime we were out, even when we slept in snow.

We made much better time on a direct route on the way back. We encountered the Illilouette again on this return trip, and we discovered a footbridge about half a mile down the trail we had previously ignored. This stung, knowing we might have had time to reach the crest of the Sierra after all had we taken the footbridge, but I’m not disappointed. I loved the trip; I learned so many navigation and snow skills, like setting up a tarp in five different ways. I hadn’t used a tarp before in hiking, but it’s all we had on this trip, so each night I would try to set it up in a different way.

We still had two more days after reaching base camp, so we went out to the Fresno Dome for some climbing. We had hoped to do some multi-pitch at the dome, but it was too cold. As it turns out, Tom had some family issues to tend to, so we called it quits a day early. All in all, just being out in the wilderness with other people was a blast.

Self-Arrest Training

Side note: On the way back, we did a self-arrest training, which is how to arrest yourself with an ice axe while sliding down a steep slope. It had been something I’d been wanting to learn, and it was a lot of fun. We built an anchor with some snow pickets, tied a 60-meter rope to it, and took turns running down a steep slope, sliding on our backs, stomachs, faces, and then self-arresting. There are some funny videos about that; it’s hard to describe. You’ve just got to see it. I’m more comfortable with the self-arresting skill now, but hopefully, I won’t have to use it anytime soon.

Alex Demonstrates a Textbook Self-Arrest

Bryan Almost Breaks His Jaw Doing it Wrong