Wednesday, March 28, 2012

AIARE Avalanche 2 Course

We love avalanche education!  A better-educated public skis and climbs smarter, skis and climbs more, and lives longer to ski and climb more.  What's not to love!? The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) is the leading provider of avalanche education curriculum in the United States.  AIARE has developed a 3-step series of courses to serve backcountry travelers of all types.  Level 1 and Level 3, living securely at either end of the hierarchy, enjoy a clearly defined constituency.  Level 1 is a purpose-built decision-making course for recreational backcountry travelers. The level 3 is a professional-level program for guides, patrollers and forecasters.  Few know what to do with that middle child, the Level 2.  Allow us to shed some light on the question "is the Level 2 right for me?"  Or, even "am I right for the level 2?"

AIARE labels the Level 2 as their course for "Analyzing snow stability and Avalanche Hazard".  Great, right?  What does that mean?  Isn't that what we're always doing?  In short, yes it is.  Let us be more direct.  

You should take a Level 2 course if you meet any one of these criteria:
  • You travel into the snowy backcountry of areas and ranges without a professionally-prepared Avalanche Advisory/Bulletin.
  • You travel into the snowy backcountry more than 15 or 20 days each season.
  • You are, or intend to be, a professional ski or alpine guide.
  • You are, or intend to be, a professional ski patroller at an area with avalanche terrain.
  • You find yourself regularly leading groups of lesser-experienced partners into the backcountry.
You are ready to take a Level 2 course if you meet all of these criteria:
  • You have taken a Level 1 and understand more than some of what you learned.
  • You have spent a season or two (at least) effectively planning and executing trips into the snowy backcountry.
  • You can (and have) thoroughly practiced complicated and successful "companion rescue" scenarios.

So, where do you fit?
~Jed Porter

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mt. Whintey Winter

There are a multitude of reasons for wanting to climb a mountain, particularly in winter, when the forecast is for high winds and brutal cold."Because it's there"might suffice as an answer if you were George Mallory and equipped with the nearly extinct elan that possessed his generation of climbers. Meeting the group that morning, appropriately if inauspiciously, at the Mt. Whitney cafe, I caught myself asking the same question. How do a group of nine people, whose backgrounds are as varied as a former British commando, a prison guard and a couple of special effects wizards, largely exclusive of each other come together and decide to climb a mountain? The answers, I was sure, would be as varied as the climbers themselves.
After checking our packs for the requisite items, and dividing group gear into the ever increasing piles of things that we were faced with carrying up a mountain we started in a convoy of three SUV's up the Whitney Portal road. The drive consisted of a sinuous stretch of steady climbing, skirting an enormous Road Closed sign, and working our way through the kind of rock fall one would expect from the shaky camera footage of an Afghan war zone. The parking lot by comparison was cool, and the trail itself bordered by massive Jeffrey pines that provided an immediate sense of remoteness and adventure. Thirty minutes of walking found us in a broad snow filled canyon, battling willows for supremacy over the trail and back in the warm winter sun. Arriving at the base of the ledges we ferried the groups packs over the narrow and grit covered scramble that lead off the canyon floor and up to the last section of trail before our first camp. The sun was threatening to dip behind the mountains and plunge us back into the chill of winter as we arrived at Boy Scout lake. We set up camp and shortly had water boiling to combat the encroaching cold with steaming cups of hot chocolate. After Bernd and Lyra demonstrated their exemplary backcountry cooking skills with dinner and boiled another pot of water for a second round of hot drinks before the group dispersed to their tents for the night.

The sun, which from our vantage rose virtually unimpeded in the east shone on us early and we begrudgingly made our way out into the cold and begun to deconstruct our tents and repack our bags. The conditions above boy Scout lake alternated between firm wind bored snow, perfect for crampons, and post holing through feet of sugar and willows that was so bad it inspired one of our team, a hardened veteran of an Everest expedition to write a limerick lamenting his trials.There was also the view. Tiers of brilliantly blue water ice beckoned, to those heedless of the their natural apprehensions, to be climbed. The sun glowed red on the rock, clouds whipped by high winds into strands wavered like banners across the sky, and the spire of Whitney rose before us. We camped that evening on the moraine below Iceberg lake, re-hydrating with mugfuls of hot Miso soup and eating heaping bowls of pasta before turning in.
The morning of the summit we woke at some excruciating hour that left you immediately convinced that you'd only been asleep for a few minutes. After oatmeal, and enough coffee induced clarity to realize that we weren't dreaming and that we were indeed going to climb a 14 thousand foot mountain in winter, we shouldered our light summit packs and move single file into the darkness. When the sun emerged it seemed to bring little warmth, our first break resembled a survival huddle and we were hard pressed to remove our down jackets for the next leg in spite of the level of exertion it promised. Now, the snow conditions could be described as something close to sublime, with each step cutting a perfect foothold in the snow. We climbed steeply up the Couloir, using a crossover step to switchback between the rock walls. Our next break saw us at the top of the Couloir with the rocky summit of Whitney ahead of us just beyond sight. The wind cut through layers of soft shell and insulation and brought with it a bone chilling cold as we removed our crampons and stowed our axes in preparation for the climb that stood between us and the summit. We stretched out our ropes, put gloved hands on the warmth leeching rock and began to climb. The team was fit, and moved with surprising grace and speed, sometimes on belay, sometimes completely relying on each others ability for that extra measure of safety. Soon we reached up and pulled over the last rock step and realized there was no more vertical terrain in front of us, that we were standing on top. The cold didn't curb our enthusiasm, but the photos at the top were taken quickly, and after a quick snack and some water we began our descent retreating from the wind.

The last day the group got up and broke down camp as if running through some lifelong routine. The wind had abated and before long we were stopping to shed layers in the sudden warmth. The team dispensed with the descent of the ledges efficiently and before long we were back in the cool of the pines that offered a surprisingly welcome shade. A few days of dis-habituating in the wilds of the Sierra and Lone Pine had the buzz and tempo of New York, but we still retained our fundamental survival instincts and quickly made our way to a local pizza joint to celebrate and say our goodbyes

So why did a bunch of people from all over and America and the world show up and decide to climb a mountain. Probably no far reaching or transcendent purpose, certainly for reasons beneath divine interest. Most likely because there are few things that serve to challenge us as physically, mentally, emotionally as climbing a big mountain. Few things as incredible or inspiring, as being there with friends, and others that seek their inspiration in the thin air and stark beauty of the mountains. Or maybe just because it was there.
-Thomas Greene

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mt. Gayley Winter Ascent

Andy and Tessa came back for more.  Last winter, as part of a shared California Alpine Guides/Sierra Mountain Guides winter mountaineering course, they got the basics down.  They then went out for a year and bagged peaks in the Sierra, the Cascades and Peru.  This February, taking advantage of uniquely non-wintry weather and conditions, they hoped to put it all together with a winter ascent of North Palisade.  North Palisade, from any angle at any time of year, is a proud ascent.  From the U-Notch, in February's short, cold days, it's world-class!  World class in strenuousness, aesthetics, and objective difficulty.  Andy and Tessa have above average fitness and skills.  Conditions and access and weather would be our biggest uncertainty.  As the dates approached, the weather forecast gelled into a somewhat typical windy pattern.   In an unfortunate twist of fate, the windiest time was forecast for the relatively narrow summit window we had built into our 3 day trip.  

We approached from the Glacier Lodge parking, walking initially in bare boots and eventually on snowshoes, to Sam Mack Meadow.  Clear skies, warm temperatures, firm snow underfoot, calm air:  We couldn't have asked for more that first day.  With the forecast wind kicking up that afternoon, we pitched our tents as well as we could and hunkered down.  We optimistically set the alarm for early on day 2, but screaming winds only increased through the night.  Before sleeping, we discussed options and criteria by which we would implement these various alternatives; better to discuss contingencies when  fed and warm and happy than to make rash decisions half-awake in the dark and cold of an early wake-up.  The consensus was that, if we woke to the forecast morning winds, we would forego the avalanche prone U-Notch route, sleep a little longer, and move camp higher for an attempt at another summit in the morning of the 3rd day.  

Knowing the beauty of a high and sunrise-lit campsite, we chose to move camp to Glacier Notch.  Now, camping at Glacier Notch is not part of your typical Palisades endeavor, but it should be!  What a spot:  One can look north into the entire Palisade Glacier cirque and southeast into Death Valley national park.  The sun rises over the glacier and hits tents square on with the most orange alpenglow you can imagine.  The East Face of Mount Sill looms to the west while the red ridge of Mt. Gayley waits just a few minutes north.  With the previous day's strong SW winds loading snow couloirs on all the 14ers, we chose Mt. Gayley's SW ridge as our 3rd day, early morning, "consolation" prize.  Andy and Tessa, like all good mountaineers, adapted readily to the change in plans.  The journey became our destination.  We scored a winter ascent of a large and remote peak, but the most memorable portion will probably be that campsite at Glacier Notch.