By Kai Schwarz and Melissa Bernstein
On the weekend of September 19-20, 2020, the yearly VOC trip Glacier School 1 (G1) ran, this time in a different format. Some years there is also Glacier School 2, but not this year. With concerns of physical distancing and bubbling due to COVID-19, Trip Coordinator Temma Shandon organized the trip participants onto two glaciers, Cypress and Brandywine. Kai Schwarz and Melissa Bernstein were in groups headed to Brandywine Glacier. Vincent Hanlon and Jacob Grossbard were the leaders of Kai’s group. Ross Campbell and Haley Foladare were the leaders of Melissa’s group. Tom Curran and Cassandra Elphinstone were the leaders of the third group. Earlier in the week, groups met at reasonably central Vancouver city parks for “dry school”. This year’s G1 was logistically challenging because of COVID, but at least it wasn’t completely pissing rain and miserable…
Leadup to G1
Melissa: Leading into G1, I was super anxious, dehydrated, and sleep deprived. I packed the night before (pro-tip don’t do it). Oh and I was nervous about the weather. All I heard about G1 was how it was always pissing rain and also that last year they didn’t even get to the glacier because of the weather, ending G1 before it even got started.
Kai: Having stayed up far too late packing, I got to bed later than I would have liked. I was filled with feelings of excitement and hesitation. I was excited to learn all about glaciers and to see friends for the first time after having been kept apart by COVID all summer. On the other hand, I was hesitant because during the week leading up to the trip all I heard about was its infamously nasty weather.
The hike up
M: Driving up the FSR (Forestry Service Road) was an experience in Haley’s small low clearance car. There was the standard faff before we left the trailhead. Isaac Boreggo called me, confused with the FSR directions. I didn’t see his call for 20 minutes. When all the groups got the meeting point, I remember Vincent yelling at his group to go while Cassandra/Tom and Ross/Haley’s group were happily faffing. The hike to the meadows was quite pleasant, with fog moving in and out of the valley. The groups leapfrogged each other. There were a few easy creek crossings. Then we ascended the fog up to the southwest col aka a giant boulder field on an angle.
My group and Tom/Cassandra’s group ate lunch at what would’ve been a great viewpoint of Mt. Fee. Instead, the view was disorienting. We continued a bit farther up and dumped ourselves on the glacier just southeast of Brandywine peak. We saw Kai’s group already practicing self-arrest.
K: Having been tumbled and tossed around Vincent’s car on the “road” to the trailhead I was ready to leave the fossil-fuel powered portion of the day behind and begin the hike up to the glacier. Despite being a combination of underslept and hungover, my G1 group was similarly excited to leave the car behind. We donned our gaiters expecting the worst and set off just as Melissa’s group was arriving. The gaiters ended up being unnecessary and we enjoyed a beautiful hike up to the glacier. We found a sheltered spot to set up camp and then moved to a snowy area on the glacier to practice self-arrest.
At the Glacier(s) (day 1)
K: We started the instructional part of G1 with self arrest practice on a nearby slope (south of brandywine peak). Our instructors (Jacob and Vincent) gave us a gracious demonstration. This was followed by the rest of us sliding down the slope in what resembled a game of Twister between ourselves and our ice axes. We picked up the technique quickly though and by the time Melissa’s group showed up we were all self-arresting with relative ease. We gave the slope to them and made our way over to the (actual) Brandywine glacier (north of Brandywine Peak) to work on anchor building. It began to rain but as we were already soggy from self-arresting, no one really noticed or cared. In typical VOC fashion a few of our groups club-crampons fell apart just as we needed them. Thankfully, we had a surplus of Voile straps and the crampons were quickly repaired. We then went on to learn about bollards, t-slots, and various other snow anchors.
Before heading back to camp, we decided to practice self arresting once more. This time instead of sliding down a slope, we had one person on the end of a rope walking in one direction while the rest of us waited for Vincent’s signal to pull them in the other. Whoever was being pulled had only a few seconds to self arrest before they picked up too much momentum to stop. It wasn’t long until our jackets were full of snow and our bodies were beaten and bruised from being dragged across the glacier. Watch the video of Gabrielle Booth being dragged by her group and then acing self arrest.
The rain started picking and many of us were remembering that we had only slept ≈4 hours the night before so we decided to end the first day of G1 there and head back to camp.
M: Once Kai’s group had moved away, my group and Tom/Cassandra’s group began practising self arrest. I got some technique guidance from Casandra. I knew self arresting would be hard work, but I was feeling particularly lethargic. I could barely hike up the slope. I decided that I was too tired to function or absorb any information. I slowly set up my tent and took a nap. I woke up to Ross tapping on my tent and told me that while he didn’t think I had COVID, because I was feeling tired, the group leaders wanted to take precautions and separate me from the rest of the group. I knew somebody was likely to say something when I took my nap.
Evening on the glacier
M: Separated from my tent buddy Haley, I made a spacious setup in the tent. I’m glad I brought a tarp to make a “boat” for myself and my belongings. Quarantined from the rest of the group with Isaac’s cozy USB fairy lights, I sat in the pissing rain more than two meters away. I made mac’n’cheese from sidekicks but added too much butter so it ended up too rich. My body also didn’t really want to eat. I was thankful that I brought fresh cherry tomatoes, bell pepper, and green onions. They made eating alone bearable. Ross kindly made me a hot Nalgene for the night with his leftover pot scrapings. I didn’t sleep great, but a chocolate bar in my sleeping bag made it bearable. The bears probably stayed away because they thought I had covid. I wish I had Haley or some other warm body for warmth, but I also was grateful for the space and not having to run the risk of my things getting soaked from condensation.
K: Back at camp I enjoyed a warm meal with tea. Jacob had decided to try out his new bivy set up on this trip. His sleeping arrangement consisted of a blue tarp with a few holes held up by his hiking poles. We were all a little concerned for him as the wind and rain didn’t seem to be stopping…
Morning on the glacier
K: That morning we were greeted by perfect weather. The clouds had cleared and mountains glowed around us in the morning light. Despite looking very soggy from the night in his bivy, Jacob was in high spirits. This year’s G1 was looking on the bright side. Looking down at the other group I noticed the vibrant and colourful rain cover on Clémentine Bouche’s tent. This left me envious and wishing that more tents were made with interesting designs.
M: With the sun rising, I woke up and attempted to consume some liquids to get the bowels moving. Drinking Ross’ now cold dinner leftovers was not appealing. I gagged. Walking anywhere on the glacier was sketchy as the rain overnight had frozen into ice on the snow. I wore crampons to get fresh water from the little stream of water near our camp. I made myself ramen which was very appetizing. I ate, sitting on my sleeping pad, soaking up the warmth of the sun. As part of my morning routine, I found a beautiful poop spot. I had packed toilet paper but forgot. I would not recommend scraping your butt-hole with a boulder, or as I said to people who did not need to hear my story, “wiping my ass with a rock”.
Glacier, day 2
M: As I hiked over, I looked to the left and saw Mt Fee. Ross told his story of doing the Alcoholic Traverse with Vincent and Birgit Rogalla a few years back. The sun was out and it was gorgeous. As we walked up to the glacier, I looked to the right and saw Kai’s group walking away into the clouds.
K: On the agenda was learning pulley systems and walking in a rope team. Building pulley systems on a glacier with a person on the end of the rope turned out to be a lot trickier than the “dry school” earlier in the week. Though ,after a couple hours of faffing with pulleys and prusiks we were building 3:1 and 5:1 pulley systems with ease. With our remaining time we built up anchors to belay each other to a section of the glacier filled with large open crevasses. Seeing the larger crevasses up close was both breathtaking and frightening. If there’s one thing I won’t forget from G1 it’s that I do not want to end up falling in one. On my walk back I took the opportunity to practice jumping crevasses with crampons. This led to the most heart-pounding 3 foot hops of my life.
M: After a good amount of faff and Cassandra helping out pretty much everyone put their crampons on, we stepped foot onto the glacier. My group slowly walked along the glacier, giving time for folks to ask questions and practice physical distancing. Is it really physical distancing when you’re all touching the same rope? We soon came across our first open crevasse. As it was most people’s first time on a glacier in my group, we decided to rappel each other across the crevasse. It took a while, but it allowed each person to feel confident traveling over the open crevasse. I was in the back of the connected conga line with only Ross behind me. When it was my turn to get down and self-arrest the person in front of me, I started to step forward and immediately fell in and cracked up laughing. Fall in where, you might ask? As it turned out, I was standing on a closed crevasse and my right foot had sunk in. I was fine. Ross, standing right behind me, immediately grabbed my pack like a little kid wearing an animal backpack at the airport who gets yanked back by their parents. I couldn’t stop laughing. I knew I was OK. I think my rope team probably was freaking out and confused as to why I was laughing. Honestly, I felt super comfortable on this area of the glacier. I felt like I wouldn’t have gotten my foot stuck if I wasn’t standing on that spot for 10 minutes. Anyway, after I composed myself (and Ross whispered to me to get my shit together), we finished crossing the crevasse only to turn around and cross back over it.
During this time, I had been periodically looking over to Kai’s group who was far away on the glacier. I had seen them moving swiftly as a rope team, stopping to observe and discuss different obstacles. I had seen Vincent hopping over open crevasses and pissing off the end of one. I had seen Jacob building and teaching the group about bollards and the strength that they can serve as anchors in glacier rescue. I had seen either Gabrielle Booth or Charlotte Shcolten (can’t tell because they have matching shell jackets) being repelled to explore the open crevasses. I was a bit envious of their travel, but also super content to be able to enjoy time with my group.We practiced making a few different pulley rope systems. My group didn’t do it perfectly, but we had the right ideas. I definitely want to practice rope systems more as I didn’t feel confident to know what to do after just one attempt.
K: By the time everyone had taken a turn walking out to the crevasses we were behind schedule and in a slight rush. However Mt. Brandywine was only a short scramble away and we all agreed it wasn’t right to pass by without bagging the peak. The scramble was well worth it as we got a birds eye view of the Brandywine glacier and a cute group photo.
Back at our camp the rest of my group quickly packed while I faffed around making everyone wait. Gabrielle took this extra time to practice “snacping” (a combination of snacking and napping). Eventually I finished packing up and we began to make our way back to the car. I’ve realised that I have a way of steering any conversation I’m in towards bikes and the hike down was no expectation. As we walked, my group dreamt up ways to extend self-propelled adventures with our newly acquired glacier knowledge.
M: I left my group’s pulley practice early and walked back to camp with Haley and Cassandra. I felt a bit guilty for not going up with Kai’s group to ascend Brandywine peak really quick. But I was tired and didn’t want to delay going down. As we packed up camp, Kai’s group took turns learning about ice screws down near the little ravine near our campsite. The hike down was quite uneventful except that I did veer off a bit and found a cool alpine lake. I was trying to get a good photo of Black Tusk across the valley, but the fog wasn’t behaving. Cassandra came over to where I was because she hoped that I would help her find some alpine flower she was studying and couldn’t find in the wild by herself (see Burton Workhike). The other group members eventually caught up, and we continued down through the meadows. Again, there was fog.
K: G1 left me feeling excited and nervous to go out in the mountains and explore glacial terrain. Getting to learn glacier skills with fellow VOCers is an experience I won’t soon forget. I’d recommend that anyone who is curious and excited about the mountains goes on this trip.
M: Besides from learning about and practicing safe glacier travel, I had some other takeaways from G1 2020. I would recommend eating food and adjusting your sleep schedule a few days before a trip so people don’t think you have covid.
Thanks to the volunteer trip leaders and Temma for organizing such a great trip!
Till next year,
Melissa and Kai
More photos and videos from the weekend can be found here