BD Scholarship Recipient Andrew Councell Reflects on his Ski Mountaineering Exam

Kel Rossiter scholarship recipientI recently spent a month in British Columbia’s Coast Range to prepare for, and take, an AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guides Exam. Overall, it was a great month, and my timing was quite good for both snow conditions and avalanche hazard.

Fortunately, I passed the exam so it was time and money well-spent, and it marks the end of my guiding exams.

Ski Mountaineering Guide Exam

Day 1 – Cancelled. The examiners were delayed due to heavy snows in Colorado (ironic, always ironic), and the candidates languished through a really expensive “rest day.”

Day 2 – Good weather, but with a storm on the way, prompted us to tour on the first real day of the exam rather than run the crevasse rescue drill. Our assignment was the Cayoosh summit, ascending the Armchair Glacier and descending the NE Glacier. Compared to other exams, I was surprised at how short the lead sections were for each candidate. Rock and alpine exams, for example, are run at a 2:1 ratio whereas a 4:1 ratio meant each candidate was only guiding 1-2 hours each day. My leg was ~2 hours and consisted of track setting, pacing, and managing steep slopes en route. So … pretty easy overall.

We decided to forgo the actual summit due to avalanche hazard and started a long, low-angle ski down the NE Glacier. Along the way, another candidate triggered a size 2 avalanche over a steep convexity near the glacier’s snout, confirming our fears about the lack of stability in the more recent snow. At the same time, wet-loose avalanches were pouring off steep terrain on the other side of the valley, necessitating a speedy retreat to the trees below. To say the least, it was an interesting way to start the exam.

Kel Rossiter scholarship recipientDay 3 – We went up Blackcomb to run the crevasse rescue component of the exam on a section of dilapidated cornice above the Rendezvous lodge. The foul weather made things challenging for everybody, but we all got through it eventually despite a couple hiccups.

Day 4 – Back up to Blackcomb we went, to ascend a slightly technical buttress leading towards Disease Ridge. A couple short pitches led to some easy short-roping along an aesthetic ridge. From here, we skinned/booted up to the summit of Blackcomb Peak. I led a short descent off the Peak and chose a line that, from above, looked like good skiing; the snow was alright but the coverage was thin and a little dangerous. (This ended up being the lone score against me on this exam.) We moved back onto Disease Ridge, split into teams of two, and did some technical lowers into steep terrain.

Day 5 – Our examiners decided we’d go back to the Duffey Lake area, this time up Cerise Creek to check out the skiing on Anniversary Glacier. Having already skied in this zone a bunch, I was hoping to lead the team into some rad stuff. But I was given the first leg from the car and my lead was done as we gained  treeline above Keith’s Hut. Bummer! The snow was pretty good and stability was very reasonable but, for some reason, we bailed at the Matier/Anniversary Col and descended the Anniversary Glacier back into Cerise Creek. And then … back to the road.

Day 6 – We started the Spearhead Traverse but this time started at Whistler and headed over the Musical Bumps towards Fissile. A bit of new snow and strong winds made for new avalanche concerns. I took the lead below Fissile as we started to climb up towards Whirlwind’s summit. The other team was ahead of us and chose to ski a traversing line onto the Overlord Glacier from the Fissile-Whirlwind Col. Since it’s the “ski exam,” and besides I like skiing, I took my group higher towards the actual summit of Whirlwind.

This allowed us to ski a much more enjoyable, fall-line run onto the Overlord Glacier without adding more than a few minutes. As we skinned up towards the Overlord-Benvolio Col, we witnessed a sizable slab avalanche plummet off Fissile’s S. Ridge; it appeared to be triggered by a party along the ridge and was, again, a reminder of the instability around us. A fun descent on Benvolio’s S. Face took us onto the Diavolo Glacier where, after some discussion, we decided to set up camp and spend the night.

Day 7 – I took the lead from camp, skinning up  temp-firmed snow where the Diavolo Glacier clings to Iago’s SW-facing slopes. As we ascended into steeper terrain, skinning in the firm snow became less secure, and I chose to set a bootpack to the top of the slope. The other team chose to use ski crampons. In the end, neither option was faster/slower and we were soon above our next descent. The other team decided to ski a long traverse below a corniced ridge in an effort to save time to gain the toe of the Macbeth Glacier ahead but, in doing so, they missed another good run.

Again, since I do like skiing, I chose to milk the skiing out of the descent a little more and we had a great run despite adding a few more minutes to our day. We skinned towards the Macbeth Glacier and then, quite suddenly, it was over … I was done guiding for the exam, and the other candidates took over for the remainder of the final day. In a moment it felt as though all the hard work had finally paid off … all the years, all the insane amount of money, all the time spent obsessing, all the sacrifice made on my part and others for me, all the heartache and suffering and pain as well as joy … in one anti-climactic moment, it all seemed worth it.

Canada is awesome. I’m glad that I passed the exam, saw some really good guiding and I’m super-psyched for my co-candidates who passed the exam as well. What a month! It’s a fitting way to end my AMGA guide training, in the same mountains that inspired me to pursue it all in the first place. I can’t wait to go back!

You can read more about what Rossiter did to train for the exam under the gallery of photos.

Training for the Exam in Canada

When I first arrived in Squamish on March 20, it was raining hard and felt just like the town I’d lived in nearly a decade earlier. Rain along the coast can often mean snow in the mountains, so I remained hopeful that it wasn’t also raining up high (which happens often as well). I met a friend of a friend, Alex, and her cousin Trevor that same day for a three-night trip to the Keith Flavelle Hut in the Duffey Lake area, about 30 minutes east of Pemberton.

We didn’t get to the trailhead until 7p.m., about 30 minutes before sunset. It was snowing and windy and navigating by headlamp in unfamiliar terrain in those conditions was somewhat challenging but, after two hours of skinning, we found the hut with little problem. We had the hut to ourselves for two nights.

The following day, we toured up towards Vantage Peak. As its name suggests, the views from Vantage are stunning, especially looking into the Joffre Provincial Park. Unfortunately, on this day the weather and snow reduced visibility enough to keep most peaks around us shrouded in mystery. We skinned to within 50′ vertical feet of the summit where it became too steep and rocky to take skis. We left our skis and packs on a flat bench on Vantage’s NW Ridge and booted/scrambled to the summit. En route, Trevor nearly triggered a massive chunk of cornice when he found a melted-out moat around a rock in the ridge. It was a short-lived but scary moment, and it was amazing the cornice didn’t collapse despite being severely overhung and fractured on all sides.

We skied Vantage’s NE Face very conservatively; it was our first run in the area with the new snow but we saw no signs of instability despite surface being buried 80-90 centimeters deep. It was a very good run. Once in the valley below, we noticed a small notch in the long N Ridge off Vantage. So we skinned back up for another amazing run in fresh powder down 35-degree slopes. It was time to head back to the hut so, once again, we climbed up to the N Ridge of Vantage and skied west, off the ridge, into the Cerise Creek drainage. Normally, especially with some intermittent sun, westerly aspects can be quite crusty but we found amazing turns. We even hucked some 20′ cliffs on the way home. Dinner that night consisted of smoked beef brisket, rice, and Bombay Potatoes, Tasty Bites style.

Next morning, the weather had cleared enough for us to risk setting our sights high in the alpine. We skinned up the Anniversary Glacier below Joffre’s steep, buttressed S. Faces that were shedding new snow over our freshly set skin track. Visibility was good when we reached the Anniversary/Matier Col so we opted to get as high on Matier Peak as possible.
Stability continued to prove reasonable despite concerns of wind-loading, and we soon found ourselves high on Matier’s NE Ridge. Again, it became too steep to continue via skis so we put them on our packs and booted/scrambled up to the summit. As we reached the top, a large wall of clouds approached, threatening to shut down our visibility. We raced to transition to downhill mode and skied firm, but beautiful, snow to the Matier Glacier below. After a short discussion, we decided to ski back to the hut via the Anniversary Glacier. Soon we were back at the hut having just skied 3700′ in one, continuous run from Matier’s summit.

We took a short lunch break and headed back up to find  a hidden couloir on Joffre’s E Ridge. The wind-swept slopes on Matier had been steeper but this protected, N-facing couloir at 40-degrees was more of a concern from an avalanche perspective. A little digging and a couple ski cuts allayed most fears and soon we were skiing knee-deep powder down a vertical canyon onto yet another glacier below, another 2000′ run.

As we skinned back up towards the hut, we found a second wind and soon we were skinning back up towards Joffre, high above the hut. This time, however, we skied the SE-facing slopes back towards the hut with Trevor’s aim of hucking some big cliffs along the way. Given their aspect, these slopes had more crust on them and the skiing was a little more difficult. When we got to the cliffs, even Trevor’s young knees didn’t want to risk the 30′ drop into questionable snow so we skirted them. We retired that night to a delicious dinner of Caesar chicken wraps with a 6500′ day under our belts and stories to share with a quickly-filling hut.

Two of Trevor’s friends joined us the following, and most beautiful, day. We ascended back to the hidden couloir to scope the entrance to an even steeper run right next to it. This proved fruitless, with a 50′ cornice guarding the 45-degree, 10′-wide couloir below. We we skied the same run as before and had just as much fun as the first time. Far below, under the S-facing slopes of Chief Pascall, we opted to explore the eastern slopes of Joffre. We skinned up towards an unnamed feature on the map, but one so impressive we had to name, that we dubbed “The Shield.” Above The Shield was a steep, fractured glacier; I wanted to see if we could find a passage through the crevasses and onto the ridge far above. But one of our party was pooped and didn’t want to continue. We left him in a safe spot and the four of us continued just a bit higher to scope things out. Visibility was perfect, skies were blue, the snow was cold, and I finally felt able to really push the envelope a bit.

We skinned to a point above an icefall and did our transition on a flat bench. Crevasses that had been easy to identify from below were now, from above, much harder to locate. The snowy slopes blended the cracks into themselves and, with only a short rope between us, we weren’t prepared for a full-on rescue if someone did fall in to one. I skied first. The initial pitch was 50-degrees, with a crevasse immediately to the left and 300′ cliffs not too far to the right. Sluffs hissed with each turn and slowly built into small, dry-loose avalanches that clung to skis as they sped off the cliffs below. It was an exciting and very fun run!

Soon we were all down, skiing back the way we’d ascended. After a nice lunch break, we opted to ascend again to another feature we called the “Little Shield.” We were wary of steep slopes, crevasses, and looming cornices far above so we spread out as we climbed.

Atop the Little Shield, we found a perfect spot to transition for another 3000′ to the valley bottom far below. The skiing was awesome! We took our skin track, from the day before, back up to the hut but this time, instead of continuing up to seek another run to cap the day, we just skinned straight to the hut. We packed up and were soon skiing out Cerise Creek towards the trailhead. We were pretty tired after a long and exciting, 7500′ day of backcountry skiing. Beers were in order, then goodbyes, and then we drove back to Squamish.

After a rest day, I met up with Don Carpenter, another exam candidate, to tour around Cayoosh Mountain. We decided to forgo the standard ascent and chose to do a loop instead; this enabled us to see many aspects of the mountain rather than just going up and down it. We skinned up Joffre Creek and struggled through steep, gloppy trees for hours before arriving at the western flanks of Cayoosh. At first, visibility was too poor for us to see if we could make the summit, but as we ascended the clouds drifted in and out.

We ascended the W Ridge until it got too steep to skin. Booting up the steep snow was fine until we started having to deal with rocks below the summit. Here, deep and faceted snow made wallowing around the rocks very difficult and falling was a real possibility. But we sent and soon were sharing the summit with two other skiers, who told us an AMGA ski course had just descended.

Our descent was in near whiteout and on steep, shredded-up snow. But after a dozen turns we skied out onto the flatter glacier below. After regrouping, and deciding to try to find the Million Dollar Couloir, I nearly skied into a large crevasse as we made our way down. Yipes! There were no tracks at the entrance of Million Dollar, and we enjoyed some awesome turns in steep terrain before a long and painful slog out super-flat logging roads to the road.

The following day started from the main Joffre Lake TH as we decided to scout out Tzil, Taylor, and a run called Heart Strings that would take us back to the car. Afternoon convection threatened to bring snow and whiteout visibility so we kept moving all day.

I skied a steep line off Tzil’s N. Face, Don took a (smarter) mellower line and we moved over to the multi-summited, ridge line of Taylor. Here we skied one of my favorite lines of the trip: a steep cirque with numerous cliff/pillow drops all the way down. Incredible terrain, awesome snow…I’m normally not a vocal skier, but I let out a couple whoops on the way down. Then we skinned over to Heart Strings which, due to its popularity, was quite skied out. We still managed to find some soft snow but everything quickly became heavy, sticky, wet snow as we skied towards the TH.

With the Easter weekend upon us, I decided I’d take a couple days off to avoid the crowded mountains. So I went back to Squamish, to my sister’s place, and spent the weekend fiddling with gear, maps, and tour plans interspersed with soloing rock climbs in the Smoke Bluffs. Warm, dry weather isn’t common in lower-elevation BC in April so I didn’t bring any rock climbing stuff with me. All I had were a borrowed chalk bag and my approach shoes. Still, it felt great to touch and move over the rock and forget about skiing for a little while. I climbed dozens of pitches, many onsight and up to 5.10; I don’t know the names of all of them but a couple highlights were “Penny Lane” and “Neat & Cool.”

After the weekend, I met up with Peter Leh, Tico Allulee, and John Mackinnon to do the Spearhead Traverse. We started relatively late but moved quickly through most of the Traverse, spending the night at the Russet Lake hut below Fissile.

Peter and I made a couple minor detours, the latter being a steep descent off Fissile’s NE Face in the late-evening.
The second day, rather than a fairly easy-but-boring exit via the Musical Bumps, we opted to head back along the Traverse to ski the S. Face of Benvolio (awesome corn) and the steep N. facing lines on Cheakamus.

Then we skied off the summit of Overlord, down it’s long, glaciated shoulders to the snout of the Overlord Glacier, below Fissile and the hut. We packed up at the hut and began the long slog via myriad up-downs back to the Whistler ski area.

The following day, John Mackinnon and I did an excellent tour from the Joffre Lake TH. We skinned above the Upper Joffre Lake to gain the steep, lower section of the Matier Glacier; from here we booted through an icefall to gain lower-angle terrain on the mostly-gentle glacier above. Skinning again, we gained the NE Ridge of Slalok and were soon on the summit, looking down the amazing Stonecrop Glacier on Slalok’s North Face (a prized descent). But we skied the steeper E. Face instead as we made our way towards Mt. Matier’s NW Face. Booting up this steep face proved difficult as the snow was really firm in some places and quite punchy in others.

After an hour on what felt like a vertical treadmill, we reached a flat bench near Matier’s summit. Here, we had an amazing view of one of the most amazing helicopter LZs I’ve ever seen. I’d hoped we could ski onto the Twin One Glacier from this bench but the extremely rimed, 55+-degree terrain made that impossible.

So we skied the icy NW Face which was, actually, pretty good considering the poor snow conditions. We wrapped high and left, gaining the Matier-Hartzell Col without any issue. Then we skied another 1000′ of awesome corn-like snow down the Hartzell Glacier before a short ascent up to the top of the Twin One Glacier.

The following descent was awesome. We enjoyed a long, low-angle descent in beautiful snow to a very steep exit on firm snow next to a beautiful icefall near the glacier’s snout. We skinned up, again, to the Vantage Col and skied out to the highway through the long Cerise Creek drainage. What an awesome day!

With the ski exam only days away, I decided I’d take it easy rather than do more tours. I wanted to be well-rested going into the exam. So, aside from one afternoon practicing the crevasse rescue drill, I lounged around checking weather forecasts, working on tour plans, eating bachelor food, and watching movies online. Boring.