Issue No. 3 // Danger

Photographer: Brian Goldstone

Location: Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France

Editorial  //  by Jill Macdonald

THE BENEFITS OF DANGER

Of all the dangers we face in the outdoors, the most difficult one is that of trust. The power of nature is something that we accept; the power of other forces over us is a conflict. Vulnerability feels like something we can control by not surrendering to it, but really we can’t. We think on it and then let go because if feeling vulnerable stays at the forefront, we become paralyzed.

Risk assessment is based on an evaluation of probability, consequence and vulnerability. North Shore Search and Rescue team leader Tim Jones volunteered a great deal of his life for others. His dedication was an example and serves to remind us of our responsibility to assume and be accountable for our actions.

"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." Emily Dickinson.

Random events occur. The benefit of danger is committing to being aware and alive and making the best decisions we can given the information we have. Life is beyond our control, living it fully is not.

REMOTE OR RECKLESS

Where does a journey begin and end? Off the grid in Patagonia the stakes are high. Consequence and weather are constant travel companions on the way to sending La Vuelta de los Condores (5.11 A2).

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MYSTICISM AND MOUNTAINS

Positive thinking has its place but it is no match for the harsh truths inherent in alpine sports. Professional athlete Will Gadd shares his thoughts on being both a realist and an irrational optimist.

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HIGH ALTITUDE BACON

At 22,000 feet, 13 international mountain professionals gathered to test their own manual on best practices for guiding groups at high altitude. Out of the cultural chaos, bacon rose as diplomat.

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TO THE RESCUE IN CHAMONIX

Chamonix is the place where climbers, alpinists and the general public are drawn to test themselves. What you need to know before you head out and spare others from having to come to the rescue.

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FEAR AND DESIRE:
THE DAY I BACKED DOWN

Three pitches up El Cap, the wall turned from vertical to overhanging. Sonnie and I were tied to two fat bolts, the last bastion of safety before the pitch began.

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THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE

In the event of an emergency we hope that someone will come. Professional search and rescue technicians are an elite group of primary care paramedics who are always taking risks – for others.

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"Being vulnerable is actually embracing uncertainty."

Photographer: Matthew Van Biene

Location: Patagonia National Park, Argentina

Alpinism, Exploration  //  by Jill Macdonald, Photography by Matthew Van Biene and Paul McSorley

REMOTE OR RECKLESS: STEPPING OFF THE GRID PATAGONIA

ATHLETES

  • PAUL MCSORLEY

    PAUL MCSORLEY

    On his first ever day at the cliffs Paul realized he had found his calling. For the last twenty years he has practiced all types of climbing all over the world. It doesn't matter if he's doing trad, sport, blocs, ice, mixed, alpine or aid, Paul just loves getting outside with his friends and going climbing. "New routes are the most rewarding" from scrubbing a crack in Squamish to slogging up a virgin summit on the Patagonian icecap, "the adventure of a first ascent never gets old."

    › Read Paul's Bio

  • WILL STANHOPE

    WILL STANHOPE

    Born and raised in North Vancouver, Will spent his teenage years breathing in chalk dust and dangling from plastic holds at the local indoor climbing gym. At 21, Will now spends his summers in Squamish BC tinkering on old aid lines and mangling his fingers in cracks. Inspired by beautiful lines, sunrises, strong coffee at 3 AM, dry granite and campfires, Will counts climbing in Patagonia, Indian Creek, Yosemite, the Bugaboos and the Rockies as some of his proudest accomplishments.

    › Read Wills's Bio

  • MARC-ANDRE LECLERC

    MARC-ANDRE LECLERC

    As a child Marc-Andre was fascinated by the mountains and people who climbed them. Getting his start pulling plastic and breathing in chalk dust at the local gym, he eventually drifted away from the indoor/competition scene, finding himself drawn to the natural beauty of the mountains. By the time he was 15 years old he had rediscovered his love for challenging, technical rock climbs. Now 21 and based out of Squamish BC, Marc-Andre spends most of his time seeking out inspiring lines to test his mental and physical abilities on the rock, ice, or in the mountains.

    › Read Marc-Andre's Bio

The night sky isn't what it used to be. Hanging amongst the stars now is a multitude of satellites that repeat cellular telephone signals, cable television and radio transmissions. What was once science fiction is now taken for granted. Contact is rarely difficult or far.

In the outdoor world, the loss of wool pants along the way has not been a tragedy. Heavy leather boots are not missed. But losing our comfort with being alone is a definitive setback. Along with the fear of allowing ourselves to be truly vulnerable comes the loss of accountability. There is never a good time to take a bad fall, but when the possibility of even asking for help is hours or days away, the significance of any event packs enormous and very real consequence.

In January 2014, Will Stanhope, Paul McSorley, Marc-Andre Leclerc and Matt van Biene set off to climb in the remote reaches of northern Patagonia. Their objective was a wall that rises above Largo Mariposa, near the headwaters of one of the branches of the Río Turbio. The wall was something that Will and Paul had identified on a previous trip six years earlier as a destination worthy of return.

Basic logistics prevent most people from getting further than a coffee shop on Sunday mornings. A ton of effort goes into making remote journeys happen. Daytrips, even arduous ones, are only a partial measure in comparison, not only with regards to food and transportation, but also because the comfort zone of home remains in the mind. For both Paul and Will, the concept of turning off for a couple of weeks was welcome. No communication simplifies life. It also amplifies the seriousness of anything that goes wrong.

On most trips there is a moment when the journey truly begins. It might be at the trailhead, or the airport, or an identified landmark. From the outset, this group traveled deeper into unpopulated lands with each stage of their approach. Psychologically it was different for each person. For some crossing the first lake, Lago Puelo, marked the beginning and ultimately the end point. For others, the crossing of the second, smaller but critical Laguna de la Mariposa was the launch point into total commitment. "This is not for everybody." Will Stanhope's understatement of the year.

On most trips there is a moment when the journey truly begins.

Back at the first stage, the group spent seven hours waiting on the shoreline with nothing to do but contemplate their situation, luck and the imminent climb. In 'real time' they were to meet the gauchos at 11am. In actual time, the gauchos turned up at 6pm. Did the gauchos care? No. Their pace of life does not rely on weather windows or any concept of opportunity or urgency. People in this valley do not climb mountains for leisure. They don't climb at all. Taking people on horseback into the remote reaches of their home was strictly a business transaction and if these young men were never seen again, it would not be these villagers who would lose sleep or attempt to recover them.

Paul and Will first met these gauchos on their previous trip. Although there had been no change in the landscape (the same derelict boat was still on the beach), there was more warmth in the greeting. The Canadians had earned a little respect – for returning to the valley, not for what they were here to do. If this sounds callous, to some degree it is but the underlying truth is raw. Without taking any of the fun out of it, it's important to admit that climbing is a luxury. It is a privilege that few will ever experience or recognize as a means of tuning in to the realities of life.

After an overnight bivy and 12 hours on horseback, they arrived at the rat infested Puesto Rappoport, a wooden refugio from where they would stage the next nine days of shuttling their gear up to the base of Cerro Mariposa and the second lake. Time was compressed and they did not take a rest day. The shuttles advanced at best one kilometer/hour and frequently involved getting lost, backtracking and constant monitoring of machete blazes through jungles of cãna colihue bamboo. It was slow, arduous and fraught with surgically sharp pointed shards of previous growth. No one traveled alone.

"The weather is a constant threat. It can make you ragged." Paul, the most experienced of the group, found clouds that drifted across the sky or formed at the edges of their universe unsettling. Patagonia is notorious for missed opportunities, for being stuck and frustrated or having to turn back. He read oncoming storms into every formation, formations that consistently failed to materialize into weather until the lack of change began to batter his confidence. "I was on edge the whole time." A relentless pace, new group dynamics and slow progress all contributed. And yet, it was undeniably advancing.

Finally at the end of their approach, their objective in sight, they were ready to cross the second lake and begin their climb. Cerro Mariposa towered ahead, a huge wall with a sizeable chunk of glacier hanging over it. Tortured would describe this zone. Ice calved off the glacier into the lake, while mixes of rock and ice avalanched in from the massive walls that impounded it. "I was intimidated." Will elaborates; "It was not your best case scenario."

Pedro Lüthi, the Swiss godfather of climbers in Argentina, spent many years in the area and had constructed a small hut. When they found the dilapidated, run down structure, a collective sense of well-being infused the four men with history and the companionship of an absent yet present mentor. It was a mustering place and a reminder that one man at least had often sat there alone, without fear, without contact and in peace.

There were testaments in writing from other climbers about epic waits, storms, the invasion of phantom fears born of idleness and anticipation. Anxious to move on and as the good weather continued, the group loaded their rafts and punched through the gates of the psychological crux. There was no route around Laguna de la Mariposa; it was an impossible entry except by water, guarded by massive headwalls and the stories of strong climbers who had previously been refused. Without mercy, intense wind pushed them back unless they maintained a constant pace. This was uncertainty at its best. Eyes open or eyes closed, the only way out was through.

Objective hazards are physical impediments; subjective hazards are ones we give to ourselves.

A new route necessarily means a certain lack of information. As they stood at the base of a massive bergschrund, there was some doubt. The first pitch climbed out amidst unstable house-sized boulders and dripping overhanging snow. Marc negotiated the team through this passage in what Paul describes as an X-rated lead. Reckless? No. Serious – definitely and perhaps risky, but the capacity to find a safe route and climb it capably was within each person. It was simply a matter of the moment where weather, timing, confidence and solid decision making joined in a confluence. They could have turned back, many times. Each member contributed to the group's overall morale, their safety and grip on the rational by relying on skills, assessments and attention to each small detail.

As far as unknown route finding goes, the middle of the climb went relatively smoothly. The rock and their line proved to be of high quality. One small wrong turn set them back but on the upside, they had a moment with high flying condors that circled and cast shadows of what felt like luck. Mountains speak their own language however, and Matt endured its rope-cutting eloquence.

At the top they encountered another crux which Marc again led them through. The final 500m was a snow slope of 45 degrees that they navigated roped together in glacier travel style. La Vuelta de los Condores (5.11 A2) was sent.

It’s interesting to note that at no time did anyone feel that they had discovered a surrogate home, in either Pedro’s hut or in the suspension of context that happens when focus rests exclusively on the task at hand. With an uncertain number of days’ travel left to get out and the constant threat of weather, reaching the summit was only half the journey. There was every bit as much need to be careful and diligent still ahead.

The wilds of Argentina have different smells and sounds. From the simplest grass to the constant crash of rock fall to multiple scalpels of broken bamboo, there was never an opportunity for a mental break. Down climbing, the group chose to leave behind expensive gear in the interest of safety and efficiency. Their thoughts didn’t run to dreams of cell phones or the internet for weather reports, they were very much in the moment and very aware of not having an incident. Paul: "It’s never really in the bag until the beers go 'clink.'"

Communication is not about being in touch 24/7. That both Will and Paul looked forward to being completely off the grid underlines the simplicity of being entirely responsible for their actions – the opposite of reckless. What we owe to each other is answering honestly, not being bound to answering constantly.

Objective hazards are physical impediments; subjective hazards are ones we give to ourselves. Uncertainty makes us richer. It makes us pay attention, to our surroundings, to our internal selves and to each other.

We assess the risks, we control the factors that are controllable and often, when it is all over, we feel punched and submit to the ‘what if’s’ that never happened, but could have.

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"To be a successful climber is not to summit a peak or have fun doing so, but to survive the outing."

– Will Gadd, Ice & Mixed Climber

Photographer: Brian Goldstone

Location: Canmore, BC

Athlete: Will Gadd

Climbing, Risk Assessment, Opinion  //  by Will Gadd, Photography by Brian Goldstone

MYSTICISM AND MOUNTAINS

ATHLETE

WILL GADD

WILL GADD

Will is an especially accomplished Ice Climber and mountaineer. His creativity, drive and agressive style has enabled him to win the 2000 Ice World Cup Overall. He has made several benchmark first ascents on routes such as Musashi (M12), Howse of Cards (1100 Meters, VI, WI6X, M7), Great Western (2000 meters, V, WI5, M7), and the first one day ascent of Mount Robson.As a rock climber Will climbs to 5.13C, both sport and traditional, He is a solid competition climber and a three time Canadian National sport climbing champion.

› Read Will's Bio

All of us who have sat with our backs against a sun-warmed slab of mountain learn one thing after even a few minutes: Sunny rock is beautiful, but it's also really hard and unforgiving. There is nothing more powerfully "real" than stone. Which is why I'm so surprised by the encroachment of the fanciful "Positive Thinkers" into the mountains. Self-help rah-rah cheering is great for some things, but in the mountains reality trumps unjustified self-esteem in short order.

If I've learned one thing over the years it's this: the universe doesn't give a shit about you, what you think, want, feel, or believe. You are, in the greater scheme of things, as completely irrelevant as a moth flying around a light at night. Rockfall happens whether you pray for it to or not. Some of the nicest, most decent people I know have taken rocks straight between the eyes and died in the mountains. Same with some real assholes. If there is a consciousness to the universe then it is clearly psychotic. A simpler explanation is that it's up to us to do the right thing. Get it wrong and we die. To paraphrase the protagonist in Fight Club, until you know this basic fact of mountain life you are useless. You are not special and any amount of "magical" thinking is dangerous in reality-based activities.

Will Gadd: "The universe doesn't give a shit about you, what you think, want, feel, or believe."

This is why I hate books like "The Secret," which claim that thinking happy positive thoughts about what you want will result in the conscious universe giving you stuff. Or that you can "manifest" outcomes by thinking about them. Anyone who talks about manifesting anything other than a good crap instantly earns the title of self-deluding nut case in my mind. When The Secret's Law of Attraction meets the law of gravity, the law of gravity always kicks ass. Now, this sort of quasi-magical mental bullshit is cute in a three-year old, but I expect better from an adult. My kids talk about unicorns and I smile; it's not going to kill them and an active imagination is a good thing. But even as I tell my kids there are no monsters under the bed, I try to teach them to look out for the real monsters, and to never rely on a magic unicorn or a prayer to save them. Real danger doesn't respond to mysticism.

Thinking that somehow you are special and have the ear of the universe or some other mystical nonsense means you might not approach the mountains with the proper care. I view "spirituality" in mountain people the same as spirituality in suicide bombers; there are no virgins waiting in heaven for either, and I don't want to be tied into a rope with anyone who thinks he or she is special. Crazy Horse believed he had magic that made him immune to bullets. He's dead, just as are all the climbers who think, "When it's your time it's your time, nothing I can do about it," and continued climbing up a south face on a warm day as the rockfall increased.

Will Gadd: "Real danger doesn't respond to mysticism."

The Messner quote I like best goes along the lines of, "Mountains are neither fair nor unfair, they are just dangerous." This is a critical piece of understanding that all of us who do mountain sports ought to have tattooed onto the inside of our eyeballs as a readily accessible reminder when we're contemplating doing something like climbing under seracs. A proper response to real danger is to get the hell out of the way.

There is a well-known mental shortfall defined as "optimism bias," meaning that people think they have more control over a situation than they do, and that negative events are more likely to happen to others. Too much bias toward optimism is probably useful in some areas in life, but not when life itself is on the line. Whenever I read avalanche reports I'm often struck by how often the victims knew the slope was suspect, but optimistically decided it would be OK. If someone survives then magical ideas like miracles and guardian angels are often invoked. Strangely, no one says, "God struck him down like a cockroach, too bad," when someone dies. Magical thinking in any shape rests on denying reality. Ignorance kills often enough in the mountains without adding "willful" in front of it.

Will Gadd: "A proper response to real danger is to get the hell out of the way."

When I speak to groups about risk management I stress that the positive power of positive thinking is fine for boosting your ego before calling someone new for a date, but it's not appropriate in situations that actually matter. What's called for is some good solid reality-based critical thinking. Not, "We WILL make the summit!" but, "Hey, what's the weather doing while we're climbing? Kind of early for vertical cumulus cloud development isn't it? Maybe this is all going to turn into a thunderstorm shortly, time to run away." I call this situational analysis the "Positive Power of Negative Thinking." Positive thinking fundamentally isn't based on reality. If you're competent then you'll likely survive and do a good job. Just thinking, "I CAN DO IT!" likely means you're not, and should stand down.

And this is why we need to both strip magical thinking out of the mountains in all its forms and celebrate the mountains for what they are: Extremely dangerous, stunning beautiful, deeply moving places that we love in our own ways, and that we find meaningful in a way nothing else offers. A place that often brings the best out in us precisely because it's not a "woo woo" spiritual zone but a stunningly attractive reality where just staying alive is an accomplishment. Celebrate that beauty but watch for the hidden danger. Revel in the sun's first rays after a frozen night out, but know that those rays are warming the face above the bivouac and that it's time to get out of the sleeping bag and get moving.

If this all sounds depressing then you're probably a lot like the majority of people I see wandering around in the mountains. All of us who climb, ski, paddle and fly over mountains are irrational optimists, and my realistic viewpoint often conflicts with that irrational optimism. But without understanding the game we won't change our plans based on the reality of what's happening around us. To be a successful climber is not to summit a peak or have fun doing so, but to survive the outing. To do that takes a hawk's eye for detail about what is happening, not a prayer that it'll be OK. It takes a keen appreciation of a mountain not just as beautiful but also as a hair-trigger trapdoor gallows we can hang ourselves on at any moment. And to understand that even with all this it's still worth it, but that running away is often the best move when the opponent not only has all the cards but isn't even aware you're in the game.

The opinions in this piece are those of Will Gadd, a professional athlete.

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"There were definitely too many cooks in the kitchen."

– Matt Farmer, Professional Mountain Guide

Photographer: Margaret Wheeler

Location: Denali National Park, Alaska

Alpinism, Mountain Guiding  //  by Jill Macdonald, Photography by Margaret Wheeler

HIGH ALTITUDE BACON: INTERNATIONAL TENSION SIZZLES ON DENALI

It isn't often that mountain guides find themselves in the alpine exclusively in the company of their own kind. Typically they are in charge of groups of less experienced people with lesser skills. Professionally calm, the guiding personality must also be directive and at times assertive to keep things on track. So what happened when a large international group of alpha egos gathered to lead each other to 6,194m (20,322 feet)?

Last May the IFMGA* held a symposium in Denali National Park. Thirteen guides from 12 countries on 4 continents met in Alaska to test drive the latest addition to their curriculum: the IFMGA Expedition and Trekking Guiding Manual. This effort was spearheaded by the IFMGA in response to growing concern from its 23 member countries that guide training in this skill set was missing from the curriculum. Why does this matter? Due to the increased number of clients seeking expedition style adventures, more and more newly minted IFMGA certified guides were launching off on their own to guide big, remote, high altitude programs and shortcutting the traditional, yet not official or legally required, informal training and mentoring process.

What happened when 13 international professional leaders gathered together at 20,000 feet?

There is no ONE method of doing something correctly. Matt Farmer, representative of the AMGA*, summed it up like this: "There are many ways to skin a cat. What we were looking for were some of the best techniques employed worldwide, and ways to effectively teach these to up and coming guides." The IFMGA Symposium sought to catalogue these crucial techniques to develop better resources for guide training. Due to the prevalence of remote wilderness in North America, it was a natural that the IFMGA Symposium selected Denali National Park as its location. This was as much to draw on the huge wealth of pertinent local experience as it was to benefit from the world-class terrain.

In the US, mountain guides are not required to be certified. The unstructured high altitude and expedition training portion of IFMGA process was similar to the mentoring process that has historically existed in the US and Canada. To be sure there are many guides who gain good experience this way, but it is unregulated and irregular. As there are no laws to reinforce the efforts of guiding associations to provide rigorous, internationally accredited training for their members, large portions of the North American industry rely on guides with little or no formalized training. It's the equivalent of the Wild West in that rules differ from place to place and there is no standard practice.

There's more to the picture of why this is the way things are, naturally. In the background is a convoluted landscape of training and/or certification, land permit systems, a historically tense political scenario between US and international guides, and suddenly the group converging on Denali has the makings of a good action movie. A testy situation. Enter the bacon.

Self-selected, the IFMGA team was a star-studded cast with stellar depth and breadth, all being instructors/examiners in their respective countries' guide training programs. Working closely with John Leonard of the Denali National Park Service, Colby Coombs of Alaska Mountaineering School and others, the many days of briefings included a collaborative workshop on several key areas facilitated by AMGA president Margaret Wheeler.

Finally, the pre-trip preparations could begin. At Costco in Anchorage, language and cultural barriers became immediately evident. The 13 leaders spilled down separate aisles like oranges from a box, rolling around and traveling farther apart. The collective shopping cart resembled a reduced items bin. What people eat, how they prepare for an expedition of this nature and their approach to decisions regarding what is best for the success of the group proved to be vastly different. At ground level, without an ice axe, rope or backpack in sight, the Denali symposium reached its crux.

Farmer: "After being cooped up for over a week, the team members launched into an overly enthusiastic and under-structured first day." The shopping melee completed, food was parceled out, personal & group gear choices debated, resolved and then repacked. Thirteen mountain professionals roared out of the gates.

There were definitely too many cooks in the kitchen. Chaos on the mountain played itself out as there were lots of leaders and few, if any, followers. Walter Zoerer, expedition leader, expected this and allowed it to unfold as an experiment and a learning opportunity in group dynamics and leadership, crucial areas on any expedition. By the end of day two he assigned a daily leader who would facilitate the group discussion and then more or less call the shots for the next day. The group settled into a more productive rhythm and they were able to debate and try various techniques for technical challenges such as fixed lines, anchors, belays, short pitching, passing and traffic control, as well as weigh the tradeoffs between various styles of logistical strategy. Each night they debriefed, cooking in big groups which again surprised some of the international guides.

The power of salt and fat is not solely about calories.

Farmer: "Many of the heavier large expedition tactics employed and their implications for travel techniques and the size of the loads (including the 13 inch skillet in Farmer's toboggan) were puzzling to some at first, but there was an evolution of understanding the practical reasons and advantages to be gained by working together instead of in isolated tent groups. Like bacon, teamwork can be good for group morale, comfort, and safety."

The way Denali guides must operate conforms to economic and regulatory constraints. They also have to make a profit. For IFMGA member countries, things are no different. The number of clients is often one of the most significant variables in a high altitude scenario. In technical terrain anything more than 2 clients is extremely limiting. Lower ratios offer more possibilities in terms of techniques; they are much more efficient and often safer in some scenarios. That is of course provided the guide is properly trained and has sufficient relevant experience to correctly apply the appropriate technique.

At the heart of the debate between the accredited programs and their skeptics is the argument that certification is no substitute for experience. Best practices would always combine rigorous standardized training with structured field mentorship, and balance industry wide direction with coordinated and highly valuable local knowledge.

Being a guide can appear glamorous. But it is, as Farmer honestly states, "the difficult task of cobbling together a living doing what we love. Guiding is a privilege of sorts, spending time in awe inspiring places, but it is also a serious risk management profession, the same as a pilot, doctor, or firefighter." He reiterated that "an aim of the IFMGA Symposium was to continue the international effort of raising the bar, developing guiding as a serious profession." Clients surrender their well-being and the guardianship of their lives to these individuals. It is not a service industry as such, although providing a rewarding experience is the key element. There is more to a good trip than mere survival. The more people know and understand about how to safely travel in the outdoors, the more inspired they will be to participate in the well being of the world's natural resources and to form connections with each other. Better trained, more professional guides benefit us all.

Outcomes of the Symposium were positive. Greater understanding was gained and the importance and significance of comprehensive training for guides was reinforced. A larger network of people, including land managers, clients and guides without affiliations, are beginning to understand the value and benefits of national and international exchanges and professional collaboration. When reports to the media cite accidents that happen to "experienced" people, what they miss is the definition of "relevant experience." In many scenarios the experience that is "relevant" is risk management at a professional level. In the event of an urgent group situation, there is no guarantee an "experienced" backcountry skier or climber has this relevant experience.

Enjoy the wealth of experience and culture of the mountains that guides bring to the journey.

What happened when 13 international professional leaders gathered together at 20,000 feet? There was disarray, conflict and ultimately, team building. There were practical jokes. But most importantly, there was a 13 inch skillet, lots of butter and bacon. The power of salt and fat is not solely about calories. The team’s hearty embrace of a tasty Alaskan staple points to the positive nature of human beings and a dynamic community that works to resolve its challenges from within. Whenever it’s possible and relevant, hire a guide. Support the industry, support their expertise and enjoy the wealth of experience and culture of the mountains that guides bring to the journey.

*IFMGA: International Federation of Mountain Guides
*AMGA: American Mountain Guide Association

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"The more you practice your skills, the more it becomes second nature."

– Isabelle Santoire, Professional Mountain Guide

Photographer: Franz Walter

Location: 2013 Arc'teryx Academy, Chamonix France

Event, Alpinism, Mountain Guiding  //  by Ryan Proctor, Photography by Franz Walter

TO THE RESCUE IN CHAMONIX

ATHLETE

ISABELLE SANTOIRE

ISABELLE SANTOIRE

As a French Canadian, Isabelle grew up in the extreme winters of Quebec. It wasn't until she came to Switzerland 20 years ago that her life took a dramatic change. Whilst finishing a Masters degree in Adult Education in Geneva, she found herself drawn ever closer to the rock walls and snows of the European Alps. She is now one of just 16 women in France to have made the mountains her home as a professional mountain guide and member of the UIAGM. Based in the Chamonix valley, Isabelle has become a local icon with her contagious smile.

› Read Isabelle's Bio

Very few places on earth carry as much weight and history in the world of mountaineering, skiing, climbing, alpinism and just straight-up mountain adventure as Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.

The historic mountain town is situated on the western edge of France in the northwestern part of the Alps. Roughly 15 km from the Swiss border via the Col de Montets and the same from the Italian border via the Mont Blanc Tunnel, the area first gained attention in 1741. The first inn opened in 1770 and the highest mountain in the area, Mont Blanc was first summited in 1786. By 1816 the first luxury hotel was built as the area was quickly piquing the interest of mountaineers and travelers from around Europe and the UK. By 1821 the creation of the 'Compagnie des Guides' was in place as the first guide association of its kind in response to growing visitor numbers. The development of better roads and rail services, beginning in 1866, increased accessibility to the area; today the lift and cable car infrastructure connects countries through valleys and peaks throughout the Alps. The first-ever Winter Olympics were held here in 1924, bringing global attention to a tiny town that was already on its path toward becoming the Mecca of alpinism and mountaineering. It is a serious mountain place with an impressive resumé.

Chamonix offers many different mountaineering experiences.

Chamonix is known as the place where people come to test themselves. With over 5 million visitors to the valley each year and nearly 20,000 of them attempting to summit Mont Blanc, there are plenty of rescue stories and those being rescued are not exclusively parties who encounter unforeseen circumstances or bad luck. The majority are people who venture out inexperienced and/or ill-equipped. In 2003, rescuers helped more than 1400 people who had become stranded on Mont Blanc alone. That was more than ten years ago and as the number of visitors increases annually, education and information is a huge priority.

Local Chamonix guide, Arc'teryx liaison and French Canadian transplant Isabelle Santoire lives in Chamonix with her family. Isabelle is an IFMGA certified guide who knows what preparing properly for the Alps means.

Isabelle Santoire: "Chamonix is a ski resort that could be described as a 'no furs, no frills' place."

There is a spell and allure of adventure that draws people to Chamonix to test themselves. What is going on there?

Chamonix is a ski resort that could be described as a 'no furs, no frills' place. People come here to experience the mountains; it is about the passion of engaging, not a "passion for fashion" like some places. In this place everyone who wants to explore can find something at their level and if your planned route is too busy or in poor conditions, there are other options. What is really unique is that it has lift systems that offer quick access to pure mountaineering/ski alpinism terrain.

Test your navigation skills, test your clothing, and test your gear.

There is obviously a lot to know and learn about the area; is there a basic set of absolutely essential things to check off your list prior to going into the mountains.

1. A great start is to seek the advice of local services like the Office de Haute Montagne (OHM) and ask hut guardians for conditions.

2. Check the forecasts. Each forecaster will have a slightly different outlook. A good approach is to make a judgment based on mixing several weather reports. Don't just assume one weatherman will be right!

3. Use the '3 lemons rule' as I like to call it. If you see 3 lemons, it is time to say stop. For example: the snow conditions are too soft + weather is changing quickly + you have passed the recommended time for this itinerary.

4. Have a fallback plan and learn to accept that you might need to change your plans in the name of safety. Err on the side of caution.

5. Have all of the local emergency numbers recorded and rehearse various common emergency scenarios.

The more you practice your skills, the more it becomes second nature.

If you were to give advice on essential training before you go, what would you say?

General fitness is always the very minimum requirement as well as knowing your equipment. You can’t just pull the price tags off your gear and head out. For example, there is a lot to learn about how to rope up and what equipment you need to be able to execute a crevasse rescue properly and safely. Learning crampon skills for different terrain is very important. You also need to learn how to operate in bad weather. Go out in a controlled situation to understand the intensity of being in a whiteout or a wind/snow storm. Test your navigation skills, test your clothing, and test your gear.

Not everyone knows his or her way around the mountains. People need to start somewhere…

It all depends what you are planning to achieve. I find it is always hard to speak in terms of 'level'. I prefer to describe it as 'experience'. At Chamonix, you must know how you will perform at altitude and in extreme temperatures. Being acclimatized is essential. A good level of endurance is obviously a great start, but is not the same when you are at elevation; it is important to understand things like how red cells are created. When you become exhausted even things you are familiar with become different and this affects your mental state. The key is to set achievable goals and work up from there.

Chamonix is known as the place where people come to test themselves.

But the only way to get experience is to experience things and the only way to improve/advance your skill level is to try new things.

The more you practice your skills, the more it becomes second nature. Run through scenarios and simulated situations, take the time to refresh your skills. Don't assume you remember everything. Be confident and familiar with every piece of gear, understand why and how to use different rope techniques, know the purpose of an ice axe.

Chamonix offers many different mountaineering experiences. Go out with more experienced people and safely test your route finding skills, and your ability to read terrain, spot potential serac fall, avalanche risks, crevasse zones or rock fall. Have the basics of first aid and backcountry rescue.

With all there is to know and so many variables to consider, experience sounds like a major piece in addition to all of the training one needs to be competent in the Alps. An experienced Certified Guide sounds like the way to go for most people.

Safety first; a guide will help make you aware of what to look for in terms of dangers. Your guide will know the conditions and be used to adapting quickly to change an itinerary. A great guide is a good coach and will respond to your needs and ambitions. They are there to help you achieve your objective.

A great guide is a good coach and will respond to your needs and ambitions.

You lead clinics at the Arc'teryx Alpine Academy each year. What does the academy offer that is unique and how does it help Chamonix guides and safety professionals?

The Academy is a great opportunity for refreshing or learning new skills; it is a springboard towards autonomy. The focus is on education at all skill levels. It's inexpensive and everyone appreciates any effort to educate the public about what they are getting into when they access the high alpine.

Gathering together a pool of mountaineers and athletes of all levels, who are there to inspire you and share their experience and advice, brings the birth of new adventures!

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"I had hitched my hopes to this route – a sterling example of boldness, flare and vision."

–Will Stanhope, Rock Climber

Photographer: Paul Bride

Location: El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, USA

Rock Climbing  //  by Will Stanhope, Photography by Paul Bride

FEAR AND DESIRE: THE DAY I BACKED DOWN

Three pitches up El Cap, the wall turned from vertical to overhanging. Sonnie and I were tied to two, fat bolts, the last bastion of safety before the pitch began. I was carefully selecting gear for the next lead and re-cinching my shoelaces again and again. Normally I'm not so obsessive compulsive but this place was different. Above us the rock reared up three-dimensional: big grey patches, latticed with gold streaks, discontinuous cracks and corners, perched flakes, scaly grey rock. Why couldn't we have chosen another route on the other side of El Cap? I thought. The other side of El Cap is home to laser-cut cracks; routes where climbers can generally shove spring-loaded cams in wherever they like. Not so here. This place, the spooky right side of El Cap, is home to a handful of dicey aid lines with ominous names like "Pressure Cooker" and "Bad to the Bone." This particular route – Brit Leo Houlding's "The Prophet" – might be the boldest free route on El Cap, a testament to Leo's legendary skill and steely nerves. We chose to come here. I'm reminded of an old Peter Croft quote I read years ago: "I wanted to feel very small in very deep water. Not to know what I'm doing, but to learn it."

Big deep breaths, a final chalk-up, and I was off. First a corner: good news: I could put gear in intermittently. Then things got blanker. Out right, I clipped an equalized nest of knifeblades in fractured rock, which are some of the smallest pitons one can buy. Leo had left his old DMM quickdraw hanging off the blades – a souvenir from Wales, across the pond, home of this stomach-in-your-throat faceclimbing. A fall onto this gear would have been, best case scenario, a giant whipper. Worse case scenario, and much more likely, the blades would've ripped out, raining blocks onto hapless Sonnie below. Above me was a bulge, which I crept towards at a glacial pace, always eyeing an escape option, with razor-sharp awareness that a fall could be catastrophic. I glanced down and saw Sonnie's gaze tractor-beamed onto my every move: exactly what you want in a partner on a serious route like this.

Above us the rock reared up three-dimensional: big grey patches, latticed with gold streaks.

Then, the crux or hardest move of the pitch. Cresting the bulge, I had decent, incut holds for my fingers. I had a high right foothold that I had to trust completely. The target hold was a good edge, just out of reach for a static pull. I pulled up and pawed at it, but came 6 inches short. Feverishly I shook out my arms, trying to extinguish the lactic acid buildup in my forearms. To do this move I needed to stab for the edge dynamically, a serious gamble given the consequences if I don't latch it just right. I downclimbed to my last rest, quivering with fatigue.

Back at the rest, my mind drifted to 8 months earlier, when I ripped a flake off a British route, and hit the ground from thirty feet, breaking my foot and cracking a vertebrae. The sensations came back to me: the jarring impact, lying on the grassy hillside, feeling the cold of night seeping in to my bones, not knowing what was going to happen. When I was younger, climbing was a bottomless well of positivity. Now, I had a slightly darker, more nuanced view of the whole affair. I had hitched my hopes to this route – a sterling example of boldness, flare and vision – to galvanize me out the rut I was in.

I climbed back up the move. By now, the October sun was beating down on the face, beading sweat on my forehead, and lessening the friction of that crucial foothold. All I had to do was trust that glassy bump of foothold, throw all my weight onto it, and snap my right arm out like a lizard's tongue, and this would be done. I'd have climbed up to the belay victorious, demons vanquished. Instead, I glanced down at the nest of pins, and my lonely quickdraw swaying in the breeze. In this battle of fear and desire, fear won. I climbed down to the pins, and half down climbed, half lowered to the belay, terrified of ripping out the junk nest of gear.

I grunted an apology to Sonnie and unlaced my shoes in the sun, chalk-splattered and spirit-crushed. Sonnie, ever the loyal, non-judgmental partner, patted me on the back and said, "You'll get it back, man. It'll come." His prophecy came true, in the days and months and years that followed. But on that October afternoon, fear won out.

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"We are all in this together. Let our actions be the first indication."

Photographer: Dano Pendygrasse

Location: 19 Wing Canadian Forces Base Comox

Search & Rescue  //  by Jill Macdonald, Photography by Dano Pendygrasse

THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE

This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Dano Pendygrasse and I visited 19 Wing, Canadian Forces Base Comox, to spend time with 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron. Bright orange jumpsuits and sexy yellow airframes (aircraft) aside, the day was a humbling experience. After ten hours embedded in the daily life of a military search and rescue team I was left with a roar in my head from machinery, deep respect for the discipline of routine procedure, and the potential for honest personal growth.

19 Wing Comox covers a large area. It includes operational squadrons, national training schools, cadet training, an airstrip and a maintenance squadron. The base is orderly and compact, a mix of new buildings alongside sections of aging infrastructure, a metaphor for our times perhaps. The naming of our Royal Canadian Air Force harkens back to a different era as well. But what really speaks loudly are the details, right down to walking only on designated pathways and crossing at marked intersections. Duty, history and protocol permeate everything.

442 Transport and Rescue Squadron

Captain Trevor Reid escorted us to the 442 Squadron buildings, greeted along the way by other servicemen, salutes and "Good Morning, Sir." Not to dwell on rank, but on a typical BC day we don't encounter green uniforms, insignias and dress caps. To someone like me, who tends to be pretty lax about rules and strongly resistant to following any particular code of conduct or way of thinking, the military environment was a bit of a shock. Never having lived near a base, or with any close friends or family members in active service, it has been easy to keep the idea at arm's length. So when we first stepped out of the car and had to visit the Military Police for clearance, it became really clear that this visit was not casual and we were not peers. We were guests.

In Canada, as in most countries, Search and Rescue (SAR) is a multi-faceted activity that involves numerous federal, provincial, municipal and volunteer agencies. It's not as simple as calling in a missing backcountry skier and a helicopter shows up. The nature of any search determines who has the lead. Air and marine search and rescue missions are the responsibility of the federal government, including the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Coast Guard. Ground searches begin with volunteer groups and/or police forces. Aircraft crews from 442 are not called out unless it involves: 1) aircraft; 2) marine rescue; or 3) humanitarian service to assist in ground missions beyond the scope of other agencies.

Pre-flight briefing of flight crew and SAR Techs.

The Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre Victoria (JRCC Victoria) coordinates rescue responses that involve the Canadian military and Coast Guard. Behind the scenes, this network of people makes critical contributions to the safety and success of each mission. Manned 24 hours a day, the JRCC has a jurisdiction that covers approximately 920,000 km2 of mountainous terrain and coastline in Yukon and BC, plus 560,000km2 of the Pacific Ocean extending to approximately 600 nautical miles offshore. This rugged and often inaccessible terrain, severe weather, and large expanses of sparsely populated areas make this the most demanding region in the country. Search and Rescue Technicians (SAR Techs) have to be on their game, as do the pilots, navigator and flight engineers.

SAR Techs are members of the Royal Canadian Air Force with a rank of Corporal or higher and a minimum of 4 years in Canadian Armed Forces, in any trade. An elite group of land and sea survival experts who specialize in Arctic rescue, parachuting, mountain climbing and helicopter rescue techniques, they are trained to operate boats and carry out underwater rescues using SCUBA gear; they are full-on paramedics certified in advanced trauma life-support – the superheroes of search and rescue.

Inside 442 however, the atmosphere was a place of work not adventure: the briefing room was tight; work stations were tidy, as were all the equipment rooms, lockers and storage shelves. Everyone was relaxed, friendly and humble. They spoke of the day in terms of probable flight plans, meeting currencies (required jumps, dives etc) and training needs. Group decisions were made before we set out, with contingencies and an exit strategy for us in the event of a call – the first of many examples of the flexibility and responsiveness of the team. Capt Peter Wright, Cormorant pilot and Aircraft Commander: "Know your limits, be creative."

Flying in the Buffalo was a blend of work truck with luxury vehicle. The Buffalo was chosen for its short take-off and landing requirements, maneuverability and capacity; it is used to parachute rescuers, drop supplies, flares and smoke markers, as well as functioning as a communications platform. The one we flew in had the original manufacturer's plate dated 1969, yet it was immaculate and reverently maintained. A meat and potatoes kind of airframe stocked with a chef's kitchen: scuba tanks, diving equipment, Arctic survival gear, inflatable life rafts, boxed food supplies, first aid kits, stretchers and parachutes. Up front, the two pilots chatted about hiking trips, restaurants and fish stocks in between reports from the flight engineer about wind speeds, temperature and pressure readings. As we drew closer to Tofino where the jumps would take place, spotting and recon tours plus information exchanged between the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer and SAR Tech Team Lead resulted in a revised plan due to changing cloud cover. The safety of the jumpers and their willingness to go ahead was their decision, but overall the airframe operated as a single unit.

Collective experience, collaborative decision; ultimately however, it is the Aircraft Commander (AC) who makes the final call and is accountable for the actions of the entire team. Unlike other military pilots their role is not tactical or stealthy, although there can be significantly more danger. Typically they fly under the worst possible weather conditions, into remote and challenging environments. For these reasons, SAR pilots have more latitude in what they can attempt. In general, the extensive training required to become part of the SAR team translates into a diverse wealth of experience on board.

Buddy checks – each piece of safety equipment is physically touched before each jump.

Lunch was in the mess hall. It was interesting to be a civilian. The label was only in my head, but I felt it and the significance of being entirely ignorant of this reality. Military personnel are government employees; sure, but to say they work for us is totally inaccurate. They serve for the better good. How that intention may miss the mark or become corrupted by government is not for this discussion and it was not mentioned. The primary motivation for everyone we spoke to was to master their task.

Cormorant helicopter First Officer (co-pilot) Capt Amanda Lauder was new on the base. She took us out in the afternoon, along with AC Capt Peter Wright, to practice confined area landings. Bright yellow, with several windows and a massive central rotor, being inside the Cormorant would be like flying in a schoolbus. It's huge, loud and utilitarian. It's also exceptionally nimble. Lucky for us, Amanda was tasked with flying through narrow valleys and setting the big bird down on a riverbed and a patch of snow, both surrounded by tight trees. We flew in close range over spectacular terrain, circling for reconnaissance and evaluation before any action took place. Again the entire crew interacted, with the SAR Techs and Flight Engineer acting as spotters for Amanda to safely negotiate the helicopter through obstacles. From the open side door, visuals on the right side of the machine were reported, while the bubble window on the left side gave visual clearance on the rear and central rotors. Flight Engineer MCpl Rainier Roedger supplied constant information and visual clearance on the underside every 10 feet until landing. The helicopter was finessed side to side and from tip to tail, forward and back, into a level set down on the middle of the target.

To report the day as impressive doesn't do justice to the teamwork and the skill we witnessed. These were controlled scenarios. From my perspective it was hot, awkward a lot of times and there were opportunities to shortcut procedures, but none were taken. The importance of repeating every single step with the appropriate verbal communication was to save time and lives in an urgent, chaotic situation where nothing was predictable.

It's hard repetitive work that requires some sacrifices. Not everyone has a family. The hours can be disruptive, training sessions require being away from home and individuals are transferred every 4-5 years on average. Those who choose to accept the risks of SAR missions face extreme danger not out of bravery, but because they are the ones on the scene; others' lives depend upon their immediate actions. SAR teams trust that their training, experience and teamwork will see them safely through these perilous situations.

19 Wing Operations employs mechanics, weather forecasters, administration, operations people, traffic controllers; a long and varied list of trades with an infrastructure that we don't immediately associate with search and rescue missions. It may seem that it's not personal. When a SAR team shows up however, it is invariably personal and every person on the scene represents an entire off-site crew that is looking after their well-being while help is administered. SAR Techs do not mobilize for the hell of it. And on the receiving end of their missions, they are greeted with desperation, hope, gratitude and great relief.

SAR Tech motto graces the wall above the locker and equipment room.

SAR Tech motto: Without regard for my personal comfort or self advancement, to the best of my ability and to the limitations of my physical and psychological endurance, I solemnly pledge to make every effort to return to safety, those victims of disaster entrusted to my care by the assignment of the mission to which I have consented. These things I shall do: 'That others may live'.

At times, we do need others to act for us. It is not irresponsible or selfish to admit this. The most accountable and humanitarian thing we can do is face our vulnerability and support those who assume where we cannot. Somewhere along the way we have learned to overlook the most basic life-saving truth: We are all in this together. Let our actions be the first indication.

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