Calling my company "Island Alpine Guides" was perhaps a bit of a mistake.
Sure, I spend most of my time climbing and skiing in the mountains, from the Rockies to the coast range, from the European Alps to the Himalaya. So 11 years ago, when Island Alpine Guides was born, it seemed logical to keep doing what we've been doing all over the world right here on Vancouver Island: mountaineering and skiing in our magnificent Island Alps.
The Island Alps have not disappointed; they are a uniquely beautiful range of mountains that offer wilderness, solitude, and adventure, rivalling what any mountain range in the world can offer.
So why the regrets about the company name? Simply because this island offers so much more than mountains. Our jewel in the Pacific is blessed with long stretches of coastline that are intensely wild and stunningly beautiful, which offer incredible scope for adventure.
It's not as if we've been neglecting to explore these coastlines over the years; Island Alpine Guides has been wandering on the shores of the north coast, Nootka Sound, the Hesquiat Peninsula and the Juan de Fuca since we began. My lamenting is more around our branding. Our name suggests that we are a mountain school and guide service for the alpine, that we are only about climbing and skiing in the high places of the Island Alps and the BC Coast Range. We are certainly about that, and have seen a lot of success as the Island's only service with Association of Canadian Mountain Guides certified guides and instructors. However I think this branding has limited our reach and that we could be doing much more to get islanders, and folks from beyond our shores, out into our wild coastal places.
Nootka, North Coast and Juan de Fuca are all trails you've no doubt heard about and perhaps even explored already, but did you know we offer guided hikes through these trails, including arranging all necessary water taxis, float planes, and/or shuttles? All your meals are taken care of, and we can even provide camping equipment free of charge, such as tent and thermarest, if you need it (which is great for out-of-town visitors).
Jump in on our upcoming Juan de Fuca Trail hike on July 21-24, or get in touch to set up a new trip on any of our coastal hikes this summer.
I’ve been skiing in avalanche terrain for more than 30 years. This winter will mark 22 years of heli ski guiding, a pursuit which has us skiing in uncontrolled avalanche terrain with a greater frequency than any other.
I’ve been reflecting on the risks associated with such a high level of exposure, and I’d like to share with recreational backcountry riders certain aspects of how we do this game professionally, which will also be useful to recreational riders.
The main things I wish to highlight are a methodical planning process, keen observation, and humility.
I’ve discussed the need for humility and self-awareness in previous blogs, and Ken Wylie has written eloquently about the human element in decision making (here and here). So it is the other two points that I want to focus on this time: a methodical planning process and keen observation.
In the professional ski guiding world, we use a very structured approach to our decision making. Guides will follow a defined set of steps to assess current and forecasted hazards, and will choose terrain with an acceptable level of risk. We will typically have a plan B and even a plan C as far as terrain choice if information in the field suggests we need to make adjustments to our original plan. Weather assessment is also crucial, as is the consideration of other hazards such as glaciers, creeks, the group’s abilities, etc.
I’ve developed a trip planning tool that provides a structure for recreational backcountry riders to plan their own tours. You can download it here.
If you’ve done an AST1 or AST2 course, the planning tool should look pretty familiar: most of it is covered in the AST1 curriculum. Having said that, there are some valuable tricks to learn when using a planning process like this. A great place to learn them is on our AST Plus course. On this single-day course, you’ll go through a morning meeting using this tool to plan your day. Then you’ll spend a full day touring, applying the plan in the field and learning at every opportunity (while getting some sweet turns in!). The day concludes with a structured debrief to leverage maximum learning and experience. The goal is to show you a template for how to organize your backcountry touring days in a way that manages risk and maximizes fun while also getting full value from the day in terms of building your experience in the backcountry.
Finally, there's the importance of keen observation. The bottom line on this is that you can plan as meticulously as you like (and indeed you should), but none of this planning will be of any use if you are not verifying or refuting your predictions when you get into the field for the day. This means you need to be a keen observer. Is there more or less new snow than you expected? Has the wind been blowing from the direction you thought it had been? Are you seeing signs of instability in the snow? Is it warming up more than you thought it would and is this affecting the feel of the snow? The list of questions is endless and it’s your job to be asking them, having your senses turned on at all times so that you can make adjustments to your plan as required.
If this all sounds a bit exhausting, don’t worry. At first it may seem like a lot to think about, but over time, it all becomes a habit and part of your normal routine when riding in the backcountry. With the hazards in the backcountry being what they are – and death being a potential outcome of bad decisions – I don’t think the alternative to good planning, keen observation and humility is an option!
Our first avalanche course of the season is already fully booked and the second one has just a few spots remaining. We have a number of other trips scheduled that still have space, and we are always ready to hear from you if you have other dates in mind that we are not yet offering, especially if you have a group of people who are interested in a certain date. Get in touch with us at any time if so.
Get stoked! Sliding on the snow is just around the corner.
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
Because he is such a prolific, engaging and interesting writer we're featuring Ken Wylie in our blog again. In this piece, written recently for powder magazine, Ken writes about some of the more interesting aspects of guiding in the mountains after his visit to Bella Coola Helisports guides training.
For the Love of Our Clients - Guest Blog by Ken Wylie
It has been long known to me that there is more to things than meets the eye: a depth in life that makes it challenging to know things intimately. Even simple tasks can be seemingly fathomless to master, which ultimately makes them captivating.
I have witnessed star-struck young men and women drawn to ski guide training programs thinking that they are destined for a life of play. Eying these keen individuals, I have witnessed their surprise and sometimes disheartenment upon learning that to become a ski guide takes time, commitment, hard work, and tenacity. I was one of them once, so I understand. Perhaps it is the guiding industry's Achilles’ heel: the idea that a career in snow is not difficult, nor should it require a high level of training and professionalism. I think we need to take ourselves more seriously and strive to be consumate professionals.
It is noble to competently lead people in hazardous winter environments where those following are entrusting their own lives and the future well-being of their families. The fact is that mountains in winter are hard as hell to master. Those of us who have backcountry skied for a few years eventually lose someone we know to decisions made about snow. Backcountry skiing is not for the faint of heart and requires resilience and great humility to survive, along with a healthy measure of luck.
In December 2015 I attended the Bella Coola Heli-Sports guides’ training. Most ski guides work hard at gathering information and skill about all aspects of their vocation, but there was something that set these guides apart from others I have known, a key to gaining mastery that many have missed.
The allure of wilderness skiing for work is obvious. It is a promise of a lifetime of powder turns where your job is to always go first, without question. No jockeying for position. No being labelled a greedy shyster. You are the point person for the untracked snow that blankets the slopes below your ski tips. This is only the surface of ski guiding, and if this is what it were all about, I suspect that the guides would get bored. Managing hazards however, engages and sustains interest even in the most spirited for their entire career.
Why? It may not be self-evident but at Bella Coola I witnessed the emergence of three disciplines in their training, two are common in most guides’ training and one is not. Their guiding disciplines championed by lead guides Paul Berntsen and Jan Neuspiel are: environmental knowledge, interpersonal skill, and intra-personal awareness (knowledge about oneself). This is the kind of stuff that holds interest because all of it is fascinating.
Environmental Knowledge. Guides study their medium. There are many things in the physical world to know when it comes to leading people in this "wicked" environment. Snow is the most obvious. The white stuff is complex because it is a record of the subtleties of the winter's weather, (and weather is a fickle phenomenon) which can produce layers that at times result in the potential for deadly avalanches. It is a constant process that can change in a very short span of time.
There are two rules that guides follow about snow. First, know as much as you can about recognizing its characteristics without making a habit of betting your and everyone else's life on your assessments. Second, listen when it is speaking to you. Yes, it has a language and being able to heed its monologue will help to keep you alive. These two rules take fantastic discipline to adhere to and this is what the best guides do. They set aside their impulsive desires and manage the same in the group as they make choices about where to ski safely. Sometimes this means taking flak from clients who have no reference point for the worst-case scenario and who believe they have paid in order to get the goods.
The second object of study about the environment, after snow, is terrain. Ski guides are studious about mountain-scape as it relates to skiing safely. Accustomed to the mercurial nature of snow, guides study the art of putting landscape features in positive play. It is a practice of picking the slope angle and shape that is unlikely to slide regardless of snow conditions. This is called a "terrain eye" and relies on an intimate knowledge of assessing slope angle and shape. A healthy terrain discipline holds fast to the principles of "supported" terrain, which is concave in shape. Terrain is the predictable part of the backcountry skiing game, but there is an art to being able to pick and ski the sweetest line. Choose the wrong line and clients may not follow, which can lead to safety issues down the road.
Finally, guide training includes all of the hard skills development so that the guides are ready for the challenges that may come, which includes various forms of emergency response; avalanche response, crevasse rescue, and lost skiers searches.
Interpersonal. A good guide knows the social environment that is required for safety, and cultivates this environment. A safe social environment is one where all members work together in a situation to bring the important decision making information to light. The guide must be a good communicator and show the group that they are willing to listen to information from any source that will help to keep the group out of harm's way.
Next, a first-rate guide puts the needs of the group before their own desires. I repeat: desires, not needs. It is about taking the time to manage a situation as it needs to be managed as opposed to being impatient. For example: pulling a shovel out to make a difficult traverse easy for a struggling client, where a guide could easily side slip on their own. Coaching the client step-by-step to use the right technique that matches their ability mitigates risk through action and pedagogy. This self-sacrifice is not one of the superficially alluring aspects of being a guide. It shows a level of care to attend to details and to mitigate problems before they happen, and ultimately becomes rewarding for the mature person.
Intra-Personal. Decision-making in hazardous environments is about gathering all of the available information and making a choice based on due diligence. Any military commander knows that to win a battle they have to know the personal habits of the opponent, and perhaps themself extremely well. It is personal, which can be a scary place to journey into. Tragedies are human-made. Without question, we make poor decisions if we let our egos or other unsavoury personality aspects get in the way. (See Taming Your Avalanche Dragons, the previous IAG blog by Ken). Most impressive about Bella Coola Helisports, and what sets this operation apart from most other operations is that as an organization, the guiding staff have the courage to delve into understanding themselves individually, to see the underpinnings of their personalities and to share these with their team members. Their training is also about developing self-awareness.
Throughout history, humankind has told tales of human journeys with a moral to the story, a lesson that the hero or heroine learned or failed to learn along the way that helped them to avert or to suffer disaster. The guiding team at Bella Coola have tapped into this wisdom to make a practice of gaining insight from their experiences through reflection. This sets them apart as perhaps one of the best heli-ski guiding operations in Canada.
With great wisdom, they have embraced the practice of mastering themselves. It was refreshing to participate in their training because I came to know myself better, which will help make me a better guide. Hard training work for the entire team, in an effort to protect the client, which is perhaps an act of love.
For this blog I am delighted to feature a contribution by mountain guide, friend, colleague and IAG guide Ken Wylie. You can read much more about Ken in his bio on our Guide Bios page. It is my belief that Ken is making some important contributions to mountain safety by pointing out that the best way we can mitigate risk is to know ourselves better.
Taming Your Avalanche Dragon - Guest Blog by Ken Wylie
Over the last ten years there have been fantastic advances in the field of avalanche safety through research and technical development. Additions made to snow stability evaluations like 'fracture character' during the 'compression test' deepen our awareness of what is happening with the snow. There have also been the development terrain assessment tools, which help us to make choices while traveling in avalanche terrain. Fruitful advances in avalanche response: digital avalanche transceivers, smart probes, and better shovelling techniques like the ‘V shaped snow conveyer belt’ make it more efficient by considering the avalanche subjects’ needs, like not being stepped on and having the air pocket collapse.
When I look at all of the effort, research hours, and costs that have been invested in avalanche safety, I am frustrated that people are still dying out there each winter; even some of the best; Robson Gmoser. The fact is that even the best in the game need to make it safer somehow.
One can argue that the mountains are inherently dangerous, and that would be true. However this argument only serves us in accepting the risk before a tragedy strikes, and is never to be used as an excuse after. Why? Because it inhibits the potential for learning: to hide behind the statement after the fatally wounded are dug out in effect stunts our growth.
Ian McCammon's work with Heuristic traps is helpful: the idea that we are guided by "rules of thumb" or unconscious ways of being, like familiarity. As if a past experience will predict a future one. Or by seeking acceptance from others socially, yet not sharing what we know to be true for ourselves. These are also a great step forward toward the idea that our decisions are in some way flawed, and this is true. I propose, however, that we go even deeper.
From my own experience I have discerned that the problem is not one that can be solved entirely through technology or new techniques or anything external to ourselves, like a ‘trap‘. Certainly, tools and knowledge give us more leverage, and the efforts of scientists, engineers, and researchers have been valuable and have saved lives. I would posit that the real issue is less about tools and techniques, and more of an intrinsic personal challenge. Like keen martial artists we need to study our hearts, because who we are as individuals and how we act and react is a key part of the equation.
The idea is that the largest part of the avalanche problem is our own character flaws. This may be frightening to most. Maybe we think human error is beyond our capacity to observe clearly and treat with any level of accuracy; that we have to be a certified psychologist to delve into that territory, which is beyond our capacity to manage in day-to-day operations. But I am certain that this is not the case. Frankly, we are afraid; terrified of looking closely at our internally motivated behaviour for the answer.
In "Transforming Your Dragons" Dr. Jose Stevens lays out seven archetypes that humans can be afflicted with that I see negatively affecting our decision-making capabilities in high-risk environments like skiing in avalanche terrain. In his work is a powerful tool for putting a language to human factors in a way that we can easily identify with, if not fully admit to. Stevens calls them "Dragons" and they are:
According to Stevens, each of us is particularly plagued by one of these seven dragons and they surface, or gain control, in the presence of fear. However, it is also important to keep all of them in our awareness. Let’s take a closer look at each one of these and see how they can play out in the backcountry skiing paradigm.
Arrogance. There is a big difference between confidence and arrogance. A confident winter backcountry guide or enthusiast also has an ear to listening to other people's input. There is a willingness on the part of the confident individual to welcome new information from anyone in the group. Conversely, a person with the arrogance dragon will say, "I am/know the best" and believe it. Paired with this belief - that we are the most skilled or qualified - is the complete inability to receive input from others. To us, there is only one way to do something, or the opinion we hold is the only one worth considering. We might scoff at other people's ideas and mock them as substandard or stupid. Rooted in the arrogance dragon is the fear that we are not good enough and reject other input because we are too insecure to hear other perspectives.
This is a real hazard while traveling in avalanche terrain because individuals do not make as good decisions as they would with the input of other people. Any leader worth their salt uses advisors and listens to and considers the most humble advice. Individuals have blind spots; a limited perspective grounded in our biases and perceptions. If we invite others into the process, the scope of available information broadens, which can impart the choices we make. Those of us plagued with the arrogance dragon do not invite more information, especially from people we perceive as having less experience or who are lower on the totem pole. This can and does lead to information gaps in the decision making process. I have lived this situation.
Self-Deprecation. If self-deprecation is our dragon we do not feel worthy. We suffer from a lack of self-confidence and feel that our contribution is not of value, so we do not speak up and share what we know. If we have this dragon and are paired with an individual with the arrogance dragon, watch out. If the arrogance sets up an unhealthy hierarchy, a person who suffers from self-deprecation reinforces it. Self-deprecation is a lack of confidence to the point that we forfeit our voice in the decision making process. We may possess the most relevant piece of information, but we are too afraid to share it because we feel we carry no value in our perceptions. If we consider that all parties exposed to the hazard of an avalanche are risking the same thing - their life - then from an ethical perspective, each person deserves a voice. If self-deprecation is our dragon, we need to become aware of it, gather our courage and speak up. Fear is what feeds all dragons, and it is up to us with the self-deprecation dragon to master social courage.
Impatience. Impatience is characterized by needing to have something now and the phrase "Don't get in the way" depicts how single minded we can be when consumed by this dragon. People with the impatience dragon are stricken with the fear that if things are not happening quickly, something bad will happen. However, being in a hurry can lead to a failure to take the required time to do a task safely and efficiently. In the mountains, speed is most often equated with safety. However, faster does not always mean safer. There are many times when going more slowly can help us maintain a higher level of diligence and therefore safety. There are situations when the only way to manage the risk is to go slowly. Implementing any safety measure will take time, yet the dividends can be worth a great deal. Think of crossing an avalanche slope one at a time. It is uncomfortable to travel slowly sometimes. With the impatience dragon on our back, we fear worsening conditions with time, but only time will tell if the conditions worsen. If time is a real issue, explore other options and terrain choices rather than rush through a critical piece of terrain.
Martyrdom. Martyrs believe we are the "victims" of a situation and see ourselves as oppressed. As a victim, we feel like we have no choice in a situation; that others are deciding things for us and that we have no other option but to heed the directives of others. It is different from self-deprecation in that we feel that we have good ideas, but they are not heard or heeded by our colleagues or friends. The emphasis is on a sense of powerlessness, not that our ideas are bad. Following others onto a suspect avalanche slope with martyrdom as our dragon can be deadly to us and to others. There is a chance that other people will die when we choose not to share a key piece of information: a difficult consequence to live with. As a martyr, we abdicate the decisions to others and take a "woe is me" attitude. We say "Oh, I don't think this is okay, but they want to go there, so I guess I'll go with the flow, I don't want to make waves." The interesting thing about martyring oneself while backcountry skiing is that death in this arena is not for an important social cause, like freedom from oppression or for peace. Again, fear is the cause, fear of standing in one's truth and living it to the full, regardless of social fallout.
Greed. Greed is an easy dragon to understand, especially on a powder day when the sun is shining. The statistical fact that more avalanche tragedies happen on sunny days with new snow underpins the concept of greed. The phrase, "There are no friends on a powder day" is funny, but illuminates the effect of greed. Greed is the fear of "not enough". We fear that we will not get our quota of powder turns as it compares to other groups. After a long period without any snow it becomes more likely that we may undermine our own ability to make rational decisions when there eventually is snow, making "going for it" easier, and escalating our tolerance for risk. Our greed dragon also comes into play when we race ahead of other groups in order to get first tracks. Our focus on the "race" and fear of not getting our share of the untracked snow can erode good decision-making.
Self-Destruction. When we have self-destruction as our dragon we lack the ability to care for and nurture our own best interest. Self-destruction may be fuelled by a general propensity for self-hate, depression, or a sense of despair. This is not a sought-after ingredient for making good decisions in avalanche terrain. It brings a "devil may care" attitude to an activity that requires great care and diligence to make good choices for the well-being of self and others. If self-destruction is our dragon, we look for drama in our lives and find ways to make bad things happen to us, often unconsciously. Our fear is a fear of success and the responsibility that it brings. This dragon may fuel a long list of successes in the mountains but the question is, from what place are they coming?
Stubbornness. When afflicted by the stubbornness dragon, we refuse to cooperate. It may be that we are afraid to be wrong about the choices we have in mind, and will not adopt other suggestions. Or we are so fixed on the objective of the day that we can't shake ourselves from achieving the goal. Single mindedness can be a required strength in hazardous environments but the game is about seeking the best solution to the challenges we face. There is a story about three skiers who abandoned a fourth in a remote place in the Selkirk Mountains because the fourth did not feel that a slope, on a part of a high level ski traverse, was safe to ski. The three left the fourth all alone in the middle of nowhere to fend for himself and his own retreat. It would seem that the three were afraid of not completing the objective and were fixated on it. Stubborn, and perhaps greedy, but make no mistake... this is profoundly unethical behaviour in the mountains. The fourth skier called in to Parks Canada and was flown out, so it ended well, but at the risk of another party, the park wardens.
Arrogance, self-deprecation, impatience, martyrdom, greed, self-destruction, and stubbornness are all fueled by fear. Respectively the fear; of being found out as being not as good as we claim, our own self-efficacy, not enough time, taking personal responsibility for our actions, not having enough, being happy and healthy, and of being wrong. These are all a hazard to the backcountry skier, or to a human being traversing through life. I think I have been gripped by all of these dragons at one time or another. However, mostly I have tripped on being a victim to others: martyrdom. Now it is all in awareness, which is all I can do to remedy the fear that fuels the dragon.
Love conquers the fear that fuels the dragons. It nurtures the opposites: meekness, self-approval, composure, contentment, generosity, self-creation, and flexibility. There is a place for fear in the backcountry skiing game. Fear keeps us on our toes and brings focus to hazardous situations... but that is all the credence we should lend to fear. As far as improving ourselves in the game of backcountry skiing, ultimately the easy thing is to point out other people's dragons, but the real task is to come to know our own. That is the birth-place of courage and self-knowledge. This is where we will make a leap forward in terms of fewer tragedies; when we become conscious of our behaviour out there. All of life seeks this very evolution: the evolution of consciousness.
I guess I should not be surprised, given my line of work, that as the season changes from summer to fall a lot of folks will open a conversation with me by asking for my predictions for the winter ahead.
Well I suppose that is fair enough. Truth is the snow gods have not been so generous the last couple of winters so snow lovers are understandably nervous about the coming winter.
Humans have been trying for some time to do long term forecasting. Think back to the Farmers Almanac with it’s predictive methodology cloaked in secrecy and even mysticism. What is their secret formula? Pig livers or something?! Well modern seasonal forecasting is a lot more scientific and open about it’s methodology. The science has advanced to the point where the skill with which it predicts is comparable to a 6-8 day weather forecast: it’s better than random guessing, but not quite something you can bank on.
So before we start to make conclusive statements about how the winter ahead will be, let’s take a brief look at what the predictive skill of these seasonal forecasts actually is.
Seasonal forecasts work primarily by following the development of slow moving patterns of ocean temperature and then linking these with historical changes in global weather. It’s a bit like how big box stores predict you’re life situation by examining your buying habits: The ocean/atmosphere relationships may have predictive value when viewed from the perspective of understood theories of how heat and moisture move around the earth over a time frame of weeks to months.
The International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University describes the predictive skill of these models this way:
“Forecasts of the likelihood of enhanced or suppressed rainfall, or lower or higher temperatures than the average, over the course of a season have a level of accuracy that is far from perfect but noticeably above the level of random chance”
If you’re interested in seeing a statistically based and very graphic representation of the predictive skill of the seasonal forecast system at Environment Canada check this out.
This tool basically looks at the percentage of the time that seasonal forecasts were accurate in the past. Play with it a little by entering different lead times, different times of year and either temperature or precipitation. What you’ll find for example is that with a three month lead time for an autumn forecast (Sep/Oct/Nov) of temperatures, these forecasts historically have have been correct about 55% of the time for Vancouver Island. On the six month time frame that percentage drops to a 0-40% range.
So for sure, sea surface temperatures are above “historical norms” at present and this could well mean that we are in for a warmer autumn than these historical norms. But the fact is that climate is a varied and complex thing and it's only September as I write!
I’ve been an avalanche forecaster for long enough to know how often we can get things wrong and how wrong we can get them! So what is my message? Well simply stated: don’t get your knickers all in a twist about another terrible winter lying ahead of us. Recognize that while the predictors are suggesting the possibility of warmer temperatures this autumn, that really does not say much about what our winter will look like.
Environment Canada meteoroligist Matthew MacDonald (who is also a keen backcountry skier and works with our professional avalanche association) had this to say in a recent discussion with me on this subject:
“What we can tell you is that strong El Niño’s typically result in warmer than normal winters on the west coast and slightly drier than normal conditions. Does this mean it won’t snow at Mt Washington this winter? No. Does this mean we won’t see an Arctic Outbreak this winter? No. All it means is that once we get to April 2016 and look back on the previous 3 months’ worth of weather, the average 3 month temperature will likely have been warmer than normal.”
A colleague of Matt's who also does lots of work for the avalanche industry, David Jones, wrote an informative, critical and funny paper on this subject called “The Cold, Dry and Bitter Truth about Seasonal Forecasts”. From the title you can guess that David is also wanting to shed some light of reality onto seasonal forecasting. You can download that paper here.
If you find all this interesting and want to dig deeper, in addition to resources we’ve mentioned above, here are some other resources for you:
A tutorial called “The Science and Practice of Seasonal Climate Forecasting” can be found at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society web site here.
If you are interested in a .pdf file of the current “Environment Canada Integrated Seasonal Climate Bulletin” send us an email and we can send you a copy of that document.
Here at Island Alpine Guides we are as excited for winter as ever and can’t wait to get on our skis and snowboards! As always, we’ll have our team of the island’s most experienced mountain professionals ready to get you out into the snow. This winter we’ll continue to offer our range of excellent Avalanche Skills Trainings and Tours. In addition we’re really excited to be rolling out the island’s first ever Hut Based Touring and are stoked for the return of the Women’s Backcountry Weekend. We’ve just started to put dates up on the web site for the coming winter and are keen to hear from you if you have specific dates that you’d like to see particular programs happening on. So check out the web site and get in touch to let us know what you want to do in the snow this winter.
Now go kick it old school and throw some skis on a bonfire for Ullr and we’ll see you in the snow!
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
The Golden Hinde Traverse, Albert Edward to Comox Glacier, Flower Ridge to Love Lake and Della Falls, Rambler Peak, Elkhorn Mountain. These are just a a few examples of the incredible mountain trips that await hikers in Vancouver Island’s amazing mountain ranges. But for many hikers these and other trips are just out of reach because they require some basic mountaineering skills to negotiate the terrain and to manage risk effectively. We’re not talking about needing to become hardened, technica, high-altitude alpinists here, just about having some basic skills in snow climbing, glacier travel and alpine rock climbing that would allow a person to manage that terrain that is just a little more than hiking but which is inevitably found on many of the classic island mountain trips.
So how to make the transition to being able to manage these trips? What skills are required and how do you get them?
With a generous (normally!) winter snowpack in the island alps, a hiker will often encounter sections of steeper mountain terrain that remain snow covered right through the summer. Often a slip or fall on this snow could result in significant harm because of what awaits you at the bottom of the slope. Managing this terrain effectively means knowing how to use an ice axe and perhaps crampons and a rope in a number of different ways. Whereas coming across snow-covered terrain may have turned you around on a trip on the past, having basic snow climbing skills will allow you to continue safely and to achieve your desired objective.
While glaciers on the island tend to be small, there are plenty of great mountain trips which require you to cross glaciers. Don’t be mistaken: though island glaciers may be smaller than their cousins in other ranges, they still present all the same glacial hazards such as crevasses, mill holes and bergschrunds. Travelling on glaciers requires knowledge in glacial route finding, knowing how to rope up for glacier travel and knowing how to pull someone out of a crevasse should they fall in.
Good route finding and experience can certainly go a long ways in helping you avoid having to climb any steep rock on a mountain trip. But the reality of many of the great island mountain trips is that inevitably there will be some “scrambling” on rock to be done. Managing this fourth and low fifth class terrain requires a set of techniques that differ from those you may have used when rock climbing at local cliffs. Route finding on rock, short roping and short pitching are just some of the alpine rock techniques that will serve you very well when negotiating these sometimes tricky little sections of island mountain terrain.
I’ve discussed all the above skills in the context of the Island Alps but of course these skills are universal and will translate to trips in mountain ranges all over the world if that is your desire!
How does one get these skills you ask? Well there are many ways and they each have their advantages and disadvantages. Rather than go over all of these here I’ll refer to a couple of blogs I have written on the subject in past years: Why Professionial Instruction? and Your Alpine Education both address these questions. In short I think that a range of experiences from learning from friends, through club offerings all the way to professional training are all relevant and have their pluses and minuses. But I will make a renewed plea here for the value of getting your initial training from professionals. It simply means that you’ll get a solid grounding in skills taught correctly to the current, international and professional standard. What better platform to start from than that?
We’ve got a bunch of really great skills trainings coming up that are perfectly designed to get you into the mountains and doing those trips that you’ve only been able to imagine doing up to now. And we’ve got a lot of dates to choose from as well. Check them out!:
Mountain Skills Fly-in - This course manages to cover a big range of snow climbing, glacier travel and crevasse rescue skills and even some alpine rock climbing skills in just three days. We achieve this by using a helicopter to access a spectacular site at the toe of a glacier allowing us to get three full days of intensive learning in. We cover all the curriculum of a five day full mountain skills course in just three days and all of this comes for basically the same price as the five day course, including the helicopter!
Alpine Rock Skills - We've had a lot of requests for an alpine rock climbing skills course so here it is! Travelling in the Island Alps, or any mountain range for that matter, inevitably involves managing rock climbing terrain in that fourth and low to mid fifth class range. The "pitching" or "end roping" techniques which we use at the crags are not appropriate in this terrain as they are too slow and actually increase risk from hazards like rock fall. On this course we'll cover all the short roping and short pitching techniques that you need to move efficiently in alpine rock terrain as well as route finding skills, transitions from snow and ice to rock and much more.
Learn to Lead on Rock - If climbing more technical rock in the alpine is on your list of skills then our two day traditional learn to lead course is the thing for you. From anchor building to leading perfect pitches on traditional, removable protection, we’ll get you all tuned up to lead safe pitches on your own.
Intro to Rock - If you have never rock climbed and are interested in being introduced to the sport this two day course will teach you everything you need to know to go out top roped climbing on your own. This makes a great starting point both for rock climbing as a sport in it’s own right or for using rock climbing skills in the alpine.
Rock Rescue - If you're climbing multiple rope lengths of rock either in a cragging setting or in the mountains you’ll need to know what to do when things don’t go quite right! Check out the blog I wrote about rock rescue here: http://www.islandalpineguides.com/posts/19 and watch the story that Chek News did about our rock rescue courses here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMDdSNwCON8.
Elkhorn - For some people the best way to learn to start with is by observing. Others aren’t really interested in learning the skills they just want someone to manage the risk, make the decisions and get them to a summit on a great day of climbing. Either way our guided climbs of island peaks may be perfect for you. One of the classics is the island’s second highest peak Elkhorn. The “Matterhorn of the Island Alps” is a beauty and the ascent of it’s north west ridge unforgettable.
There is of course much more adventure awaiting you at our web site. Take a trip there and choose your trips for the summer. And of course get in touch if you have any questions. We’re always happy to help with info for your personal trips as well.
Enjoy what we have here on the island this spring and summer!
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
Well the lack of a winter here on the island has certainly been sad for the skiers amongst us but I have to say that I’ve seen a whole bunch of inspired response to this unusual weather we’ve been having.
First of all we did have enough winter initially that we managed to provide avalanche training to a lot of people before our lower elevation snow disappeared in early February. We managed to teach about 100 students who were keen and got a lot out of the courses. It is always gratifying for us as instructors to pass on our experience so that our students can enjoy the mountains in winter by effectively managing avalanche risk. No doubt the conditions in the island alpine this weekend are an excellent opportunity for those we have trained to put that training to good use!
Being the flexible and inventive lot that you Islanders are the other trend that we have noticed is that people either went higher or farther to get their sliding fixes. The higher alpine on Vancouver Island has been providing touring options right through the winter and indeed has even been receiving some fresh snow of late. It just takes a little more effort to get there than usual. Others have travelled a little farther a field to the coast range and beyond. I for one have been getting some nice powder only about 150km from home in the Mount Waddington area!
The climbers and hikers amongst us have actually reveled in the lack of winter by getting out there in force this winter to bag new routes and to do things in winter that rarely see these kinds of conditions. You need only glance at the Vancouver Island Climbing and Mountaineering Facebook page to get a sense of the level of activity out there this winter: https://www.facebook.com/groups/islandclimbing/.
I’m not sure if the weather is responsible or not but here at IAG we’ve been seeing a significant early surge in interest in the climbing and hiking programs that we offer. Multiple Learn to Lead, Rock Rescue, Mountain Skills Fly-in and Navigation Courses are filling up already even before winter has decided to end. We’re excited about how busy things are looking for our spring and summer. If you are interested in getting involved in some of our programs we suggest getting in touch early. One of our challenges is that there are only so many Association of Canadian Mountain Guides qualified guides on Vancouver Island so when our schedule gets filled up with work we sometimes have to turn people away simply because all of our guides are engaged on the busiest dates.
Thinking of getting outdoors and of outdoor education in general I came across this informative video from the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council:
While I realize that this is perhaps a little too basic for our more experienced readers it does a nice job of re-iterating the basics and reminding even seasoned mountain travellers of the things to do before you go. Even if this stuff is too basic for you I believe it is the kind of thing that would be great to pass on to friends who are less experienced and are asking about how to best be prepared for outdoor adventure.
Keep making the most of the conditions and we hope to see you on a course or trip with us this spring and summer!
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
For this latest blog I am happy to present the next in our series of guest blogs by prominent members of our community.
I am honoured that my friend Phillip Stone has agreed to contribute.
Many of our readers already know Phillip as the chronicler of islanders' exploits in their unique and beautiful mountains through his series of guide books. But Phillip is of course much more than a guide book author. From when I first met Phillip 25 years ago, he was clearly an adventurer driven to explore. He exuded a contagious excitement for the mountains which he shared generously. Indeed he continues to do this to today still exploring and authoring new routes in our Island Alps. On the eve of the release of his seventh book, Island Alpine Select, Phillip muses on his role as a writer and publisher and on the future of guidebooks.
Will Guidebooks Find Their Own Way? - Blog by Phillip Stone
Working in media, okay it’s pretty small town BC media, - still, I watch not only the ‘news’ but the business of media as well. And you too, must have caught stories about the unstoppable rise of the internet and questions about the viability of print, like books, magazines and the like, in the future.
Print has been part of my working life since I was a kid. At age 11 I wanted a job and figured I could deliver newspapers. Thing was, we lived well outside of the city, St. John’s Newfoundland and it took some persuading to get the delivery van to drive the 30-some km north to drop off 25 copies of the Evening Telegraph every day. It was only 25 papers but in a spread out rural coastal village you can only imagine the experiences along the way. Cruel fall storms smashing the Atlantic almost to the doorstep; cold, clear starlit winter evenings with the Northern Lights flickering overhead. It was an interesting start to a life-long relationship with paper.
A school magazine followed - an awesome financial success because we launched at the parent-teacher night and sold it first to the parents by donation. Our end of year party that year rocked from the proceeds.
Now my livelihood depends on producing a steady-stream of publications and I feel happy to have merged my passions for adventure, rural-living and photography with my day to day work. Along with my line of guidebooks you probably know, I run a local news magazine and produce a variety of web sites and print publications. Much of it is tourism-related for Quadra and the Discovery Islands so all this talk of the demise of print worries me. But should it?
The murmurings of print’s expiration was already floating around in 2003 when I published the first edition of Island Alpine. That moment was a very proud day. I still remember well, as I described in the Preface, arriving at the south col of Mt Colonel Foster for the first time and being just simply blown-away by the sweep of endless snow-capped mountains and immediately deciding I would write a guidebook - eventually.
The motives were varied. As described, writing, and especially publishing is in my blood. Just as for others its mechanics, caring for others, crunching numbers or whatever. for me it’s about creating publications, large and small. So I can’t say exactly why I wanted to do that, god knows it was a long road, I just couldn’t help myself, I had to do it.
The thing about climbing guidebooks is though: they aren’t just any old book, another vertical spine on a shelf, a story to be read once, maybe twice and then forgotten. Climbing guidebooks have a life like few other books can ever imagine. For a bestselling novel, the story is contained within the pages. The reader delves into this world, becomes lost and returns, may share opinions, emotions and ideas with others but the story never really truly comes to life. Even if a blockbuster film results, it’s still completely intangible.
Not so the guidebook. Here the story is brief. The images just one snapshot in time. But the possibilities the guidebook incites are endless.
The guidebook is a catalyst for adventure a portal to infinite combinations of weather, time, season and emotion. Success, failure, suffering, relaxation all flow from the inspiration and action triggered by a few words.
Then there is the community. True, readers of the latest Governor-Generals award winner can have a cult-like kinship whipped up by the likes of the CBC’s Canada Reads. But again, this relationship is all based on a nebulous and finite narrative. For local climbers who share a love of their home-turf and are tied together by the threads of a common bible the bonds are far deeper. There is no joy greater than discovering another who has shared a route, who understands the challenges overcome, the puzzles solved, the rewards achieved.
Did I realize I would be a part of this back in 1991 when I sat on a boulder under Crest Creek Crag and lamely outlined the route topo in a sketchbook? Not a chance!
Now with the latest Vancouver Island mountain guidebook (Island Select) at the printers in Manitoba, there is a calm between the twin storms of production and distribution. I have some time to reflect on the process of writing a guidebook and to ponder the uncertainty of the risks involved.
The biggest risk brings us right back to the initial question of print books viability. Having just spent another decade, for a total of 25 years, accumulating photographs and 3 pretty solid years of repeating climbs and riding desk jockey committing it all to paper, I can’t say that there isn’t some apprehension. Will the Island community embrace this new book? Will Island Select fulfill its potential to tie our community bounds stronger, to inspire a new wave of adventure? And importantly for me personally, will it bring the financial return essential for me to be able to continue the endeavour?
Does SummitPost and FaceBook make a book seem quaint and trivial in the era of real time information sharing and gathering? What can a guidebook tell you that Google Earth can’t? Heaven knows I consulted it enough times writing it!
Of course this is not to say that today’s print book is confined to paper. With some extra work and know-how I’ve converted all my books into electronic editions and Island Select has been specifically designed from the outset to work in an eBook format.
While I’m most excited about the paper edition; a part of me is also curious to see what the potential for the eBook is.
Will regular updates have an effect on new route development? If you know your new climb is going to be appearing on iPhones and tablets within days of completion is that an incentive? Does that invite unnecessary risk? Will technology (and our ability to figure it out) allow more integration between the guidebook and social media, online mapping etc..? Is technology poised to offer un-precedented levels of risk aversion through real time forecasting - is this a persuasive argument for wi-fi in park’s?
There are still many questions to be answered but one things is certain. Our Island Alps are an amazing place to spend time and the next best thing to being out there, is day dreaming about them!
It's been a while! I just realized that I haven't written in this space since June. The good news is that it's because we've had a busy summer.
This time I'm going to get a little more technical and less philisophical. Some questions I often hear are “What is the best rope system for climbing?” or “What is the difference between twin and half half ropes?” or “What should I buy as my first rope?”. I’ve answered these questions often enough that I think it may be of value to write something about this subject in this space.
In my view one rope system is not better than another. Each just has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. Each situation that you go into could make optimal use of a different rope system. In a perfect world a person would have a quiver of all the different rope systems and in different lengths and diameters, but that is of course is quite expensive.
Following is a list of the different systems, a few of their characteristics and their advantages and disadvantages:
Single ropes are designed to use for all applications in a single strand. The UIAAA symbol for a single rope is a circle with the number 1 in the middle of it. They range in diameter from traditional fat ropes of 11mm to some very modern singles as thin as 8.6mm!
The advantages of single ropes are that they are easy to manage in belaying and at belay stances and that they have the lightest weight per metre of all three rope options.
One disadvantage of single ropes is that on routes which wander a lot they require long extensions on protection and even then on very circuitous routes you could still end up with rope drag. Single ropes are not as good over edges as twin ropes but better than half ropes in this respect. Strength over edges is a particular concern with the very thin modern singles. Also single ropes give you only half the rappel length that you get with two rope systems.
Half ropes are used in pairs but can be clipped individually to individual points of protection on lead. They are also rated for belaying a second on a single strand though caution is advised in this application in situations where the rope could be loaded over sharp edges. They are also rated for use in a single strand for glacier travel. The UIAA symbol for a half rope is a circle with a 1/2 fraction in the middle of it. Half ropes range in diameter from about 7.5mm to 9mm.
Half rope systems work well on routes that wander a lot without having to put lengthy extensions on placements. As mentioned above they can be used singly for glacier travel and to belay seconds on rock as long as sharp edges are not a concern. Half ropes also give full length rappel capability as you have two ropes.
Disadvantages of half ropes include that they are more difficult to manage in belaying and at stances, they have the heaviest weight per metre of all the rope systems and that they are not as good over edges as single or twin rope options.
Twin ropes are also used in pairs but can not be clipped individually. They are always clipped as a pair as if they were a single rope. They are not rated for use in a single strand though they can be a useful “backpacking” rope for short rappels or doubled for short leads. The UIAA symbol for twin ropes is two intersecting circles. Twin ropes come as thin as 7mm these days.
Because of the cumulative diameter of the two ropes twin ropes are the strongest rope system over sharp edges. Twin ropes of course offer full length rappel capability and they are a lighter weight rope system than half ropes but heavier than a single rope.
As both ropes must be clipped into all protection in a twin system, they are the same as single ropes on routes that wander a lot and will require long extensions on protection to avoid rope drag. As mentioned above one twin rope is does not meet the spec to use as a glacier rope or to belay a second on rock as you can with half ropes but it may have application as a lightweight “walkers rope”. As with half ropes, twins are more difficult to manage in belaying and at stances.
I hope that the above illustrates that there are good reasons to use each rope system in different circumstances. If you can not afford to own a lot of different ropes and are just starting out, it may be that the simplicity and lower cost of a single rope is the way to get going.
There are also questions of lengths, dry treatments, rope care etc. but I think I’ll leave those for another blog.
If you have questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at email@example.com.
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
This spring we are super excited to be announcing new partnerships with organizations and individuals in our community. Read on to learn about the latest of these:
Island Alpine Guides and North Island College
Recently completed, our new partnership with North Island College has IAG courses being recognized for credit in the NIC Adventure Guiding Certificate program. This partnership can work for you in two ways: 1) If you have taken IAG courses and have been thinking about a career in adventure tourism, you can now apply to have those IAG courses recognized for credit saving you both time and money. These credits go toward your pursit of the Adventure Guiding Certificate at NIC and if you wish to go further can move you toward the two year Tourism and Hospitality Management diploma, which will advance your business education and can provide further credit toward business degrees at NIC as well as tourism management degrees province wide. 2) If you are a student in the Adventure Guiding Certificate program at NIC you can now choose to mix mountain based skills training options in with the watersports currently offered in the program by taking IAG courses and having them recognized for credit. Options include Avalnche Skills Training, Winter Mountain Travel and Mountain Skills Training. Check out www.nic.bc.ca/program/adventure_guiding_certificate and contact the Adventure Guiding Certificate program director at NIC or Island Alpine Guides for more information.
Island Alpine Guides and Power To Be
For us at IAG some partnerships make good business sense while others just feel good to us. The latter is defiinitely true of our relationship with Power To Be. Power To Be provides adventure-based programs designed for youth and families in need of support. Through a collaborative approach and caring staff, Power To Be inspires connections with nature and the discovery of limitless ability. IAG provides tecnical leadership support to the Wilderness School Program at Power To Be. The Wilderness School fosters positive social development and life skills through outdoor adventure and education. The program offers adventurous overnight weekend programs every month and a multi-day expeditions each summer. As a three-year co-ed program, starting in Grade 8, the Wilderness School is designed to work with a wide range of youth that could benefit from positive and healthy extra-curricular outdoor programs, which they might not otherwise have opportunity to do. Learn more about Power To Be at www.powertobe.ca.
Island Alpine Guides and Lyle Fast
Partnerships are not just about organizations. Sometimes they are with individuals. Such is the case with our new partnership with an old friend and legend of island mountaineering, Lyle Fast. Lyle was Vancouver Islands first fully certified Association of Canadian Mountain Guides Ski Guide when he attained that qualification in 1991. Before and since he has been something of a legend on the island mountain scene logging many firsts and mentoring many people. We are very excited to announce that Lyle is joining the guiding team at IAG. We are also very excited to announce that he will be spearheading our latest winter project starting next winter: Vancouver Island's first ever hut based ski and snowboard touring. You can read more about Lyle here and about our new hut based program here. Watch this space next autumn for the official launch of our but based programs!
Finally, while we have your attention, here are a few things that we have coming up which have some space available on them:
July 18-20 Mountain Skills Fly-in Course. $795pp includes heli.
July 19-20 Intro to Rock. $295pp.
July 26-27 Learn to Lead on Rock. $390pp.
August 2-4 Comox Glacier Hike. $395pp.
August 9-10 Intro to Rock. $295pp.
These are just a few of the things we have coming up. Check our our web site and if you see things that interest you but not available dates, just get in touch and we'll add dates to our offerings that suit you. Most of our programs are done at such a low ratio that one person starting a trip will get us well on our way to filling it!
Have a safe spring and early summer and we'll look forward to seeing you in the mountains this summer!
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
This has been a very interesting winter from a snow and avalanche perspective. The season started off of course with very little snow and some impressively long and cold arctic cold snaps. When the snow finally came it buried a troublesome layer on February 10th that would become a player in the avalanche game over most of British Columbia and indeed on the island as well for some time. Though this layer is no longer a player in the island snow pack, I have been guiding in our back yard here in the Mount Waddington area and I can tell you it has been a player here and continues to be.
This February 10th layer is what we call a persistent snowpack instability. The name is very descriptve in that the layer gets buried under successive subsequent snowstorms which bury it deeper and deeper in the snowpack. The problem with these instabilites is both their depth (because with so much snow on top of the the problem layer you are looking at the possibility of very large avalanches) and it's persistence. As these things persist in the snow pack and get more and more load on them, our problem as forecasters is knowing when and where the critical load will make this layer fail. The fact of the matter is that we are not very good at making those predictions with these kinds of instabilities. Indeed these deep and persistent avalanche problems are the ones that we are least good at predicting.
I think that the management of these deep and persistent avalanche problems makes a great metaphor for a range of risk management decisions which we make in the mountains or anywhere in life for that matter. The fact that we are not good at predicting this problem should dictate what "risk treatment" we give it. An important first step I think is that we have to recognize that we have low confidence in our ability to predict. In the case of the persistent slab avalanche problem, given this lack of confidence in our ability to predict when or where these things will happen, we are left really with one option to manage the risk: conservative terrain selection. What this has meant for us at times this winter is not only skiing on low angle terrain that is not avalanche terrain, but also being vigilant about not having avalanche terrain above us either.
I think that we can take some lessons from the management of this problem into other areas of risk management in the mountains and elsewhere. In any hazard assessment I think it makes sense to try to objectively measure your level of confidence in your assessment. Ask youself how sure are you of the likely hood of realizing the hazard as well as the magnitude of the outcome should you realize it. If your confidence in these predictions is high because you have a lot of really good information and the information at hand relates directly to many experiences that you have had, then you can justifiably have high confidence in your assessment. But if you lack good information and/or what you are seeing does not relate directly or even indirectly to experiences that you have had or if you have not had much experience, then perhaps you should assign a lower confidence to your assessment and choose a more conservative decision around that hazard.
I guess in simple terms what this amounts to is being honest with yourself about how much you really know about a risk that you are trying to assess. If you are not so sure, then rather than flirting with a coin toss maybe the better chocie is to say no and pursue another option. Or even more simply put: If in doubt, don't.
I want readers to know that after 30 years in the avalanche game I am more happy than ever to talk about my lack of confidence and what I don't know. Indeed I think that being able to identify what we don't know and acting accordingly could be one of the most important skills in risk management.
Have a great spring out there and play safe!
Starting this month I am very pleased to announce the beggining of our series of guest blogs by prominent members of our community.
I am honoured to have my friend Rob Wood as our first contributor.
While many of our readers know who Rob Wood is, there is perhaps a younger generation of you who are not as aware of him. Rob came from Yorkshire to Canada in the late sixties. In the early seventies he particpiated in the first ascents of Weepling Wall, Cascade, Takakaw and Bourgueau falls, to name a few, as part of that group of Calgary climbers who invented waterfall ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies. In the Yosemtie Valley, Rob was part of the first non-American ascent of the Nose of El Capitan. Here on Vancouver Island he made the ground breaking first winter ascent of the Grand Central Couloir of Mount Colonel Foster with his friend and fellow climbing legend Doug Scott and American Greg Child. He has a storied history as an outdoor educator and climbing community philosopher and hails from his remote homestead on Maurelle Island here in the northern gulf islands. He is the author of “Toward the Unknown Mountains” a delightful meeting of adventure story and philosophical pondering.
CLIMBING AND THE LOVE OF LIFE
Right from when I first started climbing I experienced a sense of happiness and freedom on the crags and in the mountains and later in deep Canadian wilderness that was way over and above any other aspect of my normal everyday life. The more I experienced this natural high the more convinced I became that climbing manifested, for me at least, an essential ingredient of life that modern society was missing and possibly even precluding.
I spent many hours in steamed up pubs, around smoky campfires, on tent bound storm days and cold dark bivouac ledges, discussing and defending the fascinating and illusive question of what exactly it is about climbing that motivates climbers to risk their lives in such spectacular and dangerous ways. Even though many of us believe passionately that deep inside the rewards outweigh the risks, it seems impossible to explain the reason why to someone who has never done it. In other words the answer is beyond reason, beyond the ken of normality, which probably contributes to the attraction of the mystery.
Now, reflecting on fifty years of knocking about in the mountains, I see a fine line between success with profound satisfaction on the one hand and failure, desperation and even disaster on the other. The difference is determined not so much by quantifiable factors such as good planning, hard skills or even by good or bad luck so much as by state of mind, awareness and perceptions. Things go well when we are positive, focused and in tune with our surroundings and each other; when we are in the moment and in the Zone. Conversely things go badly when we are not paying complete attention and or not getting along with each other; when our minds are distracted and our spirits fragmented and scattered.
I had my fair share of fame and glory but after witnessing close friends getting killed and a few near death experiences myself I came to recognize the lethal impediments of excessive ego gratification and competition. They occupy our minds with deeply engrained and often habitual, culturally conditioned impressions of reality which prevent honest engagement with the actuality of the here and now. If deliberately putting one’s life in danger just to impress other people were really what climbing is about, as might well be assumed by people who don’t do it, it would indeed be a mug’s game of questionable sanity.
To me the more profound, inestimable rewards of climbing occur when we break through the fearful, conditioned constraints of ego and conventional perception of being separate individual entities and engage ourselves with the dynamic flow of the powerful energy fields of the natural environment. Then, not only is our physical performance guided and enhanced but also our fear and anxiety is released, replaced by a secure and euphoric sense of love and unity with something much larger than our selves. While effectively reducing the risk of losing life, momentary as these transcendental experiences may be, they easily justify what remains of it by creating the freedom to be more fully conscious of the joy, unity and wonder of being alive.
Rob Wood Maurelle Island January 2014
My headline may seem a bit provocative. Of course practicing your companion rescue skills is a good, indeed a neccessary thing you say! You'll be happy top know that I agree. Just having learned companion rescue is not enough. These skills need to be practiced with regularity if you want them to be really effective when it matters.
But there are a lot of ways to practice these skills and some are much better than others in making you effective should you ever have to use these skills for real. And goodness knows you want to be good at this should you ever have to use it for real (I speak from experience on this one).
The bad version of practice is the one where someone hides a transceiver a few centimeters under the snow withing range of the person searching. The person doing the search turns their transceiver to receive, gets a signal immediately and then quickly hones in on the barely buried transceiver and has no trouble at all finding it thus assuming that they've got the skillls dialed.
But what really has the person in the above example practiced? They turned one transceiver from sending to receiving and they did just the easieast part of a transciever search (the secondary or coarse search). Really they practiced two of the easiest skills and nothing else.
Real companion rescue is a much more complex animal than just a coarse transceiver search. It typically involves groups of people who have to communicate effectively and organize themselves to be effective. It requires that someone takes charge and delegates tasks. It is critical that a concious deicision is made about whether to initiate a rescue or not (remember Sparwood?). It includes assessing available information such as a last seen point and visual clues. it involves having do a primary (singnal) search before you even get a signal from a buried transceiver. It requires further coordination and communication to make sure that resources are applied as efficiently as possible (when a fine search with a transceiver is complete is there an assembled probe at hand or did that get overlooked?). And good practice involves real probing for real objects that are buried at realistic depths in the snow. FInally, complete rescue practice involves practicing digging because there are a whole set of skills and practice associated with this that have the potential to dramatically change the outcomes of a real rescue.
So good practice is much more than a short transceiver search. The best practice involves groups of people enacting realistic scenarios that have as much detail designed into them as possible so that you give yourself as many chances as possible to make mistakes which become fantastic learning opportunities. You may not be surprised to hear that these learning opportunities more often than not, are not around transceiver skills. More likley they will be lessons in things like leadership, group management, communication, allocation of resources, fine search technique, probing and shoveling.
Here are some tips for making really good companion rescue practices:
1) Always set up realistic scenariios and force yourself to enact them from start to finish following all of the steps through.
2) Practice carrying a companion rescue reference card and make it part of your rescue response to pull out that card and use it as your guide through the entire rescue.
3) If you have enough people, include actors playing distressed, non buried victims in your scenarios. It doesn't take an acadamey performance to quickly amp up the urgency and tension creating yet more learing opportunities.
4) Don't skip over important steps like deciding if it is safe to even initiate a rescue and checking for visual clues.
5) Have more than one "victim" buried. The goal here is not neccessarily to set up complex multible burial transceiver searches, in fact these are quite rare in recreational acccidents. Rather the goal is to stretch the resources of the searchers so that they have to get smart about how they allocate their resources (poeple). So bury the transceivers far apart to keep the transceiver searching simple but still stretching resources.
6) Have everyone travelling on their normal mode of transport with all their rescue gear int thier pack on their back (no pre assembled shovels and probes!)
7) Bury transciers deep (at least a metre) so that fine transceiver search, probing and shoveling are all real. Bury inside objects that feel like people (packs work well)
8) Have well structured debrief sessions after each scenario to maximize the learning.
I hope that this information is of value and that if you are stoked to get out into the snow that we've finally received you are asking yourself "are my companion rescue skills up to scratch" and are planning some good practice with some friends very soon.
See you out there,
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides.
AST Plus: Applying Your Avalanche Skills Training
We get a lot of really positive feedback about our Avalanche Skills Training courses. The testimonials on our web site I think attest to that. Common themes we see are things like “a ton of information” and “an amazing amount of knowledge”.
Indeed we make a real effort on our courses to get in as much as we can in the time that we have, to really give our students good value and to send them away feeling that the course was a really worthwhile experience. And though I think that we do a good job of organizing all of that information in a way that it feels manageable and complete, there is no doubt that on these courses we are opening up an area of knowledge that is highly complex and that is really just the beginning of a long learning journey.
Given these complexities it is not a surprise that a lot of the feedback we get from students suggests that just one more day added on to these courses on which we apply all that new knowledge could be a really good thing. Enter the AST Plus.
As I have suggested above, the AST Plus idea was really generated by our students. The consensus amongst many has been that they would love to have a chance to apply the knowledge from their avalanche skills training in a day of back country touring, with an instructor present to help walk them through this first experience of using the knowledge.
So here is how it works: We set you up with a super experienced guide. As with all our avalanche skills trainings, this person is not just an avalanche forecaster or an avalanche educator. All our instructors well exceed the Canadian Avalanche Centre standard for instructors or indeed the standards that most AST providers meet. Our instructors are also people who have spent many years making many real decisions in a lot of avalanche terrain. Think of someone who has spent many winters guiding millions of vertical feet at heli skiing operations and you start to get the picture. But this person is not going to “guide” you down the slopes as they do when they are guiding heli skiing. Rather they are going to “guide” you through a day of applied avalanche risk management where you make the decisions with them acting as the facilitator. It starts with a solid trip planning session where the instructor introduces you to the most valuable resources and how to use them as you plan a day using these and the skills you have learned on the avalanche skills training. Then it’s off to the mountains to implement your plan for the day. Again the students are the leaders with the guide using “teachable moments” to maximize the learning you get from your experiences in the field. You’ll finish the day with a well structured debrief that, like everything else you have done this day, acts as a template for how you will debrief your own trips in future to maximize your learning from each day to accelerate you along the path to becoming a competent decision maker in avalanche terrain.
AST Plus is well suited to anyone who has done the AST1 course or has equivalent training or experience. It’s also suitable for people who have done the AST2 or have equivalent training or experience. In fact having people of varying experience levels or training on the same touring day together mimics exactly what happens on real tours with real people. They are never the same and those differences become an important part of the dynamics of the decision making process. We see this as making for a valuable learning environment because it is real.
We’ve got an AST Plus with a couple of spots open on 11 January at Mount Washington. We've also got two days of AST Plus running at Mount Cain 15 and 16 February. We’ll be posting more dates soon. If you have a particular date in mind to do this training with us drop us a line and we’ll make that one of the dates on offer. Here is the link to the page to sign up for AST Plus: http://www.islandalpineguides.com/trips/82
We’ve also got some spots open on AST1 and AST2 courses which are coming up soon and are either close to full or filling quickly:
21/22 December AST1 Mount Washington
20-23 December AST2 Mount Cain
28/29 December AST1 Mount Cain
4/5 January AST1 Mount Washington
11/12 and 18/19 AST2 Mount Washington
18/19 January AST1 Mount Washington
1-4 February AST2 Mount Cain
We’ve also got a lot of very cool ski and snowboard touring opportunities for you this winter including Mount Washington and Mount Cain Backcountry Tours, Intro to Touring Weekends and Helicopter Accessed Tours. Check out our web site for details on these and many more trips and if there are not dates up there yet that suit you, get in touch to suggest some dates. We’ll write more later about some of these great trips and courses.
I saw the new Sherpas Cinema release “Into the Mind” last night. Perfectly timed to get me all jacked up for skiing this winter! I could make this blog a critique of the movie but I won’t do that. The critic in me can find plenty to criticize in this effort but I chose to suspend my critical side and just sit back and enjoy it .... and I did ..... until about an hour or so in when I thought “fourty five minutes would have been enough” and then it went on for another half hour. But I did say I was not going to write a critique right?!
Much of that film was shot at Bella Coola with Bella Coola Heli Sports. As some of my readers may know, one of the many hats that I wear in the winter is as the Operations Manager and Lead Guide at Bella Coola Heli Sports Pantheon Operations. It’s a real treat to work around the highest peak in BC (Mount Waddington) in a massive tract of untouched mountain wilderness doing first descents with just eight guests a week.
But seeing those peaks around Bella Coola brought me back to the fun I had last spring working in that exact area with Bella Coola Helisports “Big Mountain Challenge”. In fact We were working just around the corner from the spot that forms the central story line in the movie (the climb up and ski down). Check out the video of one of our guests having their own steep skiing movie experience on this really rad program. I have to admit I had a lot of fun guiding on that program. If any of you are interested in joining us at Bella Coola or Pantheon do get in touch and we can hook you up!
We’ve got lots of exciting stuff happening this winter here on the Island and in the Coast Mountains. We’ll continue to run the best avalanche safety training courses on the island (indeed they would stack up against the best anywhere in our view). If early volume of registrations and inquiries is any indication I am sure we are going to be busier than ever with these courses this winter.
We’ll also continue to offer our Life After AST program, The Back Country Performance program, the Intro to Winter Mountain Travel, the Advanced Island Winter Mountain Skills, as well as the Spearhead Traverse, the Glacier Skiing course and Lodge Based Ski Touring all in the Coast Range. These are just a few highlights. Cruise around our web site and you’ll see a lot more options for your winter fun and learning.
One thing we are excited about is our cooperation with Mount Washington this year to offer guided backcountry skiing at the mountain. Whereas we have offered full day trips into the Washington backcountry in the past, what’s new this year is that we are offering a half day introductory backcountry experience. We are sure that the lower level of commitment, the shorter time frame and the low cost will all make this an appealing option for those wanting to check out the backcountry with a qualified guide. Check it out here or register with the Mount Washington Snow School.
Put some old skis on that bonfire for Ular and get stoked to ride!
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
I have been a little absent from my blog the last few months. Not up to the mark really but it has been a busy summer for us. We have seen some interesting trends in the things that we are doing include a very definitive shift for us from doing more introduction to rock climbing courses to doing more learn to lead courses. I’ve talked to colleagues in Squamish and elsewhere and it seems that they are experiencing the same trend. Is it because more people are starting their climbing careers indoors and coming out of the gym with belaying and climbing skills and wanting to lead on rock as soon as they get outside? Is it that lots of people have done our intro to rock courses and have top roped enough that they are ready to make the next step to leading? I think the answer to both is yes and I have to say that it is very satisfying to be helping people to reach their goals and to send them off into the realm of leading on the “sharp end” of the rope in a consistent and solid manner.
While we’ve run a ton of learn to lead courses this summer and last, the thing that we are running very little of is rock rescue courses. Which has me asking myself “what’s up with rock rescue?”. I just don’t get it. I know that there are lots of people out there climbing multi pitch rock routes that simply do not have the skills to manage a problem should it arise. All you have to do is imagine having your partner on belay on a multi pitch route when some trouble befalls them. They are hit by rock fall, they take a big fall themselves and are hurt. Once they are hanging on your belay your hands are occupied. Your belay is fully loaded and if you can not free those hands up by escaping the belay you are hooped before you start! And even if you can escape the belay somehow can you do it safely without compromising your safety or your victims? And then what? How do you safely change that belay to a lower? Or a raise? Or how do you get from your anchor to your victim to help them? And then what will you do? All of these are very real questions and as long as nothing goes wrong when you are climbing it’s all well and good. But I am afraid that I am pretty sure that there are way more people out there that could end up in this situation than there are people out there with the skills to manage it.
So why do we not have more people signing up for rock rescue courses? Is it the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome? Is it that people think “oh I would manage it somehow”? Is it that they have not even really considered the problem? I think it could be any of the above and more. The fact is that rescue systems are complex and need good instruction and regular practice to remain strong enough to be of use when you need them. I really hope that our trend toward more learn to lead courses will continue to evolve and morph into an increase in interest in rock rescue courses. I know from experience that when people take these courses there is an incredible sense of satisfaction that comes from learning these skills as well as a retrospective view that says “am I ever glad I did not need these before learning them!”.
Have a great remainder to the summer and get ready to ride the pow before too long!
I’m just back from continuing professional development sessions at the International Federation of Mountain Guides meetings in Whistler. What we did in one of these sessions was to look at a number of case studies of past accidents to see what we could learn from them.
What I came away from these sessions with, aside from the usual excellent lessons, were some more general thoughts and reminders about how important it is to look back and learn. It is one thing to say that we will learn from our "mistakes" and another to take a concerted and systematic approach to that learning. Here are some thoughts on that that I would like to share with you.
Objectivity: Whenever we look back at accidents or incidents as much as possible it is important that we do our best to stand back from the situation and try to assess it objectively. This means identifying the biases that we come to the situation with (a big one to deal with here is often our own ego and the desire to be “right”) and to try to assess the events as much as possible as an unbiased third party observer might.
Acknowledgement of emotions: To achieve the kind of objectivity that we are aiming for as described above I think we first need to acknowledge all of the emotions that come along with accidents and incidents and to accept these as being completely normal responses. Shame and guilt are common emotions associated with incidents and accidents particularly if we were in a leadership role when something went wrong. Acknowledging and allowing ourselves to experience these emotions is a very important first step allowing us to then look at the situation more objectively and allowing earning to happen.
Withholding blame: To allow ourselves and others to learn we have to be willing to suspend the desire to place blame on others or on ourselves. Blaming is a convenient short cut in assessing accidents but it limits our ability to deeply examine the events that lead to accidents and to learn from them.
Looking for positive outcomes: This has to be the fundamental purpose of our investigations, to learn and to get better.
I have a nine year old son and you may not be surprised to know that I encourage him to engage risk. I do so because I believe that we can not learn to become solid decision makers around risk if we do not explore risk and learn where “the lines are” around risk by “feeling the edges of them”. Toward this end when my little boy wants to blame himself when things go wrong I try to remind him: “What you did was not a mistake if you learn from it so that you can do things differently next time”. Rather than “mistakes” I prefer to refer to his explorations as “learning opportunities”.
Philosopher George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Perhaps a simpler version for us as risk takers and lovers of the mountain environment could be “Learn from your experiences”.
Enjoy the mountains this spring, enjoy the risk, manage it and learn from it.
I love Spring. This is the time of the year that all my favourite activities are possible at the same time. As an Islander I think of everything from Mount Waddington to Bella Coola as part of my back yard. So this week I am in Bella Coola enjoying dry powder and superlative mountain landscapes here in my back yeard. I’ll be posting a short montage of photos and video on the Island Alpine Guides Facebook page shortly so you can see how amazing spring skiing in our magnificent coastal ranges can be.
Next I’m off to Red Rocks Nevada for some desert rock and then straight back to the island for heli accessed ski touring. After that it’s the start of our alpine climbing season plus we’re skiing steep lines on Mount Arrowsmith and getting a whole bunch of people started rock climbing and lead climbing on rock.
Here are some of the things that we have coming up soon that still have space on them:
Of course these are just a few of the possibilities for trips that people have already started and which still have space for others to join. If you are not finding what you are after above you can cruise around our web site and pick the perfect trip for you. Then get in touch and let us know the dates that you want to do the trip on and we’ll post it on our web site so that others will join you. Or of course you always have the option to hire one of our super experienced guides and instructors for a custom course or trip just for you or you and your friends and family.
Have a great spring and be in touch!
Jan and the crew at Island Alpine Guides
As a follow up to my recent blog on weather resources I’ve had some requests for some more trip planning resources but this time with more emphasis on terrain and mapping. So here we go:
It was not that long ago that when we were planning trips from a terrain perspective the resources that we had were a 1:50,000 topo map and perhaps a vaguely written guidebook description if the place you were going to was not that obscure (anyone remember the “Fairley Accurate Guide”?). Oh my how we would stare at the spaces between those contour lines and try to visualize what we were in for! Well the skills required to imagine those trips using a topo map are no less important now than they were then, but we do have some amazing new resources that make trip planning easier and more accurate than it has ever been.
On the mapping front here are a couple of my current favourites:
http://www.earthdetails.com allows you to access canadian topo maps for anywhere in the country and search by place name or coordinates. Additionally it allows you to tilt the map from a ground view perspective all the way to a traditional overhead map view and it will model the terrain in relief for you at whatever angle you choose. You can also zoom in and out as well as measure distances and bearings between points and you can print in full colour.
The Canadian Atlas On line at http://atlas.nrcan.gc.ca/site/english/toporama/index.html gives you access to topo maps for the entire country directly from the source, the Government of Canada. This on line tool allows you to zoom in and out down to a scale of 1:15,000 and includes more detail than the earth details maps mentioned above. It also allows you to print in full colour and both of these sites allow you to work across traditional map sheet boundaries so that you are not having to tape together four maps when the place you are going to is at the corners!
Another amazing modern tool is of course Google Earth. A few years ago I could not have imagined being able to “fly” through terrain that I had never seen in my life and actually get a sense of it that would resemble the reality that I would encounter when I actually arrived there. I have used this ability numerous times in my work as a heli skiing guide exploring new terrain and I have to say it is a very powerful tool. Additionally you can of course measure distances on google earth and overlay all manner of tracks and routes from your GPS device amongst a host of other functions.
My joking above about the acccuracy of guide books aside, there is no replacement for first hand info from people who have actually travelled to a location. This can take many forms but here are a few:
Wild Isle Publciations - Quadra Islander Philip Stone has done an amazing job compiling his books Island Alpine, Island Turns and Tours and Coastal Hikes. No Island back country enthusiasts library is complete without these volumes. There are of course many good guide books for the coast ranges and indeed ranges as far as you might go. Check out Phil's books here: http://wildisle.ca/books/index.html
First hand accounts - There is no end to the fora on line on which you might find good trip reports. http://www.summitpost.org and http://www.clubtread.com are just a couple. A little more island specific one to check out is the Island Climbing and Mountaineering Facebook page. These many sites can be of great use but a word of caution is in order. The info on unmoderated sites includes everything from entries from very experienced or even professional authors all the way to, well, folks that perhaps have a little less experience.
Speaking of professional advice why not use your local resource for info? We are in a small enough community here on Vancouver Island that to date my offers to give people route beta and terrain advice have not been so overwhelming that we can’t handle them so get in touch. We love to help.
I’ll finish with one last site that I hope will become a bit of a portal for useful Island info. That is the new Island Alpine Guides Facebook page. I hope that you might visit that and post comments on trips or courses you have done with us and/or route or conditions info of trips you have done.
Finally we have some cool things coming up. Here are some examples:
AST1 Mount Washington, 23/24 February. This may well be our last public AST1 for the season and it has just five spots available at time of writing.
AST2 Mount Cain, 22-25 February. This course is a special AST2 designed for people who have done a fair bit of decision making in avalanche terrain. If you fit that description and have been wanting to take your decision making to the next level, we have two spots available on this course.
Mount Washington Back Country, 02 March - We have two spots open on a guided day of back country. Snowboarders or skiers are welcome.
Life After AST, 09 March - We have two spots open on this professional guide facilitated day that makes the perfect bridge from your Avalanche Skills Training to getting out touring on your own.
We’re also already starting to book up rock climbing and mountain skills courses for the spring so get in touch if you are starting to think about climbing.
Have fun and be safe out there!
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
The Fifth Annual Party for the Bulletin happened last Friday and what a party it was! You came out in droves in support of your bulletin and a great time was had by all. There are many superlatives that we could use to describe the night: best vibe ever, awesome music line up, great beer and dancing, best silent auction ever etc. etc.
The sponsors who made this all happen are to many to list here but some need to be mentioned: Tyax Lodge Heli Skiing, Ski Tak Hut, Mount Washington Volunteer Patrol, Island Alpine Guides, Mount Washington Alpine Resort, Valhalla Pure Outfitters Nanaimno, the Riding Fool Hostel, Elan Skis and Back Country Access were all very generous. Check out the bulletin site in coming days for a full list of all the great folks who contributed this year.
Also a big shout out to all the bands that played this years event. PK, Old Soul with Brodie Dawson and the Paisley Bandits all out on great shows. If you liked what they did and appreciate that they played for free for your bulletin, like their facebook pages and help them out!
But the big thank you goes to all of you who keep this bulletin going. We have a unique and special grass roots thing going on here on the island which is unlike any other bulletin in the country and of which we can be proud.
Remember that our next event is the Back Country Festival happening at Mount Cain 9/10 February. This will be a super fun and educational week end. Check it out here: http://vanislebackcountryfest.ca/
While I have your attention I may as well tell you about some things that we have coming up at Island Alpine Guides that may be of interest:
6-9 February - Back Country Performance
9 February - Mount Washington Back Country
15/16 February - AST1 Mount Cain
17 February - Life After AST Mount Cain
23/24 February - AST1 Mount Washington
02 March - Mount Washington Back Country
02 March - Life After AST Mount Washington
We are also booking spring peak ascents (Rambler and Elkhorn) as well as multi pitch learn to lead rock courses already. Check out our web site or get in touch for more details.
Enjoy yourselves out there!
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
Have you been watching the weather? I certainly have. In my profession you always do! Though I know that skiing powder is still a little ways off I can tell you that it looks like we’ll be seeing some snow in the Island Alps this week end.
Watching the approach of the ski and snowboard season got me thinking about how many of you ask me which sources I use for weather both to know what has happened recently and to make forecasts. Of course with the internet these days the publicly available informations is incredible. I remember “back in the day” when we were running a helicopter skiing operation in the Himalayas, we had to set up our own satellite system to bring down a few pictures to make our crude weather predictions. It’s gone way beyond that now and though I have access to some stuff professionally with the avalanche centre that I can not share with you, there is so much in the public realm that you would be hard pressed to run out of interesting stuff to look at!
To see what has been happening in the island weather the BC Hydro Hydromet Data site provides real time temperatures and precipitation as well as winds at some sites. Of particular interest is the Wolf River station (WOL on the map). This one is at tree line elevation at about 1450m. The geographical spread of the other locations will give you a good idea of the variation in precipitation amounts found on different parts of the island. The standard Environment Canada web site also has historical data that you can access. On the page of the location that you are interested in scroll down to the “Historical Data” section at the bottom of the page and click on the “More Info” and then “Historical Weather”. You can look at daily values over a month or click on a particular day and look at hourly data for that day. Be aware that for many stations the data will only come up to about twelve hours or more previous.
For making weather predictions mountainweatherservices.com is a great portal for everything mountain weather. Check out their links page and from there the Education Other page. The latter includes amazing educational resources to help you understand the incredible array of possibilities which meteorologist Uwe Graman is offering on this comprehensive mountain weather site. A few of my favourites are the MM5 precipitation models, the satellite pictures and the various aviation weather resources.
A more crude yet simple site is snow-forecast.com. The information on this site is all generated by one computer model. You ned to be aware that larger scale models like this one are crude in the way that they model terrain and that different models will give you different predictions as to what will happen in the weather. If you rely only on one model you will often get your predictions wrong. Better to compare a number of models and see where they agree and disagree. To compare many models at once I have become aware of a fantastic new site at spotwx.com. Enter a location name or coordinates, or use the map to choose your location and the then click on one of a number of models to see their outputs for that location. The map even shows you where the grid from each model sits on the map. Thanks to meteorologist Mort Allingham for turning me on to this site.
Finally if your time is limited, you don’t really want to be a weather geek and/or you don’t mind waiting for more snow to fly, then just check in with the Island Avalanche Bulletin at islandavalanchebulletin.com. As avalanche forecasters we do all the work for you in looking at the resources I have mentioned above and many more to bring you not only a forecast of avalanche hazard but also detailed weather predictions and descriptions of how these will affect conditions in the mountains.
I’d love to hear your feedback and questions on the above. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts.
Keep your fingers crossed for dry pow soon!
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
Winter is around the corner and I am stoked!
I know that for some people there is sadness associated with the cooler nights and the shorter days at this time of year. But for me there is a building excitement. Why? Because I love to ski! Despite almost twenty years of ski guiding for a living and more than fourty five winters on skis and snowboard, I still love it. Sure we still have some beautiful autumn weather coming and rock climbing courses and mountain trips to do, but I am starting to feel the winter stoke none the less.
I am going into this winter with as much enthusiasm as any. I’ve got some great Island and mainland ski touring planned, a bunch of heli skiing as always and I know that we will be as busy as ever training people in avalanche and winter mountain skills.
On the training front I am excited about a couple of new offerings for this winter. Both of these courses come out of clearly demonstrated needs as expressed by our guests, students and staff. Here they are:
For many people making the step from their avalanche skills training to actually getting out touring in the back country is a bit daunting. This course is designed just for that. The idea was actually developed by some of our students and the results have been spectacular. Spend a day with a super experienced ski guide as they facilitate a trip planning session followed by a full day of student led, guide facitlitated touring in avalanche terrain and a structured debrief to end the day. Students will gain the confidence to plan and execute their own trips as well as a ton of local knowledge about their touring destinations. We will offer these courses predominantly at Mount Washington and Mount Cain, but we’ll also be happy to do them in more remote backcountry locations either as two day courses or in a single day with helicopter access.
A lot of people are thinking about getting into the backcountry these days. The numbers on our avalanche courses are a good indication of that! But for many people, the thing that they know they need to work on is their skiing, especially in natural snow conditions. That's why we've developed this program. Three, two and a half hour, low ratio sessions with a high end ski instructor are followed by a day of off-piste backcountry with our certified guides. While natural conditions ski technique is the emphasis, terrain choice, a basic introduction to avalanche safety and many other relevant skills are covered. The goal is to set you up perfectly to succeed in the backcountry.
Check these new offerings as well as a bunch of other cool stuff on our web site and do get in touch if you have any questions or want to book a program.
Stay tuned for snow, but do do let us know if you have some goals in the mountains or on rock yet this autumn!
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
I was in Victoria the other day visiting all the great outdoor retailers, climbing gyms etc. that have been so supportive of what we do here at Island Alpine Guides. On one of those visits with Brian Henry at Ocean River Sports we got to talking about a project that Brian has been working on called “Shop Local Victoria”.
It’s no coincidence at all that we got on to the subject of “shopping local”. Since it’s inception our goal at Island Alpine Guides has been to serve Vancouver Islanders. To show them what they have in the beautiful wilderness in their own back yards and to give them the skills to explore that beauty. Indeed we have made no efforts at all to promote what we do off Vancouver Island. It has been our contention that Islanders love their island and want to explore it and also that vacationing close to home is becoming more and more appealing to people for a long list of reasons from environmental to ethical not to mention convenience and aesthetics.
The chat that I was having with Brian and with all the people whom I visited on that trip down island was really illustrative of what the folks at Shop Local Victoria and at local shopping initiatives all over are trying to do: encourage people to shop locally to create collective prosperity, sustain their community, give back and put their money where their heart is, here in their communities on Vancouver Island.
It is our affinity to these concepts that made us write a bunch of tag lines for Island Alpine Guides back when we started. These ranged from “Think Globally, Adventure Locally” to “Looking for Adventure .... it’s right here in your back yard” to the somewhat flippant (hence it never made it on to one of our posters!) “There’s no place like Vancouver Island to get high”. All that aside the point is we support shopping local initiatives and support all those great outdoor retailers, climbing gyms, coffee shops, film festivals, mountain clubs etc. etc. who support us and we hope that you will do the same!
Looking forward to seeing you in the mountains this summer.
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides.
While I have your attention here are a few things coming up that have space on them and which may interest you:
Introduction to Rock Climbing 14/15 July
Nootka Trail 27 July - 01 August
Learn to Lead on Rock (trad) 28/29 July
Introduction to Rock Climbing 28/29 July
Augerpoint Traverse 11-14 August
Mountain Skills Helicopter Access 25-27 August
And Remember that we can post a trip or course for any dates that suit you. Just get in touch and we'll get them up on the site so that others know that they can join in on those dates.
We've had the dates for some of our upcoming courses and trips change and have added some new trips as well. Here's a snapshot of some of what is coming up:
Saturday 26 May - Skiing/Riding Spring Lines on Mount Arrowsmith
Sunday 3 June - One Day Crevasse Rescue Workshop
Saturday/Sunday 2/3 June - Traditional Rock Leading Course
Saturday/Sunday 9/10 June - Intro to Rock Climbing
Saturday-Monday 30 June - 2 July (Canada Day Long Week end) - 3 Day Alpine Skills Course
Saturday-Monday 30 June - 2 July (Canada Day Long Week end) - Fly in Mountain Skills Course
July 14/15 - Introduction to Rock Climbing July 20-25 - Nootka Trail Hike
July 28/30 - Tantalus Range Ascents
There is much more going on yet this summer and remember that the way we prefer to set dates for trips is for you to let us know when you want them to happen. So get in touch and choose some dates for your Island adventures this summer!
Enjoy the weather!
When I think about what we do in our climbing instruction I am reminded of a letter that I got from one of our students which illustrates well what many of you have told us about what our courses have done for your climbing careers. Here is an excerpt:
"Professional instruction proved priceless to me on so many levels. I noticed my base technical skills were at a higher level compared to more "seasoned" climbers. There is just so much ground level knowledge I gained that would have been impossible to replicate without professional instruction. As I progressed in my climbing, I teamed up with my instructor as a climbing partner four years later on a 3000ft big wall on Baffin Island. I highly recommend professional training from certified guides to anyone serious about climbing safely and effectively."
I’ve watched a lot of people climb. From people learning to climb right up to seasoned climbers with years of experience. While you might think that the latter demonstrated the most refined skills I can tell you with certainty that this is not the case. The fact is that in the absence of a negative feedback to inform us otherwise, we tend to repeat the same behaviours over and over again for years on end regardless of whether that action is the most efficient, safe or suitable. That is a long way of saying that just because a climber is seasoned does not mean that the techniques they use are the best ones. They could well have been doing things the wrong way for a long time!
The big advantage of taking professional training is that you learn how to do stuff right. The obvious time to get stuff right is from the very beginning of your career. Then you can be practicing the right stuff all the way along the path as you become more experienced. Having said that it is never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. So I am going to endorse the idea of even those seasoned climbers considering some instruction from professional guides to “tighten up” their technical systems and to learn some new, faster, safer and more efficient techniques.
We have a bunch of climbing instruction scheduled for this spring and summer not to mention peak ascents, hikes and much more. Below are a few examples up to July. But these are just a few of the dates we have planned. We do as much “custom” work as we do scheduled trips and we prefer to have you define the dates for courses and trips rather than us doing it. So if one of our trips is of interest or if you have a crazy idea of something special you want to do, drop us a line and let us know the dates you want to go on and we’ll post them on the web site to get others to join you!
May 26 - Crevasse Rescue Course
May 27 - Rock Refresher Course
June 2/3 - Learn to Lead on Rock
June 9/10 - Introduction to Rock Climbing
June 22-24 - Three Day Alpine Skills Course
June 30 to July 2 - Fly in Mountain Skills Course
July 14/15 - Introduction to Rock Climbing
July 20-25 - Nootka Trail Hike
July 28/30 - Tantalus Range Ascents
Looking forward to a great spring and summer!
One of the things I love about living on Vancouver Island is the transition to spring. This spring should be a really good one. We’ve got tons of snow in the mountains which will make spring ski touring last forever while the valley bottoms will warm up and we’ll get out rock climbing on the sunny crags very soon now.
Spring on the island brings some other unique opportunities. One that we take advantage of every spring is that there are steep north faces on some easily accessible peaks that allow us to run quick, foot access two and three day alpine climbing skills courses. We’ve scheduled the first of these for 23 to 25 June. We’ve also scheduled our first helicopter accessed mountain skills fly-in course for the Victoria day long week end 19 to 21 May. This course uses a helicopter to access high island alpine and a glacier to offer the “full meal deal” mountain skills course in just three days thanks to the quick trip to the alpine classroom.
Thinking of helicopter access and ski touring we have some very cool and rare opportunities to offer this spring to get into hitherto difficult to access areas with fantastic ski touring terrain and at a relatively modest price. Get in touch with us for details.
For those that want to focus in on crevasse rescue skills we are offering our one day crevasse rescue workshops this spring as always. The first of these is scheduled for Saturday 5 May.
We have lots of other trips and courses to schedule yet for the spring and summer from ski tours to alpine and rock climbing. Remember that the way we like to set dates is to hear from you when you want to go. So cruise around our web site and think about when you’d like to do a trip or course. Then get in touch with us to let us know the trip and the dates and we’ll start a trip on those dates for you and others to join.
Looking forward to spring in the Island Alps!
We introduce a lot of people to the back country both in winter and in summer. Whether it is an Avalanche Skills Training One, a Mountain Skills Course, an Introduction to Rock Climbing or any of or many introductory courses and trips, we are very happy to play the role of giving you a solid start in the mountains by building a good foundation of skills. On many of our introductory courses the question that gets asked is “what next?”. The answer inevitably is “go and gain experience”. The business of learning about the mountains be it navigation, understanding the avalanche phenomenon, building good anchors, or whatever it is, is much more an experiential process than a book learning or classroom process. So the answer is always to go and get experience. So what form does that experience take? We recommend a range of activities. At one end of the spectrum is trips with friends who have the same skill level as you. The big plus for your learning on these trips is that in the absence of more experienced people on the trip you are forced to participate actively in decisions making. Ultimately that is what this game is all about: decision making. You can’t get good at it if you don’t engage in making decisions and living with the consequences of them. Next on the spectrum of learning opportunities is to do trips with more experienced friends. The advantage here of course is that you get to learn from those more experienced than yourself. The disadvantage is that people tend to defer to the more experienced members of the group. Our advice to you here is resist this and contribute to the decision making. Your point of view is of value and your learning will increase if you are actively involved. It is also worth noting that we have accident statistics that show that recreational groups of inexperienced people making decisions by consensus are safer than recreational groups that contain a de facto leader who is more experienced. Finally getting out on trips with professional guides is also a great way to learn. Don’t be fooled by the moniker “guided trip”. Our guides (and guides in this country in general) are accustomed to teaching as well as guiding and are typically very keen to make guided trips a fully educational experience. In fact the line between the two is so blurred at times that it would be hard to distinguish between a trip and a course. We encourage you to “pick your guide’s brain” on any trip you do. You’ll have a great learning experience that sets you up well for doing more trips on your own and ultimately leads you to your goals in the mountains.
Speaking of guided trips and courses, we still have a bunch of things happening this winter. Here are a few of them:
Glacier Skiing Course 25-26 February. With lift access at Whistler to start the trip we’ll get you into heavily glaciated terrain quickly to get straight to learning the skills needed to take your ski touring to the next level.
Avalanche Skills Training Two at Mount Cain 23-26 March. Takes your avalanche training to the next level at a legendary island location.
Ski Tour/Introduction to Winter Mountain Travel March 31/01 April. An island based ski tour for first time ski tourers or those with experience wanting to learn more from a professional guide.
Avalanche Skills Training One. Our last AST1’s of the season are running 3/4 March at Mount Cain (a bit of a drive but our favourite place to do these courses); and 10/11, 17/18 and 24/25 March at Mount Washington.
There is much more to tell you about but rather than list them all here we’ll suggest that you cruise around the site and see what interests you. Then get in touch and ask us questions. We’ll help steer you toward the trip or course that is best for you.
Hope to see you out in the mountains soon!
As our readers may know avalanche skills training is gaining popularity quite quickly in mountainous western Canada. In fact Canada can now claim to having the most successful recreational avalanche training system in the world. This even includes all of those densely populated European alpine countries. This growth in western Canada has also been seen here on Vancouver Island. Over the past five years Island Alpine Guides has met the growing demand for avalanche training with high quality avalanche courses taught by the islands most experienced mountain professionals. As a result we have become the go to avalanche course provider for just about 100% of individuals and institutions here on the island.
On our courses we are giving people some excellent statistically based tools to assist them in making decisions in avalanche terrain. One of these is the Avaluator Trip Planner. This tool allows the user to cross reference the forecast avalanche danger from an avalanche bulletin with the severity of the terrain on a selection of trips so that they can choose a trip given the current and forecast avalanche conditions that falls within the level of risk that they are comfortable with.
The Avalanche Danger Scale is an international five point scale, details of which are easily found on the avalanche bulletin web site at islandavalanchebulletinl.com or on the Canadian Avalanche Centre web site at avalanche.ca.
The Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) was developed by Parks Canada to help backcountry users assess the severity of the terrain encountered in a given trip. It has three terrain classes that describe the exposure of terrain to potential avalanche hazard. ATES ratings are compiled by professionals who consider eleven weighted terrain parameters in ranking a trip or tour as Simple, Challenging, or Complex. Which finally brings us to what this blog is really about: We have finally managed to make some time to start rating some island trips! You’ll find the first ones that we have done at the island avalanche bulletin web site at the ATES Trip Planning page. Have a look and send us your feedback. Plan your trips carefully and keep checking the site for additions to the list of ATES rated island trips. Also please let us know which island trips interest you so that we know which ones to rate next.
The Avalanche Skills Training Two may be better for you than the professional level one.
With about 250 students a year coming through our avalanche training programs we start to see some trends in our students’ motivations and objectives. One of the subjects we address quite often is the role of the Canadian Avalanche Association Industry Training Program (CAA ITP) for recreationists interested in avalanche training. For many people, having done an avalanche skills training one, they believe that the logical next step is to carry on to a professional level one course. For most of the people who ask us about this the answer is actually that this is not the best next move.
First of all let’s deal to all the acronyms! The AST program is the Avalanche Skills Training Program which has been developed by the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) to train winter recreationists to make good decisions in avalanche terrain. The CAA ITP is the Industry Training Program developed by the Canadian Avalanche Association to train avalanche technicians working in avalanche hazard control operations.
Most recreational ski tourers, sledders, snow shoers and snowboarders take avalanche training because they want to be better equipped to make good decisions when they are traveling in avalanche terrain. They recognize that the environment that they choose to recreate in has inherent hazards and that they need to learn how to manage these for themselves.
At the highest levels an avalanche forecaster also manages risk in avalanche terrain but typically he/she is taking responsibility not only for themselves but for clients (if they are a guide), a ski area (if they are forecasting for a commercial ski mountain) or human structures (if they are for example in highways avalanche control). To get to this level the professional avalanche forecaster undergoes a lengthy process of training, mentoring and field experience that lasts for many years. The ITP Level One is the entry level of that process. As an apprentice avalanche technician the student on these courses learns the skills they will need to work under an experienced forecaster primarily in a data collection role. The emphasis here is on taking weather, snowpack and avalanche observations to a professional standard with the decision making being done experientially under supervision while working as an apprentice after having taken the ITP Level One.
The Avalanche Skills Training Two on the other hand is designed for recreationists that want to go out into the mountains and make decisions. Your valuable time is not spent on professional standard observations and all the attendant hieroglyphics! Instead on an AST2 we spend a lot of our time in the snow, practicing skills that will help you in planning your trips and making decisions while you are out on those trips. Simply stated this course is designed for recreational decision makers who are keen to take their decision making to the next level.
So what I am getting at here is this: If you want to become a professional avalanche forecaster and are looking to get a job as an apprentice in this field, then take the ITP Level One course. The skills you will learn will allow you to apprentice under a forecaster as you progress slowly toward becoming a forecaster yourself. The focus will not be so much on decision making as on data collection. If on the other hand you are wanting to spend time in the mountains recreating and want skills to make decisions right now, then the AST2 is the logical next step. It is also worth noting that the AST2 is typically a four day course that costs about $500 whereas the ITP Level One is seven to eight days long and costs about three times that much. Before spending that amount of money it would be worth your while to consider exactly what your objectives are in taking the course and which course is a better fit.
If you are considering moving on to the next level of avalanche skills training and have questions about your options, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re always happy to answer questions.
As some of my readers know, I wear a number of hats, especially in the winter time. Guiding for Island Alpine Guides as well as running the company, guiding and running operations at Pantheon Heli Skiing in the Mount Waddington area and avalanche forecasting and running operations for the Vancouver Island Avalanche Bulletin. It is the last of these roles that I want to write about in this blog because I have a proposal for you to get involved that is both about the bulletin but also about your avalanche education.
One of the more common questions I hear about the Vancouver Island Avalanche Bulletin is “ how do you guys get the data to write your forecasts?”. The answer in short is this: twelve weather stations situated all around the mountainous parts of Vancouver Island, field observations from Island Alpine Guides instructors and guides working on courses and trips, field observations from bulletin forecasters on dedicated data gathering field trips, field observations from other avalanche forecasters working in the field on the island (for example those working on Mount Washington’s avalanche control program) and field observations from recreationists who are doing trips in the island mountains.
The last of the data sources above is the one I want to talk about: it’s you! And I don’t want you to think of this just as a call for information, it is more than that, it’s an opportunity for a partnership.
As anyone who has embarked on avalanche education knows, the learning process in the avalanche world is a complex and a long one. It involves formal training (AST1, AST2, ITP1, ITP2 etc.) and it requires real field experience and mentorship ..... a lot of it. In fact as a portion of the process of becoming a competent recreationist in avalanche terrain or an avalanche professional, formal training plays a very small role and experience and mentorship will take up much, much more of your time. We, the forecasters at the avalanche bulletin, can help you accelerate that process. Every time you send us your observations of avalanche activity, weather, snow quality, snowpack etc.. from your trips into the mountains we’ll likely come back to you with questions. These questions will refine the information that we are getting from you to make it more useful data for the bulletin. But these questions will also highlight for you what you should be looking for when you are out there and will refine your observation skills and decision making over time. As a continual feed back loop this interaction will get more and better data for the bulletin over time and will move you along in your learning process toward whatever goals you have in the avalanche realm be they to become a solid recreational decision maker in avalanche terrain or to pursue a career in the avalanche world.
Whether you have just taken an AST1 course and are embarking on the learning journey or if you are a professional apprentice (ITP1), we can help you develop your skills, and in the process you’ll be increasing the quality of the data stream that the bulletin has available making our forecasts better all the time.
So get involved! head out on lots of trips in the mountains this winter and send us an email when you get back. We’ll be sure to respond and we’ll start a relationship that has you helping out your bulletin and getting something back for your own learning all at once!
Looking forward to hearing from you!