Monday, April 28, 2014

Delving into Dushanbe

It's hard to believe we've made it all they way here. After almost 30 hours of transit across the world and  not sleeping for two days (save a few upright airplane naps), Team Flow has touched down in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe.
We are delighted to report that all the luggage made it through the several transfers to this little airport in Central Asia. Four ski bags, five duffle bags of expedition equipment and over 350 lbs of clothing donations
came off the carousel, a headache for security personnel checking the  baggage tags but we rolled out of the terminal triumphant, with everything accounted for.

Turkish Airlines waived over 350 lbs of checked baggage fees to get these clothing donations to Tajikistan

The team has to give a big shout-out to Turkish Airlines who agreed to let us check all 350 lbs of clothing donations  free of charge. Their willingness to back this project prompted support from their codeshare partnerss United Airlines and Air Canada, who both agreed to match the excess baggage waiver for their portion of the journey. After a lot of emails, phone calls and last minute hurdles, every piece of donated clothing from Whistler Blackcomb, MEC and friends in our communities has made it to Tajikistan. The clothes will be mostly distributed through the Gorno-Badakshan Province Jamoats, the village councils representing the towns we will be travelling through on our way to and from the Fedchenko.

View from the top floor of the Poytakht Hotel, Dushanbe

Our local fixer, Saidali Gaibuldaev of Pamir Guides, greeted us at the airport at 5 a.m. and loaded our mountain of duffles, ski bags and backpacks onto the roof of his trusty Landcruiser. After checking in at the Poytakht Hotel and sitting down for a relaxing breakfast, we took a few hours to settle in. Sleep came more easily to some team members than others, and by lunch time it was back to the all-important last minute preparations.
Shopping at the Green Market, Dushanbe. Food for 30 days on a glacier can be a complicated affair

Managing 30 days worth of food for five hungry ski mountaineers is not as easy task, but with no food caches on this trip we have no other choice. Breakfast consist of muesli and oatmeal with powdered milk, dinners are a rotating menu of ramen noodles, pasta and rice with dehydrated meats and vegetables.  Lunches are a mix of breads, cured meats, cheeses, dried fruits, nuts and chocolate snacks. Water will be purified from streams during the approach and exit of the glacier, and melted from snow once we are travelling on the ice. Each of us also needs to carry four liters of fuel each for cooking and melting drinking water.

It will be a monstrous burden to shoulder, especially for the approach onto the toe of the glacier. However, once on the ice our sleds will lighten the load by allowing us to drag majority of our gear and supplies. We have tried to get the best information we can on the conditions of our entry and exit, but at this point we will just have to wait and see.

From Holly, Emelie, Selena, Zeb and Vince, we'd like to thank you for taking an interest in our project over the last few months. You can stay updated on our movements on the Flow of the Fedchenko Facebook page, provided by our inReach SE two-way satellite communicator.

See you on the other side!

Did you know 'barf' means 'snow' in Tajik? Must be why we say "puking snow"

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Training update: Reality Check

A sample of things to come. Vince drags the supply sled up the access road to Elfin Lakes

With now less than 25 days until departure, the reality of this expedition is beginning to set in. Transporting all of of our food, fuel and equipment across the Fedchenko for a month is going to get exhausting, and at times, painful.
It's not the kind of thing you want to experience at 5000 m altitude for the first time.

Training Day

With our team spread out all over the West Coast and interior BC this season, it's been hard to get together for another session of group training. Much of the party had not even met each other before, so we locked in the week of March 17-21 to get into the field and practice hauling weight and pulling each other out of crevasses. Emelie was unfortunately unable to attend with her guiding commitments, but the rest of us knew that this trip was vital to our overall success on the Fedchenko. 
Our original plan was to traverse the McBride range, a four day Coast Range classic that links the Spearhead Range to Black Tusk. About a week out we found out why people only head out on this traverse in the springtime, when weather is reliably sunny for up to a week. The McBride does not have the convenient exit routes that are available around the fringes of Garibaldi Park so if you get weathered out half way through, the retreat can quickly turn into a miserable death march, as Lee Lau's group experienced in the spring of 2007.

We made a plan B that would take us into the Callaghan/Brandywine area, but after our car load of broke skiers refused to pay a certain recreational provider's extortionate trail fees, we deferred to the well known Elfin Lakes area of Squamish. Weather was due to come in that night, so we set up our first camp a few hundred meters from the Elfin Lakes shelter. That way we could use the outhouses, but still go through the motions of setting up and taking down camp.

A pre-trip gear explosion on the living room floor at Vince's house

Day 1 camp
The storm did indeed hit, bringing about 15 cm of snow overnight. The next morning involved digging out our tents and otherwise trying to keep the rest of our gear dry. All challenges that will be a daily routine when weather hits us on the Fedchenko.

Enough Rope

One of the most important skills in glacier travel is knowing how to set up rope rescue systems effectively. With the group having been taught various techniques, we thought it wise to get everyone attuned to the same method of setting anchors, rigging pulleys and hauling our glacier partners out of trouble. Zeb is the most proficient rope technician on the team, so we followed his lead on digging t-slot anchors, tying Munter mule overhand knots and extracting our victim with a z-pulley. Carrying out this exercise on snow - with an actual person weighing on the end of the rope- was so much more effective than an indoor training session.
As part of his guide training, Zeb also needed to be able to construct an emergency shelter within a 20 minute window, which he demonstrated later that afternoon. A simple trench with room for two people and a lightweight tarp secured to skis and poles. Hopefully we'll be spending every night in out tents on the Fedchenko, but it's always best to be prepared for the worst if we get caught some distance from our base camp.

Zeb demonstrates his emergency bivvy, constructed in less than 20 minutes

Holly and Zeb test the emergency bivvy shelter

Traveling show

The next day it was time to break camp, getting into the groove of packing the camping equipment in the right order to be the most efficient with time and effort. Everything will be several times harder at high altitude, so getting the little things dialed in is all-important.
The four of us roped up on the skin track and headed for the east side of Paul Ridge, taking turns to drag the supply sled. Communication while on rope was crucial, as was keeping to a steady pace. After setting up camp for our third night, we allocated the rest of the afternoon for more training on lowering a victim in a sled and passing a knot. It's more difficult than it sounds, and while in theory it's the same knot over and over, the birds nest of cords and carabiners can get confusing for those not trained in the art. It was a long afternoon, but we all came away having learned something new.

On Friday the sun came out for our exit back to the car, passing the dozens of Vancouver skiers coming up to stay at the Elfin Lakes shelter for the weekend. Lunch in Squamish was a treat after three nights in the backcountry, we could only imagine what it will feel like after 30 days in the Pamirs.

Four of the five members of Team Flow get together.

Hauling the sled with beautiful views of the Mamquam Icefields

Atwell will have to wait for another trip

Testing the new Sherpa 100 from our sponsor Goal Zero

Great times in the cooking tent

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Team Flow named 2014 Polartec Challenge Grant Winners

Exciting news from Team Flow this week- we were one of four parties selected for funding by the Polartec Challenge Grant!
We are humbled to have received support from Polartec, which has funded over 100 expeditions around the world since 1991. Past recipients have included some of our greatest inspirations, including Andrew Maclean, Jimmy Chin and Conrad Anker.

The grant has also coincided with two more members committing to Team Flow's expedition to the Fedchenko Glacier in Tajikistan.

Selena  Cordeau has an impressive resume of ski traverses through the mountains of British Columbia and Yukon, as well as 21 day traverse through the High Atlas in Morocco. She will bring her experience and knowledge as a glaciology technician to the team. Selena has received numerous research and expedition grants, including the Alpine Club of Canada Jen Higgins Fund.

Zebulon "Zeb" Blais brings a wealth of ski mountaineering experience to Team Flow, working as a ski guide  and avalanche course leader in mountains from Alaska to Argentina. His travels have taken him to 15 countries over five continents, summiting peaks and experiencing cultures of the developing world.

As we begin to make final preparations just 60 days from departure, this grant will help with travel expenses for Selena and Zeb as well as assisting with ground costs once we touch down in Tajikistan. The Polartec Challenge Grant joins the ACC Jen Higgins Fund and Mountain Equipment Co-op as the signature sponsors of our expedition. We thank you for your support!


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Training in full swing, preparations continue

Jason and Holly cross Trorey Glacier in Spring conditions

Recent storms have reinvigorated the winter spirit in Whistler, but in January it was still mostly dry with minimal snow coverage. The Spearhead Range was still crevasse country on January 24, so the Whistler section of Team Flow (Holly and Vince) set out to spend a full day negotiating its fissured glaciers. Joining the full day tour was Jason Amerlaan from Squamish, an expert climber and experienced backcountry skier. Jason seemed just as happy as us to walk for 30 km over almost 11 hours with no powder turns, so he was welcome to join in on the suffering. As well as offering excellent guidance on negotiating rocky down climbs, his home made energy bars proved to be both tasty and effective.

We set off from the Blackcomb Glacier gate as soon as it opened, knowing that daylight hours were going to be short. Holly had been recovering from a couple weeks of illness and was treating the day as warm up for training. I had climbed Black Tusk two days earlier and was ready to start hauling a heavier pack, so I loaded up my 70L pack with camera gear, water and soup cans as well as all my regular touring gear.
Crevasses were still lingering at the end of January

There had only been one significant storm since the last mission when Emilie was in town in December, so the glaciers were still ridden with hazards. Gaining Decker and crossing onto the Trorey Glacier was routine enough, but once we reached Tremor Glacier we had to start watching our step. We all started to get a better eye for spotting crevasses from a safe distance, by observing the depressions in the glacier and giving the school bus-sized holes a wide berth. We stopped at midday for lunch at the Tremor-Shudder Col  for lunch, the usual turnaround point for the Spearhead Traverse. Past that point, it's just as quick to finish off the loop than to backtrack.
Tank tops in January on the Spearhead Traverse

The weather was like Spring, with temperatures as high as 7 degrees C with a cloudless sky. Much of the day was spent touring just in our base layers, with water needing constant rationing. Though there was no powder to speak of, we did lay out a few creamy turns on the Ripsaw. Thankfully we were in the shade of northern slopes for the hottest parts of the day.
Diavolo. Always an ass kicker
Every time I tour the Spearhead Traverse (this was my fourth circuit), I always dread climbing Diavolo. It's the last real punch of vertical on the route, so if you can make it up Diavolo, you're pretty much home free. Feeling confident with the soup cans not able to break me yet, I took off up the climb with gritted teeth. On the final few hundred meters before the col I began to feel dizzy, and Jason offered me some of his fruit-rich energy bars. I made it to the col and sat down and ate most of my remaining food, knowing that the worst was behind me. Holly wasn't far behind, the last weeks of flu not able to phase her.
Downclimbing onto Overlord. Jason was the only one confident enough to do it with skis and pack

We started to dream about beer and burgers, but we weren't done yet. Accessing the Overlord Glacier is usually a quick ski down, but with the snowpack at the time we ended up having to down-climb on rocks to avoid a lengthy detour. Rock climbing in ski boots was new for all of us, but with a bit of teamwork, we all made it down safely.
On the home stretch, reaching for headlamps

We reached the Fissile Whirlwind Col just as the sun began to disappear behind the McBride Range. Normally this is where you b-line for Singing Pass (the express exit to Whistler Valley), but with the snowpack at lower elevations questionable, we played it safe and toured back over the Musical Bumps, over Flute and exited through the resort on Whistler Mountain. Dodging snow cats under headlamps, we made it to Skier's Plaza and proceeded straight to Blacks for those beers and burgers.

Stay tuned for some exciting announcements from Team Flow! We are now less than three months away from departure on the biggest adventure of our lives.



Monday, December 16, 2013

Early winter challenges

Early season Spearhead: Scoping the route up Decker Glacier

Winter has arrived, but sadly with little snow in the Coast Range. Rocks are littered throughout the resorts snatching chunks of P-Tex from unsuspecting skiers. Alpine bowls are a minefield of boulders and glaciers have open crevasses that could swallow a school bus. Lack of powder aside, backcountry travel is quite hazardous right now. A recent cold snap has weakened buried layers in the snowpack and deadly terrain traps loom constantly.

But there's always a silver lining. Training for Tajikistan is in full swing with all members touring big days every week, even with the limited terrain available. With Emelie in Whistler for a her CAA Level 2 course exams, the three of us ventured out in the Spearhead Range to negotiate said hazards.

Blackcomb's current boundary gate at the top of Jersey Cream chair

Warning signage at the top of Horstman T-Bar

We couldn't have asked for more ideal training conditions. High winds and pocket flurries blew over to  reveal the crevasse-ridden glaciers on Decker Glacier. During September's training trip we practiced pulling each other out of crevasses, this time we would practice travelling around them.

After a lengthy approach to the Blackcomb Glacier gate we were finally in Garibaldi Park. Clouds surrounded us but we were able to descend out of the isolated flurry, we could even see the sun poking through.
The Spearhead currently has some of the thinnest coverage I have ever seen in eight years of touring in the range. A blue ice sheet is currently exposed at the foot of Tremor Glacier and there are more open crevasses than I ever knew existed. We almost had to scramble over exposed rock on the ridges.

The toe of Tremor Glacier looking thin

During lunch Emelie dug a quick pit to observe some of the heavy faceting that's been going on in the snowpack, we agreed that crevasses were more of a hazard than avalanche on this slope, so out the ropes came. Travelling up a skin track roped up took some getting used to, but we soon had the system dialed of pausing while the person behind negotiated each switchback. We also learned that when skiing downhill, even short distances, you have to unclip from each other on the rope. Not doing so can put the entire group in danger in the event of a fall.
Quick snowpit before the ascending the slope 

Emelie probing the edge of a crevasse, rope taut
December doesn't have a lot of daylight, but we were able to get in a full day of touring to go over some trip plans, learn some new skills and ski some very awful snow. Breakable crust greeted us on the ski off Decker. Frustrating snow, but if you can ski that crap, you can ski anything. 

We're all hoping the season is going turn around next month, but until then we'll keep training in the challenging conditions that we have.

We're also excited to announce that MEC are now supporting Flow of the Fedchenko with a cash grant and some gear sponsorship. Visa and permit applications were sent off this week to the Tajik embassy and we eagerly await the response.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Fall training in the Bugaboos

Holly and Emelie at the base of  Pigeon Spire, Bugaboo Provincial Park

As our team slowly works our way through seemingly endless to-do lists, earlier this month we managed get out and spend some time in the field together. As Emelie is based in Revelstoke, getting together for trips has proved more difficult than we originally thought. Everyone will be busy in December and we are hoping to get some time on snow together in in the early season, but we needed a trip to happen in the fall to go over the basics.
Everyone has had some climbing experience and has spent time walking on glaciers, but roping up and travelling as one group was exactly what we needed. Keep the rope taught when navigating crevasses, call to stop if you have to adjust your crampons or tie your bootlaces, communicate clearly when belaying or rappelling.
All the little things.
After a mostly uneventful drive from Whistler to Revelstoke, Holly and I pulled  in to Emelie's place at around 10 p.m. After considering all the gear that we were going to need, we left some climbing hardware behind but with food, clothing and gear for up to five days, our packs were still ridiculously heavy. Even though we intend to pull majority of our load in the Pamirs on sleds, it was worth seeing how we would all handle carrying full expedition packs from the car park of Bugaboos Provincial Park all the way to the Applebee campsite. The hike took about three hours with a few breaks.
Rocks, logs and chicken wire keep the rubber-eating porcupines from chewing through your tires and brake lines

We called in at the ACC Conrad Kain Hut to grab some stove fuel that Emelie had stockpiled earlier that week before the last leg up to the campsite. The weather was holding and we wanted a good night's sleep for a full day in the alpine the next day.
Fine weather for the hike in
Applebee campsite, Bugaboo Provincial Park
Rising at dawn with a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we geared up and began the hike to the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col, one of the most popular routes to access dozens of alpine climbing options. Conditions weren't the best, we had to skirt a bergschrund and briefly scrambled up on blue ice, all while watching for rockfall. Once on the Upper Vowell Glacier we had a routine approach towards Pigeon Spire. Once on rock we left our crampons and ice axes and began the scramble towards the summit.
The weather was approaching and even though we were easily able to grab the summit, we knew it would be safer to turn around. That decision can be a difficult one when summits, couloirs and powder are calling, but it's also a decision that we need to get used to when traveling at high altitude.
Emelie leads Holly on the Pigeon Spire
Descending the Upper Vowell Glacier, we decided to take the Icefall Rappel route to get some practice descending on ropes. The rain came in the final hour before making it back to camp but we managed to stay mostly dry with good shell layering.
The next morning there was a mass exodus from the campsite, the incoming rain prompting all the climbers to pull out. But we weren't done yet, we needed a solid day of crevasse rescue training before we could head back to civilization. The sun was out for the first hours of the morning as we hiked past the Conrad Kain Hut towards the Fork-Bugaboo Glacier. Much of the foot of the glacier was bare ice, good practice for careful steps and tool placement. Crevasses littered the glacier and after finding a suitable one for rescue drills we took turns getting lowered in while the other members practiced pulley systems.
The five-pitch Icefall Rappel

Careful steps on the icy slopes of the Fork-Bugaboo Glacier

The thunder cracked suddenly, we quickly packed up and bee-lined it off the glacier. We were about a third of the way through the boulder fields when the torrential downpour hit us. We took refuge in the very comfortable Conrad Kain Hut, the occupying ACC members happily letting dry out our gear and cooking dinner before heading back to our tents for the night.
Though the storm passed, the overnight rain was already beginning to dampen spirits. We made it through three of our five planned nights in the Bugaboos; hiked with heavy packs, got in a full day of climbing and glacier travel and had proper field session on crevasse rescue. The weather was only getting worse so we made the call to pull out the next morning. The rain drenched us again on the way out but we all had dry clothes waiting in the car.
Fall field training was complete. See you when the snow flies.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Welcome to our journey

Winter is in the air. As the first snowflakes fall in the alpine we begin preparation for what may be the biggest trip of our lives. In May 2014, ski mountaineer Holly Walker, ski guide Emelie Stenberg and photojournalist Vince Shuley will travel to Central Asia to cross the fabled Fedchenko Glacier on skis. Situated in the Gorno-Bardakhshan province of Tajikistan, the Fedchenko stretches 77 kilometers across the Pamir Mountains and is the main water source for millions of people in Central Asia.
Our party will be entirely self-propelled and unsupported from when we set foot on the glacier until we step off it. Along the way we intend to explore the many peaks of the Pamirs by setting up base camp and ski touring the surrounding areas, which will all be documented by Vince.
This blog has been created to document our preparations for the Fedchenko including expedition training, gear testing and sponsorship. We are proud to announce that Emelie was selected as recipient of the 2013 Alpine Club of Canada Jen Higgins Fund, which is giving the trip an excellent kick start as we apply for additional grants this fall and continue our preparations.

Thanks for stopping by and we hope to see you back here as we bring you more updates!


Holly, Emelie and Vince soaked to the bone after fall alpine climbing in the Bugaboos