Guest Blog: Mountain Adventure Skills Training Rock Climbing

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Image shows a blue-green lake with a mountain behind it.

Josie Hartlin is a Mountain Adventure Skills Training (MAST) program student at our Fernie campus. The following blog post is her account of one of the favourite activities of many MAST students – rock climbing.

One of the most anticipated trips of the year is rock climbing. For many of us it was our first time experiencing outdoor climbing. We were excited to progress from being total rookies to climbers who were capable of our own weekend trips. The trip was dreamy because we would have five days filled with hours at the rock-climbing venue, called a crag, and at night the luxury of car camping. This would be the first time we would meet the guides who we would see throughout the rest of the program.

Day one we drove to outside of Canmore, AB to the Wasootch crag to learn basics from the guides and get our hands on some rocks. We were eager to get outside and stretch after a four-hour drive. Intimidated but excited, we suited up in our helmets and harnesses to show the guides what we had learned in class the previous week. For the first time we put our well- practiced and cried-over knots into real world scenarios. In teams of three we climbed and belayed some lower-difficulty spots. Rock climbers use a measurement called the Yosemite Decimal System to grade the difficulty of climbs. At 5.5 – 5.7 grade routes, these first climbs were on the lower end of the scale. As a climbers’ skill increases, harder climbs are accomplished each year.

After a short drive we set up our car camping basecamp next to the popular Canmore river wave. This mash up of tents and campers would be home for the week; we would enjoy music around a communal fire and cooking on stoves bigger than a Whisperlite. Looking at the roaring rapids of the river we felt a twinge of fear after being told we have to enter that water in the spring for rafting training. But that was months away. Currently we had to focus on some more solid, vertical ground.

With no time to waste we were up, ready, and at the crag by 9am every day. Due to COVID and permit restrictions the class was split into two groups and through the week we would go to separate crags to ensure we were safe, and not crowding an area. As a large group it was important that we respect the public who also use these areas and do our best to not hog the space. Some of the crags we visited were: Wasootch, Heart Creek, Zygo, Sunshine Slabs and Grassi Lakes.

Over the next few days we practiced what we had learned in class, as well as new skills and getting routes under our belts. We learned rope skills such as coiling and etiquette. Knots were tied and retied- from the figure eight on a bight, to the tricky double fisherman. Trust is important to have when someone is in charge of keeping you from falling down a rock wall; to establish this we focused on belaying, and the language associated with it.

Anchor building and cleaning was first practiced with our feet on the ground using mock anchor boards. This allowed us to gain the confidence to clean our own anchors at the end of the day. Along with this we learned the two ways to get down after a top rope anchor has been cleaned: clean and lower, and clean and rappel.

At the beginning of the week the guides would set up mellow routes for us to top rope from. Many students expressed interest in learning how to lead climb their own routes. With the permission of the guides, and under their careful watch we were able to progress to this stage by the end of the course. Everyone was given the chance to lead at least a 5.4 if they felt comfortable. Some of the stronger climbers were able to lead climb on routes as challenging as 5.11.

We left the week with a fire for climbing lit in our bellies, but not without some important advice from Cloud Nine owner, Mike Teherne. Mike told us to take our new skills and have fun progressing at our own rate but to be cautious and wise when doing so. Often when a set of new and exciting skills are learned the student can mistake that acquisition for mastering, which is not always the case. When we go into the mountains to challenge ourselves and nature, we have to do so in the safest way possible. It is critical to not push too far when trying to break from your comfort zone.

Learning from the guides was eye opening and inspiring. Our conversations with these professionals allowed us insight as to what we can expect on our own guiding paths, and what is possible for us after the MAST program. All of our guides had different experiences and perspectives to offer: Carla was a mother, Kevin a young man following his father’s footsteps, and Mike a former MAST student.

By day 5 we were all stoked, tired, and ready for some rest. With MAST, rest is replaced with adventure. In just two days we would be coming back to the Canmore area for our six-day mountaineering course. It was time to load into the vans, grab some A&W, and start packing for the next big thing.

Pictured: Ha Ling Peak- A climb for us to aspire to, visible from parking at Grassi Lakes.