Mount Rainier/Winter Denali Seminar - Days 1-2
Day 1: Late Flight
I awoke from our cabin beds around 6am—it was 9am in Atlanta, after all. Our lead instructor, Nickel Wood, had been delayed after having flown through Chicago, and so our start was also delayed. After a brief rope ascension course, we drove out to Paradise, the largely tourist-saturated portion of the park that, had it not been a day of whiteout, would have been a wonderful viewing platform for Mount Rainier. We unloaded our gear, tied down our sleds, setup our systems for hauling them up the mountain, and began to put on our snow shoes.
We were to them props, some part of the scenery to validate the authenticity of their mountain vacation, as if to say, “Here they are. Here are the men of the mountain.”
A few people asked to have us in their photos. We were to them props, some part of the scenery to validate the authenticity of their mountain vacation, as if to say, “Here they are. Here are the men of the mountain.” They saw packs laden with sixty pounds of gear, sleds bearing another forty pounds, and had absolutely no idea what it was all for.
While they are sipping hot chocolate at the ski lodge, we are hunkering around a stove melting snow for water.
The mountain is to most people a thing people pretend they understand because they have seen photos of people summiting or watched documentaries on climbers or read stories about them or gone skiing, so it must be the same they reckon…or close enough. But it isn't. Because while they Netflix the latest documentary from their couch, we are digging platforms in the snow for tents. While they are sipping hot chocolate at the ski lodge, we are hunkering around a stove melting snow for water. And while they thumb through the photo books, we are taking in the scenery the camera simply could not capture.
It just isn’t the same. And it never could be.
Day 2: Avalanche Rescue Training
It might have been warm enough to draw Mount Rainier during the middle of the day, had I the time. Relatively speaking, it got rather warm—in the mid-20s for sure. But we were busy with lessons—how to walk on snow, how to self-arrest with an ice axe, how to set snow anchors, and how to search for and dig out an avalanche victim. Because the former three lessons were refreshers for me (I did change it up by wearing heavy down summit mitts for the self-arrest portion), I was most interested in avalanche rescue.
This was quite the affair, with us running down snow slopes as fast as we could then meticulously and quickly marking off a probe area, then probing, then digging out the "victim" in teams. We drilled an avalanche scenario twice, each scenario with its own challenges.
We used the Run-Walk-Crawl method to find the "victim" quickly. The method entails running in a skirmish line down the avalanche slide. Then, as our beacons signal we have gone too far, walking toward the indicated direction, then again, on hands and knees finding a rough center point at which to dig. Because most victims end up in debris on a slope, you then measure 1.5x the depth you measured them at with the probe down the slope. You can best find the victim by probing in a spiral from the beacon’s center point above them. Ideally, diggers switch in and out to minimize their exhaustion and maximize their speed. All of this happens only if the scene is yet safe and after EVERYBODY has put their beacons into search mode! This was something we did not learn at NOLS and was really valuable information to have.
There was additionally some ropes knowledge that I gained from the anchor setup lesson. The day finished with the unfortunate revelation that there would be (on day two of a six-day trip) a “1% chance of summiting.” The itinerary for this trip read quite differently, of course, with two days budgeted as summit bid days. As it stood, it seemed the guides were more interested in moseying up the mountain and spending much of it in seminar to prepare us for Denali (known to have some of the worst weather on the planet) at low camp where it is warmer.
With some politicking, I was able to convince the others that we should proceed higher to Camp Muir tomorrow.
With some politicking, I was able to convince the others that we should proceed higher to Camp Muir tomorrow. It would be a very long day, hauling sleds on snow shoes the majority of the 4000ft ascent. To appease the one dissenting voice, I offered to carry more weight.
Ben, the New Zealander who flew 24 hours to do this Denali Seminar, was the only member of the student team who had no actual plans to make attempt on Denali. For him, all of the skills we were learning were brand new, and while he was not unhealthy, he did not seem to have put in a lot of physical training for the seminar either. As for what he brings to the table—his photographs of the experience have been by far the best. Who knows, maybe he will be able to shoot a couple from the top…