Friday, May 30, 2014

Mountaineering Class Post 3: The Alpine Climbs

The past two weekends were the alpine climbs with the Washington Alpine Association Basic Climbing and Mountaineering class. The first weekend we met bright and early at the Alpental parking lot near Snoqualmie Pass. 

My group of six was assigned to climb Lundin peak. Getting to the top would just be a scramble, but the trip out there was designed to be as much of a navigation exercise as a climb. We had maps and a guidebook, but none of the students had ever hiked to the base to Lundin. The instructors left it up to us  to make a plan, figure out a route, and work together as a team.
(Photo by Charing)
We made a plan and set out into the schizophrenic spring weather. It was a fairly warm day, but changed constantly, alternately socked in and then patches of sun. We constantly had to stop to check the map and our bearings, so it was a bit slow-going. It made me realize just how little actual navigating I've done in the backcountry, as I'm usually on a designated trail, and usually not on snow. Eventually we made it to the base of Lundin, where our instructor told us we had taken the standard, most efficient way there. Yeah team! We then sat have some snacks and discuss our options.
We needed to go up a steep gully of snow before we would get to any rock. There was a lot of avalanche debris right where we needed to walk. The snow was deep, wet, and mushy. We couldn't see what the terrain looked like above the gully. When the sun came out, it was really warm. It was already a day of moderate avalanche danger, and considering all the factors, we decided as a group that continuing up Lundin was not a conservative decision. We played it safe and decided to not attempt it. We found out later that none of the other five groups in the class had climbed at all that weekend due to the conditions, so clearly we made the right call.
But it was still disappointing to not be able to climb what we set out to do. It wasn't even noon, and we didn't want to turn around already. An instructor suggested that we hike up to the neighboring Cave Ridge as a backup plan. Satisfied to have a new objective, we set out in a new direction across a steep slope. It was a pretty intense ascent as we kicked steps into the snow, self-belayed with our ice axes, and found a big hollow melt out spot under us. With a little more navigating, we finally made it to the top! We didn't have any view, but we had a lot of fun anyway.
(Photo by Alice)
The second weekend we met again at Alpental, with fingers crossed that avalanche conditions would be more favorable and that we would actually be able to climb. We set out toward the base of The Tooth. It was overcast but not raining or snowing yet.
We ditched our poles and took out ice axes for the last steep section before the base of the rock. Then it was time to prepare for the actual rock climb. We put on warmer layers, our harnesses, ate, and hydrated just as we felt rain drops. It was only sprinkling, so we would keep trying to get climbers up for as long as it was feasible. 
We waited while a few classmates went first. It is a multi-pitch climb, so we were staggered climbing at different times. It was set up by our instructors as four pitches (three belayed climbs and one hand-line where we used a prusik). Here are a couple students on the first and second pitches. 
I've never climbed a multi-pitch route, never in an alpine environment, and never with a pack on, so this was a new experience. It wasn't a hard climb, but it was unfamiliar enough that it was an awesome and fun challenge. It was slabby, with good hand and foot holds, and a few moves you had to think about. The last pitch was really cool- at first it looked like a fairly sheer wall, then you realize that you can walk up on a little catwalk lip most of the way.
Amazingly, the weather held out. It never got wet enough to make the rock too slippery, and by the time we got to the top, we had alternately socked-in and clear-ish views.
(Photo by Angela)
It was fun group, and lots of singing, laughing, and snack sharing ensued. We still had to get down though, which meant it was also my first time doing a multi-pitch rappel. I told the instructor I was a little nervous.

"What part specifically makes you nervous?" he asked.

"Hmm, I guess it's just the walking over a cliff backward part!" I replied.

The hardest part is always those first moments, but once I was over the edge the of the cliff, I remembered that I LOVE RAPPELLING. It's really, really fun.
We all made it safely down the rock. Then we hiked out, glissading on the way down. It was a really good day and satisfying climb. And there were even Rainiers waiting for us at the parking lot!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Mountaineering Class Post 2: Snow Camping and Musical Shenanigans

Last weekend was the first overnight field trip of this year's Washington Alpine Club (WAC) Basic Climbing and Mountaineering class. It was the first of two snow camping outings we will have, this one being near Snoqualmie Pass. Planning started two weeks ahead of time for the students, as we got assigned our 4-person groups as well as a CD designating our musical genre. From that music, we were encouraged to incorporate costumes and plan a themed dinner "cook-off", to be judged by the instructors.

Saturday started early, at the trailhead getting our packs checked by 7am. Our packs were heavier than most of us would normally backpack, as we were carrying climbing gear, extra clothes, and snow gear like ice axes, shovels, and pickets. My pack weighed in at 44 pounds.
We hiked up about two miles in the snow before setting up our tent snow city. It was my first time snow camping! My tent-mates and I dug a platform for our tent, and then in addition to stomping, they decided to roll the surface out flat.
After we were settled in, we started a full day of educational station rotations. My first round of the day was kitchen building. Here's the untouched hillside, and an instructor drawing a rough layout map in the snow before we started.
Again, since I have never camped in the snow, the idea that you can just build things with this infinite and malleable material was a revelation. I mean, I've built a lot of snowmen, but not large-scale, useful snow structures. We got a good start on the kitchen, with the perimeter and all eight tables at least started.
My second station was belay. We learned how to set up quick belays in the snow, seated, or using your boot and ice ax.
My third station was ice ax arrest. Here you can see the slope where we practiced. We basically threw ourselves down the glissade shoot and then walked back up to the top, over and over. After going down in glissade position (seated, feet-first), we also had to practice going down head first on our stomach and backs. I have to admit, this pushed me outside of my comfort zone a bit. The instructors gave good instruction and were very attentive to our form, but still, flying down a steep, slick mountainside upside down with a sharp implement just sort of freaked me out. I got more and more used to self-arresting, and it slowly went from terrifying to exhilarating.
There was a lot of potential for getting snowy/wet/cold at this station, but luckily it was nice weather and I stayed comfortable. In fact, we seriously lucked out with the weather on Saturday as the precipitation held off and the sun shone through.

The last station of the day was ascending and descending. It sounds easy, like don't you just walk up and down a mountain? But there are definitely useful techniques to help make you more efficient and safe on steep terrain in variable snow conditions.

Then it was time to get into costume and start making dinner! I hadn't seen the kitchen since the beginning of the day, and couldn't believe the transformation that the other groups had made.
In addition to the eight tables, there were benches, a buffet table, a stage, snow sculptures, an archway entrance and entry slide.
We started cooking for our own student group, making enough for a taster share with the 20+ instructors. What we didn't know was that the instructors provide appetizers! That was one of the best snack experiences I've had in a loooong time- to be so hungry from the active day, and suddenly stumble on a bunch of amazing food. There were raw oysters (shucked with ice ax), artisan salami, cambozola cheese, chips, salsa, guacamole, caprese skewer, and homemade brownies to name a few things.  
My group's CD was Nirvana's Nevermind, making our theme genre "grunge". So how the heck do you cook a grunge-themed dinner? All of our literal food associations didn't seem very healthy, filling, or appetizing. So I suggested that since grunge originated in Seattle, we go with a local, Pacific Northwest culinary theme. Thanks to my awesome group, we pulled together a pretty amazing meal, mostly cooked ahead of time. Homemade clam chowder with razor clams that a teammate had dug himself on the Olympic coast; salad with garden kale; local bread with butter and thin-sliced garden radishes; smoked salmon; local chocolate.

The other groups all got super creative too. The salsa group had made tortilla soup; The disco group had fondue in a double-boiler; the reggae group went Caribbean-inspired.
The costumes were awesome as well- wigs, full polyester suits, flowing flamenco skirts. No wonder our packs were so heavy! We were probably carrying as much weight in costumes and good food as actual gear! My group dressed as Nirvana plus Courtney Love. 

The final piece of the contest was the dance-off. It was pretty surreal to have a speaker blasting music, and a stage, all with a dramatic mountain backdrop. From sharp salsa moves to mosh pits to hilarious lip syncs, it was a pretty entertaining and surprising series of performances.
That night, we got a good 4-5 inches of fresh snow. On Sunday we were up bright and early again, and back to our rotating stations. It was another full, challenging, and fun day of learning, but this time with deeper powder to wade through, and snow falling on and off.

By the time we hiked out Sunday evening, I was quite happy to still be warm and dry. I was feeling good, but fairly tired and ready to take a shower and dry my damp gear. Overall, I was so impressed with the quality of the instruction, the great organization of the group, the good attitudes of my fellow students, and the combination of safety, efficiency, fun, and creativity that every one brought. Looking forward to the next snow weekend!