Posted on Mar 15, 2016
For the Love of Our Clients - Guest Blog by Ken Wylie
Posted on Jan 19, 2016
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.
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
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?
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
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:
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