Spring in the Island Alps

Posted on Mar 23, 2012

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!

Your Alpine Education

Posted on Feb 15, 2012

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!


Finally, Island ATES.

Posted on Jan 10, 2012

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.

Happy trails!


AST2 vs ITP1 ... acronyms!

Posted on Dec 14, 2011

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.

The Avalanche Bulletin & You

Posted on Nov 17, 2011

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!