"Intense" Is Just Half the Story

I signed up for the 9-day "Intense Basic Alpine Climbing Course" expecting to learn climbing skills, and ended up getting so much more than that.
Doug Canfield Doug Canfield
June 26, 2014

Intense Basic? Climbing immersion? Mountaineering "boot camp"? I’m not quite sure what words best describe nine-straight 12-hour days of climbing instruction, including two nights out for the snow-training portion. But, wow, what an unbelievably wonderful experience!

I’m talking about The Mountaineers’ immersive nine-day Intense Basic Alpine Climbing Course (Seattle Branch), which my co-worker, Margaret Sullivan, and I recently shared with ten other hardy students, and a cast of the world’s best climbing instructors, who brought more than 200 years of combined mountaineering experience to the course. To a student, the immediate answer to the question “What made the course so good?” is “the instructors”. Course organizers/professors/Mountaineers John Ohlson and Gene Yore, plus instructors Dave Shema, Glenn Eades, Cebe Wallace, Timmy Williams, Ken Small, and others, not only gave us the benefit of their climbing experience, but infused their passion for the sport and the mountains straight into our tired marrow—AND THESE SAINTS ARE VOLUNTEERS!

Aside from best-in-class instructors, much praise is deserved for Intense Basic (IB). The student:instructor ratio, for example, was typically either 2:1 or 3:1, depending on the skill being taught. The curriculum was well constructed, with short lectures followed by hands-on practice, followed by next-step lectures and cemented by further practice, all linked together in the afternoons by actual climbing activity. The skills built on each other logically and were reviewed at the start of each day.

The rock climbing training in the first five days had us scaling, belaying, and rappelling on 20-ft. indoor walls, followed by 40-ft. outdoor-gym walls, then 60-ft. real crags near Leavenworth, and finally 80-ft fairly steep rock (with stunning Puget Sound views at our backs and a curious bald eagle perched 20 yards away) at Mount Erie. All the rock climbs were top roped and, as is The Mountaineers way, safety was the primary goal. Even as someone who’d never set foot in a climbing gym or on a crag prior to the course, I felt safe through each step of the instruction. 

The second half of the course focused on alpine climbing, with emphasis on snow and glacier travel and rescue techniques. After a day of in-class instruction on avalanche safety, Z-pulley rescue, and glacier travel, we headed out for a three-day field trip. In this section we camped on snow behind The Mountaineers’ Mount Baker Lodge the first night, getting our instruction on nearby snow fields. For the second night, we moved inside the lodge. The weather was great and the views were breathtaking. We learned roped-up climbing skills, step kicking, as well as self-arrest techniques and crevasse rescue. Several of our instructors were engineers in their professional lives, which isn’t required but doesn’t hurt when teaching complex multi-step techniques like the Z-pulley crevasse rescue. With this immersive form of instruction, however, I finally got my head wrapped around the lengthy sequence of steps that began on the pavement in the Seattle Program Center’s basement and continued through the field-trip training and final Sunday evaluation required of each student (passing the course is not a given). The instructors were patient, supportive, and kind throughout.

I fell in love with both my instructors and my fellow students, bonding with them in sweat, blisters, and mental and physical exhaustion. It would have been easy for any of the students to start complaining about the pace after a few days. IB leaves no time to do anything else during these nine days—even finding the time or energy to make dinner or wash clothes after a 7-a.m.-to-7-p.m. day of hard concentration was tough. But there was no complaining in this group and the persistent good humor kept all spirits buoyant, with giggling filling those times when we were just too tired to get that damn Munter hitched correctly into our biners. (Checking and double-checking every personal and partner knot was mandatory before beginning a climb.)

I finished IB convinced that there is no better alpine climbing instruction offered anywhere. The course this year ran from Saturday, June 14, through Sunday, June 22. The $975 registration fee is a tremendous bargain. Course texts—Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 8th edition, and Accidents in North American Mountaineering—are included with registration. Most of the student meals during the course are provided, as is transportation to the three field trips and the cost of lodging for the final night on Mount Baker. Students taking this course will finish with the basic skills and confidence needed to begin enjoying this sport, as well as the knowledge of whether they most prefer cragging, alpine climbing, or both.

Walking down the road with our teachers from Artist Point on Mount Baker to where our bus was waiting in the late afternoon at the finish of our Intense Basic experience, we students, with our smelly clothes, sun-flushed faces, clomping mountaineering boots, and jangly hardware-filled harnesses, had ice axes in our hands and swagger in our steps. Civilians strolling up on this sunny day stared at our motley, grinning group. All our tiredness had been replaced with the joy of accomplishment.

We had become climbers.

Doug Canfield

PS – A big THANK YOU to the instructors, including the assistant instructors Tom, Rob, Austen, Dave, Helen, Brett, Gretchen, Ellie and Sherry, guest lecturers Erica, Becca, and Katherine, and lodge hosts Bill, Arlene, Dale, Lindy, Paul, and Helen. For the great companionship, thanks also to fellow students Ben, Steve M. (Mountaineers Board Treasurer), Steve, Chris, Celeste, Jared, Danny, Tyler, John, Peter, and Margaret.

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Chris Williams
Chris Williams says:
Wed, Jul 2, 2014 12:33 AM