Running Away from Scary Avalanches

My friends and I took up backcountry skiing at the same time. A few years ago, as broke students we all simultaneously realized that we couldn’t afford resorts anymore. The burden of rent, tuition and the need to eat overpowered our desire to shell out a hundred plus dollars per day on a lift ticket.

When we took up backcountry skiing we were terrified. Fresh out of avalanche safety training, we made our way to the slopes and realized that the strongest lesson we had learned, is that we knew nothing. Nothing.

We have since grown as backcountry skiers, and along with this growth came the development of a risk-reward balance. The more we began to understand.  We have grown more accustomed to the risks and developed our own balances between risk and reward. The group I have chosen to ski with though varied in our skill level and personalities have on thing in common. We are big mountain chickens. We run away more often then we reach the top. We jump ship at the first sign of trouble. Quite frankly I feel no shame in doing this.

A few weeks ago our party of 4 had tentatively skinned up into a heavily treed area. The sounds the snow was making were sounds I had never heard before. The amount of cracking and whumping, the sheer size of the settling areas was something I had never experienced before. We ran the hell away. We ran away from some amazing terrain and a *literal* foot of fresh because our risk reward balance was WAY off.

We ended up having an awesome couple of days hiding from avalanches. We convinced my (totally rad) parents to tow us up a fire road behind their SUV, skied down some mountain bike trails and had the best resort day in recent memory. We had a hell of a lot of fun and managed to stay out of any sort of avi terrain.

Backcountry sports require a serious re-adjustment of expectations on a regular basis. You have to be flexible, and willing to make last minute plans. Beyond all of that, you can’t take it too seriously (unless you’re somehow managing to pull a paycheck off of it). We can all get wrapped up in our plans, and lose sight of what is really important. Maintaining perspective is something that we all have to work on.

This season has been a particularly bad one. Conditions have flip flopped between “ungodly cold” and “trying to kill me”. It’s so easy to get cabin fever and head out in conditions that are less than prime and potentially dangerous. For me and my group, it’s a matter of keeping each others egos in check and coming up with safe places/activities to keep us busy until the hazard subsides.

Personally, my risk reward balance means that I run away a lot, and that’s fine. Other people may have continued up when we turned back and that’s fine too, provided there is an understanding of what risks are being accepted.

Internal Focus and Mountain Sports

Due to the combination of awkward-shoulder-season and a recently borked knee the top three choices of ways to spend my weekend (trad alpine, cragging and scrambling) were out of the question.  I really do like biking. It’s a great way to cover a lot of country in a day and while it has distinct limitations (particularly within the national parks where I live in the summer.) It’s a perfectly pleasant way to spend a day and serves as a very different sort of adventure.

This weekend, I went on the first lengthy trail ride of the season. All in it ran somewhere in the 60 km vicinity and circumnavigated the Rundle Range. It’s an easy trail by any standards, but there was a section about 8km in length that can best be described as “all of the tree roots ever.”

Despite being bumpy, and difficult to navigate, I really enjoyed the rooted section. It required a level of concentration much akin to climbing. While most of the ride was a very straightforward peddle up and down some hills, the single track treed section required a connection to one’s actions that was not present during the rest of the ride.

The connection to motion is what I get the most out of during any adventure. Climbing forces me to concentrate on a single thing at once, blocking out any exterior stressors to focus, maintain control, and successfully complete whatever small goal I am trying to achieve. Being able to achieve an internal point of focus, and working through the motions towards a successful hill climb, or climbing sequence is challenging and rewarding.

It’s about small victories, which is refreshing in a world of long term plans and lofty goals. I guess this is my version of living in the moment.

Pulleys and Prussiks: Rope rescue practice day at the Uni.

Yesterday was rope rescue practice day at the University climbing wall. I’ve done a rope rescue course in the past, but rescue systems are one of those things you need to practice at. The individual aspects of a rescue system aren’t overly complex, but it’s the sort of thing that needs to be done with a careful order and the rescuer needs to remain methodical under stress. Having time in a controlled setting to go over the process of setting up systems, transferring loads and working through various scenarios is very helpful.

We did a bit of work with pulleys to start, and my friend Mara was patient enough to let me haul her up the wall. It’s been years since I’ve last set up a pulley system, so it took a rather long time to find the more effective way to begin hauling.  In the end, I found that the 5:1 was too slow, and little vertical gain was made for each pull. I ended up using a 3:1 with a Petzl Oscillante. Being a fairly light person, I attached a prussic from my harness to the pull end and used my body weight to pull the rope through the system. Once I figured out the 3:1 with the body weight prussic, it worked pretty well.

This was the first time I’ve ever used a commercially made pulley, and I was surprised at what a difference it made over a simple carabineer pulley. I bought my over pulley today at MEC (Cheap-y McCheaperson’s $10 Stubai pulley) which will be coming with me on all further alpine adventures.

We also did some practice tandem rappelling. The biggest problem I had with tandem rappelling was escaping the belay at the top. The mental process of working through transferring the load off the ATC, moving it to a prussik, and finally counter weighting the system with your own body weight took a while but I eventually worked it out.  While I was able to do it unassisted and without having to look up the sequence, it took quite a bit of hard thinking to work through the steps. Load transfer is definitely something I will be spending more time on in the future.

None of this stuff is particularly complex on it’s own, it’s just a matter of working through it slowly and carefully. With more practice, I know it will come along smoother and quicker.  There are tentative plans to do some more rope work in the coming weeks, so I should be able to get in a decent amount of practice before the outdoor season kicks off.

I’ve also realized that almost half of my locking biners have gone missing, and I do not have nearly as many slings as I thought I did. the MEC trip ended with a small mountain of new biners, slings and various other small bits of gear. If nothing else, I have enough gear to rescue a small village, and I suppose that’s some sort of accomplishment.

My life is so hard: Round One

Now that my weekend job of cross country ski instructing has wrapped up for the season, I’m doing my best to spend as much time as humanly possible in the backcountry.

Last weekend 6 of us packed up hellishly early and drove out to Bow Summit. Bow Summit is along the Ice-field parkway, and although it’s a fair distance from Calgary, skiers from the city are still drawn out there. There are a few reasons for this as far as I could tell. First off, there is essentially zero approach. If your descent is properly planned, it’s pretty easy to descend all the way to the parking lot without having to re-skin. Second, Bow summit pretty well always has good weather, and this weekend was no exception. Despite looming clouds on the drive out, we had clear skies all day, and with the exception of a bit of wind slab at the top, the snow was fantastic. There is also a great deal of good skiing below tree line, so even if the avi conditions are less than favourable, skiing isn’t completely ruled out.

We managed to get 3 laps in, and despite my super ancient 200cm skis, I managed to get in a fair number of turns. I mean, there was a fair bit of face planting as well, but my telemark guru has told me that if I’m falling on my face, at least I’m in the right position. I’m definitely feeling a dire need for a gear upgrade, backcountry skis just popped up to the top of the gear priority list.

After listening to so many of my friends go on and on about how awesome ice climbing is, I finally had the chance to get out for myself. My usual climbing partner and our mutual friend drove out to King Creek, which has three falls pretty close together, about 20 mins from the trailhead. They’re graded at WI 2/3+, so it was nothing particularly difficult, but it was so much fun!

I have a fair bit of climbing experience, but ice climbing is a totally different ball game. It’s sort of novel to be able to get a massive jug hold wherever you want it. It took a little while to get used to the crampons, and I had to consciously not try to smear my feet (shocking I know, but smearing on ice really doesn’t work.) I definitely have intentions of getting out again. Soon.

Night Riding

Thanks to the unseasonable warmth that Calgary has been experiencing recently, I’ve been able to get out riding  a lot more. Despite the spring temperatures, we’re still living in a winter solar cycle, so it gets dark a lot earlier than it gets cold. As nice as it is to see so many people out enjoying the trails, there are a few things that drive me absolutely up the wall when it comes to night cycling.

1. Get an appropriate front light. Your 100 lumen headlamp set on strobe mode isn’t doing anyone any favors. Not only have you blinded oncoming traffic, you’re destroying your own night vision.I should be able to see you from a reasonable distance, but I don’t need to be able to see you from Mars.

2. Red Blinky goes on the back. Once again with the ultrabright rear blinky. Not necessary, and almost more of a hazard than a help. Think of it like a car. White light up front, red light in the rear.

3.Get a bell and use it. Not only are you legally required to have a noise maker of some variety, it decreases your chances of some surprised biker or pedestrian swerving into you.

4.  Stay on the right hand side. This goes for pedestrians as well. Treat the trail like a road. Stay on your own side.

5. Dogs. Keep them on a leash! walk them on the outside of the trail. Put yourself between your dog and people trying to pass. I get that you have the right to walk your dog or whatever, but for god’s sake don’t compromise everyone else’s safety for it.

It’s not difficult to get along and share the trail as long as we don’t ride like idiots. Lets stay safe and stay happy.

2011 Ski supplement

After too many late nights and hours spend organizing and editing, The 2011 Gauntlet ski supplement is out (ok, it was out a couple weeks ago…i’m a little behind)I helped edit last year’s supplement, and I picked it up again this year.

Despite the amount of work, it’s a lot of fun, with the added bonus of copping some free ski days. I got out to fernie on comped tickets this year.

Ski Supp is one of teh few opportunities I get to use really big photos, so my inner photo nerd really enjoys making the photos the focus of the page. Words are great, but when it comes right down to it, I’m a pictures sort of person. Even though I was given most of the colour pages in the paper, I still had an unfortunate amount of Black and white. Nevertheless, I think it looks pretty good.

I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. It would have been nice to get a few more pages of content, but when you have to rely on volunteers, I’ll take what I can get. The supp pdf can be found here. Enjoy! A lot of people put a lot of time and effort into this.

127 hrs.

I had the chance to go to a screener of Danny Boyle’s latest film, 127 hours yesterday. I was a little surprised to see James Franco cast in the lead role. Considering the last role I saw Franco play was Allen Ginsberg in “Howl” the character of doomed climber Aron Ralston seemed like a bit of a departure.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Ralston is the famed climber who ended up with his hand trapped between a chockstone and a cliff wall in Canyonlands Utah.  With extremely limited resources, and having told no one where he was headed for the weekend, Ralston spends 127 hrs (hence the title) trapped with no hope of escape. Once he ran out of water, Ralston hacked off his own arm (about midway up the forearm) with a dull multi tool and escaped.

Ralston wrote a book about his experience, entitles “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, and he’s still an avid climber. There’s a shot at the end of  the film of real-life Ralston mountaineering with an ice axe head for a prosthetic arm. Certainly he was shortsighted in not telling anyone where he was going, and he certainly took a lot of unecessary risks, but the fact that he survived, makes him pretty frickin badass.

There are very real risks in climbing, no matter how good a climber you are, no matter how you prepare, things can go wrong. It’s up to each of us as individuals to limit these risks. What I got out of this? As morbid as it seems. . . always have a knife.

I love climbing, and I am aware of the risks that go along with the sport. My hope is that this film doesn’t discourage anyone from getting outside, but acts as a reminder that we don’t always hold the cards.