-Photos by Nathan Starzynski
Lesson 1: The Alpine Start
On the morning of September 5th, 55 or so VOCers keen to learn about glacier travel could be found winding their way up towards Cypress Peak for Glacier School, G1. Alpine starts, ie starting really early in the morning, are an important part of glacier travel, as you want to be doing the majority of your travel before the sun has been out for long, so that snow bridges will hopefully be frozen solid and avalanche risk will be minimized. To practice for this, and also as the trip was running on the same weekend as the Gran Fondo, we were picked up on campus at 4:45 am (not a true alpine start I realize, but still really early).
The approach from the trailhead to the alpine meadow where we were camping just below the glacier only took a couple of hours, but our group was so big that I couldn’t see either the end or the beginning of the line of hikers. Every once in a while, Sam Viavant would appear, tell us where to go, and then sprint off again, and eventually we came over a ridge and found the small VOC tent village.
Lesson 2: Pooping in a Bag
As we were assembling tents and eating lunch, Caitlin talked about pooping. Because of the temperature, altitude, and lack of vegetation on glaciers and in the alpine, if you poop, it’s going to stay there for awhile, contaminating the water and generally being bad, so the pack it in, pack it out rule applies. Poop bags were distributed, and a brief demonstration of bag pooping techniques was given.
Lesson 3: Tying In
We divided into our groups, then scrambled up the last couple hundred meters of the rocky slope to the glacier. Before heading out onto it though, we were shown how to rope up. There were 9 of us in total: 7 students, and two instructors, Fisal and Shahbaz. We divided into teams of 4 and 5, and started the rope faff. The first time around this turned out to be a fairly complicated process, but by the next day it made much more sense and went a lot more smoothly. Once we’d spaced ourselves out evenly on the rope, we tied in either with a figure eight on a bight (simple, but difficult to untie with gloves on) or an alpine butterfly, which I was iffy on at first, but which we all spent some time developing a muscle memory for over the weekend. After tying in, we learnt that you also attach a prussic to the rope, in order to be able to belay your partner in and/or more easily transfer the rope to an anchor.
Lesson 4: Walking
When we were all tied in and ready, we set off with the instructors in the lead of each group, pointing out the terrain features you either want to follow or avoid. Being so late in the summer, pretty much all the crevasses were exposed, but you still want to try to walk on the ridges and avoid stepping in the small gullies in the snow, as these are more likely to be where the surface will fall through. We also learnt the 2-point technique –making sure you have at least 2 points of contact with the snow at all times between your feet and the axe. At first it felt a bit awkward to walk this way, but by the end of the weekend I’d gotten more used to it, and realized that it really does help with stability. We also crampon-ed up, which with the slope’s angle wasn’t completely necessary, but was good practice. Fisal explained the many dangers of crampon use – mainly tripping on the snow/your feet/a sling and falling, then potentially either impaling yourself or breaking an ankle trying to self-arrest. They are super useful though, and as long as you don’t fall, make walking on steep ice way easier.
Lesson 5: Self-Arrest
We made for the middle of the glacier, where a steeper slope lead into a valley with a long run-out – a good safe place to practice self-arresting. I wanted to be extra slidey, so I took off my harness and put on my gortex pants and jacket. Shabazh smoothed out a snow slide for us, and both him and Fisal explained and demonstrated the technique to us, then it was our turn. It was super fun! We stayed there for about an hour and practiced starting from all different orientations, pushing each other down the hill to get extra speed. After we’d kind of gotten the hang of it, the ante was upped, and the self-arrester was tied into the rope with two other people, who would sprint downhill away from them as they tried to arrest the “fall”. This proved to be exactly as challenging as you’d think it would be – most of us had no hope at all, and I’m pretty sure only Shebahz and Nathan were able to stop the runners consistently. Apparently this is much harder than self-arresting an actual fall is, but it gave a cool and rather sobering perspective at how hard this could be in a real situation.
Lesson 6: Snow / Ice Anchors
Once we’d all had a chance to try out a couple of roped self-arrests, we moved on to building anchors. It was great to spend a lot of time on this, because although the anchors we were building were really secure, it takes a bit of getting used to trusting your life to snow. It may be because of this mental obstacle that the word ‘bomber’ seems to be used so much in glacier travel – I’m pretty sure it was the only adjective used to describe any anchor all weekend. We built T-slots and snow bollards, used pickets, and tested all of them by reaming on the attached ropes as hard as we could – Luka even took a mock lead fall onto his picket – and everything held. I’ve gotten super used to trusting bolt anchors, gear anchors, and even V-threads, and seeing this really did help me on my way to trusting snow anchors as well.
After a while spent building anchors, we went through a hypothetical crevasse rescue using both a 2:1 and 3:1 pulley system. However, by this time the sun had gone down behind the peak, and I was pretty cold, tired and hungry, so I didn’t really get much out of it, although it was slightly less confusing than it had been in dry school on campus the week before. Fisal noticed that we were all looking pretty glassy-eyed though, and assured us that we’d be doing rescues all of the following day, so with that in mind we packed up and headed back down to camp.
Lesson 7: ‘Mulling’ it Over
At camp that night, the traditional Glacier School wine was mulled. I think that 16 liters were carried up by the group that went up in the dark on Friday night (thanks to those who carried it!), as well as a huge pot to cook it in. Caitlin, Clemens and Steph combined 3 whisper light’s to make a super burner, and then lovingly chopped up the fruit and spices to mull the wine. It was delicious, and as each batch neared completion everyone would crowd around them with their cups held out – picture that scene in Oliver Twist. We also sang a lovely acapella rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. It was pretty cool, being in the alpine with 50 or so other people, drinking wine and singing Queen songs.
Lesson 8: Early to Rise, Early to Bed, Early to Rise
Soon after the sun set and the wine ran out, I realized that I was exhausted after the 4 am start and the full day of learning, so headed off to bed. I was glad I did that, as Caitlin was doing a 7:00 am wakeup call the next morning so that we could head up to the glacier at 8:00. Nathan, as usual, woke up for the sunrise at 6:00, tried to convince me to come watch it, and I as usual mumbled at him and went back to sleep until my alarm at 6:45. After a quick breakfast, we all met up with our groups and once again scrambled up to the glacier.
Lesson 9: Walking gently
On the way up on the second morning, Shebahz challenged us all to try to walk carefully over the loose rocks and avoid making any fall as we headed for the glacier. He told us that in the alpine, this could very easily lead to anything from rolled ankles to crushed bones to slides. This was illustrated well later that day, when we saw some people moving along the rocks at the edge of the glacier set off a car-sized boulder which thundered right through the middle of their group, thankfully not hitting anyone but serving as a good lesson in gentleness.
Lesson 10: Crevasse Jumping
After roping up again, we took a slightly different path across the glacier, which brought us over a small crevasse. I was in the front of my rope team, and chose to cross it by taking a big step over the meter or so of black snow that marked it, but Luka, leading his rope team, decided to cross a bit further to my right, where he had to clear it with a small leap. We learnt that before doing anything like this, you want to confer with your team about when you’re going to jump, so that everyone is ready to arrest if necessary and that you have the right amount of slack. Luka made it without issue though, and the rest of his team was able to do it as well.
Lesson 11: Mechanical Advantage Systems
We walked to a nice flat area, then un-roped and once again went through a demonstration of the 3:1 pulley system. This time however, I was much more awake, and realized that it actually wasn’t that complicated. Greg and I then worked together on a mock rescue, going from catching the fall, to building a temporary anchor to which you can transfer the weight of the fallen climber, to then moving this to a more bomber anchor (conveniently, the snow gremlins had come in and made us two pre-built T-slots with which to do this). Once this is done, pulleys and prussiks are used to set up a 3:1 pulley system, an with the mechanical advantage everyone can work together to pull the fallen climber out of the crevasse. After working through it with Greg, I felt much more confident in the process, and went through a mock rescue by myself as well too just to make sure that I had the whole process nailed down.
Lesson 12: Real Crevasses!
We had a couple hours left on the glacier still, so we moved towards a crevasse to try a rescue in a more realistic situation. I was feeling pretty good about my rope systems after all the practice earlier, so I volunteered to be the “fallen climber.” The crevasse was small, but very pretty, and it was neat to get lowered a few meters into it. Over the 20 or so minutes that it took them to get me out however I realized that in a real situation this might really be quite scary, unlike this bright, open crevasse on a sunny day with a backup rope, I’d be in a dark, cold hole, hoping that my team’s anchor will hold and they’ll be able to get me out. It was a cool experience though, and I’m really glad I got to do it, as I feel like it’s not often when in a crevasse that you just get to appreciate it for it’s beauty.
Lesson 13: Down climbing / route finding 101
We ended up only having time for one mock crevasse rescue, then thanked Shebahz and Fisal and headed back down to camp pack up and head out. We were one of the last groups off the glacier, so we quickly threw our stuff together and set off at the back of the pack heading to the road. As I was heading down, I saw a line of people going right, and Leslie on her own heading to the left, so I figured that rather than call to her and let her know everyone else is going a different way, I would try and catch up with her and tell her. Unfortunately, by the time I caught up, we were at a place where the only option was to cross the river above a medium sized waterfall, or scramble all the way back up to the top and start again. We opted for the shorter, slightly scarier path, and made it across safely. It took us awhile to traverse back to the actual trail however, and Nathan and Caitlin noticed us back at the top and waited for us. We all ended up catching up to the back of the group in the end though, and I learnt an important lesson about route finding and how not to do it.
Lesson 14: Leaving the Mountains Is Hard
When we got to the bottom, Nathan and I went to where our driver’s car had been parked, only to realize that it was gone. We figured this would be fine, and that there’d be some new spots open in other cars, but through a series of mis-communications, some cars had left without full loads – we were rideless. Luckily, as we were all discussing how to cram the remaining cars, 3 other hikers coming down at the same time as us offered us a ride. We got in their car and made it about 200m down the road before stopping again, as the modo van had bottomed out on the logging road and punctured a hole in it’s oil tank. Really though, I think we all just didn’t want to leave the mountains.
Overall, this was a super great trip! I learnt a ton, had loads of fun, and got to spend a beautiful weekend with some awesome people in the mountains. Thanks especially to Jens for organizing this, even though he couldn’t actually make it, Caitlin for making sure we all made it up and down alive, and the rest of the execs who helped out with this for doing lots of logistical things that I’m not aware of. Also thanks to Fisal and Shebahz for all of your great instruction, tips, and encouragement (and of course to all the other instructors as well)! I feel much more confident in my basic knowledge, and am planning on getting out on a few more trips in the coming year in order to keep learning and gaining more experience in glacier travel.