On the morning of September 10th, I walked into the Yamnuska Office in Canmore, Alberta for the first time. It was day 1 of the Fall 2015 Mountain Skills Semester. The office would come to feel like home soon enough – the place where we began and ended every adventure, the place where we got our food and borrowed the gear that we would entrust our lives too – but at this moment it was wholly foreign, and I was about to meet the other eleven students that I would be spending the next three months getting intimately acquainted with.
After the initial introductions, we learned that our first objective of the mountain skills semester would be to really get to know each other by spending the next four nights camping in the backcountry, or what is known as a “shake-up hike.”
Our shake-up hike started at Exshaw creek, ended 44 km later in Canmore, and took us four days to complete. In that time we witnessed all season’s weather – unremitting sun on day two, rain and wind on day three, and snow on the fourth day. The many miles gave us ample time to get to know one another, but perhaps the best bonding experience came from the joint effort, each night, of trying to hang our food out of reach of bears. Often this involved the low-probability (but highly entertaining) maneuver of lassoing a tree branch with parachute cord.
The next couple of weeks were dedicated to developing climbing skills. We spent ten days at Skaha Provincial Park in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia learning how to rock climb from our expert guides, Carl and Jean. For many of the students, it was their first exposure to the sport. I was amazed at how much we covered in those ten days. From our first lesson on how to position the limbs so the body didn’t swing off the wall like a barn door when reaching for the next hold, to lead climbing on sport and trad routes, we gained a ton of experience in a short amount of time. The rock climbing section culminated with a big multi-pitch day. My partner and I climbed an eleven-pitch route on Mount Rundle.
After the rock section it was off to the Columbia Icefields for glacier travel and mountaineering training. Everyone agreed that it felt extremely cool to travel with ice tools and crampons. Led by veteran mountain guides Grant and James, the best (and biggest day) was an attempt to summit Mount Athabasca, threading our way between crevasses and climbing to the top of A2, making a quick detour over to Boundary peak on the way back, and then running down a scree slope to the parking lot at the toe of the Athabasca glacier. Venturing out onto a glacier, one of the most powerful and influential forces of nature, is a very surreal and memorable experience for me.
The mountaineering wasn’t finished there, however. Our next objective was a student led expedition up Mount Cline. At 11,030 ft. Mount Cline is the highest mountain I’ve summited, and one of the few peaks in the Canadian Rockies to be included in the “11,000ers.” The summit day was tough, but the view from the summit was endless, as it towers over the surrounding peaks. We could even see Mount Columbia, the highest peak in Alberta, in the distance.
After a mid-semester break, we were right back in the mountains, this time ski touring on the Wapta Icefield. The days were almost too good to be true, we were skinning up to a different mountain each day then ripping downhill right to the doorstep of the Bow Hut, where we would spend the evenings playing card games and sharing laughs by the fire. Once, when we were skinning up to Mount Olive, we heard a distinctive whoomph, and realized we had remotely triggered a size 2 avalanche! This was my favorite section of the semester, and at the end we even earned our Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 certification!
By mid-November we were re-united with crampons and ice tools, only this time to confront the vertical waterfall ice. Ice climbing was easily the most popular section among the students and we were learning at some of the premier ice climbing destinations. It almost defies logic to watch someone climbing vertical ice, and so it took me a while to feel confident in my movement, but that feeling I got when I swung my ice tool into the frozen medium and knew that I could trust my entire body weight on it, was hugely gratifying.
The final section of the semester was a continuation of the avalanche skills training and ski touring skills. Gone this time however were the comforts of a cozy hut and wood stove, we were winter camping! Dolomite peak was our destination and it provided us with some excellent skiing. The final run, from Dolomite peak all the way to camp, was so long and so enjoyable that my face started to hurt from smiling so much. On the last night, one of the guides pulled out a small bottle of single malt scotch, and we each had a celebratory drink to mark the end of a great semester, but also the friendships and skills that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Graduation night was a fun and entertaining dinner with drinks at the Georgetown Inn, Canmore. Each student was handed their Mountain Skills Semester Certificate by a fellow student where they told a fun, fond, or embarrassing story about their fellow graduate.
The Mountain Skills Semester has been one of the most formative experiences of my life. Thank you Yamnuska!
Written by Gerry Gordy, a participant and graduate of the Fall 2015 Mountain Skills Semester
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