Mountaineering training on the flanks of Rainier

The night was not as restful as I would have liked, and the morning broke early as the sounds of people showering, stomping around in mountain boots and packing gear together drifted through the (rather thin) walls.  After turning over 3 times, trying to ignore the noise and the fact that I was awake, I finally dragged myself out of bed.  Since I’d packed most of my stuff last night, it took me all of 10 minutes to get ready and head to breakfast and a much-needed coffee.  I was thrilled to see the flawless blue sky that was beginning to emerge from the dark of night – certainly a good omen for the day ahead.

Our bus left basecamp at 8:15 and transported us to Paradise Lodge, which sits at just over 1600m. From there, we hiked up the trail for a little over an hour, until we got to the snowfields.  And that is where we spent the rest of the day: in a large snowfield near a panorama viewpoint.

The day was busy with a huge variety of different exercises, starting with how to walk on snow effectively, uphill and down.  What a rest step is and how to use it.  Why pressure breathing helps and how and when to do it.  How to walk with crampons (uphill and down).  Ice axe training: from the pick to the adze to the spike and when and where and how to use each part of the tool in hand.  Culminating in building anchors and self-arresting from both a back slide and from a head first front side.  And then finally, rope walking – long rope for glacier travel and short rope for rocky terrain.

As it turns out, from the time we leave Camp Muir until we reach the summit, we’ll be in rope teams.  That way, should someone fall into a crevasse, the team has a chance to do a team arrest and stop the person’s fall.  Likewise should someone go sliding down the mountain, the team can try to arrest that slide (although arguably the person’s first responsibility is to self-arrest).  That concept leaves me with evaluating each of our group members and wondering who will be on my rope team.  Will it include Frank, the older guy who was already winded just hiking up to the snowfields? Or Tom, who seemed to struggle with crampons and snow travel, getting caught in the rope at turns during training?  Perhaps Luke, who is a jump-right-in skydive fanatic, seems strong, but doesn’t have mountain experience?  Or Kyle, who has military background and seems fit, but otherwise is hard to read (and also lacking mountain experience)?

The hike back down from the snowfields, our lead guide changed back into sneakers and seemed to forget that we were all wearing mountain boots.  She set off at a considerable clip, apparently determined to catch the group who left ahead of us.  so we jogged, jumped and scrambled down the path in our flat-footed heavy boots as best we could.  I took to silently cursing our guide a bit, who is very knowledgeable but a bit of a rule-bent hard-ass, not unfriendly but seemingly unable to crack a smile most of the time.  Our second guide is the opposite, making jokes and staying pretty relaxed overall.  I guess in the end, as long as everyone can work as a team and we get to the summit – it’s all good.

Changing out of boots and into flip flops was pure magic, as was sitting in the sun with a book for 30 minutes before ducking into an equally enjoyable hot shower to wash away the layers of sweat that accumulated during each practice session, drying in the wind during breaks only to sweat again during the next exercise.  Clean, fed, and with a warm cup of tea, I have one last gear check and then hope for a good night’s sleep before the real test begins tomorrow…

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