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Wednesday
Mar092016

Nellie Juan Lake with Jeff

If you have an airplane, Alaska is at your fingertips. My neighbor and ski buddy Jeff Conaway now has the bush plane of dreams: a 1965 PA-18, better known as a Piper Supercub. It is equipped with wheel skis two feet wide. It is the most coveted transportation machine in Alaska.

Jeff picked me up at 7am and we drove two minutes to his plane at Merrill Field. Seeing clear skies to the south, we scratched our original plans for the Tordrillos, and went to the Kenai Mountains. 


Avgas isn't cheap, but it's still cheaper than skiing at Alyeska. 


We first flew over Turnagain Pass to admire our roadside skiing. 

 

Then over Grandview to see a massive pile on the tracks. Although it's been a winter-long glide avalanche cycle, this one may have been a persistent slab, awakened by the warm March sun. 

 

Above Nellie Juan Lake in the Kenai Mountains, deciding where to land and ski. 

 

Jeff at Nellie Juan Lake, putting the cozy on Cubby's engine. 


Nellie Juan Lake is surrounded by ski terrain. 

 

We chose a glacier circuit, sticking to terrain with low consequences if an avalanche should occur. A recent storm dropped 10-15 feet of snow at Turnagain. Turnagain is dry compared to Nellie Juan. 

 

Jeff above Day Harbor and Prince William Sound.

 

Smooth and creamy snow.  

 

A cornice fall avalanche in an unnamed valley. 

 

On the flight home we buzzed skiers on The Captain's Chair at Turnagain Pass. 

 

Glide cracks on Cornbisuit. This is the longest glide avalanche cycle in memory. Glides have been in the advisory for over 60 days. Glide avalanches are not predictable. You can't trigger a glide avalanche. All you can do is stay away, like these tracks indicate. 

Thanks for an incredible day Jeff! I think I'll swap in my Toyota for a Supercub. 

Monday
Feb152016

Mount Washington Ice Fest

From Rossland, Cathy and I went east to North Conway, New Hampshire. Friends from the area—Maddog, Elliot, Peter, Majka—hooked me up with Anne Skimore and Michael Wejchert, organizers of the Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival. At the ice fest I taught a one-day ice rescue course and a two-day avalanche course. Then I climbed with Anne Gilbert Chase, Jimmy Voorhis and Peter Doucette. Each amazing climbers and inspirational people. 


Anne Gilbert Chase on Super Goofers at Cathedral Ledge. She made this brittle and vertical climb look easy. It wasn't easy. Gilbert is from Bozeman where she is a nurse and climber. At the ice fest she worked as a Patagonia athlete and instructor. 

 

Gilbert attempting The Roof at Cathedral Ledge. The cracks were verglassed and hideous.

 

Jimmy Voorhis on the first pitch of the North Conway ultra-classic Repentance. He backed off the de-iced crux 15 feet higher up. I also led this first pitch, but was unsuccessful at talking Gilbert into leading the impossibly hard crux. 

 

Jimmy on Dropline with Austin taking photos. Steep and pumpy!

 

Peter Doucette leading Great Maddness on Mount Willard. This route has a New England Ice grade of V when fat. It wasn't fat. These New Englanders are good climbers. 

 

Me leading Gully 1. I finished in a snowstorm on the right corner. 

 

Peter fluffing my ego by acting like he is concentrating while following my corner finish to Gully 1.  

Peter leading Thinking of Jane. Overhanging smears of ice, dry-tooling dirt-filled cracks, thin protection.... The route finished through icicles to the top.  

 

Looking up through Peter's overhanging icicle finish to Thinking of Jane. 

 

Pumpy for Joe!

 

Local guide Craig Taylor demostrating the Chauvin Lower, a paradigm shift in lowering technique while belaying in guide-mode. Simply clip a biner from the master point to the loaded strand. This prevents the device from locking and provides a smooth lower. Too simple to be true! To clip the loaded strand, the victim must momentarily unweight the rope or you can do a load transfer with a cordelette. 

The other lowering methods include the normal re-direct to the shelf or a ratchet. The release hole is no longer used for lowering since it is all or nothing and results in accidents. 

 

Craig demonstrating the ratchet lower. With each crank of the gold biner, he can lower the victim an inch. A good way to get a small amount of slack. 

 

Peter demostrates the transition from guide mode to a re-direct lower. 

  1. Clove off brake strand (this becomes the re-direct).
  2. Rig the brake strand hands-free to a prusik loop at your waist for backup. 
  3. Rig cordelette from a munter-mule-overhand at the shelf to a prusik on the loaded strand. 
  4. Transfer load to cordelette by ratcheting the auto blocking biner. 
  5. Rig device to lower mode (clip in grey biner and unclip gold biner). 
  6. Change brake strand from a clove to a re-direct. 
  7. Release and remove cordelette. 
  8. Lower. 

 

My avalanche awareness course on Mount Washington. We visited with forecaster Jeff Lane, in green, who told us about current conditions and the avalanche history of Tuckerman Ravine.  

 

Wind was actively loading Tuckerman's, so we stopped at Lunch Rocks. This is the hardcore zone in the East. The crew I was with was so passionate about Tuckerman's that it put the feature in a regional perspective.

Thanks for a great week Cathy, Majka, Peter, Gilbert, Jimmy, Austin, Michael, Anne and Brad! 

Sunday
Feb142016

Kootenay Powder

Last spring, on a BC Ski trip with Cathy, I realized I had much to learn from the Canadians about avalanches. If I poached that knowledge, I could bring it back to Alaska to share in avalanche classes and while guiding. 

This year, Cathy I spent a week in Rossland, British Columbia with guide and avalanche instructor Keith Robine and his family. There I guided a couple days at Big Red Cats with Keith and shadowed/taught an AST2 avalanche course with him through his business Kootenay Avalanche Courses

Rossland attracts adventurous people. Cathy and I visited with friends Steve Bros, Jim Mosher and Mike Cummings who I skied with in Denali last spring. We had dinner with Kynan Bazley, a Kiwi who I climbed with in New Zealand and hadn't seen in years. We also visited with Jessie and Tami Brown who we climbed with in Kalymnos. Cathy injured her leg early in the trip, so the Rossland friendliness was extra-appreciated. 

First day in BC, getting the grand tour with Ann Quarterman, Keith's wife, on Mount Roberts, an off-piste area near Red Mountain resort. Through fog and thick trees I followed Ann to fields of what's called "Kootenay Powder." It's deep and untracked, the density of Alta snow. Not too light that you're hitting bottom. Not heavy like Cascade Concrete or Alyeska Ready-Mix. Just right for addiction.

 

Morning guide meeting at Big Red Cats. 

 

Big Red Cats operates four cats with 12 clients per cat. That's a lot of people, but they have the terrain and powder to handle it. 

 

Keith ski cuts a size 2 on Mount Mackie. Overnight the slab had stiffened and took extra thumping to release into a tree-rattling avalanche. 

 

The biggest thing I learned at Big Red Cats was how to guide in thick trees. It's a whole different set of techniques: 

  • Use the buddy system. 
  • Hoot to stay in vocal contact. 
  • Ski in pairs on either side of the guide tracks. 
  • Trees increase consequences of an avalanche. Select terrain with extra caution for the snowpack. 
  • Stay close to your buddy because sound doesn't travel well in trees. 
  • Tree wells are the greatest hazard in thick trees. Make turns below trees to avoid falling in. 

 

Keith demonstrating the Canadian Avalanche Association Trip Plan Form before touring on day two of the AST2 course. Avalanche Safety Training is the recreational avalanche education track in Canada. This year, the US will split into professional and recreational tracks, so we can act more Canadian.  

 

Trees re-define avalanche terrain. By the fifth day of tree skiing I could see trees as something besides baseball bats.  

 

Keith demonstrating the beacon fine search along a probe. This keeps the beacon at a uniform height and helps students visualize a grid.   

 

Canadian Avalanche Association billboard at Kootenay Pass. Those Canadians are dialed. 

 

Skiing at Kootenay Pass for our final day on the AST2. Mountains of Kootenay Powder. 

Thanks for a great trip Keith, Ann, Big Red Cats, Jim, Steve, Mike, Kynan, Barb, Jessie and Tami! And thanks Jim, for connecting me with Keith!

Thursday
Jan282016

What's Your System?

Manage Your Human Factor in Avalanche Terrain 

Joshua Foreman pauses before dropping in. Kenai Mountains, Alaska. I've never been caught in avalanche. Maybe it's because I'm good at mountain travel. Maybe it's because I maintain a healthy margin for error. Maybe it's luck. In any case, I work hard to avoid avalanches. I'm in the snowy mountains most of the winter. The odds are against me. One of the things I work at is my own system for avoiding avalanches. 
 
My system is a method for avoiding avalanches that addresses my personal human factors—the seemingly silly mistakes I make in avalanche terrain despite how much I know about avalanches. My system is rigid. I follow it every time I ski, but it evolves year to year as my human factors change. 
 
Target your own human factors with your system
 
A system is a set of principles or procedures used to achieve a goal—in this case, avalanche avoidance. Avalanche professionals who work in large operations like ski patrol or Canadian heli ski services use a time-tested system that keeps them relatively safe day after day in a high-risk environment. These systems work well in operational settings, but they do not target individual human factors. 
 
Ski guide and avalanche instructor Sarah Carpenter says, on Wildsnow.com, that recreational skiers should model their daily routine after snow professionals, who often follow these nine steps:
1. Check the avalanche forecast every day. 
2. Follow the weather. 
3. Track avalanche activity. 
4. Plan before you leave the house. 
5. Be prepared. 
6. Have an opinion. 
7. Adjust your plan if conditions are different than you anticipated. 
8. Report your observations. 
9. Review your tour at the end of the day. 
 
In Avalanche Essentials, Bruce Tremper says that the system for avalanche safety includes: 
1. Have trip plans. 
2. Gather information. 
3. Know what kind of avalanches you are dealing with. 
4. Know what the avalanche pattern is. 
5. Choose safe terrain based on those patterns. 
6. Know how to travel on the terrain. 
7. Know what to do if things go wrong. 
 
Comparing these two lists, we can see some components of an avalanche-avoidance system are essential, such as planning. Through years of practice, most elements of Carpenter and Tremper's systems have become second nature to me. But even if I adhere to these systems, an avalanche could get me through one of my own human factors. Factors not shared by all avalanche professionals. 
 
To address your human factors, develop a personalized system that incorporates what avalanche researcher Ian McCammon calls your disaster factors—human factors that are most likely to kill you in avalanche terrain. If you know your disaster factors, you can target those issues with your system. Your system builds onto, rather than replaces, generalized systems like Tremper's and Carpenter's. By consistently practicing each step in your system, you will learn to mitigate your human factors, and you can stay alive longer.  

Keith Bobine ski cuts a size 2 on the east face of Mount Mackie, Kootenay Mountains, British Columbia.

As you gain experience, knowledge and maturity, your system will evolve. Tweak it at the beginning of each season. A few years ago, for example, I added "Look for reasons to turn around" to my system as a way to mitigate my goal-obsession on personal trips. After working on that disaster factor, I felt I'd mostly overcome it, and I removed it from my system. Last year I considered my disaster factor of becoming too engrossed in pleasing ski clients. I wanted every client to say, "That was the best day of skiing in my life!" To address this, I reminded myself of the guiding priorities: "number one is safety, number two is achieving the objective and number three is having fun." 
 
My 2015/16 system for avalanche avoidance focuses on guiding. It ensures that I’ve done as much as possible to keep my clients and myself safe in avalanche terrain. I follow this system every time I guide. Remember, it is an evolving system that targets my human factors that I'm working on now.  
 

Joe's System for Avalanche Avoidance, January 2016 

1) Communicate with Clients

Lack of communication is a core problem in most avalanche accidents. There are many aspects to good pre-trip communication with clients. These are the aspects I am working on now, until they become habit:
Send pre-trip letter to client. 
Discuss objective and options with client. 
Discuss risks with client. 
View and discuss weather with client.
View and discuss avalanche advisory with client.
 

2) Attend Guide Meetings 

 
The morning guide meeting is an important step to processing information before going into the field. Since I mostly work by myself, the guide meeting is often just me, at 5:30 am at home or in the sleeping bag. I review the weather, snow and avalanche conditions, the group and the plan. When possible, I join Chugach Powder Guides in Girdwood for their morning meeting. 
 

3) Practice Avalanche Companion Rescue with Clients 

Before going near avalanche terrain, I practice companion rescue with every client. I do the same for glacier skiing. Before moving on glaciers, I practice building snow anchors for crevasse rescue with each client. 

Morning meeting at Big Red Cats, Rossland, British Columbia. 

4) Apply Terrain Progression

Alaska ski guide Brad Cosgrove first explained terrain progression to me. Brad said to start every day, and every trip, mellow. This is akin to skiing at a resort where you warm up with some groomers, hit your most challenging run toward the end of the day, and then warm down for the last run. While backcountry skiing, I apply terrain progression by starting on easier terrain and ramping it up if conditions and the group allow. Before every trip, I explain terrain progression to clients so they understand how it works. 
  

5) Use Strategic Mindset Terms with Clients

In Yin, Yang and You, Roger Atkins describes seven mindsets for integrating human factors into decision-making. For example, when a big storm clears and while collecting information, you'll be in assessment mindset. After a few days of stepping out mindset with no signs of snow instability, you may enter open season mindset and go for it. I use this terminology with clients so they better understand our status relative to avalanche danger.  
 

6) Pause Before Skiing 

I pause and think before diving into each run. Standing there on the ridge, I create what McCammon calls a pre-mortem. I ask myself, "If this slope avalanches, what clues would I have missed?" I pick out the dumb mistakes from my imagined obituary and try to correct those mistakes before they happen. Southcentral Alaskans can ask themselves: "What would Medred say?"
 

7) Ski Test Every Run


Contemplating Center Chute on Mount Roberts, Kootenay Mountains, British Columbia. I ski test every run, to keep it a habit. Ski testing is similar to ski cutting done by ski patrollers, but different. You're not trying to start an avalanche. Rather you're starting the run defensively with a couple zig-zags, aiming toward your escape route just in case the slope does release. As Larry Goldie explains in Off Piste, a ski test is "one last test before we fully commit to the slope.... a tool … used to further minimize the risk while skiing." 
 
What are your human factors? What is your system to address those human factors? Write it down on your coffee cup. Stick to it. And let it evolve. 
 

More Reading

Morning Meeting, The Importance of a Clear Plan and Conditions Dialogue, by Larry Goldie, Off Piste, October 2015.  
Avalanche Essentials, by Bruce Tremper, Mountaineers Books. 
Yin, Yang and You, by Roger Atkins. Proceedings of the 2014 ISSW, pages 210-217. 
A Question of Risk, by Drew Hardesty, blackdiamondequipment.com. 
Decision Making in the Wild, NOLS, by Ian McCammon, May 18, 2015. 
The Biggest Secret Your Avalanche Instructor Never Mentioned: The Ski Cut, by Larry Goldie, Off Piste, December 2013, pages 20-21. 
Mountain Skills: Be Ready with Team and Routine, by Brennan LaGasse, Backcountry, January 2016.