Glacier Travel & Crevasse Rescue Class, March 27- May 15, 2005
The Mountaineers' Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue for Skiers and Snowboarders class is a mouthful, but evolved as advertised during the months of March, April and May of 2005. It turned out to be a comprehensive but low-key introduction to the world of roped skiing and rescue pulley systems that was long overdue for someone like myself.
My interest in the class was piqued last year by reading the trip reports of the group on www.turns-all-year.com, the primary online gathering point for NW backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Ron Jarvis, one of the moderators of TAY and an instructor for the class, encouraged me to participate, so I signed on.
The class syllabus called for once-a-week Tuesday evening sessions at the Mountaineer's Building on lower Queen Anne, where we progressed from knot tying to prusiking up fixed ropes to building pulley systems anchored to the wall. The group's demographics included skiers and snowboarders from all walks of life and with a wide range of experience, and served as a kind of social club for TAY posters - in fact, probably 75% of the top 20 posters on turns-all-year were represented, mostly as instructors. If anything, the balance leaned toward an abundance of higher education - it wasn't uncommon for a couple of PhD's to be hovering over our practice sessions debating the merits of various prusik tending devices or snow anchors. Damn, who to believe - the mechanical engineer or the physicist?
Head instructor Darryl Olson put the group through its paces with military-like precision, which was a good thing as there was a lot of material to cover. Simulated exercises like clipping into a suspended rope and stepping off a table with all your gear on were quite revealing - small details like hard to unfasten safety straps or bindings that were difficult to reach while hanging from your harness made us re-think or revise some old habits.
The culmination of the "classroom" series is normally a two-day field trip to the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier, and we headed up to Paradise as scheduled on the weekend of April 23-24. Unfortunately, the weather took a dive that Saturday, with gusty winds and pouring rain becoming the rule for the day as the class headed to Alta Vista to practice building snow anchors, self arrests with ice axes and ski poles, and setting up various hauling systems.
After a full day of practice in the wet and cold, our group (headed by Amar Andalkar of www.skimountaineer.com fame) and accompanied by Darryl O., was last off the mountain and pretty much brain dead. Amar's comment as we pulled up to the parking lot at Paradise in a sea of corn snow slop was, "I think I can honestly say that was the worst skiing I've ever experienced!"
Though the plan was to camp at Paradise and hit the Nisqually Glacier early the next morning, the instructors got together and decided that the students had been tortured enough that weekend and pulled the plug on day two, sending us back down the mountain at twilight.
Darryl polled the group for their preferences by e-mail the next week, and a plan was made to re-convene at Paradise the weekend of May 14-15. When we arrived shortly before noon on the 14th, the swirling cloud cover was giving way to blue skies overhead, and we stayed within sight of the parking lot to review the "Z", "C" and Canadian Drop Loop pulley systems. The main danger this day was sunburn rather than hypothermia, and many stripped down to t-shirts and no gloves for the exercises before heading up for a quick ski from Pan Point in the late afternoon. Kam amazed most in the group by "skinning" up to the outhouse over a sheer 6' section of masonry, but then he's a " sponsored" athlete who doesn't have to worry about minor loss of P-Tex!
Northwest spring weather being what it is, however, I was awakened in my tent at Sunshine Point Campground about 3:30 in the morning by the sound of heavy rain, and by the time we set off from the Paradise lot at around 6:20 AM, the theme (rain, snow, wind & fog) for the day was apparent. We skinned quickly to the edge of the Nisqually and roped up, then traveled in groups up to the practice site.
Amar and Carter, our two crevasse instructors, picked a particularly nice crevasse for our group to work out of, with beautiful vertical smooth blue-green walls, while Ron Jarvis' group found an interesting small hole which opened up under the surface into a very large crevasse, and Darryl's group used the same crevasse as us about 100 feet to the west.
The session went as well as could be expected given the driving rain, snow, and wind, but many in the group had to work hard at staying warm (myself included) and one student went down early due to cold. I soaked two pair of conventional gloves before resorting to my "secret weapon" - Atlas Brand Chemical Resistant work gloves, which turned out to be the revelation of the day.
My time as "victim" turned out to be the most pleasant period of all, as there was quiet and no wind/very little rain while hanging from a rope halfway down the crevasse. For a time, I was able to brace my feet on one wall and lean back and rest my helmet on the opposite wall, which was pretty relaxing.
After each student had done his or her turn in each of the three rope positions (end, middle and victim), we pulled up stakes (or snow anchors in this case), re-roped, and headed back to Paradise. As we booted up to the ridge on the edge of the Muir Snowfield feeling totally worked, Kam and Jerry White had set up tent and umbrella at a convenient vantage point and were their usual cheery selves, chatting and eating while making sure all the stragglers made it down safely.
The post-session debriefing and "awards ceremony" took place under the eaves at Longmire, while the class banquet went down at Puerto Vallarta Restaurant (I think) in Eatonville. We pulled our usual shocker on the waitstaff (Uhhh . . . table for 18?) who handled it with aplomb. A one-margarita limit was in effect for our party (if you bring me another, I'll have to sleep under that table tonight!) but the made-to-order Guacamole rocked, and there's no substitute for Mexican food when you really need the calories!