Entries from Guide News
July 19, 2018
At the end of this past April, eleven RMI guides came together in Washington to take the AMGA Alpine Skills Course, a prerequisite for the Alpine Guide Course, and a great continuing education opportunity for all of us to remain at the forefront of current guiding techniques. After a winter of far-flung adventures, Dave Hahn, Andy Bond, Mike King, Jenny Konway, Grayson Swingle, Hannah Smith, Gloria Roe, Nick Scott, JT Schmitt, Alan Davis, and myself converged on Ashford. These courses are an important chance for us to refresh our skillset and learn some new tricks from our peers and the instructors from the AMGA.
Over the course of 5 days at Paradise in Mt. Rainier National Park, and on Mt. Erie, outside Anacortes, WA, we reviewed snow anchor construction and multi-pitch techniques for snowy environments, belaying and lowering techniques, short roping and short pitching, and anchor station management. Success in our guiding often lies in not only being able to utilize a number of techniques to manage risk, but in being able to maintain efficiency and timeliness at the same time. As we worked through different transitions, techniques, and scenarios with our peers, we all walked away with a few new tools in our bag and I’m convinced will be better guides for it.
This was a fantastic event for the eleven of us, and many thanks go out to RMI and the AMGA for putting it on. Congrats to Dave Hahn, Andy Bond, Mike King, Jenny Konway, Grayson Swingle, Hannah Smith, Gloria Roe, Nick Scott, JT Schmitt, and Alan Davis for completing the course!
July 4, 2017
Today marks the 520th time that RMI Guide Brent Okita has reached the summit of Mt. Rainier. Brent now holds the record for the most successful summit climbs to the 14,410’ peak. The previous record holder was IMG co-owner and guide George Dunn.
We are excited for Brent to be holding this record and we will be celebrating Brent and his amazing accomplishment!
Quite an accomplishment Brent, congratulations - and many more summits.
Posted by: -McIver on 7/7/2017 at 7:10 pm
Congrats Brent! Thanks for getting me up there with you for your #519.
Posted by: Brad Snodgrass on 7/5/2017 at 8:22 am
Mountaineering and music have much in common to share. When we consider music, we often think of pleasant noises combined together to make song—but it is precisely the silence between those bits of noise that make music more than simply a frantic crashing of sound. So too, it is with mountaineering: much focus is given to the getting up the mountain, but it is the descent that gives it meaning. You can no more have a successful climb without a descent than you can have a front without a back. And adding the mode of skiing to that descent provides an additional aesthetic beauty to that project.
During early-April I had the opportunity to explore and expand my understanding of the ski mountaineering aesthetic through the American Mountain Guides Association’s Advanced Ski Guide Course. This ten-day course is the follow-up to the twelve-day, introductory Ski Guide Course (which I’d completed in 2015) and is the precursor to an eight-day Ski Exam. With the benefit of RMI’s commitment to the professional development of its guides, I was able to attend the Advanced Ski Guide Course in Thompson Pass, Alaska.
Thompson Pass is part of the storied Chugach Range, the setting for more extreme skiing videos than perhaps anywhere else on the planet. Jagged, flat-iron peaks are flanked with row upon rows of steep and deep powder couloirs that spill into massive glacial basins, with easy access provided by the Richardson Highway running through it, connecting the port town of Valdez with the rest of The Last Frontier. This makes it the perfect place for the Advanced course. Whereas the introductory Ski Guides Course focuses on safely moving groups through backcountry avalanche terrain and finding the best skiing along the way, the Advanced Ski Guide Course brings in the components of safe travel on glaciers (e.g., navigating in white out conditions, avoiding crevasses, dealing with crevasse rescue, etc) and managing skiers in technical mountain terrain (e.g., roped travel through steep rock and snow, belayed entry into steep terrain, effective group management in narrow couloirs, etc).
But there’s more to it than just the technical aspects—because, after all, in ski mountaineering the focus of climbing a peak goes beyond just the joy of standing on the summit—there is the consideration of finding the most enjoyable line to ski on the way down. Having completed AMGA certifications in Rock and Alpine Guiding, I’m versed in the technique and mindset needed to successfully climb large objectives, and that mindset could be generally summed up with the word “efficiency”. Moving into the world of ski mountaineering has been an exciting shift of paradigms, working to also incorporate in the concepts of “aesthetics” and “enjoyment”. In the world of alpine climbing, enjoyment is often seen as what you experience upon completing the goal, standing on the summit and coming back down safely. In the world of ski mountaineering, standing on the summit is a necessary pleasure before the true pleasure of ski descent can be attained. A greater focus on both product and process that I’m finding increasingly attractive.
I’m not the only one finding this product and process increasingly attractive: backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering is among the fastest growing segments of the outdoor world. And RMI is at the forefront in developing programs to help its audience enjoy the sport. RMI Guide Tyler Reid leads ski descents of Europe’s highest peak, Mt. Elbrus, and explores Chile’s renowned skiing with RMI Guide Solveig Waterfall. In 2018, I’ll be doing a Mt. Baker Climb/Ski as well as a custom ski/climb program. RMI, long at the lead in helping climbers reach their summit goals, now has a range of excellent ski options to ensure that the descent is both safe and extremely rewarding.
For a look at some of my other experiences with backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering, and the AMGA Ski Guide program, check out these links:
• Mammut Athlete Team Blog about my ski experiences in the Alps prior to the Ski Guides Course.
• RMI Blog post about my experiences in learning snow science during the American Avalanche Institute’s Level 3 Avalanche Course.
Standing in the Taggert Lake parking lot of Grand Teton National Park, we gather for one of the last morning guide meetings of our AMGA Ski Guide Course. Everybody smiles and chuckles as our meeting leader reads the weather report. Over the last 9 days we have received over 80 inches of snow containing more than 8 inches of water equivalency. The avalanche forecast is high and predicted to hit extreme after a rain event starts this evening. We all talk about dialing back our terrain choices…way back. This storm has been relentless for many days, altering our objectives, creating whiteout conditions to navigate, forcing meticulous terrain selection, and making for some great skiing. We have all learned many tools for creating a positive and safe mountain experience amidst a dangerous snowpack. Today we talk about our tour plan, a planned route up a 3000 vertical foot feature in Grand Teton National Park. Through mapping tools, some math, and a little technology, we know what we’re getting into and have a plan to manage the risks. We talk about who will take the lead for our group on each climb and each descent, as well as our pacing, timing, emergency plans, equipment, and weather forecast. We break our meeting, beacons checked, skins on, click in, it’s time to go skiing!
In February with the help of the RMI guide grant I attended this 12-day AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) Ski Guide Course in Jackson, Wyoming. This is the second course in the four courses and exams that lead to becoming a certified AMGA ski guide. The course covers numerous factors of guiding in the winter environment. Managing terrain, instruction and modeling, and putting clients in the safest, best snow is the primary focus of our techniques on the down. Creating efficient tracks, navigation, and terrain selection is a big focus of our time guiding the climb. We cover many technical factors as well, including adding security in 3rd class terrain using our rope, technical lowers and rappels into steep ski terrain, crevasse rescue on skis, travel with an improvised emergency sled, and construction of winter emergency shelters.
Many thanks to RMI and the RMI guide grant for their financial and mentorship support. Another big thanks to our instructors Christian Santelices and Rob Hess for their dedication to growing the professionalism of our guiding community.
Chris Ebeling has been guiding with RMI since 2015. He grew up in the Northwest, climbing, skiing, and riding around Oregon and Washington before making the move to the Northern Rockies of Montana. He returned from Montana to join RMI, but still returns to Montana to explore the remote corners of his home range during the winter.
RMI Guide Leon Davis reached the summit of Mt. Rainier for the 100th time this morning with our Five Day Summit Climb. The team was able to spend some time on the summit celebrating before descending back to Camp Muir for their final night on the mountain.
On Tuesday, June 7, 2016 at 2:02 p.m. PDT, RMI Guide Brent Okita reached the summit of Mt. Rainier for the 500th time, becoming only the second person to reach this exclusive milestone.
Brent; along with RMI Guides Leah Fisher and Christina Dale, Peter Dale and Aaron Mainer; ascended Mt. Rainier via the Disappointment Cleaver route. It was a windy day on the summit but the team took time to celebrate at Columbia Crest. After many hugs and photos were exchanged, they traversed to Liberty Cap for their ski descent of the Edmunds Headwall. Brent described his 500th summit and ski descent as “one of the coolest days of my life!”
To put this in perspective, Brent has logged over 9,000,000 vertical feet on Mt. Rainier throughout his 30-year career. “Brent is a mentor, leader, and above all an inspiration to all mountaineers,” said Peter Whittaker, owner of RMI. “The fact that Brent has challenged himself on this mountain for 30 years and successfully summited Rainier 500 times is extraordinary. Even more amazing, Brent continues to climb at the pace of a 20-year-old guide and will likely climb Rainier another 20 times this summer…his endurance and fitness are unmatched.”
Brent, 55, has worked at RMI since 1986 as a professional climbing instructor and guide, leading teams of climbers on ascents of Mt. Rainier. In that time, he has also reached the summit of Mt. Everest (via the North Side) and led over two dozen RMI guided parties up 20,310’ Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America. Other ascents to his credit include Vinson Massif (Antarctica), and several expeditions to the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps (Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, Jungfrau).
Setting records is not Brent’s motivation; his 500 summits of Mt. Rainier are a natural consequence of his tenure with RMI and dedication to the sport of mountaineering. With no thoughts of retirement, Brent plans to continue guiding climbers on Mt Rainier and Denali for the foreseeable future. In the winter months he pursues his love of skiing, working for Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol. He and wife, Julie, make their home in Enumclaw, WA, where they enjoy bicycling and hiking.
Well done, Big Bro!! The family is all proud of you ... again!
Posted by: Brad Okita on 6/15/2016 at 8:57 pm
Awesome Brent, I remember when you first started guiding for RMI. Congratulations on your alpine achievements, I wish I was there to ski the Edmunds with you, snow is going fast in the Tetons so will head to the Winds on days off. Peace and much Love, Bill Moe/ former Paradise/ Muir Ranger/ Teton Helitack USFS, Jackson Wyoming
Posted by: Bill Moe on 6/10/2016 at 10:26 am
Geese gabble on the banks of the Crooked River as it winds around the cliffs of lithified volcanic ash that make up our classroom here in Smith Rock State Park, Oregon. It’s day nine of ten on the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) Rock Guide Course, a program focused on multi-pitch rock guiding and rescue techniques in fourth and fifth class terrain. This course is the first step to becoming certified by the AMGA in one of three guiding disciplines - rock, alpine and skiing.
In the days leading up to this we have worked through systems on the ground and on the cliff, and have guided each other while maintaining a play-by-play discussion to ensure that each participant learns from the mistakes and successes of the others. As participants, we are here to transition from competent recreational climbers to facilitators of climbing in a professional setting. There are myriad new techniques and subtleties that I have been exposed to in the last eight days.
Today is framed as a mock exam in which participants are put in the driver’s seat for a few pitches of climbing and descending. I do my best to put it all together - to select the best new tool in my tool box and implement it successfully. Throughout the exercise I notice how much more comfortable and confident I am with this process since the first time I was given the reins only a few days ago. I now feel equipped to enter the realm beyond recreational rock climbing.
My participation in this course was made possible by the RMI Guide Grant, and I cannot express my gratitude enough.
Before the big mountain bug bit me, I viewed snow as a blanket that came in the winter and lay quietly in place ‘til spring’s thaw. All that changed when I decided it wise to educate myself about avalanches. Taking part in the introductory Level 1 avalanche education course, I quickly learned how the snowpack, terrain, and triggers (like climbers or cornice falls) can transform that quiet blanket into a raging white dragon. Interested in learning more about this beast, I enrolled in a Level 2 avalanche course a few years later, and came to understand that each layer of snow that falls forms something of geologic record in that season’s snowpack: if the snow falls warm, that layer will stay warm for a long time; if hail falls, it can be evident in the snowpack months later. Even more incredibly—similar to plates of geologic sedimentary matter—that seemingly silent white winter blanket is often actively undergoing radical metamorphosis due to vapor and temperature differences in the layers.
This February—with the support of the RMI Guide Grant—I participated in a Level 3 course. It’s something of a graduate level course in the University of Avalanches: A rigorous curriculum that explores the intricacies of snowpack dynamics and the techniques used to assess how stable the snowpack is. Our course took place in the Wasatch Mountains and it began a few days after one of that area’s avalanche forecasters had declared it one of the weirdest snowpacks ever. An excellent classroom had been arranged!
A key focus of the course was learning to quickly identify weak layers in the snowpack and then to assess the structure of that instability. One aspect of instability has to do with the kinds of snow crystals in between the layers. A Cliff Notes summary would be: square ones are bad, round ones are good. But how can you tell with something so small? Were they the good guys or the bad guys? First, I had to identify which layer to look at, a process of first poking the snow with my finger to determine layer interfaces, and then prodding it with a fist, four fingers, one finger, a pencil, or a knife to get some grip on the specific hardnesses. Once all that was established, it was time to sort out the good from the bad. Somewhat ironically, amidst all of the grandeur of the Wasatch, I was often peering into the little lens of a snow microscope looking at the edges of myriad little bits of snow to determine their personalities.
Ultimately, beyond peering down a microscope, knowing the snow is a very sensory experience, incorporating sight, sound, and touch in order to determine its stability: windslabs are often squeaky like styrofoam, while faceted grains bounce off a gloved hand and make for a poor snowball. Of course, once stability is determined, the sensory experience is the pure enjoyment—how well does it ski? Through careful tracking of the Wasatch area over our week of study, we knew that north aspects were retaining the best snow. So, after our final exam, involving each person doing a complete analysis of the season’s snowpack and weaknesses, we gathered together for a final run back into the front-country. We ripped our skins and then laid tracks down a beautiful bowl, each up us kicking up huge roostertails of powder joy—a reward for all of our diligent study.
The pleasures of backcountry skiing and the benefits of big mountain climbing with skis are becoming increasingly known in the outdoor world and RMI is right out in front of the trend. Safely partaking of those pleasures and benefits involves really coming to know the snow. While in its essence knowledge of the snow is like knowledge itself, where “The more one knows the more one knows they don’t completely understand,” coming away from the Level 3 avalanche course, I feel good in knowing that I’m keeping the learning edge sharp. That sharp edge will aid me whether cramponing up alpine routes on Rainier or schussing down couloirs in the North Cascades.
At their teacher’s request, the 7th grade class in Crystal River, FL, Skyped with RMI guides JJ Justman and Joe Horiskey for 60 minutes yesterday. We discussed mountain climbing in general, and fielded questions about Mt Everest in particular.
The class was doing a novel study of the book “Peak” by northwest author Roland Smith, which centers on a 14-year-old boy climbing Mt Everest. Their teacher, Sarah, had inquired by email whether RMI would be willing to Skype with her class. Of course the answer was a resounding “Yes!”
The students, obviously well-versed in their subject, asked pertinent questions on topics such as: the effects of altitude on the human body, requisites of food and gear for climbing Mt Everest, necessary climbing experience, and surviving for an extended period of time in potentially hostile terrain.
Being familiar with the tragedies which had befallen the mountain the past two consecutive years, the class was riveted to hear JJ’s first-hand account of actually being at Camp l last April 25 when the earthquake struck. He also presented video of his evacuation by helicopter to Base Camp.
One student asked how climbers deal with being separated from loved ones, friends and family, for extended periods of time. Another inquired about our “scariest moments” as mountain guides. But throughout, our message to the class emphasized safety, and while mountain climbing does involve accepting a certain amount of risk that is the case for many activities in life (sports, driving, etc).
Sarah noted at the conclusion of our presentation the kids’ favorite photo was of the abbreviated ‘runway’ in Lukla (at Tenzing-Hillary Airport)! JJ and I really enjoyed talking with Sarah’s class and look forward to similar presentations with hers and others in the future!
Thank you for taking the time to extend our students’ learning. It was great hearing their excitement and discussions after you signed off. You did a great job connecting with them.
Posted by: Lori Casalvieri on 11/19/2015 at 3:15 pm
This spring, while another hot and dry winter in Utah began to wind to a close, my friend, and fellow RMI Guide, Steve Gately and I were desperate to find a real winter. The island country of Iceland, once an isolated and expensive island destination to visit, has made a big effort to attract foreign tourists, since the 2008 collapse of their economy, by subsidizing direct flights from Europe and N. America. Lucky for us skiers, this presented an opportunity to explore and ski the volcanic peaks and fjords that Iceland harbors amongst its wild and otherworldly landscape.
It being both of our first time to the island, Steve and I made our goal to ski as many of the coastal mountain ranges as we could. Arriving in the city of Reykjavik after a red-eye flight, we spent that first day battling heavy eyelids, touring the walkable capital city, sampling the wide array of fresh seafood and local brews, and beginning our feeble attempt to learn a few Icelandic phrases to help get us by for the next two weeks. “Tveir bjora, takk”, meaning, “two more beers, thank you”, was the only phrase we could retain well enough to use during that first day.
Car rentals are notoriously expensive, but we found a deal on an old Toyota Rav4 with decent tires that seemed to be held together well enough for half the price, and we were off. We drove the length of the main highway on the south side of the island, also known as the Ring Road, passing by the active and massively glaciated volcanoes along the southern coastline. Finally reaching the Eastfjords, we were a bit discouraged by the high snow levels in these broad fjords, but found charm and beauty in the tiny and isolated fishing villages. We spent a couple days skiing spring “corn” snow as it slowly softened with the warmth of the low angled sun of the springtime. An experience of a lifetime, the clear nighttime skies lit up with the Northern Lights like we could have never imagined. Domes of vibrant green and purple rocketed over our heads while we camped in the empty Neskaupstadur town campground, taking in the show in awe.
Moving northward and then west, we drove across the volcanically active rift valley where the Earth’s crust was being created in real time, creating hundreds of miniature volcanoes, steam vents, and rugged lava fields. Eventually, we reached the Troll Peninsula, the skiing mecca of Iceland. In recent years, the “Troll” has increased in popularity with skiers through recent ski films and the presence of Arctic Heli Skiing. The popularity of this place was well justified; we found some of the best spring corn skiing we’d ever experienced, with the Arctic Ocean serving as our backdrop. The aesthetics and quality of skiing was only matched by the hospitality of the people we met in the small village of Dalvik. Our days here were spent skiing while evenings were filled mingling with locals and tourist skiers alike on the front steps of the local Kaffihaus (Coffeehouse), which doubled as a pub in the later hours of the evening. As with many of the small communities in Iceland, the owners of our hostel also ran this Kaffihaus, serving their own fish stew from their friends’ fishing boats, and serving beer brewed a couple doors down the street.
Traveling onward, we drove the barren and isolated roads from Dalvik to the northwest corner of the island: a series of peninsulas collectively referred to as the Westfjords. We hunkered down in the town of Isafjordur, surrounded by hundreds of steep ski runs that plummet to the ocean, as the snow began to fall. We spent the next six days drinking coffee, while the snow pounded down outside, immediately jumping in the car as soon as the sun made one of a few brief appearances. In a neighboring fjord near the village of Flateyri, we found the siren that had drawn us to Iceland: a beautiful fjord that held the deepest and driest powder of the trip; a long series of steep chutes looming above the ocean. After a winter of scraping and scratching by in Utah, this mythical run made our ski season whole!
During these rare moments of sun the formula looked something like: drive around the fjords looking for ski runs (the best were steep rock-lined couloirs), climb up, ski right back down to the car, manage to drive our manual transmission Rav4 in ski boots to another ski run, and repeat.
The snow in the Westfjords did not let up for days, even as our time to return to Reykjavik approached. The most hair-raising adventure of the trip was driving the fjords and passes back to civilization in southern Iceland. Over one particular pass, we had to put our rental to the test, busting through snowdrifts until we found a lineup of cars waiting to follow a supersized snowplow the rest of the way back to the main highway. Back in the capital, Steve and I celebrated the end of our trip just like we did at the start; enjoying the fresh fish and brews of Reykjavik, knowing that we had only scratched the surface of the skiing that this country has to offer.
Robby Young is a senior guide at RMI Expeditions, leading trips in Washington, Alaska, and Peru. Robby calls Park City, UT home, where he is a ski patroller at the Canyons Resort. When not guiding, Robby is found chasing splitter crack climbing and perfect powder around the globe. He is also a talented photographer: view his images at www.robbyyoungphotography.com.