Kendall Peak was our first climb with our Boealps team. We had missed their trip to Stevens Pass to practice basic snow skills because we had been in Wenatchee rafting. Kendall peak is all about navigation. Pick a destination in the Commonwealth Basin, plot your route on a map, go out and get there. We had done the route planning the week before in class, so everyone was ready with their plan as we packed up in the parking lot at Snoqualmie. Snoqualmie Pass is basically unrecognizable, the snow banks are so high they block the gas station, rest stop, and restaurants from view. Instead it feel like you are driving through a giant snow maze.
The sky was low and heavy, white clouds enveloping the tops of the mountains that surround the pass. We couldn’t see much more than what was right in front of us. Compasses would be almost useless, except to take bearings and then stick to them. We headed out. Two other Boealps teams left the parking lot the same time we did. They were headed for Lundin and Red Mountain. Eventually they would both cross the creek in the bottom of the Commonwealth Basin and head west.
We prodded our students along, trying to get them to avoid micro-navigation: that urge to stop ever couple of minutes and check your map or compass. We encouraged them to pick a waypoint, get there, and then look at the map again. Stay aware of your surroundings, have a bearing to check quickly every once in a while, keep moving. Navigation is tricky and a lot of people don’t know how to do it. Even we would rather rely on a GPS because that luxury to be able to see exactly where you are is hard to give up once you’ve tasted it.
But if you can navigate using a map and compass you can be extremely self reliant. Not to mention, it’s satisfying. Eventually we turned off the beaten path (there was a very well tread trench of footsteps in the deep deep snow) and started to make our way straight up the steep slope to the east. The students finally got into the rhythm of kicking steps and with such a big group your turn to kick steps only came around once every half an hour. It felt like a casual climb up a giant staircase of snow. We stopped a couple of times when we reached flatter sections to see if the students could figure out where we were, using the topography on the map and the elevation. Then we would continue on, everyone chewing on a frozen bar like it was cud or hard tack.
Eventually we popped out of the trees on the south side of Kendal Peak. We had navigated directly to it, which was something of a shock for the students’ first time. Avy debris was visible to the west of where we were, having tumbled out of a large chute up near the summit. We found a more convex slope and headed up it towards the trees above. We were out in the open now and the wind was whipping tiny ice flecks into our coats, stinging our faces. Everyone was in a great mood though, laughing and chatting. Soon we were in the trees, which was more protected. The snow was extremely deep, hip height on me. We worked our way up through the trees until we got to the ridge and found ourselves directly below the summit block. We were only 75ft off from the summit but we figured we still couldn’t see it. Then the ropes came out.
The route up was steep and it looked potentially icy at the top. The students dug in behind a tree, creating a little bench, as some of the instructors started to lead out the rope, headed for the top. With almost a one to one ratio of students to instructors (there are actually more instructors) we weren’t all needed for rope set up, so a couple of us stayed behind with the students and chatted. We kept an eye on the progress above.
Up near the top there was an exposed band of rock, which suggested that the snow wasn’t very deep up there. That mean that protecting the ridge using pickets would be challenging, they would need to use rock pro instead. When Ian got to the rock band he was there for a while. He would move one way and then back off, then try another way and back off again. Finally he down climbed back to the first pick they had put in, maybe twenty feet below the rock band. The message came down, it was too icy up top. Pro couldn’t be placed through the ice but people also couldn’t climb over the ice.
With that news our bid for the summit was over. Early season climbing, it is what it is. However, to get a little practice in everyone prusiked up the fixed line and then rappelled down another rope set up on the other side. If anything it gave the students a taste for how long it takes to get everyone through the system. Plus they got to tie an autoblock with freezing cold fingers. After everyone was headed up I hopped on the fixed line with another instructor to clean the route. We down climbed after all the pickets were out. Then we all headed back to the cars.
The biggest shocker for me was how short the climb felt. I mean, I was wet and cold, but we got back to the cars and I felt like I had hardly exerted myself at all. Clearly I am in better shape that I had previously thought. We reached the trailhead a little ahead of the other groups, neither of which had reached their summits either. Because we can’t leave until all the teams are accounted for we decided to use a little snowbank to practice escaping the belay. I remember when we learned escaping the belay I though it was just about the most complicated thing ever. But teaching it seemed beyond easy and the systems seemed very simple. It’s crazy how much things change with time and perspective.
This was really our first outing as instructors and it was awesome. I can see how teaching this class instead of taking it is absolutely the next step in our climbing education. Teaching something solidifies information, cementing it deeply into your brain. It feels like exactly what I need right now. A little bit of leadership, a little bit of life long learner-ship, a lot of mountains.
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