Thursday, March 24, 2011

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world. Arthur Schopenhauer

Today, Doug and I skied up White Queen via the north ridge. I've skied up this route, literally dozens of times over the years, but I've never seen the ridge so windblown as it was today, nor seen the reverse cornices that had grown (in the last few days) on the final northeast ridge that leads to the summit. Those reverse cornices got me thinking about how when I go out in the mountains, I can always imagine dozens (again I'm being literal) of things going wrong.

There is virtually no limit to the things I can imagine going wrong in the mountains. Broken bones, broken heads, broken gear, people getting lost, people falling, gear pulling, carabiner gates opening, cams jamming, belays failing, avalanches, rock fall, ice fall, serac fall, cornice fall ..... the list is virtually endless. As would any prudent person who spends a lot of time in the mountains, I do my best to minimize the risks afforded by this plethora of misfortunes, but a lot of the time, I get the sense that many of my companions wonder what on earth I'm fussing about.

The astute reader will have picked up by now on the significance of the quote that begins this blog entry. The trouble with recreating with me is, that I have seen it all and have lost any naive assumption that “it won't happen to me.”

For your edification, or amusement, below is a list of all the things I can remember happening to me with the caveat that this list is likely incomplete as many more things have likely gone wrong than I can remember.
  • Lost people.
  • Lost dogs.
  • Lost skis.
  • Lost waterbottles, food, fuel and other essential supplies.
  • Food-drops that have disappeared into lakes.
  • Pneumothoraxes
  • People falling on snow, rock, and ice.
  • Rock fall
  • Serac fall
  • Cornice fall
  • Avalanches (too many to count)
  • Broken skis
  • Broken boots
  • Broken poles
  • Broken packs
  • Broken tents
  • Broken bones - usually legs
  • Dislocated shoulders
  • Blisters and bleeding feet
  • Broken helmets
  • Broken compasses
  • Broken glasses
  • Broken stoves
  • Broken waterfilters
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Septiceamia
  • Hand holds breaking while climbing
  • Footholds breaking while climbing
  • People falling into streams
  • People falling into lakes
  • People falling while climbing unroped
  • People falling while lead climbing
  • People falling into crevasses
  • People falling into moats
  • Dogs falling down cliffs
  • People falling down cliffs
  • Entire parties going the wrong way
  • Parties getting split and losing their companions
  • Parties losing one of their members
  • People deceased from falling off cliffs
  • Lost kayaks
  • Lost paddles
  • Lost spraydecks
  • Lost boots - and people walking through the mountains with no boots
  • Broken crampons
  • People rappeling off twigs
  • People rappeling off loose boulders
  • People off-route and panic stricken, see people falling while lead climbing
  • People with smashed up legs from lead falls
  • People unable to move up rock climbs due to the macrame they have made of their ropes
  • People stranded on rock climbs
  • Gear pulling
  • Gear falling out
  • Carabiner gates opening
  • People stuck in tree wells
  • Lost tents
 What could possibly go wrong here

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Shopping

Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like. -- Will Rogers

I hate shopping. Correction loathe shopping. I will put off until the very last possible minute any shopping activity. This attitude, of course, has it's benefits. You save money, time, space and the planet's limited resources. But, having a pathological aversion to shopping can also have its detractions, particularly when it comes to outdoor gear. You can end up, like me, with just about everything you own in a serious state of disrepair, dilapidation and decrepitude.

Skiing up Mount Woodbury this past Sunday, with a backpack that has lost any semblance of being waterproof and has, in fact, taken on the characteristics of a sponge, with a big hole ripped in the bottom, and the shoulder straps frayed so much that the padding is hanging out, using a pair of beaten up ski poles - one of which is bent into a U shape - and neither of which adjust anymore so that they are chronically too short and I am bent over like the hunchback of Notre Dame; and wearing a pair of boots the liners of which have holes worn in them and have always been too small, attached to a pair of skis that are delaminating so badly that the wood core is soaking up water constantly, and finally, drinking out of a thermos, the lining of which is cracked so that it leaks constantly adding more liquid to the interior of my backpack and augmenting that which diffuses by osmosis through the pack itself from the atmosphere, I began to think that too much of anything is not a good thing.

But that doesn't mean I'm in any hurry to go shopping.

 Beaten up foot from wearing worn out ski boots on the Misty Icefields Traverse

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Beat Downs

A 90 minute gym workout at full-pitch intensity. Robb Wolf calls them "beat downs", and thinks they do no good for long-term strength. Rob Shaul says they train mental toughness. Crossfit has the whole workout over and done in 20 minutes - maximum.

Below is a sample "beat down" work out ("Dirty Blondes") from Mountain Athlete from 2009. As the Aussies say "give it a whirl" and see how you find it.

Warm up: 10 minute Kettlebell Complex: 1 minute each doing the following exercises. Don't put kettlebell down during entire time. Men use 12kg, Women, 8 kg.
  • 1-Arm Swing left hand
  • Figure 8
  • 1-Arm Swing right hand
  • Figure 8
  • 1-Arm clean and press left hand
  • Slasher-to-Halo
  • Lunge (hold KB in right hand. lunge forward and back with left leg)
  • 1-Arm clean and press right hand
  • Slasher-to-Halo
  • Lunge (hold KB in left hand. lunge forward and back with right leg)


(1) 8 Rounds, 1 minute each station, go as hard as you can:
  • Row
  • Mr. Spectacular (M-16kg, W-8kg)
  • Ball Slams @ 20#
  • Jingle Jangle
  • Rope Pull
  • Rest

(2) 30-25-20-15-10-5
  • Goblet Squats (M-20kg, W-12kg)
  • Push ups
  • Swings  (M-20kg, W-12kg)
  • Toes to Sky
  • Horizontal Pullups
Don't be surprised if you feel like this at the end

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Gear Reviews

Being frugal, some may say cheap, I like to research products before making a purchase, things like backpacks, tents, bindings, etc. Surprisingly, given how many of our population are opinionated bastards, it can be awfully hard to find a decent review. What is most surprising, are the people who review a product after using it one or two times. Just about any product will be reasonable in the first 24 hours of use, but what really counts is how well the product stands up to daily use (and abuse).

There should be mandated minimum use time of one year before you can review a product, but, given the overweening consumerism of our age, most people will have long since discarded the original product in favor of something in this season's colour. 

Broken ski on an 8 day ski traverse - now I can do a review


Monday, March 14, 2011

The Five Point Trail Breaking Scale

Recently, as we were plowing a trench through 60 cm of storm snow on the way to North Evening Ridge we came up with the five point trail breaking scale which I have reproduced in its entirety for your edification.
  1. Wussy = your grandmother, with her walker, could break this trail. Your fellow skiers will actually volunteer to break trail. Average depth is toe nail top.
  2. Modest = pretty average conditions, some of your fellow skiers will volunteer to break trail. Average depth is boot top.
  3. Robust = almost, but not quite burley, your fellow skiers will break trail for short distances if coerced. Average depth is knee deep.
  4. Burley = beyond robust, your fellow skiers are lagging far, far behind, and strangely, never seem to get any closer no matter how slow you go. Average depth is above the knees.
  5. Industrial = movement has slowed to a crawl, you have no fellow skiers as they have all gone to the ski hill. Average depth is mid-thigh and/or the snow has the consistency of wet cement.

This scale does not apply to trail-breaking in isothermal snow in the Rocky Mountains in spring which stretches the bounds of any trail-breaking scale and is, in fact, an exercise in futility.

 Spring trail breaking in the Rocky Mountains

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Using Winter Logging To Your Advantage

In the West Kootenays, unless you own a snowmobile, most tours originate out of one of three areas, Highway 3B between Strawberry Pass and Rossland (and occasionally off the Old Cascade Highway), Highway 3 over Kootenay Pass, or the Whitewater Ski Hill Road. A few people, who are more energetic and willing to explore will also tour out of Sandon (most, however, are sled tourers) or off Highway 31A between New Denver and Kaslo, and a few hardy folk will even ski out of Sheep Creek FSR (plowed all winter to Waldie Creek), the Little Slocan FSR or a scattering of other logging roads in the area.

Most people - despite the fact that there are innumerable options even if you never leave the three main access points, - go to the same places time after time after time after time - well, you get the picture. I consider myself to have a short attention span, and, although I have my favourite areas for making turns on big powder days or when the snow stability is poor, I prefer to explore new areas. And that's where winter logging comes in.

With a little bit of work, a few contacts, and a willingness to explore you can ski lots of new areas by taking advantage of winter logging. This year, there were and still are, lots of logging roads open to relatively high elevations to accommodate winter logging. You've got to put some time in finding out which roads are open, you've got to be willing to drive a fair distance (sometimes up to 1.5 hours each way), you've got to be willing to explore, and, above all, you've got to take a chance, because sometimes even the best information doesn't pay out (although this is rare and hasn't happened this year).

The benefits are many, the pitfalls few.

Jen, at just over 8,000 feet on the SE Ridge of Pontiac Peak accessed via winter logging

Friday, March 11, 2011

Go Early

As all alpine climbers know, one of the best things you can do to improve your safety margin and the likelihood of you finishing your climb is to start early. The same applies for backcountry skiing, particularly in spring. Leave early, get your runs in while the snow is still dry, and finish early before one (or both) of two things happens: the snow turns to elephant snot (and skis like elephant snot) and/or the avalanche hazard increases dramatically.

The snow is getting wet, time to pull the pin

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Does the Perfect Partner Exist?

A recent discussion on this bulletin board got me thinking about all the different people I climb and ski with. Predominantly, of course, they are men, because climbing and skiing - at least at the level I climb and ski at - are still sports heavily dominated by men. There are those who seem to think that we can pick and choose our partners at will, and, with a little bit of work, we'll end up with the perfect partner. Presumably, pliant to our wills, yet strong willed enough to keep going when the going gets tough.

Some 20 years into this game, I have yet to find the "perfect" partner. Strong willed partners are anything but pliant - they make their own decisions, frequently disagree with yours, forge their own paths, ski their own lines. Group dynamics become, well, interesting, as a group of dominant, willful individuals vie for the lead, control, first tracks, and anything else that comes up. All in all, it can make for challenging trips, particularly on trips that span many days and cover difficult terrain.

Sometimes, after a particularly challenging trip, I've thought how nice it would be to ski or climb with more pliant, less willful individuals. But most of the time, working out the interplay of personalities is at least as engaging as working out the moves on a hard climb, or working complex ski terrain to find a safe(r) route. There is challenge in working with different personalities, and one of the reasons I go to the mountains is to find challenges.

So, in the end, I'd rather climb and ski with a bunch of strong willed, determined, bull-headed men than go out with the laid back "lets make everybody happy and back off at the first sign of difficulty" crew. Because in the end, only the strong keep going and the one thing I can rely on the men to do, is keep going when the going just ain't that much fun anymore. 

 It Doesn't Have To Be Fun To Be Fun

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Can Technology Solve All Our Problems?

A recent first hand report from a survivor of a four person (two fatality) avalanche involvement in the backcountry outside of Smithers has brought out the usual internet discussion of the incident. Although I don't usually forward along these accounts, this one is particularly compelling and I sent it on to a few select ski touring buddies. Interestingly, the bulk of discussion, both on-line and from my own ski touring friends, has focused on the possible malfunction of an avalanche beacon and very little has focused on group dynamics.

The whole thing reminds of teaching navigation courses where people commonly tell me that they have got, will get or are thinking of getting a GPS and appear to hold the somewhat magical belief that having a GPS will solve all their navigation issues. Now, those of us who wander around the mountains know that while a GPS can be a handy tool, it is no substitute for good map reading skills.

Comparatively, having an avalanche transceiver is no substitute for not getting all four members of the party caught in an avalanche IN a terrain trap in the first place.

To read the survivors first hand account go here. For the most insightful and honest analysis go here. The rest of the discussion, frankly, adds nothing. 

 What Happens If This Slope Releases?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Lowest Common Denominator

“If you fear making anyone mad, then you ultimately probe for the lowest common denominator of human achievement.” - Jimmy Carter – 39th President of the USA

Clubtread - a forum noted for pandering to the lowest common denominator - recently featured a discussion loosely about decision making and group management in the mountains spurred by a first hand report of an avalanche in the backcountry out of Smithers, BC. The overwhelming majority (in fact everyone) were in favor of that worn-out dictum that the lowest common denominator should decide what happens on the trip.

This simplistic thinking not only ignores the difference between real and perceived risk but more importantly robs people of the opportunity to reach their full potential. The explosion of adventure oriented education speaks to the power and transformative potential that can be realized when people are coached to move through some discomfit and even out-right fear in the mountain environment.

I suspect that many of those who subscribe to the philosophy of allowing the lowest common denominator to determine the outcome of their trips are only too happy to have some reason to back down and back off so that they do not need to face their own fears. Even better, they can garner a feel good holier than thou kick out of backing off while continuing with the farcical belief that if not for the lowest common denominator they would surely have made that summit. 

 Climbing Mount Colossal on a ski trip in the Adamants

Friday, March 4, 2011

Even The Great ....

If you follow the Mountain Conditions Reports (aka MCR) put out by the ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) you'll have seen a report from the 20 February, 2011 by Barry Blanchard, arguably Canada's leading alpinist, where he describes guiding "Finishing Hammer Gully", a grade 3 ice climb off the Icefields Parkway, and admits that "we headed up the wrong gully to start, 2 hours of good cardio." Proving that even the great can get turned around.

Warp speed to 28 February, 2011 in the small town of Nelson, BC where, some time in the early evening hours, two snowshoers were reported overdue from the West Arm Provincial Park. The West Arm Provincial Park, somewhat erroneously known as the Whitewater backcountry, is a big chunk of land lying to the east of Nelson and running south from the West Arm of Kootenay Lake to the Whitewater Ski Hill Road. For the most part, the Park is completely trackless. An old road runs up Five Mile Creek from Nelson and gives access to Mount Ferguson - which I doubt many people have heard of let alone climbed - although I have the dubious pleasure of having skied up it twice. Other than this minor road, and a disused mining track that leads to an old mine site to the northeast of Hummingbird Pass, there are no trails, and, after a big winter storm, scant evidence of people. 

There is a lot of wilderness to be found in the West Arm PP. In fact, there are great opportunities for single and multi-day ski traverses. I've skied out to Nelson three times from the Whitewater ski hill road, using two different routes and traversing almost the entire north south extent of the park along the way. A west to east traverse with an exit to Proctor makes an excellent three day traverse. I doubt, however, that most other skiers and snowshoers venture much further afield than 5 Mile Creek.

One of the peculiarities of the West Arm PP is the sameness of the terrain if you don't get up onto the big ridgelines that lay in the heart of the park. Big timber, lots of small drainages, some running into bigger drainages, gentle slopes and minor spur ridges, all well below timber line have confused countless travelers through the park.

But, back to the missing snowshoers - a young couple from Quebec - who were eventually located by Nelson Search and Rescue (with mutual aid from other local SAR teams) mid-afternoon on Monday. As usual, the pundits were out, with the customary vitriolic invective about ill-prepared hikers, the need to make people pay for rescues, and, well you get the picture.

As you ponder all this, ask yourself, - if Barry Blanchard can get turned around on his home turf, how easy is it for a young couple with far less experience to get turned around in an unfamiliar area in the middle of a winter storm? And, once you've done that, recall what you learnt in Bible school from the book of John, Chapter 8, verse 7 "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." 

 Ski Touring in the Bonnington Range:  Easy Weather to Get Lost In