Saturday, August 21, 2010

Six days

One of my favorite things to do for Alpine Ascents is teach the 6-day course, a basic introduction to mountaineering skills. It's fun, entertaining, and rewarding - people with a range of skills, from none to perhaps some rock climbing background, show up on the first morning with a backpack full of gear, and by the end of 6 days they have learned how to use it. Not enough to start running up mountains by one's self, perhaps, but enough to know how to use an ice axe, which side of the crampons are up, and how to get out of a crevasse should they end up in one in ideal circumstances. Those are the basics - all the rest comes from experience.

And this time, near-perfect weather. What more can you ask for - a beautiful setting in which to hang out with ten excited, engaged, intelligent people from all over the country? Done. The views from up there are great - you're not so high that the lower peaks are distant and indistinguishable, but rather closeby and intriguing. The upper camp, termed the "honeymoon suite", looks directly across at the North Twin Sister, which Dave and I climbed a couple weeks ago. Not too shabby.

We start with the basics - various foot techniques for walking on snow, proper crampon placement, ice axe arrest (face buried in the snow, using axe and feet to stop a fall) on flatter ground for practice - then move on to finer skills. How long the rope should be between climbers, lots of different knots, belaying and rappelling on steeper slopes... These skills culminate in learning how to rescue oneself or a teammate from a crevasse, putting together all of the critical thinking and various skills learned over the past few days. Oh, and summitting the mountain, which is the more immediate goal.

I've personally never fallen in a crevasse. I've punched a foot through a snowbridge, snow that builds up to cover the crevasse and then slowly melts away in the summer. These cracks in the snow and ice of the glacier can be wide or narrow, deep or shallow, and hanging on one end of the rope or holding a fallen teammate on the other end can be equally harrowing experiences. If and when it happens, you need to know what to do, so we practice. And the practice is pretty cool - how often do you get to hang in a big crack in the ice and feel safe and secure? While the summit is an important part of the trip, this is often the highlight of the trip for students.

Playing on glaciers for 6 days with fun, motivated people for 6 days - I'll take it. (Thanks to everybody who wants to learn and keeps me doing this stuff!) They say that good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement, so good luck folks - be safe!

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