Mountain Passages: Post Holing 101

Good evening class, this evening’s topic is how to post hole. Please organize yourselves by IQ, with the smart ones in the front.

Post holing, or sinking up to your crotch in snow with every step, is a mountain skill that comes from choosing the wrong hiking partner, who will lead you to the wrong place at the wrong time, requiring endless endurance plus inevitable falls and muttering.
postholing 1
I know some of you think mountain skills involve working two dumb jobs while skiing 100 days-a-year, or selling last year’s pro deal gear to someone just in from Georgia, or keeping a 15-year-old Toyota truck running on magical thinking. These are indeed skills that have parallels in the real world. But I am talking about specific mountain skills this evening; skills that separate you from mountain posers.

Remember, bad partners initiate post holing. They are usually ADD and always in a hurry. Additionally, remember climber John Roskelley’s method of checking out a potential partner by looking at his shoes to see if he tied his laces.

A key sign of attention deficit disorder is a trunk, or cargo bay filled with gear from two or three different mountain sports in absolutely no order, gear missing key parts such as one ski pole, a number of beer cans, a sleeping bag, and miscellaneous detritus.

“Yes, you with stylish plug in your ear lobe.”
“My roommate has gear spread all over the condo, does he have ADD?”
“Does he have one or two ski poles?”

Another characteristic of a bad partner is a propensity for rushing around. For example, my ex-hiking partner is always in a hurry. Once vectored-in on getting someplace, he can’t stop until he gets there. A couple of weeks ago we were headed for an Outdoor Emergency Care refresher at Devil’s Thumb Ranch and the conversation went like this:
“Why don’t we pull over and get some coffee?”
“We could be late, you can do without it,” he said.
“Has anyone threatened your life recently?”
“No.”
“How about this morning?”

The following is a case study that includes a bad partner, the wrong place at the wrong time, and endurance. The day before the patrol refresher we stopped on Berthoud Pass to take a short hike to treeline for some exercise.

“Looks crusty and windpacked,” my ex-hiking partner said, “Let’s leave the snowshoes.”

Okay, this sort of decision should be your first hint you are going post holing. It’s a classic of mountain truth that if you load the truck with equipment, you often don’t need most of it. The corollary is one piece of equipment left in the truck is often a critical piece of gear that you really, really needed.

“The snowboarder in the middle with no front teeth—you have a question?”
“I sometimes forget to bring my bong.”
“Amazing comment, thank you for sharing.”

To continue the case study; my ex-hiking partner was right about the crusty and windpacked snow. In the trees, where there was little exposure to the sun, the snow held our weight. All went well until he suggested:
“As long as we are here, let’s go to the top and take a look.”
“No post holing? Right?” I asked.
“Nah, we’ll just followed the access road to the top. Piece of cake.”

When the plan changes and your partner uses phrases like, “piece of cake,” or “no worries,” or the famous, “oh buddy, we can make it,” you often end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Two hundred yards above treeline we started dropping to our knees through the crusty snow. A certain amount of mutinous mumbling began but hey, it was November on a wind-blown slope. I didn’t think there could be much snow up higher.

The key post holing skill is to follow leader footsteps ever so lightly so you don’t drop even farther into the snow. However, it’s a good rule to stop if he crashes through the snow up to his chest.

It is here that I invoke The Inevitable Mountaineering Injury Decree that states in part: If you are doing something stupid in the mountains, the chances of getting injured increase exponentially. Think TIMID in the mountains.

It is a given you will lose your balance and fall while post holing. The fall can often be a face plant. To get up you will flail about and mutter bad words. If you have an unlucky fall, your leg will bend in a way that will illustrate certain design flaws in your knee and you will be in God’s own pain.
postholing 2
The trick is not to get hurt falling over while post holing. No one wants to drag your butt back down the hill. Between the falls you will endlessly trudge through the snow. This begins the endurance part of post holing. Once you start, you will suffer under the illusion the difficult stretch will only last for a hundred feet or so and you will keep going. No one believes that the post holing will go on for the rest of the route. If they did they’d have the sense to turn around—usually.

Your partner is thinking the same thing and leading. He continues to post hole knowing in his heart that just around the next bend the surface of the snow stiffens up and he’ll be cruising along on top again.

Wrong.

The post holing goes on forever until you shout at your partner,
“Stop! No more post holing!”

The route downhill is just as obnoxious but less taxing, although the falls are equally ridiculous. You reach the parking lot and realize you have the wrong partner, who has just taken you to the wrong place at the wrong time to test every last bit of your endurance.

“Look down for a moment please. You, with the tattoo on your neck, are both your shoelaces tied?”

Alan Stark is a recovering book publisher and splits his time between Boulder and Breckenridge.

6 thoughts on “Mountain Passages: Post Holing 101”

  1. Post-holing was a rite of passage for my entree into mountain living. Having recently moved from the flatlands, I went for my first major hike, an early-spring, early-morning hike (hike, as in hiking boots; not skis, not snowshoes) across very firm morning snow, somewhere at the base of the Indian Peaks. All went well in spring mountain bliss, it was warm and sunny and entirely unlike the Midwest. I covered a lot of ground on the firm smooth surface. Until the return.

    It had warmed up quite a bit I guess. Returning to the car, I was post-holing on every step, through sun-softened sugar up to my crotch. I eventually fetched a long tree limb, which I used as a sort of horizontal trapeze pole/rudder/outrigger. That was one long dreary slog. I could have only made it worse if I was wearing blue jeans. Wait, I think I was wearing blue jeans. [Joking. I think].

    I had once learned a technique for traversing swamp muck that involves pitching forward onto your knees to avoid further sinking. I can assure you that this technique is highly discouraged for post-holing in snow.

    The other rite of passage is learning the hard way not to follow tire tracks up snowy forest roads in the winter, especially when traveling alone. But that’s a story for another day.

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