Deep Instabilities

Posted on Mar 31, 2014

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!

Jan

Guest Blog - Rob Wood

Posted on Jan 22, 2014

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

Rescue Practice - Good/Bad?

Posted on Jan 13, 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 AST

Posted on Dec 4, 2013

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.

Steep Skiing

Posted on Oct 18, 2013

Steep Skiing.

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