Date: June 19-24, 2016
Since diving into the backpacking scene last year, the “adventuring” bar has been set pretty high in my mind. My next endeavor (to both Mack and my parents’ dismay) is mountaineering. This particular desire has actually been a lingering presence for quite some time—even before the idea of backpacking!—and has only been fueled more since I moved back to the Pacific Northwest.
Despite his reluctance, Mack, being the amazing friend and adventure partner that he is, is giving it a try with me. We climbed Mount St. Helens last November to dip our feet in, started top roping at the Portland Rock Gym to gain some basic belaying skills, and took a couple of one-day skills courses with Timberline Mountain Guides (Steep Snow Climbing, which we both took, and Anchors and Belaying, which I took by myself). After enjoying the latter, we decided to sign up for a week-long introductory course (Alpinism 1) with American Alpine Institute.
Over the course of six days, we reviewed many of the skills we learned from TMG (steep snow climbing/footwork, self arrest, and snow anchors), learned a number of new ones (snow camping, glacier travel, rope skills, crevasse rescue/pulley systems, outdoor rock climbing experience), and successfully summited Mount Baker via Easton Glacier! I couldn’t have asked for a more positive, memorable experience. And best of all, Mack and I shared it together.
Day 1: AAI office in Bellingham; Mount Erie; Deception Pass State Park
Day one was quite possibly the longest of the entire trip. It began at 1 am when Mack and I woke up to do one final gear check, load up the car, and hit the road by 2 am. Neither of us had gotten much sleep since we spent the entirety of the previous day packing, as well as shopping for last minute food and supplies. With 260+ miles separating us from the AAI office in Bellingham, WA, the 7 am meet up time was not something we were looking forward to. If we’d had time to pack several days prior, we probably would’ve stayed overnight in a nearby campground to avoid the late night/early morning commute.
We arrived around 6:30 am, which gave us plenty of time to unload our packs, park the car, and browse AAI’s well-stocked gear shop—both of us were finally able to purchase a decent pair of work/mid-layer gloves and a pair of waterproof gloves! As soon as everyone in the course arrived, the standard introductions took place. Although I was aware of the fact that I would be the only female on the course, I still had knots in my stomach as I stood there surrounded by eight dudes. Fortunately, they all ended up being great guys, so my anxiety didn’t last long.
Following introductions, our guides/instructors, Britt Ruegger and Wyatt Evenson, provided an in-depth show and tell of the gear they were bringing, then proceeded to review everyone’s gear before we (re)packed it all in. Most of our group came well prepared, so this particular step didn’t take as long as I thought it would. Within a couple of hours, all the packs and gear were crammed into the back of the passenger van and we were on the road again, this time heading to Mount Erie for an introduction to rock climbing.
Being Father’s Day, it was incredibly packed when we arrived. Hoping that a route or two would open up with time, we spent a couple of hours going over climbing gear, practicing knots and hitches, and setting anchors. A few of our course mates already had experience with multi-pitch rock climbing, but for Mack and me, the amount of material we covered was overwhelming. Luckily, the most important skills we ended up needing that day could be narrowed down to tying-in and belaying, which we were already familiar with from time spent at Portland Rock Gym. We spent a couple more hours top-roping on one of Mount Erie’s numerous walls. It was our first outdoor climbing experience! I imagine we sent nothing over 5.6 or 5.7, but I found the entire experience far more intense, exciting, and rewarding than climbing at the gym. It definitely got us excited about learning and practicing more on outdoor routes in the future.
After the laid back climbing sesh, we headed to a campground in Deception Pass State Park (Cranberry Campground, I believe), set up our tents (our Mountain Hardwear Tangent 2 definitely stood out amidst the sea of Hillebergs), made dinner (first time cooking with the JetBoil!), then worked on some rope skills: attaching our prusiks, measuring distance between members of a rope time, and executing kiwi coils and mountaineer’s/alpine coils while tied-in. Mack and I went to sleep with mounds of new information just waiting to be put to use.
Day 2: Sandy Camp
The birds woke me up just before 5 am. I swore I could hear some of our other classmates starting to pack their gear up, so I woke up Mack and hurriedly got dressed and packed up my sleeping bag and pad. I hate being the last person ready to go. Of course once I unzipped the tent door and stepped outside, I found that Mack and I were the only people awake in our entire camp. At least we weren’t last…
Once everyone was awake and packed up, we began the drive out to Schreiber’s Meadow Trailhead, located on the south side of Mount Baker. We made a pit stop in Sedro-Woolley to hit up a market that, according to Wyatt, served up some of the best breakfast burritos. Mack and I aren’t particularly fond of breakfast burritos, so we ordered grilled sandwiches (for breakfast) instead. OH. MY. GOD. Pretty sure it was the best sandwich I’d ever had. Perfect way to start the day. So if you’re ever in Sedro-Woolley, make sure to stop by The Woolley Market. The second floor of the market is also home to Northwest Mountain Shop—perfect for picking up any last minute gear! In our group’s case, it was a snow shovel.
Weather was looking good when we got to the trailhead. We left our comfy camp shoes in the van, donned our heavy mountaineering boots, and strapped on our enormous packs. Our time on the mountain was about to commence. Our trek to Sandy Camp (somewhere between 3 to 4 miles) was fairly moderate. The sky was blue and the sun was shining until we reached the Railroad Grade Trail. Clouds blocked out the sun and it started to drizzle as we hiked the upper edge of a glacial moraine that ultimately led us to Sandy Camp.
Although there were several dry dirt spots available, Mack and I decided to pitch our tent in the snow since we’d never snow camped before. Since the weather had cleared up again, we took our time smoothing out a platform and digging out trenches. We ended up not using the footprint (although by the end of our stay we wished we had). After unloading our gear into the tent, we took some time to let our surroundings truly sink in. It felt like home.
Once everyone was set up and rested, we finished the day with a class on snow anchors using pickets and flukes. Much of this was review for me since I’d taken the Anchors and Belaying class with TMG just 3 weeks earlier. However, this was Mack’s first time learning about them. We both agreed that building anchors in snow was a lot easier than setting them on rock routes. Britt concluded the skills session with a demonstration of the 3:1 Z-pulley system and the 6:1 C-Z pulley system used in crevasse rescue (something we were to practice more the following day). By this time the sun was setting. We all retired to camp to make dinner and admire the alpenglow stretched across the horizon before turning in for the night.
Day 3: Skills day!
Today we dropped down to six classmates. After struggling a lot on the hike into Sandy Camp, one of the guys was heading home. Wyatt was hiking back out with him, so Britt was our primary instructor for the day. Our first full day on the mountain consisted solely of skills practice (yay!). We started with footwork: duck walk (pied en canard) for gentle slopes; flat-footing (pied à plat) and ascending diagonally for moderate to steep slopes; hybrid technique (pied troisième)—one foot front-points and the other remains flat—for moderate to steep slopes; and front-pointing (German/Austrian technique) for steep, 55+ degree slopes. Next, we covered self-arrest and practiced sliding down a moderate snow slope in different positions (feet first; head first, sliding on the back; and head first, sliding on the stomach). Mack and I had learned all of these skills in the TMG course we took back in May, but it was definitely great to review them again.
We spent the next few hours practicing our belaying skills (first on dry ground, then on the snow with an anchor placed). We focused on the body belay (where the rope goes around the belayer’s waist) and belaying off of a carabiner using the Munter hitch. Since I’d had a bit of practice using the Munter hitch at my last TMG course, I felt most comfortable with this belaying technique. Mack, on the other hand, preferred the body belay for its simplicity. Both of these techniques were done off of the belayer’s body. One thing we didn’t get a chance to cover was belaying someone off of a snow anchor using the Munter, which is my ultimate preference. But according to our instructors, belaying off the body is much more secure (particularly when you’ve got more than one other person on a rope team) in the event that the anchor doesn’t hold. Sometime in the afternoon, we headed back to camp as two separate rope teams (just to start getting the hang of it) for a lunch/snack/nap break.
Following the break, the remainder of the afternoon was spent going over the pulley systems that Britt had demonstrated the previous day. I offered to be the first “victim.” Unfortunately, because the weather wasn’t ideal, I didn’t get dropped into an actual crevasse. We had to make due with a nearby steep slope. I was pretty bummed, although I’m sure I ended up in a much more comfortable position. I was hanging for what felt like a pretty long while. Britt would walk over every few minutes and suggested that I try to use my foot prusiks to ascend. When I was finally pulled out, I actually kind of regretted being the first victim because now I had no idea how to create the pulley system. Even after witnessing this second demonstration, Mack had a puzzled look on his face, too. We got two groups going and I asked to go next so I could receive more instruction. Mack was my “victim.” By this time, Wyatt had returned and was overseeing my progress (or lack thereof). With his help, and the help of one of my classmates, the steps began to make more sense. To give you an idea of the complexity of crevasse rescue, I’ve listed the steps below (taken/paraphrased from the Alpinism 1 Student Manual):
- Self arrest, kick your feet in to hold the weight of the fallen person(s), place a piece of snow or ice protection, and attach it to a locking carabiner.
- Attach your foot prusiks to the master carabiner, then take the rescue coils off of your shoulder and unwrap them one at a time to avoid getting knots.
- Estimate the distance from the carabiner to the crevasse and tie a figure-eight knot in the rope at this length.
- Clear one of the two locking carabiners that you’re tied into the rope with and clip the new figure-eight knot into this carabiner. Once you’re clipped in, clear the second carabiner.
- Tie a figure-eight knot into the rope that is being held by your foot prusiks and clip it to the master carabiner using another locking carabiner.
- Place a second anchor behind the first one, attach it to a locking carabiner, and clip it to the foot prusiks (where your master carabiner is clipped in).
- Take your pack prusik or a shoulder-length sling and girth hitch it to your waist prusik. Clip this extension to the unused locking carabiner at the tie-in point on your harness.
- Work your way towards the lip of the crevasse and check on your partner. Warn them that you’ll need to kick snow down on them in order to clear the lip. After clearing the lip, pad the lip by sliding your ice axe underneath the rope (placing the pick in the snow to secure it). Clip the axe to the rope so that it doesn’t fall in.
- Unclip the extension attached to your harness and remove the pack prusik from your waist prusik. Clip a carabiner/pulley to the waist prusik and run the rope coming from the master carabiner through the pulley.
- Walk back up to the master carabiner, clip another carabiner/pulley into the master carabiner, and run the rope that is clipped to the locking carabiner on the master carabiner through this pulley. Untie the knot next to the pulley, but leave the locking carabiner attached to the master carabiner.
- Untie the knot between the pulley and the foot prusik. You can now haul the victim on a 3:1 system (every three feet you pull, the victim will rise one foot).
- To do the 6:1 system, tie a figure-eight knot at the end of the rope and clip it into a locking carabiner on the master carabiner.
- Tie a knot next to the pulley nearest the crevasse lip and clip a carabiner into it.
- Run the rope that you just clipped into the locking carabiner into the new carabiner nearest the lip. This is your new haul line.
- You can now haul the victim on a 6:1 system (every six feet you pull, the victim will rise one foot).
Phew! That’s a lot of steps! After going through all of them and hauling Mack out on a 6:1 pulley (with a little help from Wyatt), it was time for dinner and sleep. Summit day was to begin in a few hours!
Day 4: Summit day!
Usually the summit push takes place on the second to last day of the course (Thursday), but Wednesday had the only decent weather window. Storms were rolling in Thursday and Friday. We had covered the skills we would need the previous three days, and, according to Britt and Wyatt, the best way to practice those skills (and learn more) was to do some actual climbing.
I had hardly slept when my alarm went off at 1 am. I was anxious (mostly about proving myself to a bunch of guys, not going to lie) and excited (since this would be my first mountain climbing experience since Mount St. Helens!). The sky was clear and the temperature was surprisingly warm (as in not below freezing). I could sense it was going to be a good day to be on the mountain.
We set off a few minutes later than expected (3:20 am), but we were moving fast from our little home at Sandy Camp up to the final rocky section (I believe it’s called the Gate? Or maybe it was High Camp, just below the Gate?). At this point we took a break to put on crampons and rope up into two 4-person teams. Mack and I ended up on separate teams (Mack with Britt, me with Wyatt), so we only met again at breaks and at the summit. You’ll be reading my climbing experience, but Mack might be willing to write about his own experience following my portion. As we were heading out on our rope teams, the sky was just beginning to lighten.
Now, as much as I was enjoying our climb, the rope travel part of it was definitely not my favorite. Each of us was separated by 20 to 30 ft of rope and had to make sure that the rope didn’t drag on the ground nor become incredibly taut. This meant keeping a single pace with everyone on the team, something I am not used to doing. I found myself having to adjust my speed quite frequently to keep the rope in an ideal place. I also didn’t realize how difficult it would be to walk with rope hanging down next you. When we first started out, I was constantly tripping, especially when we needed to switch the side the rope was on; it’s supposed to be on the downhill side. I eventually got the hang of it (at least for the ascent). I know this skill is going to be crucial when Mack and I climb other glaciated peaks, so, despite my feelings of animosity on this trip, I’m grateful that I got to experience it.
Other than being roped in, I really enjoyed our trek on the Easton Glacier. We got to admire the numerous crevasses spread out over the mountain’s flanks (hazardous, but equally magnificent), witness a beautiful sunrise, and climb in unbelievably gorgeous weather. We took two breaks on our way up to the summit: the first one somewhere on the Easton (away from any gaping crevasses of course), and the second one at the crater, just 1100 ft below the summit. The section between our first break and the second ended up being the most physically challenging for me. We climbed for two hours straight with Wyatt hiking quite a bit faster than he had prior to the first break. I found it ironic that I thought he was hiking too slow at the beginning, and during the second half I wanted to beg him to slow down because my Achilles was killing me on the uphill stretches! I didn’t want to be the person to complain, so I kept my mouth shut and picked up my pace. When we finally reached the crater, I happened to mention our rather lively pace. He responded with a compliment about the strength of our team and how he had wanted to push us more after we took the first break. Definitely wasn’t going to complain after that response! Britt’s team was still a ways behind us, so we waited at the crater until they arrived.
(Since we were moving quickly, I didn’t get to take as many pictures as I would’ve liked)
The final challenge standing between our team and the summit was the Roman Wall, a 35-40 degree slope gaining almost 1000 ft. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that difficult, especially since there were really solid tracks from previous climbers. It was like ascending a long staircase. I really wish I’d gotten a picture of it [Roman Wall]. Once we topped out, all that was left to do was traverse a relatively flat platform to Grant Peak, Baker’s true summit at 10, 781 ft! When we reached the base of Grant Peak, Wyatt finally let us unclip from the rope so we could charge up those final feet. This probably goes without saying, but the view was breathtaking. The North Cascades were stretched out before us, carpeting the land below for miles and miles. In that moment, I wished I was still living in Washington, so I could spend as much time as I pleased roaming these incredible mountains. Britt’s team arrived a few minutes later, and Mack and I were able to share the summit together before we began our descent.
I really wish I were better at skiing, and that I felt comfortable descending steep terrain on skis. Unfortunately, I haven’t skied since I was in junior high and I never executed any remotely difficult runs during that time. But during the slog of a descent, all I could think about was skiing (and how much I hated being roped in going downhill). I felt like Bambi trying to find his legs, uncertain of the ground I was walking on, toppling over when I plunged into knee-deep snow. It was kind of a nightmare, especially since the excitement and satisfaction that comes with summiting had already been achieved. Now we were sunburnt, dehydrated zombies slumping back to camp. When we finally arrived, I didn’t even have the energy to make it to my tent. I was dazed, nauseous, and had a pulsating headache (probably as a result of only consuming a handful of pistachios, a Pop Tart, and 1.5 liters of water over the course of 12 hours). I laid my pack on the ground with the intention of sitting down with it until I mustered up enough willpower to unpack. Instead, I fell asleep on top of it until Britt’s team arrived 20 or 30 minutes later. Unlike me, Mack was looking and feeling pretty strong after his long day on the mountain. I was envious. Although the sun was shining bright and there was still the rest of the afternoon to enjoy, I crawled into the tent and stayed inside my sleeping bag for the remainder of the day, emerging only once to use the bathroom. Despite the dizziness and nausea that consumed me after the climb, I still fell asleep feeling elated and proud.
Day 5: Lazy, stormy day
There’s not much to say about our second to last day. We had hoped to use it to review some of the skills from the third day and potentially go over some new ones, but, as predicted, the rain set in full force. We were able to review the 3:1 and 6:1 pulley systems so Mack could practice setting them up. Britt also ended up showing us the Drop-C rescue, which is supposed to be much faster to execute once you get the hang of it, but no one was interested in giving it a shot since the rain was coming down even harder than when we first started the review session. Another one of our course mates decided he wanted to leave that day. From the sounds of it, I guess he had gotten a little uncomfortable with the amount of exposure while climbing the day before and was ready to get off the mountain. Since Wyatt was hiking back out with him, and it would be pointless for him [Wyatt] to drive back and hike in again, we said our ‘goodbyes’ in camp. Mack and I pretty much spent the rest of the day in our tent. You’d think it would be boring, but it was surprisingly fun, especially after a long day of climbing. We played cards, read, napped, and ate most of our remaining food to shave off pack weight for the hike out. I was especially excited about that last part since I was too sick to stomach anything the night before. We fell asleep to rain, strong winds, and even some sleet, but Tangent 2 held up nicely.
Day 6: Hike out
The last day of any outdoor adventure (at least for me) is always a mixture of excitement and deep-seated sadness. Mack and I couldn’t wait to get back to Portland to see Cassie (as well as shower for the first time in a week), but leaving any wild place feels like leaving home.
The rain had subsided enough that we were able to pack up without too much stress and were back on the trail around 9 am. After a day of rest, everybody seemed to be feeling pretty strong. We only needed to break once so people could remove layers, but after that we hiked non-stop to the trailhead. On the way back, we hit up The Woolley Market again and indulged in another delicious sandwich. We arrived at the AAI office a little after 1 pm, so Britt offered to do another skills session at a nearby pavilion. Our remaining course mates took him up on the offer since they weren’t leaving for home until the next day, but Mack and I decided to head out since we anticipated hitting some serious traffic in Seattle and Tacoma on our way back. We said ‘goodbye’ to everyone, stuffed our gear back into the car, loaded up on snacks from the grocery next door, and hit the road for a very long drive home (nearly 7 hours because of said traffic!).
We had a long and exhausting, but ultimately successful, week learning new skills and putting them to use in a new environment. We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the world of mountaineering. I’m already planning our next mountain adventures! And who knows, maybe an Alpinism 2 class is in our future.