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

What's up with rock rescue?

Posted on Aug 15, 2013

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!


Critical Self Analysis

Posted on May 27, 2013

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.


Spring Time!

Posted on Apr 18, 2013

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:

One Day Intro Rock Climbing 21 April

Arrowsmith Spring Ski Lines 11 May

One Day Crevasse Rescue 18 or 19 May

Juan de Fuca Trail 25-28 May

West Buttress of Rambler Peak 4-7 June

Three Day Alpine Skills Course 8-10 June

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

Trip Planning Resources 2

Posted on Feb 19, 2013

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: 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 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:

First hand accounts - There is no end to the fora on line on which you might find good trip reports. and 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