Falling Like Penguins

Being enrolled in two outdoor classes at once is a little tricky to keep straight some days, but I’m doing my best to show up at the right one each day and am enjoying learning new skills and fixing some of the bad habits I’ve managed to develop over the years.

After double checking a few times that I was going to the right class, I made it to the Mountaineers Snow-1 Field Trip on Saturday. Missing out on the carpool camaraderie was disappointing, but seeing as the majority of the class was coming from Olympia and I was coming from King County, it made more sense to drive myself. We met up at the Longmire Gate at Mt. Rainier and were informed that due to weather and avalanche conditions, the road up may not be opened at all. We hung out in the parking lot for a while then found a sheltered area to practice knots, get signed off on proper clothing, and review the 10 Essentials in our packs.

After an hour or so, still not update on the gate, and a whole group of mountaineering students amped up to go, our head instructor, Tom E., declared that we would divide into groups and set out on the Wonderland Trail for a little ways in search of adequate slopes to practice on. So, we did.


Our objectives for the day included snow travel, breaking trail, and introduction to ice axes. It was pouring rain, the snow was thick and gloppy (cascade glitch, a colloquialism for snow that is a cross between glue and shit, to be precise), and finding an adequate slope for practicing with the axes proved to be challenging. However, we found a small hill (the embankment off the road, which later did open to traffic, as a matter of fact) to trek across and another group found a better hill with a longer runout further up the trail to do some axe work on, so between the two we finally had a playground for our soggy Saturday.


The activity of note was definitely the ice axe arrests. I had learned the basics from mom and Mike growing up, but had never practiced all of the different arrest positions. There are four basic positions you generally fall in: on your back with your head uphill, on your back with feet uphill, on your stomach with head uphill, and stomach with feet uphill (see illustrations from Freedom of the Hills, 8th Edition, below). The premise is that when you fall on a snowy slope, you will end up in one of these positions to start. The ice axe arrest may be your only chance to stop and it is essential to learn to do it quickly and efficiently because there is a higher risk of cartwheeling or gaining so much speed that you hurtle into trouble below if you slide for too long.

The instruction on the techniques made clear and I was more than willing to practice. However, I discovered a slight problem when it came to going face first down the embankment. My mind rebelled and my body tensed up. “What’s wrong with me?” I kept wondering,only managing to throw myself forward on the slick slope with teeth gritted and a ton of willpower. With each slide though, the anxiety was there. Then I noticed that others were hesitating before they slid as well. One woman was nearly frozen and had the instructor hold securely to her feet so she wouldn’t risk sliding until she was ready. As the group started chatting while waiting in line for our respective turns, the discussion turned to how this activity and many others flew directly in the face of our natural instincts to survive. Deciding to go headfirst down a slope doesn’t really promote the longevity of an individual, nonetheless benefit the continuation of their species, does it? Then one of our group members asked the deep question: “what about penguins?”

Yes, penguins choose to hurtle headfirst down icy slopes and sometimes launch off of the lips at the end and tumble into the frigid waters below. So, it was posited, we should be more like penguins. Ice axe wielding penguins apparently but penguins nonetheless. After that it was easier to laugh and make the activity a little more fun. What went through everyone’s head as we continued is something I don’t know, but I can speak to the state of my mind. As I lay down on the snow, the mantra of “be the penguin” came to mind more than once. With a smile, I was better able to kick off harder to gain more speed, and laugh at myself when the moves didn’t work quite right. Round after round I went down, gathering a lovely array of bruises and sore appendages, but each time more confident that I was building the muscle memory to call upon should I ever fall for real. The fear of falling has kept me off of some steeper and more challenging mountains before. In my list of rules, I say that there are some routes you don’t take if you can’t make the commitment to not fall. Well, I still stand by that statement because too much can go wrong when a fall happens, however it makes the route more approachable if you have a backup plan for a worst case scenario. With time and training in rope work, that will also expand further, and I am excited for the new adventures that are opening up before me with ever new skill I learn.

The day ended with wandering through the woods in our snowshoes, finally making it back to the Longmire parking lot where we debriefed, snapped a soggy group photo, and departed from the mountain. In a few weeks, we will be back to do it again, this time higher up with more challenges and tasks. I look forward to more penguin falls with this amazing group again soon.


Note: several of the above photos were taken by Tom E. Thanks for the greats shots, Tom!


To follow our trail…

Longmire, Mt. Ranier

Steep Snow Tutorial


One thought on “Falling Like Penguins

  1. Pingback: Scrambling | The Time That Is Given Us

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