Monday, April 24, 2017

Springtime in the Snowy Sierra

With the record breaking snowfall that the Sierra Nevada has received this season, it is no wonder that the backcountry skiing has been amazing both in terms of quality and quantity. With such a deep base and low snowline, many Sierra ski lines and touring routes are in such great condition that people have been coming from all around the country to come and see what all the fuss is about.

Camp 2 on the Alpine Col Tour

While most of the ski trips so far this winter have been day trips or hut based ski tours, now that we are getting into the springtime when the days are longer and the snowpack and weather are more stable, I have been spending more time exploring the backcountry on longer tours, and expect that we will be guiding ski tours until the end of May.

Skiing towards Darwin Canyon with the Hermit looming in front of us

Silky corn snow on the East Couloir of Basin Mt.

Piute Crags SE Couloir

From sage to summit

With a calendar full of ski adventures yet to come this spring, including a Trans-Sierra tour and several peak descent trips planned, stay tuned for more! 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Canadian Ski Getaway

It should come to no surprise that I have been neglecting to post regularly to the blog, for with this record-setting Sierra snowpack I have hardly spent a day out of ski boots in the recent months. Sure there have been some fun trips out of town, to clip bolts in the limestone Greek paradise of Kalymnos, or to work on the high volcanoes of Mexico, but it really has been all about the skiing.

And shoveling. We are all happy to see spring around the corner, with its warm temperatures and high sun start to melt some of the snow off our house!

 So despite a respite from the storms, and a couple weeks of nice weather forecasted for the Sierra, I made the pilgrimage to Pemberton, British Columbia for some ski touring in the glaciated peaks of the Inland Coast Range.

Known for a relatively stable snowpack and good spring weather, we found a much more engaging set of conditions, with lots of whiteout navigation and very tricky to manage persistent avalanche problems. We had to curtail some of our more aggressive trip plans, but were still able to get high into the alpine and get in some excellent skiing.

The Duffey Lakes zone is an incredibly featured area with easy access and huge objectives, and is surely a place to come back to, though for now I am back home in the Sierra, with at least another 40 days in my ski boots during the months of April and May for work and maybe even a couple more out there for fun!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Some Highlights from the Cascades

August was a pretty wild month for me- I had a few big back to back trips, including the South Face of Charlotte Dome, one of my favorite trips to guide in the Sierra, before traveling North to the Cascades for another step in the IFMGA certification process, the AMGA Advanced Alpine Course/Aspirant Exam. While that may just sound like a mouthful of acronyms (which it is), the program is part coached instruction in high-level glaciated guiding, as well as an exam component in order to qualify for the full alpine exam.
Cilogear packs have specially designed donut straps.  

Brian and Andrew working towards our afternoon objective on Forbidden Peak
 The program was based in Marblemount, WA in North Cascades National Park, and included 2 different mountain objectives, each taking 4 days. With an amazing high pressure weather forecast, we were able to complete all of our intended objectives, and make the most of our time without any weather delays.

High on the NW Face to North Ridge, before reaching our high bivy camp
 Day after day, the course and exam took its toll on everyone. While the great weather meant for comfortable temperatures and no rain or snow to deal with, it also meant that we had consistently long and tough days. Most of who have already had a long season, which is not yet over, felt the fatigue set in mid course, but this too was a good learning experience, and good training for those stretches of demanding guiding objectives.
Sat phones make maintaining relationships a little easier.

Au cheval on the North Ridge of Forbiden
 After the 10 stressful days of guiding each other and our examiners, I was able to take a few days to visit family in WA, visit our cabin on the Olympic Peninsula and make use of that nice weather by sailing, kayaking and swimming before returning to guiding assignments here in the Sierra.

September is proving to be as busy a month as any of the summer months anymore, and though conditions are still prime for climbing, falling temperatures in the alpine elevations and shortening days, we can sure tell the autumn is arriving.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Classic Rock Climbs in the Sierra Nevada

Ping can't believe how good the East Buttress of Whitney is
When it comes to rock climbing in the mountains, we sure have it made in the Sierra Nevada. The approaches are generally short or on decent trails, the weather is stable and consistent, and the granite is just so dang good!  Whether you want to feel the air under your feet and scramble up exposed ridgelines to lofty summits or lace up your climbing shoes and pull difficult moves on alpine walls, there are objectives to satisfy climbers of all abilities. 

High on the Buttress
We have been quite lucky so far this summer, with clear skies, warm temps and little wildfire smoke to contend with. With these favorable conditions, guests have been coming from around the country to climb some of the most classic High Sierra rock routes with me over the past couple weeks.
Bear Creek Spire in the evening light
Gavin ascends the North Arete

 Intermediate climbers should consider the classic East Buttress of Mount Whitney or the North Arete of Bear Creek Spire. Both are Grade III climbs that ascend moderate technical terrain up to a high summit, and are wildly exposed in places.
Charlotte Dome, with the Great Western Divide in the distance
 Those with more climbing experience, or who seek a lower altitude adventure, should look at the South Face of Charlotte Dome, one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America. This route is 12 pitches long, up a beautiful orange granite face and looks down on the massive Kings Canyon gorge.
Melissa follows the infamous Slot pitch
 And those feeling like really pushing themselves, the Third Pillar of Dana, Regular Route, is perhaps the most classic climb of its type in the area. With 5 pitches of mostly 5.9 and 5.10- crack climbing, leading to an ultimate pitch that may be the finest in the Sierra, it is a rewarding day mission with great views the whole way.
The best 5.9 pitch in the universe? You'll have to be the judge!
 Summer isn't over yet, not by a long shot, and although I go up to Washington State for an AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) Alpine Course/Exam for a couple weeks, September looks like it will also be a good climbing month with more trips up Whitney, Temple Crag, the Palisade Traverse and more! Stay tuned...

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Walking the Thin Line on the Palisade Traverse

 This summer has started out as quite a warm one, with some record breaking temps in the Owens Valley, and long stretches in the 80s even here in Mammoth Lakes. I feel lucky then, to be spending as much (or more) time guiding in the Palisades than I have been at home.

 There have been trips up Temple Crag and Mount Robinson, as well as two Palisade Traverses (Thunderbolt Peak to Mount Sill) in both North and South directions. Conditions have been changing quickly up there, with snow lingering still but going fast. It has been unbelievably nice at 14,000ft, with overnight temps only barely touching 40 deg!
 The Palisade Traverse trips are a far cry from the casual rock climbing missions in the Whitney Zone I have become so accustomed to, though there is a different kind of reward in carrying over so many peaks and getting to bivy high en route looking far out into the depths of the High Sierra.
 I first climbed the Traverse some 8 years ago with my good friend Matteo, and it is always a treat to get to flip back through the summit registers and find our entries from that early alpine experience.
 Now I pack food and gear for one more trip into this storied sub-range, my third Traverse trip in as many weeks, and although I am looking forward to the rest of the guiding season and the many other places I will get to climb and explore I am happy to savor my time at each one of these iconic summits while I have the chance.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Still Skiing in the Sierra!

 Although the snowline here in the Eastern Sierra is rising fast, there is still a lot of snow in the backcountry, especially once you get up and over the Crest. This has made for great conditions for mountaineering seminars, climbs on Mount Whitney, and our favorite, springtime ski tours.

We have not had a backcountry season like the one we have been enjoying for a number of years now, at least not well into May, so we are happy not to have to put the skis in the garage just yet. The weather has not been a typical spring one, however, with lots of small systems rolling through to keep everyone on their toes. There has not really been a true corn cycle, at least that hasn't lasted more than 10 days.

 So with all these variables, I was really lucky to have such a fun ski tour from Rock Creek to Mammoth with a couple of fit young guests, Charlie and Taylor. We put our skis on right next to the car, and were able to ski the entire route with the exception of a mile of road walking at the very end. Not bad!

The forecast looked kind of grim, but we figured that it might actually mean some good skiing during the trip. Turned out to be better than we expected. We climbed up and over Halfmoon Pass on Day 1, belaying a short downclimb, and then getting nice skiing down the drainage before climbing to our camp in Pioneer Basin. We awoke to 6" of light and dry snow, so packed up camp quickly to get some skiing in before the sun affected it.

We climbed up to Steelhead Pass, a gradual ascent first thing in the morning, and were happy to make fantastic powder turns down the other side. We had so much fun we booted back up for another lap on a steeper shot too.

We still had miles to cover this day, so we kept on climbing up past McGee Lake, under Red and White Mountain and to the spectacular ski pass, Corridor Pass. This has got to be one of my favorite passes to ski up and over- great views, big mountains looming above, and again, a nice long ski down the other side to our camp below Red Slate Mountain near Lake Wit So Nah Pah.

The morning of Day 3 brought the first real funky weather of the trip, with poor visibility as we made our way up to Pretty Pass (thanks to the low vis we also climbed and skied the quite steep "Extra Pass", which does not come highly recommended!). Once over Pretty we skied down into Franklin and Ram Lakes Basin and in increasingly crappy weather took the option to camp early, and hunkered down for tea.

On Day 4 we had blue skies (not for long), a brisk North wind and the guys had their eyes set on burgers and beers. We still had a steep climb up Pika Pass though, and then a really good long ski down to Pika Lake.

The skiing on the North sides of the passes was consistently good, and we had a really enjoyable time making turns- always nice not to have to ski breakable crust carrying a heavy overnight pack!
After we made it over Duck Pass we found a nice entrance to Barney Bowl to ski, and then eeked our way through increasingly sloppy snow until we reached the end of the road.

The Rock Creek to Mammoth Tour is definitely once not to be missed: it features classic touring terrain with options for many fun ski descents, and packs 6 passes into its relatively short 30 mile length.

While I still have some ski plans left for the season, I am transitioning into some mountain programs and alpine rock climbing trips for June. Hope to see you out in the mountains!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Five Reasons to Hire a Guide

While many of us are experiential learners who have developed their outdoor skills through trial and error over many trips, there are many benefits from using a professional guide to help you turn your dream adventure into a reality. While there are certainly numerous reasons to seek professional guidance to safely “learn the ropes”, I will highlight five of the top reasons to hire a mountain guide.

1. Local terrain knowledge.
So you just saved up all your vacation time from the past year to be able to take a trip to climb a peak in a mountain range you have never visited. Do you want to spend half of your trip wondering if you are off-route or inadvertently in dangerous terrain? Snow, glacier conditions and avalanche conditions change rapidly and dynamically- going with someone who has intimate knowledge of your route in a variety of conditions will keep you safer and perhaps more successful.

2. Ability to match your ability and goals to a trip.

Whether you are a casual climber or hiker who wants to do a unique and fun trip once a year, or a keen mountain climber looking to develop skill sets to be more self-reliant, working closely with a professional guide can help you customize your mountain experience. Guides carefully match the challenge of a route with the desired outcomes of their guests to deliver the best education or experiential outcome.

3. Experience in managing groups in the mountains.

Sure, you just joined a local Meet Up style group that offers climbing trips. But what kind of qualifications do these trip leaders have, and how much responsibility do they have for you if something happens? Signing up for a group trip through a guide service will ensure safe and prudent group sizes, and attention to risk management so that all participants have their needs met. Plus, you usually eat a whole lot better on guided trips!

4. Qualifications and certifications.

Mountain climbing and backcountry adventuring can already be a dangerous activity, so seek out a guide who has passed formal internationally recognized exams through the American Mountain Guiding Association (AMGA). The long and rigorous process to become a certified guide involved not only guiding exams and professional development courses, but also wilderness medical training and attention to teaching outdoor-based curriculum.

5. You just want to get out and hike or climb, but can’t find a partner!

It can be frustrating to have to deal with schedule conflicts, partners who bail, and friends who just aren’t interested in another one of your half-cocked trip plans, so hiring a guide can take away a lot of the stress of planning a trip. Guide services work with your schedule, deal with the logistics and permits, and get everything lined up so that you get to show up and have fun without all the hassle of finding an appropriate partner.