AKG Goes global

Here’s what I have going on for 2018-2019:

New Zealand:

The Craigieburn Haute Route: Now in it’s third year, this iconic trip across the Craigieburns involves light packs, excellent ski terrain and ski club hospitality. Still in conjunction with Chill, still with my secret guiding weapon, Stu Waddel! August-September

Private hut-based trips to the gorgeous maritime glaciers of the South Island. Sadly they are diminishing. Ski NZ’s longest glacier Haupapa/Tasman Glacier and it’s tributaries or the West Coast glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef and their tributaries. September-November.

Northern Hemisphere:

Utah. I’ve lived in Utah’s Wasatch range for nearly 20 years yet people still welcome me to the USA. The kiwi accent endures. I know this range extremely well and would love to introduce you to the secret stashes of ‘the greatest snow on earth.’ Utah has many world-class ski resorts. Tack on some days of ski touring to your holiday. Learn to ski tour. Introduce family to the sport. It’s all good. January-April each year.

Nevada. Ok this one is gold. The past two years I’ve had the opportunity to train American Ski Guides based from the Ruby High Yurt in the Ruby Mountains way out in the Great Basin of Nevada. I love this spot for it’s wildness and remote position. The yurt has tremendous views, heaps of great ski options right outside the door and opportunities for ‘heli bumps’ to more remote ski touring in the range (thanks to the Ruby Mountain Heli ski operation). February-March. 2-4 day trips for four people.

Iceland. I’ve joined with my friend and fellow IFMGA guide, Emilie Drinkwater to charter a yacht in the Western Fiords of Iceland in May 2019. Hero skiing at it’s finest in an exotic location close to Europe…. I can take a group of four for 6 days yacht-based ski touring in this fine island nation. Emilie will also have a group of 4, meaning flexibility to choose where we ski and for how long each day.

Antarctic Peninsula. After travelling to the Peninsula on foot twice in the past two years, I must return on skis with some of my adventurous people. For this mission, I’ve joined forces with Ice Axe expeditions as they have the ship and the organisation to ensure a smooth and safe voyage to ski some of the most remote mountains on earth. We meet in the extreme southern Argentine town of Ushaia to sail across the Drake Passage to the Peninsula. Again, a guide: guest ratio of 1:4 means flexibility to ski as much as you like among the fabulous wildlife and scenery of Antarctica. It’s a trip of a lifetime. November 2019.

Links for more information can be found here: YO, come and join the great ski times!

Let’s go big….


UAC podcast

Winter is winding down in SLC.  I was interviewed a while back by Utah Avalanche Forecaster, Drew Hardesty.  I loved talking to Drew and producer Ben Bombard.  My perspective is pretty personal – and quite long.  Sorry about that.  Only listen on a long drive or a long work out.  Here it is

The AKG 2018 pre-season prep is underway.  Right now is my climbing season.  So far mostly gym focused for fitness.

And fresh back from South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula.  Year 2.  A remarkable landscape and experience.  Guiding with Tarn Pilkington.  This year the big treat was having Michele Gilbert join the trip.  This stalwart of climbing, Michele prefers cool weather, low altitude and she doesn’t get seasick!  That plus her passion for wildlife meant it was all good.


How to become a Ski Guide

I wrote this awhile ago for Chill.  It pertains to the NZ ski guide scene but the American Mountain Guide Association(AMGA) ski guide road is similar.  Both associations align to the common platform for Mountain Guiding: the IFMGA/International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations.  If you are curious on how to become a ski guide, read on:

For my job, I host people on their holidays (or at least days off). Initially I wondered if I wanted my favourite sports (climbing and skiing) to become my career. Somehow that evolved to a yes, without really stopping to think too much about it. I always knew I wanted a job outside. I’m often asked how to become a New Zealand ski guide (I’m a climbing guide as well but this is a ski blog). These days I’m also an American Ski and Mountain Guide but I did my guide training in NZ. Becoming a ski guide is pretty involved but obviously fun with skiing as the focus:

Firstly you have to be an expert skier. The standard of the NZ ski guide is rising as the calibre of our clients rises. You have to keep up. In fact, you have to stay ahead! Many guides are or have been ski patrollers or ski instructors. Both are good paths into ski guiding. Patrolling is excellent because you learn about terrain and avalanches and first aid. Ski instructing is great because you learn about the mechanics of skiing and can help people improve. I come from a ski racing and patrolling background. The ski racing gave me solid technique and the patrolling taught me about rescue, terrain and the snow pack.

Before you get into the NZMGA Ski (or Climb) pathway, you need certain prerequisites – the Avalanche 1 certification (one week) and the 40 hour First Aid qualification. Most NZ patrollers and guides take the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care course (PHEC). You then need to refresh PHEC every two years.

You also need backcountry ski mileage. A minimum of three seasons winter backcountry skiing or ski mountaineering are needed and two of the seasons must be in NZ. All up you must have a minimum of 30 quality days (quality means full days in a variety of terrain and mountain ranges, in a leadership role). Ten of these days must include winter mountaineering up Logan grade one peaks using ice axe, crampons and ropes and you must have ascended a minimum of two grade 2 peaks in winter. The NZMGA gives examples of peaks in Aoraki/Mt Cook and Westland National parks. 
Of the 30 days, 15 must be on glaciated terrain. Ski patrol work in a strong programme may be counted toward some of the non-glaciated days.

Once you have your personal mileage, Avalanche 1 and PHEC, you apply for the ski pathway. This pathway includes two training courses and two assessments. First up is the Snow and Ice Guide training course (SIG). This seven day glacier-based course takes your amateur technical skills and teaches the basic guiding skills needed to begin guiding. These skills revolve around safe-guarding clients, crevasse rescue, rope work, footwork and general mountain sense. Next, the ski pathway requires a pass in the one day Technical Ski examination, examined by a NZMGA Ski guide who is also a ski instructor.

Once your skiing is approved, there’s a four day Ski Guide Training course. It expands on the Snow and Ice Guide Training as it’s on skis and prepares you for the first (level 1) Ski Assessment course. You’ll usually do the SIG, the Technical Ski exam, the Ski Guide Training course and your level 1 Ski Guide assessment in the same year. There will be a fair bit of money and time going out so you have to want it. It’s like doing a diploma.

The level 1 Ski assessment takes place in glaciated areas (generally Mt Cook or Westland) over 14 days. It’s intensive. There are never more than six candidates and two assessors on a course. Several candidates will be level 2 guides taking the second (and last) tests of the ski pathway. They will expected to take a leadership role. Candidates take turns at guiding. On your days of guiding, you’ll get the weather forecast and plan your trip for the next day (and pack) the night before. After getting up early, you prepare hot drinks for your team, make your weather and snow observations and brief the group on the plan for the day and expected hazards. You run through the safety checks and you are off – for a day that could be up to 12 hours long.

At the end of the assessment you should feel fitter and feel like you’ve been put through your paces pretty effectively. There will be some low times but in general you’ll have had a lot of fun with like-minded people. The good news after that crazy year of courses and training and passing the assessment, is that you are now an assistant ski guide and you can start working. The next couple of seasons (including overseas ones if you are lucky) are spent ski tour and heli-ski guiding and learning as much as you can about leading others through avalanche terrain. Before you can attend your level 2 assessment you must attend and pass the Avalanche 2 certification. This is an in-depth process that takes about two years and is a mix of online learning, a field training course and a final field exam. In NZ this is done through the Otago Polytechnic. Certain Canadian and American avalanche certifications can be recognised too.

There is a timeframe of five years in which to complete these courses – from the Snow and Ice Guide Training to the level 2 Ski assessment. You have to make up your mind that this is what you are doing. However, once you commit, you’ll be rewarded with fresh air, untracked snow, you’ll meet people, and ski new runs in different mountain ranges. It’s a great job with the best office!




NZMGA Snow and Ice Guides Course


The office!  Franz Josef Glacier, Westland National Park, NZ






Kea: Mountain Parrot in decline


keaThis is from an article I wrote when I was ski columnist at the Christchurch Press 2011-2014.  I’m getting really worried about kea so I’m rehashing the story.  I’m definitely seeing fewer in the mountains, despite there being a good crowd of the alpine parrots up on Avalanche Peak (Arthur’s Pass) when we went tramping last week.  We have taken to photographing and recording our kea sightings.  Here’s an example:  https://keadatabase.nz/birds/vortex 

Let’s be kind to kea:
Arriving at the Porters car park last season, I got into a kid-skis-wind flummox that had me running to a side door of the car, while the back hatch was open. In that brief moment, a kea swooped into the back of the car, grabbed a Tupperware container from the lunch bag and took off with it. I chased it to no avail. The kea and his delinquent mates had done a runner.
‘‘You’re not doing yourself and your species any favours,’’ I yelled in futility, much to the mirth of others in the car park.

Yes, the charming New Zealand kea, an alpine parrot of great character and unbelievable opportunism. And bastion of alpine areas throughout the South Island.  Despite the apparent crowds of kea hassling people and facilities at ski areas, kea numbers are in decline. Estimated at a total population of between 1000 and 5000, they are threatened by habitat destruction, predation of nests, and their own curiosity.
‘‘The majority of kea at skifields are either juveniles or sub-adults[one to three-years-old] or adult males,’’ according to Tamsin Orr-Walker, of the Kea Conservation Trust. ‘‘The adult males visiting the skifield may have mates and perhaps chicks in a nest nearby [in
beech forest on ranges either side of the ski areas] and will be finding food for them.’’
As skifields become more aware of problems with kea, management have begun to take steps to ensure areas are safer for the birds. The removal of highly toxic (yet tasty)
lead nails from the roofs of older buildings has significantly reduced harm to kea but lead-building materials still exist at some ski areas. Similarly, signs aimed at discouraging feeding kea haven helped create awareness that human food is too high energy for them. Chocolate, that old standby when the going gets tough on the slopes, is also highly toxic for the birds. By feeding high-energy human food to kea, people encourage them to rely on us rather than forage in the forest. They end up with more time to get into mischief, hanging around car parks and roadways.The likelihood of conflict with people is  intensified as kea like interesting shiny objects. Their highly inquisitive nature
results in damage to property – not just to visitors’ cars but also to that of land owners.
Says Orr-Walker: ‘‘It’s important to remember that kea are neophiliacs [love all new things], so will be attracted to any new objects they see [like gloves,your lunch, bag – or passport as one tourist down south found out]. Many of these objects may not be healthy for kea to consume and autopsies have found that swallowing foreign objects has caused the death of some kea.’’
Such gregarious birds, but we need to remember that we are visiting their turf. If we want to be the only country in the world with an alpine parrot, we must take special care: don’t feed kea, keep your car doors closed (note to self here), remove all the rubber you can from your roof-rack, don’t leave things lying around in the car park, clear your table immediately if eating outside, and tell kids and others to do the same.  Pick up cigarette butts!  Do I even have to say this!
Let tourists know that kea are a threatened species and that we lessen the bird’s chance of survival by leaving tempting objects lying around.
It’s like your mother told you – pick up after yourself.  Go further and pick up after others too.  That way, the alpine parrot of great brazenness and curiosity has a greater chance of thriving.
❏ For more information see


Valerie:  A fledging female.  She’d been reported as having a broken leg but when we saw her last week (Otira valley), her leg seemed fine.  It was good to be able to help to identify her via her band and report on her good health.  Anyone can do this when they see kea.  Just record the band colours and number and report via keasightings@gmail.com

Tech vs frame bindings


Touring Choices are many

On a recent Craigieburn Haute Route all five of our guests had frame bindings (mostly Marker Dukes and Barrons) while I toured on tech (Dynafit Radical ST) and Stu holds loyal to telemark bindings. The frames worked well for these big guys. On ascents that were better suited to hiking than skinning, pack weights increased dramatically once the guys put their skis on their packs and several of them mentioned tight hip flexors as the days rolled on. Once 20cm fresh arrived at Mt O however, the guys were sorted for maximum downhill excellence.

Although my chosen touring rig is to use Tech bindings (Dynafit) I have a set up with a pair of Marker Tour lite frame bindings. I have to use touring bindings as my Dynafit ski boot soles are only compatible with touring binding(whether tech or frame). I keep my beefier Marker tech bindings for ski area skiing and side country only – dipping out of bounds for a short tour then heading back inbounds with a less than half hour skin. I avoid putting these bad boys on my back as they are far heavier than any tech binding I own. In the 90’s I toured exclusively on telemark bindings and did all my BC guiding on teles but gave it away once telemark gear became heavier than AT (alpine touring) gear. I’m not a fan of a big quiver of skis – my preference tends to an all purpose ski. I tour more than I ski the ski area. I don’t fall very often. My boot choice (I don’t own downhill boots), the amount I tour (80-90% of my skiing) and my stability (or timidity – call it what you will) are perhaps the biggest factors defining my binding choices.

I looked to http://www.outdoorgearlab.com/topics/snow-sports/best-at-bindings for a solid review on the pros and cons of tech and frame. If you’ve got the time and interest, check this extensive article out. There’s an excellent graph ranking all kinds of touring bindings. Otherwise stick with me for the condensed version:

Tech bindings use “pins” that slot into metal lined holes near the toe of your boot and feature a heel piece that never leaves the ski. Depending on the brand the heel piece is manoeuvred to allow the heel to release for uphill skinning. Most tech bindings have brakes (or at least the option to add brakes). While they look frail, they are actually super strong. I’ve seen only a few break and that’s often due to many years of wear or incorrect use.

Weight – often around half the weight of the average frame binding.
A more efficient pivot point at the toe, meaning you can stride more naturally while skinning, resulting in energy saved. Additionally, you are not lifting the weight of the frame with every step as the binding stays on the ski (unlike the frame where the binding lifts with the foot) = way easier trail breaking.
The user does not need to step out of the binding at transitions from skin to ski and vice versa.

Tech style bindings are typically harder to get into, especially in softer snow or on ice (ie. they take some getting used to but generally less than a day).
They require a specialised boot with the aforementioned metal-lined holes for the pins.
They are durable but typically not quite as beefy as many frame versions.
They are more expensive than frame bindings.

Upshot: Because of their weight and efficient stride, they are the best choice for backcountry users who tour on their setup more than 50% of the time. The primary disadvantage that comes from a lighter binding is that the bindings feel less damp on firm snow – an easy trade off when you skin for hours to get to that firm snow, or a poor trade-off when you take a lift or a helicopter to get there. Another trade off for most tech bindings is that you will need a boot with “tech fittings” and you will almost definitely not be able to use your downhill boots in them – meaning it’s harder to financially “ease” into the transition of purchasing a touring setup. It’s also worth remembering that tech bindings are not designed for hard-out inbounds skiing and that too many ski area days will eventually wear the binding out.

Frame bindings feature a metal structure (hence the term “frame”) connecting the toe and the heel piece of the binding that can be freed for touring, and locked down for skiing.

A. Safety: They are arguably marginally safer due to their releasability – both on ascent and descent.
B. Downhill: For primarily in-bounds focused skiers, their greater mass, while heavier for the way up, means superior dampness and performance on the down. The firmer the conditions and the greater the speed, the bigger to advantage to frame style.
C. Boot compatibility: Most frame styles work with downhill boots and are easier to get in and out of.

A. Weight: Frame style bindings look more like a traditional downhill binding but feature some sort of “release” that frees your heel to allow you to tour; this means that with every step, you are picking up extra weight because of the binding.
B. The pivot point (with the exception of the Fritschi Freeride Pro), is also typically not as efficient. On a long climb you’ll tire quicker, something that is even more noticeable on flatter approaches.
C. Weight: Frame styles are often about 50% heavier, but sometimes even greater compared to their tech counterparts.
D. Transitions: The Marker bindings require the user to step out of the binding at any skin-ski transition.

In New Zealand the most commonly used frame binding would be the Marker Barron or Marker Duke, although I see a few Fritschi Diamir and newer Atomic frame bindings around as well. These are a popular option for the skier who only busts out a few skins each year. Almost all ski tour guides use tech bindings. We are in it for long-haul protection of our hip flexors – the area to feel the greatest strain from many uphill steps with a heavy binding. Another problem spot in terms of weight are the shoulders and back if carrying your skis for any period of time.

Outdoor Gear Lab puts it succinctly when they state that a tech binding tours significantly better than a frame binding skis when comparing the two. It really does come down to expected use. If you tour 50% of the time then you are probably best to go for tech. At around the 50% area vs. 50% touring mark, it would be advisable to go for a strong tech binding such as the Marker Kingpin or the Dynafit Beast 16. While a little heavier than a Dynafit Radical or the G3 Ion techs, these tech bindings offer superior downhill performance. The Fritschi Vipec tech bindings come somewhere in the middle of the Kingpin/Beast and G3/Dynafit Radical. The Fritschi Freeride Pro offers hassle free transitions and a solid touring efficiency, yet remains downhill boot compatible and are just as easy to step into.

With 30 years on the market, Dynafit have had the tech binding world pretty sorted. Now that their historic patent has ended, binding companies such as the ever strong Marker, have been quick to jump on the tech train and we’ve seen a significant broadening of options. It’s just a matter of priorities – are you a side country specialist or are you taking it further and longer? Update: Look out for Diamir’s new Tectron binding – a step in along similar lines to the Kingpin. Your choices have never been better!

Photos from top left:  Modelling my dynafit radicals and Nancy Loves Bikes fine midweight top!  Crushing ladies release the tech heels for access to Memorial hut, Bob and Marianne model frame and tech on a recent HR, Kids can tour too – Obie and Scottie head to Crystal valley.  Obie using old tech gear of mine (dynafits and cut down skins and a pair of small boots found in a consignment store in Salt Lake City!)


The Persistent Weak layer (PWL)- an update


Avalanche conditions have had a fair amount of press lately. After I accidentally triggered two large slides outside Porters on July 18, most local snow safety workers got talking. Thinking and talking about avalanches and snow has taken up a lot of time lately.

Yesterday (August 2) I went for a tour with Craigeburns forecaster Brad Carpenter and Cait Hall, Cheeseman patroller. Our aim was to get further afield and look at the snow conditions and monitor the PWL. We set off from Cheeseman ski area in mist. Annoyingly, a flick of SE mistiness was to stick with us, preventing decent visibility.

I wanted to get an idea of snow depth and distribution now that we’ve had 3 decent storms. A persistent weak layer – in this case, depth hoar, can stick around for weeks or even months. Ideally it would be flushed out by a big rain event and subsequent freezing of the pack, but that has not occurred extensively yet. We’ve had some light rain but not enough to make a significant difference. The other option is that the layer becomes buried by subsequent snowfalls. Yet not enough snow has fallen – the weak layer is still only 50-100cm deep. The weight of a single person can trigger a failure in a weak layer that is 100cm or less below the snow surface, depending on the strength and resistance of the layers above it. We can see light through the trees but we are not yet out of the woods.

The snow pack has gained strength thanks to additional snow fall and warmer temperatures but the weak layer of depth hoar and facets still lurk beneath. No longer will the weight of one 60kg lady wearing a pack, remote trigger slides from 50 metres away – but slides could still be triggered by the weight of one person! It’s tricky.

I have had my probe out a lot on recent outings. I use it to gauge the depth of snow and to feel for the weak layer and whether this weak layer sits on a crust (sliding layer). Generally I’m finding the snow pack to be 50-100cm deep. It’s deeper where the wind has distributed snow near ridge lines and is thinner below the ridge lines (in the start zones). This means that you are more likely to trigger an avalanche once you are well off the ridge. The thin snow pack means that you could still easily trigger the weak layer if you stray into the wrong spot.

As the snowpack gains strength (and it has), the chance of triggering an avalanche become less but the consequences remain the same – the slide could propagate widely and entrain a lot of snow. The uncertainty is still high in my mind – I cannot be certain that I would not trigger a slide on any upper elevation slope approaching 35 degrees and steeper. If we got a large amount of precipitation (snow or rain or event wind), all bets would be off as this would overload the weak layer immediately.

Here are my recommendations for safe backcountry travel this weekend:

1. Only go if you understand what a weak layer looks like and how it behaves (i.e. you know how to do effective tests).

2. Don’t go alone.

3. Let someone know where you are going and carry rescue gear. Practice your transceiver searches.

4. Dig and probe to get an idea of the snowpack depth and conditions before you drop in. Do this in a safe, representative area if possible.

5. Choose to ascend or descend slopes that are low angle (less than 35 degrees) or well supported. Avoid shallow rock rollovers and slopes with poor run-outs (terrain traps and cliffs).

6. Follow strict safe travel protocols – one at a time and eyes on each other throughout the run.

7. Remember that tracks on the slope don’t make it safe. That person may have just missed the deficit spot – that point on a slope where an avalanche is most likely to be triggered.

In times of uncertainty you need to have wider safety margins and be stricter on how you travel. Yesterday, we kept to ridges for the uphill travel and chose lower angle lines for descents. We skied a low angle line off Mt Cheeseman into the Ryton and kept eyes on each other as we skied from the summit ridge to an island of safety on the first bench. Shallow snow on a western aspect gave us safe passage into Waterfall basin. There, we chose the lowest angle line that was not attached to anything steeper above, and skied one at a time from high point to high point until we were below the 1700m contour. After that it got icy and the hazard changed from avalanche to a sliding problem. Such is life in the Craigies!

Persistent weak layers can lead to large avalanches: A warning

Persistent Weak Layers and large Avalanches

Yesterday (July 18) I went into the backcountry from Porters and triggered two large avalanches. Known as remote triggering, I triggered each slope from a distance of 40-100m away. I did not get caught in either slide. The first one was on the Main Line off Allison Peak into Crystal Valley. I entered the top of the slope on the Northern aspect of the line (it wraps to face east). I took out my probe to gauge the snow depth and hiked down about 50m from the summit. The snow depth was no more than 40cm and I deemed it shallow enough that it would not harbour deeper weak snow. I’d skied Big Mama (similar aspect and elevation) on Saturday and saw the bomb craters left by the Porters Patrol. There had been no releases on Big Mama and I extrapolated that Main Line would have similar conditions. I was wrong. As I began to cautiously ski, something felt amiss. I kept pausing to flip my pole upside down and push the handle into the snow to gauge the snow depth. It was still shallow and I was hitting the ground at 40-50cm. On one of these pauses, I noticed cracking about 40m below me. I watched the slide propagate widely, all the way to the low saddle in Crystal Valley. At this point I headed down onto the bed surface as I’d be safer where the slide had already run. I took off my skis and booted back up the shallow snow to the Peak. The avalanche released 200m below it’s usual start zone. My group and I headed down the ridge to the shallower-angled saddle to study the crown wall. We had very easy test results there and everyone enjoyed the education!

On the second slope, our group was on a broad ridge. I went to traverse off the ridge to avoid some rocks, felt a collapse (whoomph) and a south facing slope 50m above and 100m to the side of me released and ran about 300m down and 300m wide.

For several years now – in fact, the past seven years, we’ve enjoyed a mostly stable Craigieburn snowpack. This year is not the case. I’ll describe the problem of persistent weak layers, how they form, what they look like and what it takes for them to go away. I’ll make some suggestions for avoiding them but at this point, it’s best not to go out into the backcountry (although the ski areas are fine). If you do go, stick to ridges and slopes of less than 30 degrees which are not attached to any steeper slopes. Only go if visibility is good and definitely avoid going if the weather is further contributing to instability (it’s snowing, blowing, raining or warming).

What is a persistent weak layer and how does it form?

A PWL is as it’s described – a weak layer in the snow pack that persists over time. It forms when snow falls early in the season. If that initial snow sits around for several cold, clear days, the snow crystal will begin to change (metamorphose) into a larger, sugary weak crystal known as a facet. This year we had snow early and it lingered on most aspects – but only above 1700m. The crystals deteriorated and became extremely weak.
On July 12-15 we had a large SE storm that deposited about 50cm of new snow along the range. The storm was followed by several warm and windy days with winds from both the SW and NW. The new snow plus wind-transported snow was deposited over the pre-existing snowpack. The initial storm snow did not quite provide enough weight on the weak snow. Ski patrols were able to trigger a few avalanches but really, it took the additional days of wind to create enough weight on the weak layer to create the widespread avalanche cycle that we began to see on July 17.

What does the PWL look like?

If you dig (and you have to dig or probe to get an idea of the location of the weak layer as it is variable), you will find a very dense slab about 40-70cm deep sitting over a distinct 5cm layer of weak sugary snow. If you expose a profile of the snow, this strong layer over the weak layer can be easily seen. This mess sits inconveniently on a hard, icy crust layer – which provides an effective sliding layer.

How long can a PWL last and what makes it go away?

It’s persistent so it can linger. Two things will eventually help the layer: One is rain to high levels to an extent where water percolates through the pack. When this all freezes up, the pack heals.
The second is to get enough snow fall (or wind distribution) that the weak layer becomes buried deep in the snow pack. The weight of a skier generally only affects the snow pack to a depth of about 100cm (or 120cm to play it safe). The problem with this scenario is that snow depth varies – it may be 100cm to the weak layer in one spot but only 50cm to the weak layer in another. This spatial variability is the bane of the backcountry traveller and avalanche practitioner and since you cannot be certain of the location of this weak layer, then safe travel protocols must prevail (skiing one at time, eyes on each traveller etc).
In addition, the problem goes from that of persistent weak layer to that of deep slab once more snow falls. This problem is especially thorny in that the likelihood of triggered diminishes but the consequences, if you did trigger a slide, become much higher. You will likely trigger a much bigger avalanche. This is known in the industry as a low probability-high consequence scenario.

At the ski areas, avalanche mitigation in the form of explosive control work will eliminate the problem. Skier compaction in the start zones also helps. We don’t have these luxuries in the back or side country.


For now, ski our excellent ski areas and study the terrain and any visible remnant avalanches. Read the advisory every day and make sure to check out the observation pages as well. This is a great year to take an avalanche class. You can learn a lot (check out the MSC website for accredited avalanche education providers. Chill also offers snow safety classes). Watch this next storm – it’s expected Thursday through Saturday and looks to be a big wind event, with snow.

If you have several solid years of experience you can still go but stick to ridges and low angle slopes (less than 30 degree) that are not attached to steeper slopes. Let someone know where you are going and carry emergency gear. Talk to Patrol before you go. Dig and do snowpack tests. Submit your observations to http://www.avalanche.net (your local area).

A PWL is not to be toyed with. You cannot outsmart it but must be systematic in your data gathering on it’s location (aspect and elevation). On every tour, you should look for this weak layer and record it’s location and test results on it. Ride slopes one at a time and realise that with PWL’s, it may not be the first or even the fifth rider who triggers the avalanche. Often all it takes is for someone to hit the deficit spot – the shallow spot which sets off the failure across the entire slope. Therefore, tracks on a steep slope do not necessarily indicate that a slope steeper than 30 degrees is safe.

Remember the bullseye clues: Avalanches running, deposition by wind or new snow fall (but especially wind), cracking and collapsing (whoomphing) – are all indicators that dangerous avalanche conditions exist.




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The Everest Wife and Deseret peak by Ski

Is there such thing as Ski Tourers anonymous?  I think I need to go. Because I’m still skiing at the beginning of June.  Last week, as we eased into summer in Utah, I had the privilege to be the first Utah Mountain Adventures employee to guide Deseret Peak.  40 miles west of Salt Lake city, at 11031 feet, Deseret is the tallest peak in the Stansbury range.  I’ve got a real soft spot for the Great Basin.  Primarily in Nevada, this inland basin of endless sagebrush and mountain ranges, spreads from the Sierra Nevada of California, to Utah’s Wasatch range.  It’s a vast area, a scrubby desert of scorching heat and long evening light. The rivers that drain from the 200 or so ranges never make the sea.  They evaporate in low-lying salty lakes. There’s the odd (and I mean odd) town: Bizarre Wendover, an isolated sin city on the border of Utah’s Bonneville salt flats and Nevada; And cowboy towns like Elko, Nevada (where my in-laws lived for 22 years).

To Deseret Peak:  With Scottie away on Everest (and easing ever closer to the summit), there were many moving parts to coordinate my 5am departure for the peak.  Obie was in his last week of school so I needed both before and after school care.  We needed bikes to access the trailhead (the 2 mile/1000 foot access road being closed until Memorial weekend). I was to guide regulars Neil and Scott.  Fit guys, good skiers, adventurous.

I felt a little weird shouldering my skis and biking out of our garage in the pre-dawn but our meeting place was a mere 5 minute bike ride from home.  Sleep had been marginal as I fielded calls and texts from Scottie at Camp 3 and from Adventure Consultants in NZ (the company whom Scottie was working for) with updates.  Scottie had the flu but somehow was recovering at Camp 2.  That’s how it is being an Everest wife – you multi-task.  It’s a fun, though often fretful challenge.  You worry, you rejoice.  I’ve never been up the South side of Mt Everest but I feel as if I know it.

Our ride up to the trailhead was strenuous.  It’s always strenuous biking with skis on the back.  I was suffering a little from a fearsome Gym Jones training session the night before but my experiences from adventure racing allows me to suffer just fine.  We ditched the bikes with relief and continued on foot for another 700 feet.  Slivers of resistant snow got us upon skins and we made good progress up through pinyon pine forest.  Gaining altitude, the views to the east opened up.  The Great Salt Lake and it’s salty white flats stretched to the peaks of the oh-so-familiar Wasatch.  Our route narrowed heading into the Twin Couloirs and the pace slowed as we made endless kick turns between the rock walls of the western couloir.  Uncertain of the angle and snow conditions, we’d brought crampons and an ice axe each.  They remained stowed, weighing us down as we sweated to 10400.  A final jaunt on foot took us across a corniced ridge to the summit.  We basked in our unusual 360 perspective of basin and range and strange man-made constructions (military?)  Neil confessed to feeling totally turned around by a familiar landscape seen from a completely new angle.

The hour was getting on and we missed peak corn.  I never think of Utah as a great corn destination.  My friend Kowboy (a forecaster with the UAC) reckons corn is for drinking anyway.  He’s so Midwestern.  Not exactly gliding on the grabby snow, it was still easier than the ascent.  We skied to the bitter end, even lower than our skin track.  The bike ride down was awesome – warm wind, effortless coasting – the truck in less than 10 minutes.

The next day my neck was locked.  A combination of Gym Jones lifting, biking with skis on my back, broken sleep.  I made an emergency call to my Chiropractor, Suzanne.  I saw her twice that day – once in the morning and again that afternoon when I brought Obie in (also with a stiff neck).  It was a miracle.  A little roller action to get the kinks out the following day and I was good to go.

Obie finished school the following day and we rolled west, across the Great Basin toward California to raft with great friends, ski at Mammoth (I know!), visit old haunts, hotpools and sight see.  Arriving in Wendover, the aforementioned sin city, Caro from Adventure Consultants texted me:  “Summit!” I love that moment.  Scottie’s coming home.  We could relax and holiday.  Descending is never a sure or safe thing but it’s downhill.

Antarctic Peninsula & South Georgia Island

For years I’ve wanted to go and guide on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia Island.  From March 5-27 the dream came true as I got a job with Aurora Expeditions out of Sydney.  I joined the Polar Pioneer, a St Petersburg based ship and it’s Russian crew of 22, for a three week trip from Ushuaia – Antarctic Peninsula – Elephant Island – South Georgia Island and finish in the Falkland Islands (aka Islas Malvinas if you are Argentinean).  Aurora has offered a “Follow the Footsteps of Sir Earnest Shackleton” journey over the past two years to celebrate the “glorious failure” but incredible survival in his heinously unsuccessful attempt to cross Antarctica in 1916.  Our crossing of South Georgia Island would (kind of) follow the final footsteps of Shackleton’s epic journey.

I was to go last year but the sad demise of my dad meant that I ended up in NZ instead and Jane Morris (fellow Kiwi chick guide) replaced me.  In an odd turn of events, Jane broke her arm badly and was not sufficiently recovered; Thus the tables turned for 2017.

Scott was preparing to go to Everest for about the 5th time (I’m not even sure!) so it was hectic in the Simper-Keeling household and we actually missed each other.  Everyone asks: “what about Obie?” but if you know Obie then you know that he’s a versatile boy who is happy to stay with friends.

I’d not been to Argentina or Chile before so enjoyed transit days in both Buenos Aires and Santiago on access and egress as well as setting off from Ushuaia and arriving to the Falklands…. all new and interesting.
The Polar Pioneer is a 75m steel ship, built (obviously) for the Polar regions.  We had about 45 passengers and 4 of these had signed up for the South Georgia Island crossing.  We were a geographically varied team – Phil Penney (old friend from NZ) and I as guides, Eamonn from Ireland, Tats from Japan, Sheona from England and Peg from Colorado.  Everyone was super fit and into it and we enjoyed some great climbs and a lot of ribbing and laughs.

I also hugely enjoyed my fellow staff – the Expedition Leaders Stephen and Anna (both from Oz), Naturalists Heidi (Canada/Oz) and Marilou (Falkland Islands!), historian Alisdair (Oz), Hotel manager Justine (NZ/Oz) and Leila (Argentina).  I hope I get to go again!!

I wrote an account for the ship paper about the South Georgia crossing:

Stephen, the Expedition Leader, positioned us climbers perfectly in terms of weather.  The SE gales began to ease on March 17 as Marilou dropped us on the shores of King Haakon bay.  This is where Shackleton and his four men alighted after their desperate 800 nautical mile journey from Elephant Island in the 20 foot wooden lifeboat, the James Caird .  Clouds scudded for the brisk 2km walk over glacial moraine to the glacier toe.  Roping up, it was a steady 300 metre/5.5km climb to Shackleton gap and view into Possession bay.  The plan was not to set out on the full trek this day, instead opting for a fairer forecast the following (an option obviously not available to Shackleton and his men!)  We gazed into Possession bay, less than an hour’s stroll away.  An overnight boat ride around the Northern tip of the Island would let the storm die out completely and set us up for best success.  The next morning  dawn spread it’s shining perfection into Possession bay.  Shackleton had crossed to Possession on the initial part of their trip so the start of our trek would look somewhat similar to his (our modern gear, our half start and a half wheel of brie notwithstanding).

The first disembark point was vetoed due to an actively calving glacial face and Marilou (our trusty zodiac driver for almost every one of our trips) dropped us on a beach below Shackleton gap.  Our trail came within 200-300m of our track the day before.  The two rope teams angled toward the Tridents – a series of 650 metre black rocky peaks that are generally agreed to be the crux of the journey.  Firm ice conditions made for fast travel as we cramponed crisply in the morning sun, shouting joyously on occasion that we were finally making this historic trip.  On the East side of the Tridents, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley made the infamous bumslide in the dark.  We sweltered under hot sun and descended via the lowest point – a steep, narrow glaciated gully that compressed just enough to allow safe zig-zag passage through crevasses.  On the lower section, in an attempt to emulate the Shackleton experience, we slowly bum-slid toward Crean camp.  The snow was thick and slow like mashed spuds.  For momentum I ran down the slope pulling Sheona and Peg behind me.

Stopping for lunch at Crean camp, we scoffed quarter of the brie wheel with crackers.  The Crean camp is on a lateral moraine above Antarctic bay and from it, we had a clear view through to our next objective, the Nunatak, 450 metres higher and 9km away.  There followed a fairly nasty section weaving through an old and tired blocky section of glacier.  Alternately balancing on ice stacks then mushy snow, the odd person (mainly the guides) stumbled through hidden crevasses.  Seeping wetness eased unpleasantly  into socks.  A long hot push into the afternoon took us back to 550 metres and we stopped to camp on a rocky shoulder opposite the Nunatak.  Sunset from our eyrie flooded us in a diffuse gold light as tents were positioned and hot soup consumed.

A slightly cold and uncomfortable night for us was nothing compared with the all-nighter that the Shackleton team endured in late May 1916.  We woke at 5.  I had set our stove in the tent vestibule and it was a simple thing to light from my sleeping bag for several nice hot cups of tea before trekking out at 6.20am.  Grey wispy clouds obscured nearby peaks but looked like they’d burn off to another glorious day on South Georgia Island.  We crunched down the Fortuna glacier in our usual two rope teams –  ladies on one rope, gents on the other.  I wondered at our wide trajectory to the north but all was revealed as the glacier rolled into a low angle icefall.  A fabulous section through serac (blocks of ice) corridors had cameras clicking as we wove into the glacier and emerged at the “Fortuna Pinch”.  This secret route was figured by guides before us and passed on by GPX file (to our GPS), making  for an aesthetic and fast route to the lower Fortuna glacier.

Fortuna bay sparkled below as we finished the morning’s 10km trek with hours to spare.  Finally we could take the ropes off and a small celebration ensued; The billy was boiled and Eamonn’s magic green bag of chocolate treats was produced.  Last: a simple stroll through the terminal moraine to the beach.

A feature of the climber journey to both the Peninsula and South Georgia was our constant-seeming sprint from ship to shore, quick changes from gumboots to climbing boots, harnesses and crampons and mad dashes to climb a peak within the timeframe of Polar Pioneer stops.  We arrived at Fortuna hours ahead of schedule and were able to finally relax on a beach in the sun and watch wildlife.  King penguins eyed us curiously.  Fur seal pups bounded in and out of the water; Sometimes growling, sometimes chasing us; Fat, lazy sea elephants dozed and moulted on the beach, occasionally scratching themselves with surprisingly supple fins.  Idyllic.  Eamonn dozed off at one point and woke to find himself surrounded by fur seal pups.

Marilou and Stephen scooped us by zodiac; We had a heartening welcome back onboard the PP, a quick lunch then boots back on for the walk to Stromness with all of the other passengers and many Russian crew.  Big packs were jettisoned  and we merrily chatted our way over the hill to Stromness to the now-dilapidated whaling station that had welcomed Shackleton, Crean and Worsley back in 1916.

Over the three days we hiked a whisker under 47km with 1360m of elevation gain and loss, mostly on glaciers.  The weather was unbelievably perfect for an island that receives rain 300 days a year – calm, clear with travel conditions as good as you can get. We savoured the well-filled crevasses and good firm ice travel.

South Georgia crossed, the team settled into ship life and joined excursions to the north side bays of South Georgia –  the old whaling station – Grytviken and some other glorious spots – Gold Habour, Hercules bay and maybe some others that my simple mind has lost already.  Glaciers spilled to the beaches crowded with seals, penguins of all kinds, sea elephants and the stealthy skuas and other opportunistic birds (some of the group watched a penguin chick get chomped right from it’s parents).  At sea we were followed by several species of albatross, prions and various types of petrel.  We’d go to the bridge and watch for hours.

If you read this and feel an inkling of keenness, let me know.  I want to go back to both the Peninsula and South Georgia and I also want to ski there!  October-November would be best for skiing but March works for climbing.


Me n Phil

Phil & I, Peninsula


Me and my friends of Fortuna bay


Peninsula – Livingston Island

20170312_ATaylor_Polar Plunge Anna Keeling 1

Polar plunge (had to be done)


Marilou releasing a prion (the naturalists are super vigilant about trying to prevent bird strikes on board). Marilou grew up sailing this area with her parents and brother. A remarkable 23 year old!


Gold Harbour King penguin colony


Russian crew on the Stromness hike


Sad big guy


Stromness hike – Phil & the ladies….

Adventuring with kids

20130419-221439.jpgThis is a blog I wrote for Chill a few weeks ago.  As we adventure with Obie, I often wonder – am I doing this for me or for him?  It’s a good perspective to maintain.  It’s a long weekend and Scott, Obie and I are going down to Mt Cook National Park to fly in by heli and stay at a high hut then ski the Tasman glacier.  I do this a lot for work but the boys haven’t done it so I think it’s fair to say this is a bonafide family trip!

Oh and I didn’t run the Snow Safety courses during the spring holidays.  Look out for them in the next July holidays.  They’ll be advertised on my website.

Kids and Adventure

Is it a good idea to take kids into the backcountry or side country?  Since side country is backcountry in terms of being outside the ski area boundary, then there’s really no difference.  Here in the Craigies at least, it feels like it’s a bit of an issue as people duck in and out of the ski areas.  It’s easy to take the kids on missions with short hikes.

I recently read world champion Adventure Racer, Nathan Fa’ave’s book “Adventurer at Heart.”  I was both inspired and appalled by the level of adventure he was prepared to hit with his kids.  Sea kayaking around D’Urville island, Nathan paddled a double sea kayak with his three kids while his extremely able wife, Jodie, paddled a single kayak.  They got caught in rising seas and a tricky tide as they tried to negotiate their way past a headland into sheltered waters and camp.  Nathan’s water experience from 20 years at the top of Adventure Racing, as a sea kayak guide and his sheer physical strength got them through but I was left wondering: “What if they’d bailed out?  Three kids and Nathan swimming and Jodie trying to pick up the pieces in rough seas…”  Although I’m ok in a boat (I can take care of myself only) sea kayaking is not my thing.  It’s easier for me to view the scenario in the mountains:  Myself and another able adult take three kids into the backcountry – say the Ryton from Mt Cheeseman.  We are two hours from Cheeseman ski field at the quickest and two hours from Mt Olympus ski field.  Weather comes in and stability is changing rapidly – a fast moving southerly hits hours earlier than expected.  Can we adults handle it?  Can the kids?  Are we equipped for it?  We may need to change course and hike further with skis on packs.  We may need to drop straight to the valley or take a longer route on the ridges to get to safety. Worst case – we may need to dig in and wait out the storm.

I’m a proponent of adventure with kids and like Nathan and Jodie, I believe in the benefits in terms of life skills and resilience gained in the outdoors.  However, skiing in avalanche terrain (which the Fa’aves don’t do with their children) takes a new level of seriousness to me.  Last year two promising 20 year olds (friends of a friend) from the US junior ski team died in an avalanche after they crossed a boundary rope in Colorado.  Fresh powder would have been clearly visible from the ski area.
When our kids ski black diamond runs so young, it’s natural that we’d seek out better runs for them – or they’d find it for themselves.  My son (9.5) has been asking to go into Crystal valley for a couple of years now.  I did take him there last year with some other kids and adults but we pulled the pin at the top due to poor visibility and deteriorating snow stability.  Once you commit to skiing into Crystal, there are huge slopes above and you cannot escape.  It was better to leave it for another year.  Everyone was a bit disappointed.

The thing that bothers me about these mostly stable recent years in the Craigieburns is that one year, it will change and become a season with persistent weak layers in the snow pack.  And we must be able to adapt to that change and change our behaviour.  How and what we model to our kids is especially important.  We are churning out these solid skiers.  Where will they take their skiing?  To Europe?  To the great off-piste runs of Chamonix?  To North America (Whistler, the Colorado and Canadian Rockies, Red Mountain, Montana, Utah, California)?  To Japan – where the hazard rises and falls very quickly due to ongoing snowfall?  To Northern India?  In these amazing places, access to the backcountry may be very easy but avalanche conditions can be decidedly less defined.    A world of ski adventure awaits.

Risky behaviour is fine when there’s low risk and you are aware of the risks you are taking.  However low avalanche hazard never means no hazard and it’s important to understand that – and understand what it takes for hazard to change.  If you have the experience to go backcountry or side country with your kids, teach them about avalanches.  The younger ones can’t really probe or dig – but they should know how to use their avalanche beacons.  Older kids should carry a probe and shovel.  They should be aware of what exactly is avalanche terrain and have an understanding of slope angle, aspect, elevation and slope shape – and how these factors work together to create avalanches if there is unstable snow.  There are simple tricks for understanding surface snow instability and kids can easily be taught the class one signs (avalanches running, cracking, collapsing, snow or wind loading, rapid warming etc) to help them identify when the  likelihood of avalanches increases.  Teach safe travel protocols – how to spread out and how to identify and regroup at islands of safety.

To alleviate my angst over this issue, I’m running a snow safety course for youth (12-18) at Broken River on the best day of September 27 or 28.  Numbers are limited to 8.  Tune into BR for details:  http://www.brokenriver.co.nz/prices/avalanche-courses/
Next year I plan to run them earlier in the season at both Mt Olympus and Broken River.  I’ll probably take 10 year olds by then!