By Andrew Pape-Salmon
How many different techniques can you use to climb a mountain? My purview used to be limited to hiking and scrambling, but during a three month course offered by Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, I discovered numerous possibilities that I had never tried before. The semester included instruction, practice and leadership development in nine “sections”.
During a year off of work (sabbatical) with the BC Government, I made the decision to travel to the Rockies to experience continental snow, tall peaks and the mountaineering culture of Canmore. There were six people in the program from Austria, Denmark, Detroit, Edmonton, Sweden and myself from Victoria. The age range was from mid-20s to late 40s.
This is a photo of me doing my first “lead” climb – where my job was to set up a rope for others to follow. In a lead climb, you clip into stations on route, but if you fall, you fall the distance the next station times two plus rope stretch!
The trekking section focused on navigation, route finding skills and no trace camping near Canmore. For the rock climbing section, I was one of two novices, while the other four were sport climbing experts and had experience doing lead and trad climbing. The highlight was a multi-pitch ascent of “Kid Goat” next to the Yamnuska rock, the first mountain you pass when travelling from Calgary to Banff. This climb was on good quality limestone, but I generally preferred the more “positive” holds of quartzite at the back of Lake Louise during the section.
Winter set in very quickly in early October for our glacier section at the Columbia Icefields in Jasper. I wore plastic boots to deal with the -17 highs as we learned to “walk like John Wayne” with crampons downhill (keeping the feet wide and stay low) and pull somebody out of a crevasse with ropes and pulleys. We summitted Mount Wilcox (2,884m) after a challenging scramble on snow and ice with “short roping” for protection. The rescue section that followed at the base of Mount Rundle included some nifty techniques such as “block and tackle” to raise or lower somebody.
Many of our skills came together during the week of October 19th as we did our mountaineering expedition in the south Kananaskas region, near Mount Joffre. It was not only physically demanding with my 75lb pack, but also mentally challenging due to a lack of sunshine the whole week. Through deep snow and across small glaciers we summitted Warrior and Marlborough mountains (elevation, 2,973m) and explored an unnamed peak next to Aster Lake but didn’t summit due to “considerable” avalanche risk on the east facing slope that had developed some wind slab.
Prior to a 5 day course break, we completed an 80 hour wilderness first aid course, learning protocols for dealing with health issues more than 2 hours from definitive medical care. My wife Sara visited me in Banff where we relaxed, did some trail running and took in the Banff Mountain Film Fest.
After the break, we began the Avalanche Skills Training (AST) level 2 course and headed to the ACC Bow and Peyto Huts in the Wapta Icefields for the glacier ski section. The wind was extreme and the avalanche risk went from “considerable” to “high” due to the development of a wind slab on top of a weak facet layer, among other factors. During the week, we summitted Mount Gordon (elevation 3203m) in the sun and practiced white-out compass navigation with limited “hand rails” to travel between the huts. During the section, we spent several hours discussing group dynamics, communication skills and leadership styles, partly in response to a mini-crisis of differing goals and personal styles.
The ice climbing section was one of my favourites – a surprise to me, as I had never aspired to climb on frozen waterfalls. The Rockies offer some of the best ice climbing in the world and we located ourselves at Rampart Creek Hostel near dozens of formed climbs. I prefer ice climbing over rock climbing because each move has four good holds, except for those occasions installing or removing an ice screw or taking a photo. I seconded a seven rope pitch, ~200 meter climb on Murchison Falls near Saskatchewan River crossing, rated at a WI 4+ difficulty. Yamnuska normally provides a 2:1 student-guide ratio for all multi pitch climbs (rock and ice), but I had a guide to myself because one of the participants was injured during the course break. This climb was one of the most mentally challenging activities I have ever experienced, but the feeling of achievement was enormous. We also frequented the dryer “Kootenay Plains” for climbs on “2 O’Clock Falls” and “SARs on Ice” and climbed “Balfour Wall” and dry tooled rock in “Bullshit Canyon” near Jasper.
The five day, Roger’s Pass ski tour and avalanche skills section included incredible powder of ~ 1.5m depth, challenging route finding and hazard avoidance, steep downhill technique and construction of snow caves. After one night of camping, we stayed three nights at the ACC Wheeler Hut. In addition to receiving AST2 certification, the Roger’s Pass tour provided valuable skills for my goal of leading ACC and Strathcona Nordics ski trips on Vancouver Island later this season.
Throughout the semester we learned a lot about the guiding industry from our teachers/leaders. The ultimate guiding achievement is to become an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides’ certified “mountain guide” which requires alpine, ski and assistant rock guide status. I think I will pursue the less intensive Hiking Guide certification to support my interest of leading kids into the mountains of southern and central Vancouver Island, generally not involving glaciers and snow.
Through the 11 week semester, I experienced many different ways of climbing a mountain – hiking with leather boots; scrambling with short rope protection; mountaineering on glaciers with crampons, ice axe and rope team; rock climbing on vertical walls; backcountry skiing; and ice climbing. The Yamnuska Mountain Skills semester taught me to get to the summit in the most efficient and safe manner given my level of technical skill. I can now confidently pursue some of the great peaks of Vancouver Island and hopefully of western North America over the next few years.
You can see all my photos and commentary at http://papesalmon.smugmug.com