On July 12th, I drove up to Bellingham, Washington for a 6 day mountaineering course. I had been away from mountain climbing for over 20 years and have had no prior glacier travel experience. I felt although most of this course would be review, there were many things to learn. I checked in at American Alpine Institute 's (AAI) headquarters around 3pm. After making sure everything was in order, I headed out to the Best Western Hotel (the one recommended by AAI) to get organized, relax, for get packed. I arranged with the hotel to leave my truck parked outside the hotel and got a ride on the company van that picked us up on Sunday (July 13th) morning.
Various classes were starting the same time, so we got sorted into our classes, given a briefing, then sent out side to talk about equipment and to pack our packs. Our class consisted of 7 individuals. Two friends, a father/son group, a couple, and myself. The guides, Lyle Haugsven and Jeremy went over all of our gear and gave their recommendations as to what equipment was needed and what wasn't. Then the packing of the backpacks began. Since I was the "odd" individual, I had to carry my own tent which meant I didn't have to carry any of the group gear (ropes, carabiners, etc) since I was carrying a tent by myself.
Normally the course starts with a day on the rocks, but since the weather was experiencing "Washington sunshine" it would be too wet on the rock and the weather was supposed to be steadily improving each day. We loaded up in the vans and drove out to the Mt. Baker trailhead (about 1 hour away). The weather was threatening, but not raining when we arrived at the trailhead. The trailhead was approximately 2500 feet and we were preceding up to "high camp" somewhere around 5,500 - 6,500 feet. It was expected to take about 4 hours to reach camp with us stopping for 10 minutes every 50 minutes. About 30 minutes into the trip it started drizzling. It was enough to make us moist, but not enough to warrant putting on rain gear. The hike included a suspension bridge to cross a glacial stream, and another stream crossing that required us to carefully step on stones partially under water while keeping our balance. We finally cleared the forrest and hiked along the "Railroad Grade" which is a ridge that starts at the bottom of the glacier and eventually forms one of it's sides . After what seemed forever we reached "high camp" which was at approximately 5,500 feet. Of course it was developing into a full rain at this point. So we quickly set up our tents while it rained. The rain continued through the evening requiring us to cook within our tent's vestibules. After dinner, the rain continued on and off during the evening.
Monday morning we were greeted by low cloud level that put us right in the middle of mist. We hiked up along the rock ridge next to the Easton Glacier to a snowfield. Here we learned how to walk in the snow. We practiced the various steps along increasingly steeper slopes. After a while we started practicing with our ice axes. We learned how to hold them in the "cane" or self belay position (pick forward) on the uphill side and then started coordinating the ice axe with the steps. After a lunch break, we practiced self arrest in a variety positions. We practiced this while sliding on our butts face forward, on our backs heads down hill, and on our faces with our faces down hill. After several hours of this (getting us quite wet) we learned how to place snow flukes and snow pickets for protection and tested them to see how much weight they would support. We hiked back downhill to camp for a very satisfying dinner.
Tuesday morning we awoke to much better conditions. Another hike took us back up to "High Camp" (around 6,500 feet) and we talked about how to walk on a glacier. After discussing roping up techniques, and prusik knots, we roped up into two teams (a 4 man and a 5 man rope) and walked out onto the glacier to do some exploring. We traveled around the snow crossing crevasses that were small enough to step across, and doing "end runs" around larger ones. We stopped at a ice fall and discussed crampon use. We practiced walking on ice wearing our crampons (without ice axes) on ice of varying steepness. Unlike walking on snow without crampons, the point is to make sure all points are pointed down into the ice, and you rotate the ankles to make sure this happens. Eventually we got out the ice axes and practiced walking on ice using the ice axe. After lunch we moved to a larger icefall (next to some large Seracs) and practiced front pointing up some steeper ice sections . Later in the afternoon we left the glacier and headed back to camp. We stopped along the way to practice prusik .After some discussion between the team members and the guides, we decided not to relocate high camp farther up (around 6,500 to 7,000 feet) since it would take a couple of hours to carry the gear not to mention the time required to break camp. Instead we were going to go up on the glacier for a final day of training, then depart earlier in the evening and climb to the summit on Thursday. When in camp we were offered great views into other parts of the cascades and the face of Mt. Baker and the route we would be climbing later.
Wednesday morning came and once again we roped up and started out onto the glacier. This time we were going to practice crevasse rescue. We walked along the glacier till we found a crevasse that was deep and wide enough for us to slide into. The guides set up two ropes to protect the "victims" who were jumping into the crevasse. We then partnered up. One person sat next to the edge of the crevasse while the other stood about 40 feet away prepared to get into a self-arrest position. The victim was tied to the guide's anchor rope (incase the self arrest wasn't any good) and tied to the person holding the fall. On the command the victim slid off the edge and into the crevasse. The partner immediately fell into the self arrest position and tried to stop the fall using their body and their ice axe. After holding the fall (which all did to various degrees of quality) the rescuer had to anchor the rope, check the area, prepare the lip of the crevasse, then set up a Z pulley system to haul the victim up. The victim was allowed to practice setting up their prusik's to climb up themselves, but were not allowed to actually climb up. The rescuer had to haul the victim up. It was quite cold in the crevasse (imagine being in an ice box) and you spent up to an hour inside the crevasse. The rescuer on the other hand was quite warm after hauling up the victims. Everybody got a chance to be a victim and a rescuer, then be headed back to camp. It was decided to have a 1am departure. This would allow us enough time to reach the summit while it was early. Most of us got to bed around 8pm with a 12am wakeup.
The alarm came after getting about 2 - 3 hours of sleep. We quickly made breakfast and then got together and headed on up. After a while we reached the glacier and roped up for travel. We had excellent conditions and the snow was very firm allowing the crampons to get a good bite into the snow. We continued to hike/climb the glacier into the night. We had a partial moon and a very clear night. After passing some large crevasses we reached the crater rim which is just below the Roman Wall. Here we started the hardest part of the climb. The snow steepened to about 45 degrees. After a very slow process we reached the ridge and crossed the plateau to the summit (10,778 feet) arriving around 8am.
After spending about 30 minutes enjoying the views we started down. My rope team was tired after the long morning and uncomfortable walking down the 45 degree slopes, so we found slow and steady was the answer. Eventually we reached the crater rim and then proceeded down a different route (one of the snow bridges we crossed on the way up looked questionable and the sun was out now warming up the snow). We continued down until the snow became too soft and we removed our crampons. The trip down seemed to continue forever due to our slow and steady speed. Near the bottom of the glacier, the rope teams revolted and demanded short sit down break. We finally got off the glacier, unroped and continued down to our camp (arriving around 2pm). After a break, we broke down camp and once again shouldered our huge packs and hiked down the trail to the van.
We went out for pizza and beer (oh pizza never tasted so good). We car camped in a local state park, and then went over to Mt. Erie (near the sound) for our rock climbing day. After an afternoon of climbing, rappelling, and belaying, we headed back to AAI arriving after 5pm.
The guides were excellent and attended to all of our needs during the trip. Although this was my first organized mountaineering course, I can't recommend a better organization. AAI was excellent.