Winter Predictions

Posted on Sep 20, 2015

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

Hiking or Mountaineering?

Posted on Jun 18, 2015

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?

Snow 

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.

Glaciers 

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.

Rock 

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

Making the Most of this "Winter"

Posted on Mar 21, 2015

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:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjHYJbh8mAM&feature=channel
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!

Happy adventures!

Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides

Guest Blog - Phillip Stone

Posted on Oct 21, 2014

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!

Ropes: Single, Half & Twin

Posted on Sep 22, 2014

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 Rope

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

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

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 jan@islandalpineguides.com.

Happy autumn!

Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides