27 Sep Intro to Alpine Rock Climbing
Teaching anyone how to climb is incredibly rewarding, but there is something special about introducing people to climbing in the mountains; opening the door to a whole new world of adventures in the vertical realm. At the age of 16 I was just starting to get into trad and multi pitch climbing. The idea of bringing my own gear and covering pitch after pitch to reach a summit without leaving anything behind was extremely enticing. My dad, who taught me how to climb as a kid, signed me up for a month-long alpine climbing course with NOLS in the Wind River Range. He strongly felt that if you’re going to choose to do this inherently more dangerous form of climbing, you better learn the right way. The course blew my mind. At the time the longest climb I had done was a four pitch 5.7, and on the second week of the course we climbed a 14 pitch 5.9 on Haystack Mountain. I was immediately hooked, not only by the style of climbing, but for the first time ever, after having been led up this long multi pitch by a female instructor, I could imagine myself in the same role. After the course I started my career as a collegiate cross country runner, but all I could think about was becoming a mountain guide to be able to deliver the same experience that had been so pivotal for me that summer.
Flash forward 8 years and I am teaching an Intro to Alpine Rock Course in the beautiful Sierra Nevada Range of California for Sierra Mountain Guides. This is my absolute favorite type of guiding; teaching people who are interested in learning the skills to become more self-sufficient climbers and putting it into practice on a peak ascent. The Intro to Alpine Rock Course is thoughtfully designed for those who have a solid base of outdoor climbing experience and are ready to take their climbing to the mountains.
What a lot of beginners don’t realize about alpine climbing is all of the elements that need to align in order to have a successful ascent. It isn’t about how hard you can pull, or the grade you can climb in a single pitch setting. It is about the big picture. The mountains are an incredibly powerful, ever-changing environment that needs to be approached with humility and respect. Factors like the weather, changing conditions, altitude, trip planning, overnight camping logistics, and group dynamics/ communication all need to be considered for your safety and success in the alpine setting. Another huge factor is the commitment of climbing in a remote, backcountry setting. Being many miles from a trailhead means that rescue is never guaranteed. When you choose to climb an alpine route, you need to be sure that you can ascend and descend safely. The choices you might make in a single pitch cragging setting vs. high up on a mountain should be very different. You need to have confidence in both you and your partners’ abilities to self rescue if things were to go wrong. Having a plan A, B, and C is imperative to being prepared for the dynamic nature of climbing in the mountains.
On our September Intro to Alpine Rock program, the concept of adapting to the mercurial nature of the mountains was illustrated perfectly. With the effects of a changing climate in full force, we have had an incredibly unpredictable summer here in the Sierra. Thunderstorms and rapidly shifting forecasts have become the norm in what used to be one of the most stable and predictable mountain ranges in the world; aka “The Range of Light.” With this increasingly unpredictable environment; careful planning, preparation and seeking qualified instruction is more important than ever to staying safe in the mountains.
Unfortunately the weather forecast was not on our side for the four days we had blocked out for the alpine course. 70 mph gusts on Day 1 forced us to lower elevation and ground school practice of multi-pitch systems and two-pitch climbs in Pine Creek Canyon. This ended up being an extremely productive day, as we were able to get all of the students on the same page on multi pitch systems, rope management, and rappelling skills. Day 2 we headed up to Mosquito Flat Trailhead in Rock Creek to approach Bear Creek Spire. Driving rain and wind forced us to reconsider. After a team meeting, we decided to head down the hill to the Gong Show crag and continue our practice with crack climbing and multi pitch. Despite some light rain showers we were able to cover a lot; including traditional gear placements and cleaning, anchors, crack climbing technique, and putting it into practice on a fun three pitch, 5.8 climb. Now we only had two days left in the program and with a promising weather window, our team was stoked to go for an attempt of Bear Creek Spire (13,720’) in a two day itinerary. Approach and set up camp at Dade Lake on Day 1, then climb and hike out on Day 2. With a relatively short approach (4.5mi, +1700ft gain) it is easy to underestimate the effort involved to climb and hike out on the same day. We experienced cold, windy conditions up at basecamp but were still able to get in a ground school clinic where students practiced their anchor building skills on some nearby boulders. Eventually the 30 degree temps forced us into our tents to rest up for the day ahead.
The next morning it was bitterly cold as we huddled around our hot drinks and oatmeal. The team morale was high regardless, as we set out with crampons and ice axes on the frozen snow slopes above Dade Lake. The approach towards the base of the North Arête (5.8, 10 pitches) gains another 1,000ft from camp and took our group a bit longer than we had planned for. With the time constraint of needing to hike out that night, and the idea of shoving frozen fingers into steep cracks, we had a team meeting and decided to pivot to the Northeast Ridge (5.6, 1,200’). With the majority of the ridge being 4th and low 5th class terrain, we would be able to move more continuously and stay warmer. Our two teams of 3 topped out the ridge after about 6 hours of climbing, but with one of our team members feeling the effects of mild altitude sickness, our pace began to slow dramatically on the descent. We didn’t make it back to camp until 6pm, and what had taken us 3 hours on the approach took us 4 hours to descend to the trailhead, making it the longest guiding day I have ever had at 17 hrs! This goes to show that even with lots of training and careful preparation there are always unforeseen circumstances that can occur in the mountains.
The important thing was that our group communicated well and worked together as a team to support each other throughout the long and difficult day. This kind of open communication and trust is paramount to your success as a partnership/ group, especially when things don’t go according to plan. I hope that our students walked away from this program with a deeper understanding of what it takes to climb a mountain safely, and the fundamental skills to do so.
Author: SMG Guide Paloma Farkas