Entries from Guide Grant
When I moved to Boulder, Colorado in the fall of 2017, Eldorado Canyon was a place that I treated with a high degree of respect. Known for its delicate route-finding, variable rock quality, and stiff, old-school grading, Eldo is a humbling place to climb. Rock guiding in Eldo has always struck me as particularly impressive—the variability of the terrain in the canyon necessitates a familiarity with a wide range of guiding techniques in order to stay safe with a group of newer climbers. This is one of the main reasons why I chose this venue for my Rock Guide Course.
My second mock lead on the course tackled an aesthetic, rambling three pitch climb on the Wind Tower. I had done the climb before, but had never been responsible for three other mock-climbers. I found myself doing nearly everything differently with my mock-climbers in tow—positioning my climbers out of the way of loose rock, breaking pitches up into shorter, up-and-down sections, and rigging lowers down exposed, short steps that I had always simply down-climbed. All told, a climb that had taken a mere hour and a half climbing independently took me three quite involved hours to guide.
To me, that is the part of guiding that I will always love the most—the challenge of using every trick in your toolbox to make a section of terrain as safe as you can for your climbers. My Rock Guide Course endowed me with plenty of tricks, from terrain belays to rigging rappels to rope management systems. The real excitement of the course, though, was getting experience applying these tricks in one of the most complex rock climbing areas in the country.
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!
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.
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.
hi im in Gayle Staffords reading class please can you get Matt Brennan to respond
Posted by: Karli L on 12/3/2018 at 10:57 am
December 10, 2014
I remember when I first stepped into the mountains. I was 11 years old and I had never seen a mountain before, let alone thought of climbing one. My father, older brother, and I traveled to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to climb Mt. Washington (6,288’). I remember finally standing on top of the boulder pile that comprises the summit and feeling the accomplishment. “I did it, I’m on top!” It was windy—a wet cold cloud had moved in during the final hour of tedious boulder hoping to the top—and even at that age I remember quickly coming to the realization that I needed to turn around and walk back down! Mt. Washington is unique in that it has a paved road to the summit along with the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway train. My brother insisted that we descend via the train. Luckily for me, my father obliged and shortly after the train started it’s descent it began pouring. Although I was cozy in a train cabin watching the rain patter off the windows, I didn’t soon forget my realization: the summit is only halfway.
You hear this quite often in the climbing world. The ability to efficiently descend is a crucial skill in regards to staying safe in the vertical world. Just as with standing on top of Mt. Rainier, Denali, or Mt. Everest, getting down off of a rock climb requires the same amount of focus and effort as climbing it, and in a lot of ways requires much more.
Days 5 and 6 of our Rock Guide Course were focused on becoming proficient in our technical descent systems. I was paired up with RMI guide Pete Van Deventer and former RMI guide and current AMGA instructor Jeff Ward, and we traveled over to the Bunny Face Wall of Smith Rocks. On the easy and moderate multi-pitch sport climbs this area had to offer we discussed and practiced rappelling and lowering our climbers: the pro’s and con’s of each, when and why to use one over the other and a myriad of ways to be more efficient and provide the best experience possible for our climbers. Over the course of the next few days, we climbed a number of different routes and really got the opportunity to apply these techniques in mock guiding scenarios.
When you practice these skills for the first time—or any skill for that matter—it’s usually done so in the “best-case scenario.” You start out easy so you can concentrate on the learning. In rock climbing the “best-case scenario” is pretty straightforward and easy to mitigate. Over the next several days of climbing, we learned that the best scenario rarely occurs. As guides, we need to always be prepared for the difficult scenario, and we had the benefit of climbing into some terrain that posed plenty of guiding challenges. This allowed for lots of hands on learning and problem solving. As guides, it’s important that we keep our skills sharp and this course was a great reminder that that process truly never ends. 16 years ago I learned that getting to the top is only half way and 16 years later I’m still being reminded of that fact!
Steve Gately grew up in Boston, MA, and found his love for the mountains in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In 2012, Steve combined his passion for teaching, climbing, and the mountains when he started guiding for RMI. Steve now guides year round for RMI, from Argentina to Alaska. Steve will be guiding not one, not two, but three trips to Aconcagua this winter!
December 3, 2014
Day three of the AMGA Rock Guide Course started a little less comfortably than we had hoped. Our course’s venue was located in the heart of central Oregon and early November often offers a mixed bag of weather. For the four of us who were camping near the park, this meant we awoke to find ourselves shivering and scraping a light layer of frost off of the inside of our tents.
As mountain guides, we often deal with inclement weather, but even our familiarity with discomfort didn’t stop all the grumbling that morning as we made coffee. Luckily for us, our instructor team was equally apprehensive about climbing in freezing temperatures and had called a quick audible. The day’s goals shifted to learning rescue techniques and skills in the ‘comfort’ of a covered cooking space.
After just finishing my first year with RMI, I was excited to see how our in-house rescue training would compare to the official AMGA equivalent. As the morning progressed, the instructor team grew equally excited as it became clear that much of the rescue curriculum was review, albeit, made a bit more difficult by the vertical orientation and the small working zones that the rock environment demands. Despite the cold temps and biting wind, we were able to fly through hauling techniques and knot passes. That morning’s training concretely highlighted for me how well RMI trains their guides. Because of our familiarity with many of the techniques, we were able to open the book and learn a couple new tricks and subtleties that may have otherwise been lost on a less experienced crew.
Once we had mastered new slack management tricks and practiced the variety of haul systems, we changed venues and tried to warm ourselves up with some rope ascending. Ascending is one of those skills that any basic crevasse rescue course will teach you, yet even our most experienced guides were able to walk away with a new trick or two. This again speaks to the level of experience and expertise that our instructors brought to the course.
The day’s training finished with a variety of skills that we will be tested on in our next course. A large part of the AMGA course curriculum is a series of examinations that aspiring guides go through to prove their proficiency. For many, these examinations can be stressful and difficult. However, this course has shown me that as long as I continue to work with the incredible fellow guides and instructors that make up the AMGA and RMI, this will be a process I am excited to continue on.
With my first year at RMI finished and my first AMGA course completed, I am more enthused than ever at the prospect of continuing my education. Without a doubt, my most profound take away from this course has been how much of a pleasure it is to work with professional mountain guides. In all my time in the mountains, I’ve never found a group who equals the enthusiasm and commitment to perfecting their craft that RMI guides have.
Finally, I want to echo Seth’s thanks to RMI for investing in their guides and allowing these courses to happen. I’m already looking forward to my next AMGA course and my next season with RMI!
Caleb Ladue just finished his first season guiding with RMI. He grew up in Vermont, where he learned to love the mountains for all that they offered, and that passion has taken him throughout the US and to the Peruvian Andes. He’ll be hanging his hat in Jackson Hole this winter, and will return to Mt. Rainier in the Spring, excited to share his passion with many more climbers!
November 29, 2014
In late October, RMI guides Pete Van Deventer, Caleb Ladue, Billy Haas, Steve Gately and myself took part in a Rock Guide Course conducted by the American Mountain Guides Association. The course was contracted and sponsored by the RMI Expeditions/First Ascent Guide Grant, and the instructors included former RMI Guide Jeff Ward, RMI and Colorado Mountain School Guide Mike Soucy and CMS Guide Mark Hammond.
As a guide staff, we felt very fortunate that both RMI and the AMGA instructors were able to plan the course during a timeframe that allowed us to work a full summer schedule on Rainier and still have a few weeks to prepare and train in the rock realm after a long season of alpine climbing in the Cascades. After completing my Ski Exam and becoming a Certified Ski Mountaineering Guide in April of this last year, I am personally very grateful to RMI for sponsoring the course, which allowed me to complete a second financially committing segment of my
continuing education and progression toward full IFMGA certification.
The 10-day course took place at Smith Rock State Park near Bend, OR. Over the years I have spent a fair bit of time climbing at Smith and I knew the venue would provide some unique challenges from both a climbing and guiding perspective. While Smith is known for it’s high quality sport climbing, on this course we would be dialing our focus more towards traditional climbing. Lucky for us, many of the ‘trad’ routes at Smith are notorious for having less than stellar rock quality, adding another complex element to the guiding objective.
The course kicked off on the last week of October. The weather looked to be good for the first couple of days, so we postponed the ground-work until a later date, and got right into the climbing. For me, the learning process brought me right back to my apprenticeship days at RMI, when I had to change the filter on my perspective. I quickly learned to transition my thinking from that of an advanced recreational climber to approaching a climbing objective from the viewpoint of a guide. It’s a subtle change, but it makes a huge difference in your mindset, risk management, and the decision making process.
The instructor team did a great job of leading by example. They started right off with a very professional and competent course opening discussion and several demonstrations on belaying and anchoring techniques, as well as various ways to increase both guide and client security. As outdoor professionals, we don’t sit still well or for very long, and so were very thankful when we even got to climb a few pitches at the end of the first day!
The fair weather held on into our second day, but as the forecast looked to be deteriorating later in the week, the instructors opted to keep us in the field climbing in the event that we got shut down by rain and wind over the following days. This strategy worked quite well, as we were able to practice more of the techniques and rope trickery we learned the previous day while spending time off the ground in the vertical orientation.
By nature, guides tend to be kinesthetic learners, and as a group we all commented on the fact that we were able to process and retain the information with higher success if we could get our hands on the rope.
After the first few days, the course continued to ramped up both physically and mentally. For me it just got better as it went on, and the final day was by far the best, culminating in a lead of the aesthetic final pitch of Zebra Zion.
I can’t say enough about the both the quality and caliber of the AMGA instructors, and I’d like to especially thank my co-workers for a great time and creating an environment that was positive and fun, all while staying engaged and eager to learn every day.
Finally, a big thank you RMI, for investing in your guides and organizing this opportunity to allow us to further our professional education!
Seth Waterfall has been guiding trips for RMI for over a decade, and leads trips to destinations the world round. He lives in Enumclaw, WA, were he spends his spare time skiing, road biking, and climbing throughout the Cascades.
As a professional mountain guide, not only does my job involve spending most of my days in the mountains doing what I love, but also includes a substantial amount of continued coursework and education in order to review and enhance my knowledge and skills. This winter, with the help of the First Ascent / RMI Expeditions Guide Grant, I was able to participate in the American Avalanche Institute (AAI) Level 3 Avalanche Course, completing the highest level of avalanche certification in the United States.
The course was held near my home in the Wasatch Mountains of Northern Utah, home of the “Greatest Snow of Earth”; a claim to fame that surely proved true for the duration of the class. Multiple feet of snow fell over the course of the week, resulting in a widespread natural avalanche cycle that provided us with a fantastic setting for learning, while we observed large destructive avalanches in real time.
The course covered a wide array of topics important for guiding climbers and skiers in avalanche terrain, including snowpack assessment (through snowpit investigations), advanced backcountry travel, mountain weather forecasting, and professional forecasting applications for recreational guiding operations, ski areas, or highways.
Completing the highest level of avalanche education in the US has been a long-time goal of mine and I felt a great sense of accomplishment in doing so. I look forward to using these skills in guiding future RMI climbers around the world.
Robby Young is a Michigan native, graduate of the University of Michegan (Go Wolverines!), and Utah transplant. Robby guides around the world, from Alaska to Peru, for RMI. In the winter, Robby patrols at The Canyons Resort and calls Park City home. When he isn’t wearing a uniform, his feet are in ski boots, chasing steep lines and powder wherever they may be found. Robby will be headed to Mexico later this month, and to Mt. McKinley in May.
I <3 THE ROBBY YOUNG.
Posted by: KIP on 10/23/2014 at 11:32 pm
Congratulations Robby a big achievement.
Posted by: Wally Young on 10/22/2014 at 5:26 am