Archive for November, 2008

Markus Beck, the owner and head guide of Alpine World Ascents gave an avalanche clinic on Wednesday night at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder.

Markus started with the basics of avalanches: types (loose vs slab), features of slabs (weak layer, crown, bed surface, etc) and the factors of terrain, snowpack, weather and triggers. He said the most important factors to leave the presentation remembering were incline (most slab avalanches release on slopes between 35 and 40 degrees) and aspect (wind-loaded slopes are much more dangerous). Throughout the introduction, Markus also passed on some information about the human factors (heuristics) that so often cause us to make bad decisions.

The second half of the presentation dealt with common myths of avalanches and the sometimes “grain of truth” within each myth. Examples of the myths Markus discussed were “Avalanches only happen during storms”, “Waiting 2-3 days after storms is safe”, “If there are tracks then the slope is safe”, and “I’ve never seen this slope slide, so it’s safe.”

A moderate-sized but very engaged crowd showed up for the presentation and asked a lot of questions, especially about safety gear such as beacons and Avalungs. Several audience members also related avalanche stories of their own.

Upcoming shows, including future avalanche clinics presented by Markus can be seen at Neptune’s Schedule. Markus is on the schedule to present a clinic once a month with the following avalanche topics: terrain selection, risk management and a review of accidents.


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I just finished up a second book review for the American Alpine Club’s Library. I reviewed the book Snowstruck by Jill Fredston, a longtime avalanche instructor and forecaster in Alaska. Her book Snow Sense was required reading for the Avalanche Level 1 course I took at the beginning of the year. The review is available on the AAC Library’s blog at http://aaclibrary.wordpress.com/2008/11/18/book-review-snowstruck-jill-fredston/.

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After Thursday’s Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center’s adaptive skiing clinics I had another full weekend of clinics to finish my volunteer requirements. Saturday morning I sat in on the first half of the full-day “Welcome Back Warm-Up” which was meant for returning volunteers. I had a good introduction to the bi- and mono- sit skis (especially loading them on lifts) then we got a couple runs in and reviewed the basic movement patterns as defined by the Professional Ski Instructors of America curriculum.

I abandoned the “Warm-Up” group and joined an afternoon clinic on bi- and mono-skis, aka the “sit” skis.

We spent the first half of the clinic discussing how the skis worked and the procedure for loading and unloading them from the lift. Then we partnered up, two to a sit ski and did a live run (but without anyone in the ski) loading them on the lift. Given the 30+ minute wait for the lift and the huge crowd I was really nervous getting on that chair. My partner was a snowboarder and given their mechanics, they can’t straddle the chair and drive it forward, so I would be the lead, and we would be going first.

We did a few practice runs before getting in the lift line and the lift attendants were able to slow the lift speed for us. While pushing the chair forward and trying to line it up with the center of where the bench would be I realized why so many of the instructors use skis at least 10-20 cm shorter than mine. The extra length of my fat skis were not helping as I tried to un-straddle the chair and get into a lifting position on the side. Thankfully, we somehow pulled everything together and got on the chair and didn’t end up in the pit as a tangle of bodies and skis.

The group behind us also had a successful load.

I enjoyed the relief for the rest of the ride until we had to think about unloading.

To my continued relief, the unload went smoothly as well. Unfortunately, we now had to steer the chairs downhill with a couple thousand other skiers flying by. One of us would try to steer the bi-ski while another 1-2 people would ski just uphill and try to ward off other skiers. One time my blocker actually had to push someone out of their trajectory to keep them from running into me. During this exercise my larger skis were definitely a liability and I found myself often driving the bi-ski over my own tips. I’m glad it would be quite some time until I’d be asked to actually steer one of these bi-skis with a person in it.

My Sunday morning session was “Skier Improvement”, a class I really needed after returning to skiing last year following a 10 year absence. I had plenty of bad habits to break from the old straight-ski days and the survival skiing mode I got into last year with so much backcountry and black diamond terrain before I was really comfortable. Dave was our instructor and he was a 15 year veteran of the Breckenridge Ski School but was volunteering this year with BOEC. He gave me lots of advice for keeping by turns smooth throughout the entire curve and by the end of the morning I felt much smoother and more in control.

At the start of our afternoon clinic, I had another realization that I’m not really a skier. We started the class by going around and introducing ourselves including describing our favorite skiing memory. Most people mentioned powder days, perfect spring corn snow, or introducing their kids to skiing. My favorite “skiing” memory is anytime I’ve been skinning uphill, which hardly qualifies as skiing to most people.

Moving on to the class itself, the topic was “Creative Teaching” and we spent the afternoon learning ways to motivate or distract kids to help them learn to ski. We practiced some drills that would make the basic skiing movements fun, such as ways to get little kids to turn (most want to bomb straight down hill and go fast). We also had one of our fellow students play blind while two of us talked her into getting on a lift. She was a good enough actor that the lift attendant thought she really was visually impaired.

I may take some more clinics in January, but these several days fulfilled the basic requirements for volunteering to help out with lessons this winter. Hopefully in December I’ll get a chance to actually help out alongside the BOEC’s fully-trained instructors.

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This winter I plan to spend some days volunteering with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center’s adaptive skiing program. Before I’m allowed to spend time with clients on the mountain, I have to attend several days worth of training sessions. The prior Saturday I’d sat in on two indoor sessions that oriented the group of new volunteers in the policy and procedures of the BOEC and a general awareness class on disabilities.

This Thursday our morning session was “Ski Instruction 101” which assumed a never-ever skier as a client and wasn’t focused specifically on adaptive skiing. Our instructors introduced some of the basic skiing movements and drills to work on those skills. All of us learned to ski back in the straight-edged ski days and found we have some bad habits to unlearn with the new shaped skis.

The afternoon session was more focused on the techniques required in adaptive skiing: tethering, using a long bamboo pole for balance and skiing immediately behind someone while assisting their balance. We split up in 2- and 3-person groups to practice each of these techniques. We also tried a few methods that weren’t strictly “adaptive”, such as tip connectors to keep skis in a wedge formation and skiing in a backwards snowplow in front of someone.

This coming weekend I’ll have two more days of classes including such topics as working with sit-skis, a early-season warm-up to get my own ski legs back and creative teaching techniques.

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For my second LIT (Leader In Training) trip, I choose a hike up Vasquez Peak (12,947 feet) led by Dave Goldwater – one of the first CMC trip leaders I’d hiked with. We met up in Denver then picked up another hiker along the way and meet two more at the trailhead for a 14 person group. We left the cars and picked up a spur trail that switchbacked through the pine trees until it reached the Continental Divide Trail.

We took the CDT left and tried to follow the trail through snow drifts and switch backs as it mostly kept to a level elevation. Then, as we began to break out of the trees we had glimpses of the great views that would greet us of the Continental Divide.

We continued to follow the Continental Divide Trail as it wrapped around the slope and approached the saddle west of Vasquez Peak.

Here we left the trail and continued straight up the ridge.

I was a little concerned about the forecast for snow and the high clouds moving in, but they stayed high and non-threatening as we approached the summit.

The rime-encrusted rocks were slick to hike through, but thankfully not too difficult of an obstacle.

At the summit we took a short lunch break then started down.

We headed southeast to another saddle to begin our descent route.

From here we continued straight down the slope, intersecting our old trail and continuing into the valley below. Here we headed downhill and picked up a packed snow road and followed that back to our cars.

Complete Photo Gallery

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The Backcountry Bash is an annual fundraiser for the Backcountry Snowsports Alliance, a group that promotes non-motorized winter recreation areas in Colorado. The evening started out with food and beer and the slow perusal of 3 separate silent auction tables. I started bidding on items as diverse as socks, ski poles and backcountry hut reservations. In the end, I only ended up with a one-night reservation for the Tagert Hut outside of Aspen.

After the silent auction tables closed down, we moved upstairs to the American Mountaineering Center’s Foss Auditorium for a live action run by auctioneer Shawn Hagler. I withheld from bidding on anything but did score a pocket knife and a packet of gu that were tossed into the audience.

The main event of the evening was a screening of the ski-porn film, The Pact, by Powderwhore Productions. The only real story telling attempted in the film was the tale of E.J. Poplawski’s return to telemark skiing after loosing his right leg in a skiing accident (40mph collision with a 3 inch aspen).

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The Boulder Adventure Film Festival opened Thursday night for a three day run of outdoor/adventure/adrenaline films. The content shares much with festivals like MountainFilm, Banff and Alpinist.

The evening started at the Boulder Theater at 4pm with the latest film from Sender Films, Peter Mortimer’s production company. Mortimer has been responsible for an increase in quality of climbing films over the last decade by bringing character and a little story telling into the sterile films of people on rock. The 60 minute The Sharp End continues this new tradition. Loosely themed around the act of leading climbs (aka, the “sharp end” of the rope, where falls are more dangerous) the film focuses on the motivations and mental preparation behind such committing acts as leading runout and badly-protected trad climbs, high-ball bouldering and free soloing. The Sharp End won this year’s “Best Climbing Film” at the festival and thankfully, didn’t include Timmy O’Neil in any of the footage.

After a short break the 20 minute Armed for the Challenge was screened. Willie Stewart, whose left arm was amputated after an industrial accident, is the engaging subject. Following Willie’s training for the physically challenged triathlon championships the film interweaves Willie’s own history arcing from grief and anger to acceptance and his current work as director of the PossAbilities program. The film’s message was inspiring, if simple, about the possibility of overcoming perceived limitations (I would have liked to seem more about the “how” in the process). I had a personal interest in seeing this film, since I’ll soon start training with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center‘s adaptive ski program.

Conflict Tiger, at 61 minutes, would be the last “feature-length” film I’d see tonight. Shot in the forests of far eastern Russia it tells the story of agents from the “Conflict Tiger Unit” who try to preserve the tiger from poachers and manage problem tigers. When a local hunter ignores the age-old wisdom of not messing in the tiger’s affairs, his own life is threatened by the wounded, but still very dangerous, animal. Most thought provoking was the idea that the villagers and the tigers occupied the same ecological niche and both would be doomed by habitat loss for the deer and wild boar that sustain their lives caused by aggressive logging.

Films continued at the Boulder Theater, but I migrated across town to Neptune Mountaineering for a special collection of alpine climbing films.

Via Bearzi is a 33 minute celebration of the adventurous life of Boulder local Michael Bearzi. His climbs on mixed rock and ice in Rocky Mountain National Park helped created the now standard “M” grading system for such mixed climbs. Told through interviews with his past climbing partners and his own un-self-conscious personal interviews the film traces his expanding horizons as he climbs in Alaska, Patagonia and the Himalaya. Bearzi was searching out new routes that would provide a personal challenge, while remaining little known in the climbing world. Family and friends finished the film he started after his death in 2002 while descending from an acclimation climb in Tibet.

Ice Anarchy, and the Pursuit of Madness is hardman Steve House’s 28 minute debut into film making. Largely composed of on-climb footage during an ascent of K7 West it offers a series of vignettes of the climb. Somewhat unique on the festival circuit in that it was not shot by a separate film team, but an active participant in the climbing. That provides a feel almost like watching someone’s weekend adventures on YouTube, excepting what Steve is doing qualifies as high-end alpinism. This intimacy and lower production values certainly offers a good view from the climber’s perspective but does loose the objective viewpoint that can assist a film when it brings a strong artistic vision. I’m looking forward to development in this style as technology becomes smaller and better and a sense of storytelling finds its way in. Long sea or arctic sledding journeys seem to offer the best field for active-participant film making right now. Alpine climbing will hopefully develop eventually.

Shaking the Bear is Chris Alstrin’s 18 minute film following the establishment of a new route in Zion by Rob Pizem and Mike Anderson. The name comes from the route which comes from some crazy video posted on the internet (best not to try and track it down). The film making style is the polar opposite of Steve House’s work, as Chris films the progress from an outside and objective stance above or to the side of the action. The range of climbing was striking for a single route: cracks, face, off-widths and chimneys. Off-climb interviews with Rob and Mike explore the attractions of new routing and the climbing in Zion.

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