Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Under the Cover of Darkness

There is a burgeoning sub-culture in our Squamish climbing community. It’s not the obvious; Boulderers are not taking to ropes, and roped climbers are not giving up their bolts. It has to do with darkness, something that those of us living north of the 49th parallel learn to live with a lot of. Each Fall, when we *sigh* turn our clocks back, darkness is really all we know as card-carrying 9-5 commuters. There’s simply no way to get home in time to catch the last rays of sun on still-warm rock. And so a sub-culture has emerged. Under the cover of darkness boulderers have begun sleuthing about the forest with crash pads and lanterns in tow, vibrating with unbridled motivation. Because let’s face it, you need a lot of motivation to pack-up and leave your warm house at 7:30 pm in the pitch black.

I emerge from the "Black Hole" as darkness falls and our session is just getting underway. Photo, Jamie Finlayson.


I find myself totally smitten with the groups of boulderers quietly gathered around a lantern-lit boulder, discussing beta, listening to Odesza (because, when bouldering under the cover of darkness you must remain in a chill state of mind. No loud metal music here -- save that for the daylight). On any given cold and crisp night, there are three or four different groups of boulderers each huddled around their chosen nights objective.

Yes, I am emerging from a "Black Hole" which also happens to be the name of this problem and also perhaps, aptly describes my current state of mind. Photo, Jamie Finlayson.
These night warriors are not faint of heart; They are driven, they are motivated, and they are sending. I find this small, but perhaps growing sub-culture to be particularly inspiring. Many of these people have day jobs, have families, have children. They wear many hats and yet maintain a stubborn dedication to hard climbing. So much so that they/we have turned the dark, cold forest into our own personal bouldering gym. There is a lot of camaraderie among this ragtag group of bouldering outcasts. We hold a particular respect for one another knowing that sheer grit and determination is what’s bringing us together each night.

Yours truly on her project yet again. Photo, Kerim Ntumba Tshimanga.
As I type this post, there’s a shipment of eight rechargeable LED floodlights in the mail for myself and my crew of night boulderers. We will push the season to the bitter end, and almost certainly all under the protective cover of darkness. Allow me to insert a small public service announcement here. Don’t limit yourself to the literal or metaphorical daylight dear reader. Think outside of the box to achieve your goals. There is the tinniest segment of our community with the privilege of pursuing their goals in the daylight hours. If you are not one of these people, don’t let it distract you from achieving what you want. I have the highest respect for those who cannot make climbing their sole focus, and yet, achieve a standard matching that of the full-time climber. The mental fortitude required to compete on a similar platform as those who can climb all day, any day, is underrated and not applauded enough.

For inspiration, we need not look very far. Squamish local, Luke Zimmerman, has a full-time career, is a husband, and father to twin boys. Luke has quietly been ticking off every hard boulder problem in Squamish. Or take one of my favorite climbing partners, Jamie Finlayson, who is the founding partner of a custom construction company, a husband, and this-just-in…a father! Jamie might just be the strongest climber in Squamish. It’s people like this, who lead ordinary lives in a very extraordinary way that I find most inspiring.

I think, the first step to surpassing the perceived limitations of an ordinary life, is to think extraordinarily.  I enourage you all to give it a try and perhaps...get comfortable under the cover of darkness.

The Weasel, as darkness falls. Photo, Jamie Finlayson.

Darkness cometh. Photo, Jamie Finlayson.

Kelly and I have recently taken to working The Egg by lantern. Photo, Kelly Franz.

Like a night vision, Kelly emerges from the darkeness to...get shut down on The Egg, as has been our luck so far. Photo, Sarah Hart.
The Egg, and a dark, dark hole. Photo, Kelly Franz.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

There's nothing like French sunglasses...

A while ago now, I got a message from a friend asking if he could send my contact info. to the distributor for Julbo Eyewear here in Canada, "what?! Um, yes...of course! Holy crap!" For all the time I spend in the mountains; skiing, alpine climbing, running, sunbathing (OK, not really sunbathing) but you get the idea, having a slick pair of sunglasses is kind of key. I spend a lot of money on good sunglasses. I also lose a lot of good sunglasses, or sit on them, or drop them into holes. You know how it is. So, to be connected with Julbo, and learn that they were actually interested in giving me their sunglasses to wear, I was like, "whoa!" 

I figured I should share the good news with all of you out there, my fair reader, since it's momentous for me, and my Mom will really like to read this. Julbo glasses aren't just any sunglasses, they're French sunglasses. And if the French can make delicious pan o' chocolate, they definitely can make good sunglasses. OK, but in all honesty, they make fantastic sunglasses, that I have already been using for quite some time. I'm really honoured to have been given the chance to join the Canadian team and I will proudly wear my bright pink Megève or slick black Whoops at any opportunity. Et voilà!

Saturday, 8 August 2015

"For what it's worth: it's never too late...to be whoever you want to be."

"For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again." ~ Unknown

I've been a lot of things in my 35 years; a morning person, a night owl, a dirtbag, a professional, a friend, a foe, a horse rider, a rock climber, a coffee slinger, a project manager, a traveller, an alpinist, a family member, an individual, a girlfriend, a wife. 

While in Patagonia this last season, I knew that I'd be reinventing myself yet again when I returned home. As much as I desperately wished I could just be a rock climber, I needed to be a money maker too. Knowing that I'd be soon be going back to full-time work, it was time for me to squeeze out every last opportunity to climb in cool places, and with cool people. 

Well, if this was my last opportunity I needed to learn how to be an ice climber. What better way to reinvent myself as an ice climber than to commit to a mountain climbing trip to the Central Alaska Range, where ice replaces rock 99-1. Never in my wildest dreams...or nightmares, would I have envisioned myself climbing big snowy mountains in Alaska. It is about as far from my skill set as a climber that one can get. But, when else in my life am I going to find the time to learn how to be an Alaskan alpinist.

Naturally, I wasn't just going to go to Alaska with anyone. I was going to go with a real Alaskan, my shit-talking old friend, Seth. Seth was born in Fairbanks, and lives there today, in a cabin without plumbing he built with his own hands. He likes to go on 100 miles nordic ski tours, and hang out in saunas. I mean, he's a real Alaskan. 

But, before we could go climb all the gnarliest (*read* easiest) mountains in Alaska, I needed to learn how to place an ice screw. Seth agreed to meet me in Canmore, Alberta. 

Motivation was high during our "Fat Camp 2015" and we climbed as many days as we were able to lift our hands above our heads in the morning. I learned how to place ice screws and lead ice in a variety of conditions. This is a little late, but I wanted to share some photos from Fat Camp 2015 because Seth took some really pretty ones.

My first real ice climb! Seth approaches the aptly named, Professor Falls. What a scholarly place to learn to ice climb.
Seth leading the first or second pitch of Professor Falls.
My very first ice lead! How cool! Look at that sport-bolted ice screw line.
Seth on the crux pitch of Professor Falls.
Needless to say, we were feeling mega-gnarl at the top. I should add, this was definitely NOT Seth's first ice climb, but he indulged me in my need to puff my chest up a little.
It was called Fat Camp because Seth needed to lose weight. Ha, he's going to kill me.
Next up, we headed to another uber classic. Louise Falls sits above the most photographed lake in the world, Lake Louise.
Our friend Julie joined us for this one. She works in Jasper as an Avalanche Technician every winter, and lives in Squamish during the summers. Unlike me, she actually is an ice climber.
Looking down from the top of the secon pitch. I'm looking down checking out our tourist audience far below.
Yes, another psyched-at-the-tippy-top shot.
In keeping with the Fat Camp theme our rest days comprised of racing up mountains. Here I am following Seth up high on Mt. Lady MacDonald, with Canmore far below.
Layering up at the base of Guinness Gully.
This would be my first WI4 lead. Was I ready?!
And there you have it. Apparently it was in really easy condition. I mean, there were giant holes all over the thing!
Seth on the next pitch, which was long and awesome.
Again, stoke was high during Fat Camp.
We made friends with a soloist halfway up Guinness Gully, and decided to team up. He graciously offered to lead us up the hardest pitch. How fortuitous.
Oh Sethie, looking so happy on the top.
Then we headed to the Stanley Headwall, where the big kids play. And where we intended to climb the easiest, measliest route on the wall, Sinus Gully.
I don't care if all we managed to do was climb the route with a snot reference. It was an amazing place to be, and I felt honoured to be climbing beside all these famous ice and mixed lines I'd only ever read about. 
Seth at the base of a classic WI 5 route, which I cannot remember the name of right now. Funny that, because at the time, I swore I was going to get good enough to climb it one day. I still will, I'll just hopefully figure out the name before I do it.
Then things got ugly. I'd always heard about how bad the snow was in the Rockies. Seth and I had to crawl on our hands and knees about 150 metres to the base of our route. It was that bad!
More of Seth's "lifestyle" handywork.
For a route named after snot, it's really beautiful. And was super fun! Seth on the first ice pitch.
Me climbing the second mixed pitch.
That was kind of it for the route. It was a long walk, and an even longer crawl to climb 2 pitches, but whatever.
The culmination of Fat Camp was to be Murchison Falls. Here's Seth approaching the route.
The weather kind of deteriorated as the day went on, which made it feel considerably more "mountain" than it otherwise would have. Which was good practise for Alaskan Alpinism!
Seth at our first belay as the wind and snow really start to roar.
Me leading off on the second pitch.
Above me is the third pitch, which I lead, in full-on spin drift. It felt heroic, if I do say so myself.
Me leading off on the third pitch. 
Seth following me.
My version of a hardcore alpinist selfie. Unfortunately, it didn't quite come off as hardcore as I had hoped. Typical.
Me following the final pitch. I really like this photo.
And that was it. A successful Fat Camp. I managed to progress through the grades a little, which was nice. And, like I said, I've now got my sights on a WI5, of which I have no idea the name. Ha!

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Being safe is hard work.

I've had to spend some time sitting on this one. Well...actually, I've not really wanted to think about it at all. It's really just in the last week I've started to digest the accident Seth and I had in Alaska this past April.

I haven't given it a second thought since flying home from Alaska on April 25 with my tail between my legs, and my head full of fear for my boyfriend. The day after Seth's accident on the Hayes Glacier, I received a call that there had been an earthquake in Nepal. Colin was trapped in Kyanjin Gompa in the Langtang Valley. After working for a week to help bring Colin safely home from Nepal, I just simply didn't feel like thinking about scary and bad things for a while.

I could recount the whole event play-by-play of what happened to Seth and I in the Eastern Alaska Range; But Seth did a pretty good job of explaining the experience from his perspective here. I just want to share with you the highlights from my perspective. I feel compelled to share because I want to use my experience as a tool to help all of you, my readers, be safe out there. Glacier travel and crevasse rescue is something we all learn, or should learn, but going from book knowledge to actually pulling your friend out of a crevasse is a big transition, and one that should not be taken lightly.

Colin recounted several of the accidents that occurred in the Chalten Massif this past season, including an accident similar to Seth and I; An unroped crevasse fall. However, the accident had a slightly different outcome and I think it's worth exploring why.

After one member of a two person team took an unroped crevasse fall on the Fitz Roy Norte Glacier, the safe partner simply didn't know what to do. He panicked and ended up leaving the injured partner in the crevasse while he left to find help. I'm drawing some subjective conclusions here, but I'd like to think that if the safe climber had dedicated time to understanding and practising rescue techniques this accident would have had a different outcome.

Now more than ever I am convinced that self-rescue techniques need to be practised again, and again, and again. Just as we practise our skills as technical climbers weekend after weekend, we need to dedicate some serious hours to practising the skills that keep us safe in the mountains.

Allow me to explain further the events that took place immediately following Seth's crevasse fall. To give you some background, before departing our camp on the Trident Glacier we deliberated on whether we should rope up or use skis to approach the base of our objective. Ultimately, we let our laziness get the better of us and we made what would turn out to be a very stupid decision. We chose to travel unroped and without skis. We did however, have enough forethought to wear our harnesses and have Seth break trail while I followed a few metres behind with the rope, just in case anything were to happen.

At roughly 11:30 am Seth and I walked away from our basecamp on the Trident Glacier and towards our objective. About 400 m from our tent we briefly stopped to assess our route and then continued. Several minutes later I recall looking down at my feet, then looking up again to see Seth gone. He was just simply not there anymore. The bridge that he broke through left a hole barely larger than Seth himself. I recall a feeling of absolute disbelief, and that it was terribly silent. I had heard nothing. It all happened so quickly that Seth didn't even get the chance to utter a sound.

After that, my mind clicked in to gear and I knew I was now in a rescue scenario. I yelled to Seth again and again, but heard no response. At the same time I examined the area in which I was standing, just to be certain I was not standing on a weak snow bridge myself. Following that I sat myself down, put on my helmet, pulled out all my gear, and had a sip of water. I moved quickly, but I also acted with purpose.

Once I had prepared myself I immediately started to build a solid anchor. I hammered in a picket as deep as I could. Thankfully, it hit firm snow and was VERY solid. Then I hammered in the ends of both my trekking poles with the baskets removed and finally I very firmly placed both my ice tools. I equalised the picket with both ice tools, and then separately equalised both my trekking poles and attached them to the primary anchor as a backup. Seth is a big guy, he weights 200 lbs. I wanted to leave nothing to chance, and have total confidence in my anchor before lowering myself to the lip of the crevasse.

Once I was satisfied with my anchor I fixed one end of the rope to it and began lowering the free end into the crevasse. Here's where I wish I had done something differently. When I fixed one end of the rope to the anchor, I left a tail of maybe 15 metres. In hindsight, I should have fixed the rope at 30 m, giving me 30 m to lower to Seth and another 30 m to use in a pulley scenario.

Next, I attached myself to the 15 m tail on a prussik and crawled to the lip of the crevasse being very careful not to break the lip. It should be noted that I continued to yell to Seth the whole time I was preparing an anchor, but did not receive any response. Finally, I reached the lip of the crevasse and gave a few more loud yells and heard a response from Seth. He was alive. Thank god! I estimate that it was about 10 minutes between the time he fell into the crevasse and when I first heard a response from him. We believe he fell about 15-20 m before coming to a stop on a small ice ledge, and that he was unconscious for about 10 min.

He spoke very slowly and quietly at first. It was apparent he'd suffered head trauma, but after some back and forth he was able to confirm that he could set up his prussiks and would begin to ascend the rope. I then walked back to the anchor, grabbed a yellow evazote foam pad and left it near the lip of the crevasse under the rope that Seth would ascend. This prevented the rope from digging deeper into the lip of the crevasse and making it more difficult for Seth to ascend.

While Seth was ascending the rope (very slowly) I rigged my Petzl Micro Traxion on the 15 m tail of rope I'd fixed. I lowered this 15 m end to Seth and had him tie into it once he reached it. Then I attached my prussik to the "pull" end of the rope fed through the Micro Traxion and clipped a prussik to the belay loop of my harness. From there I was able to provide some body-weight assistance to Seth as he ascended. That night after we were safely home in Fairbanks, while I was taking a shower I noticed that my back, where the harness sits, was black and blue. I realised that I had bruised myself from pulling with my body weight against the Micro-Traxion to assist Seth. I was trying really hard I guess!

After about an hour to an hour and a half (it was hard to be sure) Seth was safely above ground. I remained attached to the equalised anchor that I had built, and I cloved Seth off to it as well. From there we did a quick assessment of Seth's injuries. He was able to walk, and the bleeding had mostly stopped. So, I removed all the gear from his harness etc., and put some warm clothing on him from his pack. Then I began to package everything up as best I could and set us up for Seth to belay me out. I was concerned that there may have been more weakened bridges in our area so I wanted to be extra safe and be belayed out to the "safe" zone of the glacier. I had to talk Seth through the belay process, he was still a little foggy. Once at 60 m, Seth took me off belay, took down the anchor, and we began walking in tandem away from the crevasses and towards our camp.

We arrived back to our camp without incident and I immediately set out some sleeping bags in the tent for Seth to crawl into. He laid down while I called Rob Wing, our Super-Cub pilot, to come pick us up. Rob was awesome, and said he'd be there in two hours. It's a long flight from Fairbanks and Rob still had to get himself to the hanger and prepare the plane. Once Rob was on his way, I got to work preparing warm liquids and some food for Seth. He was a good patient and just relaxed in the tent while I prepared food, and started to take down our camp.

I had just enough time to package everything up before I heard the sweet sound of Rob's Super-Cub. And just like that, as quickly as we'd arrived on the glacier, we were gone. What a crazy 24 hours.

I don't know why I'm sharing this. It's totally ridiculous. I can't draw worth a crap. But, here's the rough layout of my rescue system. Maybe this will help bring some sense to what I've explained above.
So, what's the moral of the story? Like I said earlier, I think it's practise, and it's alot of practise by yourself. This past season in Argentina I decided that I'd start to pass bad weather days in town by practising self-rescue techniques on the stairs of our apartment. I bought a booked called, Climbing Self-Rescue by Andy Tyson and Molly Loomis. Every time I was bored in town, which there is a lot of that kind of time, I would pull out the ropes and beg Colin to pretend to be my injured partner. Sometimes I wouldn't be able to bribe Colin into playing this role, so I'd just fill up water bottles and hang them from my systems.

For me, the exercise of understanding and then practising various self-rescue techniques by myself really solidified the skill. When Seth fell into a crevasse in Alaska, there was no hesitation. I knew what needed to be done, and I did it confidently. 

I want to encourage you to learn all you can from various sources; Practise with your friends, take a course, read a book, but most importantly I think you should spend some time running through scenarios on your own. When accidents happen in the mountains you are often alone. You can't rely on the fact that you'll have another body there the assist, or help with decision making. It is important that you are confident in formulating and executing a plan completely independently. 

So with all this in mind, I wanted to share some helpful self-rescue beta. First off, see if you can find yourself a copy of the book mentioned above. I found it useful because systems described build themselves from simplest skill to the most complex incorporating skills previously learned in the book. I also want to direct you to Petzl's website, www.petzl.com. This website is chock-full (no pun intended) of technical information and rescue techniques using many of their products. For example, the Micro Traxion, of which I am now a huge fan and will probably never walk on a glacier again without, has a technical information page where detailed explanations are provided on using the Micro Traxion in a variety of rescue scenarios. 

This brings me to a very important piece of beta. Buy yourself a Micro Traxion! Strong words I know, but after my experience in Alaska, it became apparent to me that the Micro Tracxion is well worth its 85 gram weight. Incorporate the Micro Traxion into your practised rescue scenarios, learn about it, become familiar with what it can do for you in a difficult situation. 

Just like climbing 5.14 doesn't just happen to you, successfully executing a rescue doesn't just happen to you either. It requires education and practise. So, go forth and learn, and stay safe out there!