Thursday, May 31, 2012

Remembering Big

In the mountains there are only two grades: You can either do it, or you can't. Rusty Baille.

For climbers, the term "classic route" is frequently taken to mean a poorly protected underrated route with death fall potential. Sandbagging, the act of underrating the difficulty of a route, used to be a common phenomena among climbers who didn't want to appear frail, fearful or feeble on a climbing route or mountain.

These days, and I know I'm dating myself - in the chronological not the romantic sense - overestimating the difficulty and danger of a climb seems more common than ever before - at least for some folks. Never before have I seen so many "if you fall you die routes" that are actually little more than easy snow climbs or scrambles.

The corollary to overestimating difficulty is the protection and gear racket. This schema involves extorting people to wear crampons, use two tools, protect the route, and/or belay each pitch. Failing to employ any one of these techniques will result in certain death or, at a minimum, dismemberment. Maybe I'm a lazy climber, opposed to carrying extra gear, as I find there are actually all sorts of routes you can climb without ropes, protection, crampons, or fixed belays, if you simply haven't carried that stuff along with you. You learn to kick steps, use poles for ice axes, and solo safely if you really don't have any other choice.

The irony is, in the past, we underrated difficulty to veil ourselves in a miasma of experience, expertise and exceptional bravery. Now, our climbs are characterized by hyperbole and hubris, and, instead of appearing courageous, competent and capable, we emerge as insipid, incompetent bumblers.

Descending Escalade Peak in the Selkirks

Monday, May 21, 2012


The few who do are the envy of the many who only watch. Jim Rohn.

British philosopher Bertrand Russel called envy "one of the most potent forms of unhappiness." Without doubt, we've all met people who seem eaten up by envy. Perhaps, if we are honest, we can even admit to the times we too have found ourselves in the invidious position of wishing we had the house, car, looks, money or achievements that belong, in truth, to others.

We tend to think of envy as an emotion that is directed towards some other persons possessions, but, in the outdoor community, I find envy is more frequently directed towards some other persons achievements. Often times, achieving things in the outdoors - such as climbing a specific route or mountain, skiing a demanding line, or completing a traverse - requires, along with all the technical skill, some personal sacrifice. This sacrifice may be as simple as getting up early and missing a few hours sleep, or it may mean a season of training and skill development, exposure to significant risk, and a rigorous diet and exercise program.

So many times, the people who are clearly envious seem to be the ones who are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve what others have. But, I'm not sure that envy, at least in some people, doesn't go deeper than just a lack of motivation to a more profound sense of inferiority. After all, for many people envy is a significant motivator to get engaged, work hard, and achieve that which they envied. In others, however, rather than motivating achievement, envy results in anger, bitterness and resentment. Sadly, these folks never seem to recognize their own envy and never learn to use envy as a positive motivational tool rather devolving into schadenfreude.

Envy, like everything else in life, can either help you grow or stagnate.  As always, you get to choose. 
Big Smiles at the top of Satoria, Portero Chico

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Too Much Gear, Too Little Skill

What is with all the gear people haul about with them these days? Lately, I've seen people on simple snow climbs wearing helmets - whaddya think, the sky's gonna fall on ya?, carrying half a dozen pickets - useless in May snow, and really, learn to climb snow without them, hauling around a dozen carabiners, ice screws, snow flukes, slings, prussics, all manner of useless gear to kick steps up a 45 degree snow slope.

All these people have two things in common, their technical ability sucks, and they are trying to make up for their lack of skill with a surplus of equipment. Ninety percent of the time, the equipment is incorrectly employed, making them less rather than more safe, and, they either don't make their objective, or take so long to make their objective, that they increase their risk of being involved in an epic.

What to do? Dump the gear, pull back on the bigger objectives, get your skills honed and dialed, and go back to tackle the more technical routes when you can climb them safely and cleanly. 

A simple snow climb, an ice axe is all you need

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Mistakes Climbers Make

Sometimes I'm surprised there are any climbers left alive, or, at least, that there aren't way more accidents than there are, mostly when I see videos like this one.

Watch it for yourself and see how many egregious errors you can spot. Oh, I can't help myself, I'll give you some hints.
  • Look for the dude belaying the leader directly off the one piece snow anchor. In May, in what is obviously soft snow. Ask yourself, how the heck he will hold any fall that occurs, if, and this is a really big if, the one piece snow anchor doesn't fail first. Somehow, he'll have to wrap his brake hand up around the back of that snow anchor towards the uphill side of the slope. A good position for a contortionist, a bad position for a belayer.
  • Check out the dude in yellow leading. He crosses to the far side of the ridge. If he falls now, he's going to put an upward pull on the anchor that he is being directly belayed off. Wonder, as I did, how a one piece snow anchor is possibly configured for both an upward and a downward pull. Oh, I guess it don't matter, it's clearly a piece of shit anchor anyway.
  • Keep watching, because you will see a two piece snow anchor later, but, really, it's a one piece anchor again, as the ice-axe that is jammed (vertically) into the snow as a backup is obviously useless. The snow is way too soft - no attempt to even compact the snow has been made - and the pull is off the top of the ice-axe which will simply lever the ice-axe out in the event that any force is applied. Oh, yeah, I'm sure you picked this up - that shovel is in danger of flying down the mountain.
  • If the dude approaching the summit rocks falls, the belayer - she does appear to be at least belaying off her body this time - is going to get to whipped right around in a 180 degree arc, while trying to hold the fall, off a useless snow anchor.
  • The sling over the rock at the summit is supposed to be the main solid belay. Ask yourself how solid it really looks and how well a rock, covered with snow and, possibly loosely held in place by a minor freeze, really is, or at least, how well these dudes have tested it.
  • Finally, cornices pull back when they break. Cornices break on hot sunny days in May.

Points however, for getting an early start.

Safest way to climb snow is to be competent and climb solo

Friday, May 18, 2012

Good Times in the Badshots: Ferguson to Armstrong Lake

After hiking the popular Silvercup Ridge trail in the Badshot Range in the summer of 2011, our interest was piqued by an area of similar character just to the northwest. This gentle alpine ridge system starts at Ferguson, runs northwest to Beaton, and is anchored by Great Northern Mountain at the southeast end and Mount Thompson at the northwest end. As, the Badshots are known for poor rock and good skiing, a spring traverse of this ridge system seemed preferable to a summer trip.

After waiting for what seemed - and was - weeks for a short period of stable weather and stable snow, we finally set off on this trip on a Thursday evening, driving north of Nakusp and over Galena Pass (still snow in the trees) to Armstrong Lake, a few kilometres south of Beaton.

About 200 metres from the Hwy 31 junction with the Beaton Road, we found Thompson Creek FSR heading north into the forest. We were only able to drive perhaps 70 metres up this road before reaching a long, deep snow drift, so we parked one vehicle here, and continued south down Hwy 31 to the Ferguson Road which runs up the north bank of the Lardeau River to the community of Ferguson.

It was dark and cold by the time we arrived in Ferguson, a small community of, mostly, unfinished cabins, that was entirely deserted. Cindy put her tent up at the end of the road, while Doug and I crashed in the back of our truck. The next morning, the valley was dark and cold until, surprisingly early, the sun came streaming down the valley and immediately warmed everything up. Both Doug and I wandered in different directions looking for an old mining road (Fissure Creek) that climbs from Ferguson to a ridge-line east of Great Northern Mountain and ends near 1900 metres. Walking back down the Ferguson Road towards Trout Lake, I found the road marked by nothing other than the standard "Warning: Road Deactivated" sign. The road was indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. 

 Doug skiing up the road out of Ferguson

Ferguson to Mountain Goat Creek

We finally got underway about 8.50 am, and began skiing up Fissure Creek FSR. After perhaps 1.5 km, we came to a T intersection, where we took the right hand fork and continued steadily gaining elevation. Travel conditions were incredibly fast and easy on well frozen snow and within an hour or so we had climbed enough to have great views up the main Ferguson Creek drainage as well as out to nearby mountains which relieved the usual tedium of road skiing.

We soon found ourselves crossing Broadview Creek and then heading almost due west up Fissure Creek. At around 1750 metres, the terrain was easy and open enough that we had no further need of the road so we skinned south up a shallow draw reaching the ridge-line we would follow for the next two days just shy of 1900 metres. The next 100 metres featured a short steep climb and we put ski crampons on to ski up to about 2000 metres where the angle kicked back.

Perched on the ridge here, overlooking the Lardeau Range to the south, we stopped for lunch. After lunch, we continued on to about 2100 metres easily following the ridge. At this point, we were about half a kilometre from a minor peak to the east of Great Northern Mountain. We decided to circumvent this peak on the south side which required losing perhaps 30 metres of elevation and then skinning up an easy draw that brought us to the base of Great Northern Mountain. Some slightly steeper terrain that was still solidly frozen was easier to climb with ski crampons, and soon enough, we crossed a gentle plateau leading to the 7,508 foot summit of Great Northern Mountain.

An easy descent on corn snow down the southwest ridge of Great Northern Mountain led to a 2060 metre high point just above the head of Mountain Goat Creek. This location promised both early morning and late evening sun and we decided to set up camp even though it was only about 3.30 pm.

I built a kitchen in the sun, we spread out wet boots and skins to dry and cooked up numerous cups of tea and soup to rehydrate. The sun lasted well into the evening and reached the tents before 7 am the next morning.

Doug and Cindy on Great Northern Mountain

Mountain Goat Creek to Mount Thompson

Our second day out was spent rambling over ridge-lines in spring sunshine with tremendous views all around. Snow conditions remained excellent, just soft enough for easy skinning, and travel was fast and easy. We bypassed, on the west side, one bump on the ridge before Mount Thompson, but skinned up the last bump on the ridge that is directly south of Mount Thompson. A short easy ski down to a small tarn below Mount Thompson followed by a descending traverse, took us quickly across to the south ridge of Mount Thompson.

We left a bunch of extra gear stashed in garbage bags here and then skinned up the south slopes of Mount Thompson, ski crampons were handy but not essential. Once up an initial modestly steep slope, it was easy cruising to the summit. What looks like a narrow ridge on the map, is, in fact, a broad gentle snow plateau.

From the summit, we had extraordinary views all the way to Wheeler Peak near Rogers Pass, up the Incommapleux River valley, over to the Gold Range, and out to the Moby Dick area. Although there were many familiar peaks on the horizon, there were also many that we have not (yet) climbed.

The south face descent, when we finally pulled ourselves away from the vista, was on some of the best corn snow I've ever experienced in the Kootenays, and, I was almost tempted to do it again, had it not been such a hot grunt up in the sun. After repacking our backpacks, we cruised on corn snow down to a 2112 metre prominence on the ridge of Mount Thompson and made camp among some burnt timber. 

Cindy skinning up Mount Thompson

Mount Thompson to Armstrong Lake

Previous to this trip, we'd found a big cutblock and new road on Google Earth that runs up a north facing ridge on the south side of Thompson Creek to about 1660 metres. The next morning, after taking a compass bearing off the map to this location, we followed this bearing down, across a series of overlapping gullies and soon found ourselves over looking the cutblock which, although still 400 metres down, appeared deceptively close.

About an hour after leaving camp, we cruised out into the cutblock, skied some corn snow down to the road, and vibrated our way down frozen sun-cups on the road until we reached 1200 metres where the road turned south, faced into the sun and was bare of snow. Below us, Beaton on the NW arm of Arrow Lake, was looking green, fertile and pleasant in the sun, although I can only think winter must be long and dark.

Skis went on packs and we walked down the road to about 900 metres where the big fat snow drift that had stopped us three days before allowed us to ski the final 100 metres to the truck.

Linking together some shrinking snow patches

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Stronglifts = Climb Better

This winter, I cut back on my usual Crossfit workouts and did Stronglifts instead.  Stronglifts is a basic strength training program where you work five different exercises for five sets of five reps - deadlifts, back squats (go low), bench press, barbell row, and presses.  The weight on each exercise inexorably keeps going up.  

Stronglifts is almost antithetical to Crossfit, as you do the same exercises every workout, whereas Crossfit aims for maximum variability. 

I've only just started my outdoor climbing season in the last few days, but have noticed a huge improvement in my climbing since last season.  Today was my fourth day outside this year (the last two were a month ago) and I was able to onsight several routes that I have not onsighted in the past.  

Right now, I'm pretty convinced that the heavy strength training made a huge difference in my climbing.  Which is interesting, because Eric Horst would say that heavy strength training is counterproductive for improving rock climbing.  However, heaving a big heavy weight about - particularly with the Stronglifts exercises - takes big core strength, and, that's what I noticed today.  A huge improvement in core strength making it much easier to stay on small holds on steep walls.  

Doug pulling the roof move on The Date earlier today

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Must Be Spring

Yesterday, I skied up Reco Mountain in the northern Kokanee Range, snow line was at 1,000 metres.  Today, climbing in the sun in shorts and T-shirts, with a warm wind blowing.  

Must be spring.

Skiing down Reco Mountain

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Still Skiing

Over the past weekend, three of us (plus a wandering dog) skied from Ferguson to Staubert Lake across the Badshot Range, traversing Great Northern Mountain and Mount Thompson along the way. This was one of those routes dreamed up while looking over maps in the fall and thinking about good (new) trips for the winter season.

On the map, the terrain looked ideal for an easy ski traverse, and so it was. An old mining road leads up to the alpine at the southeast end of the ridge system from the small hamlet of Ferguson. While at the northwest end, a cutblock at 1660 metres and new logging road leads easily down to Staubert Lake. In between, is about 15 km of delightful ridge line terrain. Both Great Northern Mountain and Mount Thompson are easily ascended on skis, and there are multitudes of campsites with superb views available in between.

We camped two nights on the route, but the trip could easily be done in two days. However, with good weather and views, fast and easy travel and pleasant traveling companions, why rush home?

Skiing up Mount Thompson

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Rock Climbing 101

We were out climbing with friends today at Waterline - as was most of the West Kootenay judging by the crowds - and, as is common early season, people came in big groups and with many beginners in tow. Now, there are almost no beginner routes at Waterline, the bulk of routes are in the 9's to 12's, and, despite what some people seem to think 5.9 or 5.10a routes - particularly steep, pumpy routes such as those found at Waterline - are not beginner routes.

Despite this, the usual gangs of "friends" (really with friends like these who needs enemies?) were putting top-ropes on routes in the 10's for their buddies. Almost without exception, the "buddies" could not climb the routes and merely spent time flailing about giving the route a nice polishing for who ever led it next. There were also a few very sketched out leaders thrutching their way up the one or two easier routes, but again, there are better places to start lead climbing than Waterline.

I am not sure what desperately thrutching your way up a route that is way too hard for you, whether on lead or top-rope, is meant to do. Certainly, it does not teach good movement skills, balance, body tension or any of the other skills necessary to climbing. In fact, I would wager that the ingraining of poor habits in this way retards rather than advances climbing performance. And yet, everywhere you go you see beginners struggling on routes far too hard for them; the practice is literally endemic to the climbing population.

So, if you are thinking of introducing your friends to climbing or are taking out some novice climbers, start them on a 5.4. If all goes well, work your way up the grades, but, whatever you do, don't wear them and the route down by putting them on anything harder until they've mastered the easier grades. You'll be doing everyone a favor. 
Novice climber rappelling a 5.6

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Down The Rabbit Hole With Alice

There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter.  Alice in Wonderland.

Well, I had the weirdest day today and am still shaking my head over how everything played out. Two of us went out to traverse Ymir Mountain taking the same route I did with some friends two weeks ago. This is actually a pretty straight forward traverse up the west ridge of Ymir Mountain, and down the north ridge (you actually skirt just below the north ridge on the east side) to a notch where a prominent ramp leads out into west facing Ymir bowl. Once in Ymir bowl there are a variety of slightly different lines that lead down to the ski area.

I began to have my doubts about this trip not long after we started skiing up the runs at Whitewater Ski Resort. The weather was socked in, there was 15 cm of new snow at the parking lot (about 1650 m) which gradually increased to 30 cm by the time we crested the ridge at 2000 metres and my friend was blathering on about all kinds of things that seemed to have no bearing on the factors that we should consider in deciding whether or not to ski our planned route.

One of her more hair-raising comments was the suggestion that we ski one of the tight terrain trap couloirs that lead into Ymir bowl. Undoubtedly good runs under the right conditions, the day following a big storm with a dump of heavy snow does not constitute the right conditions. Endeavoring to sound polite, I pointed out that skiing a terrain trap under a big fresh cornice with a dump of wet heavy snow was "ludicrous".

We gained the west ridge of Ymir at the usual spot and I stepped aside to let my friend break trail for a while as I knew that if I didn't I would break trail all day as I usually do when I ski with her. She immediately began going in the wrong direction but I felt uncomfortable calling her back as she has recently taken some "guiding" (I use the term loosely) courses and is quite touchy about being corrected on things. Already that day she had got upset with me for skinning straight up the run instead of following her meandering track. At this point I made the mistake of thinking I could correct her error further along without much difficulty.

But, error correction always works better when you recognize your mistake early and correct quickly. While I recognized the error immediately, I did not correct it right away and we ended up not gaining enough elevation and contouring around a south facing spur ridge at around 2,020 metres when we should have skinned up to around 2100 metres to cross a flat spot on this ridge.

At this point, we were a full half a kilometre off course and my friend had no idea where we were. I pulled out my map and compass, took a bearing on the ridge and fairly quickly worked out our location, where we had gone wrong and what we needed to do to get back on track. All the while my friend was pointing at the map and exclaiming with great certainty "we are here" while pointing to locations some five kilometres distant and on the wrong side of the mountain. My misgivings about the trip increased.

Nevertheless we continued on and I led us up to the main west ridge of Ymir. Here my friend began to declaim about the west aspect slope we were standing atop off, and how we would be skiing an east facing slope in Ymir bowl. Tentatively, I said "No, this is a north facing slope and Ymir bowl faces pretty much west." She gave me a disparaging look and repeated her assertion, where upon I pulled out the map (which I always carry handy in my pocket) and showed her that we were indeed standing atop a north aspect slope and Ymir bowl was predominantly west facing, while thinking to myself, "this trip is doomed."

We agreed to carry on a bit further and consider skiing down a slackcountry run called West Ymir. West Ymir features a steep descent down north facing avalanche slopes. Once down from the ridge there are many options ranging from steep lightly treed terrain trap slopes to deep terrain trap gullies. As you've no doubt gathered, there are a multitude of options, all of which are exposed to serious avalanche hazard.

My friend now started babbling about how she wanted to dig a snowpit to check on conditions. I asked, with some trepidation as I was beginning to fear the answer, if she was worried about deeper layers. "No, no," she assured me, "I just want to check the wet layer from earlier this week." I'm out with an idiot, I thought. "That layer is down 30 cm under the storm snow," I said, "You can test it with a hand shear." I tried to sound patient, but I wanted to shout, "You've just spent the morning watching me do half a dozen hand shears. What are you thinking?"

At this point I decided that the weather was providing the perfect excuse for getting off this mountain under these conditions with this person, and I suggested we return the way we had come. My friend agreed, but, added the bizarre caveat that I shouldn't be relying on her to lead the way on the traverse route as she hadn't skied it before and needed to see it to lead it. "I've fallen down the rabbit hole," I thought. "This is what happened to Alice. The world has turned upside down." Given that I had corrected my friend a dozen times in the space of an hour, it seemed particularly daft to me to think that I would actually expect her to lead me anywhere excepting crazy, which she was quickly doing.

Mistakenly, I thought there could be no more surprises,. Therefore the suggestion that we "contour" back to the top of the ski runs caught me off guard. Given that we had just wasted a great deal of time "contouring" less than an hour ago, I didn't see how she could possibly think this was a good idea.

With dwindling patience and increasing apprehension, I suggested we follow the ridge and use it as a handrail as clearly "contouring" was not proving any faster in this terrain. I was relieved that she agreed, and, after stepping aside so I could break trail (surprise, surprise), she followed me back to a small chute that leads into Catch Basin. This chute has some minor avalanche potential, but I felt comfortable with it. Good thing as my friend immediately - how did I know this was coming - said "You go first." 

Poor visibility.  A good excuse for escaping the Mad Hatters Tea Party

Friday, May 4, 2012

Waiting For Patience

A man who is a master of patience is master of everything else. George Savile.

I'm not by nature a patient person, although I must feign it well enough as people often think so. In reality, I like to move fast and frequently, and I'm often in a rush to finish one thing so I can start on the next.

Right now, Doug and I are patiently - we have no choice - waiting for a window of clear weather that is not preceded by a foot or more of new snow in the mountains to ski a three day route across the Badshot Range which we have been planning for going on a month.

Each week, the forecast about 10 days out looks pretty good, but, as the days pass, the forecast deteriorates until eventually the weather window slams shut again.

We thought our weather window had come for Sunday through Tuesday, but, gradually poor weather is encroaching from either end, and, more importantly, a wet and cold week has left (and continues to leave as it is snowing up high) 40 plus centimeters of new snow. Even if Sunday through Tuesday does some how materialize with good weather, the trail-breaking will be too heavy and stability too poor until the new snow settles out.

So, we settle down to wait. 

Ionian Basin in the Sierras.
 We waited about 3 weeks for this weather window

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Yesterday after strolling along the Wards Ferry trail (16 km return), I did my Stronglifts workout. Today, as most days, my muscles are tired and sore, and I have that (what has come to seem normal), low-grade fatigue.

Unlike other weight training programs where you do the same exercises day after day, Stronglifts never gets easier (the weight always goes up) Additionally, the exercises are complex, requiring activation of most major muscle groups, so you always feel it the day(s) after and your body never gets used to the training.

I'm now squatting 117 pounds (not quite my body weight), pressing pressing 62 pounds, deadlifting 112 pounds, rowing and benching 87 pounds. According to the Crossfit standards I'm in the intermediate category for everything but the deadlift where I am merely a novice. 

 Doug playing around with some pull-ups on a hike

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wandering Along Wards Ferry Trail

I had hopes of climbing today but it was wet, cold and rainy in the morning, so, rather than spend a single other day cooped up in the house, I hiked along the Wards Ferry trail from Rover Creek to near Glade. This newish (last 8 years or so) trail follows an historic wagon road route used to ferry supplies to mines in the late 1800's.

I walked this trail with my Mum back in, I think, 2003 when it was relatively new and again in 2008. We never got as far as Glade but probably got about half-way along. When we first hiked it, the bridge over Rover Creek was very rickety and we forded Rover Creek instead of using the bridge. The second time, I am pretty sure we used the bridge, which had been substantially improved.

Today I thought my Mum wouldn't have liked the bridge at all as it was slippery and has deteriorated to the point that one of the logs is quite wobbly. Fording Rover Creek would have been out as it was running high and fast. 

Bridge over Rover Creek

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May 1

Pretty obvious, today is May 1, but, it is also the day we wanted to have our house listed for sale, and, as of 2.00 pm, the Doghouse is officially on the market.

May is spring. The creeks on our property are running high, the trees are leafing out with that bright, brilliant and beautiful fresh green they get in spring. Momma deer and her three fawns are frequent visitors. I walked up Copper Mountain FSR this afternoon and, in the hour I had for walking, I did not reach the snowline, which has crept up above 1000 metres (the elevation I got to).

Lots of changes, all good. 

Bridge over Stock Spring