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Entries from Guide Grant

Putting It All Together: RMI Guide Hannah McGowan Checks In from Her AMGA Rock Guide Course

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.

RMI Guide Hannah McGowan

Know Snow - Getting Under Winter’s Blanket

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. 

Kel examines the universe of snowflakes with the hubble.   Jake Hutchinson/American Avalanche Institute

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.

Jake Hutchinson of the American Avalanche Institute demonstrates an extended column test.   Kel Rossiter

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. 

Steve Gately discusses descending on the AMGA Rock Guide Course

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!

RMI Guide Caleb Ladue sums up the third and fourth days of the recent AMGA Rock Guide Course

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!

RMI Guide Seth Waterfall Recounts The First Two Days Of His AMGA Rock Guide Course

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. 

RMI Guide Robby Young Achieves His Avalanche Level 3 Certification

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.



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

Manaslu Expedition: RMI Guide Alex Barber Readies for His Summit Attempt

“Analysis paralysis” is an accurate summation of my last few days here at Manaslu Base Camp. I’ve been reviewing weather information for the coming week collected from different teams and sources, paid forecasts, free forecasts, second hand forecasts. Of course, they all project different weather conditions. There is a general trend though… starting Thursday the 25th to Sunday the 28th looks like it might be a decent window for my summit day. The 25th being the worst day with 30+mph winds at the peak. Saturday, the 27th, is forecast to have 5 to 10mph winds but possibly precipitation. That precipitation could just be the result of a few days of good weather causing afternoon snow showers or a larger deposit. In this part of the Himalaya it can be hard to predict - and this is too many days out for a mountain weather forecast to be highly reliable.

Decision time - It all comes down to this, the time, the money, and the mental dedication.

I will depart in the morning tomorrow, the 23rd, for Camp 1, the 24th I’ll climb directly to Camp 3 then if the weather window looks decent the 25th I’ll move Camp 3 to Camp 4 and push to the summit the morning of the 26th. I’ll keep the 27th as a backup day as it is currently forecasted to be the best day. I do not plan to stop at camp 2 on purpose because the entire area around camp 2 is unstable and dangerous. The many seracs and ice cliffs higher up the mountain - with large slopes below to accumulate snow - is a bad day just waiting to happen. This site is not for me. I’ll just push through to camp 3, which is in a much safer location - as I described in an earlier post.

I’ll check back in from the upper mountain in the next couple of days with a weather update and my progress up the mountain. The photo below shows a view from base camp up towards the peak of Manaslu, my objective for this week.

RMI Guide Alex Barber


Go hard and stay safe! You have a good plan, so stick to it and if it works, it works. If not, the mountain will be there next time.

Posted by: Tim Mason on 9/23/2014 at 6:37 am

Expedition Tajikistan: A Ski Traverse of the Fedchenko Glacier

This spring I teamed up with an international crew of ski mountaineers to traverse Tajikistan’s Fedchenko Glacier.  Before the expedition, I had hardly heard of Tajikistan and certainly had never dreamed of crossing one of the longest glaciers outside of the Polar Regions.  When the opportunity arose, I couldn’t say no. A high mountain adventure to a central Asian country on the northern border of Afghanistan wasn’t something my sense of adventure would just let me walk away from.

Map of Tajikistan (RMI Collection)

The trip came to life three years ago when three Canadian skiers hatched the idea and began the logistics.  I was brought on because the team wanted two more experienced ski mountaineers for the remote and relatively unexplored zone of the Pamir mountain range.

Having traveled in developing countries before, I knew that I not only wanted to travel, climb and ski in this remote range, but to give back to the mountain communities that would help inevitably help us on our adventure along the way.  As I packed my gear for the trip I noticed how much great warm clothing I had to choose from and I realized that I didn’t even use half of it anymore.  This was it!  I could get people to donate the winter clothing they hadn’t used in years and put it to good use in a country where access to technical apparel was slim to nil.  I began a clothing drive and between me and my teammates Holly Walker, Emelie Stenberg, Vince Shuley and Selena Cordeau, we were able to collect and give 350 pounds of clothing to give to the Tajik people who needed the clothes far more than we did.

The good vibes from the clothing drive started our trip on a positive note - which was good, because it was a long, hard trip.  We planned on one week for getting on and off the tributary glaciers to get to and from the Fedchenko.  It ended up taking us thirteen days, nearly twice as long.  We planned on setting up three basecamps and skiing 6000m peaks for two weeks; we were tent bound for six of those days due to weather.  On top of all that, the snowpack was just about as unstable as it could get.  This greatly limited what we were able to climb and ski.

Zeb Blais on the Fedchenko Glacier (Zeb Blais)

The team at camp on the Fedchenko Glacier (Zeb Blais)

Despite the hard work and frustrating snowpack, we had an amazing trip.  Massive valleys, towering peaks like Peak Ismoil Somoni (formerly Peak Communism) and Independence Peak (Peak Revolution) and miles of ice surrounded us in a grand scale.  We were in a place that few people had been before and completely isolated except for our DeLorme InReach two way satellite texting device.  It was humbling and inspiring.

We met our goal of traversing the Fedchenko from our starting point in a town called Poy Mazor to its head and descended out the beautiful and rugged Tanimas Valley.  Due to the exploratory nature of this trip and having little information about our exit, we left ourselves a few extra days before we would all have to fly home. 

Camp on the Fedchenko Glacier (Zeb Blais)

Traversing the Fedchenko Glacier (Zeb Blais)

Skiing above the Fedchenko Glacier (Zeb Blais)

Our extra days were spent regaining some of the pounds we lost during the expedition eating fresh tandoor bread, kebabs and local apricots and cherries.  People greeted us everywhere and invited us to share bread and tea with them even if they couldn’t speak a word of English (and we could only muster hello and thank you in Tajik).

The team left Tajikistan with a good taste in our mouths in more ways than one. We explored and lived in a high mountain range for 29 days, were exposed to the kind and generous culture of the Tajik, Pamir and Afghan people and came home safe!

Thanks to the Eddie Bauer/ RMI Guide grant for assisting me in this amazing pursuit.  The lessons I learned on this trip will forever shape my decision making and goals in the mountains.  Until next time…

Zeb Blais is a Senior Guide at RMI. He has climbed and skied mountains throughout North America. When he is not guiding, Zeb teaches avalanche courses and ski patrols at Squaw Valley in California. His spare time usually doesn’t save his feet from ski boots.

Great Expedition!! Fantastic photos!

Posted by: Pamir Alpine Club on 3/30/2015 at 4:57 am

RMI Guide Lindsay Mann Completes Level 3 Avalanche Course

With support from the Eddie Bauer - RMI Guide Grant, RMI Guide Lindsay Mann took part in an American Avalanche Institute Level 3 Avalanche Course this winter in Jackson, Wyoming. Afterward, Lindsay sat down to reflect on the course.

Snow pit instruction (Lindsay Mann)

This past January I participated in an American Avalanche Institute Level 3 Course in Jackson, Wyoming. A Level 3 Avi Course entails a great deal of prep work as participants need to complete snow observations, make numerous snow pit profiles, and spend ample experience traveling and making decisions in avalanche terrain before the course even begins. After several days of classroom and field learning, the course concluded with several testing components. These test involved completing a full data snow pit in under an hour, finding three buried avalanche beacons in less than seven minutes, and completing a written test.

Recent avalance debris (Lindsay Mann)

The conditions for our course were ideal for learning. Midway through the course a major storm cycle came through the area, resulting in rapidly changing conditions within the snowpack that had a wide array of implications on avalanche risk. While the class focused on the technical aspects of snow crystal identification and anticipating the array of components that contribute to avalanche forecasting, we were also able to enjoy some great skiing between the times we spent observing and forecasting the rapidly changing snowpack.

Lindsay skiing during the course (Lindsay Mann).

I walked away from the course with a sense of accomplishment, as this is the highest-level avalanche education course available in the U.S., and a greater understanding for mechanics of avalanches and and avalanche forecasting. The complexities of avalanches are remarkable and this course was invaluable in contributing to the toolbox of skills upon which I rely for decision making in the mountains and in avalanche terrain.

Lindsay Mann is a Senior Guide at RMI Expeditions and a NCAA D1 Skiing Champion. She has climbed and guided around the world, from Peru to Alaska. Learn more about Lindsay and see her upcoming trips here…

RMI Guide Geoff Schellens Looks Back On AMGA Ice Instructor Course

With support from the Eddie Bauer - RMI Guide Grant, RMI Guide Geoff Schellens took part in an American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Ice Instructor Course this winter near Ouray, Colorado. Afterward, Geoff sat down and shared some stories from the course.

Ice climbing is a unique discipline of climbing, which poses specific challenges for the climber: ice fall, rock fall, specific equipment needs, over heating, becoming too cold, and avalanche hazards, just to name a few.  Guiding ice climbing requires quite a bit of preparation, awareness, and technique to mitigate these challenges. 

Ice Climbing on Dexter Falls (Geoff Schellens)

On the third day of my five-day AMGA Ice Instructor Course, we had planned to take two groups to Eureka, Colorado, to climb long multi-pitch ice routes.  Avalanches from large snow bowls above threaten many of these routes, like the classic Stairway to Heaven.  On this cold, crisp morning we encountered six inches of new snow, and after driving up to Red Mountain Pass we decided that the avalanche risk was too high and opted to go with our back up plan: climbing at Dexter Falls. 

Dexter is just north of Ouray, Colorado, and offers excellent multi-pitch ice routes that are exposed to less avalanche hazard.  Climbing Dexter Falls with two teams of three climbers posed new guiding challenges.  Namely, avoiding knocking ice onto the climbers below.  We chose to climb with both teams parallel to each other to protect against this.  Parallel rope technique requires that the lead climber is thoughtful about where both following climbers will be ascending.  The goal to keep them on slightly separate routes, allowing any loose ice to fall without risking injury to either climber. 

Ice Climbing (Geoff Schellens)

The climbing was fun and we topped out having done it in a safe manner. Climbing ice in Ouray, Colorado, or anywhere for that matter, is easy and enjoyable after acquiring a relatively straightforward skill set.

I hope you enjoy the photos!
Geoff Schellens is a senior guide for RMI Expeditions, leading trips in Argentina, the North Cascades, Alaska, and Colorado. Geoff is currently climbing Dhaulagiri, an 8,000 meter peak in the Himalayas. See more of Geoff’s mountain photography on his website The Exposed Edge.

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