Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Risk Assessment

Recently, some friends of mine took a novice climber up an alpine climbing route in the mountains. When I say novice climber, I mean, really novice, as in, were you to talk in metaphors about skills/routes under the belt, the belt would be pretty loose. One glacier course, a short day or two of easy cragging, an easy scramble or two, but no real climbing of significance.

Apparently, everyone made the summit and back and enjoyed a grand day out; albeit taking twice as long as a party would normally take. The novice climber was evidently instructed in the art of rappeling (should someone really learn to rappel in a mountain environment?) and solo climbing (should a novice really be soloing exposed class 4 and class 5 terrain, or even exposed class 3 terrain?). When I questioned the wisdom of allowing a novice climber to solo exposed terrain, I was told that the novice "thought the moves out before making them" which, as any experienced climber knows is completely ludicrous. Learning to read rock and imagine the moves required takes many, many hours, days, weeks even months to master and is certainly not a skill set possessed by a novice climber.

Thinking about this trip I thought about how different the scenario would be had the novice climber been with a professional guide. Undoubtedly, the novice climber would have been short-roped up everything class 3 and up, and would most likely have been lowered rather than rappeling. Certainly, I can't imagine a professional guide allowing a client who does not have a solid grasp of rappeling to rappel in the mountains, there is just too much that could go wrong and the outcome of an error is likely death.

The thing that seems perverse about the whole trip is that a guide with professional skills, built in safety margins, contingency plans, and rescue plans would act far more conservatively than a couple of recreational climbers. Either the guide has it completely wrong, or the recreational climbers do. I know which one my money is on. 

Solo climbing in the Selkirks

Friday, August 19, 2011

Climbing Around Nelson

After our horrendous bushwack up the east ridge of Mount Cooper, I owed Doug an activity pick for the day, and, as usual, he picked cragging. Doug has grown tired of long bushwacks and arduous mountaineering trips, but enjoys crag climbing more than ever. Given how pathetic I thought my fitness was and the WOD I did the day before, I thought my climbing would suck- plus it's been a couple of weeks since I have actually been able to get out climbing.

I was pleasantly surprised to find I didn't suck as much as I thought. We were climbing at Riverside and Hall Siding south of Nelson. Mostly steep routes, not usually my forte (if I can be said to have a forte) and I was happy to manage to grovel my way up a couple of 10b's. Doug was styling and our friend, Hamish was along as well.

Today, a short hike or abbreviated WOD as tomorrow we begin a three day hike along Silvercup Ridge.

On a 10b at Hall Siding

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Failure on Mount Cooper

Yesterday, Doug and I set off on a three day trip to try to climb Mount Cooper by the - as far as we know - unclimbed east ridge. The east ridge, in its entirety (which we had to climb) is long, 10 km long in fact. And, despite how Google Earth nicely smears the detail, convoluted and complex. 

 Mount Cooper from the Nakusp Range in Spring

Getting to Mount Cooper is well over half the battle and the reason that it is so infrequently climbed. There are no roads or trails that go anywhere near the mountain. We decided to take a newer logging road that traverses the south side of Meadow Mountain and ends about 100 metres (vertical) above McKian Creek. Our plan was to descend to McKian Creek, hopefully, find a spot to cross the river, gain the east ridge and carry three days of food up to a campsite in a shallow basin at about 7,300 feet, just below the east ridge. The second day, we hoped climb Mount Cooper, the third descend. All up, this would involve 22 km of travel and over 10,000 feet of elevation gain, none of it on a trail.

In order to actually get to camp - a 5,000 foot bushwack from 2,750 feet - we pared our pack weights down as much as possible, going so far to leave out any technical climbing gear (apart from an ice-axe). This left us with packs weighing about 30 pounds. Not too bad really, but enough to throw off your balance on technical terrain.

We left Nelson at 6 am, and by 8.45 am or so, were putting on our packs and starting the trek. Crossing McKian Creek took a little time to find a safe spot. In the end, we found a good log that a nearby trapper was using as a bridge and had sawn off the excess branches. Once across McKian Creek the bushwacking began. In all honesty, I have to say it wasn't too bad. Whether or not this is relative to the fact that I've done a fair bit of bushwacking in the Gold Range - notorious for demonic bush - is unknown to me as I have no other reference point but myself. In any case, despite having to claw through tangles of alder, wack through head high rhododendron, and haul ourselves up some very steep sections of ridge, we were making reasonable time - about 300 metres/hour. 

 Typical bushwacking on the ridge

But, I ran low on water at about 6,300 feet, while there was still over 1,500 feet of bushwacking to go, and began to ration my water to sips. I started with two litres, but the ridge is bone dry and I was sweating like the proverbial pig on the way up. By the time we got to 7,250 feet - our turn around point - my tongue was well and truly glued to the roof of my mouth.

Between 7,000 and 7,4000 feet, the ridge narrows precipitously. We hadn't expected any difficulty on this section but found ourselves confronting a knife edge ridge with serious exposure on either side. The ridge was too narrow to even au-cheval, so we would have to either do some exposed class 3/4 climbing on the south side, or cross steep, slippery, class 3 meadow at a 60 degree angle on the north side. A slip on either side would be fatal.

Looking ahead to where we had planned to camp, there were many more difficulties, the exposed ridge only the first. The ridge, above our present difficulty remained steep, narrow and very exposed. Up ahead, a bigger cliff band of rotten rock (I'm pretty sure we would never have got up that) loomed between us and camp. In all, things did not look that promising.

I admit that by this time I was tired, very tired. No doubt, thirst was worsening my fatigue, but the truth is my legs and back were tired, in fact, I was all over tired from the grueling bushwack we had just endured. I stepped out half way across the narrow section without a pack and felt shaky and unsteady. Clearly, climbing it with a pack, I could not be sure I would not fall. While I've soloed lots of things in the mountains, I never solo anything I don't feel totally solid on. After all, a slip will kill you.

We spent some time looking for options to get to camp, but none presented themselves. And, the route of the next day, was now looking difficult enough that some technical gear - at a minimum, crampons - would be needed. Given the likelihood of our success (quite low) and the consequences of a slip on the narrow ridge section (quite high), we decided to turn around.

Of course, we had the little matter of a 4,500 foot bushwacking descent, a river to cross, and another 300 foot climb back to the truck to look forward to. All without a sip of water for me.

Descending was tiring and tedious. For some reason, unknown to us, we kept wandering off the ridge, despite using a compass, and ending up way out on the steep south side. So, in addition to bushwacking down, we had to keep traversing north to regain the ridge. Eventually, we found the game trail we had last seen at 3,300 feet and followed it down, until it disappeared, to the river. I guzzled a litre of water before crossing the log bridge and literally staggering back up to the truck.

I was so tired when I got home that I went straight to bed, wearing my clothes and without a shower. Something Doug says I've never done before.

The moral of the story - you have to be fit enough for the trip you want to do. Had I been less tired, the ridge traverse would have been straight forward and I would have felt confident on it. But, in an advanced state of fatigue even easy climbing becomes difficult. Clearly, I was pathetically out of shape for the trip I wanted to do.

Today, I was tempted to have a rest day. But, I didn't. Instead, I did the Crossfit WOD. It took me 26 minutes, but I substituted step-ups for sprinting (my knees will no longer sprint and step-ups are a better clone of mountain climbing) and lat pulldowns for pull-ups (I cannot do 100 pull-ups). What sort of shape I'll be in tomorrow is anyone's guess, but certainly, it can't be worse than yesterday. 

 Doug overlooking the wild Goat Range