10 Day Rainier Baker Mountaineering Course Itinerary
This is one of the more challenging and comprehensive courses we offer at Alpine Ascents. It combines instruction, an ascent in the North Cascades and finishes off with an attempt on the icy Kautz Glacier on the giant of the Pacific Northwest; Mount Rainier. With its arduous approaches, massive glaciers and stunning vistas; the Cascades provide a world-class environment in which to develop the necessary skills to become a proficient mountaineer. The 6 day portion of the course will take place on the North Side of Mt. Baker. The final 4 days are then spent on a summit attempt of Mount Rainier via the Kautz Glacier. Alpine Ascents believes the best training for mountaineering is accomplished with as much time in the field as possible, and all 10 days are spent in the mountains.
We meet at our Seattle office for a 6:30 a.m. orientation and gear check. A big part of developing the necessary skills starts with having the proper equipment and food to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience in the wilderness. The guides will discuss each piece of equipment and ensure that everything is in good condition and is a proper fit. Finally, the guides will evaluate conditions, discuss weather with the group, and make last-minute adjustments before departing Seattle. This is an invaluable part of the course and will often help eliminate many of the questions students have in regards to both equipment and the flow of the course.
From the office, we will drive to the North Side of Mount Baker and park at the Heliotrope Ridge Trailhead. This is a well graded trail that provides quick access to a spectacular alpine wonderland. We’ll hike to a camp at or above the tree line, typically at the edge of the Coleman Glacier at 6000’ and practice moving, pacing and standing with heavy loads. This is a strenuous move of roughly 3000 vertical feet and requires 3-5 hours of travel time.
An integral part of mountaineering and expeditionary climbing is being able to set up a safe and secure camp in an extreme environment. As a group, we’ll practice these skills. Once camp has been established, the students will go through a comprehensive Snow School. We start by working on a variety of walking techniques for moving safely and efficiently over a variety of snowy slopes. Good footwork, balance and rest techniques are invaluable skills that we use throughout the course. Guides then introduce the use of the ice axe and students conclude by practicing a variety of self-arrest positions.
Guides discuss the importance of personal maintenance, hygiene and sleeping in cold environs, and Leave No Trace principles, and address any student concerns. Finally, instruction of proper hydration, including efficient snow-melting protocols, nutrition, and backcountry-cooking techniques will be addressed.
We get an early start and the team brews their hot drinks and cooks breakfast and prepares their equipment for a day of training. On this day we start to explore some of the more technical aspects of mountaineering and introduce the climbing rope. In turn, guides will teach an assortment of useful knots and students will have a chance to practice in addition to tying prussiks. After this, we develop rope work skills: coiling, storing and changing the length of the climbing rope. 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, the emphasis is on proper rope interval, shortening and lengthening the rope, communication, route finding and hazard assessment.
After lunch, we’ll demonstrate 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 and use these anchors to learn safe belay and rappel techniques. In the evening, guides will cover navigation which includes: the use of map, compass, gps and the basics of glacier dynamics.
This is a full day of ice climbing on the steep ice of the lower Coleman Glacier. Emphasis will be placed on efficient climbing technique on 60 – 70 degree ice walls with the use of two ice tools. Building on the skills from the previous day, students will get a chance to belay each other and practice getting lowered down ice climbs, in addition to rappeling a steep ice cliff. This is an invaluable skill that will be useful for a safe and efficient descent of the Kautz Glacier. Guides will also focus on developing good crampon technique on lower angle hard ice.
Crevasse rescue is an essential skill and considerable time and emphasis will be placed on practicing it in this course. There will be a basic mechanical advantage systems class and then guides will do a full demo of the rescue system. Students will first practice setting up the system on the surface with no weight. Once guides are comfortable with the group’s skill, students will have the opportunity to hold a real-life crevasse fall and perform a full rescue. Our standard instruction is a 3:1 Z-Pulley rescue system on a three-person rope team. We also demonstrate (if not practice) the 2:1 Drop-C on a two-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 emphasize climber safety and well-being and always use backup systems. Nevertheless, this is an extremely memorable and rewarding day.
At this point, students should have made the transition to becoming valuable members of a rope team and the group is now ready to push higher on the mountain. The route to the summit of Mount Baker weaves through massive crevasses and under hanging glaciers on both the Coleman and Deming Glaciers. This is a full day (10-12 hours) of climbing with over 4000 feet of vertical rise on snow slopes over 40 degrees.
Learning how to prepare, plan and execute the summit climb is an invaluable part of this course and difficult to emulate without actually climbing a mountain. Developing a route plan, assessing the hazards, preparing one’s summit pack, climbing and descending safely through massive glaciers and seracs to an icy Cascades summit is a 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 later in their climbing careers.
Depending on conditions and weather guides may use this day to establish a higher camp on the glacier and summit on day 6. This is not the preferred option given the rigorous climb of Mount Rainier that lies ahead.
The 10-Day Course is one of the most rigorous and rewarding courses that we offer. Climbing Mount Rainier is a big physical challenge and a feather in any mountaineer’s cap; but even more so via the challenging and steep Kautz Glacier. This, compounded with the previous six days of training and climbing, makes for a long ten days. For this reason, it is in the best interest of the group to summit on Day 5 and have Day 6 be used to hike out and return to Seattle (~4-5pm) with enough time for students to get checked into a hotel (not included in the cost) and recharge before four more intense days of climbing. This far from a “rest”day as we do still have to break down camp and hike back to the trailhead, but we try to make it a bit more relaxed.
The course changes dynamics at this point and we pick up two additional guides to ensure we are climbing at a safe ratio. Mount Rainier, and the Kautz Glacier, is an intermediate climb, one accessible to most students with the skills they developed over the previous six days. Often times, in our other courses guides are able to continue to exist in full instructional mode and even get the students out in front, leading the rope teams. However, this is not the case with our ten day course. In order to safely and efficiently climb Mount Rainier, guides switch from a teaching mode to a guiding mode; in addition to cooking breakfasts and dinners. That being said, we still have plenty of opportunity to learn and guides make a strong effort to engage the students leadership skills whenever possible.
The group meets at the Seattle office in the morning, makes any last minute purchases and equipment adjustments. It is a three hour drive up to the trail head in Mount Rainier National Park, a place aptly named Paradise. Once there, we discuss the route and potential campsites for the day, being conscience of the weather and hazards that might be present. We hike out of Paradise and then drop down and cross over the impressive Nisqually Glacier, almost instantly putting the skills of the previous six days to practice. Guides will make a decision on the exact route and campsite, but students can expect a full day with heavy packs. A safe and secure camp is constructed near the Wilson Glacier or on the Wapowety Cleaver.
Move camp to a higher location on the Wapowety Cleaver or above the Turtle Snowfield and camp as high as 11,000 feet. We take in the incredible views to the south and west and in the early evening prepare for the summit the following day and go to bed early.
We wake up in the early morning and ascend up to the base of the Kautz Ice Chute. This is a 400 foot steep and icy tongue of the Kautz Glacier, one that often requires belayed climbing. This provides the perfect venue for transitioning from classical glacier terrain to more moderate alpine climbing as both classic French cramponing techniques are required in addition to front pointing. From the top of this challenging section, the angle eases off and we climb classic glaciated terrain up the Nisqually Glacier to Columbia Crest, the highest point on Mount Rainier. We reverse our line back down the upper Nisqually Glacier and then work our way down the ice chute using a variety of techniques, including downclimbing, lowers and rappelling. Finally, once back in camp everyone enjoys a well-earned meal and some rest.
On this final day of the course we pack up camp in accordance with Leave No Trace practices and descend all the way back down the Wapowety Cleaver and onto the Nisqually Glacier. After crossing the Nisqually, we unrope and hike one more hour to the trailhead at Paradise. Once completed, this course is a great accomplishment and will prepare the student for bigger and more intense expeditions in the future.
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.
This course is going to be something I remember for the rest of my life. The quality was superb – I felt like nothing was glossed over, we were fully prepared for our summits of Baker and Rainier, and we had a lot of fun doing it all. I most certainly feel prepared for another adventure and I can’t wait!