Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mountaineering Class Post 1: What is the Basic Climbing Class?

I've been a backpacker for over a decade, but I was ready to take my outdoor knowledge to the next level and add more technical skills. In March I started taking a Basic Climbing and Mountaineering class through the Washington Alpine Club (WAC). The class is described as "a basic but comprehensive introduction to the technical mountaineering skills required to travel safely over snowfields, glaciers, and high-angle rock."

When I started the class, I didn't even know what perlon was, or why I would need a personal anchor, or how to use a prusik. But I feel like I've learned a ton already. With classes on Tuesday nights and field trips on Saturdays, and attendance mandatory to both, we can cover a lot of material. It's a good pace though- challenging and stimulating without being overwhelming.

So far we've had four Saturday field trips. The first was to Mount Si, just outside North Bend. That was a bit of a fitness test, to see how we'd do hiking four miles up with 3,200 feet of elevation gain with 30+ pounds on our backs. We have a strict packing list, and here we are in the parking lot for pack checks.
And then, once we got to the top, it was good practice to stay dry and warm for the rest of the day. I've hiked Mt. Si lots of times, but usually in warmer weather, or I eat a snack and descend. But this day in March, it was snowing and we still had hours of standing in the snow as we did rotating workshops. 
We had a map and compass workshop, and practiced knots. My favorite station was emergency bivouac, where we basically made a huge cuddle pile. And we must have been doing something right, because that was probably the warmest I was all day.
Saturday #2 took us to a man-made climbing rock called Spire in Spanaway (outside Tacoma). Spire was a great place to practice basic climbing skills, like climbing in mountaineering boots, rappelling, belaying, ascending using a hand-line, and practicing using our personal anchors.
We had other non-rock stations, such as roping up for glacier travel, which just happened on the grass. The goal was to flake the rope, divide it, and get our 4-person team all properly tied in and personal prusiks attached in under five minutes.

We also had another really cool station rotation where we learned to ascend a rope using a Texas prusik. This is how you would get yourself out of a crevasse if need be. We all climbed at least 25 feet up in a tree, inching our way up toward a bag of candy on a high branch.
On Saturday #3 we went back to Spire, but this time turned everything up a notch. Instead of just belaying, we learned how to tie off a fallen climber to completely escape the belay system. For every rappel, we had to practice with our right and left hand, as well as with and without an ATC.
We ascended the rope into the trees again, but this time with our backpacks. We roped up for glacier again, but this time practiced passing protection and using commands to travel as a rope team.
By the 4th Saturday, we were ready to move onto real rock. We headed up to Mount Erie outside of Anacortes. We again had rotating stations, and worked on getting more comfortable with the skills we were already working on. We had a good chance to climb a variety of routes, and rappel bigger faces than we had done before. It was a beautiful spot to spend the day, with a stunning view looking south down the Puget Sound.

We were lucky enough to be on the edge of the rain shadow, and while it poured rain just east of us and in Seattle, we barely got a sprinkle all day. It was cold though, and the wind was howling. We did a lot of yelling, but it was still nearly impossible to hear calls from the top of the cliff like "rope!" or "off belay!"
We also had an anchors station. The class doesn't teach us necessarily how to build anchors, but how to at least check anchors for safety. 

Oh, we always go out for beer after class and field trips. It's a great group of people- both the students and the dedicated volunteer instructors. I'm looking forward to learning more and getting into more backcountry settings. This coming weekend is going to be our first overnight field trip- snow camping. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Silent Grace (Amidst the Chaos)

I've been trying to write this blog post for over a month now.

It started when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, and left the world with a profound and unsettling mystery. I didn't follow the news obsessively, but definitely more than I usually do. My brain just couldn't wrap itself around the idea of a jetliner vanishing in 2014, and apparently others have tried to explain The Obsession over missing flight MH370.

Then there was the massive and tragic mudslide in Oso, Washington, destroying homes and claiming 41 lives. There are still three people missing, and area flags still flying at half-mast.

I found out that my bees did not make it through the winter, putting my backyard death toll in the tens of thousands and a sad way to start the spring.

Shortly after that, my sister's car got stolen with her one-year old daughter inside. The police responded really quickly, and they found the car just seven minutes later with the baby still sleeping inside. Everything turned out fine, but it was shocking and scary and a reminder of how quickly life can change. It gave me an uneasy sense about things not always going as they should, and our helplessness to prevent catastrophic events.

The absolute worst recent news is a dear friend getting diagnosed with cancer. It was out of nowhere- she's a perfectly healthy young woman. Again, my brain just can't quite comprehend it. When I think about it, I'm more angry than anything, at the unfairness and randomness and plain stupidness.

Usually some who likes to talk about everything, I'm too mad and bewildered to find my own words helpful. But I do like to read other people's words. My friend Tessa Hulls just finished a solo bicycle trip in Ghana. From the road she wrote:

"There is no such thing as passive riding here: the whole day is spent ceaselessly watching the road and shifting my body weight and trajectory to weave my way through all the various obstacles, and sometimes I have no choice but to just swear loudly to myself and brace for impact. My bike is being an absolute trooper, though. Forward motion is meandering at best, and my progress more aptly resembles the loping curlicues of figure skating, only with less sequined V-necks, and with a hell of a lot more dodging of wayward goats. 

Two days ago, I had what was probably my favorite moment thus far. I was at the very end of my riding, and was just barely limping myself to the village I was trying to get to. Then, out of nowhere, a man in traditional Muslim attire (flowing robe, that hat I don't know the proper name of), starting bicycling alongside me. He joined me with a smile and a nod, and he had some sort of music-playing device tucked away somewhere in his robes, and it was playing the same song on repeat. He kept pace with me for about three miles, and we parted ways with him worldessly pointing to a small turnoff, and smiling one last time before branching off. Small moments of silent grace, friends. They're why I do this."

I'm not saying that it's been a terrible past month. There have been a lot of fun and wonderful times too. But it has just been a potent reminder of how we cannot control life, only our reaction to what happens. So I've been doing what I can to feel grounded. On my bike, moments of bliss before dodging a card door; hiking and panting up a wooded hillside; staring out the bus window instead of at my smartphone; checking how the greens are growing in the garden; the focused lines and hum of my sewing machine; big hugs, arms wrapped tight with no words; quiet tears and glass of red wine; cooking for friends, like this Shallot Chicken, letting a sauce reduce and watching in a daze as the sprig of tarragon wilts away. I don't know what else to do right now, and so I continue to move forward, even if it's meandering and unsettling, and find my own moments of silent grace.