ACC North Face Summer Leadership Course "Trip Report"

Life is full of confusing decisions that we make with incomplete information, sometimes on the advice of people we don’t know, for reasons we may never understand.  All of this came to a head for me during the North Face Summer Leadership Course this summer on the Easy Glacier in the Northern Selkirk range of the Columbia Mountains in BC.

Something about walking across a glacier towards a peak, or crossing a bergschrund before starting a technical ascent drives an introspective series of questions which I usually dare not speak out loud:  “Why am I doing this?”  “Who am I beyond a series of accomplishments or failures?” “Am I doing this as a way to prove to myself that my insecurities are valid/invalid?”  In the words of our guide Cyril singing along to the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime:  “How did I get here?” 

The question that has always scared me the most has been “Why am I a leader?”  Being proactive to the point of annoyance to more passive people, I’m sure that being a leader isn’t something that’s just happened to me, but rather something that I’ve actively sought out.  I was a leader on my peewee hockey teams because I didn’t mind arguing with referees and I’m pretty sure my coach thought I was expendable during the 10 minute misconduct penalties I’d ultimately get for doing so.  I was a youth leader as an exchange student, not because I have good language skills, which anyone who has spoken French or Thai with me knows isn’t true, but rather because I wanted to get out of high school before I had actually finished all my courses.  In that case I was leading by getting ahead of my peers, but also myself, into a strange foreign land, where I was all alone despite being surrounded by people, almost like being on a rope team on a glacier.

The reason why I became a leader for the Rocky Mountain Section of the Alpine Club of Canada wasn’t altruistic but rather selfish.  I was getting tired of seeing interesting ski objectives being posted on the website only to get an email response a few days later telling me that the trip was full.   I also wanted to be the first one to carve my name into the freshly fallen snow.

So, “How did I get here?”

The logistics are easy.  On Saturday morning I drove west, past the castellated peaks of Eisenhower Tower and Castle mountain towards Lake Louise and ultimately to Golden.  Castle Mountain, for those like me who only climb looks like an impenetrable fortress of limestone, at least it did before today.

This time was different.  The new dawn lit up the mountain showing me features that had been covered in snow, or fogged by apprehension and ignorance.  It was the first time I ever actually saw the ACC hut on Castle Mt. and that in itself was motivation to learn as much as possible in the course, so one day I could storm the walls and sit on the Throne of the Mountain King.  The fog, after nearly 10 years of being out west, was finally beginning to rise. 

There was a van shuttle from Golden, and a helicopter ride from the staging area, but if you’ve made it this far, you probably don’t need a description of either. 

When the helicopter set down the skies were clear, but the fog of apprehension was thick, perhaps it takes longer to burn off at elevation?  Maybe I need a spiritual meteorologist?  Is there an ACMG certification for that?  What am I doing here?  I’m a ski touring leader, not a summer mountaineer.  I can’t even scramble for god’s sake. 

The North Face course, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is to bring amateur trip leaders from ACC sections around the country into the General Mountaineering Camp to share experiences, and to learn from some of the most experienced guides in the country.  For some of us, the hard skills were new and foreign.  Navigating in a white out on a glacier may seem pretty abstract for someone who mostly leads cragging trips in Ontario, but in hindsight it was never really about the white out, the compass or the glacier, but rather about the idea of leading, even when you’re not exactly where you had envisioned yourself in the morning.

I’m under the impression that the course is currently in a crisis of identity.  In the past, it was viewed as an elite course to take high end alpinists and turn them into the next generation of ACMG guides, Amateur GMC Leaders and volunteer club leaders.  Numerous stories abound about participants who could climb ED grade, 5.12a alpine routes with their eyes closed, but the club nationally was still having incidents and accidents.

Now, at least to me, it appears to be a course on critical thinking and leadership skills taught in an alpine venue.  Looking back on my notes I’m not sure there was ever a moment in the entire week where we were told “the way”, rather than “a way”.  Overhand, bowline or figure 8?  Sling or cord?  Nuts, cams, hexes or natural pro?  Some people on the course (yours truly) were novices when it comes to multi-pitch anchoring systems, others had led some of the most impressive peaks in the west, and no one was right 100% of the time.  Perhaps the world isn’t so black and white as to assume there is a right way.

It may seem somewhat counter intuitive but learning how to lead, and not just how to lead climb is probably a more important skill for trip leaders in the club to learn.  Learning about systems to stay safe in specific environments was really helpful, and though rock school, ice school and summiting 4 peaks we were definitely exposed to some of the hard skills necessary to stay safe on that type of objective, but despite the name, some/most Alpine Club trips are led in the sub-alpine or even on the flats.

To me, and I’m happy to have this argument with anyone, the soft skills of leading produce far safer trips than technical superiority on the mountain.  Learning to read your group, engage with the terrified people at the back and listening to the voices in your head saying “are we safe, or have we been lucky?” produce much greater value for the club than pushing a red-point grade up a letter or 2.  Powder Magazine had an article about The Human Factor a few years ago, and Cyril the lead guide for the course paraphrased one of the most important points I’ve ever read about being a leader.  “The mountains don’t care if you are an expert; they only care about your decisions”.  The mountains are a terrifying place if you’re making poor decisions, and they will strike you down if your desire is stronger than your thought process.  A ski mentor of mine once joked that the phrase “smart people learn from their mistakes” is inapplicable to skiers, as we're not all that smart, but I now see it as inapplicable because waiting for disaster to strike to learn is a poor education model.  I don’t need the skills to climb K2, but rather the skills to climb or ski safely.  I much prefer learning as much as I can from the mistakes of others, and using that learning to prevent mistakes from happening in the first place.

My status as a leader, husband and friend largely depend on a single condition:  “Staying alive”.  Another leader on the course (and another engineer in the ‘real word’), with whom I’ve since climbed said something that really resonated with me.  “In order these are the 3 things that can happen on this trip: 1) Come back.  2) Come back friends. 3) Come back friends having achieved the objective.”  Without #1, there is no #2 and without #2 what’s the point of #3?  Why do we go to the mountains in the first place? 

It’s been amazing to see how much of the “touchy feely namby pamby crap” of the human factor has translated from the alpine into days with the club, and my days at work.  I’m not sure that would be the case if all we trained were the hard skills.  Climbing a serac won't help me understand the variable risk tolerance of my crew, nor will it give me the courage to care about others.

Now, I was asked to write a trip report, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve done anything close to that, so maybe I’ll give a summary of the climb that we led at the end of the week. 

A climb, like any other challenge in life is a series of cruxes.  Leading our first alpine climb to Goldsteam Station was no different. 

Crux 1 was the effective planning of the climb.  Get beta from the other people who had climbed it, look at pictures from when we passed by it on the way, time out the day to make sure it’s within the reach of the group.  We were all so keen we even pre-tied our ropes for glacier travel mode.

Crux 2:  Wake up.  Where are my pants?

Crux 3:  Gathering a group of people to successfully achieve an objective is like herding cats into a pen.  Ok, we’re at the toe of the glacier.

Crux 4:  The snow covered (wet) glacier from earlier in the week is now ice.  Crevasses are exposed which makes them look more badass.

Crux 5:  Get cool photo for instagram.

Crux 6:  Assess the slope on the north face of the peak.  Snow looks firm, existing footprints show us we’re not lost.  Climb the snow face in glacier travel mode.   Get the biggest guy (Matt) to stomp solid steps traversing across the slope so our retreat is easy.

Crux 7:  Short pitch up a chimney and onto a narrow ledge. 

Crux 8:  Trust the natural protection available.

Crux 9:  Convince others to trust the natural protection.

Crux 10:  How do I coil the rope again?

Crux 11:  Route find way across ledges and up a scramble of loose rock.

Crux 12:  Avoid getting crushed by lose rock.

Crux 13:  Get 14 people onto a small summit.  Take a selfie to prove we were here.

Crux 14:  Stop admiring our beautiful pictures and the scenery, and start down climbing.  We need to get out of here safely if we’re going to post our pictures on facebook. 

Crux 15:  Scramble down the lose rock and across the ledges, short pitch through the chimney and down climb the snow face to Matt’s stellar track.  Short rope the climb down on snow until we get on the glacier.

Crux 16:  Come up with a reasonably funny story about our day to tell everyone at dinner.

Like any day I’ve ever had in the mountains, the sum of the day is far more than the series of events that took place.  Our guides and leader for the week sat us down for a while, and opened up a bit about mistakes they’ve made, choices they should have made that would have made some of the hardest days of their lives easier.  For me, the euphoria of getting to the top is tempered by the idea that the skills we acquired getting there are far more valuable than one summit.  The fog is burning off and revealing a beautiful day.

The lessons we were taught, and taught ourselves today are merely seeds of ideas which can help grow the Alpine Club of Canada if we continue to water them.  Seeing on Facebook, the incredible exploits that my colleagues in the course have done since the course has been amazing, and I’m very confident that the future of the Club is in good hands if we allow these excellent people to lead.

The fog of uncertainty and apprehension has finally lifted and I can clearly see another level to the mountains that I never really knew existed.  Things that previously seemed daunting now seem fully accessible.  On the way back from Golden to Canmore, I stopped in Lake Louise to get a coffee and a copy of Banff Rock.  Flipping to chapter 11, I see that Castle Mountain is not only accessible but entirely within my range of skill.  The sky has cleared and the route to the summit is obvious.  Because of everything I've learned over the week, the forecast is nothing but blue skies.

I can't thank the Alpine Club of Canada, the Rocky Mountain Section and The North Face enough for this once in a lifetime opportunity.  The L5 Sending suit that the North Face provided is nicer than the suit I was married in.

I also really want to thank all of my course mates and instructors for lifting the fog.  Rafael, Gloria, Estelle, Jeremiah, Brian, Amber, Angela, Matt and Susan, I can't be anything but optimistic about the future of the Club if people as thoughtful, understanding and intelligent as you are the next generation of leaders well have.  Thank you all so much for an incredible week and I can't wait to see you guys at a hut, high camp or crag sometime in the future.  Cyril, Nick and Derek, thank you so much for delivering so much in such a short period of time, in such an interesting way.

"How did I get here?"  This much is clear now.  The Alpine Club of Canada Vancouver section facilitated my first avalanche course and first summits on skis.  The Rocky Mountain Section's Rockies Outdoor Climbing Knowledge (ROCK) Course put me on an outdoor rock climb for the first time, my climbing mentors through the section put me on my first multi-pitch climbs, and encouraged me to do my first multi-pitch lead this year.  

Heading towards Banff I turn on the stereo and Once in a Lifetime is playing on the radio.  I can't help but to smile knowing that there's much more to all of this mountain climbing than just climbing mountains.

NE Ha Ling - Alpine Club of Canada, Rocky Mountain Section

I love Ha Ling Peak.  It is one of the most climbed mountains in Canada.  It's one of the peaks I can see from my house and was one of the first multi-pitch climbs I ever completed.  It's special to me in ways I can't fully describe.

When I was asked by Steve, the director of the ROCK program, to take one of his climbers up, I was a bit apprehensive.  I'm typically leading winter trips for the Alpine Club and I'm somewhat new to leading on trad gear.  However, I climbed it with Steve a few years ago as a participant in the course, it's within cell reception and I have a decent amount of rescue experience, so what could go wrong, right?

It actually went really smoothly.  Joan (the ROCK program climber) and Heather (my normal outdoors partner) were seconds.  There was a bit of route finding up the scree to make sure we didn't get stuck in the gully below the climb but otherwise the approach was straight forward.  

The climb took a bit longer than we expected.  I blame myself for getting off route a few times, and not having my transitions when lead belaying dialed.  We also climbed with 2 full ropes and honestly, I don't think I'll ever make that mistake again.

There were a few other parties on the climb, one of which passed us and helped me out with getting back on route.

David Jones calls it an AD 5.6 to 5.7 and gives it 3 stars.  I fully agree with his assessment.  It was a great day with some great people.  It was the type of day that fully justifies the effort required to be an amateur trip leader.