Monday, March 4, 2013

Mt. Rainier Winter Skills Seminar

A couple weeks ago, I flew up to Seattle to spend a week on the side of Mt. Rainier at 10,000 feet. Like my trip to Portland in December, this trip was about preparing for my upcoming trip to Denali/Mt. McKinley in June (or maybe that trip was prep for this trip, and this is the Denali prep). Compared to my previous trip to Rainier, in 2009, this trip went into much more depth of technical training, from knots to crevasse rescue. Plus, the weather was much more extreme, and the summit was not the primary goal. While I really wanted to return to the summit (and go up that last little bit to Columbia Crest), topping out at 11,500 was not a disappointment based on the conditions we faced the day we went up (not to mention the conditions we faced the days prior). It was really a great week getting to learn new skills, and to get to know the nine other clients and four RMI guides. Well worth the price of freezing temperatures and a toenail or two.

I flew up to Seattle Saturday, February 2. I had arranged to rent a car, meet another of the clients, and drive to Ashford. Matt and I had only exchanged emails, but we had no trouble finding each other at the car rental area by our respective duffle bags of gear. We used the hour and a half drive to get to know each other a bit, mainly related to mountains. Matt lives in the New York City area, enjoys rock and ice climbing, and had climbed Rainier previously with RMI.

Sunday morning at 8am, the 10 clients met the two lead guides for the trip, Adam and JJ. We started with introductions, although some of us had informally met while wandering around "base camp" earlier. The roster, including the two guides who would join us later was: Adam Knoff, ice climber extraordinaire; JJ Justman, high altitude superguide; Jason "JT" Thompson, photographer to the stars; Katie Bono, speed queen; Matt; Mike, Missouri; Pete, Southern California mountains; Dan, most recently of Texas; Frank & Tim, Memphis, TN; Thom & Todd, Orlando, Florida; Steve, Washington. Most people had climbed Rainier previously, or at least had some "extreme" background (Todd had almost no mountaineering experience, but is an avid BASE jumper). During introductions, I was in the dubious position of following Pete, the most experienced of anyone, having spent more than 30 years doing mountain rescue, and having climbed Denali and Aconcagua in the 70's. Next up was a slideshow introducing us to Rainier, and what we would be doing over the course of the week.
Next, we got into the gear. Adam started by dumping the contents of Steve's pack on the floor, and giving his opinions and recommendations about what we would need. We then blew up our own gear bags and got opinions from Adam and JJ about our specific gear. It seemed like everyone was pretty well prepared, most likely having extra stuff. I had brought a few items that are on the gear list for Denali but were not listed as required for this trip (an ascender and a belay device), most of which they said I could bring if I wanted. We put most of our gear away and took a lunch break. Matt and I wound up having lunch with Thom and Todd at a restaurant down the road by the park entrance.
After lunch we got into ropes and knots. We started by cutting up our accessory cord into prusik loops, and then using those tie hitches onto a larger rope. We broke into two groups- one learned more about knots while the other used the prusiks to learn self rescue, as in how to climb up a rope if you're hanging down in a crevasse. After the first lesson, the group that had been hanging from ropes switched with the group had been inside for the other discipline.
We broke a little early in the afternoon, around 3:30, so we could watch some football game that happened to be on (aka the Superbowl). I went to the store across the street to get a little more sugary stuff for the trip before joining everyone at the Highlander bar. Jason joined us while we were all having dinner, a little later into the game. I actually stayed until the game was over, but at least half the group had gone back to the motel by that point. I assume the other people that were left didn't stay much longer. Then came the difficult process of packing for a week on the side of a mountain, with the proviso that you have to carry all of it on your back up 5000 vertical feet. Somehow it seems every time I pack, just when I think I'm almost done, I realize I forgot about some large item. I eventually managed to cram everything into my giant 105-liter backpack, but somehow (I later realized) I forgot my goggles.

We weren't in a huge rush to get out of base camp Monday morning. There was some question as to whether the road to Paradise was even open, and there was a bit of a scramble related to paperwork. We loaded all of our gear into the trailer and piled into the van. When we got to Longmire we had to wait for the office to open to turn in the paperwork, and then had to wait a while longer before they finished plowing and opened the road. It was after 10 before we were on our way to Paradise. The wait wasn't terrible, we sat around the lodge and started to get to know each other a little more. It was almost 11 by the time we were properly on the mountain, geared up at Paradise to start the climb. We started on snowshoes, except for Adam and Jason who were on skis. For the first stretch I was right behind Adam, who was leading. We didn't get far before we took a brief pause to shed a layer. It was a spectacular day, and several people remarked that it was nicer than it sometimes is in June. When we made a full stop about an hour in, we took off and stowed our snowshoes. Everyone was still in good spirits, chatting and taking some pictures. We were all together for the most part at that point. We had our second water/food break just below "pan face," the relatively steep slope leading up to panorama point. It was still quite warm at that point, and everyone seemed to be doing well. At the third break, people were more subdued, and showing some tiredness. also, the wind picked up and it started cooling off. There was a bit of a gap developing between the front of the group and the guys in the rear. By the time we made a fourth stop, the weather was really coming in. It was starting to get windy and cold. The break was focused on function: getting water and calories in, and getting another layer on. I'm not sure if everyone had even made it to the stopping point before those of us in the lead were pushing upward. We made a really brief fifth stop just below Camp Muir, thankfully our destination. At this point, not only had it started snowing, but the light was fading to almost nothing. We hadn't expected to be out in the dark, so few of us had a headlamp handy. There wasn't even an attempt to regroup at that point. As soon as a few of us were ready, we fell in behind Katie and pushed on. She was leading the way, using a headlamp and the little bit of twilight to discern a route. I was literally two steps behind her and had a hard time seeing where she had just stepped. There were two or three other people steps behind me. It was snowing sideways at that point. We were fighting the wind, but at least the footing wasn't too bad. That is until we got almost to the door of the hut. There was a big icy snow drift around the camp. I very nearly slipped, but managed to keep my feet, and tried to direct the people behind me to the better ground.
When I finally plopped down in the hut sometime around 6, I was burning up. I had kept my heavy parka on for the last stretch, and carrying a heavy pack as quickly as possible built up some heat. I took off a couple of layers, not really thinking that the temperature inside the shack was roughly the same as it was outside, but at least it was sheltered from the howling wind. Within a short period of time, most of us had made it into the shack. We picked out our bunk spaces and started to settle in a little. Even though several of us had been in the RMI hut previously, nobody remembered there are a couple lights powered by solar/car batteries, so we were fumbling around by the light of our headlamps. Finally Katie came in and turned the lights on.
Fortunately Jason and Adam had made it up to camp well ahead of the rest of us, and it wasn't long before they brought some hot water down so we could prepare our freeze-dried dinners. I was starting to regret having stripped down, and the warm food was good (as was just holding the bag against me while it "cooked").
I'm not sure what time Todd and Thom finally made it to camp, but they were looking a little grim, Thom especially. It seemed like it must have been an hour or more before he started to come back to life. The rest of us were chatting, deconstructing the day; the guides were in and out checking on us. It felt like it was late by the time we were all tucked away in our racks, but it could have only been 9 o'clock (I didn't bring a watch, and my phone was off most of the time).

The wind blew fiercely all Monday night, and showed no sign of slowing down Tuesday morning. Apparently the telemetry system on top of the hut recorded gusts over 70 mph. I did not sleep well. I slept, at least, but woke up many times. At some point I got a headache. I searched for my ibuprofen, trying to be as quiet as possible, but never found it. Somehow it got lost after I took a couple on the climb up. Later, Matt gave me one of his ibuprofen when the "vitamin I" was flowing pretty freely in the hut. That and water and breathing deeply helped the headache go away by mid-morning.
The first business of the day, however, was to empty my bladder. For most of the early morning, I was debating going out to use the outhouse. I waited until it was light out to make the journey. The trip to the outhouse was some of the most dangerous "climbing" we did all week. First, you had to dig out the front door, as snow constantly drifted up against it. You had to be careful leaving the hut, as one step to the right would send you sliding down the Muir Snowfield. You then stepped up onto a solid snow bank, and hugged the building. Halfway down the building, there was a hard-packed slope down to the icy rock. Thank goodness Tim chipped some steps into the slope, or it would have been much more treacherous. I would grab onto the propane bottles lashed to the building to get around the big ice patch at the bottom of the slope. Then you cleared the building and were slapped by the wind. Then it was 10 feet to the steps of the loo (which had to be cleared as well). Then there was the outhouse itself. The door is tiny and almost like a Dutch door, where you step through the top half. The ceiling is very low, even for me, at less than 6 feet tall. I'm not sure how the tall guys, Tim, Todd, and Thom, managed. As if it wasn't hard enough to get to and into the outhouse, there was a vicious stench. Those of us who had used the loo there before were hoping that maybe it being so cold would tame the stench, but that smell must be so deeply ingrained in the structure that there's no relief. What I found worked best was to keep my parka zipped up, and breathe through it.
When the guides came down with hot water for breakfast and drinking, they gave us our "orders" for the day, i.e. recommendations on clothing and what gear we would need. Since it was so nasty outside, we wanted to limit our time outdoors. All day, we were never more than about 50 feet from the hut. We would talk for a while inside, go outside and practice some stuff, talk some more inside, go back out, etc. etc. The training that day focused on ice axes, crampons, rope travel, and avalanche beacons. A lot of it was effectively a repeat of the training day for my previous Rainier trip, but in much more extreme conditions. The avalanche transponder training was pretty cool. The guides went out and buried a few, then had us go out a few at a time and locate them.
It was a rough day outside. It was white-out conditions all day. Even though we were so close to the huts, we could rarely see them at all. It made it a lot easier to understand how people can get into trouble when a storm comes in quickly. Throughout the week, the guides told numerous climbing stories, quite a few of them involving bad things happening to people who weren't prepared, weren't properly trained, or ignored signs of danger. It was pretty grim, but none of them involved any of their clients, so maybe the moral was to always go with a reputable guide company. More likely, the point was to be prepared and pay attention to the weather conditions.
Not having my goggles kind of sucked, but judging from everybody else, goggles weren't that great either. I wore my glacier glasses, and they kept icing over (inside and outside) or fogging up. I kept wiping them, but it did little good against the driving snow. My fleece balaclava probably wasn't the ideal head/face protection, people seemed to be having better luck with buffs. The problem was the typical problem with balaclavas: if you pull it over your nose to cover your whole face, you wind up fogging your glasses; pull it down and your nose and cheeks are cold. The rest of my gear worked pretty well. My hands got cold occasionally, but never so bad that pulling my fingers into balls inside the gloves didn't warm them back up. My feet got a little cold a couple times, but really only when we were sitting around inside; with a little movement they were plenty warm.

Tuesday night was pretty much a repeat of Monday night: whipping winds, waking up a bunch of times, headache. The "exciting" part was when something on the roof came loose and sounded like someone knocking for an hour. Finally it broke loose, and Tim gave a little cheer.
It was clear Wednesday morning, but still windy. The wind part lasted through the day; the clear part, not so much. That second afternoon at Camp Muir was pretty much like the first day. Because of the weather, the program for the day was pretty similar to Tuesday: talk inside some, train outside some, warm up, rehydrate, repeat. We started in the morning by building a snow wall. Part of the reason was just to do it, of course, but part of the reason was to give us a little shelter from the wind for the rest of the day. We were pretty into building this wall, cutting blocks and stacking them up. Adam said it was the tallest he'd ever seen. It was pretty neat until the wind blew it over onto Tim. We rebuilt the wall, taking a little more care to fit the blocks together, not going as high, and also adding a second layer for reinforcement.
We got so into building the wall that we didn't notice the guides went off at some point. Eventually we decided we were done and went back to the hut. Our next stint outdoors (huddled behind the wall to block the wind as much as possible) was to learn about anchors, most specifically using aluminum pickets. We discussed makeshift anchors (including a story of using a candy bar), but didn't practice any of those. We did break into small groups to build anchor systems, and then went over each group's anchor. The next lesson was to learn crevasse rescue. Since there weren't any open crevasses on the Cowlitz, and really there wasn't any need to practice with an actual crevasse, we just used the hill behind the wall to simulate one. Again we broke into teams, and a "victim" went down the slope while the other two or three guys rigged up a pulley system to pull them up. We took turns in the roles, although I didn't get a chance to be the victim, but I think that was the less critical role to learn.
It started snowing again while we were practicing rescue that afternoon, so that was pretty much the last thing we did outside. While we were all assembled inside, Adam went over belaying and rappelling a little bit. Later in the evening, after dinner, the guides came back down and told us mountain stories. Some people were particularly quiet, so they probably fell asleep a little earlier than the rest.

It was beautiful Thursday morning. The sky was mostly clear (at least at our elevation), and the wind had died down to an entirely reasonable level. We would climb up higher, but there was no promise of summitting. We packed some snacks, water, and some clothing options. We left wearing our crampons, helmets, and avalanche beacons. The guides' recommendation was to use our ice axe and one ski pole based on the snow conditions. Each guide had two or three clients on a rope team. Adam led with Matt and Steve; then it was JJ with me, Frank, and Pete; I'm not sure how the rest were distributed between Katie and Jason. Adam must have been putting in a good bit of work making a trail, even though he and Jason had gone part of the way Wednesday to scout things out (the wind buried their track). The snow conditions crossing the Cowlitz were pretty varied, from hard packed to several feet of powder. Pete had some trouble with his crampons, and frankly it was kind of nice to get a break. The first time, halfway across the Cowlitz, it gave me a chance to warm up my cold hands. The second time, on top of Cathedral Gap, it gave me a chance to wipe the sweat off my face and sunglasses. That's kind of the manic nature of mountain climbing, quickly going from freezing to sweating and back depending on exertion and wind. Because of the wind, the snow on the Ingraham Glacier was all deep powder, over knee deep. Adam still led for a while, then stepped off the trail to let JJ break the trail for a while. Then we stepped aside and Adam's team pushed ahead further. From there, we pretty much stood still for a while. This was because we were in an area with a fairly high risk of avalanche. So Adam's team was up ahead, probing for crevasses while staying away from the most "avalanchey" face. Katie's team was a little ways below us, and Jason's was so far behind I couldn't even see them. The reason being that if there were an avalanche, we wanted to at least limit the number of people swept up in it, and leave somebody to find people.
Eventually Adam made it up to a stable shelf sort of nestled into the seracs of the Ingraham Headwall. He called everyone to come up and take a break. After the guides talked it over, it was decided that this would be our high point, at about 11,500. While it was somewhat disappointing not to get to the summit, it would have been a massive undertaking, and been quite dangerous. At the rate we were going, we would not have been back before dark. At least we made it higher than Little Tahoma.
After taking a break, the guides went over ice climbing a little bit. They were going to give a demonstration, but the snow face we were sitting under was not climbable. We went back down the trail a little ways, and Jason gave a lesson on testing the snow for avalanche conditions. We didn't have a chance to dig our own pits.
After the lessons, we went pretty quickly back to camp. According to those tied to them, Jason and Katie practically ran down. Adam, and especially JJ, took their time a little more. I think everyone started the descent wearing their parka. Adam and JJ stopped at the top of Cathedral Gap to take them off, apparently Jason and Katie didn't. The parka was nice at first since we had been standing around for a while, but once we were moving again it was too warm.
While we were taking a break in camp and resetting our gear, the guides set up some ropes outside. The last real lesson of the trip was fixed line travel (like on Denali) and rappelling (not as common on most mountains). Since there was a limited number of ascenders and belay devices, we had to rotate them after going through the "course." I was the first, since I had both devices of my own. We started with some instruction on climbing a fixed line, particularly related to moving past anchor points. Once we got to the ridge of Muir Peak, we got some instruction on rappelling, and went over the side. I had done a few rappels previously (belaying in a gym doesn't count), so I had a pretty good idea what I was doing, but it still was not easy mentally. For two of the guys, it was their first ever rappel, and this wasn't exactly ideal for beginners. The hardest part of any rappel is starting, going over the edge for the first time. Unlike the gym, real walls aren't usually vertical, so you keep "landing" on features and having to step off again. Apparently my hand was a little more frightened than other parts of me because at one point I thought I was descending more slowly than necessary, and realized that was entirely under the control of my brake hand. When I got down off the rock, I walked back across the snow to the start to hand off my devices to the next person, and then went to watch someone else rap down.
There was a beautiful sunset that evening. Later, on my way back from the loo, I took a moment to turn off my headlamp and see the stars. It was incredible, there were hundreds of times as many stars visible as there are at home. I didn't stay long, it was well below freezing at that point. Actually, probably the only time it was above freezing in camp all week was Thursday afternoon. The frozen condensation on the ceiling melted and started dripping on Matt's and my stuff in the loft. It was pretty minor, not like a leaking roof or anything.

Friday morning we packed up all of our stuff to head back down. Mainly for practice, they had us wear our snowshoes for the descent. Frankly, I think I would have been at least as fast without them. JJ didn't wear snowshoes while leading us down. Muir Snowfield was really inconsistent in terms of snow, alternating between crusty and powdery. I don't think I would have done well on skis, especially with a heavy pack. Clearly Jason and Adam are not average skiers. They stayed in camp a little while after us to lock up, caught up with us partway down, then skied ahead of us to have the van ready when we got back to Paradise.
In the descent, the first two toes of my right foot banged up against my boot badly. It remains a mystery to me why my left foot didn't have the same problem (or at least not to nearly the same extent). It hurt pretty bad, but not so much that I needed any help down. When we did get back to the van I took my boots and socks off to survey the damage. Sure enough, the toenails were black and I was pretty sure they would fall off (although they haven't yet). At least it only hurt to walk for the first couple of days.
There were two steep sections that were kind of scary to come down (for me, without a lot of snowshoe experience, anyway). The first wasn't long at least. I did fall and have some difficulty getting back up. Pete, who seemed to have no trouble whatsoever, helped me up. Coming down pan face, I took my snowshoes off, and it was a lot easier. We took a full break at the bottom of pan face, and I put the shoes back on. When I did so, however, I strapped my boots too far forward, and they would catch on the front. After nearly tripping a few times, I stepped aside to restrap them. That at least gave me the opportunity to hustle to catch back up to the group, though it did take me most of the rest of the descent.
Back at the van, we threw all our gear into the trailer and headed off the mountain. There was a bit of sorting necessary back at base camp, but it seems everyone ended up with the proper gear. We made plans to meet for lunch about an hour later at a restaurant in Ashford. Those fortunate enough to have access to a shower (the guides and some who spent the night at the bunkhouse) washed off, while the rest of us had to continue to stink for a little longer. It was kind of weird to see people in something other than down, fleece, or polypropylene at lunch. Other than Steve, all the clients and guides were there, along with a few spouses/girlfriends. It was a good time, but that hotel in Seattle was calling. Matt and I headed back into the city. We hit some afternoon traffic, but it wasn't terrible. When we got back to the airport area, we realized we were staying at two different but very similar sounding hotels around the corner from each other. I dropped Matt off and said goodbye and went to my hotel. After checking in with my parents, I had one of the best showers ever. I went out and had a nice big salmon dinner and went back to the hotel to pass out.

I had an uneventful flight home on Saturday. There was a bit of drama checking in, trying to get my checked bag below 50 pounds to avoid a massive fee. I somehow managed to shove the things I took out of my checked bag into my carry-on bag.

Since getting back, I've been trying to keep doing some of the skills so that I'll remember them when I get to Alaska. I don't remember all the knots they showed us, but I have practiced the important ones. I've also managed to play with prusiks in the gym. I haven't figured out how to use a pulley system, but I hope to figure something out before Denali. One of the unintended lessons from the week was that a lot of gear looks the same, especially when it's a group like this, ordering the same items from the same store. I've gone through and made some marking on my carabiners, crampons, and anything else I can find a place to put a distinguishing mark. I've somehow found even more gear to buy, even with all I have, and with months to go before the big trip.


joesix said...

Hey Mike,
Nice read. I liked tagging along and not getting cold. :)

Sounds like one heck of an experience. I admire your desire to do this. Great pictures(not sure how you took them, guessing you didn't want your fingers/hands exposed very long). I look forward to more of your adventures.

the prevaricator said...

nice read ... i wonder what additional thoughts u'd like to add now that some time has passed ... u should also post what kinda training u r doin' for ur upcomin' Denali climb

~ n davis