Friday, April 10, 2009

Trial and error, success and failure

It's been a rocky road for me in the past three weeks. Those of you who read this blog and turn green with envy at the girl who chases powder snow and sunny rock climbs all over the continent can finally feel that there is some justice in the world. Yup, it's not always all laughing, wine and smiles for Jasmin. Despite the fact that I have been backcountry skiing since I was a very young child, have had the good fortune to apprentice numerous accomplished ski and mountain guides, and spent the entire winter in preparation for my ACMG Assistant Ski Guide exam, I somehow managed to fail the exam. I am still not sure exactly how this happened, although I recognize that I made some mistakes during the exam. I guess I expected it would be at least somewhat similar to an exam in university, where you might get a few questions wrong and not get 100%, but it would take many many wrong answers to get a failing grade. As I now am painfully aware, ACMG guides exams are not set up this way. Instead you get one mark in each of several categories each day of the exam. That mark is either a P (Pass), M (Marginal) or F (Fail). Based on my experience in the exam, it doesn't really make a difference how many decisions that you make in a day that deserve a P, if you make one that deserves an M or F that is the mark you get in that category for the day. I managed to make a few to many mistakes in a single category and nearly no mistakes in any of the other categories, and thus these mistakes resulted in a failing grade in that category and since you are required to pass all the categories to pass the exam, I failed. Ouch. Here are some photos from that fateful week in the Adamants:

One of the four errors that contributed to failing my exam. I used my "judgement" when choosing how to manage the risk that this cornice posed to my group by deviating the uptrack (line near the bottom of the photo) lower on the underlying 20 degree slope than I would have had the cornice not been there. Based on my observations that the pieces of cornice that had calved off had obeyed the laws of physics and stayed on the nearly flat area where they landed, I felt it was HIGHLY unlikely that the whole thing would spontaneously break off (on this calm and cool day) and roll over the soft, powdery, flat area and manage to take out all four of us simultaneously on the uptrack. The examiner, however, thought otherwise, and I received an M in risk management for not spacing out our group and warning them of this hazard. Keep in mind that avalanche hazard was not an issue on this low angle slope (the examiner agreed with this).Just thought this little anecdote might prove useful for those of you heading into guides exams in the future.

Two views of where my decision making pushed things over the edge on the final day of the exam. The upper photo shows a CMH heli ski run called Alpina that had been skied fairly heavily on March 23. Several avalanches can be viewed in the upper photo, that were the result of control using explosives by CMH staff on March 21. The lower photo is taken on one of several sustained clear periods we experienced on March 27, an otherwise poor-visibility day. The plan for the day had been to head UP Alpina to climb the north ridge on Triangle Peak then return to the Goldstream Neve via what had been described by the examiners in the meeting the previous night as a short, straightforward snow slope. When we were well on our way up Alpina via a crusty, benchy route that passed near the avalanches seen in the lower right of the upper photo, radio communication with another group in the exam who was attempting to complete the same trip in reverse revealed that the ridge on Triangle was unsafe due to avalanche hazard on a steep snow slope on the ridge. At this point it was up to me to decide how the day should proceed, and at this point, the visibility was quite good. As I continued upwards, I felt that skiing down Alpina in the vicinity of the heli ski tracks would be reasonable based on the fact that the 30 cm of new snow was low density and the wind effect was minimal at the elevations we would be skiing, and that the area had been tracked heavily by heli skiers a few days prior (shown in the upper photo). Additionally, the ski quality on that aspect was far superior to the sun-affected snow we had climbed up. As we took our skins off, the visibility began to deteriorate rapidly, and I hesitated and told a few jokes, waiting for things to improve. I skied the first pitch, down the crest of a low-angle moraine with marginal visibility (red line in the lower photo) and then began to traverse at the elevation I had deemed necessary (2300 m) to hit the Alpina run. At the location of the red dot in the photos, I stopped traversing because it was apparent the terrain was getting steeper (it had been low angle, benchy features to there) and the visibility had notably deteriorated since we had taken our skins off. I stopped the group on the crest of a roll (a safe location) and sidestepped towards the edge of the slope to get a better look at what was immediately below me. I now know exactly where I was because I could see the small rock which was above the cliff (shown in the lower photo) directly below me. At this point I wasn't exactly sure where I was given the horrible visibility, so I pulled out the run photo and the map to have a closer look. The examiner immediately approached me and asked "are you sure about this, I don't want to get avalanched" and after thinking for a moment I said, "no I don't think the visibility is good enough, let's put on our skins and climb back to where we started. After 15 minutes of skinning we reached our transition point, peeled the skins, and skied down the crusty slopes that we had climbed up. According the the examiner, my error correction came too late and that it was too bold of me to even attempt to ski Alpina given the poor visibility. I was given an F in Risk Management for this decision as well as an M in Mountain Sense. Here again, just trying to give folks an idea of what the whole exam experience is like since I guess I didn't really get it myself.

Mt. Sir Sandford (background, left)

More pretty mountains, puke.

Ross Berg, our awesome camp manager posing with Mt. Sir Sandford

I know that things could be way worse, though, and that this will only make me more resilient, humble, stronger and a better guide. That said, it's a f#$*ing expensive, disheartening and really time consuming way to learn a lesson. It's so hard not to feel bitter at the ACMG and the examiners and most of all, at myself. But all I have to do is think about a my friends and family members who have suffering injuries/illnesses or lost loved ones and it puts my little sliver of suffering into perspective, BIG TIME. What I really hope for is that my brain will stop rehashing and reliving the exam over and over and over again each time it is not occupied (like at 3:00 AM when I am trying to sleep or when I am taking my dog for an otherwise peaceful walk in the morning).

One this is for sure, I am unbelievably fortunate to have amazing friends and family who have generously offered their support, compassion and comraderie and shoulders to sob on (Mandoline!!!) at a time when I needed it most.

Enough of my online therapy session. After the exam (and before I found out that I failed... they wait 2 weeks to tell you, presumably so you don't go ballistic on the examiners and slash the $2000 group dome tent with your ice axe) I boogied home to Squamish and basked in a glorious week of doing what ever the f#$% struck my fancy. I did some yoga, some climbing, some ski touring, lots of socializing and spent lots of quality time running with my dog Benny who I had hardly seen all winter. This fantastic homecoming week ended with an all-ladies day on the Spearhead Traverse, a classic 35 km, 6500 ft. vertical horseshoe ski tour that weaves through the spectacular peaks and glaciers that separate Blackcomb and Whistler. I had done the traverse several times a while back, but it was a first for Kinley and Mandoline which made it really special. It was a spectacular day of sunny skies, laughs and sillyness, and even some sweet powder turns. Mandoline blew me away with her fitness and determination, she has really only backcountry skied a few times! That night we celebrated our big day of skiing with a night on the town in Squamish, partying at a staff party at the fantastic new Zephyr Cafe with dancing to the fantastic beats of our friend DJ Sheila.

Mandoline and Kinley grease up with sunscreen for our big, sunny day

Girls' day on the Spearhead... YAY!

Needless to say, the next morning was slow going, but after US border guards stole $80 worth of dog food from my car and hassled me as usual (but my dog puked on their floor... HA HA HA bastards) Mandoline and I rolled into the camping area near Smith Rocks in the wee hours of the next morning and my life as a rock climber slowly, creakily, weakly resumed. I have been down here in Smith Rocks for four days and am slowly remembering how to climb. I am loving the simple life of being on the road, camping, living in the dirt and filth and getting in tune to the rhythm of waking up when the birds chirp, going to bed when it gets dark, eating when I am hungry and climbing until my arms feel like they will fall off. Mandoline has climbed in Smith Rocks quite a bit, so is guiding me around the moderate circuit and I am inspired by my belay time while she sends 5.12s that I am not even fit enough to top-rope at this point. It's amazing how after a few days on the rock, it all starts to come back together mentally though. I have stopped checking my knot after every move up a route (not touching rock for 4.5 months makes me just a wee bit paranoid) and I feel ready to take some whippers on something harder.

Prince Benny basking in the sun after a LONG winter of powder hounding

Living the good life at Smith Rocks... yes there was wine involved

It looks like the skis are put away for another year and in a few weeks I will be heading to Spain to really whip myself back into shape (oh... and drink wine, eat lots of great food, nap in the sun and spend some quality time with my man). I am sure that soon I will stop feeling nauseous when I think about the guide's exam, and I can start building up my mental fortitude to try the exam again next winter, but until then, I am going to have a lot of fun. So get ready to feel envious some more, or better yet, come and hang out with me in Squamish, Spain or wherever else the quest for sunny rock climbs takes me.


Jennifer said...

Even those of us living way way outside your world can get how brutal this must have been- thanks for the details, I hope you feel like the purging helped in the long road to recovery.


Andrew Wexler said...

nice post jas. i enjoyed the painful simplicity. the marking scheme is farcical. according to how it is set-up, you can never gain points for doing well, you can only lose points for fucking up. of course when i pointed this fact out in my de-brief, i was told that i was wrong and that one can infact gain points. can someone please show me how marks can be gained?

marty said...

You know we love you and have the utmost confidence that you will pass it next time. Life is up and down, and you deserve the best for being the wonderful person you are.

Lois and I feel for your dissapointment, but look forward to seeing you next week. Sorry we didn't check your site earlier to give you more encouragement.

LOVE Marty and Lois

Tom Wolfe said...

A great read, Jasmin, I really enjoyed your reflections on your decision making.

I know as much as anyone how frustrating a failed exam is. But hey, here I am chasing after my dreams when so many others in the world can't. It's easy to get caught up in thinking it's "not fair".... but last week as I was skiing from Moberly Pass over the Goldstream Neve to "Heaven's Door" en route to Adamant Lodge on the last day of a little traverse I thought to myself: how many times have I been in the middle of paradise thinking I'm doing the best thing that any human could possibly be doing at this moment, and I'm the only one here!!! In the grand scheme of things, one or two or four failed exams is nothing compared to the prodigal good fortune we have living in these Canadian mountains.