Category Archives: mountaineering

So I wanted to try mountaineering

For a long time now (many years), I’ve been fascinated by mountaineering.  Take your time to read some of that long, but great, Wikipedia page.

I’ve always liked altitude, never minded cold much, loved gear, and enjoyed solitude, so this seems like a good fit.  On the other hand, I don’t like hiking nor camping that much, which makes it less of a fit.

This summer, I finally decided to give it a whirl.  So I signed up for the Mountain Madness introductory class, and hoped for the best.

The class blew my mind.  It was, quite literally, both the best of times and the worst of times.  It took place in the Cascades, a major mountain range outside Seattle.  There was one other customer, Brian, and our main guide Rob was joined by Erik and John, both of whom were experienced enough to be like guides.

We hiked out from the trailhead at Mount Daniel, to our base camp.  The terrain was unmarked: no trail blazes here 😉  No rangers, and very few if any other people as you got higher up the mountain.  Route-finding is a small part of this class, though Mountain Madness has courses that cover this in much more depth.

The hike was painful, taking several hours and covering thousands of feet of vertical gain.  But we made it to Base Camp, and set our tents on the snow.  Did I mention winter camping and setup was also part of this class? 😉  Not your normal weekend hiking outing.

The next bunch of time, including the whole next day, was devoted to “snow school.”  We learned how (and when) to use our crampons, ice axes, and related gear.  We learned a little bit about crevasse rescue (a major PITA: avoid crevasses!), glacier travel, how to rope up, and related rope handling.  We spent some time on ice anchors, self-arrest, self-belay, and related equipment usage.  We spent a lot of time learning how to walk (literally) on steeper and steeper slopes, with and without crampons, with and without ice (as opposed to just snow), and more.

I really enjoyed snow school.  The instructor (Rob) made us test out our snow anchors, by falling of them 😉  And trying as hard as we could to yank them out.  It was very educational: you pay a lot of attention when your life, potentially, depends on how well you learn the next lesson.  It was also really scary.

This is a picture of me in snow school, courtesy of John:

The day after we finished snow school, we woke up early to head up to the summit.  We we turned back after finishing most of the route to the top, by very strong sustained wind.  As in, really strong, felt close to hurricane strength 😉  It was very, very scary: ascending a steep slope with crampons, an ice axe, holding on to the rope, nearly blinded from the white-out, carrying a big pack, with the wind howling around you, above the clouds.

We made our way back to camp safely, though, and then the next day we descending all the way back down to the trailhead.

Here’s me practicing trying a Prusik hitch:

All-in-all, it was an exhilarating five days.  I learned a whole ton of stuff about mountaineering, in the company of great guides and fellow climbers.  I was the least fit and least educated of the group, quite possibly, so I felt guilty at times, but they entertained me.

It was really scary.  I’m not sure at all if I want to do it again.  I’m going to take a few months to decompress and re-evaluate.  But now this major item on my “bucket” list is done 😉

This is us on the way to the summit.  Rob the guide is first, and I’m second behind him.  Brian is behind me, and John is taking the picture, with Erik invisible behind John.

Great mountaineering article about Jean-Christophe Lafaille

As many readers of this blog know, when I get into a topic or area, I like to read up on its history.  Recently I’ve been getting into mountaineering / alpinism (more on that in future blog posts), and so I’ve been reading a lot.  I’ll post some book reviews, too — Ed Viesturs‘s books are excellent.

Just a couple of days ago I came across this great stirring article about Jean-Christophe Lafaille, now presumed dead, one of the greatest mountaineers of our time.  It’s written for The Guardian by Jason Burke: One Step Beyond.

A little quote:

On his last morning alive, Jean-Christophe Lafaille woke up perhaps the most profoundly alone man on the planet. His tiny tent, specially designed for ultra-high altitude, was perched on a small ridge at around 25,000ft on an icy shoulder of Makalu, the world’s fifth largest mountain. Either side of the tent, huge rock and snow cliffs and avalanching slopes swept down to the distant valleys of the high Nepalese Himalayas. There was nothing above him except Makalu’s summit, some 3,000ft higher.

Read the whole thing: One Step Beyond.