AMGA Alpine Guide Course, Boulder, CO 6/15-24/11
I was scheduled to take this course in the Tetons but three days before it started the venue was changed to the Boulder area because there was too much snow in the Tetons. It worked out well for me as I had flown into Denver and Mike Baur and I had been doing a bit of climbing in RMNP before the class started so I could acclimatize a bit.
The course prerequisites call for climbing up to 5.10 rock and WI4 ice but the focus of the class is definitely the constant transitions in mountainous terrain between 3rd, 4th, and low 5th class sections. Trying to move seamlessly through these transitions is the major challenge of alpine guiding and what we spent the most time on.
Our instructors were Dale Remsberg, the Alpine Guide discipline coordinator for the AMGA; Rob Hess who runs Jackson Hole Mountain Guides; and Clint Cook who runs San Juan Mountain Guides. It was awesome to get to spend so much time with these guys who really wanted to share their knowledge and experience. The other 7 participants who also contributed a ton were Austin Shannon, Alasdair Turner, Cliff Agocs, Allan Oram, Steve Charest, Paul Koubek, and David Rosenbarger.
Day 1: We met at 8 at the Eldorado Canyon Visitor Center and went through introductions and expectations, and then launched into a session on tour planning involving bearings, altitude, and UTM coordinates. After a discussion on datums we broke for lunch and then spent the afternoon doing some easy short roping on some nearby ridges. The day was pretty much an easy day giving the instructors a chance to listen to us in the classroom and watch us on some easy rock to make sure we knew what we were getting into and knew what we were doing.For the tour planning we were told that a common formula is to figure on 2 MPH plus an hour for each 1000’ of elevation gain. Since tour planning is not a part of my normal climbing or guiding I wasn’t very good at this although it has clear value in day long or longer trips. Technology also makes this much easier now, instead of plotting on a map and scaling off distances you can use software programs where you just click on your waypoints and it gives you distance, elevation, and bearings. Apparently there’s an iPhone app called TopoMap that’s great. $8, maps are then free. I’ll have to check this out.
Day 2: We got an early start the next day at Eldo. We started up the East Slabs of the Redgarden Wall and then took an extended time out to check out what we could and couldn’t hold while short roping. It was set up that a leader was short roping one or two “clients” but then both the leader and the “clients” also had separate top rope belays. That way the “clients” could rip the leader off the terrain without consequence. It was very interesting to see what hand and hip belays could hold and what kind of terrain features were good enough to use. Although many of the falls were probably more aggressive than an actual fall would have been it was still a nice reality check to get ripped off the wall by the “client” and think about what the consequences would be in a real climbing situation. After this session we broke into groups and took turns short roping up to the top of the Redgarden wall. From there we went down the Chockstone Chimney rappel, and then short roped down the Upper Ramp, and down the T2 rappels. As with many other Eldo descents, this is a difficult, complicated descent. If you’re taking a course or exam at Eldo you should get there early and do some of the descents so when you’re under the gun you know what you’re doing. Dale was my instructor for the second half of the day.
Day 3: Fun day on the first Flatiron with Rob as our instructor. We started on the Flatironette to the right of the first Flatiron and then traversed over and went up the North Ridge of the first Flatiron. It was an exercise in short roping/pitching up and down that we worked on all day, eventually making two laps of the circuit. During my Rock Instructor Exam at Eldo there had been a lot of focus on client security while the guide is climbing, in other words, making sure the clients are anchored some way (can be as easy as putting the rope between them behind a flake) in case the guide blows it. During this course there was a lot of focus on guide security while the guide is downclimbing. Once your clients are down to a ledge you can wrap the rope around a horn and rap down on one strand, using them as a counterweight. There’s lot’s of ways to use terrain features to help you get down short sections so you don’t have to do it without any safety. It also keeps your clients safer.
Day 4: We headed up Trail Ridge Road into RMNP early to have a day of snow school. The focus was on short roping on snow and once again we had fun ripping each other off the slopes as the leaders tried short roping steep sections. It was all about figuring out what we could hold and what we couldn’t, so that we could form opinions on what kind of slopes were appropriate for short roping and when it gets steep enough that we should be short pitching. The nugget of info for the day for me was the addition of a grab loop while leading on steep snow. The loop (just an overhand on a bight) should be back from your tie-in (2-3’?) so that when you’re holding the grab loop and your arm is fully extended the rest of the line should be tight to your tie-in. When you move you hold this loop by your hip in your downhill hand so that your arm muscles take the first hit of a second falling, you then have an instant to brace before your arm is fully extended and the shock of the fall hits your harness.
Lots of other nuggets:
- Downhill short roping w 2 – When changing direction bottom person pirouettes, middle flips rope over head.
- Keep it steep if possible when short roping. Shallow traversing angles let your clients get behind you instead of under you.
- When traversing – Safer to have bottom person below making their own tracks so that they stay more under you, not in your tracks.
- Boot ax belay great for letting rope out, not as good for taking in. Great for a belayed glissade to get clients down a steep section after a rap…
- As a single point anchor, a vertical picket should take at least 10 solid two handed whacks with an ice hammer (not the top of your piolet) to bury it.
- With a drop C system and the anchor far back from the lip of a crevasse consider using an extended anchor point as the combo of too much rope out and typically skinny ropes can cause so much rope stretch as to make progress difficult.
- Make sure T trenches are angled backwards so the picket doesn’t ride up.
- Rope position for short roping w 2 – downhill side of middle climber when going up, uphill side of middle climber when going down.
- Standing belay – bury ice ax, clip a draw to it, pass the rope through the draw, then stand on the draw and belay off your waist w a munter or plate device. Advantage is better visibility.
- A garda hitch makes a great ascender for your foot loop when you’re doing the AMGA rescue drill. Very easy to slide.
- When you’re in glacier travel mode with Kiwi coils (or the rest of the rope in your pack) you can tie off to your harness with some type of bight knot. This makes it easier to escape as you can transfer the loop of the bight into your new anchor instead of dealing with transferring loads with munter mules.
- When doing crevasse rescue make sure to keep all pulley points in the air. Dig under them if you have to b/c friction w the snow can add seriously to the difficulty of pulling.
- When you go to pad the lip of the crevasse prior to hauling, don’t use your pack, it’s probably got stuff inside that you’ll need.
- Short roping on snow is dangerous, sometimes guides operate on terrain where they would not be able to hold a fall. Safety in this terrain is totally dependant on a tight rope, modeling, proper pacing, kicking great steps, and getting clients in a zen groove.
- Abolokov shaft anchor (not sure about this one as I haven’t seen one) Works like a vertical deadman; there are two swaged loops on a cable one of which pulls from half way up the shaft of your ice ax. The cable pulls through the snow so that the cable pulls on the middle of the ice ax shaft, not the top. Like I said, I haven’t seen this one so if I’ve botched this description terribly someone please let me know and I’ll fix it.
- For a 4 person team (or a 2 or 3 person team with outside help) with an end person in the crevasse, two can hold the fall and one can go down to the lip of the crevasse. The person at the lip can pass a bight of rope down to the victim, one end of that loop will get pulled by the two holding the fall and the other end will be fixed to the person at the lip of the crevasse, backed up by his own ice ax. Then the two (tied into the pull rope) start pulling (with their legs, simply moving away from the crevasse, no hands on the rope) There will be a pull on the person next to the crevasse in the direction of the crevasse with this system but it’s manageable with good position and your ice ax as backup. Fast system.
This wasn’t a good day for me as I tweaked something in my back early in the morning and was hurting all day.
Day 5: Sit at my sister’s house, take Aleve, and think about everyone else doing routes on the Ptarmigan Fingers. Grrr. Sucks to get old. A case of beer is yours for accurate directions to the real Fountain of Youth.
Day 6: We woke to a lot of rain and ended up doing a rock rescue day at the Boulder Rock Club. We practiced the AMGA Rock Rescue scenario. It’s a contrived test but it does manage to evaluate your ability to do a wide range of actions with a minimum of gear. If you can handle this you should be able to do things much more easily with more toys and fewer rules. Some of these points won’t make much sense unless you’re familiar with this test.
- Reach around method of tying munters lends itself to quick conversions to a supermunter. This doesn’t really apply to the test, just something we learned that day.
- When rapping to victim tie your backup above your device, that way it’s already there when you go to ascend. When you get to the victim be sure to tie a catastrophe knot below your device before you let go of the rappel rope.
- When tying the mule under the munter be sure to make the twist the right way. If you’re guessing, you’ve only got a 50% chance of getting it right. The brake strand coming out of the munter should be captured by the mule, hard to explain. It’ll work the wrong way but learn to tie it the right way. Also always be SURE to tie the munter mule with the munter in the loaded position.
- For a 5:1 when you are using a sling as your static point you can always use an anchor extension to extend your throw.
- When you’re removing a munter from the system a good way is to put an empty biner next to the munter, pass the brake strand of the munter through this biner and then drop the munter out of the first biner. Sounds trivial but this method ends up without any twists.
- Garda hitch w single runner footloop works great for ascending. Tie backup knots behind your belay device while ascending.
- After counterweighted rap to second set of anchors, you can also use the free end of the rope to secure the two of you to the anchor. End of rope to victim, through anchor and back to your harness tied off with a munter mule. Pull the rope from the top anchor, pop the munter mule and start rapping. Not sure how you back up a munter rappel but it was explained to us as a quick way to do 20’ or so if you come up a bit short on your last rap.
Day 7: This day was an easy Eldo day with Clint as our instructor. We did a route called Swanson’s Arete 5.5 after doing the first 5.6 pitch of the Great Chimney? I got to lead most of the route and in a departure from normal guiding I actually did Swanson’s in two long pitches instead of the books three. This was acceptable to Clint because of the made up client profile of experienced multipitch 5.8 climbers out for an easy day that he gave me. Normally for guiding you want to keep the pitches short, often going to more pitches than the guidebook says. We did the same descent as before, going down the Chockstone Chimney rap (60M rope stretcher) and then down the upper ramp to the T2 raps.
Day 8: Our assignment this day was Enter the Dragon with Rob, a route on the buttress climber’s left of the Dragontail couloir. We didn’t exactly follow the route but had a fun adventure none the less. Rock, steep snow, transitions…repeat. It was perfect terrain to practice mountain skills and we all got a chance to work it. Kicking steps at 11 - 12,000’ wasn’t easy for this DC boy. The day pretty well convinced me that I’d have no chance at the Advanced Alpine Guide Course if I didn’t do a whole lot of work and acclimatizing out west at altitude.
Day 9: Did the Spiral Route on Notchtop Mt. with Clint. A great route for guiding challenges, it also was a continuous mix of snow, rock, rubble strewn ledges, wet stretches, and to top it off the route does a complete circle around the mountain as you ascend, hence the name. On the descent, it was the first time I’d used a tag line. The one we used was a 6mm and we had no trouble with the system. These last two days on routes were simply all about making the right decisions of what systems to use to get through different sections.
Day 10: Sleep in a bit, then we did a group debrief of the course. There was mostly positive feedback from everyone. Then we each had a private debrief with the three instructors before taking off in our respective directions.
A couple more tidbits:
- Macramé rap system – When you’re at a tree you’d like to rap from but a) you don’t want to pull the rope around the tree b/c it’ll hurt the tree or b) you don’t want to leave a sling around the tree cuz you don’t have one or don’t want to leave trash behind, you can use this system. CAUTION – SCREWING THIS UP WILL KILL YOU – PRACTICE IN YOUR BACKYARD FIRST! Pass a bight of rope around the tree. Take one of the strands and pass another bight through this first bight. Now take the other strand and pass a third bight through the second bight. Alternate strands as you keep adding bights. Keep it tight. Minimum is three. Once you stop, make sure the last bight extends through the knot plenty. There will be two ropes coming out of this knot. If you can’t figure out which one to rap on this method is not for you. The non rap line will be your retrieval line and while you’re rapping you have to be ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE that this retrieval line isn’t pulled. Once you finish rapping alternately pulling either strand starting with the retrieval strand will release the whole knot.
- Lowering clients to an unknown location and keeping them secure – First prerig prussiks just above their tie-ins and then lower each on an end of the rope. After they’re at a ledge have them slide their prussiks up the rope until almost all the rope is taken up. Then you rap to them. Or…
- Tie a cowstail a few feet from the first client and then lower them. Then lower the second client and have them clip into the cowstail. Now they’re both on the same side of the rope and you can tie a BHK on the other side of your anchor as a stopper knot that can’t go through your biner or rings or whatever you’re using as an anchor. You can then rap the single line on the same side of the BHK as the clients. When you get to the bottom you make sure everyone is secure before simply pulling the BHK side of the line to retrieve it.
It was super to get to spend a bunch of time with instructors and other guides who knew a lot more than me. It was definitely a learning environment and we had many “time-outs” during our days to discuss the pros and cons of various solutions to problems. While you end up with a grade of Complete or Incomplete it’s not conducted in an evaluation environment, and I’d recommend the course to anyone who wants to lead in the mountains.
Catch me on the rocks and I’ll be happy to go through any of this (if I haven’t forgotten it yet).
AMGA Rock Instructor