According to Meriam-Webster the definition of mountaineering is: ‘the sport or technique of scaling mountains’. But what does that even mean? And what is the difference between mountaineering and hiking? To many, the difference is mountaineering is a more specified, extreme version of hiking. In mountaineering routes, in order to be safe you need to learn more technical skills such as lead rock climbing and backcountry skiing. While hiking in general has a much more broad definition of what that is. Hiking can easily be described as the means of getting from point A to point B in nature. Be that destination a mountain, a lake, or a forest nature trail.
My family has hiked a good amount together for the last seven years. We have summited over 1,500 peaks. But we had hit this wall where more difficult terrain, more awe inspiring accomplishments, required knowledge we just did not have in order to proceed safely. I had a vague idea of what mountaineering was. I had seen pictures of ropes, helmets and harness-clad climbers grinning as they stood on ice covered glaciers. It all looked so magical and inspiring. I wanted to join this mountain group of elites. I just was not sure how to.
I began asking around to people I had met through the outdoors social media community. I wanted to know how exactly you get into mountaineering. A well seasoned mountaineering woman friend pointed me in the direction of North Cascades Mountain Guides. They are a small, locally owned, guide company nestled in the heart of the Cascades in Washington. I quickly sent out an inquiry to the contact form because I knew they would easily accept my husband and I for a trip, but would they accept my two young children at ages 8 and 12?
We exchanged emails and I explained we wanted to learn whatever skills needed in order to eventually mountaineer on our own. Finally we agreed on the three day Crevasse Rescue and Glacier Training Course with a summit bid to the glacier beauty of Mount Baker. Soon after came documents with a gear list, a mountain guide contact, and all the butterflies in my stomach of what exactly we signed up for.
The gear list alone was our first task of adventure. Since our family already rock climbs outdoors as well as backpacks often, we already had a good amount of the gear on hand. But since mountaineering was an entire new sport we quickly headed to the nearest sporting goods store to sort out more. Here’s what was on the basic gear list:
- Climbing pack
- Ice axe
- Belay/rappel device
- Locking carabiners (5 each person)
- Non locking carabiners (6 each person)
- 2 hollowblocks
- Double length (120cm) dynemama/spectra sewn runner
- Pruisik cords
- Extra batteries
On top of technical gear to be used on the glacier we still needed to make sure we were prepared to camp on the mountain for two nights. Plus the weather at higher elevations can be unpredictable and much colder than the summer nights in town. Here is the clothing and overnight gear we packed to camp:
- Long underwear or base layers
- Geo Tex or waterproof outer layers
- Alpine boots
- Wool socks
- Lightweight fleece jackets
- Warm hats
- Buff or bandanas
- Long sleeve shirts
- Sleeping bags
- Sleeping pads
- Knife or multi tool
- Water filter
- First aid kit
- External batteries to charge phones
- Cold soak meals
- Toothbrushes and toothpaste
- WAG bags to pack out human waste
- Lip balm with SPF
- Cook set
- All the gummy candy we could fit!
I paced the gravel parking lot in front of the small town coffee shop. It was here in this quaint mountain town where we would meet our mountain guide, Kevin. As he pulled up, my two overly eager-to-be-everyone’s-friend children showered him with a chatter of hello and excitement.
Soon we were weaving up the dirt forest road to the trailhead to begin our three days in the wilderness classroom. My backpack felt not too heavy as we made our way off the main, well woven trail to the approach trail heading towards the towering giant of the false summit Sherman, also known by its indigenous name of Kulshan Peak. The smog from the wildfires left the air an eerie haze as we emerged above the tree line to the boundary between rock and the ice of the glacier. We were right below Squawk Glacier, the blue, crevasse filled route we would call home, classroom, and pathway up to the very summit for the next two nights.
“Ok guys. Let’s get started.” Kevin smiled as we pulled on our crampons, harnesses, helmets and ice axes.
Soon we were all ducks in a row practicing something I thought I had mastered as a toddler – the skill of simply walking. Only walking on snow and glaciers with a handful of sharp and deadly knives strapped to the soles of your feet is a whole new territory of movement. We practiced the Box Step, gently slicing the snow instead of stomping. We played around with the Duck Walk, pulling out my turned out stride from ballet days long ago. Up and down and up and down we all went until finally we roped up to each other in one long line to make our way to base camp.
After about 3,000-4,000 feet of elevation gain we made it to 6,600 elevation to set up camp nestled below the bouldering tower of Crag View Peak. But the night was not over as we settled in a huddle with ropes in each of our gloved hands. Soon it was a study of knots and laughter filled the mountain. Clove Hitches, Fisherman’s Knots, Butterfly Knots, Figure 8s – I felt my mind turn to mush as all the information assaulted my memory. The weather began to turn so we went to our tents for the night. Tomorrow was another day to attempt to absorb these new skills I desperately wanted to learn.
The rain pattered on the canvas tent sides all night. I buried myself deeper into my sleeping bag as wind blew in gusts pushing colder air into our tent home perched on the mountain. I did not want to get out of my warm cocoon. I sat in swirls of thoughts of – why did I think this was a good idea in the first place – flooding my insecurities. Soon a gentle tap hit the side of the tent. Cheerful Kevin peeking in to urge us out to begin our day of training. The kids’ laughter filled the air as their excited energy urged me to join the outside world. I slowly crawled my way out, strapped on my alpine boots, grabbed my gear of ropes, clips, and jackets to head to a nearby snow patch. Day two here we come.
The seven lines of defense in mountaineering are as following:
- Footwork: The way you walk can make a drastic difference in safety. Crampons themselves can be awkward and harmful if not careful. Practicing ways to dance up the glacier is your first defense against falling.
- Ice axe self belay and self arrest: Your ice axe is your best friend. When you fall, having a way to anchor yourself into the ice will stop you from tumbling into a deep crevasse. Ice axes also help with climbing up steep ice walls and provide a way to pull yourself up and over obstacles.
- Spotting: When you spot someone you are, in short, trying to help them fall safely. The goal of spotting is not to “catch” a falling climber, but rather it is the art of guiding a falling climber.
- Short pitching: When the terrain is technical, having short pitches can secure the team. A pitch is a steep section of a route that requires a rope between two belays, as part of a climbing system. The shorter the pitch is, the more control you have.
- Running protection: Also known as Simul climbing, this is climbing with a running belay. This method is where all the climbers climb at the same time while tied into the same rope. Protection is placed by the first member of the rope team by placing an anchor and the last member removes the pieces of gear as they pass by.
- Fixed lines: A fixed line is simply a rope that is anchored to the route and left in place. It allows safe, quick travel up and down a difficult stretch. Each climber will click into the rope so if they fall the rope will stop them from sliding down.
- Fixed belays: This method of belaying is when your team leader sets up a manual braking device such as a tube or Munter hitch attached to a fixed-point of the anchor. The idea is the force is transferred directly to the anchor in the event of a fall.
I found myself trying to force myself to fall on the iced over snow to plunge my axe deeply into to secure myself. Over and over we all practiced falling and self arresting under Kevin’s critical eye. After that, we were digging ice anchors, creating complicated systems of ropes in order to pull each other up and out of our imaginary deep glacier crevasse. I tried to bring back to memory the knots we practiced the night before as my fingers grew cold with my own patience. The need to be the best student drove me to frustration as I kept needing guidance to remember what was next in the complicated list of procedures.
“I need a break,” I mumbled as I made my way back to the tents and out of the freezing wind and rain. The two kids also weather weary followed me like chicks in tow of a mother hen. We nestled into one sleeping bag together and let chatter and silly selfies warm our eagerness up once more.
The day continued with more ropes to navigate, self belaying to learn. The ingenious ways you could create ladders, pull systems, and chest harnesses amazed me as I tried to mentally take it all in. Finally before dinner we all decided on a quick trip to the summit of Crag View Peak. It was a needed reprieve from the classroom as familiar muscles moved to scramble up its rock filled side. I smiled at my kids as they stood in the shadow of Mount Baker. Tomorrow we would attempt to walk up there, high above the clouds.
Tomorrow was the big summit push day.
My alarm started singing its siren song at 12 a.m. as I mumbled quiet whispers of – “it’s time” – to myself. The moon was an eerie red from the distant wildfires as we silently packed up our gear to begin the long trek up. Step by step we moved in the shadows of our headlamps. The first couple hours were a challenge as we attempted to move as one awkward unit in the cold darkness.
Every hour we would stop to huddle down with water and snacks as I wondered what shadows were hiding and when daylight would come out to play. As we hit 2 a.m. we stopped below the edge of the mountain’s crater. Kevin led us up the screw side to peer over the edge to the steam below. I stood there, my children on either side illuminated by starlight, as I watched clouds and sulfate steam dance in the moonlight. Is this real? I pondered as the reality of what my life was hit hard with a burst to keep going.
The sky began to lighten as the moon gave way to the sun. Instantly moods perked up as muscles groaned at its warmth. The toughest section called the Roman Wall was upon us as the previous day’s storm created a difficult terrain of ice covered waterfalls and eroded sand trails. I held my breath as we tied our butterfly knots closer and one by one we slipped and crawled along. The trek turned more technical as shouts of encouragement were tossed from one to another to stomp out rising fears. I kept my head low refusing to see how much longer we had to climb off the Roman Wall. I only focused on each slow step, one after another, mentally stalling in time the need to be anywhere but here and now. Finally I stepped up to a familiar glacier path; we had made it to the victory lap. I laughed as I began to take in the clouds rising and falling as we stood high above all that was around us. I could see the small hump of the peak in front of us with only an easy slightly uphill walk to reach it. Is this my life? I thought once more. How is this real?
I braced myself against another gust of wind. It hit hard as we stood on the very top of Mount Baker. We made it. We made it to the summit. I felt tears begin to silently fall delicately across my cheeks. We did it. The joy, the tired struggle, the uncertainty of if I had the strength to pull myself and my children to this summit was washing over me in joy. We did. I smiled at Kevin who guided us so calmly and gently up the mountain. Soon enough we all tied back into the rope line to start the very long trek back to the trailhead. We did it.
We did it.
If you are now enchanted and encouraged to try your own mountaineering here are some things to consider.
- Expand your skills: Rock climbing is a much needed skill to have in order to be successful on these mountains. The harder, more technical climbs require lead climbing and creating your own anchors. A great way to start is by taking classes at your local climbing gym. There you will learn how to belay, bouldering, and gain confidence on more exposed sections.
- Cross train: Being in good shape will help you reach those tough objectives. Trail run, hike at higher elevation, weight train – anything to help grow your lungs and stay active!
- Find a guide: I can not encourage this enough. It is very important to remember mountaineering is very dangerous and professionals are hurt or even pass away every year. Before setting out on your own trip hire a climbing guide to teach you all the gear, the safety techniques and routes. It is more expensive up front but having safe trips is worth the money.
Here are some easier mountains to start with:
- Mt. Thielsen: This is one of my favorite peaks. It stands high above the landscape north of Crater Lake. It has a short, easy approach along the Pacific Crest Trail but once you hit the saddle be prepared for some 4th to easy 5th class rock climbing at the top.
- Middle Sister, North Ridge: Either the Hayden Glacier or Renfrew Glacier. These routes can be fairly short climbs from a base camp or you can make it a lengthy one from the trailhead. Because you are working your way up a glacier, with crevasses on the Hayden Glacier, make sure you have crampons and ice axes. The last 1,000 feet may be ice, snow, or scree depending on the time of year.
- Tatoosh Peaks: Not only do they have the coolest names they are really fun climbs. These peaks are a series of 6-7,000 foot summits along the south border of Mt. Rainier National Park. A popular route is to traverse three of them in one day starting at Plummer, heading to Pinnacle, and finishing at Castle. This route involves easy to moderate rock climbing. Other Tatoosh summits such as Eagle and Chutla are little more than extended day hikes with some 4th-class scrambling at the top.
- Broken Top: This can be climbed in 2.5 hours from base camp near one of the lovely lakes in the area. It is a very straightforward scramble, with one 8-foot belayed pitch at the very end.
I adored our trip on Mount Baker. Mountaineering still feels like a distant goal to work towards yet the barrier between hiking and mountaineering finally cracked. Now nights are spent practicing rope knots as we dream of glaciers to traverse. If you are interested in mountaineering I highly recommend hiring a mountain guide company with certified guides to show you the ropes. Pun very much intended.
Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her tall one husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would be a forever home for all of them they were able to adopt their daughter buckets and are legal guardians of their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus.