Safety Training

 

JIRP is, at its heart, an earth science education program. We aim to teach students how to do field work in glacial environments safely, competently, and efficiently so they can understand and contribute to glacier sciences, climate sciences, and science education/communication. If you were to walk in to any science lab, you'd be expected to observe some basic safety principles. Depending on the lab those might be about close-toed shoes and safety glasses or not putting an open mug of coffee right next to a keyboard. On the Juneau Icefield, safety training is athletic and may seem complex, but it falls under the same principle: while we collect data and explore, how can we best protect ourselves, our team, our tools, and our environment?

 Safety Manager Ibai Rico works with a small group to explain how to walk wearing crampons. PC: Daniel Otto.

Safety Manager Ibai Rico works with a small group to explain how to walk wearing crampons. PC: Daniel Otto.

The first week of the program the whole group will stay in Juneau. We'll be based out of the Eagle Valley Center (EVC), a community building north of the city of Juneau and accessible by car. Our first week at the EVC (which we JIRPers call "Juneau Week") is about a whole slew of introductory lectures and activities. There will be some academics, but a lot of the material will focus on living and traveling outside in Southeast Alaska.

We'll talk about blisters from hiking boots, nutrition and hydration, packing backpacks, expedition behavior, and bear safety (among many other things). We'll practice packing our backpacks and take them on two separate day hikes to get used to carrying big packs and to break in our boots. We'll spend time on the bare ice of the Mendenhall Glacier learning to walk wearing crampons. We'll start to get to know each other and build relationships, because working in the backcountry is most safely done when you've got open communication with your teammates. We'll also finish up last minute errands, check everyone's gear, hopeful feast on some wild Alaskan salmon, get everyone over their jetlag, and start learning the basic knots of mountaineering. At the end of this week, when we're confident everyone can safely make the hike up to Camp 17 (our first camp), we'll head up to the edge of the Icefield. This travel day is a hike - we'll be walking on a trail and on snow, not using skis or ropes.

The second week of the program, "Safety Week", is all about getting everyone up to speed on skiing, mountaineering, and thriving in the glacial environment. Some students come to JIRP comfortable on skis, some students come comfortable with technical rope systems, and some come having never dealt with either. We will start from the very beginning with everything!

 Sophia digs a T-shaped snow anchor. PC: Ibai Rico

Sophia digs a T-shaped snow anchor. PC: Ibai Rico

Ski lessons start in camp with how to put your ski boots on properly. Then we'll move out to the glacier, find a flat place with nice soft snow, and work in small groups to get skis on and ski on flat surfaces. Further lessons will focus on skiing uphill, skiing downhill in a controlled manner, skiing on rope teams, and recognizing when terrain is too challenging to ski safely.

Mountaineering lessons also start in camp. We go over the basics of all the skills inside where it's dry and everyone can concentrate with a mug of coffee or hot chocolate in hand. We'll go over knot tying and how to put your harness on without tangling the leg loops. When we move out to the glacier to practice crevasse rescue systems we'll stay in a safe zone with where everyone can walk around without fear of falling. We'll run through basic scenarios in teams so that it makes sense to everyone. We've budgeted in several days of practice, both inside and outside. Whether you learn better by drawing diagrams on the whiteboard, listening to someone else describe the system, running a whole scenario by yourself, or by working with a team, you'll have time to get a handle on crevasse rescue.

 

 
 Self arrest practice. PC: Ibai Rico.

Self arrest practice. PC: Ibai Rico.

We'll also learn to self arrest! Self arresting, using your knees and ice axe to stop yourself sliding down a snow slope, is an important skill for traveling in the alpine environment. We'll use the sunniest day to spend rolling around in the snow on a slope with a mellow, safe run out. 

During the whole first two weeks, Juneau Week and Safety Week, we'll be practicing keeping ourselves warm, dry, fed, and hydrated. We'll talk about layering your clothes, eating and drinking the right things (carbs, proteins, fats, and plenty of water and gatorade), and recognizing the signs of hypothermia and dehydration in yourself and your teammates. 

The culmination of Safety Week is the Mini-Traverse: One whole day on the Lemon Creek Glacier combining all the skills and practicing the equipment transitions we need the two-day trip into the middle of the Icefield.

Once everyone feels comfortable with the skills, the expedition will move forward to Camp 10 (our second camp) to start the lion's share of the summer field work. JIRPers will use their skiing and mountaineering skills every day to get themselves around on the glaciers. Working on in this environment isn't easy, but at JIRP we teach you what you need to know to safely do summer field work on the Icefield.

 
 A Mini-Traverse crew celebrates their "summit" during the culmination of Safety Week. PC: Ibai Rico.

A Mini-Traverse crew celebrates their "summit" during the culmination of Safety Week. PC: Ibai Rico.

For some students, some lessons will be review. Some days we will offer intermediate and advanced lessons simultaneously with beginner lessons so that everyone is learning new skills. Other days we will work in groups of mixed ability so experienced students can help out their peers. At the beginning of JIRP everyone is new to something, and everyone finds something they're already familiar with. If skiing and mountaineering aren't yet in your skill set, rest assured you will be asked to help a peer learn to cook, fix a door latch, explain the finer points of Allen's math-heavy lectures, or just be a kind ear for someone who misses home. There are a million things to do on an expedition like JIRP, and everyone pitches in.

If you're already familiar with skiing and/or mountaineering, don't think for a second that this is going to be boring. There is plenty of terrain to explore around Camp 17. Additionally, we will spend significant time with experienced students getting on the same page about the systems JIRP uses. We love it when students bring experience and different perspectives to the program, but it's important we are all familiar with the same basic systems so things move smoothly if we have an accident.