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!

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