Mt. Rainier Expedition Skills Seminar

Some of the most beautiful and least explored places on this planet are not always easily accessible. An article in the NY Times about the Karakorum Highways piqued my interest in eventually visiting the Himalayas and hopefully the Baltoro glacier in Northern Pakistan. In order to become more acquainted with Glacier travel I decided to sign up for a Mt. Rainier mountaineering skills course offered by RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc.) This course introduces participants to all the skills necessary for greater challenges than treks through the Himalayas. After completing the skills seminar participants will have been introduced to all the skills necessary to climb peaks like Mt. McKinley in Alaska or the volcanoes in Ecuador or Mexico among others.

gondogoro la pass

View from the top of the Gondogoro La pass in the Karakorum Mountains of Northern Pakistan.

The Camp Muir Expedition Skills Seminar spent Sunday, day 1, at the RMI headquarters in Ashford. This first day was very much an orientation day making sure that everyone had the correct gear. Viewing the first day with a glass half full, we learned about the eliminating superfluous gear, efficiently packing a backpack, good foods to bring on a climb, and briefly covered the rest-step and pressure breathing. The glass half empty version views this day as a necessary check for the guides to eliminate the inevitable headaches that arise from people forgetting gear or bringing the wrong gear which prevents them from being able to summit or participate.

On Monday, day 2, we drove to Paradise to begin our hike up to Camp Muir. The weather forecast was for a cold front to come in and wreak havoc during the week. However, we had perfect bluebird skies on Monday for the entire hike up to Camp Muir with great views of Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and even Mt. Hood way in the distance. The RMI policy for hiking is to hike for an hour and then rest for 10-15 minutes. This is to train climbers for climbs where you are traversing through hazards such as areas with seracs, high avalanches risks, etc. and stopping to rest for anyone outside of a safe zone is dangerous for the entire group.

Mt Adams and Mt St Helens

With the great weather, we took our time on the hike up to Camp Muir taking longer breaks to enjoy the views. The hike took us 6:45 to get from Paradise to Muir. For some perspective, last august, one of the RMI guides set a round trip record from Paradise to the summit and back in just under 5 hours. All in all, it was a fantastic hike and more than one person got a little sunburned.

RMI Guide Adam Knoff

RMI Guide Adam Knoff building a deadman anchor for crevasse rescue training.

RMI Guide WAlter Hailes

RMI guide Walter Hailes demonstrating how to construct a deadman anchor.

On Tuesday, day 3, we began our technical training working on team-arrest, self-arrest, rope travel, and other glacier travel techniques. For the self-arrest and team arrest you basically pull your ice-axe against your chest and then fall into the ice, dig your feet in to create platforms, and brace to stop a fall. The entire day was spent getting accustomed to using our ice-axes, crampons, and using the ropes. In the evening we learned about different knots that you must know how to use for mountaineering. As in rock climbing, the figure eight knot is one of the most common knots used. We also learned about making a prusik friction hitch. A prusik hitch is incredibly useful because it is small and light and works incredibly well in many emergency situations as well as many normal situations like fixed line ascending.

On Wednesday, day 4, the focus was on rescue techniques. We started with learning about self-ascending on the line should we ever fall into a glacier. We then proceeded to learn about building anchors using pickets to support ropes, tents, rescues, belaying, or other cases that require a strong, fixed support to stop a fall or hold a strong static load. When building multipoint anchors the ERNEST system which stipulates five important principles of safety and efficiency.

  • E – Equalized – Anchors should be constructed so that each component of the anchor carries an equal amount of the load
  • R – Redundant – Anchors should consist of muliple components in case one or more components fail
  • NE – No Extension – Anchors should be built so that if one or more of the components fail the remaining components won’t be shock loaded
  • S – Strong (or Solid) – The stronger the better
  • T – Timely – Anchors should be as simple and timely as possible without giving up any of the other ERNEST qualities

These important considerations are encouraged as part of recommended protocol. Simply satisfying all the ERNEST principles is not a substitute for judgement based-decision making.

Luke Fostvedt in Crevasse

Hanging in a crevasse in the Cowlitz Glacier during crevasse rescue training.

Deadman anchors are incredibly strong and were used as the supports for our crevasse rescue training. While it isn’t common, climbers¬†occasionally¬†do fall into crevasses. This is particularly a risk on mountains like McKinley where the glaciers are much bigger. Consequently, knowing how to rescue a fellow climber who has fallen into a crevasse is a necessary skill for any person aspiring to adventure onto bigger mountains with more objective hazards. In our crevasse rescue scenario, climbers were in teams of three. One climber “fell” into the crevasse, the middle man had to support the weight of the climber in the crevasse while the last man set up the belay/pulley system to pull the climber out of the crevasse. The views inside of the crevasse were incredible and it was truly an amazing experience being suspended above a crevasse where you couldn’t see the bottom. Had this been a real situation, you really would be counting on your fellow climbers to save your life.

Camp Muir May Morning

In the evening, after all the crevasse rescue training, our guides discussed a possible summit attempt for Thursday morning. The weather looked like it was going to be conducive to an attempt the following morning. We were advised that we would woken up between midnight and 4am to begin our summit attempt. Everyone went to bed early anxiously awaiting the summit attempt the wake up call.

Snowstorm Camp Muir

As the sun came up the next morning we were greeted not by a wake up call from the guides, but by a foot of new snow and the prospect of more snow throughout the day. The avalanche conditions were far too dangerous to even consider attempting the summit. An IMG group had camped up on the flats in preparation for a summit bid this morning and they were not thinking about going up, only about how to get down through the treacherous avalanche territory between them and camp muir.

Avalanche Beacon Training

With the summit attempt thwarted by new snow, our plan for Thursday, day 5, turned to more training. The itinerary for the day included avalanche beacon rescue training, fixed line ascents, and rappelling. By the time we concluded our introduction to avalanche beacons and were ready to go outside to practice the wind and snowstorm had progressed to goggle weather. Our guides Casey and Adam had plenty of avalanche rescue stories from the mountain. There were many fortunate groups who inadvisably wandered into high-risk avalanche terrain, set off an avalanche, and the avalanche happened to stop minutes away from a safe zone with multiple guides who were able to save them. Hence, there is no excuse for not wearing an Avalanche Beacon when in the backcountry.

Luke Fostvedt Fixed Line Ascent

Rapelling Mt Rainier

After the avalanche rescue training, we moved onto fixed line ascents and rappelling. Fixed line ascents are an integral part of many high altitude climbs as the terrain almost certainly will have sections that are very steep. The fixed line provides another means of safety on the mountain as well as a means to efficiently ascend. The fixed line can be used for a quick rest to conserve energy on the mountain. Together with the rest-step, fixed line ascents provide the means for thousands of climbers every year to accomplish their goals and conquer peaks across the planet. Conversely, rappelling provides a safe and efficient way for climbers to descend steep slopes.

Eric Rapelling Muir Peak

Our rappelling training was using a “self-belay”. As many of us were not experienced climbers or belayers, redundancy was incorporated into our descent by a guide using a fireman’s belay. Had there not been a guide reinforcing our descent, we could have used a prusik for redundancy during the descent. Rappelling is an invaluable tool for all climbers and is commonly required for climbers playing in Alaska, the Alps, or other technical mountain mountains. Our guide Casey said he has set up a line for his clients to rappel down the Hillary Step on Everest to avoid the “zombies” coming up.

After four nights on the mountain, we awoke on Friday morning, day 6, to another foot of snow. It was a dream morning for powder skiers, the Muir snowfield had two feet of light fluffy powder and bluebird skies for at least 1000 feet. The guides surprised us with french toast for breakfast. After four days of oatmeal packets and dehydrated food, this was a very welcome treat. After breakfast we all packed up our gear from the bunkhouse and were ready to head out around 9am.

Luke Fostvedt camp muir

All in all it was a very fun week. I think everyone was a little disappointed we didn’t get to attempt to summit, but the risks were simply too great. Live to climb another day. We all learned so many different thing over the course of the week, I think after a little reflection we all will consider it a great week of mountaineering.

Hike to Paradise Muir Snowfield

Many thanks to all our guides Casey Grom, Adam Knoff, Walter Hailes, Thomas Greene, and Mike King.