Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Denali Prep

I just returned from teaching a six day Denali Prep course on Mount Baker with American Alpine Institute. To learn more about the course click the link below.


Denali from the west.

This print can be purchased at http://alasdairturner.com/order-prints/

The conditions we had on this course were perfect preparation for a group planning on spending time on North Americas highest Mountain. We managed to get good weather for the first two days allowing us to hike in and build our first camp under sunny skys, and then walk through the technical skills needed to climb. We covered techniques for hauling sleds, roping up on the massive glaciers of Denali and crevasse rescue techniques.

On day three of the trip we packed up camp and moved to a camp higher on Mount Baker. The weather had started to deteriorate as we were walking to the camp, so we had some practice building a camp in less than perfect weather. This included building a snow wall prior to putting the tents up. Over night the weather deteriorated more and the next day was spent in camp digging out, eating in the cook tent and discussing conditions likely to be encountered on Denali. We also covered traveling on fixed lines and some other technical skills needed for the mountain.

That night the weather deteriorated more still, requiring digging out of the tents at 2am (perfect training for Denali). Continued winds and heavy snow helped us make the decision to hike out the next day and head for Mount Eire on our final day of the course to cover crevasse rescue in more detail. Here we covered the complexities of what really happens when a person falls in a crevasse with a 60lb pack and a 60lb sled. This is a much more complex scenario than most people think, and makes getting out of a crevasse much more difficult. If you are going to Denali and have not thought about these issues then you should probably spend some time training before you leave!

Denali from the west showing most of the West Buttress route.

This print can be purchased at http://alasdairturner.com/order-prints/

Overall this was a great course and we covered a huge amount of information in addition to the regular course curriculum including menus, strategies for climbing the mountain, altitude preparation and illnesses, and tips and techniques for making tent living more enjoyable. We even threw some photography and camera tips in. For more on cold weather photography click here.

--Alasdair Turner, AAI Instructor and Guide

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sea-to-Ski Human Powered

The biggest cultural event in Bellingham is the annual Ski-to-Sea Race. This is a 93.5 mile multi-discipline relay race that starts at the Mount Baker Ski Area. The race legs work as follows:
  1. Cross Country Skiing - 4 miles
  2. Downhill Skiing - 2.5 miles
  3. Running - 8 miles (with a 2,200 foot drop)
  4. Bicycling - 42 miles
  5. Canoeing - 18.5 miles
  6. Mountain Biking - 14 miles
  7. Sea Kayaking - 5 miles (4.3 nautical miles)
In essence the race starts at the ski area and ends in Fairhaven, where AAI has its headquarters.

Check out the map below for more details:

The Ski-to-Sea Course Map
(click to enlarge)

In its nearly forty-years of existence, the American Alpine Institute has never had a Ski-to-Sea team. This is because the race falls on Memorial Day Weekend. The problem with that particular weekend is that it is incredibly busy in the mountains.

Last year, by some stroke of luck, I was able to attend the festivities at the end of the race and realized how cool it was. I decided that it was time to design our summer schedule so that at least the office and the shop staff would be able to be involved in the race. It has taken a lot of work to make sure that all the trips running that weekend are covered without dipping into the office staff that also operate as guides.

The result...?

We have a Ski-to-Sea team!

But we're the American Alpine Institute, so we couldn't just have any old Ski-to-Sea team. We had to have an all human-powered team. In other words, we cannot use a car to assist in race logistics in any way, shape or form.

This means that the skiers, runner, and road biker, will ride up the night before, pulling kid carts full of camping gear. Then afterwards, they will have to assist one another to get down.  This also means that we have people pulling a canoe and a kayak on a bike. And we have them helping one another by dragging dismantled bikes between locations on carts.

Making a human-powered team has really stretched our thinking. The logistics would be way easier if we could use cars. But the race would be nowhere near as cool.

There are only 11 teams out of 250 that are competing without the use of cars.

So I know you all want to know who's doing what on our team. So here it is:

  • James Pierson - Northwest Program Coordinator and Guide - Cross Country Skiing
  • Jason Martin - Director of Operations and Guide - Downhill Skiing
  • Daniel Probst - AAI guest and high-end ultra-marathoner - Running
  • Tom Kirby - AAI IT Manager and Guide - Canoe
  • Cliff Palmer - Guide - Canoe
  • Dylan Cembalski - Seven Summits Coordinator - Mountain Bike
  • Hillary Schwirlich - American SW and Foreign Programs Coordinator - Sea Kayak

We are extremely excited to be involved in this event and will have a bunch more news about it as it gets a bit closer!

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

There are some pretty amazing acrobatics in this first video this weekend. It's from the recent "9 Knights" event at the Mottolino Fun Mountain in Lavigno, Italy. The crew there built an amazing Snow Castle that had so many different features, the skiers and riders were surprising each other with their different lines. This event not only brought in some amazing athletes, but also called upon some great photographers in the action-sports industry. This video is proof of the high caliber of talent at the event.

Of the hundreds of thousands of climbers throughout the world, there are relatively few who climb 5.14. Names like Sharma, Ondra, Graham, Pearson, DiGiulian, Sarkany & Raboutou probably come to mind. The name Francisco Marin can be found in that group as well. But he has one thing that these other climbers do not, and that is age. Francisco is the only climber known to have climbed 5.14+ at 61 years old. As a life-long climber, he has learned a few things along the way, and as you will see in this next video, he has some pretty amazing insight on what it takes to be a climber.

Whenever you go on a big-mountain expedition, you are always worried about weight. And when you are worried about weight, you make sure everything in your kit has multiple purposes. For Jeremy Jones' big trips into the Alaska backcountry for his films, that ethos of multiple-use extend to his staff and assistants. That's why he brings along a camp manager that could not only cook up an awesome dinner, but also has avalanche and medical training. And it turns out that they can snowboard pretty darn well. This next video will not only get you stoked, but will probably make you hungry too!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Trip Report: Petit Mont Blanc: Couloir versant NE

We had a celebratory "end of winter" BBQ at our place and invited friends over for grilled goods and cocktails as we watched the Bosson crumble away, very representative of the decaying snowpack here in the Cham. Davide De Masi photo:

Despite the rising temps of the day and forecasted for the future, as more cocktails were consumed I was reminded of our pow day the day before on the Tricot. Tom and Caroline were talking about going into the Miage the next day and skiing a line I've had my eyes on for the last couple weeks. Knowing there could still be more pow hiding and knowing that if there was it wouldn't be good for much longer, we decided to head to Italy, the land of milk, honey, and 3,000 ft north facing couloirs the next day. This may have been a cocktail influenced decision, only time would tell but I couldn't wait to get back in this awe-inspiring zone nonetheless. We rode the Bonatti Couloir last year about this time and it was truly one of the most beautiful descents of my life.  This time we had our sites on a pinner line on the Petite Mont Blanc, the Couloir versant NE. I snapped this shot from the Sommet du Mont Blanc last year, the Bonnatti Couloir to the right of our line:

Climbing up the couloir. The snow was firm, consolidated and cold. Pretty ideal for steeps. There were two Scott's ahead of us putting in the bootpack, thanks guys! I usually would've been terrified by someone skiing above me in a narrow couloir like this but the snow wasn't going anywhere and the dense pack wasn't giving off much sluff. We watched them link up perfect jump turns down the steep narrow part of the line and the snow looked great. Davide De Masi photo:

Carolina and I gettin high, as it steepens. Davide De Masi photo:

Me shreddin' the upper section. It felt pretty steep but the line chokes and turns a corner halfway up, tricking you into thinking it's only half as big as it really is. Davide De Masi photo:

Lil C making textbook jump-turns! Get it girl! 

Tom sluffing Caroline, lol but not really as the sluff wasn't bad. Davide De Masi photo:

This is where it choked a bit. I think this can be an icy rock step sometimes but it was nicely filled in, just a bit icy on the left but really nice on the right. Davide De Masi photo:

The skiers hauled ass out from the glacier and skated their way down the flattest of flat, manky 2 mile road back to Courmayeur to tell the lifties to hold the last chair for their handicapped, beater, splitboarder accessory. We went immediately to Bar Roma and stuffed our faces with free aprés, all-you-can-eat Italian delicacies, washed down with negroni's.

--Liz Daley, AAI Instructor and Guide

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trip Report: Urinal Couloir

Since my last trip report full of epic billowing white smoke, Chamonix conditions changed almost overnight. It's pretty insane how fast the weather and snow changes in these big mountains with various systems coming through constantly. We'd been riding nothing but bottomless blower for almost two months with one or two days of high pressure then BOOM! Tropical meltdown commences. Super warm temps, stable high pressure and violent winds have been warming S/SW faces to climactic mankalanche festivals and have blown all our powder away leaving behind gray ice or sastrugi on north aspects.

In search of good snow Powdherb and I decided to check out a new zone for us, the Couloir Pissoir (Urinal couloir). Not sure why it's called this, no sign of more than usual piss or poo in this part of the Alps. Super nice tour from the Grandes Montets, over two cols then down into Trient, Switzerland. The red line:

We found some nice sheltered snow by the Trient glacier, but up high it was pretty nasty breakable croustillants.

Photo cred: Marq Diamond

The next day my lil buddy and teammate Caroline Gleich and her friend KT Miller had arrived in Chamonix to get rad and shred steeps. Being as though it was "Black Weekend" in Chamonix, where everyone parties super hard till the wee hours AND since the snow was crap I wanted to indulge in the festivities rather than ride some steep death gray ice with them.

The next day was brutal. We decided to go on a tour with massive headaches and upset stomachs. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful day, how could we not? The sun had never felt so hot, I winced into the reflective snow with a throbbing headache as we climbed an icy slope from Le Tour.

We were headed to ski some GFP off the backside of Le Tour when we started to feel better. Sweatin' out the booze, we decided to climb to a bigger peak in the distance. We looked off the backside and found this sick looking couloir! It looked as though it had already totally slid out at the bottom but the top looked a little rotten. After some boulder hucking and deliberation we dropped in and rode high fructose corn to the Le Tour glacier below. Caroline Gleich iphone photo:

It had to have been around 80 degrees. Me, Caro & KT #gunshow #3girlsonecouloir #sunsoutgunsout

Next day off for a two-day trip that starts in Courmayeur, Italy to traverse the Domes de Miage and ride the Armancette glacier down into Contamine, France. It turned out to be around a 33 km journey. Team of perfect proportions we were, 3:3 chicks to dudes, Americans to Brits, skiers to splitters. We were inherently dialed for success.

After 5 hours of side-hilling and a slight route finding error we arrived at the Robert Blanc hut. I drank some vin rouge and chopped wood. Chris fixed the broken window. Paulie told inappropriate jokes in a funny british accent. KT got the shot. Caroline giggled. Tom ate our dinner. And Daddy Yankee serenaded us over my jambox.

Tom Grant and his general bad-assery.

Climbed up to the Col des Glaciers in the am and rode down ~1,500 ft of epic snow. Not sure how the wind and sun didn't damage this slope. Paulie didn't turn once! Then headed up the Tre la Tete glacier towards the Domes.

Caroline tells epic stories of Equadorian volcanoes while Tom talks Cham steeps.

As we approached the ridge a couple were retreating because of the consistent strong wind with occasional violent gusts. This titillated the desire for adventure as we came closer to the ridge, making it seem a bit more exposed than it already was. It was hard not to au cheval at some stages on this walk as the wind was tres fort. Wouldn't have wanted to tomahawk down the gnarly N face (which are some classic steep routes later on in the spring but 100% not in now).

Tom sends the firm windboard off the summit.

The ~9,000 ft descent into Contamine encompassed about every snow condition imaginable. Firm windboard>soft sastrugi>POW!>cream cheese>total mank>icy cat track>dirt. Thankfully we had an hour until the bus took us to the train back to Chamonix so we could stuff our faces with pain au chocolate, chips, beers and pizza. We saw some epic alpenglow on our route down from the bus.

We were feeling rather gritty and drunk and started taking silly pictures. #trashgirlz

That was enough suffer in the mountains for me for a couple days so we spent the weekend rock climbing on the beach...

--Liz Daley, AAI Instructor and Guide

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

Our first video this weekend features Croatian ice climber and dry tooler Aleksandar Mataruga, and shows us that it is not necessarily where you train, but how you train, is what will push you farther in your climbing.

Attic Power from Cristian Todorovic on Vimeo.

When I saw this video, the headline was, "2 Minutes of Pure STOKE".  So naturally, I had to add it in to the Weekend Warrior!  Here's Thayne Rich making it look easy.

Artisan Series #3 / Thayne Rich from Stellar Media on Vimeo.

This next video once again proves how much variety of climbing there is in Red Rock Canyon, NV.  Most of the time, we here at AAI are more focused on longer roped climbing.  But as Black Diamond sponsored climber Nalle Hukataival shows us, there is also some amazing bouldering to be had there as well.

Have a great weekend! - James

Friday, April 11, 2014

2014 - Red Rock Rendezvous Round-Up

Every year I say something like, "this was the best Red Rock Rendezvous ever!" And every year I'm right. In the 11th year of the event's history, it was undoubtedly the best ever. We had more guides on site than ever before. There were twenty-three of us there. And Mountain Gear, the main sponsor of the event, pulled out all of the stops to create an absolutely fabulous festival.

There were clinics galore. Forty-plus professional climbing athletes supplemented our guide staff and there were clinics on everything from how to climb, to big wall and aid technique.

The AAI Guide Staff on the first morning of the event.
(click for larger pictures)

This year was the second year that we have offered multi-pitch climbing at the event. Every day four guides took eight people in two shifts up multi-pitch lines in First Creek Canyon. RRR participants got to climb things like Algae on Parade (5.7, II), Lotta Balls (5.8, II), and Black Magic (5.8, II).

 Jeremy Devine getting ready for the first clinics of the day.

A beautiful day for climbing at Red Rock Rendezvous.

More climbers in the field (photo by Andy Stephen)

As the guides aren't all together very often, there was a bit of a competitive spirit on the first day. Late in the evening, spurred on by free Fat Tire beer, AAI Guide Paul Rosser and I got into a rope coiling contest in the parking lot. It was loud enough that the security guard came over to see if there was a fight.

What he found was probably a bit out of his normal experience, a bunch of guides coiling ropes and yelling at one another that we're playing by "prison rules." I think a climbing festival is the only place in the world where "prison rules" and rope coiling go hand-in-hand...

Camping at the event.

Casey at the AAI Booth

These guys were playing tug-of-war on the slack lines. 
Obviously they were crazy good at slacklining.

The fairgrounds for the event are at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. The ranch is a historic place with an outdoor theatre. And there is tons of room to play in the grass and hang out.

There were a lot of games at this year's Red Rock Rendezvous. Of course there was a rope coiling competition (I got second place), and there was a rope uncoiling competition, and then there was the "making a draw" competition. The idea is that you have to make a quickdraw as quickly as possible.

On the first day of this competition I came in third place, and the guy in the video below came in first. You can see my time (I'm J-Mar) on the whiteboard at the end of the video.

The thing is that this video was taken on the second day of the competition, and it turns out that if you win on one day, you don't get to compete again. So I eventually got ahead and felt like I had a solid time.

The problem was that the people running the competition decided to play a little practical joke on me. Phil Bridgers, the event coordinator and a good friend of mine, put his name up on the board with a faster time. Every time I beat his time they changed Phil's time to be a bit faster.  I would go over to the table and do my best to get one or two seconds faster, then they would do it again. Finally, they couldn't help themselves and they started to laugh.

"I've never played that game in my life," Phil admitted. And I had to admit that it was a pretty good joke too. Especially since I won the draws.

The final winner on the second day of the draw competition with a time of 32.6 seconds.

There was another game that we at AAI sponsored at our booth. Casey had people compete to build an pre-equalized anchor off of three-points, finishing with  two opposite and opposed locking carabiners. Whomever did it the fastest would win a $600 course credit from the American Alpine Institute.

Though I obviously wasn't eligible to win the contest, I played it anyway to see what my time would be. After figuring out all of the tricks, I got my time all the way down to 11.56 seconds. But then a young woman who'd never built an anchor before came along. She was super dexterous and blew away all the guides and non-guides alike with a final time of 10 seconds flat. And with that she's signing up for a course with a significant discount.

In the end over four hundred people took climbing clinics at the Rendezvous, nearly a thousand participated in the parties and competitions at night. There is no doubt in my mind that the Rendezvous is the best climbing festival of the year. I can't wait until 2015!!!

--Jason D. Martin

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Route Profile: El Altar, Ecuador

The hardest high altitude technical climbing in Ecuador is found on the flanks of El Altar–a breathtaking massif in the Eastern Cordillera located 170 km south of Quito. The massif consists of nine 5,000 meter peaks, which form a 3 km wide semicircular ridge around the basin lake at their center, known as Laguna Amarilla. Spanish explorers looking up at the peaks saw religious figures standing around an altar–the large hanging glacier below–from which the formation takes its name.

The full cirque of El Altar seen from the valley below.  David Torres Costales.

Inca legends tell us that the mountain, which is known as Kapak Urku (sublime mountain) in Quechuan, collapsed in 1460 but once stood higher than Chimborazo. Today, the mountain’s highest peak is Obispo, at 5,320 m (17,451 ft), which stands at the Southern end of the crater and makes it the fifth highest in Ecuador. Proceeding counterclockwise around the cirque from Obispo, the peaks are: Monja Grande (5,160 m/16,929 ft), Monja Chica (5,080 m/16,667 ft), Tabernácula (5,180 m/16,995 ft), Fraile Oriental (5,060 m/16,601 ft), Fraile Beato (5,050 m/16,568 ft), Fraile Central (5,070 m/16,634 ft), Fraile Grande (5,180 m/16,995 ft), and Canónigo (5,260 m/17,257 ft).

Cerro Canónigo, Fraile Grande, Fraile Central and Fraile Beato sit high over Laguna Amarillo.
Marvin Hirth. 
El Obispo is the most popular of the peaks, both because it is the highest and the most accessible; it is our main objective on expeditions to El Altar. The first portion of our expedition is spent acclimatizing while exploring the colonial city of Quito and visiting a major regional market. The active climbing begins with a scramble Guagua Pichincha (4,791 m/15,720 ft), followed by a classic glacial route on Illiniza Sur (5,251 m/17,227 ft). After a day’s rest at a nearby hacienda, we travel south and begin the approach to the mountain.

A local lady sells yarn and softgoods at the Otavalo market.
Dylan Taylor

The colonial Hacienda Guachalá sits an hour from Quito.
Dylan Taylor
On our way to El Altar, we will pass through the city of Riobamba to the village of Cubijies, from whence we will travel by truck to Vaqueria Inguisay. Using pack animals, we then will move up the Rio Paila Caja and Rio Tiaco Chico to the base of the mountain before climbing onto the Cordillera de Mandur, and follow this ridge which leads us to the base of the massive walls and hanging glaciers of the inner cirque. Having established our base camp at 4600 m, we will climb out of the basin to the glaciers at its perimeter, and there choose our climbing objectives according to the condition of the routes and ambitions of the climbers.

A climbing team works their way up a slope on their way to the summit.
Richard Riquelme.

A climber on 60 degree ice, heading for the summit ridge.
Mike Powers.
An ascent of Obispo will be our main objective on this climb. The regular (“Italian”) route provides excellent high angle rock and ice climbing when in condition. This route involves gaining and crossing the lower glacier before ascending a steep ice gully to the summit ridge, where climbers will encounter 5th class rock on the way to the summit. If the lower portion of this route is out of shape, two other routes may afford us a good shot at the summit. Even if El Obispo is not climbable at the time of the expedition, some of the other peaks have seen only a handful of summit attempts, and possibilities exist for first ascents and the establishment of new routes.

Cerro Obispo sits high and proud at the end of the cirque.  Marvin Hirth.
Taken as a whole, El Altar is a challenging and spectacular climbing objective as well as one of the most ‘exotic’ spots in the Andes.  If the idea of a trip like this interests you, contact us to learn more or to join an expedition!

Casey O'Brien
American Southwest and Foreign Programs Coordinator