Dawn was just breaking over the Cascade Mountains, but myself and eleven other participants in the Boeing Employee’s Alpine Society’s Basic Climbing Class were already trudging up a steep forested ridge in deep snow towards Commonwealth Basin’s Kendall Peak. The BOEALPS BCC is like Boot Camp for weekend warriors. You get up crazy early and start hiking before dawn carrying a heavy pack up and down steep hills for ten hours or more.
Pacific Crest Trail
Commonwealth Basin was the fourth outing in the 2012 BOEALPS BCC and the students’ first real mountaineering experience. The lessons of the last three weekends would all be applied on Kendall. I was learning too, as this is my first year instructing the BCC. In BOEALPS instructors are classified as 1st year, Junior, Senior, or Lead Instructors. The students pay to take the class, but the instructors are all volunteers. I've thought about instructing the BCC every year since I took the class in 2002. However, it's a big commitment; basically clear your calendar for three months. This year my spring was about as free as it was ever going to get so I decided there was never going to be a better time.
The BCC lasts three months starting in late-February and ending in May and includes a lecture every Wednesday night and outings almost every weekend. BOEALPS is a Boeing Company Club, but students are not required to be employees, so over half the class are not Boeing Employees. The Basic Class assumes the students have no prior climbing or mountaineering experience. The previous three outings were to St. Edwards Park, Mt. Erie, and Stevens Pass. Those outings were focused on teaching the basic skills needed in mountaineering: navigating with a compass, tying knots, rock climbing, belaying, rappelling, rope travel on a fixed line, snow climbing technique, travel as a rope team, building snow anchors, and self-arrest with an ice axe.
With 100+ students & instructors the class outings are split into Saturday and Sunday teams otherwise we would overwhelm our class destinations. Starting with Stevens Pass the BCC is broken up into teams of twelve. Limiting team sizes is driven by wilderness permitting rules that restrict group sizes to a maximum of a dozen. The three other Saturday teams were also climbing in Commonwealth Basin, but were targeting different summits: Guye Peak, Snoqualmie Mountain, and Red Mountain.
Commonwealth Basin starts at Snoqualmie Pass directly across the I-90 freeway from the Snoqualmie Pass Ski area. We parked at Summit West near the underpass and started hiking at 6:45 am. Earlier that day we met to carpool at the Greenlake Park & Ride at 5am, which was an improvement over the 4:30am meet-up for Stevens Pass the previous weekend. In the BCC outings start at 7am or earlier. That doesn’t mean arrive at the trailhead in your car at 7am; it means that’s when you start hiking. So that really means getting there a ½ hour earlier. After taking the class as a student in 2002, BOEALPS became a metaphor for any activity with a ridiculously early start time. When I suggest an absurdly early start to an activity I now describe it as "…like BOEALPS early!"
We started hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes just below Kendall Peak and continues on to the Kendall Katwalk, but we quickly diverged and headed straight up to the ridge. We were concerned about avalanche danger and wanted to avoid the exposure we would have if we hiked the summer route towards Kendall.
Near Kendall Peak
The snow conditions were a big improvement over the previous Saturday at Stevens Pass. Western Washington had experienced a late snow season, with some of the best snowfall of the winter in March. All that deep fresh powder made for a great skiing, but it was tough going for the Basic Class. In the BCC we do not use snowshoes, one of the goals of the class is to teach the students how to travel in all snow conditions on foot. At Stevens Pass we hiked up eighteen hundred feet in elevation to a ridge just east of the ski area in snow that varied from knee to waist deep. In normal years this usually takes two and a half hours, but this year it took us five hours. The conditions at Commonwealth Basin were a distinct improvement, but it was still hard work. There was a thin icy crust over deep unconsolidated snow so we were still hiking in knee-deep snow.
We arrived at the ridge just below the summit at a quarter to two in the afternoon. The weather was good and we had a lot of daylight, so we decided to push on to the summit. With our lead instructor Morton belaying (and anchored in the snow to a deadman), the senior instructor François placed pickets to set a fixed line to the summit. Many of the students were a little freaked out by the exposure, but everyone made it to the summit.
Fixed line to summit
It was a warm afternoon and on the hike out the snow-laden trees were shedding their loads. "Tree bombs" were dropping all around us; their impacts left craters in the snow a big as four feet in diameter. I took a direct hit from one of the "bombs". The force was enough to make me stagger. In class we wear our climbing helmets from the moment we leave the cars until the end of the day. It's a good policy since I heard a couple branches in the "tree bomb" plinking off my helmet.
Getting the team to the top of Kendall Peak made for a complete day. It challenged the students, but gave them the reward of a summit. The weather was perfect and I was kind of jealous of all the backcountry skiers in Commonwealth Basin.
LinksKendall Peak with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (1 of 5)
Devils Thumb with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (2 of 5)
Sun and Fun with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (3 of 5)
Crevasse Rescue Training and Trail Work with the with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (4 of 5)
Little T Graduation Climb with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (5 of 5)
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