by Liane Lau
Arriving to the Alpine Ascents Seattle Office at 0630 for gear check – made me question my life choices. To be an effective mountaineer, you should be a combination of a marathon runner, a weight-lifter, and a climber. I am none of those things. I don’t even particularly like those things. The thought of hanging off a cliff by my hands and feet is not appealing to me. It’s like when I was ironman triathlete. I didn’t particularly like running, biking, or swimming but I liked the challenge. I have a curiosity to learn new things, an ability to motivate myself to do anything, and an ability to suffer. How much I was going to suffer was now laid out physically in front of me.
It was suggested, you should be able to travel at 1000 vertical feet per hour with a required weight of 55+ lbs., traveling for 5 hours at a time. Or steep climbing with a 20 lb. pack. Also recommended was long backpacking and hiking as good prep to get your systems of sleep, eating, dressing dialed in.
Packing – how much are you willingly to go without? How much discomfort can you tolerate? How much are you willingly to suffer? At gear check, I left behind an inflatable pillow, extra fruit leathers, heavier foods vs. lighter weight foods were selected. Instead of a pillow, I used my puffy in a stuff snack, then covered it with my wool buff. It wasn’t a pillow but it would do for a week.
My tent mate carried the sunscreen. I carried the bug spray. Sunscreen was infinitely more useful and I should have brought my own, instead of shared. She carried the stove. I carried the fuel. She carried the tent poles. I carried the four-season tent.
After a few hours of sorting clothing and materials, we carpooled 2-3 hours to Easton Glacier, the trailhead for Mt. Baker. It is a moderate-strenuous approach, from trailhead at 3,400 feet to reach camp at 6,000 ft. We walked through Schreiber’s Meadow, along the railroad grade ridge, to Sandy Camp – 4-5 hours. You carry your own personal gear, shared gear, and group gear (ropes, equipment).
This course was in partnership with Trail Mixed Collective [an org to “increase diversity of women in outdoor sports through education, inspiration, access, and mentorship”] and Alpine Ascents International (professional guide). The 6-day mountaineering course was on Mt. Baker (Koma Kulshan). Ten women from across the country were selected through an application process.
I was honored and humbled to be amongst this group of strong, smart, women of color. Each person brought their own histories, skills, and experiences to our new Mt. Baker community. What I love about affinity groups, is the supportive atmosphere surrounded by people with similar backgrounds and cultural experiences. Our affinity group of ten became a safe space on the mountain. A place where we could learn new skills with the support and understanding of those shared histories. You see yourself in the eyes of others, having a place on this mountain, away from the predominately white male dominated space. I felt inspired, seen and heard. I felt uplifted by these women of color, on this mountain.
Mt. Baker (10,781 ft.) is the highest point of the North Cascades. It is a glaciated dormant volcano, perfect alpine training. It is a stepping stone course to develop strong fundamental snow skills and glacier climbing. Skills learned are: glacier travel, rope/belay techniques, crevasse rescue, crampons/snow/rope team travel, route finding, self-arrest/ice axe techniques.
Much of what I discovered over several days was to have success on the mountain is a team effort. With rope travel, you can only go as quickly as the person walking in front of you, if they slow down, you slow down. If you fall into a crevasse, your team self-arrests and holds you from falling further while another person sets up a system to belay you out.
After all our lessons learned, where do we go from here? Our guide said to keep learning and evolving in our new skills – we need to do three things simultaneously. Find a mentor – someone more skilled than yourself, who has lived, had experiences, and made mistakes. Find a peer on the same skill level to practice what you know. Be a mentor, teach someone what you know. All these done together, will grow you into a better, budding mountaineer. Other mountains to summit (at this level) Glacier Peak, Shasta, Mt. Adams, etc.
This week I answered for myself, what is essential? What do you truly need and what can you do without? I found joy, laughter, and comfort in sharing new experiences while in the safety and trust of other women of color. I found knowledge sharing and a commitment to our team success. I found challenges, Vitamin D, and new friends in the mountains. I’ve never been to camp before, but I think this is what it might be like. Looking to the horizon for the next reunion, I will be a skilled climber who can navigate ropes and rocks, and perhaps be a marathon runner again.