13 Day Cascades Mountaineering Course Itinerary
The course was phenomenal. I began the trip with virtually no alpine experience, and left confident in my ability to approach local objectives back home.
We meet at the Seattle office for a 6:30 a.m. orientation and gear check. A big part of developing the necessary skills in mountaineering starts with having the proper equipment and food to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. The guides will discuss each piece of equipment and ensure that everything is in good condition and properly fitted. Finally, the guides will evaluate conditions, discuss weather with the group, and make any last minute adjustments before heading to the trail head.
The most common venue for this part of the course is the south side of Mount Baker, although we often use Boston Basin and Sahale Mountain or The Sulphide Glacier on Mount Shuksan as well.
Upon arrival at trailhead, we discuss the route, weather and potential campsites. We move to a camp at or above tree line and practice moving, pacing and existing with heavy loads. Often times this is a strenuous move of several thousand vertical feet and can take between 3 and 6 hours.
An integral part of mountaineering is being able to setup a safe and secure camp in an extreme environment. As a group, we take the time to practice these skills to ensure a good camp is established. Guides discuss the importance of personal maintenance, hygiene and sleeping in cold environs and the principals of Leave No Trace, and address any concerns the students may have. Finally, instruction of proper hydration, including efficient snow melting protocols, nutrition, and back country cooking techniques will be addressed.
This day is used to develop basic techniques of traveling on snowy and icy surfaces. We start by working on of walking techniques used to move safely and efficiently over a variety of snowy slopes. Good footwork, balance and rest techniques are invaluable skills that we use throughout the rest of the course. Guides then introduce the use of the ice axe and students conclude by practicing a variety of self arrest positions.
After lunch, we explore some of the more technical skills of mountaineering. Instruction will be given on tying an assortment of knots and prussiks. After this, we develop rope work skills: coiling, storing and changing the length of the climbing rope. We conclude the day with rope team travel as it pertains to classical glaciated terrain. If conditions and time permit, we go for a short glacier tour, winding our way through seemingly bottomless crevasses in both classical and echelon formations. Here emphasis is placed on proper rope interval, shortening and lengthening the rope, communication, route finding and hazard assessment.
We start this day by demonstrating a variety of snow and ice anchors useful for belaying, running protection and rescue scenarios. Once students are comfortable constructing a variety of different anchor types and styles, we put it all to test.
If you have ever wondered if you can rappel off of a Snickers Bar, then this is the day for you! We fully weight and test all of the student anchors to ensure they are constructed properly and are effective for our intended purpose.
Once this is concluded we put the anchors to test for real; and have people belay and rappel off of the anchors they construct. A variety of belaying and rappelling techniques are taught.
We then finish the day off by introducing a variety of hauling systems with emphasis on understanding the mechanical advantage each system employs.
With the skills developed on the previous days; knots, prussiks, rope handling, anchor construction, belaying and mechanical advantage systems; students should now have the necessary skills and comfort to execute crevasse rescue. Crevasse rescue is an essential skill and considerable time and emphasis will be placed on practicing. First, guides usually have everyone do a “dry” run on the surface but then it is expected that each person demonstrate proficiency in holding a real life fall into a crevasse and preform an actual rescue. Our standard instruction is a 3:1 Z-Pulley rescue system on a 3 person rope team. However, we try to always demonstrate, if not practice, the 2:1 Drop-C on a 2 person rope team as well.
At this time, students also have the opportunity to practice ascending out of a crevasse, on their own with the use of their prussiks. This gives a much more realistic feel of what self-rescue is all about.
Crevasses can be a hazardous environment and care must be taken to mitigate the risks properly. Guides always emphasize climber safety and well-being. Nevertheless, this is a extremely memorable and rewarding day.
Students are now equipped to becoming valuable members of a rope team and the group is now ready to push higher on the mountain. One of the most important skills learned in the course is preparing, planning and executing the summit climb itself. Developing a route plan, assessing the hazards, preparing one’s summit pack, climbing up and descending back down safely through massive glaciers and seracs to an icy Cascade’s summit is an incredibly rewarding experience with breathtaking views in every direction. Furthermore, it is a demanding day, both physically and mentally, which provides great training for more advanced objectives students may encounter further along in their climbing careers. Upon returning to camp we pack up and head down to the trail head for the next phase of the climb.
This is an important transition day that is used to make the drive to the east side of the Cascade Range. It also provides the time to rest and reset. Often students and guides find it nice to sort gear, do laundry and grab a shower. And although not necessary, it is often an ideal time to grab a much needed meal in town. A burger and a beverage can be quite the reward and motivation for the next part of the course. The group will car camp at a local campsite and have the chance to purchase groceries as well.
Our focus today will be around developing skills for basic rock climbing on the beautiful granite buttresses around Leavenworth, Washington. This starts by reviewing knots and belay techniques that were taught in the mountaineering section and transferring that skill set to a vertical environment. Once a safe structure has been ensured we work on a variety of movement skills for face, slab and crack climbing. The students are on top rope and can take satisfaction in the joy of moving up rock cliffs without the danger or difficulties we often find in the high mountains or lead climbing.
With a of basic skills, we spend more time climbing a variety of routes to build up a comfort on the rock. Climbers are often amazed how much improvement happens in just two days of climbing.
We spend this day doing a multi pitch climb, one that ascends several hundred feet above the ground. R&D on Icicle Buttress or Midway on Castle Rock are two of the favorites amongst students and guides alike.
The course now shifts back to the alpine environment and we start to combine all of the skills learned in the previous 9 days. The goal on this day is to attempt a multi pitch alpine rock climb. This will be a day trip into the back country that will require 2-4 hours of hiking. The two most common venues for this day are the South Arete of South Early Winter Spire or the South Face of Ingalls Peak.
The last three days of the 13 Day Course is an incredibly rewarding experience and we pack our backpacks for a 3 day mission into the mountains that combines all of the skills covered so far: mountaineering, glacier, rock climbing and alpine rock and make an attempt on a complex peak in the North Cascades. The remainder of the course is often held in one of five locations: Mount Shuksan, Mount Triumph, Eldorado Peak, Forbidden or Washington Pass. The guide(s) will do their best to match interests and skills with the route conditions and weather. All locations provide stellar climbing in one of the great wilderness mountain ranges in North America.
Mount Shuksan: Hike to the base of the Fisher Chimneys and ascend the 600 vertical feet of easy rock and camp at the base of Winnie’s Slide.
Mount Triumph: Hike up to a beautiful perch at a col between Mount Triumph and the iconic Thornton Lakes.
Eldorado Peak: Ascend a long steep boulder field and camp on or near the glacier.
Forbidden: Hike up to Boston Basin and camp at the high bivy site.
Washington Pass: This location is used if the weather is not reasonable on the other mountains. Nevertheless it is one of the best alpine rock climbing spots anywhere and will be sure to provide skill development and heaps of fun. On this day the guides would work with the students to further develop rock movement skills, rope management and belay techniques specific to rock climbing at Fun Rock located in the beautiful Methow Valley.
This day is used to make a summit attempt on one of the aforementioned peaks.
We break down camp in accordance with our Leave No Trace principals and hike back to the trail head and drive back to Seattle. It is also possible to cover advanced topics in the morning of this final day as well. Do to the close approach at Washington Pass, it is usually possible to hike up and climb the South Arete of South Early Winter Spire. This is the tallest mountain in the Liberty Bell group and affords phenomenal climbing with equally impressive views of the North Cascades and eastern foothills. We then drive back to Seattle that evening.
Topics such as Navigation (GPS, map, compass, altimeter & white navigation), Route Finding, and Glaciology will be incorporated into the curriculum throughout the entire course and are often not designated for a particular time. Furthermore, throughout the course emphasis will continually be placed on checking and maintaining good self awareness and well-being, in addition to ensuring camp is always clean and secure. Finally, due to the dynamic nature of mountains and weather, guides are constantly shifting the itinerary in order to best match the skills and interests of the group with the weather and conditions on the mountain.
About Possible Locations (based on Season )
Mount Skuksan: From the bivy site we climb up a steep section of firm snow called Winnie’s slide. From there the team gains the Upper Curtis Glacier on lower angle hard ice, excellent practice for advanced cramponing technique. Once off the ice transition to classical glaciated terrain and find our way through dozens of crevasses to the base of another steep snow section. This passage leads to the more moderate Sulphide Glacier which is then climbed to the rocky summit pyramid. Several rope lengths of moderate rock climbing put us on the top of Mount Shuksan: one of the most photographed mountains in the world. The views of the surrounding peaks and Puget Sound are stunning. This route is one of the finest routes of its type for combing all different types of climbing.
Mount Triumph: From our bivy at the col we drop down to the Triumph Glacier and traverse to the soaring Northeast Ridge. The climb involves 1500 feet of mid fifth class terrain. The route is often characterized as perfectly moderate: never too difficult yet never easy. The ideal challenge for climbers looking to test their alpine mettle. The decent is non-trivial and complicated back down the ridge, and then a straightforward traverse back to the col. This is a long day, but one sure to leave the student with a lasting memory. Small group sizes are required.
Eldorado Peak: From our camp we climb up through the glacier to the exposed snow arete on the summit, making this perhaps the most iconic way to finish any climb in the entire Cascades. Eldorado is a more moderate adventure with big glaciers and this provides an excellent venue to get the students out front leading the rope team through a maze of crevasses.
Forbidden: Ascend the glacier to the base of a long steep snow couloir that slashes through the south face of Forbidden. Climbing up this requires good cramponing on steep firm conditions. From there the route ascends the mega-classic West Ridge, made famous by its inclusion in 50 Classic Climbs, on exposed and featured rock. Climbing several rope lengths of rock to the summit makes for an unforgettable experience and summit. The decent is back down the same route and is often tedious and time consuming, so expect a long day in the mountains, one that draws on all the skills learned and will test the student both mentally and physically.
Washington Pass: Hike up to Liberty Bell and Concord Tower. Ascend the ultra-classic Becky Route to the coveted summit of Liberty Bell. If time and interest allows there is the chance to climb the slightly more technical North Face of Concord Tower. Although a lesser known summit, it is classic in its own right and a great experience.
I think the greatest strength of the company was reflected in this course and in every trip I’ve done with Alpine Ascents; and that is the guides. My guides were 100% fantastic. They were truly impressive in regards to both their skills and knowledge as well as their interpersonal skills.