Denali Prep Seminar on Mount Rainier with IMG
International Mountain Guides – Denali Prep Seminar on Mount Rainier
April 27th – May 3rd 2013
Mount Rainier National Park
I’ve had aspirations in the mountains for some time, but something has always held me back: the odd preference to remain among the living. It’s not that I haven’t spent time in the mountains around me hiking, running, rock climbing, and ice climbing. It’s not that I haven’t picked up skills through lessons from guides and through personal trial and error. It’s a question of geography. Big mountains have glaciers, and in order to successfully and safely scale these mountains, you should know how to navigate glaciers and their related challenges. Seeing as the nearest mountain with a glacier is thousands of miles from me, gaining experience is difficult.
To help remedy this and get me started on my quest towards larger mountains unguided, I attended a seminar aimed at getting climbers ready for the rigors of climbing Denali (Mt McKinley), North America’s tallest peak and home to some of the nastiest conditions outside of the sky scraping Asian mountain ranges. This is considered a “winter” seminar despite taking place in what sea-level’ers like me consider early spring because the weather is still very much winter-like this time of year at altitude. I was a bit nervous about conditions because I was barely 8 weeks off crutches after partially tearing my posterior tibialis muscle and tendon from a fall while leading a pitch ice climbing (that would be an error in my “trial and error” experiences). My leg was still quite sensitive to any abnormal range of motion, and I basically couldn’t train for 2 months. I was hoping my high level of conditioning leading up to the injury would carry me through.
Where did my ankle go? 1 hour after my fall.
Why IMG? There are other options out there for similar seminars on Mount Rainier from reputable names like Alpine Ascents International and Rainier Mountaineering International. IMG offered one key difference: they supplied breakfast and dinner. You still had to carry your share up the mountain and were responsible for any snacks/lunch, but the logistics and planning for breakfast and dinner was done by IMG. For somebody flying in the day before the seminar starts, that was a big deal and saved me a lot of hassle.
Day… 0.5 – The team-to-be meets at IMG HQ in Ashford, Washington at the foot of Mount Rainier. I met my 6 other teammates and the 4 guides who would be our instructors for the next 6 days. We did a quick meet and greet. Austin was the lead guide along with the Tye, Josh, and Peter. Obviously the guides were all experienced, and us clients had a mix of experience in technical climbing, hiking, and other guided climbs. We were brought through a gear check to minimize weight and make sure we weren’t doubling up on group gear. After gear check, us clients with the exception of 1 went out to dinner to get to know each other. This was to become a trend. The one who skipped was a good guy with some solid mountain experience, but he held himself separate a lot.
Day 1 – We met at IMG HQ again and fixed the sleds we were to use to drag supplies to camp 1. Once the sleds were fixed, we hopped in the van to head up to Paradise at 5,400′, which was to be the launching point for our little expedition. This was a reality check because it was snowing and blowing at 5,400′. I’m not talking about a little flurry either.
We threw on our gear, put on our snowshoes, used prussiks to attach sleds to our packs, and away we went. Our packs were 45-60 lbs, and I’m not sure how heavy the sleds were. The conditions were mixed, and we only made it to 6,400′ or so before we decided to stop and set up our first camp. It was nice to be out and moving though, and while it was snowing, the temperature was still comfortably in the teens. At the camp area, the division of labor started to reveal work ethics among the clients. We had to shovel out and level off tent platforms in the snow as well as build a wall out of snow blocks to protect against the wind. While lead guide Austin oversaw us doing that, the other guides set to work getting their own tent platforms setup as well as what would be the mess tent where we’d take our meals. I did a lot of shovel work on both the tent platforms and getting blocks of snow for the wall. It was harder work than expected, and it was a little frustrating as some loafed more than others, but I was enjoying myself.
Once everything was up, we got ourselves situated in our tents. I was tenting with a guy who had a fair amount of mountain experience and whom I met for a Seattle Mariners game the night before our official meet-and-greet. We shared a tent with another more novice client who had his sights on the Seven Summits. For those not interested in mountaineering, that means climbing the seven tallest mountains on each continent: Denali (North America), Aconcagua (South America), Elbrus (Europe), Vinson Massif (Antarctica), Some hill in Australia named Kosciuszko or the more aesthetically pleasing from a mountaineering perspective Puncak Jaya on the Australian “continent”, Kilimanjaro (Africa), and of course Everest (Asia). This gave us time for our first meal in the mess tent, and temps had dropped to single digits. It was getting chilly eating in a tent in single digit temps in a snow storm, and the reality of the situation started to hit home. The guides were really funny though, and it reminded me of hanging out with my friends at home with all the sarcastic jokes and ball busting. I was definitely having a really good time.
Day 2 – Weather had intensified overnight. The temps dipped below zero and the sides of the tents had been pushed in by snow drifts. I woke up and began shoveling snow away from all the tents. We had a good breakfast, and all I could think of was how freaking cold it was. The day itself was really educational though. We learned how to search for people using avalanche transceivers. Everybody was tested and had to blindly find a buried mock victim as quickly as possible; both single and double victim scenarios. After that, we had to work as a team to find multiple buried bodies. Our leader for the exercise was another client and one of the two women on the expedition. She did a great job of leading and got us through the exercise pretty quickly. After this, we learned how dig avalanche pits and use them to assess the stability of snowpack on the slopes as well as other warning signs of avalanche activity. We wrapped up the day with some rudimentary crampon work. The steep slope made my injured ankle throb with pain, and it was by no means easy. I almost asked if I could sit out since I felt really confident on crampons whereas some clients were learning to use them for the first time. I didn’t want to isolate myself from our evolving team though, so on I went.
The weather this day kept teasing us with letting up and would provide momentary glimpses of our surrounding landscape, which had been hidden. We still hadn’t really even seen Rainier other than the small area we occupied on it, and I caught my first glimpse of the Tatoosh Range across the way. I have to say that I really loved the way range looked, and I plan on making it back to Washington to do a traverse.
Day 3 – This was a travel day up to Camp Muir at 10,000′. The weather was still snowing and blowing non-stop. It was like being inside a ping-pong ball because everything around you was just featureless white. It was so bad, we walked off a corniced ledge right out of camp.
If you squint, you can see the snow wand and other features in the picture.
The first obstacle in our way was Panorama Face, which is a steep angled feature we had to climb in snowshoes. My ankle was screaming here, and I ended up apologizing to people behind me because I was moving slower than I’d have liked on the traverse across the face. It was a bit sketchy. One slip, and you were heading to the bottom. You’d probably be no worse for wear with just a long slide downhill, but it was a slide nobody wanted to make because that meant you’d have to repeat the climb. Past Panorama Point there was nothing in the way of challenging terrain. It was just a long, continuous slog uphill with a heavy pack.
After slogging for a fair amount of time, we started to break through the clouds. Once we did, it was SUNNY and BRIGHT. The rest of the way up to Muir was pretty routine after that. Again, differing fitness levels and experience levels started to show. It was a bit of a test of patience as the pace had to be really slow to keep everybody together. Once to camp, we settled into the shelter which would not remain unoccupied for long as other independent teams made their way up the mountain. We ate dinner in the guide shelter and then headed back to the now bustling shelter. I’m used to hearing bravado and shit talking in different circles for the various activities I pursue and sports I’ve played throughout my life. I’m not sure if it’s the solitary nature of climbing that makes the less than secure feel the need to legitimize themselves, but the talk and posturing rivaled what you’d find in a high school locker room. It was entertaining. We battened down the hatches, and went to sleep getting ready for our foray out onto glaciers the following day.
Resting above the clouds
Day 4 – We roped up and headed out on the glacier. We walked past Cathedral Rock and out on the Ingraham Flats at a bit above 11,000′ to check out our two potential routes. The Ingraham Direct route was Swiss Cheese and all chewed up with crevasses. The Disappointment Clever route was probed for snow stability, and it was scary unstable and seemed about to avalanche at any moment. The decision was made to turn around, forego a summit bid the next day, and head back to camp. On our way back, we passed an independent group composed of a couple Alaskan mountain guides and their friends heading in the opposite direction up the mountain. It’s not that you hope they won’t summit, but it’s just that you hope that you made the right decision by turning back.
Once back at camp, we were brought through a snow anchor building seminar where again we’d be tested. At dinner, we were taught some land nav based on topo maps. You can use the underlying geometry of the terrain to anticipate crevasse hazards, avalanche hazards, and route find ahead of time. The Q&A session after was also very educational. This was really the nuts and bolts of why I was here. I wanted to learn the basics on route finding that I could start applying in my own adventures.
After dinner, we learned that the party that had passed us was turned around by the treacherous snow conditions as well. As it turned out, no party on the mountain while we were was able to top out. Only a few parties all winter long found conditions favorable enough to summit. That’s one of the things with mountaineering. You can be amazingly fit. You can be very well prepared. You can have all your bases covered. Yet you still may not make it up.
Day 5 – This was to be a summit day, but I’m happy it wasn’t. Instead we started the day doing crevasse rescue. We built off the knowledge of snow anchors we had from the night before and added different “pulley”/haul systems using prussik knots and carabiners. We mainly used the 3:1, which as the name implies means that for every pound of force exerted, three pounds is applied to the object being hauled (eg a 120 lbs person would feel like 40 lbs). Likewise for every foot gained, you chew up three feet of rope. We also learned the 5:1 system, but I believe that was just to demonstrate how to compound the system for easier hauling. We were only tested on the 3:1 system. We split off into 3 person teams. Everybody got a turn as being the haulee, the person to arrest the fall and hold the load (that’s what she said) while the haul system was being built, and the haul system builder.
After crevasse rescue, we practiced ascending fixed lines and rappelling. It was a nice break up to the day. I’m not a fan of fixed lines and personally wouldn’t climb using them (lines that I did not fix at least), but that’s really a philosophical difference or stylistic difference. It’s like preferring chocolate over vanilla. Nobody is right. It’s just the way you feel. The rappelling was fun since I hadn’t done that since my ice climbing injury a couple months prior. While this was going on, there was also a group learning how to construct a snow cave. I messed around long enough for me to feel guilty watching the others toil away digging in the snow, so I headed over to do my share in building the cave.
We rested a bit and had dinner. At dinner, there was a lecture on cold weather and altitude medicine. It was disappointing that it was the final night, so I tried to take it all in. I watched the sunset and stayed out star gazing up at the clear night sky made clearer still by the altitude. Then I went to bed to prepare for the descending day.
Day 6 – I woke up early to catch the sunrise. I had zero cell service on the mountain, so I had been totally disconnected from family and friends for a week. I was excited to get down and plug back in. I was also excited to be taking my first shower in a week too. That said, I was sad to be leaving the wilderness. There is something peaceful about being so isolated, and I constantly try to remember how good it felt to be unplugged for so long. The world surprisingly did not come to an end. After a brief breakfast, we started our descent.
The descent was quick and uneventful. It was quite painful though. The way my ankle had to flex in descent was incredibly painful. I found myself biting my bottom lip a lot to stifle what would have been embarrassing yelps of pain. As if that wasn’t enough, the snow on the flats was crusted over meaning you’d randomly breakthrough shooting your ankle in a random direction. Typically it’s so routine to entirely escape notice, but is was very painful with my injury. Buuut I’m being a little bitch. In any event, we were quickly down and in the van back to HQ. We put the gear away and headed out to a late lunch clients and guides together. It was great to unwind, share some beers, and have some fab non-camp prepared food. I looked around at everybody around the table and realized I was going to miss these people. On top of that, I learned a lot while I was on the mountain.
They have a breakdown online, but these were my personal major takeaways:
- Glacier travel and nav
- Haul systems
- Avalanche assessment and rescue
- Peeing laying sideways in a sleeping bag into a pee bottle
- Cooking bacon, egg, and cheese bagel sandwiches by toasting the bagels on the skillet in the bacon grease
- I’m more a fan now of technical climbs than long slogs up mountains. If I ever do Rainier, it’d have to be Liberty Ridge.
In conclusion, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this seminar to anybody looking to pick up skills needed to climb glaciated mountains. Three of my team members have since made attempts on Denali, and I’ve taken the skills I learned to build safer anchors and more efficient haul systems in my technical ice and rock climbing. Check out the IMG site for seminar details.
Some wilderness decided to say goodbye to me outside my hotel