Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Climbing Again - The Ace-Drizzle Memorial Route

The skis are back in the closet again; at least until I am in the North Cascades next week skiing volcanoes! So that means it's climbing season. Time to get back into shape and climb the rocks. Being that my wife and I are moving back to Squamish, British Columbia next week, we decided to cruise the home front here in Salt Lake City. Feeling the need to climb some granite cracks, we decided to test our mettle on a newer gear route called the Ace - Drizzle Memorial Route, 4 pitches, 5.12c. (As it is a newer route you can read about it on www.mountainproject.com, which is an incredible on-line free user created guidebook to everywhere!) You might find the name interesting, and it is worth noting...It is named (and I quote the First Ascensionist Chris Thomas here):

In honor of our good friends Brian Postlethwait and Andre Callari, who were killed while climbing in the Ruth Gorge of Alaska in May, 2007. Brian and Andre were two of the most badass climbers, skiers/snowboarders, pilots, adventurers, husbands, brothers, sons and friends that ever lived, and this is part of our tribute to the amazing people that they were.

I had met these guys briefly before they died, and am great friends with some of their best friends, and everyone only attests to what stand up guys they were. What a great way to preserve their memories in the communities they were a part of!

Chris Thomas on the Ace DrizzleChris Thomas sending the crux 12c pitch. Photo by Andrew Burr

On Saturday, Jasmin and I went up to check this route out. It is rare that either of us can fire off a 12c trad pitch first go, so we knew we would have to put a little bit of time into sending it, so we got up there and worked the moves and the finicky gear out. I must say that one of the things that really helped on this pitch was the Black Diamond C3 Camalots. BD's newer micro cams are pretty awesome for tricky small protection placements. I have aliens and tcu's on my rack and now C3's, and I find with hard trad climbing that you really need a mixture of devices as different cracks take different brands of gear. However, more and more I seem to be going to these units. The narrow heads, and slightly stiffer cables mean I can stuff them safely into small and tricky spots. For multiple placements on this route, all I could put into the crack were C3s! They are also built to last. Aliens and Ultralight TCU's have some durability issues, and I seem to wear them out with my abusive use patterns. The first piece we placed on this pitch was a sideways green C3 and it was getting worked by my repeated 15 foot falls at the crux. At the end of the day, it held its original shape and function - a testament to its durability.

Getting the feel for the C3's in some good granite.

To keep going on some gear reviews here, I must say that my new shoes were pretty sweet as well. I am sporting some Evolv Pontas shoes, and their no stretch-synthetic material and sticky rubber are treating me right. The Ace-Drizzle is an overhanging tips crack, and you really need to paste your feet on some micro holds to climb this thing, and these shoes provided.

Today we went back up for round 2. With temps in the 90's in SLC, we waited for some shade and headed up the canyon. On my second try today I was able to fire the pitch, having the gear placements and technical beta dialed in. Jasmin didn't send, but she was pretty close, so we are going to cross our fingers and hope it doesn't rain tomorrow, so we can go back up and she can try again! I was psyched to fire off a hard trad pitch this early in the season; I can't wait to step it up some more in Squamish, B.C. this summer!

Friday, May 9, 2008

What it Takes to be a Ski Guide, Part 4

Today was the last day of the course/exam, and things are all wrapped up. I made a flight back to Anchorage, and have a few hours to kill before my 1am red eye back to the lower 48, allowing me to decompress and chill out for the first time in 10 days. Can you feel the weight lifting off of my shoulders?

This is not an easy process - either for the aspiring guide or the instructor/examiner. The long days, lack of sleep and continuing challenges of touring and guiding day after day had taken their toll on everyone with a touch of fatigue setting in...but that can tell you a lot about a guide, as they process these issues, and still manage to guide and have some energy in the reserves for the anticipation of whatever issues may come out of the blue. Granted these courses tend to push people a little hard at times, as the candidates aren't used to juggling so many things day after day, but anything can happen in the mountains, and we need to know that these candidates can handle and manage all of these things before we can allow them to pass the examination component of this course. As a result, a 50% failure rate in guide programs throughout the world is not uncommon. Most aspiring guides usually fail at least one exam in their path to full certification as a rock, ski and alpine guide. This is for sure one of the toughest parts of the examining job, as you have 'journeyed' with these candidates through the last 10 days, helping them to achieve their goals, and they don't always make it. But so it goes...if everyone passed just for signing and showing up, then being a certified guide wouldn't mean a thing.

At least for the last 3 days we got to hammer out a few more quality ski lines, possibly some of my last few turns of the season, as I will be diving head first into climbing season this week. In fact my last few turns were on one of my favorite runs on the planet, the Cherry Couloir on Python Peak. This dog leg chute drops right off the small summit down about 1,500' vertical, lined by cliffs holding an angle in the mid 40's. After that, another 3 grand of cruiser turns take you back to the car - you gotta love the big vertical of Alaska!

I already have a potential trip guiding in Valdez for next April, and I can't wait to come back! This place continues to blow my mind, and my last turns (possibly?!!?) of the season will carry me through to next fall...

Marc leads Julia up the Python for some practice guiding

Rapping down into the top of the Cherry Couloir right off of Python's Summit

Julia Niles rips down the guts of the Cherry

Joey Vallone showing us how its down on the lower part of the Cherry

Yours Truly getting in some amazing final turns of the season

Monday, May 5, 2008

What it Takes to be a Ski Guide, Part 3

Well, we are down to the final stretch, only 3 more days left of the ski guide course. For the last 3 days we were on a point to point traverse, that started off quite spectacularly with a heli-drop. Our friends at Alaska Rendezvous Heli Guides lined us up with a drop on top of the 7,000' foot peak known as 'Ice Palace'. This run was only guided once this season, and has some pretty interesting positions to say the least. Crevasses and ice falls border almost every turn on the top of the run, and everyone's adrenaline was high, when we were left by the bird perched on top of the line with packs full of 3 days worth of gear. Joey and I led the group down to demo some guiding techniques, and 3,200' later we were all stoked with the unbelievable amount of boot top powder we just skied in the first week of May.

Ice Palace

So we then traveled up and over a glaciated col, skied down another huge shot to the massive Tonsina glacier. We skied about 8km up that glacier to go over another col, and dropped down to the Tsina glacier and camped amidst the never ending peaks and glaciers.

Small skiers head down to the massive Tonsina Glacier
This was a big day, and we have been driving the candidates pretty hard. 12 hours out on the snow has been pretty standard, and none of us have averaged more than 5 hours sleep for the last week. Every certified guide I know has been put through the wringer, and it is important to know that your guide can keep going no matter what. Call it a rite of passage, or what ever you like, it is a hard process and you have to be able to keep up for days on end.

So of course we kept going the next day. We woke up at our beautiful camp, and trekked up another 2500' feet to another col that led us to the Hoodoo glacier, winding our way through more ice falls and crevasses.

Mark finds a path up to the Hoodoo Col

As instructors, we were almost hoping for some bad weather, so we could see how the candidates navigate up the big white glaciers in fog and whiteout conditions, we got a little bit of fowl weather, but it cleared out in time for our descent onto the Hoodoo.

Whiteout clears for us at the col.

We dropped onto the Hoodoo, made camp and busted up Girls Mountain for a sweet 3,000' of later afternoon skiing.

The Hoodoo Glacier and Girls Mountain

Time to camp again, and we actually got 6 hours of sleep, and took it easy on the candidates the next day, with only one short 3,000' climb and ski out the backside of Girls Mountain down to the Worthington Glacier and the cars.

Backcountry.com Athlete Julia Niles takes us down 4,200' feet to the cars

Sound like a lot? Well it has been, and like I said, we still have 3 more days of skiing left!

On another note, it is always interesting to see what gear all of the guides are hammering on...especially when there are a few items that are in almost every single guides pack. First of course are Dynafit bindings. Light and bomber, there is no other choice for ski guides. The other items would be for camping. Jetboil stoves are universal as well; light, small and super efficient. The Black Diamond Firstlight (and other BD hyperlight tents) are the ONLY tents I see people with for winter camping - not amazing in the rain, but perfect in the cold and snow. Finally would be a plug for a new piece of gear I am using, the Outdoor Research Exped sleeping mats. I can't believe how well I slept on the Downmat 7 DLX, best night of sleep in the backcountry ever for me. Period.

Okay, enough of a post for now...hope this inspires you to check out some new places, and if you hire a guide, to consider hiring an AMGA certified guide. We still have a few more days left, so check back to see what else we come up with for these aspiring certified guides!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

What it Takes to be a Ski Guide, Part 2

Day 2 and 3 of the AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guides Course just wrapped up. We spent day 2 finishing off our technical skills, by teaching the candidates glacier travel and crevasse rescue techniques on the Worthington Glacier right off of Thompson Pass. You have to love this place...20 minutes of skinning from the car and we are on a glacier, skiing towards a crevasse to huck ourselves into and get dragged out of.

Candidates hanging out in the crevasse.

As you can imagine, it is essential to know how to be able to haul someone who falls into a slot out of it. It isn't exactly a walk in the park, as you have to arrest the person's fall into the slot, then build a ski anchor as you hold the person's weight on the rope so that you can escape their weight and build a hauling set up to get mechanical advantage so you can pull the person out of the slot.

Ben fighting the pull of gravity as he arrests a crevasse fall.

The plan for Day 3 didn't include any more rescue and technical skills assessment and practice, so obviously it means that it included some ski touring. We were all excited to get out and cover some ground and ski some of the big terrain that the Chugach are famous for. The weather here has been a bit less than ideal. Joey Vallone, one of the instructors I am working with, keeps running into tons of skiing rock stars he used to ski with, who are here to film. However, they have been sitting on their butts for weeks, as clouds and unsettled weather have kept the helis grounded. Lucky for us, we are traveling under our own power and can get around in the mountains as we please, and capitalize on the small windows of good weather.

Working our way up a run called RFS (Really F-ing Steep!)

Luck for us, this actually meant some good views and visibility in the afternoon, and the added bonus treat of 10-15cm of fresh pow - not bad for May 1st!

Instructor Howie Schwartz helps candidate Mark Hanselman pick and choose his way down the glacier.

We got some good runs in, and got to look around and drool in anticipation of the next week of refining guiding skills. Julia Niles works with Howie on figuring out where we will go for the next 3 days.

Finally we sat down with some maps to plan a 3 day ski traverse off of Thompson Pass. If the weather agrees we might get dropped off further away from the road by a heli, and ski back to the cars - if not, good old lungs and legs will get us far far away! I'll let you know how it goes in 3 days!

Joey Vallone getting ready for some AK Heli Time!