Saturday, May 26, 2012

Mt. Hood Alpine Training

I spent Friday and Saturday up at Timberline Lodge taking a few alpine courses with Timberline Mountain Guides, and it was an awesome learning experience. I figured, instead of flailing about in the mountains, I'd actually learn a few things from people who make a living out taking people to high places. Since I didn't know how intense the course would be, and for that matter how long they ran, I borrowed my dads old truck with a canopy on it, and headed up Thursday night. It wasn't bad when I arrived around 9pm, and after getting gear ready and rolling out the sleeping bag and sleeping pads, I hit the sack around 10:30 and was probably out by 11.

I awoke at 2:30am to a car door slamming, and realized that the wind was whipping so hard, the truck was actually getting rocked around. Snow and ice from the mountain was being blown down into the parking lot with winds running about a steady 40mph. Didn't sleep too much after that, so finally crawled out of the truck around 5:30. Talk about a miserable wake up walking across the parking lot to the Wy'East Day Lodge to use the restroom in the climbers cave. When I went looking for a cup of coffee later, I just drove the truck closer to the buildings. I sort of snuck in to the main lodge and went upstairs to the restaurant area to see if they were open which they weren't. Fortunately across the lobby area they had coffee set out on a table, although I'm pretty sure it was for lodge guest only. Oh, well, I looked clean enough and there was only a few guest hanging out with their laptops waiting for breakfast. I managed to sneak in one more time for a refill, after changing my hat and jacket (not advocating this practice, but if you can blend in.....).

After the Day Lodge opened, I found the Timberline Mountain Guides office down a hallway to start figuring out what the day had in store for us, if we went out on the mountain at all. Changed clothes and got my pack ready, then ran into a few other guys who looked like they were waiting on the guides as well, and struck up a conversation. Couple of friends that came to the mountain from somewhere out of state, one with some alpine experience and the other with some high altitude hikes, but nothing steep. Chatted for a few until I saw the guides headed in to open up shop, so I went back to the truck and grabbed my gear. We met up inside their "office" and started with introductions and an overview of the course. Wolfie was kind of running the office and Todd was going to be our instructor for the day, with one other guy joining us. Later that night/morning, the three other students/clients were going to make a summit shot via the Old Chute, which has been the standard, non-technical route to the top. We did a gear check, which is when the others picked up any rental gear they needed, and the guides looked over what gear or packs we'd brought. Johnathon, who was from Portland, had never climbed in his life or been on any high altitude hikes, so he was renting everything and getting his first taste of steep snow climbing.

Just past the overflow parking area, there's a fairly steepsided gully that we dropped down into, and began our 3 hours in the snow. We went over different techniques for ascending and descending snow while keeping in good balance. As Todd said, if you have good technique walking up or down and are confident mentally, that's the majority of getting up a mountain like Hood. We moved on to using ice axe and crampons, then after a brief talk about anchors, we worked on short roping. Most of the guides leading a team climb liked to short rope, since they can actually feel if someone is getting out of balance and starting to slip. They can then use the rope to pull a climber back into the slope, making sure a slip didn't turn into a fall. It took some getting used to, they don't want you touching the rope which is hard to not do when its right in front of you. Also, keeping the pace so you keep a little bit of tension on the rope. If you have slack in the rope then slip, you end up shock-loading the rope, which could potentially take more people down with you. We ended the day with practicing self arrest technique, which was difficult with the soft snow to really get moving like you would sliding on hard snow at a steeper angle. Of course, according to Todd, since we knew the proper way to climb steep snow, we wouldn't fall (or shouldn't if we're doing what we're supposed to and didn't get taken out by another team or force of nature).

Since we were finished around noon and the next days class didn't start until 9am the next morning, I opted to drive back to the folks place and get a decent nights sleep. After getting my gear sorted out and most of it repacked in my car, that's exactly what I did, sleeping for a good 9-10 hours. Up at 6 and out the door by 7, I hit Timberline just before 9. I headed in to see what the plan was, and the room was packed. Group of 12 doing steep snow climbing class before a summit shot at 2am. Wolfie came out and talked to me for a second to let me know what was up, and I headed back to the car and grabbed my gear. He had me wade through the mass of people scattered about the office gearing up to meet Tico, our instructor/guide for the anchor and belay course. We bailed out into the hallway, since there was only four in our group and the office was overrun. The other students/clients in today's group were Eli, Josh, and Humberto (Bert). Eli was in from Minnesota with his girlfriend taking an Oregon vacation, Josh was from the Portland area, and I missed Bert's location, but everyone had at least some alpine experience. Eli and Bert would be heading up to the summit with Tico by one of the more technical routes. Josh was supposed to be heading up the same potential routes with a group of friends from Portland who planned on a summit trip the same day. Depending on the conditions, they were looking at either Pearly Gates, Hogsback, Leuthold Couloir, or one of the headwalls.

We proceeded back out to the gully, but up higher where there was a nice higher and steeper side to practice on. We did a quick review of steep climbing and ice axe techniques, then in to a few different types of anchors. We worked primarily with T-slot anchors because of the soft snow conditions, but also covered picket, deadman, and T/axe anchors. We practiced digging T-slots and weighting them, and setting up a multiple point anchor and equalizing it. Once we were finished practicing anchors, it was on to a multi-pitch climb up a reasonable steep slope, around 50 degrees with a nice little cornice at the top. Since Eli and Bert were going to be on the same rope team later, they worked together with Josh and I climbing along side watching. Tico would climb up with the leader and walk them through all the steps, from tying off to setting up the belay, then belaying the second up the slope. Once the second climber was tied off, then the leader would do the second pitch up on the flat above the gully. Once we were all at the top, the leader would lower or belay the downclimb of the second climber, then the rest of us would walk around the slope back to the beginning. We all cycled through as leader and second to get a feel for it, and after four climbs up that slope, my legs were feeling it!

That concluded our day, about five hours climbing and setting anchors, so it was a little more strenuous than Friday. After meeting up in the office and swapping email addresses and a quick chat with everyone, I headed down from the mountain homeward bound. I was slightly sun/wind burned, sore, exhausted, and had that polypropylene induced mountain funk odor going on, but it was all worth it. I'd been spending the last few years learning more by trial and error of how to alpine climb, so learning techniques that would help me be more efficient was well worth the minor inconvenience of being sore and stinking. Hopefully later this summer I'll be able to do the glacier travel and crevasse rescue course they offer, as well as some good sport/trad climbing as I get myself more in shape. All in all, a great experience.

Edit: Since I'm barely awake writing this, I almost forgot to mention the discussions and demonstrations of other belay techniques such as sitting hip belay, boot axe belay, and standing carabiner-ice axe belay.

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