Ice climbing, avalanche risk & gear love

Living near a mecca of ice climbing, this winter I decided to try a multi-pitch ice climb. I called my partner in crime who is also the only girl I know crazy enough to join me, and we picked a weekend for our adventure.  We’d both done some top-roping before and were really psyched to try something new.  Neither of us can lead ice so my good friend and guide Patrick got the honours of leading us ladies (no pun intended – haha).

The problem with planning things in advance is that mountain weather runs on its own schedule.  Checking the forecast I could see that a perfect storm was brewing for avalanche conditions.  By Friday night Patrick confirmed what I had been thinking, plans were going to have to change.  It’s always a little disappointing when things don’t work out the way you envisioned, especially when you can’t wait around indefinitely for better conditions.  Thankfully Patrick had a wicked backup plan in mind and really, any climbing is great when you’re with friends!

Avalanche risk

I joked that next time I pray for an epic weekend, I’m going to have to start specifying which part I want to be epic!  Apparently the Rockies are experiencing a “once in 30 years” avalanche cycle;  the Trans-Canada highway was closed for 5 days, there were 3 fatalities over the weekend and many unusually large avalanches were reported.  Having recently taken an avalanche safety course, I had a good appreciation for how bad conditions were and was glad Pat had able to find somewhere safe for us to climb.  The mountains will always be there and you want to make sure that you will as well!

Ever seen something like this? It's from the Banff NP avalanche bulletin.

If you’re going out in the Rockies this winter be sure to check the avalanche bulletins first.  Another great resource is @ParksMtnSafety (Banff National Park) or @KCPublicSafety (Kananaskis) on twitter.

Climbing on …

We headed to the Junkyards in Canmore which most people know as a top-roping area.  There’s actually a lot more to it and  we spent the morning practicing moving up and down as a group of three.  In retrospect I think it worked out well because the next time we climb together, we’ll be that much more efficient.  There’s a lot more to seconding than just cleaning draws/screws and the better you are at it, the better your climbing experience will be.

The mixed climbing is to the left

After, we tried a mixed climbing which is something I’ve been wanting to do as it’s always intrigued me.  Watching Patrick climb the mixed route was like watching a beautifully choreographed dance.  Me … not so much.  Trying to place crampons and axes on snow-covered rock and thin ice is very different from rock or ice climbing but the challenge is strangely satisfying.  One piece of advice? – don’t swing your axe, place it gently.  Whack the rock once and you won’t need any reminders not to do it again!

My gear

I’m always interested in knowing is what other people wear ice climbing and what does or doesn’t work so that being said, here’s what I wore and some suggestions:

  1. Footwear: Scarpa Mont Blanc GTX mountaineering boots (plus wool socks/Superfeet insoles). I’ve only worn these boots twice but they have been great so far & very warm.
  2. Bottoms: Light synthetic leggings & waterproof insulated ski-pants.  Unless you have a death wish for your ski-pants, wear gaiters or get a pair of tighter fitting pants.  Speaking from experience, crampons will catch on your pants if they’re too baggy.
  3. Top: Synthetic tank top, merino long sleeve shirt, synthetic long sleeve shirt, Patagonia down sweater & hardshell.  All in that order. It might seem like overkill on the layers but both my girlfriend and I wore roughly the same thing and neither of us felt too cold or too hot.
  4. Belay jacket:  First Ascent mountain guide hooded down jacket.  I wore it over my hardshell in the morning when it was cold then packed it away as it warmed up.
  5. Hands: I love my thin waterproof mittens and wanted them to work so badly but I’ll concede, gloves would have been better.  Nothing sucks more than trying to clip or unclip a draw and getting your mitt stuck in the gate.  Mittens are fine to belay in but I’d rather climb with thin softshell gloves.  If you’re just top-roping, thin mitts would be fine though.
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Avalanche Safety Training (AST1)

After spending the last year resort skiing it seemed like this year would be a great time to try alpine touring.  Without having much backcountry experience (err, ok I have none!), I knew that the first step was to get some avalanche training.  Besides the obvious safety aspects, I was really interested in taking the course so I could learn a little more about the places I play in during the winter.  I signed up for a two day course with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures on December 11-12.

Day 1 – Learning about snowpack, terrain & avalanches

The first day we learned the basics about snowpacks and how to read their signs.  We started with listing all of the factors that you might assess before skiing a certain slope and then moved on to talking about each factor: which ones give you the most information and how you would read each.  In the afternoon we went through a few scenarios where we were given pictures of different slopes or mountains and had to work out the best way up/down.

How much you enjoy the classroom day will depend on how much you enjoy the “school” experience.  My husband is more of a hands on guy so he preferred the field day.  For me, it huge eye opener because I realized how much I didn’t know and what factors go into assessing avalanche hazards.  Suffice to say I never look at snow slopes the same way again!

Day 2 – Snow pits, beacons & rescues

The second day is by far the best day.  When we signed up for the course, our field day was supposed to be in Kananaskis however due to the snow conditions (or lack thereof) we went to Bow summit instead which is up the Icefields Parkway (~240km from Calgary).  Unfortunately for us it had just been snowing so the roads were not in good condition.  I get the feeling the Parkway is not plowed frequently.  We wound up using snowshoes to get around and unless you own touring gear I’d recommend going this route as the day is so packed there isn’t much time for skiing.

In the morning we learned how to work the beacons and practiced and finding them buried under the snow.  After, we snowshoed uphill to dig snow pits.  The day was pretty busy so instead of having a sit-down lunch, we just snacked whenever we stopped.  We saw a lot of cracks forming as we travelled uphill so it was interesting to see how the snowpack looked in everyone’s pits – not every pit showed instability despite the fact the avalanche risk was higher than usual.  We also learned how to do a Rutschblock test.  On the way back down we stopped near a slope that had recently avalanched giving everyone a good chance to check out the fracture lines (where the slab breaks off) and the debris.

Compression test on a snow column - looking for weak layers in the upper portion of the snowpack

The last part of the day involved splitting up into two groups to do rescue scenarios.  Half the group stayed back to bury our “victims” and observe the rescue while the other half coordinated what they were going to do.  This was probably one of the most fun parts of the day.  Even though it’s a completely made up scenario it’s interesting how crazy things get and you get a real appreciation for why these skills need to be practiced.  I really can’t even begin to imagine the stress if it had been a real rescue.

Practising our rescue skills

Final thoughts?

I really enjoyed this course and would recommend it.  Usually I find I learn better one-on-one but I think that avalanche training is something that works really well in groups, especially for the rescue scenarios/beacon practice.  Our guides Steve Blagbrough and Mike Stuart (who joined us on the second day) were both super knowledgeable and friendly.

Some cool stuff we were given was a package from the Canadian Avalanche Association which included an Avaluator card and the book “Backcountry Avalanche Awareness”.  The book is great because it goes in depth on many topics you cover in class (so no need to take notes!).  The Avaluator is this neat little laminated card that has a grid on it. On the back you go through a checklist of questions to come with a rating for terrain and snowpack.  Then you cross-reference the two numbers on the front grid to see what the overall risk level is.  It’s not foolproof but it’s a great tool for beginners to help you remember what you should be looking for and what it means.

Excellent read!

You won’t finish any short course with instant knowledge and ability to assess hazards perfectly, it’s definitely a steep learning curve and the more you keep up on conditions and reading the more it all starts making sense.  Over the holidays we even got a few laughs from parents when we noted the fracture lines on a neighbours snowy roof!