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. 


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


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?