Skip to content

The Dynamic Mountain Environment, Always Changing

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
12 min read

Mountain skills training, Blackcomb, BC

If you just want the pictures, here’s the photo album for last weekend’s Mountaineering Training course. Otherwise, read on for the full story.

I got back to “civilization” Monday night after my four day basic mountaineering course through Canada West Mountain School. My teacher was Evan Stevens, a Squamish-based guide and climber, who was able to answer the question I’m asked often: Who’s a good rock guide in Squamish? Turns out, his wife Jasmin. Evan and Jasmin both guide for a variety of backcountry disciplines in a variety of locales, so bookmark them for future reference!

I am acquainted with a number of fantastic guide services and climbing schools, but I chose CWMS for this training partly because it was a skills class, not a summit class, and I wanted to get in as much learning as possible; because of their dates available; and, because I wanted to get into the mountains in BC to see some different country than doing a course in Wahington.

My two classmates were fantastic — Justin and Dave are both from British Columbia, and after our four days together, I’d tie into a rope with either of them, anytime, given the chance. Hopefully next summer I can drag them and their wives out for a rock climbing day at Squamish. Justin is on the left, Dave is on the right in the picture below.

Mountain skills training, Blackcomb, BC

Day One:
We met up at the other Starbucks in Squamish after I realized there were two of them on Friday morning. We sorted gear in one of the parking lots at Whistler, then headed for the lifts. I got a break on the gear-carrying: Evan carried our tent, Justin carried theirs, and Dave carried the rope. Even so, I was shocked at how hard it was to heft my pack around. I’ve never backpacked before, only car-camped, and I stuck closely to the gear list provided by the school, but even that was more than I needed. Evan taught us some key packing trips (best tidbit: put your sleeping bag AND clothes into a compression bag, which then fits in the sleeping bag compartment of the pack. That freed up a bunch of space inside my pack — which helped a great deal for the trip down, but I didn’t have time to apply that particular tip for the trip up so I had gear every which way strapped to the outside of my pack).

We took a lift up Whistler, then rode the Peak to Peak gondola across to Blackcomb. From where we landed, the lifts up the glacier weren’t running, so we hiked up to the Horstman Glacier, where the training really began.

When I stepped around a rock corner to head down a little slope to the glacier, the wind almost blew me off my feet. The seriousness of what we were doing started to dawn on me about then…

The guys have snow experience, so they stepped confidently down a little snow slope that I went down more slowly (thus, beginning four days of me playing the role of “hey, guys! Wait up! I can’t keep up!” girl. God, I hate being that girl, but it seems to be my lot in life).

After we put our crampons on I felt a bit more secure on my feet, and off we went across the glacier, working our way up to our camp at a high point between the Horstman Glacier and the Blackcomb Glacier. Check out the left hand side of this interactive map for a bit more information about our “classroom.”

Once there, we set up camp pretty quickly, and settled in for the night. The weather was chilly and drizzly, but we were all pretty well equipped, so had a nice evening. I don’t recall when we heard the first rockfall, followed by Evan’s deadpan “Dynamic mountain environment… always changing…” but that became a routine that first two days or so. Now, whenever I think of rockfall, I hear Evan’s voice saying, “It’s a dynamic mountain environment… always changing…”

That night it positively monsooned. The rain was torrential, but even so, I slept pretty well… partly, thanks to my last minute impulse buy of a DownMat 7 from Outdoor Research. It inflated up high enough to keep me out of the soup… I slept as well, if not better, than at home.

Day Two:
After breakfast we headed out for skills day. We learned self-arrest skills (again, I didn’t pick it up as quickly as the guys… definitely need more practice, but I’m going to read up and practice up now that I’m home). Ascending and descending fixed ropes was a great review for me, and gave me a chance to experience the phenomenon which I know now how it got its name: the screaming barfies… when circulation dies down to your hands, and suddenly, it feels like a medium-sized animal is gnawing on your fingers. Oh my god, it hurt. When I started to descend, my circulation started up again and they eased. I was so excited that I’d just had my first case of screaming barfies… now it was definitely time for ice climbing.

Evan set up a toprope on a low angle section of ice, after we each practiced with ice screws ourselves. The little ice slope was super fun, and I got to coach Dave and Justin on belay technique, which was also fun. It had started to snow lightly that afternoon, so that all made for a pretty full day. We nestled in again after dinner for a chilly but more dry evening.

Day Three:
Day three, we awoke to some much-appreciated sun and glorious views of the Coast Range to our West.

Mountain skills training, Blackcomb, BC

This was the day I was most nervous about. Crevasse rescue day. I was nervous both about being a “victim” and spending time down in a crevasse while a teammate rescued me; but I was also nervous about being the person on the other end of the rope to “rescue” one of my teammates. Evan did a fantastic, patient job of teaching us the basics of crevasse rescue, and then we set to work saving our backpacks. I’d rather go first than dread having to go, so once Evan had demonstrated a successful rescue, into the hole my backpack went, and I commenced setting up a mechanical advantage system to hoist Sally Backpack out.

Mountain skills training, Blackcomb, BC

That’s Justin rescuing Dave from the crevasse with the unflappable Evan looking on.

Each time we repeated the system… me, Dave and Justin… I added one step to what I could remember without assistance. After lunch, Evan lowered Justin down into the crevasse, with me on the other end of the rope (and, with a backup anchor just in case so that we were all as safe as
possible). I arrested, but then felt my feet slip as his full weight loaded my harness. I started to try to place my picket as the first point in my anchor, and I slipped yet again. I dug in my feet deeper, and finally had enough purchase to start digging down to where I could pound in my picket. After tossing off the mountaineer’s coil and backpack — which required me to remove my helmet (something I hope not to have to do if I’m ever in an actual rescue setting) — I was able to lift my head and see what I was doing better.

Because of the challenging ice and snow conditions, Evan helped me get started with my picket pounding, then I finished it off. I escaped the rope, moving Justin’s weight to the anchor, and then was able to take a good few deep breaths and let the adrenaline calm down a bit. From there, despite my nerves, I kicked it into gear and walked through the steps we’d been taught and practiced. The rescue actually went pretty smoothly, although our weight difference did become apparent when I started the work to lift Justin out of the crevasse. Even with a “6 to 1” mechanical advantage set up, with a wet rope and all the friction in the system, it took all of my body weight and every ounce of force I could muster just to move him up a few inches at a time.

It was incredibly physically challenging. But, inch by inch, I made progress. I think it became clear to Evan and Dave that I was neither going to give up, nor ask for help, so rather than watch me expend every ounce of energy I had getting Justin out of the crevasse, they ultimately pitched in and helped with the last few feet as a team. At that point, their help was appreciated — in a real rescue setting, I know I could do what needed doing, but I also learned that I may be better off to climb in parties of more than just two, so that if a rescue was necessary, there’d be a chance of an extra pair of hands (although, also a chance of more partners to have to rescue).

As each of us practiced with a live load (my time in the crevasse was actually pretty cool… I wish I’d taken my camera — and Dave’s rescue of me was so speedy I was surprised when I felt myself being lifted out of there), the day passed. The weather was nice, but we’d done a lot of work. All three of us did well at our rescue… I was impressed with how the guys, who were newer to rope work, were able to learn so quickly and perform so well.

That was pretty much it for the day — we adjourned to a sunny rock outcrop for a glacier morphology and feature lesson from Evan, and a map and compass lesson that screamed right by me. Partly, the guys nimbly transitioned from feet to meters since we had to work with both, and the conversions weren’t as natural for me. It was another “hey guys! Wait up!!!” moment, where I decided to pick my battle and didn’t try to keep up, I just chimed in when I could and figured I’ll teach myself map and compass stuff in the peace and quiet of home.

Day Four:
We’d picked an objective for Day Four — to summit Blackcomb via a traverse of the Blackcomb Glacier, then crossing a section of talus and continuing up the next glacier over — Spearhead, I think? We were up and moving on time, according to the guys’ objective planning, and on our way across Blackcomb glacier in a rope team. As we traversed the steep-to-me slope, my legs started to get tired. I expressed some discomfort, since as my legs got more tired, I felt like I wasn’t as steady on my feet. And, the exposure of the slope of ice beneath us got to me.

Evan got up close and short roped me for a few steps, but I couldn’t pull myself together. When I realized that I was going to be the “weak link” in our chain that morning, and that I was going to have to turn around and take my rope team with me, I lost it. I was so disappointed in myself for not being able to manage my emotions and perform for my friends… More than the fear, more than the exertion, more than the fact that I was physically hyperventilating and couldn’t breathe… I was just so upset with myself for not being able to put one foot in front of the other with an adequate margin of safety. I knew I could take each of those steps — I was just overwhelmed by the total number that would be required to get to a place where I would feel “safe” and by the exposure beneath us on the glacier. And, I didn’t want to be the one to slip, and to take my team down with me.

Ultimately, we turned around. The guys got us safely up to the area where we’d done our self-arrest training, and then we moved back toward camp so that they could drop me off and pursue a modified objective: getting up to the false summit we’d been looking at all weekend, in front of Blackcomb proper.

Mountain skills training, Blackcomb, BC

That’s the guys, coming down from the revised objective. You can see in the lower left quarter of the photo, the section of glacier that I got scared on, and that we ultimately came back up to the flat spot in the middle of the shot.

I went back to camp and decompressed and took a ton of pictures of the guys on their way up and down. For awhile, I beat myself up, and had feelings that I had just been “weeded out” of the mountains and perhaps should take up some hobbies that have a bit lighter consequences.

Then it began to dawn on me… We’d packed a TON of learning, and a ton of new skills into four short days. I was doing something totally new to me, with a whole different level of risk and commitment required, than anything I’ve done before. My weakness as a rock climber (and in other areas of my life) has always been the mental aspects… managing my emotions, and my lack of self-confidence… those aspects were magnified ten fold (or more) in the “real” mountains.

Now, after a few days to reflect, I feel better about it all. I’m proud of myself for getting up there; I’m proud of myself for my performance on each task except for the map and compass section, and that last climb. But even that last climb, I’m glad that we turned around. I was in over my head, and the further we went, the more risk I was putting myself and my team in. I feel bad that the guys didn’t get to bag their peak, but on the other hand, I’m thankful and pleased that we all came back safely, and that we learned so much in the process. Each of the guys — Dave, Justin, and Evan — were incredibly patient with me, and were very kind and very good sports about the whole thing. I took it much harder than they did.

After they arrived back at camp, we packed up (much more efficiently, given Evan’s brilliant packing instruction) and made our way back down the Horstman Glacier, up a snow hill, to the little rocky steps back up to the relative safety of the more “civilized” areas of the ski park. The trip down the Glacier was scary — I was still in “panic” mode, but Evan patiently encouraged me down, reminding me that I’d done much more difficult cramponing over the course of the weekend, and this was just walking down a little hill. I felt bad for moving so slowly, but I was trying hard to keep myself calm given the still-fresh sensation of fear from earlier that morning. I did get more comfortable as we moved lower down, and as I started to trust myself more. I really think I just need to build more experience on slopes, to feel more comfortable. I’m planning to take some ski lessons this winter, which everyone tells me will go a LONG way toward feeling more comfortable on slopes whether walking on snow, loose dirt, or cramponing on ice.

Mountain skills training, Blackcomb, BC

That’s Dave and Justin on the Peak to Peak, on the way down… happy and tired.

The Post Game:
I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to participate in this training, even though parts of it were way harder than I expected, and more scary. I’m still sore from the crevasse rescue, but it was so worth it — especially because the lifting system we learned could also be used in rock climbing rescue applications, which is something I’ve always wanted to know.

During our post-trip “wrap up” session, I commented to Evan that I had completely underestimated the seriousness that would be involved in such a training — that I felt he did everything that would be possible to create conditions that were as safe as possible to allow us to learn… but even so, I was unprepared for how serious and how much actual risk I’d feel even in a training setting. Everyone has different levels of risk tolerance, but if you’re on my end of the spectrum… aka, more of a scaredycat, just be aware that this type of training takes place in a Dynamic Mountain Environment, Always Changing, and that there are serious objective hazards.

Unlike in rock climbing, where the risks are mitigated by systems and decisionmaking that I’m now very familiar with and comfortable with after years of practice; in the mountains, sometimes, the risk is only mitigated by your ability to calmly place one foot in front of the other without making a mistake; keeping your head level, your emotions in check, and executing perfectly. I’ve been in “no fall” climbing situations before, but being in a “no fall” mountaineering situation was way more intense and scary than I anticipated.

This was a full value training, and a full value life experience. I’m in debt to Dave, Justin and Evan for everything, and look forward to following each of their adventures from here on out.

Speaking of in debt…
My participation wouldn’t have happened without my mountain mentor, Jamie Clark, the crew at ClimbWithUs, and m’dear Elizabeth Castro at O’Malley Hansen. The baselayers provided by Duofold for me to test were phenomenal… more on all of that later this week!

Stay tuned… later on, I’ll post some gear reviews and a few more thank you’s from the trip.

Trip Reports

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.