Guide Training in the Cascades

Laboring through the certification program with the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) is a tough, time-consuming, often stressful process–BUT, it’s a total blast and you learn a ton and then some. To keep my skillset expanding, I took advantage of our extended stay in the Pacific Northwest and booked a couple days of “guide training” with Martin Volken.

Volken looking across at Sahale Peak and the upper Quien Sabe glacier.

Guide training amounts to hiring a well-respected guide, getting out with him or her, and then letting them tear apart your technique and overall guiding. It’s invaluable to get some feedback between your beginning and advanced courses, particularly in your areas of weakness. The North Cascades are perfect for me because I’ve spent too little time on big, glaciated terrain. I phoned Volken a few months back, scheduled two days, and got on my psych.

Volken is one of the examiners for the AMGA and a highly regarded one at that. Born in the valley below Zermatt and the Matterhorn, Volken studied for and received his guiding cert at the age of 29, back in Switzerland. He and his wife, Gina, run Pro Guiding Service, and its retail sister biz Pro Ski Service, in North Bend, Washington. He’s pioneered such itineraries as the Forbidden Traverse in the North Cascades and guides throughout Europe, as well. He helps designs skis for K2 and apparel for Outdoor Research (see my glowing review of his “Trailbreaker Pant” HERE). In short, he’s as dialed as they come in the alpine and I was psyched to get into the Boston Basin zone of the North Cascades with him.

Johannesburg Peak–“just” a little 8000-foot summit along the road into Boston Basin.

Volken chose Boston Basin because of its varied and challenging terrain–cruiser glaciers, broken icefalls, knife-edge ridges, relaxed couloirs, yawning crevasses, sections of steep rock, the works. The climbing demands fluid guiding because if one begins to bog down at each transition, a six-hour route can quickly become an overnight affair. I’m happy to say I didn’t get us benighted!

Looking back towards camp (in the center left, just at treeline) from the summit of Sahale Peak.

We parked at less than 2000 feet, then humped a terrifically steep trail to our bivy site at 5700 feet. After pitching our tent and wolfing some chow, we bolted for the summit of Sahale–8680 feet. Fairly straightforward glacier travel lead to a bit of rock, then some more snowy ridge climbing, then a short section of short-roping to the summit. The terrain in and of itself wasn’t all that hard, but anticipating transitions and switching techniques while on the move is always a challenge.

For example, on a glacier a guide has to consistently assess the most pressing hazard–is that falling directly into a crevasse, or is that a slip on ice, or perhaps a slip with a big crack below the party? If the hazard is the former (a direct fall into a crevasse), then maintaining some distance between teammates (or clients) and keeping slack out of the rope is probably the best call. As the group moves into a short, steeper pitch where some potential exists for a slip and a fall, then having 10m of rope between the guide and clients becomes a liability, rather than a help. The guide at that point can shorten the rope quickly (either carrying coils in her hand or taking them in on her “kiwi coils” on her body), offering the clients more security, as well as better communication/modeling due to their close proximity. To pass one’s alpine exam, transitions like these must be anticipated and executed with as little stumbling about as possible.

And ladies and gentlemen, I can stumble with the best of them. Thankfully I didn’t flail too badly (though I did snag a pant-leg with a crampon a couple times, hitting the deck once–alpine dweeb moment number 7,392 for me), and Martin has a great teaching style–very low stress and helpful, without interrupting the day’s flow to the point of wrecking the candidate’s (my) mojo.

Boston Glacier in the background, from Sharkfin Tower

For our second day of training we hit the snow at 0600, made our way up to Sharkfin Tower, bypassing a few crevasses, negotiating a pretty benign moat where the glacier met the rock, a melting-out couloir, and some approach talus-heinosity. Not too bad, especially with only two of us. Having two people behind always complicates things a bit, but it was pretty cruiser 1:1.

At the little col beneath Sharkfin Tower, we could see down onto the Boston Glacier–huge, 6km across, with plenty of cracks. The Tower itself has little sections of low fifth-class climbing, but on the whole it’s quick “short pitches,” meaning the guide shortens the rope and moves in 5, 10, or 20m pitches. This is far faster than pitching it out and building belays at every stance. Using natural rock features to loop the rope around offers security, but keeps the pace high so the group can cover ground.

A bit of climbing in the crampons got us off the glacier, across some rock and into a snowy couloir.
Up the aesthetic and scenic arete on Sharkfin Tower
A traversing, mellow section of Sharkfin Tower…but with huge exposure above the Boston Glacier

We summited the Tower by 9 and then reversed our tracks, stopping occasionally to have Martin critique my technique and offer alternatives. We were back on the glacier within 90 minutes, then headed over to a small icefall to practice cramponing technique, as well as short-roping on ice. Talk about sketchy…man, you can get in over your head QUICK trying to short-rope on broken, icy terrain. I’m happy to have had the experience and it’s something I’ll need to work on much more before my exams.

Mostly I’m left with the realization that I need a bunch more mileage on big, complicated, glaciated terrain…and five-star psych to get back into the Cascades–soon! The rock ridges are every bit as scenic and challenging as the east-side stuff in the Sierras and the glaciers are big. Awesome terrain for training. I’d love to shadow one of Martin’s groups on his Forbidden Ski Traverse, or (lord help me) one of his Euro itineraries (check them out HERE if you really want to get stoked for next winter!).

Big thanks to Martin and Gina Volken–and most of all Rebel for helping me get out for a few days. My buddy Mike Arnold is coming up next week before his alpine aspirant exam, so we’ll be out training a bit more. Pics to follow.

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