10 Day Mountaineering Course Part 1: Snow Skills

I have been wanting to do a formal mountaineering course for a long time but never got a chance to do so, last year i was thinking about going for a 13 day course from Alpine Ascents International but then i got laid off and it was hard to schedule something properly. I wouldn’t have have enough time to train for it is a totally different thing.

This year finally i too the plunge and went for it, i wanted to do the 13 day course but they course dates and the timings weren’t working out for me so i decided to go for the 10 day course which also involved climbing Mt Rainier. I signed up for this course sometime in beginning of March 11 so i knew it was on and i had to start training for it.

The Training:

I wanted to start training for this since the beginning of the year but things didn’t go exactly as planned and i wasn’t going to the gym as regularly as i had hoped to but then since beginning of april, i joined the gym downstairs in our office building so i could go to gym during lunch.

this was really convenient and a boon for me, i started going to the gym regularly 3-4 times/week. I am not that much into lifting weights and even though the recommended training asks you to do core and entire body strengthening i wasn’t really paying attention to it.

I also sprained my wrist while skiing during mid may so it gave me further excuse to not lift weights in the gym but i was on the elliptical doing cardio regularly. I had also started packing my backpack with weights and hopping on the stairmaster. It turned out to be really helpful for me.

One month before the course i had a dive trip planned to NC and so i lost 10 days of training time and then i skipped a week of trianing after that so i wasn’t confident that my training would be enough. I had started carrying upto 60 lbs in my backpack and could go on the stairmaster for an hour which was good.

The weekend before Rainier i did Mt Baldy hike through the bear canyon trail which is 6 miles one way with about 6,000 ft of elevation gain. I did this hike with 50 lbs and managed to do it in just under 6 hrs so i was really pleased with myself but then it took me 3 days to recover from the hike so that threw me off little bit and made me more nervous about my preparation.

I went into the course with being little nervous and in the rest of the group, there were quite a few people who have completed iron man and trained lot more than i had. I wanted to give my best, take it one day/step at a time and see how it goes. I wasn’t particularly worried about the first 6 days but the last 4 days of Rainier climb made me little bit nervous.

Day 1: Gear Check and Hike In

I reached Seattle without any worries and stayed with Kartik since his place is 10 mins away from the downtown office of Alpine Ascents. I reached there early around 6 in the morning and met up with everyone. Ryan and Jonika who were couple from Ohio, Tony from Tulsa, Travis and Chris who were from Houston and Terry who was from Portland. So we were 7 participants and then we had Matt who was the lead guide and Victor was going to assist him.

I had rented the plastic shoes and avalanche transreceiver from AAI. The first thing we did before leaving for Mt Baker was to do a through gear check. I was not sure about my crampons whether those were the right kind but it turned out that they were just fine but i didn’t have proper soft shell jacket and pants.

So i decided to rent that and i saw AAI had used plastic boots for sale, the price difference between the rental of boots for 10 days and buying the used boots wasn’t much so i decided to buy the boots instead, i thought it was a smart choice.

I also got rid of quite a bit of extra clothing and now my pack became more manageable, i was also going to share tent with Travis so he carried the poles and the rain fly where as i carried the main tent.

We then started driving towards Mt Baker which was about 3 hours drive and stopped for lunch/groceries before we got there. After completing some paperwork we finally got to the trailhead around 1ish.

I was expecting to hike in my regular shoes until the snowline and then change into the plastic boots but it wasn’t the case. We changed into them at the trailhead and also put on the gaiters. We encountered snow 5 mins into the trail.

We were planning to hike for 4-5 hours max and depending on the conditions and the nature of the snow/trail we would setup camp somewhere in the 6-7,000 ft range. Matt or Victor would lead the group, setup a decent pace and we would be walking continously for hr or hr and half max and then take a break for 10-15 mins. During break time we would take our packs off, sit on them and then hydrate and eat something, it was essential that we keep ourselves hydrated and well fed. This was going to be our way of hiking/climbing for the next 10 days.

I wasn’t really sure about this way of hiking since its not how i prefer to hike, i usually like to get into a rhythm, set my pace and keep going without really taking my pack off for a break. It was going to be a different experience for me and i wasn’t sure how my body would react. I always have little difficulty getting into rhythm once i sit down, it takes me good 5-10 mins to get back into it without really huffing and puffing.

I was really happy with the pace Matt/Vic were setting and it wasn’t hard to keep up with the 50-60 lbs backpack. We took our first couple of breaks and i didn’t have that many problems as i was expecting and it didn’t take me that long to get back into rhythm after the break which was great.

After couple of hours we were walking on snow continously and slowly ascending towards the glacier. I was really happy doing that and it brought back some old himalayan memories, one step at a time and just following the footsteps of the person in front of you. I was behind Ryan and following his size 14 footsteps, i had no problems at all.

Mt Baker.

We decided to camp next the spot where there was running water even though it took us extra hr or so to get there, we made the push so that we could be happy for the next 5 days and not having to melt snow for water.

We got to the camp site around 6ish and after setting up 3 tents in the rocks and 2 on the snow we were ready for dinner. I was going to use my personal tent which i didn’t want to end up on the rocks since i didn’t carry the footprint with me and so i was happy that we pitched my tent in the snow.

Our Camp.

The views from our campsite were really nice, could see the pacific out in the west and the behind us was the huge coleman glacier with Mt Baker and Colfax peak. To the north we could see the canadian mountain ranges as well.

Sunset

None of us lingered around much and after dinner at almost around 9 it was time for bed, we were not planning to get up super early and the target was 9 am start.

Day 2: Snow School and Knots.

I set up alarm for 7am thinking that it would be enough for me to have breakfast and be ready at 9 but the lazy me went back to sleep after the alarm and by the time i got up it was 7.45 am.

Hurriedly i got ready and had my bf, i had two packets of oatmeal and then nestle carbation bf mix along with milk powder to which i added some granola. I was hesistant in carrying the granola with me but i was super glad that i did since it was a really tasty breakfast.

The plan for today was to learn snow crossing techniques, how to travel on snow roped as well unroped, building anchors in snow and then to learn some knots which we would be using during the course.

For unroped snow travel to make foot steps we practiced the traverse, duck foot and the french cross over techniques. Each of these has their merits and depending on the situation/snow conditions/personal preferences you would use one over the other.

It all depends on the leader since he would be the first one creating foot steps, the rest have to follow him. It is the rule for snow travel and you always try to follow foot steps of the leader, it is specially important during glacier travel and ascending steep slopes. Anyway there is no point in re-inventing the wheel so if there is a step already there why not use it.

We also learned how to incorporate the rest step into each one of these methods and personally i would prefer the french crossover to ascend steep slopes.

For descending the slopes we used the plunge step where you create the footstep with your heel and dig in with all the body weight, it is a fun method and lot of times its better to create your own foot steps rather than following others. I could afford to be lazy while descending this way and incorporate more rest for the sore muscles.

Next after a break we decided to practice some self arrest, we did it in every possible position and it was nice to go over it again. I have already done it twice but still it was good to revisit it.

One of the things we were asked to do is to take off the leash from our ice axe, i had seen that everyone had a leash one their ice axe since its a piece of equipment that you cannot really afford to loose. The argument which was presented to us for not having a leash on ice axe is that since it is such a critical piece you shouldn’t be really dropping it and the ice axe needs to be always swapped from one hand to other, having a leash on it creates problems in doing so.

You could always tie the lease to your harness and then move the axe around but then again it creates complications, i was ok with it since in past i have found that when changing directions with a leash it gets tricky to switch hands. But still looking back i am not 100% sold on always carrying an ice axe without the leash. I plan to play it by the ear and see how it goes, i want to do more travel on a glacier with leash on my axe and see how it works out for me. I would definitely prefer to have a leash on.

After practicing self arrest methods we then learned some knots. I was familiar with most of them except for prussik and butterfly. We did cut our cords to make our rescue prussiks, cordelettes for anchors. Instead of a 6mm i had 7mm cord, it wasn’t a big deal but it could be depending on the rope you are putting the prussik knot on. Greater the diameter difference between the prussik and the rope, you get better bite from it so it helps having a 6mm cord instead of 7mm one to tie prussik knot on a 9mm rope.

We then moved onto building T anchors in the snow using pickets and ice axes. Our (Me,travis and terry) first try at building an anchor was disastrous to say the least. The Y i made in the snow to distribute the load was more at right angles which is not ideal and then also for equalizing i used the cordelette incorrectly. It a learning experience and second time around it was a huge improvement.

A major point to remember is that any snow anchor has to be an ERNEST anchor, it stands for Equalized, Redundant, No Extension, Strong and Timely. There should be atleast two points which should share equal load hence equalized, the use of two points means if one anchor fails then the other one holds the fall thereby making it redundant, if one of the anchor fails then there shouldn’t be any extension of the rope holding the load i.e. no extension and ofcourse it has to be strong and build in a timely fashion so that the load is transferred from the person holding the fall to the anchor immediately.

We discussed roped glacier travel and the techniques/safety rules for it. How to distribute, coil ropes for a 2,3 and 4 person teams were discussed and we would be putting that into practice the next day when we do crevasse rescue.

Again everyone went back to bed before sunset and i was surprised that i really didn’t have to use the head lamp for the second day running.

Day 3: Crevasse Rescue

Today i was better than yesterday in terms of waking up and getting ready. By 9 am all of us were roped up and ready to walk across the glacier in hope to find a crevasse where we could practice crevasse rescue.

After walking around for about half hr or so, we found a pretty big crevasse which was not that deep and pretty stable for us play around. Matt demonstrated the concept of using a 2:1, 3:1, 6:1 pulley systems and then we lowered a backpack into the crevasse which was rescued using a 3:1 Z pulley system.

Pulley

After that it was our turn to be lowered into the crevasse and be rescued, one person would be holding the fall while the other person is incharge of the rescue. Luckily we didn’t have to build anchors everytime and we were using the ones already built.

It was first my turn to run the rescue and tony was going to hold fall of travis who would be hanging out in the crevasse. Since the anchor was already built the first step was to transfer the load from person holding the fall i.e. tony, to the master point of the anchor.

I then had to tie in a prussik on the other end of rope and get to the lip of crevasse to prepare it for the rescue. It wass the most critical step, a better prepared lip would prevent the rope from cutting in to the ice during rescue and make it easier to haul the person out.

I found that my prussik wasn’t biting that easily and it created a mental block in my mind when i went to prepare the lip since this prussik would be the knot preventing me in falling into the crevasse. I also had to be careful not to damage the rope while scraping the ice/snow around it and it was definitely a lot of work to prepare the lip. I managed to get it clean but not as ideal as it should have been.

Next step was to put in other prussik on the rope holding the load and then passing the end through the other pulley to create 3:1 system, i made mistake of having my tie in prussik into the system so i had to do that step again. It was then time to prepare the master point so that we could pull out the load. A belay device is used to block the prussik there and the rope is passed through another pulley.

Finally it was time to haul travis out of the crevasse and it wasn’t an easy task, i thought with this 3:1 system it would make it lot easier but no that isn’t the case. I was trying to pull with my hands but i could barely get him out, i had to get down on all my fours, mainly use my hip and start crawling to pull him out of the crevasse. It was a really tiring process but we managed to get it done.

We were going to rotate through the whole exercise and now it was time for me to hold tony as he was hanging into the crevasse while chris performed the rescue. I dug in, held the fall and was surprised to find out how difficult it was to arrest a fall, all the weight was on my hips and even though the ice axe was firmly into the snow my legs were doing all the work. I was definitely glad that chris didn’t have to build the anchors and make me wait before he transferred the load to the anchors.

After that it was my time to hang out in the crevasse and get rescued, it was fun to see crevasse from so close and inside. I took some pictures and in general just waited there hanging by couple of ropes. The only problem was that since the harness was an alpine harness, it means that you can put it on without worrying about the leg loops, it wasn’t exactly comfortable as my rock climbing harness.

Hanging in the crevasse.

Matt is planning to take his alpine guide certification and part of it requires him to rescue someone from a crevasse within 45 mins, it also requires him to rappel down to the victim and put on a chest harness on them. He wanted to demonstrate/practice that and Victor also wanted to do the same so they both showed us on how to do it.

Jonica was the victim when victor was doing the rescue and i volunteered to be the victim when matt was doing the rescue. Both of them managed to do it without any significant problems and it was great seeing victor at work, ofcourse since i was hanging in crevasse when matt was doing the rescue so i couldn’t really see the master at work.

We decided that it would be great to practice descending and ascending so we rapelled down into the crevasse and then practiced ascending using the prussiks. I am familiar with both techniques even though i have used ascenders previously not prussiks. I got down to the bottom of crevasse and was immediately bummed out about not taking my camera with me.

Ascending didn’t turn out to be as easy as i thought it would be, my waist prussik was tad bit too long and with every step i wasn’t gaining much height. I did manage to get to the lip but then i had enough and had to be dragged out, it was the case with pretty much everyone.

It was time to head back to camp and as usual everyone went back to bed before sunset.

Part 2: Mt Baker Summit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *