A Window into the Alpine Climbing Course
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