Becoming a Better Guide - Part 2

We spent three days hoping for clear weather.  Even partly cloudy.  We'd give anything for just a couple of holes showing blue.  Finally, all I asked for was a high ceiling and enough definition.

Plan A had been to get flown into the Tantalus Range and ski out across some of the gnarliest complicated glaciated terrain on the Coast.  Plan B was to get flow to a nearby peak, like Rainbow Mountain, to ski laps and then ski out.  We finally had to settle for Plan C - driving two hours north to ski around Duffy Lake.

I've fallen into a routine.  Stir at 5am, get dressed, and pack up the gear that had spent the night hanging over the heaters drying out.  Pour the last cup of cofffee in the pot - Pete, John, and Johnny have already gotten theirs - and start a second pot.  Check the avalanche forecast.  Check the weather forecast.  Check the weather telemetry.  Check another weather forecast hoping that I find something more promising.  Sigh.  Make a quick breakfast.  Brush my teeth.  Head out the door for the morning meeting.

Ski guiding in Europe, I'm led to understand, is a different proposition than ski guiding in North America.  First, the guides are largely independent in the scheduling, and only in rare instances do companies sit down in the morning or the evening to have any sort of meeting.  Avalanche forecasting is pretty thorough throughout the European Alps.  So European ski guides normally stick pretty closely to the posted avalanche forecast and that is that.

Morning meeting in Keith's Hut.
But in North America the sport is more remote.  Avalanche Forecasts try to post hazards forecasts for wide swaths of terrain.  There is more backcountry terrain skied than forecasted.  And we simply don't have the access that's available in Europe.  I'm told that Whistler-Blackcomb, the largest resort in North America, doesn't even make the Top 5 in Europe.  So guide companies often end up being their own avalanche forecasters as well, and North American ski guides have to make much more deliberate decisions about what and when they will ski something.  Passing this information between guides actually elevates the accuracy of the avalanche hazard forecasting.  Hence morning and evening meetings - not lasting more than 15 minutes - to pass down the weather forecast, avie hazard forecast, and our own analysis of the stability.

On this course we've been taking advantages to stop, get inside a lodge or meet at Evan's house, and talk about glacier travel, radios, special considerations for cat- and heli-skiing, and client management.  So if any of these days seem short on the skiing - they weren't short on information!

photo Evan Stevens
Day 4:  Cayoosh Mountain.  Oh, we had such ambition.  The proposed itinerary was to skin up the Armchair Glacier, gain a col to the North Cayoosh Glacier, climb to the summit and return to the col, then descend the North Cayoosh Glacier and back to the car.  Plan C(alt) - turn around on the Armchair when the visibility shut down and the snow loading made reaching or even skiing the North Cayoosh Glacier.  Still we managed to have a great descent, especially once we reached the trees below the Armchair.

photo Evan Stevens
Day 5:  Mt. Chief Pascall.  Today we accepted our daily fate.  It was going to be "cloudy with flurries".  It was going to snow.  A lot.  I wondered out loud, "If this is 'cloudy with flurries', what does Meterology Canada actually call a storm?"  Also the avalanche hazard from yesterday's new snow and winds recommended some caution.  So we climbed up through "cut-blocks," or forested timber that Canadian lumber companies shamelessly admit, "Clear-cut in 2006."  Then densely woods further uphill before poking up above treeline and bumping into our Canadian counterparts, the ACMG Assistant Ski Guide Exam.  They're ducking the weather and avalanche conditions just as much as we are.  After digging a quick test pit to see what we can find, we do several 1000' laps before skiing back out to the car.  It was really good powder!

photo Evan Stevens
Day 6:  Disease Ridge and Blackcomb Glacier.  Plan B had to be canceled when the helicopter company shut down operations for the day.  Again, Plan C - to climb and ski Phalanx Mountain - had to fall to the alternate itinerary when avalanche hazard kept the Ski Patrol on Blackcomb Mountain from opening up the normal backcountry access, so we traversed to the south end of the mountain and skinned to Disease Ridge, where we found some perfect short roping terrain up and up.  At the top of the ridge we continued back up to the East Col and skied down the Blackcomb Glacier back to the lodge. 

We finally stagger into the house at 8pm, 13 hours after leaving.  Change clothes and set out boot liners and skins to dry.  Throw the wet clothes and gloves into the dryer.  Cook dinner - we all volunteered to cook a full meal for the whole house at least one night on the course.  Then sit down, print out tomorrow's maps, and write detailed tours plans for the next day, including a quick alternate for the not-likely-to-happen plan.  Check my email finally.  Turn off the lights around 11pm.