12 Day Alaska Mountaineering Course Itinerary
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After a 7 a.m. group meeting at Fireweed Station Inn, we head to the Alpine Ascents hangar. Everyone’s gear is checked; this includes a discussion of what constitutes good gear, necessary gear, poorly designed gear, and unnecessary gear (read, ballast) in your pack. After the gear check, we’ll have practice sessions for knots, prussiks, tie-in to a climbing rope, and prussiking crevasse self-rescue. These skills need to be learned and practiced in a safe and controlled environment because we’ll need to use some of them as soon as we land on the glacier. After a late pizza lunch in Talkeetna, our fly-in to the glacier landing strip generally begins at 4 p.m. After arriving on the glacier, a brief orientation is conducted about roped glacier travel, and then we’ll move up the glacier a mile or so to set up our first camp. On the first day, we will build a comfortable, storm resistant campsite and set up the stoves. Our first evening is spent on the massive Kahilta Glacier in the Alaska Range. This is when the reality of being in some of the most stunning and impressive mountains on Earth really sinks in!
We’ll focus on practicing snow-climbing skills, the basic foundation of all mountaineering skills. The following is a typical preferred logical progression of skills, but sometimes the order in which certain practices are done will depend upon current field conditions:
- We practice snow climbing with a focus on making good solid and efficient steps on both soft and hard snow surfaces, especially on steep snow.
- We cover ice axe self-belay skills as well as self-arrest skills (with and without ice axes). This allows us to practice for that inevitable time when climbing technique fails and we have only a moment to stop that slip from becoming a fall!
- The majority of the day is spent learning and practicing snow anchors, roped climbing, running belays, and rope team self-arrest. These are the most important skills to master in order to be a safe climbing team member on glaciated mountains. For this reason, we’ll spend whatever time necessary to ensure everyone is building a solid foundation for further learning, and to climb safely over the next week.
Now that everyone is able to self-arrest their rope-mates, we’ll concentrate more on using the climbing rope safely and intelligently as a rope team. This we’ll practice in-depth during a roped tour on part of the glacier. This is the real thing, not just theoretical practice, as there are large crevasses and impressive snow bridges to cross to get to where we are going. We’ll spend the majority of the day learning and practicing the important skills of crevasse self-rescue and rope team rescue. During the evening meal back at camp, preparations for a summit attempt of Control Tower Peak will be discussed. This includes instruction on how to produce a climbing plan for the day’s climb.
We’ll follow our plan from the previous night for climbing Control Tower Peak. The focus is on having fun, and using the skills learned over the past three days. The day’s climb provides amazing views, unimagined just three days before. After descending around noon back to camp, we’ll spend more time as needed to continue with learning and cementing rope-team crevasse rescue skills.
We’ll pack up camp and move it through several miles of glacier travel to our next camp. We’ll set up another good weather-resistant camp with focus on completing this camp faster and more efficiently than the first one. On this day, it all comes together as we’ll move through the mountains as a self-sufficient climbing team, soaking up the experience in the process.
We’ll start with another glacier tour to observe and learn from some different terrain and to look for ice climbing practice sites. Then we learn and practice basic ice climbing including flat-footing, front-pointing, no-tool, one-tool and two-tool climbing. This will be combined with roped and belayed climbing and placing ice screws for protection and belay anchors. Back at camp, we’ll again prepare for a summit attempt tomorrow, including having students produce the climbing plan for the day.
We’ll plan to carry out our second summit climb. In some ways, this is the most important day of the course. All of the practice and experience of the previous six days will have prepared the team for this day. However, this day is different because the entire summit climb experience happens again. Participating in a second climb this soon after learning all of the skills goes a long way towards building experience. Building experience creates self-sufficient climbers much more quickly and efficiently. Depending upon weather and climbing conditions, the possibility of a third summit climb can be discussed after we arrive back in camp.
We’ll leave our climbing partners from the shorter Eight-Day Course, and while they work their way back to the glacier airstrip, we’ll continue deeper into the range to higher and bigger mountains, to further refine our skills and gain experience. Two more ascents of glaciated peaks are usually attempted. On these days, not only is more learned and a deeper level of experience built, but the views from these higher, less accessible mountains just get better! This travel involves moving to additional camps and making summit bids, as well as greater and deeper practice in navigation, route-finding and the evaluation of subjective and objective hazards in the mountains.
This day involves a long day of travel over glaciated terrain to make our afternoon flight back to Talkeetna.
The program was approached in a very serious manner and the guides had tremendous knowledge of the region. They were both very thorough with their instruction of the mountaineering skills. Overall, I was very pleased with the outcome.