With a weeklong ski mountaineering course on the glaciers of the distant Canadian Rockies in front of me, I was anxious. What if I was the slowest hiker, the weakest skier? By the time I met the other eight students in the helipad area north of Golden, BC, however, I was more than ready to go into the mountains and put that anxiety behind me.
I first skied at Icefall Lodge, which sits on 50,000 acres of land in the Canadian Rockies, in February and was captivated by the terrain. After an unforgettable week, I decided to come back for the mountaineering course to improve my route planning skills, learn crevasse rescue techniques and ski some of the biggest lines in the area.
The annual Spring Mountaineering Course is taught at Icefall Lodge by owner Larry Dolecki, an IFMGA certified mountain guide for over 20 years who built his ski touring lodge near the western border of Banff National Park in 2005. the mountains, filled with a lot of learning and outlines, âDolecki wrote in the course’s introductory package. It certainly was.
After skiing one of our biggest goals, a 1,000-meter descent of a deeply crevassed glacier, one of the other students shook his head. âThis course redefined what I thought was even possible to ski,â he said. Thinking back to our line, I had to agree.
The course emphasized that students plan and lead as much as possible, with the goal of making us comfortable making decisions. Dolecki found the perfect balance between teaching, skiing and teaching ski, and we skied eight peaks in seven days. But more than that, we have learned to read the field, to work together on decision making and to get our partners out of the crevasses. Here are 12 things I learned.
Eat bacon and eggs for the afternoon
When you spend more than 10 hours a day climbing and descending mountains, it is important to eat plenty of high-energy foods. The bacon does the trick and we ate a lot of it. An added benefit of waking up before dawn (in addition to firm snow for the approaches and safer snow conditions for the descent) is that the 4 a.m. oatmeal can be complemented with an aprÃ¨s-ski brunch at the bacon and eggs.
Explore above and below the glacier
Another world exists beneath glaciers, and exploring the chasms between ice and rock was a whole new way to interact with the large mass of slowly moving snow and ice. Protected from the raging blizzard above, we walked through this cave looking into the crystal-clear, rock-strewn interface as far as our headlamps could penetrate, and chopping off a few pieces of the ancient ice to chill our drinks at the lodge.
Using technology during power outages
A GPS or compass and map, as well as knowledge of the terrain come in handy when hiking or skiing in a full whiteout. When crossing glaciers, these tools become all the more important as the large expanses of ice are devoid of landmarks. Fortunately, we had real whiteout conditions to train us to navigate in glacial terrain without having our eyes to guide us.
Practice crevasse rescue in real crevices
It is best to practice crevasse rescue in a real crevasse. Building an efficient pulley system to hoist another human out of the depths of a glacier is one of those skills that you can practice over and over while sitting in the lodge. But until your partner is actually out of sight, hanging in an icy chasm, and using every ounce of your body weight and strength to pull it out, it doesn’t totally stick.
Setting up a skintrack the night before your need can dramatically speed up early morning travel. Not only does this allow you to explore your route in daylight – much easier than tripping with headlamps at 3 a.m. – but making a trail in soft snow rather than bulletproof crust will be a big deal. blessing the next day.
Watch out for death cookies
Shred the powder, but watch out for the deadly cookies, as they are literally solid chunks of ice. It is also best to avoid seracs and crevasses, or if necessary, tackle them at high speed while thinking light thoughts.
Distances can be deceptive
For the planning of the route, we estimated about 400 vertical meters per hour, depending on the time of day the climb took place. The long, flat ice crossings, however, were a bit more difficult to calculate. The mountains seem much closer than they are; here, we slipped on several kilometers of flat after the exit of the day.
Get a high-end truck
Navigating back roads in the mountains presents many challenges, such as navigating rockfall and avalanche debris or getting stuck on broken bridges. High clearance trucks are therefore essential for getting all humans and equipment out of the mountains. We decided it was best to unload the six people from the back of the truck for this crossingâ¦ just in case.
Practice your knots (and your German)
Don’t waste a day in a lodge. Practice your knots before class to keep your Prussic, munter, garda, and clove hitches familiar and effortless. After our helicopter ride to the lodge, we started rope work straight away. To stimulate our dinner appetites, we rappelled out of the lodge on a munter and used our prussics to ascend.
Don’t underestimate how early you need to start hiking with a new group of people in unfamiliar terrain. Better to allow more time on the first day – and wait at the top for the snow to soften – rather than having to turn around halfway up as the sun heats up the snow on an unstable slope.
Send the guinea pigs first
To make sure the route âgoes smoothly,â send a few sounding skiers with radios ahead of time when skiing new terrain with a group. So if a dangerous or inskiable obstacle blocks your descent, there are only one or two people to clear the glacier instead of 10.
Sharpen your ice screws
The best place to practice building ice anchors is in the iceâ¦ naturally. Having sharp ice screws makes it easier to cut a slit for the rope, and running it without a guide is good practice, but not ideal. The force it takes to pierce even a three inch ice anchor into good solid ice is incredible.