Get to know your own playground…

As winter backcountry enthusiasts, knowledge of our playground is important–knowledge of area, terrain features, dangers, weather patterns and an awareness of potential risks result in safe and enjoyable adventures. If you are like me, your playgrounds range from the occasional far-away exotic location, a few repeat visits to familiar but somewhat less frequented spots and finally that home ground where you can be found most weekends–your local playground.

Whether you are a snowshoer or skier, I suspect you may, on occasion, fall into the trap of taking the same route on most of your local outings. Most of us do as this is a time to get fit, try out new gear or test adjustments to our “stuff”.  I’ll admit guilt both in winter travels as well as on personal hikes throughout the week, year-round, and this guilt got me thinking throughout the summer until an idea crept into my little head.

Summer training for our patrol is a time to get together with friends and hike the mountain. We try to schedule training at least once a month in the summer and use this time to see and feel the changes that will manifest with the onset of winter.  Downed trees, eroded washes from a summer thunder storm, rocks that have fallen from above and yes, the unexpected human creation, miles in the middle of nowhere, that should not be in our National Forests–this summer we found an elaborate and well engineered twelve foot long “rail”, welded out of 2 inch square steel tubing. A few years ago it was twenty monitors arranged in a circle, resembling Stonehenge… Sorry, I almost got derailed onto another topic, back to todays lesson, that idea festering in my head.

Prior to a scheduled training weekend that I was responsible for planning, I requested the participants (primarily candidates and first year patrollers) to email me their GPS tracks from their past season of patrolling. They all complied without question and I declined to let them know my plans. At home, I loaded all tracks and created an overlay, some 40 plus days of tracks. I was not too surprised to see a predictable pattern of travel. My idea was growing and I was smiling.

The training agenda was to arrive early AM with full patrol packs (personal gear, shelter and food for 72 hours) and navigation gear (maps, compass, UTM interpolator & GPS).  After the morning routine of meeting, finishing breakfast, replacing broken boot laces and asking for spare batteries because someone forgot to re-charge theirs, we were off for a day on the mountain.  We started on a usual and expected path towards to top, passing the locked snow-gate and no one was suspicious of my devious plan. It was not until a few hundred yards later when we diverted from the routine and went off trail, up a steep slope, covered with pine needles. After reaching the ridge line, we rounded a rock outcropping and scrambled to the apex of this cluster which provided a panoramic view of our “base”, parking lot and the first bowl, where we diverted from the expected. I asked everyone to mark a way-point and mark their map with the UTM position. All done in short order, they then began commenting on the perspective from their new perch. Many had never seen the bowl, or base from that location and were amazed at just how close in proximity they actually were. We continued up the ridge another 10 minutes and stopped in a saddle, off to the south was the Armagosa drainage, to the north, Rock Bend. Again, we recorded a way-point and marked our maps with our UTM position and again, conversations of amazement on the view. Many were unaware at how easy it was to get from one trail to the other via an easy climb over a ridge.  Next destination was in a north west direction until we reached an unfamiliar plateau (just a  hundred feet from a very familiar spot), and yes, way-point and UTMs recorded. This practice continued throughout the day where we managed to record nearly 20 spots, randomly all over our beloved mountain. But not too random…


With 2 points you have a line. With 3 points a triangle is possible. but with 20 points the resulting pattern begins to look more like a spider web or a net. My evil little plan was to take all out of the comfort of the familiar and expose connections to various familiar locations and start a process of developing an expanded personal mapping network. With most areas we frequent as outdoor enthusiasts, we spend the majority of time in isolated regions–take trail A to bowl A, return to start. Take trail B to meadow B, then return to start. The in-and-out or loop routes become the norm. In an emergency, lets say you are at bowl A and receive a radio call of an incident in meadow B, do you know the fastest and safest cross country route to meadow B? Or will you need to consult with your map first?

It is the personal and intimate knowledge of your local playground, combined with fitness and expertise in outdoor travel that makes a local expert. Take time to research maps and routes at home. Record your wanderings and study your tracks at home. Take pictures. Get out often and walk about off trail. Stop now and then. Stand tall and scan your surroundings, taking a 360 degree view.  Sit down and take a break, gazing off in the distance. Look for familiar landmarks from this new perspective and once found, wander a new direction, take a path not thought of previously, connecting another link in your web.  Share your discoveries with others and pray for snow.



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