The Mountain Skills Semester is Yamnuska’s 3-month flagship program that has been around for over 40 years. Countless students have come away from this program ready to begin their journey into guiding while others want to simply come away feeling competent and ready to tackle the mountains for themselves.
The reasons people take this gap year mountain training program and their backgrounds prior to entering the semester are very diverse but the common end result is a life-changing experience. Many of our students tell us the sense of accomplishment they feel at the end of the semester is unlike anything they have ever experienced. The confidence that comes with this accomplishment lasts well beyond the three month semester and permeates into every aspect of day to day life after the mountain climbing training program.
Recently, Ben, who attended the Fall 2019 Semester shared his experience and reflections with us. Thanks, Ben!
On a bright September morning, I nervously peered into the classroom at the Yamnuska offices to see who I would be spending the next 3 months with. We were a pretty diverse group: 7 men and 4 women from around the world – Australia, Switzerland, Mexico, the Netherlands, and around Canada. Some had established careers, while others were figuring out new directions. About half of the students wanted to become mountain guides or work in the outdoor industry; others were simply seeking new experiences. From these introductions I was relieved to find that while some people were expert skiers or experienced climbers, everyone had areas to develop and was keen to learn. Over the next three months together we would share tents and food, struggles, and countless laughs. There are, really, too many memories and lessons to share, so I’ll just give my overall impressions:
- This ain’t no beach vacation – the semester was both physically and mentally demanding. We covered a ton of material and proceeded at a very high pace. After an 8-hour day of climbing and learning about safety systems, we would come back to camp, cook, organize gear, and then students would practice rope rescue. Falling asleep was never difficult after days like that. That said, the programming is good about accommodating different skill, motivation, and comfort levels: there was usually opportunity for optional rest, and the guides are always monitoring the group’s energy.
- Skills were built upon and reinforced as the semester progressed, giving us lots of opportunities to develop understanding of techniques and theory. For example, we learned how to build rope anchors in Skaha and applied this countless times later in the semester, on rocks and trees, glaciers, waterfall ice, and snow. When travelling by foot or on skis, we got faster at transitions as we learned how to organize our packs and layers of clothing. In the fall semester, it seemed that each subsequent section got a little more challenging as the weather got colder and we relied on our previous experiences to deal with it.
- All of our guides were extremely knowledgeable and keen to share their wisdom. They all had hilarious, entertaining, and cautionary stories of their vast experiences in the mountains. Each guide has their own style in teaching and travelling in the mountains and learning from them was by far the most valuable part of the semester.
- The program takes place in the shoulder season, so weather conditions are rarely ideal. The guides and co-ordinators do a fantastic job of managing this and adjusting plans. For instance, it snowed throughout our alpine climbing section, but the guides still managed to find objectives for us to develop our short-roping skills. Instead of doing our AST 2 in Rogers Pass where temperatures were supposed to hit -30 C, we ended up doing a 5-day Bow-to-Yoho traverse on the Wapta Icefields. This adaptability was inspiring – if you’re keen to get outside and do something, there are usually opportunities that may not be obvious at first.
- There is a lot of ‘type 2’ fun during the semester – that is, circumstances that are very challenging at the time but ultimately rewarding and memorable. Seemingly endless climbs up boilerplate snow on a glacier can feel miserable, but the views and sense of accomplishment are totally worth it.
- Students get to know each other very (very) well over the semester. No showers, dehydrated food, and sharing small enclosed spaces breed a certain familiarity. By the end of the 3 months the group definitely felt like family, and I look forward to sharing more adventures with them in the future.
As a generally frugal person, I struggled with justifying the cost of the semester for several weeks. Now though I think that the signing up is one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I have so many unforgettable experiences to show for it. What’s more is that I feel I have the skills and confidence now to pursue further adventures on my own. Thanks Yam!