Think way back to last summer: Did the peaks of the Cascades beckon to you? If you ever thought of learning to climb, believe it or not, now is the time to decide. The Mountaineers' basic climbing...
Think way back to last summer: Did the peaks of the Cascades beckon to you? If you ever thought of learning to climb, believe it or not, now is the time to decide. The Mountaineers’ basic climbing course, which kicks off Jan. 5 and runs through early June, has a Dec. 20 deadline for sign-ups.
In the course, students attend eight evening lectures and practice sessions, alternating with seven days of weekend field trips. Over the summer each student completes three supervised climbs, including at least one rock climb and one glacier climb. To graduate, students must also volunteer for an outdoor conservation activity, attend a seminar on navigating by map and compass and take a 30-hour class in first aid.
(The Everett and Tacoma branches of the Mountaineers offer nearly identical courses, with later registration deadlines and start dates. Everett’s sign-up is open until Dec. 30; the class starts Feb. 1. Tacoma’s sign-up is open until Jan. 27; the class starts Feb. 2.)
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And this expertise, while crucial, doesn’t come cheap. The cost of this course is $560, which also covers a year’s membership in the Mountaineers and textbooks.
Then there’s equipment, which can cost from a few hundred dollars to thousands.
You need two kinds of equipment. One is backpacking gear, which allows you to hike and camp in the wilderness with self-sufficiency. The other is technical climbing gear for safety on rock cliffs, glaciers and steep slopes of snow and ice.
If you’re starting from scratch, backpacking gear would cost about $1,500 to $2,500, but those who are already fairly well equipped may spend as little as a few hundred dollars on new boots, pack and first-aid kit.
Technical equipment costs about $400 to $900, with big-ticket items being crampons, ice ax, helmet, an assortment of hardware and a seat harness.
To trim the cost of equipment, some climbers buy it secondhand at places like Second Ascent in Ballard. Others rent, swap or borrow equipment.
You need no experience to take the basic course, though having hiked and backpacked will be very helpful. Start now to get in good physical condition too; otherwise, you may delay — not to mention annoy — your climbing partners.
The course aims to teach everything you need to know to climb a typical peak in the Cascades. That includes not only technical climbing skills for that last rock face just below the summit, but also the know-how to travel and camp on all kinds of backcountry terrain — safely, comfortably and with the least possible environmental impact.
The core of the course, though, is learning skills for negotiating glaciers, steep snow and near-vertical rock.
The big three
On a glacier,
the main worry is falling into the mountain’s most diabolical booby trap: a hidden crevasse, which is a frigid abyss disguised by a flimsy roof of snow.
To keep each other from plunging, climbers rope together while crossing the glacier. If one starts to fall into a crevasse, the others drop down, jam their ice axes into the snow and stop the fall. Then they must be ready to set up a rope-and-pulley system to quickly haul out the dangling climber.
the main danger is losing one’s footing and plunging down a steep slope. Students practice using crampons for traction and the ice ax to stop falls. In case of a slip, they practice stopping a downhill slide by quickly jabbing the claw end of the ice axe into the snow. This skill is one of the most difficult to master but also one of the most critical for safety.
On steep rock,
falling is again the main concern. If the rock is not very steep, climbers can clamber without ropes, which is called scrambling. When it gets steep, they rope together. That’s technical climbing.
In technical rock climbing, the basic safety measure is the belay. The moving climber tethers to a stationary belayer who is anchored securely to the mountain. The belayer feeds the rope out (or in) through a powerful friction device. If the climber starts to fall, they belayer tugs on the rope’s free end, locks the rope, and stops the fall.
For descending on rock, the most basic means of preventing a fall is the rappel — a controlled slide down a rope. Instructors tell students to forget movie images of Sylvester Stallone zooming and bouncing down a rope hanging in midair. In a real-life rappel, the climber leans back to a near-horizontal position and walks gently backward down the cliff.
Students practice rock skills on outdoor climbing rocks at Camp Long in West Seattle or Spire Rock near Tacoma.
The textbook for the course, “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills” (Mountaineer Press, $26.95), was written by many of the senior members of the group and is considered the nation’s leading how-to book on mountaineering.
To avoid a large class (Seattle Mountaineer classes can have more than 200 students), you can take a similar course from the smaller Everett or Tacoma branch, or from BoeAlps or the Washington Alpine Club.
— the Boeing Employees Alpine Society — typically allows about one third of the 50 students in its course to be non-Boeing people, according to BoeAlps Vice President Robert Fisher. BoeAlps does not require first-aid training, but Fisher said the BoeAlps climbers can attend the Mountaineers’ first-aid class.
The Washington Alpine Club’s
Web site reports a limit of 40 students for last season’s class, with lectures every Tuesday evening from mid-March to mid-June and 12 days of weekend field trips.
Lectures? Reading? Field trips? Who’s got the time? Jim Nelson, a former guide who has written climbing guidebooks and runs a popular climbing shop in Seattle, suggests an alternative:
with a short course or a few days of private instruction from a professional guide service.
Instead of reading, lectures and field trips in winter and spring, guide services hold short seminars in the summer, either in the backcountry or at popular roadside practice areas such as the ones near North Bend and Leavenworth.
Guide-service courses have smaller class sizes and often more teachers per student than the volunteer-run club courses. They also charge a lot more for a day’s instruction. Costs range from about $100 to more than $350 per day, not including personal equipment. Most classes last from three days to a week.
Some are certified by the American Mountain Guides Association. Certification generally signifies that the guide has taken classes, served an apprenticeship, and passed a stringent exam in alpine climbing, which includes snow and ice, or rock climbing. Some local guides are aspirants — formally trained apprentices working toward certification. The AMGA’s web site has a list from which you can choose a certified guide.
Here are a few guide services employing (or run by) AMGA-certified guides. All have Web sites detailing their offerings.
Martin Volken’s Pro Guiding Service,
of North Bend, offers some of the least expensive courses. One is a three-day introduction to rock climbing for $95 per day, with a guide for every three or four students and small classes of three to eight students. Volken’s six-day course on snow, glacier and rock has a guide for every three students and a size limit of six students. Every class, said Volken, is led by an AMGA-certified guide, sometimes with assistance from aspirants.
of Seattle, also has a four-day intro course for $174 per day, with five students per guide. Mountain Madness was founded by Scott Fischer, who died in the calamity recounted in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster.”
Alpine Ascents International,
also of Seattle, is one of the largest and best-known of local guide services. AAI conducts a six-day glacier-travel course in the Cascades for $167 per day with a student-instructor ratio of 5:1. The company’s 13-day intro course, at $162 per day, covers not only rock but also snow and glacier.
International Mountain Guides,
of Ashford, charges $250 per day — including meals and group equipment — for four-day introductory seminars in the North Cascades with a guide for every two or three students. Its three principals collectively boast dozens of ascents of Alaska’s Mount McKinley — more than 1,000 ascents of Mount Rainier.
If your goal is simply
to climb Mount Rainier with as little fuss as possible, consider the ever-popular Three-Day Summit Climb from Rainier Mountaineering Inc., for $265 per day.
RMI, co-founded by Lou Whittaker, has long been known for its exclusive park-service permission to guide these whirlwind climbs. After a one-day crash course, herds of novices make a brisk beeline for the summit via Camp Muir. Many fall by the wayside with exhaustion or altitude sickness, but for the rest this is the fastest and most direct route from a living-room Barcalounger to the top of the state’s highest mountain.
for those who can’t stand the idea of sleeping in a tent, refuse to subsist on freeze-dried glop and can afford triple the expense of a guide service, a deluxe alternative awaits north of the border. Canadian Mountain Holidays, the pioneer of heliskiing in southeastern British Columbia, now keeps its comfortable lodges open for summer mountaineering. For about $750 (U.S.), you can sleep in a warm bed, a gourmet meals, and then shuttle to remote climbs with your private instructor — in a helicopter.
Michael Knoll is an experienced climber and writer living in Seattle: firstname.lastname@example.org