Ode to October

By Anna Keeling

August 17 was both the best and worst day of the season. Best because we got 80cm of powder. Worst because we locked down and didn’t get to ride. Short term pain for long term gain. Team of 5 mill. Look forward not back. Get vaccinated.

Training for Apres
Training for Apres. Photo by Swampy and Ali Marsh.

No Friends on Powder Days
No friends on powder days. Photo by Swampy and Ali Marsh.

We can make winter longer: It’s just a case of accepting spring. October is the new July. Don’t let your interest wane. Here’s why October is better than July for skiing and riding:

NZ gets more precipitation in October (and December and January). Up high, this falls as snow. Sometimes up high means 1400m if we are lucky (the bases of most ski areas are 1300-1500m).

Avalanche danger is often lower or at least more predictable. The spring diurnal cycle means an icy start to the day followed by surface melting and velvety corn. Ski like a hero until it gets mushy then retire to the carpark BBQ, deck at Palmer lodge, Glenfalloch station, Wānaka waterfront or similar relaxed venue for aprés.

More snow cover in later season = fewer rocks = less damage to boards.

Relaxed ski field staff. They’ve dialled in the job, done the hard yards of digging, completed all-nighter splice jobs on rope tows. Now they can finally relax and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Better access road conditions. Chains can remain in the car (mostly).

Sunny afternoons.

Stable snow = longer traverses and opportunities to access bigger peaks.

Crevasses on the glaciers are filled by the winter snows and spring storms. Access is better.

Quiet nevés, warmer huts.

Guides have more space in their schedules.

The hope of spring – lambs gambolling, blossoms, daffodils, asparagus on the Old West Coast road.

If you ski until the end of October (or even Snovember) then you only have to wait 7 months to ski or ride again.

Preparing for Heli Skiing
Preparing to heliski. Photo by Swampy and Ali Marsh.

Right now I am looking to October. Even November. We will ski and make merry when the lock down eases. Your ski holiday can still happen. As I type, the powder of last week cycles into corn. If we are lucky, more powder will fall on it. We will ski powder for a few days (concentrating on getting our aspects right) until the corn re-forms. The avalanche danger will bump up during this period. Then it will stablize.  We will ski the velvety goodness again.

Training for Cardies
Training for Cardies. Photo by Swampy and Ali Marsh.

Wax your boards and sharpen your edges. The season is still on. We will be here for you when we unlock. We’ve still got two months. Be faithful and keep the faith.

Love from your local ski area, ski guides, ski shops and others who remain hopeful. S’now 2021.

Training for Middle Tow at Craigieburn
Training for Middle Tow at Craigieburn. Photo by Swampy and Ali Marsh.

Are you ready to go backcountry?

Showing up at your Best: Training for an AKG/Chill Course or Journey

My aim in this article is to help you get into the best shape possible prior to a course or journey with me or one of my guide team. People sometimes show up and struggle. This can be with ski or snowboard movement or it can be with fitness. You may be solid skiing groomed runs on a ski area but off-piste presents new issues – packs, deep snow, ice, crusts, poor visibility, steep runs. You may be able to ride your bike 20km on the flat but going up hills leaves you gasping. Having a solid idea of what to expect on an AKG tour or course is essential. You’ll be safer if you are well prepared. Good gear helps but it cannot make up for a lack of fitness or movement ability. You will have more fun, learn more and you will be safer by being honest with yourself and identify your areas for improvement. I want you to be the best you can be so that you’ll have a great trip, lots of fun and learn tons – not merely hanging in there praying for it to be over!

I’ll break it down to manage expectations for our various courses and trips. Get in touch if you need more information and ideas to train for an upcoming trip or class.

Two day Snow safety classes: Day 1 is spent half in the classroom then half on a ski area. You will need to ride all of the lifts (rope tows or t-bars) and ski to the outer boundaries of the ski area (Usually Porters, Broken River or Cheeseperson). You may boot around on foot while learning rescue. Day 2 is usually a day in the field, outside the ski area. At Cheeseperson you will ride the Ridge T-bar (or skin up if the T-bar is not working). The run into Tarn basin is not steep but it can be an intimidating first 50 metres. You’ll need your game face on. Your guide can teach you to use your equipment but we do strongly recommend taking it out at least one time prior. There’s nothing worse than holding everyone up because you didn’t test your equipment. Or finding out that your back country set up is significantly softer than what you are used to. Respect your team by arriving with even a rudimentary knowledge of what you have hired or bought. If you are a seasoned expert rider, no worries – but if you have any doubts about your ski or riding ability, get a day in on your backcountry gear before the trip. This is especially important for split boarders. The learning curve can be steep.

Private trips or Haute Routes: This involves 4 days of continuous hikoi (journeying) with 4-8 hours of movement a day. You will get more out of it if you are feeling confident in your up hill and down hill movement. Up hill skinning is not difficult to learn but the better your strength and balance, the easier skinning will seem. Our uphill skin climbs are generally 250-600m in length. This can take half an hour to 2.5 hours of climbing. Your guide will teach you to kick turn on the corners and will do everything to make you feel comfortable. But you need to be ready for variable snow from crust to powder to ice. Remember that you’ll use your glutes (bum muscles) on the way up and your quads on the descent. It’s physical. You may walk/boot at times with your skis on your pack.

Riding off-piste – expect variable snow and possibly unkind weather. AKG guides know the terrain and we will go if we deem it safe. It may feel a bit scary to you. You can prepare for this:

  • Go skiing/riding at ski areas prior to your course. The more the better…
  • Ski off-piste as much as possible
  • Practice your down hill kick turns and side-slipping
  • Have a day on your backcountry gear to check it works
  • Take a ski lesson or two to sharpen your skills. Tell the instructor what you need
  • Go out even if the snow and visibility are poor. Just stay inbounds!
  • Ski or ride with a 5kg pack sometimes
  • Do some focused fitness training: Bike uphill for 1/2-2 hours, walk up hill for the same time period with a pack on, running and walking on rough ground, doing ski specific weight training for strength (squats, lunges, weights). One legged squats and other balance exercise will improve your proprioception and general body awareness. Roller blading is excellent training.
  • Get your head into the game of cardiovascular effort. Make yourself go (run, walk or bike) uphill at a pace that hurts for 30 minutes – ie. you can’t really speak. This will push you out of your comfort zone and you will become more resilient at making effort (instead of feeling intimidated by effort).
  • Walking downhill improves leg strength, balance and coordination.
  • Get good foot beds. See a podiatrist or a good boot fitter like Leith at Gnomes. Your street shoe footbeds will work in your ski boots in most cases – but try them first.
  • Tell your guide if you get hot spots. These are blisters that have not bubbled yet. Blisters can be debilitating. Do not let them go to a bubble.

Watch this space: I’ll be in Christchurch before winter to give a free talk on how to get started in the backcountry. In addition to our regular 2-day Snow safety classes, we are lining up a 5 week programme to help improve your knowledge so that you can become more independent in the backcountry. More to come!

Skiing pow
Studying snow

The annual Dirty Posh trip nearing the top of Mt. Cockayne, wet not cold

A Seasonal Approach to the Snowpack

Mt Nebo (12k feet) Utah in late spring: Timing is everything

This is something I wrote recently for the first edition of the New Zealand Avalanche Dispatch

Late December in Utah is like late July in New Zealand. I know because my family and I have been switching countries every December (go north) and July (go south) for the past 10 years. We live in winter and spring. A couple of years ago I was in a second hand gear shop in Utah. A guy asked me what I thought about conditions on the Salt Lake Twins. At 3450m in altitude, the Twins soar 2000 metres above Salt Lake City and there’s a fair amount of terrain to get through to even top out on their windy and lofty summits.

People often ask me what I think about conditions. I think about conditions most of the time. I watch the mountains from the valley – whether I am in Castle Hill Village or in Salt Lake City. I’ll look out the window before I consult any website (even when it’s dark). I’ll look for wind plumes, for frost, for fresh snow, for rain, for snow melting off the roof, for clear skies – and every day I wonder “what has changed?”

“Why would you go up Twin Peaks tomorrow?” I asked the guy.
“I have the day off and want to do something big,” he replied.
We chatted about conditions. About the persistent weak layer that was currently haunting the snowpack, the basal facets that were still less than a metre down in the pack. The wind plumes that frequently pour off the highest summits, the 1500m approach to these summits and the sheer volume of complex terrain to be travelled to even get a view to the tops.

Froth. Films. Social media. Big talk. It’s well and truly alive. Great snow with time off are scarce resources (unless you are one of the fortunates who have so many back-to-back seasons that you’ll happily sit out a powder day to avoid crowds and avoid having to witness people doing scary things). The hit list is long, time feels short. You’ve lined up the weekend and damned if you’ll let poor conditions stand in your way.

“Why not wait?” I asked. I was slightly impatient but trying to be nice: “It’s so early in the season, it’ll be dark by 5. There’s a persistent weak layer less than 3 feet down, it’s cold, there’s wind blowing right now up there. You have no margin for error at this time of year. The pack is not yet settled. There is no reason to go there. Wait. Wait until early spring when the snow is deeper, when there have been a few fine days in a row.”

After 22 season back-to-back and all the countless before that – the seasons I ski patrolled or ski guided in Canada – I must have skied 65 seasons by now and I’m 50 – I’ve learned a couple of things about patience:

Choose your objectives according to the time of year. This is my strategy: Every season I try to teach a few avalanche classes early on, before starting to guide. This eases me into the season – it forces me to train with beacons, shovel and probe, it sets up my pack and systems, it gets my head in the snow – looking at layers, familiarising myself with the snowpack from the outset. It also helps me set up a base fitness for the rest of the season.

Wherever I am, I have the daily avalanche advisory emailed to me from first snow. Even if I’m late to arrive, I have some idea of how the weather and snow pack are developing. Once I’m ensconced into my season, I try to estimate each morning what the hazard rating will be – before reading the advisory. This keeps me on my toes, looking, thinking, evaluating.

If there is a weak layer in the pack – and the daily avalanche advisory plus some targeted digging will confirm this – I choose simpler terrain. I’ll potter around in casual places with low angle slopes, where I can avoid being under other users and skip around on 30 degree slopes or less. At least I’m out.

As the season progresses into mid-late August in NZ and I become more comfortable with conditions and the pack deepens and settles, I can ease into bigger terrain. I talk with others about what they have seen. My guided trips will go further afield. I may dig less and probe more. When spring arrives in mid September, I’ll venture out into glaciated terrain. Hopefully snow will have filled in crevasses, the days will be longer, it will be warmer.

I like the guy in the shop in Utah. I want to see him have a fun season but I want to see him in the shop again. I hate it when people I know and like become statistics. He agreed that it was too early for the Salt Lake Twins. He hadn’t thought about that aspect of seasonal planning – that waiting until spring will be more fun, less scary, less cold, less dark. It will make more sense. The peaks should still be there next year if conditions never come right this time around. In the meantime, I’ll try to find good snow, interesting tours and terrain and keep my rigmarole of seasonairing on the move.

Mid April powder day, Brighton Utah

Mountaineer Jane Morris overcame a near-death experience to blaze a trail for women | Stuff.co.nz

This is a pretty extreme title – not one that Jane would approve of but I want to shout out to one of the many inspiring ladies who I am proud to call my friends – Jane Morris.  AKG is lucky enough to have Jane guide for us often.  And Anna is lucky to get into the hills with Jane once in a while.  Read and be inspired by this slightly crazy character….

via Mountaineer Jane Morris overcame a near-death experience to blaze a trail for women | Stuff.co.nz

Covid-19 Decisions

The uncertainty around Coronavirus has been massive.  Scott and I both face a likely work drought in the coming months.  Right now I am supposed to be guiding in Iceland. The week after I was to be in Austria working on an Eastern European Ski Guide exam.

Another time.  Salt Lake City is on lock down and we are encouraged not to start gallivanting around the state.  Obie’s school is closed until the end of March, if not the end of the US school year.

We’ve been back from NZ 6-8 weeks.  As I returned to the US on January 28, I was somewhat anxious about this emerging virus and what the coming months may entail.  Peripatetic gang that we are, our doorstep has been graced by many Kiwi visitors since then.  The last two were curtailed by the 5.7 earthquake (what next!) to hit Salt Lake City yesterday but we got them away today. Come as a friend, become a refugee then leave as a hostage. They will return to NZ to quarantine for two weeks. New Zealand has 28 cases of C-19 so far, the US has 8313 and Utah has 65. I’m now charting it. The New Zealand border closed last night.  I’ll admit it in writing: I prefer to live in New Zealand.  I strongly identify with the land and it’s always been hard for me to be away from it for long.  The rapidly closing borders and threat of reduced trans-Pacific flights awakens a deep-seated fear for me – what if I (and my family) get stuck on the wrong side?

Fear is something we all must work through from time to time.  More than ever I look to my morning routine of self-care (hydration, stretching and foam roller work out and meditation) as a source of a calm start to the day.  Seeking facts is also important for me right now.  Since we must decide (extremely) soon whether to ride this pandemic out in Utah or in NZ, I follow several reputable media sources:  The New York Times, Radio New Zealand and The Salt Lake Tribune.  I also look to trusted scientific friends for information.  My good friend Esther Smith at Grassroots Physiotherapy sent this link on limiting in person interactions to help to flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19.  Wise words.

In the meantime, we ski and walk and Obie skateboards. We help Obie with his school work.  We think of those who are really stuck – living paycheck to paycheck and those without support.

We are all in this together. Take it seriously. Wash your hands. Look after your kaumatua/elders – you are lucky to have them.  Kia Kaha.

 

 

 

Macpac blog shout out to John my number 1 guide of 2019!

Blog from Imogen of Macpac on a snow safety course from this season

A couple of new things:

1. I’ve stepped up to assessing on NZMGA Climb exams.  After 21 ski seasons in a row, the feet just love it when I squeeze them into rock shoes instead of ski boots.  Just joking …. I’m motivated by challenge, and the option to step up for my lesser sport (though equally loved) of climbing seemed like a logical step.  The recent NZMGA climb assessment was challenging – full westerly conditions for 2 weeks.  November at it’s most tempestuous with seething snows replenishing our glaciers (this is good).  Yes, a challenging couple of weeks but I do love working with guides-in-training and seeing them psyched to share mountain passion.  It’s an intense and demanding career choice.

2.  I’ve joined Macpac as an ambassador.  This is huge and another full circle milestone.  Back in the late 1980’s when Adventure Racing was a fledgling sport, our Canterbury team was outfitted by Macpac with lightweight Pursuit packs, sleeping bags and clothing.  it was good fun to go and visit the crew at Macpac, talk gear and get experimental. We put that gear seriously to the test in the world’s first adventure race, the Raid Gauloises, NZ (which we won – I bought my first car with the prize money!) It’s a crazy honour to be invited to represent Macpac again, a quiet 30 years later.  AND I DON’T HAVE TO TRY AND WIN ANY RACES!  That’s a relief as I’m actually not into competitive sport anymore.

Photos:  Recent images from a day’s training with Justin and Paul on Philistine.  Photos:  Jane Morris.

Make Room

A couple of years ago I was teaching a snow safety class at Mt Cheeseman.  Constant snow flurries, low visibility and wind kept us inbounds on day one. On day two, after the upper Cheeseman slopes had been controlled and opened by a hardworking 3-member Ski Patrol, my group headed into Tarn basin.  We linked the lower angle pitches to the very bottom of Tarn and had 500 metres of first tracks – superb, low risk, boot-top plus powder skiing.  We spread out for the section that rides through the runout of the Tarn chutes. As the group skinned back up the basin (again spread out for the exposed section), a pair of skiers dropped together into the Tarn chutes (approaching 40 degrees steep at the top).  I felt troubled by this – dropping in at the same time seemed unnecessarily risky.  If they had both been avalanched (it was within 24 hours of the snow fall – the time when snow is most unstable), we would have to make the difficult decision whether to go to help. My group, many of whom were in the backcountry for the first time, would be exposed to steep nearby slopes which could also avalanche. The so-called Slack country is not that slack. As soon as you leave the ski area boundary, it’s backcountry.  Ski Patrol are often too busy to be able to respond to a backcountry accident, especially if it’s a powder day.  Time is essential. No-one breathes for long under snow. It’ll be up there with the scariest thing you’ve ever had happen. I know: I’ve been there.

I feel like I see this often in New Zealand – people dropping wherever they feel like it in the backcountry, regardless of whether others are beneath them. Even wilder are all the times I’ve seen folks skinning back up the 35 degree ski lines while riders drop in around them. In other busy touring areas, you’d be given grief for this. It ties into manners but it’s really about risk management. Although spreading out in avalanche terrain is not necessary every single day on every single run, it’s a good habit to develop. Even when avalanche hazard is low, best practice is to at least verbalise the spacing plan among team members and assign regroup spots that are (as much as possible) away from avalanche runouts. The real trick comes into play when it’s unpredictable.  I’ve had many friends get caught out by avalanches in an otherwise stable snowpack.  Often an anomaly gets them – a small unexpected windslab carries the victim over a cliff or a wet slide knocks you off your feet and buries you in a drainage. This “spatial variability” – the idea that weak snow layers are variable from location to location, can be a frustrating concept. The only mitigation method is to avoid having too many people exposed at once on avalanche-prone slopes (slopes approaching and above 35 degrees). Set yourself up for someone to be available to help.  The avalanche question already involves a complex interplay of factors: Is the slope steep enough to avalanche?  What aspect is the slope in relation to wind and sun?  What elevation is the slope and how does that affect the snow?   What shape is the slope?  Does it have steep rollovers?  Shallow rocky areas?  How is the weather affecting the snow? Add in ourselves with our odd habits and urges and ask: What happens if an avalanche occurs?  Will the slide be big or small?  Could you be buried deep in a terrain trap, swept over a cliff, swept into a party below….?  It’s about examining consequences and options.

Best practice is to ski an avalanche-prone slope separately, particularly if there are several other groups in the vicinity. How much space you allow between riders will depend on the likelihood of an avalanche vs the consequence if the slope does rip. Before you drop, talk to your partner/s and establish the island of safety you plan to regroup at.  It may be a long way down (think Crystal valley off Porters) – which adds to risk management.  If the first skier makes it safely and the second gets avalanched, the skier below will have to skin to the rescue.  Islands of safety are higher points like knolls or ridges.  When you arrive at that island, look around and ask yourself “Am I in the safest spot I could be given the conditions?”  Agree on the distance between team members before dropping in.  Avoid stopping part way down.  As you drop, have an escape route in mind, should the slope go.  This may be a nearby ridge, a big rock that you can duck under or a route back onto the ridge you left from.  It’s wise for the first person to ski/snow board cut – high across the slope – to test it before committing to the drop.

Respect other riders and avoid dropping in on them until they’re at a safe spot.  Avoid dropping in above people skinning.  Skinners and booters – take the line that avoids being directly under slopes that folks are riding, even if these means going further or it means you lose the race for first tracks.  Honestly, there are always more first tracks!

I’m keen to avoid a multi-casualty accident in popular and accessible areas like Tarn basin and Crystal Valley.  Having a little self control and skiing/riding one at a time while identifying safe stopping areas is a healthy habit – whether it’s a stable day or not.  You never know when you could get it wrong.

At the risk of sounding preachy, here’s a quick version of dos and don’ts with backcountry etiquette:

1. If the ski area is generous enough to sell a one-ride ticket, preserve that goodwill by only taking ONE RIDE! Don’t be the one who kills the privilege!
2. Know Before you Go: Check the Avalanche Advisory (https://www.avalanche.net.nz/region/5)
2. Be nice to the ski patrol as you exit and enter the ski area.
3. Exit through designated areas. Do not return to the ski area via closed areas (this message is to all you people exiting Porters – that full sliding fall down Bluff face is incredibly unpleasant to witness).
4. Be friendly to other travellers. We are all in it for a good time and we need to look after each other out there.
5. Avoid dropping in on others below
6. Avoid skinning up the down routes. Skin lower angle routes back to the ski area. Spread out where it’s exposed.
7. Ski/Ride out of potential avalanche path runouts as much as possible – aim for a safe regroup spot where you are not under others who are skiing/riding down.
8. If you see an avalanche or get weak test results, share that info to other BC travellers, ski patrol and send it to the local avalanche observer.

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Nearing the top of Cockayne, wet not cold