One of the reasons I have written so little as of late (this is a lame excuse but I am going to use it anyway) is because of the mountaineering course that Kyle and I taught again this spring with BOEALPS. For anyone who is wondering what that conglomeration of capitol letters is: BOEALPS is a mountaineering club run through Boeing (no, Kyle and I don’t work for Boeing) and Kyle and I took the Basic Mountaineering Class with BOEALPS in 2015 and have taught it for the past couple of years. The Basic Mountaineering Class (BMC) starts in February and runs through mid-June. It teaches students everything from basic knots to ice ax arrest to glacier travel and crevasse rescue.
In years past Kyle and I have instructed as part of an instructor team but this year our head instructor, Sara, asked if I would be interested in leading a team. Seeing as how I am always bitching about the lack of female leadership in BOEALPS I figured it was time to put my money where my mouth was (is that even a saying) and step up to the plate. Team leads are responsible for team everything. Student safety, making sure all the skills get covered, general planning for the team outings, instructor wrangling and delegating, etc. It wasn’t that I was nervous about the organization and leading part, but I was nervous about the climbing. I have only been mountaineering for a couple of years! What if people didn’t respect me? What if I didn’t know the answers to certain questions? I still had fears of my own as a climber – could I set those aside to prioritize my students? I had that sneaking suspicion that many women and POC have going into a lot of things: that I was going to have to work ten times harder than everyone else to prove that I belonged.
Regardless I took the plunge and although there were your average number of sexist remarks and microaggressions leveled at me early on in the course as soon as I was assigned my own team and out of the fray of the larger class I was jubilant. I had a stellar team of instructors who had my back and I had a excited and nervous bunch of students who were going to go from 0 to 60 in just a couple of months. And I was about to learn so much about myself and my leadership style.
Before the climbs begin:
Before the actual climbs begin we have three clinic style outings. The first is at St Edward State Park near Seattle and allows students to practice basic skills like knots, rappelling, belaying and navigation on a flat, low risk surface. Then we take those same skills to Mount Erie up by Annacortes and we practice it all again in a much more vertical situation. Lastly we take the students up to Stevens Pass near Big Chief Mountain and they learn and practice snow skills for the first time including ice ax arrest, snow anchors, traveling as a rope team, kicking steps and plunge stepping. After these three clinic style outings it is time to start climbing! However, most of the climbs come with their own set of skills to focus on and practice.
Climb One: Kendall Peak
Our first climb of the season was all about navigation and we chose to tackle Kendall Peak in the Commonwealth Basin outside of Snoqualmie Pass. Although the students initially wanted to climb the peak from the wrong side (it takes a little while for them to learn how to follow the advice and GPX tracks of previous climbers on websites like Summit Post and Peak Bagger) we gently nudged them towards the right route. The day was a rare bluebird sky adventure in March and we climbed firm snow to the summit ridge. Not only did the students practice their navigation but they continued to practice snow travel and communication as a large group. Instructors set ropes on the upper part of the route because the run out wasn’t great and the students had only learned to self arrest the weekend before. The students provided some prize winning summit treats including some mountain tacos that I will never forget.
Personal Lessons Learned:
– I don’t like letting students flounder. Instead of letting them actually pick the wrong route (which a number of people advised me to do) I opted on the side of coaching them into finding the right route. This felt better to me since we hadn’t even built any trust yet at this point as a team.
– I am in fact, less afraid, when there are students around to teach. Something about the pressure of needing to act like everything is fine, this is safe, nothing to see here, actually makes me less afraid.
– I respond pretty damn calmly in emergency situations. Another team on a nearby mountain had fall and a medical emergency and I think the way I handled my team and the ensuing communication storm between a number of different BOEALPS entities was collected and controlled.
Climb Two: Silver Peak/Hyak Peak
Our second climb of the season is supposed to be an “experience outing” meaning it is about putting together some of the skills taught so far in the class and summiting a peak. However, after the accident the previous week on a different team many of us were feeling like climbing be damned, the students needed more time to practice. We set out to attempt Silver Peak but because of beta from the team that tried it the day before, avalanche danger and low snow on the trail we decided to turn around and head to Hyak instead to do some more skills practice. Once we got there we focused on practicing a running belay on the way up and ice ax arrest on the way down as well as glissading. We even summited Mount Hyak in the process (not really an accomplishment because there’s literally a ski lift at the top by hey, better than nothing). The students knocked it out of the park again with summit treats.
Personal Lessons Learned:
– Kyle and I had a bit of clarity on this climb at the beginning of the day. We arrived to the trailhead in torrential rain. Kyle was in a dark mood. We talked and helped clarify the fact that we had very different motivations for being out there. For Kyle the fun lay in the climbing itself and the summiting. For me it was all about instructing the students and creating community. As such, when the weather was crappy or a summit was looking impossible that made it hard for him to want to climb with the team but for me it didn’t matter what the weather was like or if we would summit or not, my goals of teaching were achievable either way. We determined that it would be better for him to not commit to strongly to the class – we would both rather he was at home in a good mood than out in the mountains in a bad mood. I think this was a really important thing for us to finally come to an agreement on.
– I also solidified my stance that having the students learn and master skills was more important than summiting peaks was. The students seemed to feel much better and more confident after another day of practicing.
Climb Three: The Overnight to Devils Asshole (Basin)
For our third trip as a team we were headed to Devils Basin for our overnight and would attempt to climb two peaks, Devil’s Peak and Devil’s Thumb. However, with the weather forecast it kind of looked like we wouldn’t be climbing anything. Kyle opted to stay home as per our Silver Peak experience and the rest of us set off into the basin in a constant drizzle. Once we broke from the trail and headed straight up through the woods many students got sweaty and hot and removed their rain jackets. Some learned the hard way that this leads to wet base layers and impossibly cold cores. But that was a lesson for later. We sweated it out through the forest and finally got onto some snow and were able to kick steps. Soon after that the rain switched to snow and fresh snow blanketed everything. When we got into the basin there was a good five or six inches of fresh snow covering all the surfaces and we plowed through it to get to camp. I looked around at my team and saw a lot of very wet, very cold people.
After setting up my own tent with my tent mates and chucking everything inside it I hounded the students to finish setting up their tents and to change into dry clothes. We also set up a giant kitchen tarp and dug some tables out of snow – everyone huddled in together and we began the process of trying to be warm and going outside as little as possible. Everyone had put on their last or second to last dry layers, I wasn’t about to ask them to get them wet practicing skills in the snow. So instead we practiced boiling water and drinking hot drinks and listening to the incessant sound of snow, hail and rain on our kitchen tarp. After much time-passing and team-bonding we made it to an acceptable time to eat dinner and then it was an acceptable time to hunker down in our tents. Soon it was quiet outside – had the snow stopped? I fell asleep. In the morning I would learn the snow had not stopped, it had been quiet because our tent was covered in about a foot and a half of snow. Luckily our tent didn’t collapse or try to asphyxiate us – a number of other people had to get out numerous times throughout the night to knock the snow off of their humble abodes.
In the morning it was clear we weren’t climbing anything. Instead we packed up and got the heck out of there. Big changes mean big problems – avy danger was too unpredictable and everyone was too wet to venture any further into the mountains. But first we had to search for a lost ice ax. When it couldn’t be found we left it for dead – must have been swallowed up by the Devil’s Asshole.
Personal Lessons Learned:
– I just want to reiterate, never go climbing when the weather looks that bad. BOEALPS is the only reason I would go outside when the forecast is calling for inches upon inches of snow.
– I also learned that in the future I need to keep a closer eye on how people are regulating their body temperatures and micromanage them a bit more aggressively. Yes, people are allowed to make their own mistakes but also hypothermia.
“Climb” Four: Leavenworth Clamshell Crag
For our next outing we went back to a more clinic style of learning to teach the students some important rescue techniques – how to rappel past a knot and how to escape a belay. We also had them practice ascending the rope which they would have to do again in order to climb out of a crevasse. My team had been assigned the Clamshell Crag so a couple of instructors and I went in early to set up the ropes. First things first, we got hopelessly lost and wandered all over the hills of Icicle Canyon looking for the damn rock we were supposed to be climbing that day. Finally, winded and unbelievably sweaty we found it. I was nervous – Kyle was starting from the same trail head as we had with the students which was most definitely the wrong trail head. No doubt they would be as lost as we were. We got a couple of faint crackles from him over the radio and I was just about to send an instructor to go look for them when suddenly they appeared behind us on a rock outcropping. We all had a good laugh at that and they made their way down to us.
The rest of the day was spent demoing and practicing all sorts of skills and for once the weather was actually nice. The students rocked all the skills and even brought us a picnic lunch because they are awesome. We ate everything using skewers because we are weird.
Personal Lessons Learned:
– Again, just having to be in charge of something seems to make me a lot bolder. Last year this outing utterly freaked me out. Watching all these students practice skills that they aren’t very good at with real humans on the other end of the rope – I kept imagining the rope slipping through their fingers. This year I felt calm and collected.
– Always scope out the crag the day before…
“Climb” Five: Crevasse Rescue on the Nisqually Glacier
Our next climb was another skills based outing – an adventure out onto the Nisqually Glacier to practice glacier travel, walking in crampons and crevasse rescue. We were blessed with a beautiful day and I love this outing because four teams take to the Nisqually Glacier at the same time and it just feels like a fun BOEALPS reunion. We sent a team of instructors up early with ropes and pickets to set up the fixed line while the rest of us found a shady, crusty snow hill to practice our crampon technique on. We walked with our crampons the rest of the way to the edge of the moraine where we roped up. Once on the glacier that introspective quiet of having tens of feet of rope between you and your ropemates settled in.
Once we had traveled a ways up the glacier we found the rest of our team, perfectly positioned on the edge of a yawning crevasse. Our students clipped into the fixed line and we got them set up on two ropes to practice z-pulley. They rotated through all the rope positions, everyone taking a turn in the crevasse. Our team was smooth and efficient. The students rocked and the instructors were top class. We were done with everyone and heading out in no time.
Personal Lessons Learned:
– Delegation is key and empowering people to take on responsibility is awesome! My instructors did such an amazing job with the independence given to them – really made me proud!
Climb Six: Unicorn Peak in the Tatoosh Range
Saturday was an incredible day – clear skies as far as the eye could see. Too bad we were a Sunday team. We had chosen to do Unicorn Peak because due to rare early season low level snow melt the road was actually open all the way to the trailhead. Unicorn is an iconic peak with an awesome alpine rock pitch to the summit. I had been keeping my fingers crossed for good weather but it didn’t look like the weather gods had any intention of complying. We left the trailhead with unicorn headbands and rain jackets on. Although it was raining the clouds were pretty high and we had good visibility. Navigation proved fairly easy and when we got to the first avalanche chute we stopped to talk about avy conditions. The chute was by far the steepest snow the students had encountered in the class so far but they kicked steps as an efficient team.
Up top our visibility quickly dropped and we found ourselves climbing the second steep slope to the saddle in a white out. The moat onto the ridge was thankfully closed although there were some icy patches and right above a little scrambly boulder problem we met a team of BMC instructors coming down. They informed us that the summit block was completely iced over. We continued up the ridge anyway and I left the students and instructors behind to go see what I could see. Sure enough rime ice and real ice covered the summit block and a mean wind cut through all of my clothing, chilling me to the bone. We celebrated at a high spot on the ridge and turned around. We decided to make them rappel past the boulder problem on the way down, the weather was miserable and it would be a good chance to practice this time consuming skill in the cold with gloves on. We nearly froze to death waiting for everyone to make it through the rappel. From there we had easy plunge stepping conditions back to the bottom. Lower on the mountain conditions were much better which made us keep turning around and saying, “Was it really that bad?”
Personal Lessons Learned:
– It is so valuable to go back and climb peaks you have done before, especially if you suffer from fear like I do. I remember Unicorn being kind of scary as a student, although I also remember feeling pretty confident on it. Doing it again as an instructor confirmed my suspicions, nothing scary to see here folks!
– At a certain point in the class, after trust has been gained and skills have been learned, it is okay to start pushing your students a little harder. It is good for them. Gotta keep that growth going.
Climb Seven: Grad Climb on Kulshan (Mount Baker)
How was it already time for our grad climb on Mount Baker? The grad climb was the culmination of all the skills the students had learned so far (although hopefully they didn’t have to use their rescue skills) on a big mountain! We climbed Mount Baker via the Coleman-Deming route. Day one we started out from the cars at 11am (the students had wanted to leave the TH at 7am and we talked them out of it). Weather was, of course, less than desirable. But it wasn’t actively raining on us so that seemed like a win. After the two or so miles to the end of the moraine we roped up and the students led out across the snow “towards” camp. This climb was all about the students – they were supposed to essentially lead us instructors to the summit. Up on the glacier we were enveloped in a whiteout and on my GPS I could see we were headed for the top of Heliotrope Ridge, not towards camp. Luckily we had a small clearing in the clouds so we could point this out – I didn’t feel like doing any more climbing that we strictly had to, we had a big day ahead of us the next day.
Once in camp we got set up and the clouds came and went. While we were eating dinner inside our dinner tent they seemed to be breaking and we actually got views of the summit of Mount Baker. We were all in our tents by five and trying to sleep. Alarms went off around 11pm and we were walking by 12:30am. It was dark, the moon was low on the horizon and the students led us along the footpath towards the summit. We skirted huge crevasses, put on our crampons when the snow got crusty and made our way slowly up the Roman Wall as the sun was rising. Finally we were up on a flat, snowy expanse the size of a football field, staring across the way at the true summit, a bump rising against the sky. We made our way over to it, the sun kissing our face (it had been very cold on the Roman Wall) and pretty soon our whole team was standing on top. I was so proud of all of them I got a little choked up.
The way down was painful and my legs hurt for days afterwards. We saw Kyle, Carl and Josh coming down after a successful climb of the North Ridge. Overall it was the perfect way to end the class.
Personal Lessons Learned:
– Patience and inclusivity and kindess will pay off. They will make people feel like they belong and like you support them. I still hold true to my favorite quote about leadership: Leadership is the art of inspiring others to struggle for a shared aspiration!
– People are made of so much – give them a chance to show you their grit and you will be amazed.
– Not surprisingly, if you put on a tough face that is all they will see. One of my students told me she thought I was “unflappable” – a word I would never use to describe myself in the mountains. But even though I felt fear this season I did a good job of shielding the students from it so of course all they saw was a confident exterior.
Just like that BOEALPS was over for the season. It took up SO much of my time and yet it went by in a flash. I am so grateful to all of my students and instructors for being so stellar – you made my life easy. And I am thankful I took this risk, despite feeling like I might not have been prepared for it. I learned so much about myself as a leader and built so much confidence. And now we have our weekends and our Wednesday nights back. Just like that, another season of spring climbing is behind us.