Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Caribou Cabin Christmas 2011

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.  Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

Doug and I aren't really materialistic type folks. We each own one pair of skis, one pair of mountaineering boots, one backpack, etc. In other words, we try to keep our possessions to what we need to recreate with a reasonable degree of safety while having a reasonable degree of fun. After all, you can only wear one pair of skis or boots at a time, and I challenge anyone to have fun while carrying two backpacks.

More and more, Christmas seems to be about what people can buy, rather than what people can do for the planet, their communities or each other, so, we usually escape the crass commercialism of Christmas by skiing into a small cabin somewhere.

This year, we went back to the Caribou Cabin in Mount Revelstoke National Park. Our last visit was in 2004 (I think, although it could have been 2005) when a group of six of us booked the entire cabin. This time it was just Doug and I, and we booked two spots, but had the cabin to ourselves.

We spent a delightful Christmas up there, skiing every day, and enjoying quiet evenings reading and stretching. Not at all a typical North American Christmas, we may be among the few healthy people in the country who dropped a few pounds over the holiday period - but trail-breaking will do that for you.

Here's wishing you found yourself some real Christmas spirit in 2011, avoided bloating your waist-line or your credit card debt, and remembered that life is about experiences not possessions. 

 Tranquility

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Empty The Mind

A mind that is already full cannot take in anything new.  Zen Master

Yesterday, I was out acting as an (unrecognized by the person who invited me) co-leader on a ski trip that an acquaintance of mine ran for our local mountaineering club. I was there ostensibly to help with some avalanche skills training that she intended to run at the beginning of the tour. Turns out, this training was reasonably abbreviated as there were only three of us on the trip, and the one fellow who had signed up, went on one or two guided ski weeks a year and thus practiced under the tutelage of an ACMG certified ski guide at least once a year (which is much more than the general recreational population) and, frankly, was reasonably adept.

My acquaintance, has now come to self-describe herself as a "guide", after taking some courses offered by one of the big heli-ski companies in Canada - courses that are unrecognized by the ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides), the gold standard for professional guide training in Canada. Frankly, I was surprised as her mountain experience is quite limited and her trips frequently end in semi-disaster. In fact, I would say, she lacks mountain sense.

I wish I had the tact, diplomacy, or possibly even the courage, to give her feedback on her leadership performance, but I lack all three. Years of general living have led me to the conclusion that unsolicited feedback is seldom welcome and even less frequently heeded. Now, I take the easy way out and say nothing, unless an opinion is requested. Which, while it saves many friendships, does not cultivate skill development.

Had I more tact, diplomacy and courage, here is what I would love to share with her:
  • Know where you plan to ski. She and I had spoken the night before, and I had said I knew a location where we could find good snow and no ski-tracks within a reasonable distance. Well and good, but the responsibility for the trip lies with the leader and the leader should know exactly where they are going, how they are going to get there, what navigational landmarks they can use, where the decision points are, and what alternatives are available should the party be weaker/stronger than anticipated or the conditions different.
  • Communicate the plan to the group. At the beginning of the tour make sure everyone knows and agrees with the plan. During the tour, continue to update the group as the plan evolves, changes, or even stays the same.
  • Change the plan if conditions warrant. A cold morning in a dark valley is not conducive to standing around practicing with an avalanche beacon. Reschedule for later in the day in a sunny location.
  • Know where you are going. Blindly following an existing skin track won't necessarily get you where you are going. Orient yourself as frequently as required with the map, check off your navigational landmarks as you pass them. Stay found.
  • Use good group management skills. At the top of a run, point out possible hazards, set regroup points for the descent, keep an eye on the people skiing with you. Don't take off at warp speed into the trees leaving the slower, weaker skier behind. Leapfrog regroup locations setting the next as soon as you reach the previous. Set a tail gunner for both the way up and the way down. Don't let the weakest member of the party fall to the end of the group.
  • Reiterate the plan. At each transition, reorient yourself and your group and make sure people know what the next leg of the journey entails.
  • Wait for your group where ever there is a possibility of a wrong turn. The correct fork in the trail may be clear to you, but is not necessarily clear to the participants who have never been in this location before. Wait at junctions to ensure everyone in your party goes the right way.
  • Clearly communicate safe travel practices. When crossing through terrain traps, communicate and demonstrate safe travel practices.
  • Debrief. There's a lot you could learn from this experience.

Ultimately, as is clear, I said nothing, my sense, after hearing her talk about how much she knew about the mountains, about group management, about communicating, about her skill level convinced me that to speak was more likely to give offense than to provide a learning opportunity. To quote the Zen Master: a mind that is already full cannot take in anything new.

Keep the group together


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blinkered and Blinded

I once was blind, but now I see.  John Newton


I was out on a ski tour the other day, and one of our group was getting a little excited about checking our avalanche beacons. My preference is to ski a little away from the side of the road to check beacons and also, particularly on cold days, to warm up a little. Some might argue that checking your beacon near the vehicle means you can do something productive if one person's avalanche beacon is malfunctioning, but I don't actually know anyone who carries a spare beacon in their vehicles, and, for simple failures like dead batteries, we always have spare batteries in our repair kit.

In any case, the beacon check was duly completed and we carried on. What struck me as ironic was, during the course of our tour, we skied through one narrow terrain trap with steep slopes overhead on either side, we crossed the middle of another avalanche path, and, at one point began switchbacking up under another avalanche path. On each occasion, two of us spaced out, made sure the others crossed safely, and, finally, suggested that a more reasonable route was to switchback in the trees to the side instead of continuing under the avalanche path. In each of these instances, the person so very concerned with checking our beacons seemed totally oblivious.

The conventional wisdom is that there are three things you should never tour without: an avalanche beacon, a probe and a shovel. I think there is really one thing you should never tour without, and that's the ability to evaluate terrain. I have seen this same constellation of practices so many times I have come to expect it. People obsess over whether or not they have the latest greatest avalanche beacon (or other gadget) yet ski around in the backcountry without recognizing even the most obvious avalanche terrain.

I feel certain that 90% of these people could actually recognize avalanche terrain were they in a comfortable stress free environment, but, some how, put them out in the mountains traveling through unfamiliar terrain, generally following someone else, and the blinders go on. 
Spacing out to travel through a terrain trap

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Top Of The Mountain

Those at the top of the mountain didn't fall there Author unknown.

Yesterday was the first of a series of ski tours I am leading for my local mountaineering club during the winter of 2011/2012. I thought long and hard about putting these tours on the schedule, all of which are designed to be more physically and technically difficult than the regular tours on the schedule. There is no doubt that doing any tour as a club trip versus as a casual tour with friends increases both your stress level and the amount of preparatory work you have to do, while taking longer.

After giving the matter lots of thought, I worked out that the real reason I was hesitating was because I would be pushing myself out of my comfort envelope to a degree. Much like getting out of bed early on a cold winter morning, staying cocooned in our habits is comfortable.

Being a trip leader, at least a good trip leader, involves carefully planning a route that is as safe as possible given the current conditions, planning for contingencies, screening participants so that the obviously incapable do not come, but at that the same time taking people who will do well with a little coaching, navigating and route-finding during the day, coaching the weaker folks, while holding back the stronger folks, and, finally, making a never-ending series of constant, small but consequential decisions throughout the day. All of this while empowering people on the trip so that they don't feel led around by the nose, but also don't unknowingly stray into hazardous terrain or circumstances. Clearly, going with one or two friends is much easier.

But, if life were all easy we would seldom appreciate its rewards.
Group on top of the second summit of the day
 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dark Horses

A dark horse, which had never been thought of, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph.        Benjamin Disraeli.

Conventional wisdom tells us that, should we have a goal we want to achieve, one of the most productive steps we can take in reaching that goal is to tell others about our goal. I've always found this puzzling, as, truthfully, my observations run contrary to this long standing dictum. In fact, the people who are always talking about what they are going to do, in fact, seem to be the least likely to actually do anything.

Turns out, the conventional wisdom is wrong. A host of studies, only one of which I'll reference here, show that people who talk about what they will do are actually less likely to act. Talking about what they are going to do, replaces actually doing anything as some how, people make themselves believe they have already done the work/achieved the goal.

Marc Twight grasped this concept succinctly with his famous quote: "Talk - action = zero." So, less talk, more action.
Climbing the west ridge of Solomons in the Sierra Mountains


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Inspiration

A while ago, I met a guy who has changed the way I look at climbing. On our recent trip to EPC, I admit I was feeling every day of my 48 years, and was beginning to think "I am just too old for this kind of stuff." Then I met Mr X, who, as it turns out, is only four years younger than me, and, through diligence, hard work, tenacity and raw desire had, for the first time in years, pushed his maximum climbing grade up 3 or 4 notches.

What did I learn from Mr X:
  • Don't make excuses. You aren't too old, too short, too weak or too heavy, you just aren't trying hard enough;
  • Take responsibility. If you blow the move, look at what you did that resulted in you coming off. Were you in balance, were you weighting your feet correctly, using holds the best possible way, what could you change to succeed next time?
  • Train hard, but train smart;
  • Learn everything you can, and then more;
  • Never give up;.
  • Believe that you can do it;
  • Climb just because you love it.
Climb on.

Going for a hold on Satori

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Importance of Having Goals

I am always trying to improve my climbing, and, to that end, I've been reading a whole bunch of training books and website information. One of the sites I read, has a section on pull-up training and, just under two weeks ago I started this pull-up training strategy.

My first day was November 29 and I was able to do a total of 8 full pull-ups, the rest I did as negatives with 5 seconds at top position and lowering for 5 seconds. Now, 13 days later, I just did 15 full pull-ups in sets of 5. Not a bad increase for under two weeks.

Apart from the physical aspect of this training strategy, I found that having a goal of getting at least 5 pull-ups out per set, really encouraged me to struggle and strain and fight to get that last pull-up out. Previously, I had simply been doing "maximum" pull-ups, but, without a concrete number to aim for, copping out and mentally giving up was too easy.

A concrete measurable goal really helps focus your mental energy, which, after all, is what drives your physical capabilities.
Pull-up Training on the Millenium Bridge

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mountain Sense

The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change. Carl Rogers

I was out on a training day today with a volunteer group I belong to, and there was a lot of talk about making various pieces of equipment mandatory. Things like helmets, one certain (very expensive) brand of avalanche transceiver, airbags, GPS units. The striking thing about the group was that fully 30% were wearing their avalanche beacons on the outside of their clothing and had various pieces of equipment, including all important safety equipment such as shovels and probes, loosely attached to the outsides of their packs. Most had inefficient travel techniques, were not in good physical condition and seemed to have little idea where we were or where we were going.

My observations were that most people in the group lacked "mountain sense." Mountain sense is hard to define, but comprises among a host of technical skills, situational awareness and the ability to apply the right technique at the right time and in the right place.

While experience is a necessary ingredient for the developing mountain sense, experience alone is insufficient. In order for experience to lead to mountain sense, you must critically evaluate your experience. A tough thing for most of us, admitting, as we surely must, that there are many areas for improvement.

No amount of equipment, no matter how expensive or technologically advanced, can take the place of knowing exactly what needs to be done, when and performing proficiently. 

Easy ice to down-climb but with this group, 
setting up a rappel anchor was most appropriate


Friday, December 9, 2011

Training Days

Today we skied up Airy Creek FSR to the diminutive Shaker Cabin below Airy Mountain. A good day for training both physical and mental. It's a long slog up the road, probably about 10 or 11 km to roads end and about 4,100 feet of elevation gain. From roads end, a further 500 feet of elevation gain and 2 km leads to a flat area in the woods and the cabin. Not a particularly tough day, but somewhat grueling on a number of counts. The road was sledded into hard ruts, the temperature was cold, there were large sections of alder covered road that took some push to get through, and, most trying of all, skiing up logging roads is tedious and boring.

By the time we had a late lunch by the cabin, the sun had already dipped below the mountains and the temperature was bombing again. We did not have enough daylight left to gain the ridge above the cabin, a further 2 km and 300 metres of elevation gain, so stripped our skins and skied out. That took some toughness too, as it was probably one of the less pleasant descents I've done. Above the road was reasonable, although the 10 day old snow is getting very stiff. The road, however, involved a face whipping from alder, and a hard rattling descent down a narrow sled track with your legs frozen into position.

Like I said, a good training day. 
Doug at the Shaker Cabin
 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Who Knows Best

Last night was SAR training. Three people, all "ski guides" - though with varying degrees of education and expertise - showed their ski packs. There were some small but significant differences between packs and between how each presenter was evaluated by the audience.

Two kinda hip guys went first. The first one, who had a plethora of pieces of clothing shoved randomly into his pack, claimed that he didn't mind carrying extra weight as he is a big guy (good thing as he is carrying 30 extra pounds on the belly), and, most perturbing, had his shovel handle loosely strapped to the outside (the way he typically carries it). The second, a super hip kinda guy, had a glacier rescue kit, although there is no glacier skiing in our area, included a half sleeping bag that only came up to the waist, and had his compass hidden away in a tupperware container with a lot of other junk in the bottom of his pack. The third guy, not hip at all: older, grey haired, beaten up clothing. His pack was lined with a tough plastic bag, his compass and other essential equipment was readily accessible, there was nothing on the outside of his pack.

As the not hip guy presented, I saw looks going between various other people in the room as if to say "this old grey haired guy, what does he know."

I thought the old grey haired guy knew way more than the others. He knew that stuff in a pack can get wet; very, very wet, even when it is snowing not raining, and even when it is doing neither. He also knew that having anything - let alone important safety gear on the outside of a pack is stupid. He didn't carry spare pieces of extra clothing that were essentially useless when one or two good pieces was all that was required. He didn't carry a glacier kit when he is not skiing on glacier. He did carry a comprehensive repair kit - something neither of the hip guys carried. In fact, his pack contained what it needed, nothing more, recognizing that extra gear and weight that is not necessary at some point impedes safety.

The best pack I've seen is that carried by a local mountain guide who has again, everything he needs and nothing more. Essentials are packed in little zip-lock bags to keep them dry, and are kept handy. First aid kit and repair kit are clearly marked so that in the event he is unable to access them, a client can easily do so. Everything is inside the pack, waterproofed, ready to go, nothing banging about on the outside.

So, who knows best, the hip dudes, whose inexperience was obvious, or the uncool guy with a thousand ski miles under his boots. 
There is way too much stuff on the outside of this pack

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

FRS Radios: How Good Are They?

Well, in my opinion, not good enough to replace good group management skills. Yesterday, I wrote about the big group going into the backcountry. Turns out, the planned method of crowd control for this group (11 and possibly growing) is the use of family radio service (commonly known as FRS radios). The group is now split between snowshoers and skiers and each group, the plan goes, will be equipped with one FRS to communicate with the other group.

Readers of this blog with experience in the backcountry will immediately see the pitfalls of this approach. Apart from all the things that can go wrong with radios - batteries dying, the unit failing, the operator failing to remember how to operate the unit, the radio getting lost, the radio not having the reception you thought it would - you really cannot manage a group adequately over a radio.

A good trip leader needs to be able to assess how the weaker members of the trip are doing, while holding back the stronger members of the group. Neither of these things can be accomplished over a radio - you have to have one to one communication with people to make this assessment. Nor can you fix a broken binding or broken bone, extricate someone from a tree-well, or even find the other group using a radio. It's one thing to use a radio when skiing at a resort to arrange to meet your buddies for lunch in the lodge, it is quite another to rely on one in the backcountry, in confusing terrain, with a group of beginners and when your own skill level is low.
  Grouped Up No Radios

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pattern Recognition

Pattern recognition has been posited as an explanation for how experts in their field can rapidly make decisions and embark on an appropriate level of action without spending a long time assessing the significance of a host of cues and processing a long list of possible action options.

Sometimes pattern recognition is startling, some times prosaic. On a recent backcountry ski trip to a little cabin, some people in the group recognized immediately the location to turn downhill to reach the cabin and even the small turns to the left and right that must be negotiated to get there. Talking about this later, one of the "pattern recognizers" explained that it was a "gestalt" of cues. Things like, the trees are scrappy to the north, there is an opening in the trees, and the slope angle is right. Others not recognizing any patterns or even single cues attempted to use a GPS to find the cabin. The pattern recognizers found the cabin immediately, the GPS users wandered around for half an hour, eventually abandoned the GPS and followed the attractant calls of the people at the cabin.

Last night, I received an email for an upcoming trip this weekend, and my pattern recognition software said "trouble ahead". I was not sure why, until I woke up this morning (I must have been pondering it in my sleep) and realized that there is a pattern to this trip that is common with all the other trips I have seen that run into problems. Too big a group, an inexperienced leader, travel into an area with few navigational cues, no snow for about 8 days so there many existing tracks to confuse people, a group with too wide a disparity of skill, experience and fitness.

As usual in these situations, I feel somewhat helpless to do anything about it. The majority of people do not want any advice on how they run their trips and will shun even the most tactfully offered suggestion. Plus, there is the problem of the less than competent having insufficient skill to recognize their own shortfalls. So, while I can see a host of problems that could follow, the naive see only an easy day out.

I hope the latter is true, but I fear for the former.

 A lot of woods to get lost in.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Only That Which Is Important

I just sat through two-thirds of this workshop last night and was reminded of youthful days in an uncomfortable church pew listening to a minister drone on and on, about something that seemed of little relevance or interest. After two hours of this, I was frankly ready to stick pins in my eyes to escape, and luckily, a break was on the horizon, during which I slipped out, took in big hearty breaths of the winter night air and felt glad to be alive.

I understand that a free workshop like this garners a mixed audience, some well educated and experienced in the backcountry, some novices, which makes programming a challenge. But, regardless of differing experience/education levels a short workshop like this should focus on a short list of the most important things any backcountry traveler, regardless of expertise, needs to know to stay safe in avalanche terrain this winter.

Unless this information was presented in the final hour of the workshop (which I missed) it was absent altogether. And, if it was presented in the final hour of the workshop, that begs the question of why the real "this is what you should know" information would be presented at the end of a long and tedious presentation, when, in all likelihood half the audience has dozed off.

Unfortunately, this workshop was not only tedious to sit through, it was also poorly organized. The venue was too small, it started late, which was made even later by a ridiculous and time consuming process of giving people raffle tickets for door prizes while everyone was already sitting/standing in the room waiting for the presentation to begin. There were two breaks. The first supposed to be five minutes, but clearly, you can't get 100 people in and out of a small room in five minutes, which stretched to 15 minutes. The second break followed within 15 minutes of the first, and seemed solely designed to sell CAA merchandize.

As a matter of courtesy to attendees, if you have people captive for three hours, respect their time, by starting on time, being organized, and, most importantly have something important to say.
 How do you avoid riding this?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Going, Going, Gone

I'm a big believer in tipping points. The idea that, things change incrementally and often unnoticed, but, at some stage in the process, a certain point is reached, and the entire system falls over the edge.

In my opinion, my local mountaineering club (and I use the term mountaineering very loosely) is at such a tipping point. The club, originally, and, in years past, full of very active people who actually did a lot of climbing and ski touring, has over the years gradually slipped towards the point wherein there are virtually no longer any mountaineering trips on the schedule and the most popular trips are easy half day hikes on trails and easy ski tours to little cabins.

We had a brief resurgence in climbing interest a number of years ago, that lasted for three or four years. This was soon after Doug and I joined the club, bringing fresh enthusiasm and energy to the club. We organized weekly climbing nights at the local gym, week long climbing camps, ran workshops and courses, and led trips. And, for a few years we had good attendance and interest. Climbing nights used to attract 6 to 12 people, climbing camp 6 to 10 people, workshops upwards of 10 or 12 people, and trips were reasonably well subscribed.

And, then, gradually and incrementally, interest waned. Weekly climbing nights staggered on for a couple of years with between 1 and 3 people showing up, until I canceled it due to lack of interest. Climbing camp garnered between 1 and 3 people, again, not enough to keep it going. Attendance at workshops and courses slowly trickled off, until even very well designed and taught courses offered at bargain prices could not be filled. And, finally, any enthusiasm for offering harder trips was lost because no-one signed up for them.

There has recently been a push to reinvigorate the club with membership posters and flyers placed around town, advertising at local outdoor events, and an honest, but disorganized effort to recruit more leaders who might lead more aggressive trips. While I am in favor of all of this in principle, I fear that the club has reached and fallen over the tipping point from which there is no return. 

A Good Turn Out For An Easy Ski Tour

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Good Training Day on Mount Grohman

Today Doug and I drove to 1400 metres on Grohman FSR and skied up Mount Grohman at about 2280 metres.  A nice almost 1000 metre elevation gain over about 9 km (one way).  Not a big day by any means, and, it didn't take us that long, but the snow was stiff from the recent wind and we had to break trail all the way so we got a decent work-out.  Days like this are good early season to get yourself back in shape for trail-breaking.  Particularly if you've spent the last month rock climbing (with short approaches) in Mexico.

The south ridge of Grohman was hugely wind-rolled, as ridges frequently are in the Kootenays, so skinning up this took some work.  The visibility was pretty much nil - in fact, we had some of the thickest fog I've ever skied in.  Skiing down, then, was necessarily by our up-track so we had some idea of where we were.  Lower down, in light timber, we were able to leave the track and ski the fall line.

A break in the weather as Doug nears the south ridge of Mount Grohman

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Technology and Avalanche Beacons

As a society, we all want to run out and buy the latest and greatest gadgets—but sometimes the fanciest beacon with the most features isn’t right for a particular user. Bruce Tremper.

Recently, I've been inundated (at least it feels that way) by people telling me I should buy the (relatively) new Barryvox Pulse avalanche beacon. I have resisted this pressure; which is actually not that difficult given the almost $500 price tag, and the fact that my current beacon works well, and I can find multiple buried beacons in under 5 minutes.

However, I have been out on numerous occasions now doing various rescue scenarios with at least a dozen people who own the Barryvox Pulse - from novice skiers to CAA Level 1 tail guides, to cat-ski guides - and I have seen enough people having trouble with the Barryvox Pulse to convince me that, as Tremper says, the fanciest beacon with the most features is not necessarily right for a particular user, or, in this case, multiple users of varying levels of expertise.

Here is a short list of the problems I have seen with the Barryvox Pulse:
  1. Multiple people unable to find a single buried beacon in a small area when the beacon is not deeply buried (the simplest scenario there is);
  2. Instances of Barryvox Pulse users walking right past more than one buried beacon (under 30 cm) but not being able to locate any;
  3. One relatively skilled operator unable to mark beacons and move on the next in a series of buried beacons in a timely manner;
  4. Instances of the beacon "seizing up" completely and having to be rebooted;
  5. Multiple instances of users becoming confused by widely swinging direction indicators in simple single burial scenarios such that they have been unable to find the beacon;
  6. Multiple users who choose to use the "group check" function without understanding what the group check does and wrongly supposing it checks all functions of all beacons.

These instances are disturbing as, they suggest to me, that a searcher with a Barryvox Pulse is NOT a reliable searcher in either simple single burial situations or more complex multiple burial situations. In fact, it seems likely to me that Barryvox Pulse users will be worse than other beacon users in multiple burial situations as they are unlikely to have practiced/learnt any other methods (such as micro-grid searches) to resolve multiple burials and are more likely to be reliant on technology.

I am unable to determine whether the beacon is at fault or the searcher. But, at this point it seems to me to be a moot point. I no longer trust the beacon, so I'll no longer trust anyone using one - unless I have documented evidence that a particular user is skilled not only using the special features of the beacon, but also in search strategies (such as the micro-grid) that do not rely on technology.

So, I'll continue to ski cautiously relying on avoidance rather than rescue, expertise over technology, and I'll have an extra $500 in the bank.

 Better to not get caught.  Skier below a size 2.5 in 
Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Companion Rescue

Today I took the field component of the new CAA Companion Rescue course. We started out with shoveling (the V conveyor, but any other similar system would work as well), then moved on to single beacon searches, then multiple beacon searches (the micro-grid technique works well), then various scenarios. I can't say there was anything dramatically new for me, but I keep up with what is going on, which not everyone does. In any case, the course is well worthwhile and gets you out practicing with your beacon and practicing shoveling. The more practice you do, the more efficiently you will respond if something goes wrong.
A smart solution for a probe target

Friday, November 25, 2011

Avalanche Involvements and First Day of the Season

Out for the first ski day of the season. Doug commented that it is only four months since he took his skis off. Summer is short in Canada. Conditions really are extraordinarily good. There is nearly 2 metres (170 to 190 cm) of snow out there, so coverage is as good as a normal January. The last storm dropped about 60 cm of snow. Pretty sweet skiing.

Last night I attended the first session of a new course the CAA is running called Companion Rescue. Although, the course is pretty much review for me, I always find there is some little tit-bit you can learn and getting out for structured practice sessions is really invaluable.

One of the more interesting things to me from the class room session was this list of common factors leading to avalanche involvements:
  • Ignorance of persistent weak layers (PWL);
  • Underestimating wind effects;
  • Rapid temperature change (usually rise);
  • Surprised at size propogation;
  • Not recognizing terrain traps;
  • Solo travel;
  • Underestimating run-out potential;
  • Distractions;
  • Human factors.
 Some powder mining in the Whitewater slackcountry

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why Travel?

On my recent trip to Mexico, it was hard not to notice the fact that many gringos complained about various things about the country (such as the food, the accommodation) because they weren't as they were used to back home. Why travel I wondered - if things were the same in a different country as they are in your own, would their be any reason to travel?

The thing that most peeved me about the complaints was how much people kvetched about the food. Personally, I couldn't see anything to complain about. Local Mexican produce, eggs, beef and chicken (fish was hard to come by) far exceeded, in taste, anything I have been able to purchase in North America, including the most highly priced organic products, and was cheap, costing the equivalent of a few dollars for many large bags of assorted produce. Really, what is to complain about?

I guess it comes down to people who must have brand name orange juice for breakfast and absolutely can not, under any circumstances, substitute a wonderful local orange or grapefruit, you Or, can only eat westernized pasta for grains but not locally produced corn tortillas. Whatever. Doug and I ate marvelously on the local produce, in fact, I really am missing my guavas and pineapples and wonderfully ripe avocados, not to mention the eggs, the peppers, the bananas, the papayas..... 

Cruising the Hidalgo market

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ya Gotta Watch Out

My philosophy in life is that we can all learn something from the people we encounter every day, but, a recent climbing trip to Portero Chico, reminded me that checking the facts with reliable sources is sometimes a good way to make sure what you are learning is, in fact, correct. When climbing with other experienced (yes) climbers, I noticed a number of gaffes being made which a less experienced climber could have mistaken for "best practices" - which they certainly were not.

Among the gaffes witnessed were:
  • The climbers who studiously put rubber bands on the bolt end of their quick draws and wondered why that handy rubber stabilizer wasn't put on both ends of the quickdraw in the factory;
  • The climber who used an ATC guide in auto-block mode to belay the second but used only one bolt of a two bolt anchor;
  • The climber who tried to "belay" himself as he was climbing using static dyneema sling;
  • The climbers who clipped the bolts with the bent gate carabiner on their quickdraws. 
 Seconding a three pitch route

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

All In A Dither Over Daisy

If you Google "daisy chain climbing" likely as not, you'll hit one of these sites that would have you believe that using a daisy chain when climbing is equal to certain and imminent death. Which is odd, because if you hang out at any climbing area, you'll see a lot of healthy looking climbers using daisy chains.

Recently, I did an eight pitch climb with a group of other climbers, one of whom was strongly and unwaveringly condemnatory of daisy chains. Without giving any reasons, he simply kept repeating "daisy chains are dangerous, daisy chains are dangerous" much like the alarm on my truck that annoyingly keeps pinging if I leave the headlights on and remove the keys. For purposes of clarity, I'd like to call this climber "Daisy."

This eight pitch climb ended a few feet below the summit of a little peak, and, required a series of rappels, two of which were from hanging belays to descend. We all scrambled the few feet from the top most bolt anchors to the real summit before descending. But, the descent back down to the rappel anchors from the summit was exposed fourth class. To descend back down to the rappel anchors, Daisy opted to girth hitch a couple of double length dyneema runners together which he then threaded through the one bolt on top and clipped to his harness. In essence, using a static dyneema sling for a climbing belay. Now this procedure is, of course, exactly the situation in which daisy chains (or any static sling) are dangerous as shown by numerous laboratory tests.

Luckily, another astute climber pulled Daisy up and corrected this procedure. But, shortly thereafter, we all arrived at the belay before the Tyrolean traverse which ended at a hanging belay. Now, 7 out of 8 of us had some kind of daisy chain/PAS on our harnesses and the transition from Tyrolean to hanging belay to rappel was smooth and quick. We simply Tyroloeaned across, clipped into the rappel station with our daisy/PAS, got onto the next rappel rope, unclipped and were gone in under a minute.

Not so for Daisy, who, Tyroleaned over, discovered he had nothing to anchor himself to the hanging belay with, so, while hanging uncomfortably in his harness, fussed about on his gear slings to find a cordellette, eventually managed to unclip one without dropping it, shortened it up with three loops, clipped it in, discovered it was too short, unclipped the whole thing, reshortened with two loops, clipped it in, with much straining, then, finally, got onto the rappel rope, found that with only two loops and his extended (don't get me started) system for his rappel device unclipping from the rappel anchor was virtually impossible, struggled, sweated, strained, had someone else unclip him, and, eventually rappelled down, presumably only to repeat the entire palaver all over again.

If ever there was a case for a daisy/PAS that was it. At the end of the day, if you are rappeling multi-pitch routes you are gonna need either a daisy, a PAS, or a couple of slings to anchor yourself to the rappel anchors as you transition from one rappel to another. Of course, none of these (daisy, PAS, sling) should be used in a situation where a fall can occur directly onto any one of these essentially static pieces of equipment, and, if you are using a traditional daisy (not a PAS) you should make sure you aren't just clipped into the stitching. But it ain't rocket science. 

Not a good use of a daisy chain

Monday, November 21, 2011

Addicted to the Internet?

Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee.  ~Montaigne

The irony of this topic is not lost on me, a blogger writing about excessive internet use. On my recent trip to Portero Chico, I gotta admit I was astonished, and, admittedly somewhat appalled by how many gringos absolutely needed to be on the internet every day, sometimes for hours a day. Here the gringos are in a foreign country with all kinds of things to see and do, and they spend hours every day sitting staring at a computer screen. In the most overt instances, people were spending more hours per day sitting in front of a computer screen than they were climbing. One individual spent literally 8 to 10 hours per day on the computer, and, never once went into the local market or explored the surrounding countryside! Ironically, trying to learn Spanish from the computer rather than by actually conversing with the local people.

I have absolutely no idea what is so compelling about sitting in front of a screen in a virtual world when the real world is outside waiting for you to explore and experience it. Have people lost the ability to make real world connections? Is interacting in a virtual world more appealing because you can recreate yourself as you would like to be rather than as you really are? What are we missing by exchanging virtual interactions with real world interactions with real people?

I don't know the answers to these questions as I have no ability to get into the head-space of people who willingly trade life in the real world - with all its warts and dimples - for life in a virtual world. But, I do know that there is something unwholesome, unhealthy and downright creepy about it. 

 A birthday party with real people at EPC, if you have to leave early to get on the internet, you might have a problem

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reflections on Portero Chico

Returning to Canada after a month in Portero Chico, Mexico was a shock - half welcome, half dreaded. Being back in our beautiful house in our peaceful neighborhood surrounded by forest, nature and wild animals is delightful, spending three hours shoveling frozen snow, less gratifying. Overall, however, I am glad to be back among the wild things with nature close-by, solitude at hand, evergreens sagging with snow, larch trees still holding a few golden needles in the valleys.

Already my memories of hot days spent rock climbing and wandering through the Hildalgo market are fading and I am looking ahead to the first ski days of the season. So, before my recall of Portero Chico is forever lost, here are a few thoughts:
  • Although Portero Chico is predominantly a sport climbing area (many cracks are bolted), that doesn't necessarily make it completely safe. Some routes have long run-outs between bolts, some bolts are bad, some routes are poorly bolted making falls onto ledges or the ground possible, and first bolts are notoriously high - too high for even the longest stick clip - so ground falls from 8 metres up are a possibility on almost every route.
  • Accidents happen with the usual regularity - while we were there a climber sustained a broken arm when his belayer lowered him off the end of his 60 metre rope on a 35 metre climb.
  • The high first bolts take some headspace to manage. Sometimes, the moves to the first clip are easy enough, but sometimes the 5.10 leader will find themselves pulling 5.9+ moves to get to the first clip located some 8 metres or so off the ground.
  • Once you've clipped the first bolt, the possibility of a ground fall is not ameliorated. I led at least two routes where a fall before clipping the second bolt would have resulted in a ground fall from 10 metres up. Not a happy thought.
  • There is frequently no "clipping stance" to clip from, although a stance a foot or two up or down is readily identifiable.
  • It is not uncommon to come across rusted old bolts that scarce look able to hold body weight or bolts where far too much of the bolt is sticking out of the rock. Sometimes the only safe option is retreat.
  • Simul-rappeling with a gri-gri is an efficient way to descend when you have multiple rappels to get off. We simul-rappeled almost everything except for one or two routes where the anchor bolts looked somewhat dodgy.
  • Take a headlamp, start early, follow the usual alpine climbing protocols. I watched one party that climbed too slow and started too late struggle down from a climb in the dark trying to rappel by braille.
  • Watch what your fellow climbers were doing. We saw many mistakes being made by people who had been climbing a long time.
  • Magic Ed's green book is indispensable, but "The Whole Enchilada" is really handy for quality ratings and some route photos. Just don't let Ed see that you have it.
  • Link pitches when you get. Most pitches on multi-pitch routes are 30 metres or less and time can be saved by linking pitches on the way up.
  • Carry a long sling or two. They are handy for all kinds of things.
  • Have comfortable rock shoes. We saw some trashed feet from hot weather climbing in too tight or technical shoes.
  • If the rappel route takes you down to a different location from the start of the climb and requires some scrambling on loose scree, carry your approach shoes up. This is sport climbing in good weather, your load is easily light enough to allow the addition of a pair of shoes, and you'll ruin either your feet or your knees trying to descend loose scree/talus in rock shoes - as we saw.
  • Some routes are really close together. Make sure you are on the route you think you are on. A couple of times we got on the wrong route by accident, finding them strangely hard for the grade.
  • The grades are neither soft nor hard. They are, like any other climbing area, a mixed bag. Some are soft for the grade, some will give you a real working over.
  • Have fun. After dozens and dozens of pitches, we only climbed one crappy pitch and the stellar third pitch on this three pitch climb more than made up for it. 
    Doug following pitch one of Skytop Buttress

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

From El Portero Chico

In El Portero Chico, in the northeastern part of Mexico, it is sunny, warm and grand weather for climbing – as it is most days. It is also Wednesday, just about 10 days after our arrival from the increasingly wet and cold British Columbia. There are six of us West Kootenay residents here for varying periods of time – Steve and Dany from Rossland for two months, Eva and Will from Nelson for two weeks, and Doug and I, splitting the difference for a month.

We've climbed everyday but one since we arrived, and everyone besides me is out climbing today. I have had a cold for about a week, and woke up this morning, feverish and achy and without a voice (some people might be glad about that). I think I kept Doug awake with some fairly incessant coughing in the night. So, despite having plans for a 7 pitch climb today, I stayed in and sent Doug off to climb at Mini-Super wall with the others.

So, today, I'm taking it easy, reading my book in the sun – delightful – and hanging around hoping my health will improve for tomorrow.

But, no-one is interested in that, what about the climbing? Well, the climbing, in a word, is fantastic. We have yet to do a bad route, and many have been superlative. The rock is limestone and is full of wrinkles and pulls, jug holds and threads, big and small pockets, cracks and crimpers. Generally, the routes are all sport routes, although there is a smattering of trad routes around, most climbers don't bring trad racks, so these have either fallen into obscurity or been retro-bolted. But, bolt spacing is not exactly like modern crags. The first clips are high – really high – well out of the reach of a stick clip (which we carry hopefully around with us but have yet to use), and often require some serious moves to reach. And, bolt spacing tends to be generous. When you are faced with some difficult climbing, the next clip can really look a long way away.

There is a pretty good range of routes, though limited under 5.10. Above 5.10 and there are at least 600 recorded routes. Many are multi-pitch and the descent is almost always by rappel, usually down the route, but occasionally down a different route. Routes are well set for rappeling with extra bolts at the belay station and generally easy pulls. A 70 metre rope is very helpful (or you'll need two ropes on some routes) and descents can be made much quicker by simul-rappeling, which is an easily mastered skill.

It is pretty warm – gets up to the high 20's or even low 30's - so climbing in the shade is most comfortable. You can climb pretty much anything in the shade if you go either early or later in the day, and it seems to be relatively easy to find shady multi-pitch routes. I've found a technical shoe works better than a soft shoe as there are all kinds of small pockets that a toe will go into, while a softer shoe will smear off. But, it is handy to have a couple of pairs of shoes, particularly a looser pair for days when it is hot and your feet are swollen.

The Mexicans are a friendly nation of people and the nearby town of Hidalgo has everything you really need – do you really need Canadian junk-food? Market days are Tuesday and Friday, the fresh produce, meat, chicken and eggs are awesome. You can get by with a little Spanish and even none at all, but learning some Spanish is fun and the Mexicans are more than happy to teach you a little Spanish.

There is also lots to do on rest days, although I've only taken one. There are a few hikes to high points, including one that goes to the top of El Toro, the big mountain here, there are caves to explore, bouldering to do, Spanish to learn, markets to wander through, or you can just hang out in the Mexican sun.

I hope it will be a long while before I have a chance to post another blog entry, as I am keen to get back out there climbing!

Photos later.  It is too much trouble to post them from here.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Last Day on the Rock in the Koots

Yesterday, Doug and I went out and helped Hamish finish a route he had been working on at Polished Wall. Hamish and I had previously cleaned and bolted the line, but we had yet to lead climb the route. Hamish led the first pitch, I the second, and it was done. We also climbed a few other routes while we were there.

It was cold and there was no direct sun to warm us up. We climbed all day in long underwear and toques, and down jackets were quickly put on to belay. It was nice to have one last day climbing in the Kootenays, but I am also looking forward to spending a month climbing in the warm sun in El Portero Chico.

We leave first thing tomorrow.

 Hamish on pitch two

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Giving It All Ya Got

Today's Crossfit WOD (actually 24/Sept/11 WOD, but I am behind) was 7 rounds for time:
  • 35# dumbbell hang squat clean 18 reps
  • 18 pullups
  • 135# power clean 10 reps
  • 10 handstand pushups.

I did the dumbbell hang squat cleans with 12#, the power cleans with a measly 17# and subbed 5 ankles to bar for the pull-ups 'cos I can't do 126 pull-ups on any day and I was already fatigued from multiple work-out days in a row. And, finally, I did one of the easier variations of handstand pushups 'cos I also can't do a single full handstand pushup.

I finished in about 20 minutes, and, despite all these weakling modifications, I was shaky and wrecked when I finished and for hours afterward.

Under each days workout is a section to post feedback to the workout. This is generally where people post times and weights. The first four postings included two from women who had finished the workout as written (if you think you could do it, give it a try) and had finished in 46:21 and 70:20. Suddenly, my effort seemed not much short of pathetic. 

Scaling is fair, but scaling so much that you don't give a WOD your all out effort is just a cop-out. Here was a woman (Katie) who had plowed on with this workout for over an hour, and finished as prescribed. Now that is giving it all ya got.

Some impromptu pull-ups on the Millenium Bridge

Monday, October 10, 2011

More on GPS

I've been having a (half) joking round of conversation with a friend of mine about GPS use. This particular fellow, called anonymously enough here, Bob, is of the opinion that all you need to go out into the mountains is a GPS track. I, as any one who knows me, can readily attest, do not favor over reliance on a GPS. In fact, I've written about GPS use before in my blog.

The difficulty of arguing against over-reliance on GPS units is confounded by the lack of solid research demonstrating their pitfalls. A couple of studies have looked at the effects of GPS use on spatial awareness and navigating ability and both show that compared to people who navigate by direct experience, GPS users show less spatial awareness of their surroundings and take longer to reach a target. But, these were limited studies and easy to argue against.

If you have spent much time wandering around the wilderness both with and without GPS users, you will quickly recognize someone who relies excessively on their GPS unit. These individuals truly do show a lack of awareness to the terrain around them, their map and terrain reading ability is poor to non-existent, they do take longer to reach their objective (half of the reason for that is that instead of looking where they are going they are looking at a small screen in front of them), and without having a pre-determined track to follow, they literally can not find their way out of the parking lot.

Paradoxically, the people who rely most heavily on GPS units are those that have the worst terrain and map reading skills. These people suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect - i.e. their competence is so low that they cannot accurately estimate their own competence. They could no more work out a route on a map and implement it in the field than they could reverse the tides, but, their GPS unit allows them to - with unerring confidence - say "I know where I am," thus obscuring their own incompetence. These individuals have never competently moved through terrain using only a map and their own skill and, in their ignorance, they cannot conceive of doing so.

But, of course, all this is easy to recognize in the field but hard to prove in theory. And, GPS units are so seductively easy to use. GPS units circumvent the need to learn to read contour intervals and to develop a mental picture of the terrain represented by a map. There is no need to pay attention to terrain features as you move through them, when, with the click of a button a GPS will show you on a little (and completely useless) map exactly where you are.

One of the enduring characteristics of human nature - and surely one of our less endearing - is our tendency to take the easiest route possible and to avoid at all costs having to do anything like hard work. With this in mind, I expect over-reliance on GPS units to continue to increase.

Typical Completely Oblivious GPS User

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hiking Up Huscroft

Mid October in Interior BC typically brings wet weather, early snow and shorter, colder days. While it is still possible to climb some of the bigger peaks, smaller objectives are more likely to be give success, particularly on "iffy" weather days. On Thanksgiving weekend in 2011, Vicki and I drove over Kootenay Pass to the Creston area to hike up a small peak in the southeastern corner of the Nelson Range. At 2003 metres, Mount Huscroft doesn't even break treeline, but, given the weather forecast seemed like a reasonable objective for a wet weekend.

Driving south from Creston on West Creston Road we soon came to Corn Creek Road and followed it through pleasant open farmland to where the blacktop ends and the road continues west up the south side of Corn Creek. The road is in good shape and there are no junctions until you reach kilometre 18 where we took the uphill fork. The road became a little brushier but still reasonable and, within a further 2 kms we were below a cutblock to the east of Mount Huscroft.

An old recontoured skid road took us easily up into the cutblock where we found astonishingly good game trails that led up to a small outcrop of talus. We climbed up the east side of the talus field and, apart from a bit of steep rhododendron near the ridge top, easily gained the long SW ridge leading to Huscroft. A very good game trail, with occasional flagging and blazes, led us along the ridge, over two minor bumps on the ridge, and, within two hours we were standing in the mist on the summit.

After a quick, and somewhat damp and chilly lunch, we retraced our steps, but instead of following the talus field down, we continued along the ridge in a soutwest direction to see if the trail ran down a spur ridge that headed north. I can confirm that no trail runs anywhere down in this vicinity, but, as usual, instead of going back, we wacked down through head high rhododendron until we came out in a different cutblock to the west of our ascent route. A short easy hike through the cutblock got us back on Corn Creek FSR and 5 minutes of walking took us back to the truck.

Hiking the excellent game trail along the ridge

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Rainy Season

May be upon us in Nelson. This week has been a mix of rain, drizzle, mist, fog, and cloud, thus rendering it impossible to continue climbing outdoors. Training for El Portrero Chico has moved indoors. I've been pounding out Crossfit WODS and climbing three times a day on our indoor wall.

I've also starting going to yoga classes at the recreation centre in Nelson. Usually, I just do my own stretching at home, but, my muscles seem to be getting tighter and tighter so I started back at a regular class. The interesting thing about yoga classes is that there really isn't a lot of relaxing stretching involved. The postures we have been doing all demand a fair bit of core and leg strength. Rotating around various warrior poses and planks, tiptoe and chair poses, prayer and pyramid poses requires a fair bit of muscle strength to stabilize the pose.

Tomorrow, there may be a break in the weather, and we may find ourselves - with any luck - on a bit of dry rock. 

 Fall colours in our backyard

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lost Opportunity

Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within. Stephen Jay Gould.

Recently, just yesterday in fact, THE cyber-bully on ClubTread was temporarily banned from the site for the second time in as many months. Any frequent, or even casual visitor to the site will know immediately who was banned and for what.

There has been much discussion about banning this person permanently from the site, with some people coming out strongly in favor (myself included) and others opposed. As far as I can make out, the opposition argument hinges on three things: (a) freedom of speech; (b) using the ignore button to just ignore this individual's postings; and (c) a belief that, on occasion, the individual makes some useful comments.

The pro-banning argument relies on the idea that we don't need to read extreme profanity in every post, insulting individuals simply because they disagree with you is childish and offensive, and, finally, but most importantly, that one individuals freedom of speech robs many other people of theirs.

Unfortunately, the lost opportunity for other individuals to express their opinions or report their achievements is immeasurable. We will never know what great trips we might have seen reported on, or what new ideas we might have heard had people not been too frightened to post for fear of retribution.

I could almost feel sorry for the individual in question as it just cannot be any fun living inside a head that is filled with anger, resentment, and self-loathing. But, taking away opportunity from other people for no other reason than that you can, makes such sympathy difficult.

To quote Stephen Jay Gould yet again, "we pass through this world but once." Why not make that a positive experience for people around you rather than a negative one?

 Volunteering is a good way to contribute