Thursday, August 6, 2015

IAG Mountain Skills Course

Mountain mornings are good mornings.

Well, that was pretty awesome.


Last month I made a last minute decision to jump into a Mountain Skills Course led by Jan Neuspiel of Island Alpine Guides.  A girls mountain biking weekend in Squamish fell through and that left Gen and I free for a spontanious weekend in the mountains.  We had been eyeing up the IAG summer schedule to try and find a course that would work for us and voila- 2 spots became available that very weekend.  Unfortunately it was a helicopter fly-in that meant we missed out on bushwalking for 2 additional days to get to and from base camp and having to take a scenic flight both ways instead.  Haha.  We got over that pretty quick and decided to embrace the rock star version of accessing the mountains by rotary-wing.

Here is a summary of our weekend along with a few of my favourite pics.  In short, this course is a must if you are finding yourself maxing out in the mountains and wishing you had the skills to move beyond scrambling to the top of accessible summits.  Who knew travelling on ice would be so fun!

Island Alpine Guides: Mountain Skills Course- Fly In

July 2-5

The crew wanted to head into the mountains a day early, which was even better, so we flew in on Thursday night, rather than the scheduled Friday morning.  Always a bonus to get another night in the mountains imo!  Late Thursday, Gen and I carpooled up to Gold River with our new mountain friend, Nathalie from Tofino, to catch our ride into the mountains.
Ready to fly!  Rock star approach to the alpine- I could get used to this.  Nathalie centre, Genevieve right.

What a gift.  Our short flight from Gold River to the base of Mount Matchlee was a ride through memory lane.  I haven't been in a machine since my last fire with Rapattack in the summer of 2003.  Firefighting required flying all over the province and rappelling out of helicopters on a weekly basis.  I know it was amazing...but I had forgotten the intensity of it all over the years.  Buckling in and feeling the blades turning brought an unexpected gust of emotions through me -excitement, pride and pure joy.  Gen and Nathalie had also worked with machines and it almost felt like we were a little crew heading out to get some work done.  And, I suppose, we were.  This time, however, we were heading into the mountains to get dirty and work just for fun.

Home sweet home.
We touched down on the rock just above our camp and met up with our instructor, Jan and the rest of our student crew, Tida and Jordan, from Victoria.  We had just enough time to throw up our tent before the sun began to drop to the west.  We did our first, of what would be 3, beautiful sunset photo shoots before hitting the sack.

Day 1: Snow in July.

Up early, quick mountain breakfast of Starbucks instant (decaf - I know I'm so hard core) coffee and hard boiled eggs.   We packed our gear for the day, including crampons, ice axes, anchors, harnesses, ropes, helmets, clothing, lunch, water etc.  We discussed route selection and navigation as we picked our way up the mountain to our snow classroom.  If you have been in the mountains this year, you will know that the snow has disappeared unseasonably early.  With a no snow pack winter and an endless summer, the snow is long gone and there are even small glaciers appearing where no one realized they had been hiding before this year.
Headed to school.

We picked one of the hottest weekends of the summer to stand on the side of an exposed mountain without an inch of shade.  Add to that, a relentless upward reflection of light from standing on snow and ice for hours on end, and you have a recipe for serious sunburn and heat stroke.  We all covered up with layers of clothing and sunscreen, drank loads of water and managed to keep out of trouble, however.  Don't forget your sun smarts in the mountains:).

We worked on snow travel then learned how to self arrest with an ice axe from all sorts of crazy positions.  Feet first, head first, upside down and backwards, we tumbled down the snow slope and stopped ourselves from sudden death on the rocks below.  Well, hahaha, ok, it wasn't that risky, but it was a great chance to practice this critical skill in a controlled environment.

Gen saving her own life with her new self arrest skills.

Next up it was building snow anchors for single and multi-pitch climbing situations.  Snow anchors are cool!  We learned many different ways to create snow anchors including pickets, ice axes, deadmen/fluke and some other creative techniques - using rocks and even the snow itself with a bollard anchor.  It is truely amazing how strong these anchors can be!  We did some fun destructive testing : aka hurling ourselves on the rope and trying to rip the anchors out of the snow.  Not much luck!  This exercise was very good for confidence and learning how strong well built snow anchors really are.

To round out the day, we took a stroll up to the foot of the glacier and I had my first experience walking on inclined ice.  We strapped on the crampons, practiced walking up the ice and then learned how to place protection in the ice.  Ice anchors are super cool!  We used ice screws as well as Abalakov (crafty Russians) anchors and spent the afternoon playing on blue ice.  After 'class' we made the trek home via rock, snow, rivers, waterfalls and under a magical ice tunnel!

Magic moments, walking under the ice.

After dropping our gear, we all ran for the alpine lakes that had been calling our names all day.  Pristine, aqua water with an infinity pool waterfall disappearing over the edge?  Yes please.  Dinner around the stoves, another amazing sunset, sweet mountain dreams sleeping side by side with my mountain buddy, Gen.

Wanna go for a swim?

Day 2: Ice Ice baby.   

Gen, ready to hike up to class for the day.

Up early and back under our day packs, we trekked up to the ice.  Day 2 was all about putting our new ice skills into action.  We teamed up and began climbing the glacier ice.  This was my first time leading a climb and my first time wearing my harness in over 10 years.  It took me a while to get into the flow of roping up, belaying, leading and all of the systems, knots, and hand positions that go along with it all.   I couldn't even remember how to tie a double figure 8 that morning haha!  But, by the time it was my turn to lead, it had all come back to me and I was able to focus on the new ice skills of crampons, axes, screws and anchors while climbing my pitch.  This experience was my favourite of the weekend, by far.  It was very empowering and brought all of the new and old skills together for me.  I am a very visual person and watching it all play out made much more sense then discussing theory and what ifs.  It was pretty sweet to get to the top of the ice and share hi fives with the girls.  First firsts for all of us:).

Blue skies above and blue ice below!  Learning how to find good ice and set good anchors under the watchfull eye of Jan.

We had a break for lunch on the glacier and the afternoon was spent learning and practicing safe glacier travel.  Now I understand why and how to rope up while walking across a glacier!  There is a system in place that puts you two steps ahead in the event of a a worse case scenario- a climber disappearing into a hidden crevasse.  We learned how to assess risk, prevent risk and then how to respond to an emergency with crevasse rescue techniques.  Awesome.  Skills everyone should have before stepping onto a glacier IMO- now that I know the potential risk!  Another lovely walk home followed by a mountain dinner, epic sunset and deep alpine sleep.

Gen and Tida pulling up the rear on our two glacier travel teams.  Our camp is beside the lake below.

Day 3: Let's do this.

It was time to go for the summit of Matchlee.  After hanging around on her shoulder for 2 days, we were all itching to get to the top and see what was on the other side.  We learned and practiced new rock skills en route to the summit including short roping and using various features to belay over short sections.  Once we reached the final approach to the summit, we set up a pitch and tackled some low class 5 high class 4 to put our skills together one more time.  And then...we were there.  Looking out over the other the endless peaks of Strathcona Provincial Park.  Lunch never tasted so good.
Living the dream...mountain life!  Nathalie and Tida heading back to camp after another long day.


There were so many gifts that came with that spontaneous weekend.  

The gift of new and deepened friendships.  The gift of freedom, big skies and fresh air.  The gift of sleeping on the side of a mountain and swimming in untouched alpine lakes.  The gift of hands on rock and feet on ice.  And the awesome gift of new perspectives and new ideas.

It was fantastic to experience so many 'firsts' in one weekend.  We seem to have fewer and fewer novel experiences as we get older and feeling things for the first time is one of life's greatest presents.  The IAG Mountain Skills weekend was a great reminder that I need to stretch my edges with new experiences and new challenges a little more often.  Not just more of the same...but more of completely new territory. Because first firsts are the best way to stretch the edges of this beautiful life:).

Nathalie frozen in a Roy Henry Vickers moment.
What have you done lately that stretched your edges and expanded your perspective?  I'd love to hear about it!


1 comment:

Matthew Lettington said...

Great review/report Sarah! I'm impressed that you got the report out so fast. My own report took over a year! I'm slow.