I am someone who really wants to experience a place, to wander through it, engage with it, and perhaps begin to understand its essence. There are different ways to do this. Especially in nature, I feel my ability to experience a place is limited by my skills. For example, I have not done much water or snow sports, so interacting with nature in those elements for me, occur much less frequently, which means I am missing out on a whole side of the world.
After rock climbing for a few years and loving multipitch trad in particular, I wondered about mountaineering – was I capable? Would I enjoy it? Do I have the physical strength and stamina to rise before the sun for alpine starts and slog for the majority of the day? Would I have enough left in me to push when the unexpected came up?
For starters, though I am much less of a klutz now than I was in college, the memories and fears of the potential consequences of klutziness on gear made me a bit nervous. I could see myself impaling myself on an ice axe, for example. A friend and I were going to sign up for an ice axe class a couple of years ago, but that was a winter the local mountains in Southern California got no snow, so we were told that we really would not get a good experience.
The wondering, then, has been meandering through the back spaces of my mind for a while. When I was figuring out the different experiences I wanted to have while on my motorcycle road trip, I knew that I wanted to somehow engage with the glaciers in the mountains from Jasper to Banff. I looked into different options, then found it: a three day mountaineering course, “Snow and Ice Long Weekend”, with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures. Unlike guided ice waterfall climbing I was looking into during the winter, Yamnuska provides more gear up front and for rental, including the big one for me: boots. If I do not know whether this is something I will like, why would I want to invest in expensive boots just for a trial introductory experience? Most introductory packages require the participant to bring their own boots. But I had one more question: would Yamnuska let me mail them a package of my gear and they bring it to the course, as well as figure out with me how to mail it back to myself afterwards? I would be arriving on a motorcycle and not have extra space for the gloves, gaiters, thick socks, and my own climbing harness and helmet which I wanted to use. Sure was the answer, not a problem. So I mailed them these: When I received my package from the guide, I saw I was a VIP: And indeed, I think my request was a bit out of the ordinary, when I called to make sure they did receive my package, it was as if everyone in the office knew there was some girl on a motorcycle who would be posting to them some gear.
We had great weather out there on the Columbia Icefields, even a bit hot. A storm came in 5am the morning after our summit day; we really got lucky.
Day 1 and Day 2 had pleasant 9am start times. Day 1 was snow lessons. First lesson was walking in the snow with the amazing mountaineering boots that seem like your feet are encased in composite steal and are waterproof and seemingly can handle anything. Though it is a bit awkward walking around in them, as they are a bit clunky. Next lesson was ice axe self arrest, sliding down feet first, then head first on stomach, then head first on back. I am really bad at falling, I spend my whole life trying not to fall, and I could not mentally bring myself to properly slide down a snow slope head first, despite my trying various tricks. Next we learned how to build T-anchors with the ice axe. Here is mine, though not quite as deep as would be ideal: We were on a slope of snow, and they had me be the victim who fell in the crevasse (which was really just sliding down the snow slope for Day 1), so the running joke each day was whether Marcia had to be rescued from a crevasse. We put our earlier knots lessons to use, and made prusiks with our cordelette in order to initiate mock anchoring for crevasse rescues.
Day 2 was on the ice, for which we used the Athabasca Glacier, the predominant one at the Columbia Icefield. We appropriately crossed the do-not-cross boundary with our guide. It was a little disheartening that after a while of walking, learning crampon technique, we were sharing the glacier with giant buses. However, it was a Brewster who had first made the Canadian Rockies accessible by automobile, so I suppose the Brewster glacier buses are historically appropriate in a way. You start to get a sense of the size and incredible features of glaciers after just a little bit of traversing.
We learned how to make ice screw anchors, something I though sounded really sketchy, but after feeling the strength (in solid ice, as long as you keep an eye that it does not start melting), ice anchors seem solid and perhaps even more trustworthy than placement of rock climbing cams. V-anchors, threading the rope or cordelette through the ice channels made with ice screws, are apparently even stronger than ice screws themselves. However, V-anchors take some skill, and none of us newbies successfully connected the two lines of the V to thread rope through. Then we had more crevasse rescue practice, and used an actual crevasse for realism.
our guide wanted us to practice self rescue with ice axes and a little bit of ice climbing. I think the thing most significant thing I was aware of was how loud the rushing water was below. And then how being new with crampons, I could not get the toe spikes to stick into the wall very well, and then I had to mantle (come over the lip back onto the surface) on a buldging overhang. Felt a little desperate at the end. I wondered why I continuously voluntarily do things that terrify me.
Day 3 was the actual ascent. An additional guide came up for that, so we had 2 rope teams of 4 people each. (There were 6 of us in the class.) Our guides gave us a half hour extra to sleep in (so nice of them), so start time was 3.30am. This is how my camp looks at 3am. Cannot see much, can you? That is my little stove burning, and my tent softly glowing. We summitted A2 and Boundary Peaks, which lie on the border of Jasper and Banff National Parks. The guides planned our timing to be such that we would just be able to turn off our headlamps by the time we started ice climbing after the approach. Anchoring and rope maintenance is similar to rock climbing form. At one point I accidentally struck my ice axe against the rock scatter on the glacier, and an awesome spark lit up the ice. We then alternated between hiking on scree (which is awkward because every step you take creates mini landslides downwards), glacier travel, and rock climbing which I believe the guides said was about Class 4.
This is how the other rope team looked traversing the glacier:
This is a self portrait with a crevasse. Gorgeous and scary. All 3 of the other members on my rope team postholed into various crevasses, one leg down up to their waist. Maybe my being so light saved me. Maybe I should have stuck with our original guide for Day 3, their group had no such incidences. This is the scree mountainside we came down after Boundary Peak, quite step, but pleasant since for every step we took the mini landslides pulled us down about a step and a half. And this is the not quite alpine meadow on the way back to the parking lot.
The ascents took all of me. By the time we reached the second peak, I was nearly utterly physically depleted, despite trying to eat constantly. Eating frequently was difficult, as I was trying to be sharp to follow the guide’s path, be ready in case someone fell, which means constant mental and physical alertness and readiness to engage the ice axe or anchoring body positions and processes. This meant there was not much time to fumble or be distracted opening a bar or peanut butter packet. Fast and light often allows for greater safety, and I struggled with a balance between progress versus making sure I was being safe for myself and the group by maintaining energy. My physical depletion by the second summit was so complete that my body just wanted to cry, it was telling me “NO MORE!”; I needed to eat but could not so forced myself; I pushed myself beyond my limit. I alternate between thinking it would be neat to get more into mountaineering, especially because I gravitate toward technical, full engagement activities – to thinking perhaps I am not built for it, do not have the degree of stamina and energy necessary, particularly a reserve in case of emergencies on the mountain. I think of the reward of the panoramic views of mountains upon mountains as far as the eye can see, and the beautiful sculpted blue and pale white of crevasses, some even with large icicles hanging within them, and other features unique to glaciers, like this rock taking a ride down the glacier; and then I think how sketchy the whole endeavor also seems – 75 percent of my team partially fell into crevasses. Great respect must be given to the glacial environment; its power can be seen in the gashes its stubborn downhill movement has made, pushing rock against rock. Currently this is my thinking: at minimum it is something I want to do occasionally; but for competency and skill and strength building, I know I am someone who would want to do it more.
Strangely in all of this, I was not really nervous. There were really only two points that made me nervous: being told to try sliding head first to practice self arrests, and when I quickly used up all of my upper body strength trying to ice climb out of the crevasse since I was not getting good footholds to help me out. Normally I would have been much more nervous with anticipation of the course. I think that because of the mode in which I arrived to the course – by motorcycle – and having to be constantly alert and in environments I do not have riding experience in (half a dozen large animal types potentially crossing the winding mountainous highway, and adding into that rain) – the course seemed, in concept, mild in comparison, after all I would have a guide and this course was for beginners. It probably also helped that I happened to arrive a few days early at the campground we would convene at each day, and another Yamnuska course was in progress, so all of my campsite neighbors were Yamnuska guides, including the one I would have for my course. I am sure also adding to my relative calm towards the whole unknown experience was hearing the guides talk about the routes with respect and seriousness but also like the routes really were no big deal and doable, as well as hearing how the guides checked in with each other to assess safety of routes and how they would not even consider going on unsafe routes.
That, then, is my first mountaineering experience, in some of the most rugged, high sweeping mountains I have had the pleasure to be in the company of.