8 Day Denali Prep/Winter Mountaineering Course Itinerary
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Our 8-day Denali Preparation program is an arduous training program designed to provide the final preparation for climbers before going to Alaska and attempting Denali. Mount Rainier has intense weather in the winter and spring and this provides the ideal training ground, one that emulates Denali itself. Alpine Ascents believes the best training for mountaineering is accomplished with as much time in the field as possible, and all eight days are spent in the mountains. The itinerary will be flexible to accommodate winter conditions.
We meet at our Seattle office for a 630am orientation and gear check. A big part of developing the necessary skills in mountaineering begins 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 of proper fit. Finally, the guides will evaluate conditions, discuss weather with the group, and make any last minute adjustments before heading to the trail head. 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.
At the trail head we will discuss the route, weather and potential campsites. Sleds are used on this course, just as they are on most big glaciated expeditions. This will allow us to carry more food and fuel without having the entire burden on our backs. Nonetheless, pulling a sled is hard work and will awaken muscles that are often times difficult to train in a traditional setting. There is an art to packing and rigging a sled properly and we spent quite a bit of time ensuring this skill is well understood. We move to a camp just below tree line. Although, the vertical gain is fairly minimal the move can be quite challenging due to the heavy loads and often deep snow.
An integral part of any mountaineering expedition 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 backcountry cooking techniques will be addressed.
The construction of wind walls is not only a important skill to have for Denali, but is often very necessary on Mount Rainier itself. If walls were not built the previous evening we start the day by fortifying camp with large sturdy snow walls. The day is then used to develop basic techniques of traveling on snowy and icy surfaces. We start by working on a various 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 several different self arrest positions.
Next we explore some of the more technical skills of mountaineering. Instruction will be given on tying an assortment of knots useful in mountaineering and we construct our prussiks. After this, we develop rope work skills: coiling, storing and changing the length of the the climbing rope.
We start the day with whiteout navigation, an very important skill in mountaineering. We use a variety of skills and techniques to add to our navigation skills including: Map, Compass, GPS, Terrain Features, Wands and the Rope. Mount Rainier in winter and spring makes for an ideal place to utilize these skills in actual whiteout scenarios.
Afterwards we use these skills along with those learned on Day 2 to practice rope team travel as it pertains to classical glaciated terrain. We then go for a glacier tour on the Nisqually Glacier, 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 objective hazard assessment.
The guides will demonstration of a variety of snow and ice anchors useful for belaying, running protection and rescue scenarios and then have the students construct several different anchors. Once students are comfortable building a variety of different anchor types and styles, we put it all to test. 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 that are useful in both the mountaineering and vertical climbing realms.
We use the balance of the day to practice how to move as a rope team safely and efficiently through running protection. This skill is very important to have mastered before the summit day of Denali.
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 it in this course. 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.
Today the group breaks down camp and move several thousand feet up the Muir Snow field to Camp Muir, which sits at 10,100 feet. We will spend the last three days at this camp.
This day will be spent working on ascending and descending fixed lines as it pertains to big mountains such as Denali, Mount Vinson and Cho Oyu.
We also use this day to review any topics that require further practice in addition to advanced topics such as Glaciology and Advanced Crevasse Rescue.
Pack up and hike out from Camp Muir. On the descent we often need to rely on our whiteout navigation skills to find our way back to the parking lot.
Throughout the course a big emphasis will be placed on maintaining good self awareness and well-being, in addition to ensuring camp is always clean and secure. One of the most valuable skills learned during the Denali prep course is simply living out in a cold, often uncomfortable, environment for all 8 days. Finally, due to the dynamic nature of the mountain 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. Although rare, if the weather and snow stability allow, the group may attempt to summit Mount Rainier. If this is the case we often times move to Camp Muir on day 5, practice crevasse rescue on day 6, make a summit bid on day 7 and hike down the Muir Snowfield on day 8.
The Denali Prep course was my first trip to the Northwest. More beautiful than I could have imagined. Was a great opportunity to experience the weather extremes. The curriculum was well-organized and well-taught.