Mountain Skills: Twelve Things I Learned at Icefall Lodge’s Ski Mountaineering Course

With a weeklong ski mountaineering course on glaciers of the remote Canadian Rockies ahead of me, I was anxious. What if I was the slowest hiker, the weakest skier? By the time I met the eight other students at the heli-staging area north of Golden, B.C., however, I was more than ready to get into the mountains and leave that anxiety behind.

I first skied at Icefall Lodge, which sits on a tenure of 50,000 acres in the Canadian Rockies, in February and was captivated by the terrain. After an unforgettable week, I decided to return for the mountaineering course to improve my route-planning skills, learn crevasse rescue techniques and ski some of the area’s bigger lines.

The annual Spring Mountaineering Course is taught at Icefall Lodge by owner Larry Dolecki, a certified IFMGA mountain guide of more than 20 years who built his ski touring lodge near the western border of Banff National Park in 2005. “This should be a great week in the mountains, filled with lots of learning and great lines,” Dolecki wrote in the course intro packet. It certainly was.

After skiing one of our bigger objectives, a 1,000-meter descent of a deeply crevassed glacier, one of the other students shook his head. “This course has redefined what I thought was even possible to ski,” he said. Looking back up at our line, I had to agree.

The course emphasized having students plan and lead as much as possible, the goal being to get us comfortable making decisions. Dolecki struck a perfect balance between teaching, skiing and teaching while skiing, and we skied eight peaks in seven days. But more than that, we learned to read the terrain, to work together on decision making and to pull our partners out of crevasses. Here are 12 things I learned.

  1. Eat Bacon and Eggs for Après

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Mmm…bacon. Mmm…second breakfast. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

When spending 10-plus hours a day climbing up and skiing down mountains, it’s important to consume plenty of energy rich food. Bacon fits the bill, and we ate plenty of it. An additional bonus to waking up before dawn (besides the firm snow for approaches, and safer snow conditions for descending) is that 4 a.m. oatmeal can be supplemented with an après-ski bacon-and-eggs brunch.

  1. Explore Above and Below the Glacier

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Getting subterranean at Icefall Lodge. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Another world exists beneath the glaciers, and exploring the chasms between the ice and rock was an entirely new way of interacting with the large, slow-moving mass of snow and ice. Protected from the raging blizzard above, we spelunked through this cave, staring into the crystal clear, rock-strewn interface as far as our headlamps would penetrate, and chipping off a few pieces of the ancient ice to chill our drinks back at the lodge.

  1. Use Technology During Whiteouts

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The whiteout walk. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

A GPS or compass bearings and a map, and familiarity with the terrain are helpful when hiking or skiing in a complete whiteout. When crossing glaciers, these tools become even more important, as the large expanses of ice are devoid of landmarks. Fortunately, we had some real whiteout conditions in which to practice navigating glacial terrain without having our eyes to guide us.

  1. Practice Crevasse Rescue in Real Crevasses

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Lesson 4b. Make sure your pockets are zipped when practicing crevasse rescue. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

It’s best to practice crevasse rescue in an actual crevasse. Building an effective pulley system to hoist another human out of the depths of a glacier is one of those skills that you can practice over and over again sitting in the lodge. But until your partner is actually out of sight, suspended in an icy chasm, and you’re using every ounce of your body weight and strength to pull them out, it doesn’t totally stick.

  1. Skin by Moonlight

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Dancin’ in the moonlight. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Setting a skintrack the day before you need it can vastly expedite early morning travel. Not only does it allow you to explore your route in daylight—much easier than stumbling around with headlamps at 3 a.m.—but setting a track in soft snow rather than bulletproof crust will be a blessing the next day.

  1. Watch Out for Death Cookies

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The death-cookie shred. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Shred the powder, but watch out for death cookies, as they are, literally, solid chunks of ice. Seracs and crevasses are also best avoided, or if necessary, approached at high speed while thinking lightweight thoughts.

  1. Distances Can Be Deceiving

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The long glacial walk back to Icefall Lodge. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

For route planning, we estimated around 400 meters of vertical gain per hour, depending on when in the day the climb was. Long, flat glacial traverses, however, were somewhat harder to calculate. Mountains appear much closer than they are; here we glided across several kilometers of flats after the day’s outing.

  1. Get a High-Clearance Truck

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Lesson 8a. Consider adding a winch to your high-clearance truck. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Traveling the back roads in the mountains has many challenges like navigating rock fall and avalanche debris or getting stuck on broken bridges. So high clearance trucks are key to get all the humans and gear out of the mountains. We decided it was best to unload all six people from the back of the truck for this crossing…just in case.

  1. Practice Your Knots (And Your German)

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Always practice knot jokes while practicing knots. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Don’t let a lodge day go to waste. Practice your knots before the course so that your prussic, munter, garda and clove hitches are familiar and effortless. After our heli ride to the lodge, we started right in on ropework. To boost our dinner appetites, we rappelled off the lodge on a munter and used our prussics to reascend.

  1. Start Early

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Sun salutations in Icefall Lodge’s 50,000-acre tenure. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

Don’t underestimate how early you need to start hiking with a new group of people in unfamiliar terrain. It’s best to allow for extra time the first day—and wait on the summit for snow to soften—rather than having to turn back mid-ascent as the sun warms the snow to unstable slop.

  1. Send Guinea Pigs First

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“Who wants to go first?” [Photo] Mary McIntyre

To make sure the route “goes,” send a few probe skiers with radios ahead when skiing new terrain with a group. This way, if a dangerous or unskiable obstacle blocks your descent, there are just one or two people to extricate from the glacier rather than 10.

  1. Sharpen Your Ice Screws

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Ice, ice baby. [Photo] Mary McIntyre

The best place to practice building ice anchors is in ice…naturally. Having sharp ice screws facilitates hollowing out a slot for the rope, and wiggling it through without a guider is good practice, though not ideal. The force that it takes to break through even a three-inch ice anchor in good, solid ice is incredible.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Mary for the humorous write up…!

  2. LOVE IT! Great article Mary! Awesome photos, looks like the first SD card didn’t made it :-/ Let me know if you coming back around to ski! F

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