Entries from Guide News
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.
Sign Up For Guide News 2015 Emails
May 23, 2015
Categories: Guide News
Thank you to everyone who followed the climb. I deeply appreciate all the support I felt from this community!
You can view photos of my trip to Nepal in my Dropbox gallery. Included are a few from working with the local people after the quake. As for what the immediate future holds for me, today I’m packing for my yearly pilgrimage to guide on Mt. Rainier for RMI. I am psyched to get back up to the Pacific Northwest, share the experience of mountaineering with others, and see my many good friends there. Again, thank you all for your support.
Hi Greg, great start,buddy! I hope you have found a nice hairy guy to keep you company this time - we feel guilty that we are not there looking after you :) Stay safe and strong!
Bruce and Joyce
Posted by: Bruce Tocher on 5/23/2015 at 1:04 pm
May 11, 2015
Categories: Guide News
Over the last week we’ve been trekking in the mountainous area above Gorkha. This area was at the epicenter of the quake. The villages we were getting “eyes on” had previously been declared “OK” by the Indian Army by helicopter observations. But these villages were anything but OK. Most were almost totally flattened.
Don Bowie has been our fearless leader. His ability to coordinate with large NGOs, and even the UN, to facilitate supply drops to these hard hit and hard to reach areas has been amazing. And when I say hard to reach I’m NOT kidding. Our first day from Baluwa to Laprak was another precarious scramble up a 10,000′ vertical gain and unknown linear mileage over rough, broken, and treacherous terrain. The heat had us all hurting and in many places landslides made the trek in very precarious. Descending down from Laprak, through the villages of Lapu and Bhirkuna, was straight-up steep no-fall terrain through a thick prickly jungle. Landslides in this area took the trail out, so we had to bushwhack a new trail. All in all, though, we were able to deliver accurate needs assessment reports from these remote villages. Once we made our assessments we would then forward these by SAT phone to the NGOs incident command with the ability to respond by arranging to helicopter in the supplies which was our objective.
Today Don Bowie, Ben Erdmann, Jess Roskelley and Cody Tuttle left to work with the UN’s World Food Program headquarters in Gorkha to assist in coordinating overland aid distribution. For more information, on Don and team check out donbowie.com.
Whats next? Soon I’m headed back to Kathmandu then stateside to begin the guiding season on Mt Rainier with RMI.
RMI Guide Alex Barber
Appreciate the eye witness updates you have provided. Safe travels home.
Posted by: Mary on 5/12/2015 at 6:23 am
May 3, 2015
Categories: Guide News
Trekked out to Tatopani yesterday (5/1) without too much difficulty. The UN affiliated NGO has supplied us with jeeps and equipment and we’ve started the effort to access remote areas of Nepal in need of assistance. Don’t know how often I’ll be able to provide updates, but I will when possible.
April 29, 2015
Categories: Guide News
Since the earthquake I have been mostly holed up at Annapurna Base Camp. After the quake I couldn’t let go of my desire to finish what I’ve started with Annapurna. I’d put in so much focus and taken on so much risk to be in a position to make a nO’s ascent, especially as a team of one. But the reports of the destruction and hardship kept flooding in. Then one morning I could feel myself having let go of Annapurna and my interest shifted to seeing if I could get out of here to assist the people of Nepal. So that’s it, my Annapurna expedition is finished.
Yesterday I went back up on the mountain to pull my cached equipment at Camp 1. I have another cache at Camp 3, but it’s unsafe to go that high on the mountain now, so I’ll be abandoning that cache.
I’ve teamed up with a few other Americans here in Nepal to work with a NGO affiliated with the UN. The plan is to meet up in Pokhara, then head out from there with equipment and jeeps supplied by the NGO. My first hurdle is it get out of base camp and down to Pokhara; which is easier said than done. Naturally, the government here has commandeered all the helicopters for rescue efforts. But we flew into base camp in helicopters for a reason, the trek out is sketchy. The US embassy has offered to airlift Americans out of remote areas, but I’m fit and able so I intend to walk out on my own. Tomorrow morning I and some others from the Annapurna Base Camp will be attempting this trek. We’re headed for Pokhara. Once we arrive there, I’ll meet up with the other American climbers. Our current directive from the NGO is to access some of the remote villages in this region and to report back on their situation, conditions, and immediate needs. Hopefully this will help expedite resources to the people in need.
Alex, it’s nice to know you’re safe. Better to climb for another day. Just like you to walk out on your own. Be safe and let me know if and when you’re back on Rainier - would love to climb with you (even if it’s only 15K ft). Godspeed, my friend.
Posted by: Lee Hoedl on 5/1/2015 at 8:53 pm
Be safe and our prayer will be with you.
Posted by: Kevin Stone on 4/30/2015 at 8:33 am
All of us at RMI are truly grateful for the support shown in regards to our Everest climbing team, Sherpa team, and guides—Dave Hahn, JJ Justman, and Mark Tucker. Our thoughts are with our team, the people of Nepal, and all those affected by this tragedy.
It may be weeks before we really can comprehend the damage and devastation caused by this earthquake. While the rugged and mountainous terrain are a big part of what makes Nepal beautiful, this terrain also makes it very difficult to help those in need after such a major catastrophe.
There are many great organizations helping out with disaster relief efforts in Nepal, and more help and money is definitely needed. We feel the best way to help is by donating to organizations that are directly involved with the disaster response. The organizations listed below have staff members in Nepal and are working hard to provide clean water, food, shelter, and medical aid to those in need. These selected organizations have also been vetted on the charity rating site Charity Navigator and score well for their accountability, transparency, and financial standards.
We want to encourage everyone to do what they can to help the people of Nepal.
We thank you for your continued support as our team, and many others, begin their journey home.
April 25, 2015
Categories: Guide News
Just a quick note to you that everyone here at Annapurna is safe. Yesterday everyone came down off the mountain to wait out some heavy storms. It had been snowing steadily all day today when the large earthquake struck just before noon. It was so forceful! It felt as if we were inside a snow globe being shaken by God. The storm kept us from seeing much but we could hear avalanches ripping down the mountains all around us. The roar was so loud I thought we’d surely be hit. Annapurna Base Camp is situated on a muddy ridge clinging to an adjacent mountain. During the earthquake large sections peeled off and cascaded down some 800ft to the glacier below. Totally insane, but nothing made it to us, and everyone is safe here.
My thoughts go out to everyone in Nepal, especially my friends in Kathmandu and over on Everest.
The 24th of April I descend all the way from Camp 4 at 7000m on Annapurna to base camp.
But before I get into why I descended without attempting the summit I’ll talk about the earthquake. It had been snowing steadily all morning today when, at around noon, a large earthquake struck. The earthquake was so forceful, it felt as if we were inside a snow globe being shaken by God. The storm kept us from seeing much but we could hear avalanches ripping down everywhere. The roar was so loud I thought we’d surely be hit. Annapurna Base Camp is situated on a muddy ridge clinging to a adjacent mountain. During the earthquake large sections peeled off and cascaded down some 800ft to the glacier below. Totally insane.
As I write this another roar of what sounds to be a massive avalanche rips down Annapurna.
On the 23rd I made my way up from Camp 3 to Camp 4. The route is straight-forward. It starts with a low angle section of ice up a serac out of camp 3. To a traversing section of steep snow then a long ramp to C4. The ramp connects the German Rib with the summit area of Annapurna. The ramp is a slope of 30 to 45 degrees and it was covered in fresh deep snow up to waist deep.
That afternoon myself and another team set up camp underneath a serac at 7000m. Their plan was to start out that same night with their 4 Sherpa guides to leave at 8pm to break the route and the 4 members of their group to follow at 9pm.
I decided not to attempt the summit because:
- Too cold of a night to climb without supplemental oxygen
- Retreat would be difficult at night as the wind was blowing too much snow and covering the track.
- no previous time spent above 18,000’, so I was not properly acclimatized.
- too much technical ground below us - with forecasted storm by Noon the next day.
- high risk of avalanche if caught above camp 2 after the storm.
I descended from C4 the morning of the 23rd. As I was leaving, the members of the team that had attempted to summit started straggling in from their failed summit attempt. They were too tired to descend from C4. I re-broke the route to C3 in sketchy and quite heavy deep snow. As I dropped down a final steep descent before Camp 3 on an arm wrap rappel, I plunged into a concealed crevasse. I was already feeling quite sick from overheating in my down suit. The sun had come out and started slowly deep frying me in the down suit. But luckily I was stable enough that I could wriggle out of the suit without falling any further. Half way in a hole, about to vomit from overheating and my arm wrap biting into my forearm, I comically rolled down into C3. I was moaning in discomfort, dry heaved a few times, and laid there motionless for a time.
I had to get moving again though, because the weather was coming in fast. I cached a few things at Camp 3 and started rappelling off the serac whose top forms the flat surface of camp 3. The route down the German Rib is steep and riddled with crevasses and alpine ice. But large areas of the route had deep snow blown in from the night prior.
... Another large avalanche is ripping down Annapurna… this place is quite unstable since the earthquake.
Soon after completing my descent from the serac I, twice, stuck a leg into a concealed crevasse while rappelling down the further slope. I shouted to a Sherpa named Pemba from the summit team that we’d better employ the buddy system and re-break the route together. As we started down the visibility went to zero and a heavy fall of snow started.
About midway down we lost our rappel lines and started carefully climbing down without the safety of the lines. Searching the snow with our ice tools for the rappel lines while slowly inching our way down. We were In a couloir with seracs all around and above us, my mind kept telling me we were in a very dangerous place to be moving so slowly. A few minutes before finding the lines again we set off a small slab slide 3 ft to our right. Things were getting spooky!
Finally, we made the last rappel onto the glacier below the German Rib. Now the last hurdle was finding camp 2 in a whiteout. An island of safety in the insanely dangerous glacial field below the crosshairs couloir and sickle ice cliffs. In the reduced visibility we wove through large ice blocks of avalanche debris by GPS. We moved with baited breath - hoping not to hear that tell tale rumble that has become such a familiar sound to me here at Annapurna.
The Korean team a day earlier had had a near miss right in this area.
After having been on the move on a very scary mountain, in terrible weather, for 11 hours I finally arrived at Base Camp at 8:40pm that night. Descending through deep snow and limited visibility all day. At Base Camp I found out that an avalanche had hit the team at camp 4 earlier that night. No one was hurt but they had to cut their way out of their tents. They were also all exhausted from their summit attempt. Including one climber who had frostbite on his hands and one suffering from HAPE. They would later be rescued via helicopter. Three of the 5 teams here at Base Camp are leaving, The team that attempted the summit blew their oxygen supply. Another team’s Sherpas bailed because of concerns that Annapurna wasn’t to be climbed this year. The mountain is angry. Yet another small team’s permit has run out.
I was planning to stay until mid-May as now I am acclimatized and my equipment is cached. However, with recent events I’m not sure what will happen, there’s a lot of hearsay… and Annapurna sounds extremely unstable right now. I’ve heard at least three avalanches while I was writing this.
seems like a good decision … move on the task apparently assigned to you
Posted by: TaskMaster on 5/3/2015 at 9:39 am
Safe passage for the climbing team. Is there any word on Laurence Seaton? Peace be with you all, Cindy Frederick
Posted by: Cindy Frederick on 4/27/2015 at 8:37 pm