Intro to Mountaineering
Day 1 (Sunday, July 27th). Met group at Yamnuska office in Canmore.
The Intro to Mountaineering course started off with a friendly briefing at the Yam office in Canmore in a small classroom. Sitting around a semi circle, we made our introductions and discussed our expectations for the week. There were 11 students and 2 instructors. The students included: Dave, Simon and Phillip (all visiting separately from Ireland), Paul from Boston, Jason and Chris from Calgary, Rob and Helen from Ontario, Steve (from Victoria, B.C.) and my scrambling buddy James and myself from Lethbridge. Our guides were Steve, a native of the UK and Mike (a Canadian).
A lot of us were renting plastic mountaineering boots (available for rent from Yam), so we spent a bit of time trying on boots, making sure to get a pair that we’d be comfortable with for the week. The guides also wanted to take a quick look at our gear to make sure we had the right equipment for the week. We were required to bring a sleeping bag, harness, helmet, mountaineering boots, waterproof pants and shell suitable suitable for activities like glacier travel and self arrest practice. We each had to carry our share of food for the week, which included a bag of snacks that was filled with candy bars and trailmix, just like a Halloween loot bag! It looked like a lot of snacks for just a few days, but in my case, it really turned out to be just enough (it was pretty much empty by the end of the week).
One thing the Yam guides wanted to include as part of the course was navigation (in particular, navigation with a compass in whiteout conditions). Unfortunately, a lot of us did not think to bring compasses, as we were not informed ahead of time… so we made a point to stop in at the outdoor store in Lake Louise enroute to the Bow Hut to buy compasses (and one last coffee!) From there, we drove to Num Ti Jah lodge and hiked to Bow Hut with our full packs. Yam also had a porter who carried up some food and other equipment for the week (ice axes, crampons and rope were somehow magically stashed at the Bow Hut; I’m not sure if the earlier Yam group had to carry a bunch more stuff up, or if they hire a helicopter to take in equipment at the start of each year).
It was raining lightly and we couldn’t really get a sense of what the mountains looked like in the area. The hike to Bow Hut took us about 3 hours (we finally got moving around 2:30 PM from the lodge and got to the hut by 5:15). I remember it being a slog, and was surprised when I looked at my diary and saw it was only a half day to get there.
Day 2 (Monday, July 28). Blue skies and Snow School.
Had a restless night at the hut. After breakfast, we sat around the kitchen and spent some time discussing the basics of glacier and crevasse formation – the guides trying to get us to recognize that glaciers are constantly moving and changing. We also reviewed glacier terrain features, bergshrunds, seracs, etc.
Our main goal for the day was to have a ‘snow school’ – practice self arresting with ice axes, as well as learn some basic techniques for crevasse rescue and glacier travel. It is a short hike from the Bow hut to the Bow Glacier, so after our morning class in the kitchen, we hiked to the edge of the glacier with all our gear and proceeded to rope up. One trick we learned was how to divide up the rope in equal distances for tying off the figure eight’s (basically, find the ends, then find the halfway point – bam – you got the rope set for your first three figure eights, find the other halfway points and you are set for 5 on a rope! For four people equally spaced, proceed the same way and the guy at the end carries the extra share – ‘the rescue coils’). Raw deal for the last dude. For three people, same deal but the guy at the front also carries extra coils. At each figure eight we would connect with two carabiners - a locking carabiner and a non locking carabiner (Yam standard practice) – with the option for the guys at the end to tie into their harness directly with a figure eight.
The site chosen for the snow school was a short distance away, at the foot of Mount Saint Nicholas, so proceeded to rope up and traverse part of the Bow Glacier. There was still good snow cover over the glacier except for a short bit right at the bottom, so we did not require crampons on the sloping areas… At the same time, our boots were not penetrating more than a couple of inches so it was pretty easy going.
We hiked for about an hour or so and went off-rope on some snow slopes… We proceeded to spend a bunch of time practicing self arrests… This was pretty tough physically as we were like a group of kids on a sledding hill, except we were sliding down on our asses, backwards, forwards, on our backs, on our fronts… plus, the snow was pretty soft so it was not easy at all to actually stop. I’d practiced self arresting on firmer snow and it’s way easier.
The guides got us to ‘short rope’ and we proceeded to do an exercise where the guy at the end would pretend he was falling (basically take off running downslope, trying to take the rest of the people tied to him down with him). I unfortunately had to go through this exercise with one of the guides (Steve) a couple of times, and he’s a bit heavier than me… I cartwheeled once, and fell on my face the rest of the time and got snow everywhere. Usually, at least the closest person to the ‘faller’ would get taken for a ride, but if you were on a rope with 4 or 5 people, the third, fourth and fifth people would usually be able to absorb the tug of war and remain standing. It was not a bad exercise, as it gave a general idea for what it would be like of someone were to fall on a steep slope, or the kind of shock you’d feel if someone actually fell into a crevasse. Note: short roping is basically coiling the rope slack until you’re a couple of arm’s length within one another. This is a technique for when you’re traveling on some pretty dicy, steep terrain and you want to be able to maintain a very good tension on the rope to immediately catch a guy before he fell even a metre.
After all this, we started the basics of crevasse rescue by setting up T-anchors with ice axes (an anchoring technique in snow – if there is not much snow cover you would go with ice screws). We hauled snow anchors with us but I don’t recall using them in the way that was shown in the books… basically we stuck with T-anchoring our ice axes as our snow anchoring technique. We each did our own T-anchor, but the point of the exercise was to do this as a rescue belay technique if someone fell into a crevasse while on rope… if a guy were to fall into a crevasse and there was snow covering the ice of the glacier, instead of setting ice screws you go with the t-anchor… the nearest guy to the hole sets the T-anchor for a belay point while the others on rope braced themselves and held the person who had fallen into the crevasse. We proceeded to follow through the exercise but since we were just on the slope of a hill, no one was actually dangling into a crevasse and so there was no one to actually belay.
This was a pretty physically demanding day and as much as I would have enjoyed slacking off after returning back to the hut, it was unfortunately my turn for dinner duties with James and Chris (we prepared lamb curry from a dehydrated food kit). Most of our food for the week was dehydrated food, originally cooked at the Yam office by their staff. It tasted fine, but I’m not sure if it was because we didn’t soak the stuff long enough or what, but I had incredibly, INCREDIBLY bad gas for the entire week.
Day 3: Tuesday.
One of the highlights of the trip! Today we hiked across the glacierfields and summitted Mount Gordon. We were roped up for the entire trip except for lunch at the summit.
Crossing the glacier, we stopped at various times to discuss navigation accross the glacierfield and spent some time probing snow bridges, trying to assess if they were safe, etc. There were a few cracks (crevasses) that showed here and there but nothing dramatic that we had to cross (mostly the crevasses were completely still bridged by snow).
Simply amazing views from the summit! You can just make out Balfour Hut and to the north, you can not quite make out the Peyto Hut but you can see the route that crosses the glacier field. Far off in the distance you can even make out the Bugaboos.
The elevation gain is pretty modest for most of the way and a lot of people do this on skis. There is a bit of a steep pitch near the summit at the end that was intimidating... but quite fun to ascend.
There is an interesting glacial feature that we had to navigate around to get to the summit... there was basically a separation between the rock of the mountain and the glacier for a good section called a moat (see photo.) It is not quite true to the word moat, as it does not completely surround the top. There is quite a dramatic drop off the edge of the glacier at the 'moat' but I never did walk right up to the edge to see how far down it went (although our guide walked right up to the edge, secure in the fact we were roped up. In fact, he jumped right off the bloody thing and made us go through a mock rescue!)
Once again, I was the closest one tied to Steve, so it made me crap my pants somewhat - even though it was obvious he was up to something when he stopped at the edge and said, "Guys, give me some slack!" After he slid off over the edge of the moat, I was basically holding his weight on my own... ok, the friction of the rope against the snow was doing 99% of the work, but I could hold him by myself.
On the way back to the hut we stopped on a section of the glacier that had no snow cover to practice crampon techniques for climbing/glacier travel. (At no point did we ever require crampons for this ascent, although conditions might have been different a couple of weeks later ... on this day, conditions for the entire trip were suitable for just wearing mountaineering boots, as there was still a layer of snow over the ice of the glacier for basically the entire route).
Day 4: Wedsnesday.
Journal entry: Raining lightly in AM. Slept in. Guides were not that enthused about getting out but the group was psyched. Snowy all day. Hiked up Olive. Short roped up high. Tried to do a loop but whited out and did not do the crevasse rescue session in moat as planned. Did a crevasse rescue school at the snow school spot as an alternative.
There were bitter winds blasting us from the West as we approached from the Bow Hut, crossing in front of Mount St. Nicolas on its eastern slopes. In the winter there would probably be some avvy concerns about passing here below St. Nic, and a more stable ascent route would be to go west of Mt. St. Nicolas and ascend to the col between Olive's first peak and St. Nic.
The views were not great, but it was a good experience to navigate in poor conditions.
We practiced short rope techniques higher up on the spiny rock of Olive's ridge.
On the descent, we briefly dropped on to the glacier via the aforementioned col between Olive and St. Nic, as we considered doing a loop back in front of St. Nic. The bitter winds and blowing snow made for a good whiteout, so after checking out the non existent views we returned back to the hut the way we came, shielded by the winds by Mt. St. Nic.
Day 5: Thursday. Journal entry: "Beautiful weather. Roped up and did a crevasse session over past the Onion. Lowered ourselves into crevasses. Used ice screws. Navigation session."
Day 6: Friday. No journal entries... Rainy/drizzling in the AM. We did a rope session practicing prussicking (climbing up a rope) off the back porch. Packed up our crap and hiked back to Num Ti-Jah Lodge, then hoofed it back to Lethbridge with James.