Learning to mountaineer with NOLS on Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan

I just came back from a two-week mountaineering course in the North Cascades with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

Early challenges

Mountaineering has the reputation of being a rather manly activity, so I would not have been surprised if I was one of only a few women on my course. However, I was the only woman. Ten guys and me.

I wasn’t really that worried about spending two weeks in close quarters with a bunch of guys I just met. But gender played out in interesting ways I wasn’t expecting.

One was that size. I am a small woman. Most of the guys in my group could carry 15-25 pounds more than me before hitting the recommended pack weight limit (40% of your body weight).

All of us packing at NOLs, my personal gear in the foreground.

I tried my best to take on as much group gear as I could. However, I hit my max really quickly. For the first few days, I wasn’t able to lift my pack without assistance and was moving pretty slowly. It was super frustrating for me. Definitely a lesson for me in working within my limitations.

Snow school on Mt. Baker

We approached Mt Baker from Boulder Creek, spending the first day hiking through the forest in pouring rain.

That evening, I was rewarded with my first view of a glacier. I didn’t leave my tent because it was just too wet and I was too tired.

The next morning, the wetness continued as we decided to cross Boulder Creek to try and get on the glacier. It was fairly deep and running swiftly, so we took a while to setup a system of people spotting to safely cross.  The water went above my knees at one point.  Here is a video a friend took of the crossing:

We struggled all day in terrain that was new to us, including using our crampons for the first time to climb around a tall, dirt covered piece of ice. At the end of the day, we could still see our last campsite. And then we learned we had gone the wrong way. I wasn’t frustrated though, just so excited to be moving closer to the giant ice and snow covered wall in front of me.

Approaching the toe of the glacier.

The next day, we moved much more quickly as we became familiar with the terrain and our equipment. We found a beautiful camping that we stayed at for two days while we started snow school. We learned how to kick steps snow, walk in a rope team, self arrest with an ice axe if we fell and build basic snow and ice anchors/protection.

Learning how to walk as a rope team.

What drew me to mountaineering was a love of being in nature. So snow school was fun, but I saw it mostly as a means to an end. I wanted new and closer perspectives of my most beloved mountain, Mt. Baker.

Travelling between mountains

We left for a higher camp on Baker after a few days with the goal to try for a summit. Unfortunately, on our summit attempt day we woke up at 4:30am to pouring rain that morphed into hail, high winds, a rare pacific northwest thunderstorm. We went back to bed to wait for the weather to clear and attempt a traverse around the east side of Baker to get closer to Mt. Shuksan, our next destination instead.

The glaciers we were travelling on (Boulder, Park, Rainbow and Shoales) were heavily crevassed. I was on the first rope team and found it completely thrilling move around the giant maze of the mountain in an intermittent white out. We weren’t sure if we could find a way through, and ran the very real risk of hitting a dead end and needing to turn around after hours of hiking to find our way back in the dark.

Navigating the crevasses on Boulder glacier during a break in the white out.

Our instructors said it was one of most difficult times navigating crevasses on a glacier they had ever day. I loved peering down into the deep crevasses and the challenge of walking along foot paths that connected our path. I thought I was going to love climbing peaks, but I instead fell totally in love with crevasses.

Snow school continued the next day with crevasse rescue training. We had one member of a rope team jump into a crevasse (while on backup belay), simulating an accidental fall. One member of the rope team had to arrest his fall, while another built an anchor and pulley system to transfer the weight and haul him up.

Rescuing someone who jumped into a crevasse during snow school

We also learned to rescue ourselves by rappelling into a crevasse and ascending out using a system of ropes to stand on and hold us.

Before long, it was time to move. Our trip was more than halfway over, and we need to meet up with NOLS for a re-ration.

Ascending Mt. Shuksan

It felt pretty great to be away from the snow and ice and be back in familiar territory. I was hiking pretty quickly, feeling confident and excited to get to visit a new mountain.

Hiking along trails again, approaching Mt. Shuksan

We camped at Lake Anne, which seemed to be a fairly popular spot with other hikers.

Lake Anne looking like an infinity pool

The next morning, we headed up Fisher Chimney’s not really knowing what we had in store for us. The guidebook called it a “tortuous and stimulating” route.

A quick, steep hike towards Fisher chimneys

We quickly ran out of trail. We consulted the guidebook’s prose and sketches for guidance, but finding a route through all the rocks was definitely time consuming. Several small groups went ahead to scout routes and eventually we found where we were going.

Looking at the maps and sketches and matching them with the terrain around us

The Fisher Chimneys turned out to be incredibly steep. We used fixed lines to help us safely climb them with our fully loaded 80-100L packs.  We were  passed by a French Canadian couple and a group of people training to be mountain guides out for the weekend, who had the skills, experience and light enough packs not to use ropes and anchors.

Camping in the snow

That night was the first night we camped in snow, which at first I disliked as everything was wet and cold – including the inside of my tent. (See above about being very skinny and female … aka cold at all times!)

One of our instructors told me to eat spoonfuls of butter and sugar before going to bed for extra calories to help stay warm. I did not need to be told twice and followed his advice with great enthusiasm. Also, a new friend lent me his warmer, longer sleeping pad. This plus the butter diet made me learn to love camping on the snow.

The next day we spent exploring our path up Winnie’s Slide and Hell’s Highway, both fairly steep but straightforward sections.

There was a tricky part where we climbed into and out of a crevasse to continue on to the next section. I now love being in crevasses, so I thought it was fun but also terrifying as parts were extremely icy.

Eventually we camped on the glacier just below the summit. The next day was a fairly easy hike across the glacier and scramble up some class 3 and 4 terrain. It would have been fairly straightforward, except for my plastic mountaineering boots! Those things made walking on anything except snow quite frustrating.

Climbing up the summit pyramid of Mt. Shuksan

We made it to the top early in the day. We spent a few moments thinking about the people who helped get us to that spot. I thought about my parents who are always encouraging me in whatever I choose to do. I also thought about my boyfriend, who I share a love of climbing and cycling with, and is always telling me I am strong and can take on anything.

Our group on Mt. Shuksan

Then we rappelled down, which was incredibly fun.

There were only a few days left, where we slowly made our way back down the mountain.  This trip was the end of a year off from working full-time where I starting pursuing my MA. It was definitely an excellent way to start a new chapter of my life.

Some things I learned

  • Pack less: As a very small person, I really need to focus on buying lightweight equipment and bringing less of it. This would help me shoulder more of the group burden.
  • Take more risks: With all things in life, I am extremely cautious. I learned on this trip I could just give some things a go, without too much planning. I often was much more capable than I was giving myself credit for.
  • Pain is ok: I found this trip very physically demanding, even though I thought I was fairly active. I spent most of the two weeks with very sore muscles and sometimes pain, but I was still was able to push myself harder and harder each day. I was also very inspired by one of the people on my trip with really severe foot pain, who kept pushing through the whole time.
  • Men can be pretty great: Leaving my mostly female and/or queer social bubble and relating to people so different from me for an extended period of time was definitely a huge challenge for me. That being said, everyone on the trip was so so great. It felt like a bit of a once in a lifetime experience to learn so much about men and masculinity.

If you have any questions about being a newbie mountaineer, NOLS or the area, leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer them! 

Update from the future

I returned six years later to lead a trip up Mt. Shuksan where less than half of the group were men. The climb was one of the first dates with Erica, who is now my partner of four years.

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