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