Day 4 Training Day
Joy of Altitude
I woke up several times during the night choking. Not figuratively, but actually choking. I was struggling for air. Living at sea level has its disadvantages, and is a handicap in this new world.
My discomfort came from a combination of dehydration, sleep apnea, acclimatization, and the shits caused by the gluten in my freeze dried meals.
I repeated the following pattern at least 6 times during the night, just picture 1960’s sketch comedy, where their a simple repetitive sequence sped up with quirky music playing.
I would wake up choking; find myself with a dry mouth, so I’d drink half to three quarters of a nalgene bottle. I would go back to sleep and then get a rumbling in my stomach. I’d wait it out, so I kept my eyes closed tossing and turning, waiting for that synergistic moment when I would have to pee and poop at the same time, when it was time I’d unzip my sleeping bag, put on my climbing pants, my down jacket, and grabbed my cleaning wipes, put on my shoes, and then crawl over two other people to get to the ladder down to the shelter floor. Then walk in the cold to the outhouse. I’d take care of business get back to the shelter, walk up the ladder, crawl over two people, get to my sleeping area take off my shoes, then my climbing pants, I would get my legs into the sleeping bag, then take off my jacket and zip the bag up all the way.
I’d sleep for 30 minutes to an hour, then wake up choking again, and would repeat the entire cycle.
After the 6th trip I fell asleep for a couple of hours only to be woken up by JJ.
We got a late start today, at least a late start in the Alpine Climbing world, starting at 7 AM in this world is like getting up at noon during a work week, and this wasn’t much of a problem because most of the day was spent close to Camp Muir with the focus on technical mountaineering skills training.
JJ began the day reviewing some of the basics from the day before, including the rest step. The rest step is a technique developed by American climbers which is simple yet highly effective. It allows a climber to take short rests between steps as they continue to make an upward ascent. With each step you take, you fully extend your rear leg so that all of your weight rests in your heels and on your skeletal system, by doing this your uphill leg can rest a moment in a bent position. You then step upward and allow the weight to sit in the opposite heel.
Watch video below:
We reviewed a handful of other techniques, and then learned a few more which are normally used while wearing crampons. Crampons are great for traveling across glaciers, or anywhere there is ice. Because of the previous day’s rain, sleet and snow the snow pack on the Muir Snow Field wasn’t conducive to learning to travel with crampons. As a result we learned the motions of crampon walking, but didn’t actually get to do it with crampons.
It would have been an interesting sight from afar our ragtag group following JJ up and down the snow field, like a bunch of baby ducks following our mother. JJ eventually led us up to Muir Peak, which rests about 10,600’ and is directly across from our shelter. At the top of Muir Peak, there is a significant drop off on the opposite side of our climb, it’s clear if you slip in the wrong direction you will most likely die. From the top of the peak we got our first chance to see a crevasse. Crevasses’ are found in glaciers, because glaciers are moving ice formations they will sometimes form a deep crack at stress points opening up to create a crevasse.
Standing there at the top of Muir Peak looking into the blackness of my first crevasse I realized how insignificant I am when compared to the might of Mother Nature. In this place I have less power than a single flake of snow; I am at the mercy of the weather, and all that surrounds me.
From the peak, we moved downward, practicing our plunge step in the soft snow. We made our way to a steep incline, to practice self-arrest. The ability to self-arrest is one of the many “un-fucking” yourself skills that is crucial to surviving in the mountains.
Self-arrest is a technique that involves using your ice-axe, or ice-pick. If you slip and start sliding, you use your ice axe to gain traction in the snow; hopefully it slows you down enough so you can kick your legs into the mountain. The pick in dug into the snow provides a leverage point so you can use your legs to stop your slide.
The mantra that was repeated during this phase of training was, dig deep pockets.
The key to self-arresting is getting your ice axe in the proper position based on how you fall or slip. If you slide on your ass, you have to make sure to roll onto your stomach, if you slide with your head first downhill, you have to get the ice axe to one side of your body so the axe will act as a pivot point for your entire body, and then once your body swings around you can kick your pockets.
Self-arrest is needed for personal safety, but also for group safety. If you are traveling on rope teams and a member of your team slips, it is the responsibility of the others to prevent that person from falling deeper into danger.
We must have spent a good 2 hours on self-arrest. Spending time practicing the basic arrest, and then from various uncomfortable positions, such as sliding down head first, on your side, head first on your back, on your stomach, everything except sliding down your head.
We took a one hour break, during which I went to the bathroom for the 8th time. Each time I was cursing the gluten in my freeze dried meal.
It was nice to take in the beauty that surrounded us, other than the fog, you wouldn’t have believed that the previous day it had been snowing on us.
After the break, we spent our time working on knots, rope handling, and anchors. The knots, and hitches we worked on were ones that were taught to us back in Ashford, the only way to get better at tying knots, or working hitches is to practice, so getting more exposure to the basics was nice.
We mainly used pickets to create our anchors. An anchor in alpine climbing can serve to create protection in areas where the climb might be exposed to a steep fall, or it can be the fixed point that you use to lower, or raise someone. A picket is a piece of metal made of various sizes, typically in a vertical orientation, and looks similar to a tent stake.
A basic anchor will have two pickets spaced next to one another, so that there is less than a 60 degree angle between the two. In any type of climbing redundancy is the name of the game. You always want a back up, so in setting anchors it’s important to have the anchor built into at least two places. Once the pickets are placed you, use a cordelette (which is a short piece of smaller rope) to tie into the two anchors.
You then pull the cordelette down towards the direction of the load that will be placed on the anchor. You typically tie a knot or a hitch between the two anchors, which will equalize the load, and if one of the anchors should give this equalization will prevent the load from falling further.
Just beyond the knot in the direction of the load, there is a loop where you clip your carabineer, and ultimately where you will place the rope.
It’s visually very easy to understand, yet I realize it’s probably tough with my broken English.
You can watch the video below for instruction on how to place a snow picket.
The snow picket can also be placed in a deadman anchor. This is the type of anchor method I find intriguing. There are all kinds of stories in the climbing community about people using ice axes, back packs, lighters, nalgene bottles, and even a snickers bar. When there is no other choice, and all you have is a snickers, the deadman is apparently a way to anchor yourself.
A deadman anchor uses the snows strength to hold a rope in place, the object you are using in the deadman acts as a friction point. In order to place a deadman, you have to dig the snow relatively deep, and at an angle that counterbalances the direction of the load. When you have dug enough of the snow, you place your anchoring item into the bottom of your hole in a direction that will cause the item to dig deeper into the snow when under load.
We spent a bit of time in small groups practicing our anchoring technique. If I had brought a Snickers with me, I’m sure I would have tried to rappel down the slope on a snickers.
The rest of the afternoon was spent working on crevasse rescue. The reason you travel in rope teams across a crevasse is that you never know when and where the glacier may decide to open up on you. If that happens to your team then you better be prepared for a crevasse rescue.
In the event this happens you have to work as a team, to not only team arrest so no one else becomes a victim, but once arrested the team has to work to pull the fallen member out of the whole. Essentially there is a step by step process to securing the team with the use of anchors, and then you use the anchor as a leverage point to build a pulley system to raise the fallen member.
The rest of our afternoon was spent learning the steps involved in a crevasse rescue, I was overwhelmed. There are so many steps, all of it foreign to me, in this world I am as about as useful as my iPhone is useful as a last meal.
While we worked close to camp, guides Dan and Tim spent the day moving up the summit route to secure the climb. It had been a couple of weeks since the last summit of Rainer for RMI, the weather hadn’t cooperated, and none of the guides had been past the 3rd stage of the climb. It was Dan and Tim’s job to not only scout to see if the route was possible, but to dig up the fixed lines along the Clever.
When they got back in the evening around the time we were done for the day, there was a buzz around camp that we would summit Rainer the next day. Dan came into our shelter and talked to us for about 30 minutes.
The game plan was to leave at 4 AM tomorrow morning, traveling about 90 minutes to the Ingrham Flats which rests at about 11,500’. There we will take a short rest, then traverse across cadaver pass, aptly named for the deadbody that was pulled through the pass many years ago, and work our way up to the clever, along the spine, and reach disappointment clever. This next section should take 2 hours.
Disappointment clever is named for all the disappointed climbers who turn around at this point. After the clever we’ll take another break and then travel another hour to “High Break”, here we’ll take a short break to add a layer of clothing, and then head towards Columbia Crest and the summit. The entire climb should take 5-6 hours to the top, and a total of 8-10.
As Dan and JJ talked about what lays ahead, the seriousness of the venture hit me. I can’t believe how nervous I feel. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? Is this who I am?
Tomorrow is a day were trying is less important than doing. One step at a time, one breathe at a time, I have to keep my min strong, and be ready to push my body. I am strong.
If we summit, we will be the first team from RMI to summit in a couple of weeks. I feel so tiny every time I step outsie my shelter, looking at the clouds move across the valley and in the distance near Mount Adams, I am in awe.
The weather changes, it snows, it gets windy, and it gets hot. All of it has its own beauty, in a world this beautiful how can I be so angry?
I’m ready to climb, and to succeed. This is a moment to embrace.