If you are anything like me: mid-20s, student loans, car insurance, rent- the whole 9 yards, then you’ve encountered the same monstrosity- the price for an adult season pass. You don’t get the “student discount” anymore and its not going to get any cheaper-unless you are skiing as a senior, which is novelty for anyone at that point.
You’ve admire people who get after it in the backcountry but after researching the initial cost of the backcountry set-up: Beacon, Probe, and Shovel, you may just buy a 6 day pass to your local resort. After all, it’s SO much easier to buy a pass, do laps without sweating or exhaustion, drink $12 Bloody Mary’s at the bar, and hit man made features all day.
As much as I appreciate what our resorts have done for me in pruning my skills as a decent snowboarder, I realized that powder days at the resort were the best of days and I knew that I was ready to ditch the crowded lift lines and limited powder stashes for the adventures that awaited in the wild out-of-bounds regions of the San Juan Mountains. So I slowly bought the gear (remember-tax season is just around the corner) and signed up for the class, knowing that this would be the last “Season Pass” I would buy for years to come.
Let me list off 5 reasons why you should buy your Avy I course instead of a Season Pass & what makes San Juan Mountain Guides the “Local Experts”.
1. Less Crowds, More Powder, Steeper Terrain- Take it back to the basics; we love to shred because of just that, shredding. Ditch the stylish clothes and high tech gear, ditch the groomed catwalks, and remember the organic adrenaline rush that comes from within, while you shred some of that hidden powder terrain stashed back in the abyss of the resort… Now that is the reason why we do it. You’re ready for more of that, less of the holiday crowds and honestly, you are curious on pushing the boundaries. San Juan Mountain Guides understands that, they embrace it, and they openly share their experience and knowledge with you. You can trust their judgment and within a minute of casual conversation, you’ll know that you are learning from some of the best.
2. Gathering & Evaluating Information-So I know a big dump when I see one (no pun intended). We all know that fresh snow is the difference between a good day and a great day at the resort. My Avy course with San Juan Mtn. Guides taught me: to gather information, what resources to trust, and how to interpret that information for Avalanche condition.
“There is no dumb questions, I’m here to teach you what I know.” Aaron Ball (SJMG instructor)
It’s intimidating to learn about something so complex and often you feel as if you need impress others when it comes to shredding terrain. SJMGs not only allowed us to ask questions in a comfortable setting but they challenged us to think by asking us questions on cases studies in the classroom and scenarios in the field.
3. Trust your own judgment; make your own calls- So we all have good friends who like to ski. Some we have skied with for years and some we have just recently bSome we have known for a short time, others we’ve known for years. Now when it comes to back country skiing & being new to it all, having your friends guide you and show you the ropes tends to be a great way to start…or so it seems that way. Now this isn’t any bash session on your pals, homies, or BFFs; but it is important that you know how to take care of yourself and make your own decisions. As a newbie in the Back Country, it never occurred to me that I had never really evaluated or even thought about what type of experience my ski partner may have. Our guides brought this up and made me realize the important subtle concerns like group dynamics and skill sets. Sometimes these small concerns don’t even need to be addressed, as long as you have a great day of some freshies and avalanches don’t occur. However, the moment that something does go wrong, you want to make sure that your partner has got your back and that YOU have their back. So, essentially, I am saying to ski with your friends but also be
aware of each others abilities, personal comfort zones, and thought process when you’re out there.
4. Knowing when to just say “no”- Our instructors taught me something that I will never be able to forget nor ignore; the power of human emotion.
“Human emotions can be the main factor in human triggered avalanches” – Aaron Ball (SJMG instructor from my course)
Sometimes we are overcome with an urge to do something we’re passionate about, even if doesn’t exactly feel right. You know why? Because we are temporarily blinded by our own ambitions, our goal, or even the reward; because shredding that big line is going to be “SO EPIC” and if we don’t do it now, then we skinned all the way out here for nothing. Being aware of this and how this may play a role in a group dynamic is essential to making the best decisions in unpredictable terrain and conditions. Don’t be attached to a plan & have a back-up in case you don’t feel comfortable with your first decision. When it is all said and done, you really have to trust where and who you are learning from when it comes to back country skiing, and decision making is the most important element when traveling into the unknown.
5. Learning in the San Juans- If you are from around here, have moved here, or heard anything about the San Juan Mountain range; I’m sure that you know that the combination of our peculiar snow pack and hellish steep terrain makes our region a rarity among ranges of North America. Our Avy group joked about the intense learning curve that’s unavoidable in the San Juans as you really can’t pick a more avalanche prone region. For that reason alone, I would trust no other than San Juan Mountain Guides and the expertise they are known for in the Mighty San Juans.
I truly appreciate San Juan Mountain Guides ability to convey this information in a friendly, educational, and professional matter. I think I can speak for my entire Avy class as we had nothing but the best of times with the experts of the San Juans.
Digging a Test Pit
We received over a foot of new snow over the range with some higher winds the last few days. Winds and new snow added to an already weak snowpack = High Avalanche Danger. New wind slabs were undoubtedly formed during the wind event and were subsequently buried .
Now can be a good time to look for those by digging a little bit . Be extremely careful to maintain your personal safety when digging to look at windslabs though! Stay out of start zones on lower angled or no-consequence slopes.
Successful Summit of Cotopaxi!
I am happy to report that on Thursday night/Friday morning, 7 out of our 9 team members reached the summit of Cotopaxi. After a few days of acclimatization and training on Ruminahui and then the glacier on Cotopaxi, our group made the successful summit push in good style, reaching the summit in just over 8 hours from the parking lot.
Due to the Jose Ribas hut being closed for construction, our group elected to camp and make a single push from the parking lot – making for an over 4000′ summit day. Coupled with the high winds on that day, it made for a challenging yet rewarding climb of Cotopaxi (19,348′). Way to go everyone!
More stories and a full post-trip report coming soon. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures!!
Talked to Nate on the Sat Phone this morning. Crew is camping near the hut and working on glacier travel skills. The weather is reported to be excellent and the health of all the climbers is excellent. Heading for the summit soon!
First Acclimatization Peak Complete
Earlier today our team successfully completed a climb of Pasochoa – an extinct Volcano on the outskirts of Quito with an altitude of approximately 13,700 feet. Pasochoa represents an excellent first trek for the trip, as it offers about a 4 – 5 hour round trip on relatively mellow terrain, yet with just the right amount of altitude gain to qualify as an excellent endeavor. Beautiful views of the surrounding valley abound from the modest summit.
A little bit of rain/graupel towards the very end of the hike reminded everyone that mountain weather is fickle and can change rapidly. Chance favors the prepared mountaineer!
Tomorrow our team will be heading to Cotopaxi National Park where we will be climbing Ruminahui (15,400′) – an excellent second objective as we continue on our acclimatization schedule. After which we will descend to about 12,400′ and our wonderful accommodations in Cotopaxi NP for the evening. The following day we will be heading up to the snow line on Cotopaxi to complete our snow school and glacier training.
All of our team members are doing fantastic, feeling well, and looking forward to the rest of the week’s climbs and adventures. We will do our best to share more pics and stories from the trip as much as internet access allows!
Team Assembled in Quito
Our 9 day Cotopaxi Express Expedition has begun with great success! First, all of our climbers arrived on time to Quito with all of their gear and baggage for the trip. A minor miracle to be sure!
Second, the group is all feeling great after a pretty easy day of travelling yesterday and a relaxing day in Quito viewing many historic sites. Finally, the weather to start this trip has been great so far, with great temperatures and a relatively clear day by Ecuador standards.
Everyone is in great spirits and ready for plenty of great hiking, climbing, and adventure to come!
Our team includes the following climbers:
Our trip is being lead by the following guides:
Today was spent in Quito, adjusting to the relatively high altitude (10,000 ft.) and viewing many of the wonderful historic sites of Old Quito. It is a worthy and important day spent at this high capital of Ecuador. Tomorrow our group will head to our first acclimatization peak – Pasochoa as we continue with our acclimatization schedule, eventually culminating with an ascent of Cotopaxi.
The climb of Cotopaxi offers wonderful climbing at altitude and a chance to test your mountaineering skill on a high, glaciated peak. It also happens to be one of the most iconic climbs in all of South America.
We will attempt to update our progress on the blog, so stay tuned for more trip reports and pictures to come!
Best Practices for Placing an Ice Screw
by Dale Remsberg – IFMGA Mountain Guide
Placing an ice screw while on lead has changed a lot over the years. Gone are the days of hanging from your leash and wrestling in a 22 cm screw, getting completely pumped in the process. The ice tools are better, the ice screws all have “express” knobs, are of a much higher quality, and our knowledge of what makes a good placement has evolved as well.
That being said, there is still plenty of nuance when it comes to getting a quick, solid ice screw placement while leading a pitch of ice. Considerations such as body orientation, where to place your screw in the ice, and timeliness take on added importance as you venture onto steeper and more committing routes. Becoming efficient at ice screw placements can increase your confidence while leading a pitch, and help to conserve energy for the steeper sections of a route.
In the video below, IFMGA Mountain Guide Dale Remsberg demonstrates the techniques that he uses to make a quality and fast ice screw placement while leading.
Rappel Ice Routes with Confidence
by IFMGA Guide Pat Ormond
V-Threads are a great way to rappel ice routes without having to leave gear if good fixed anchors don’t exist. They are strong, quick, and easy. With minimal practice, you can get it right first try every time.
- I look for the best quality and thickest piece of ice I can find, and make sure it is well attached to its surrounding features and other ice. If needed, I will chip off the aerated, fractured, or sun affected layers to get to better ice. It helps if the feature you use is slightly convex, either horizontally or vertically, as this makes it easier to put the screws in at an angle to each other. V-threads can be oriented either vertically or horizontalIy, both have similar strength. I prefer the horizontal setup, as I can visualize the angles better that way.
- I use the longest screw that I have, usually a 19cm, and start by placing that at an angle to the ice. Back that screw out and now measure one screw length from the first hole to find the location for the second hole. Placing the second screw is where it takes some practice. Visualize the angle needed so that the two holes meet at 90 degrees right at the deepest point. It can help to put a screw halfway in the first hole so that you can see the angle it is at. I get my eyes level with the screws which helps to see if everything is lined up correctly. Place the second screw, and look down the hole of the first to see if they connect. Sometimes, it is necessary to clean ice out of the holes, either by blowing through them, or using a v-thread tool to clear them out. If the holes barely concoct or are just off, you can rebore one of them by placing the screw and put pressure against it so that it goes in the direction needed.
- Once the holes are connected, it’s time to thread the ropes and set up the rappel. Many people leave cord, but this isn’t necessary. We teach the Naked V-Thread at San Juan Mt Guides. This simplifies the process and leaves no tat to melt out in the spring. Make or buy a v-thread tool, and if you forget it, learn some of the tricks for making do without on. I always back up the rappel with a screw and loosely clipped quickdraw through the rope. Make sure the weight is on the v-thread, not the quickdraw. If I am the only one rappelling, I will bounce test the setup before heading down. Don’t forget to have the last person bring the back up screw with them. Very rarely, the rope will stick a bit in the holes and takes some extra pulling to break the freeze. Pull your ropes, you’re on your way down, and nothing was left but some holes in the ice!
Senior SJMG Guide Mark Miller
AMGA Certified Rock Guide
Mark is one of the original SJMG guides working in Ouray. He has been teaching ice climbing longer than any other active guide in Ouray. Well known for his calm and no nonsense approach to ice instruction, Mark is one of our most requested guides. A true water ice master, Mark makes climbing steep and delicate ice look easy. Mark is also an Instructor with Rigging for Rescue, Ouray county EMT, and a member of the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team. Mark is a superb person to work on your balance, technique, and confidence.
1. Where did you grow up?
2. What is your personal alpine/rock/ice/ski experience?
Alpine – trips to Himalaya, Pamirs, Ecuador, Cascades, Canadian and U.S. Rockies and Alaska
Rock- Many areas in Western U.S. and Canada
Ice-Western U.S., Canada, and Norway
Ski- I ice climb to much to get very good
3. What is your training background?
In High School I was a math and physics geek, so when I graduated I went in to the Navy where I was trained as a mechanical operator of Nuclear power plants. I am also an AMGA Certified Rock Guide.
4. What are your favorite places to guide?
For teaching, nothing beats the Ouray Ice Park. Other than that, big ice routes in the San Juans.
5. What is your favorite part about this job?
Light bulb moments. That time when you’re teaching someone and you see the light in their eyes as the idea clicks.
6. What makes you a good guide?
I really like teaching.
7. What is your most memorable guiding experience?
I’m not sure it’s technically guiding because I did it as a volunteer, but I was asked to help teach a young woman who had her right leg amputated at the hip a few years previously to climb ice. It took a total change in my thinking and watching someone do something they no longer believed they could do was beautiful.
8. Best/coolest climb you have ever done? Anywhere.
Red Man Soars. I was very new to mixed climbing and as I got on it the ice was to thin to hit with my tools so I had to grab the little icicles with my hands and the rock holds were so thin I couldn’t hold them with gloves, so I had to hook them with my tools. It just felt so backwards it really made me think.
9. What’s on your iPod right now?
The same thing as when my wife got it for me a couple years ago
10. 3 most Crucial Elements of a guide-client relationship?
Trust, Respect, Friendship