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Alpine Climbing with Mountain Madness

A Window into the Cascades Alpine Climbing Course

The North Cas­cades offer some of the finest alpine climb­ing in the U.S. Check it out and if you’re new to the adven­ture of moun­taineer­ing and rock climb­ing, read this blog about one of our most com­pre­hen­sive cours­es. And then pack your bags for the Cascades!

What a whirl­wind these last eight days have been! From clear skies and per­fect sun­sets to high winds and post hol­ing through snow, Jen­nifer, Alex and Guide Niels Mey­er saw it all dur­ing their Alpine Climb­ing Course. It even rained for a brief spell, just to remind them they were in the Cas­cades. Pro­gress­ing from rock climb­ing to alpine rock climb­ing, and then to glaciat­ed trav­el on one of the North Cas­cades’ most beau­ti­ful peaks, the Alpine Climb­ing Course pro­vides an intro­duc­tion to many forms of moun­tain travel.

Alex and Jen­nifer approach­ing South Ear­ly Win­ters Spire. Niels Mey­er photo

Jen­nifer, Alex, and Niels began their adven­ture in Seat­tle, where they met for the first time to dis­cuss equip­ment, plan meals, and pur­chase food for the next 8 days. After wan­der­ing around the gro­cery store pick­ing out sim­ple but nutri­tious food for our upcom­ing days in the moun­tains, they hopped in the Mad­ness Mobile and took off for Leav­en­worth to climb some rocks.

Jen­nifer and Alex both had expe­ri­ence climb­ing, but it had been a num­ber of years; review­ing the basics was an easy but valu­able refresh­er. Most of their climb­ing his­to­ry had been top rop­ing, so the three dis­cussed and prac­ticed the dif­fer­ences between top rope climb­ing and lead climb­ing. After they climbed a few pitch­es and were feel­ing com­fort­able with the basics, Niels taught Jen­nifer and Alex some of the more advanced climb­ing skills, such as rig­ging and rap­pelling for mul­ti-pitch climb­ing, and the ins and outs of build­ing anchors for both bolt­ed and tra­di­tion­al­ly pro­tect­ed climbs. And then: Boom! Part one was a wrap! They packed up, jumped back in the car and head­ed to Wash­ing­ton Pass to do some alpine climbing.

Sis­ter and broth­er, climb­ing togeth­er on South Ear­ly Win­ters Spire. Niels Mey­er photo

After a good night’s sleep at the North Cas­cades Moun­tain Hos­tel, our team start­ed ear­ly and drove to Wash­ing­ton pass to climb The South Arête on South Ear­ly Win­ter Spire. This involves a snow climb­ing approach to excel­lent ridge run­ning on 4th and 5th class rock. With only a light freeze the night before, they post holed their way to the base of the climb (good train­ing for what was to come on Shuk­san…). Cruis­ing up one of the most clas­sic mod­er­ate climbs in Wash­ing­ton, with some of the most scenic views in the whole state, they talked about and used dif­fer­ent meth­ods for alpine climb­ing. The gang worked their way to the top and sat on the sum­mit boul­der for some pho­tos and a snack. The beau­ti­ful blue skies were a real treat! 

Jen­nifer, Alex, and Niels woke up their sec­ond morn­ing at Wash­ing­ton pass to high winds. They decid­ed going up the Lib­er­ty Bell was prob­a­bly not the best idea. Luck­i­ly, Fun Rock was close and there were plen­ty of skills to prac­tice! After some warm up climbs, Jen­nifer and Alex moved on to mock lead­ing. Jen­nifer had led a few climbs years ago and Alex had nev­er lead climbed. Mock lead­ing allows the climber to prac­tice lead climb­ing while still on top rope. This elim­i­nates the risk of dan­ger­ous lead falls while still allow­ing the climber to get the hang of plac­ing and clip­ping into pro­tec­tion. In the after­noon they began crevasse res­cue, a cru­cial skill to know when trav­el­ing through glaciat­ed mountains. 

Next they were off to Mount Shuk­san to con­tin­ue crevasse res­cue prac­tice, learn glac­i­er trav­el skills, and attempt the sum­mit. Warm temps and no night freeze made for a hard first day get­ting into base camp. The trail was still most­ly snow and the post hol­ing was tough. When you fall almost to your knee with every step, it makes for a long walk. After a full day of this, Jen­nifer, Alex, and Niels made it to camp and set­tled in for a well-deserved sleep. Day two on the glac­i­er to be snow school and crevasse rescue.

Sun­set from Shuk­san camp. Niels Mey­er photo

Crevasse res­cue is very impor­tant, but the first mar­gin of safe­ty is com­fort and sta­bil­i­ty while walk­ing on snow. So, the team spent the bet­ter part of the morn­ing using dif­fer­ent step­ping tech­niques and get­ting com­fort­able walk­ing on snow, with and with­out cram­pons. After snow school it was time to prac­tice the mechan­i­cal advan­tage sys­tems learned at Fun Rock. After Niels show­cased a full crevasse res­cue sce­nario, Alex and Jen­nifer jumped right in. After only a few times it was obvi­ous that both of them had a tal­ent for under­stand­ing the dif­fer­ent sys­tems, so they prac­ticed, prac­ticed, prac­ticed, and then it was time to rest for the sum­mit the next morning.

Plan­ning our ascent of Mt. Shuk­san over a cup of tea. Niels Mey­er photo

Due to it bare­ly freez­ing at night, the gang left camp at 2:30 AM to avoid avalanche dan­ger and trav­el­ing dur­ing the heat of the day. It was so snowy on Shuk­san that the only open crevass­es were in the ice fall, so the team was able to bee-line for the sum­mit pyra­mid. Arriv­ing at the base of the sum­mit, they were ahead of sched­ule. The sum­mit pyra­mid at this time of year is a steep, snow filled gul­ly. There was way more snow in the gul­ly than usu­al, which made for awe­some climb­ing! Pitch­ing out the gul­ly, they moved steadi­ly towards the sum­mit as the sun cast beau­ti­ful col­ors across the North Cas­cades. Climb­ing past the steep­est final sec­tion, they gained the sum­mit ridge and made their way towards the top. The sum­mit was a lot small­er than usu­al due to all the snow! With cor­nices on most sides and a steep drop of on the oth­ers, they sat in the very mid­dle to enjoy the amaz­ing view and refu­el before descent. After descend­ing the sum­mit pyra­mid with belayed down climb­ing and low­ers, the team lath­ered them­selves in sun­screen before the long, hot walk back to camp. Many hours of sleep lat­er Jen­nifer, Alex, and Niels packed up camp and head­ed back to the car before the heat of the day set in.

The final push for the sum­mit on Shuk­san! Niels Mey­er photo

Dur­ing the Course Alex and Jen­nifer learned about every­thing from sin­gle pitch rock climb­ing all the way to trav­el­ing on glac­i­ers and climb­ing alpine rock spires. With these skills they have begun their jour­ney in moun­tain trav­el. It takes a wide range of skills to safe­ly trav­el through a moun­tain­ous envi­ron­ment, and the Alpine Climb­ing Course pro­vides an intro­duc­tion to those need­ed skills. It is impor­tant that after the ACC our new­ly mint­ed climbers con­tin­ue to prac­tice these skills, or else they will lose them as fast as they learned them. Jen­nifer and Alex are now ready to head out with a sol­id skill base and con­tin­ue to enjoy the moun­tains safe­ly. Even though they are head­ed back to the mid west, there are plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties to prac­tice these skills. That being said, I hope we see them back out west soon!

Head­ing back to camp after a suc­cess­ful Shuk­san sum­mit. Niels Mey­er photo 

~MM Guide Niels Meyer