9-Day Alpine Climbing course

Photo: Matt Baldelli

In late June, I was assigned to instruct Kaf Adventures 9-day Alpine Climbing Course. I sat down with the owner of Kaf Adventures, Mick Pearson to develop the curriculum. We decided on Boston Basin for this particular course because it is a true alpine arena. The climbs within reach of the basin are not just rock routes, nor are they snow slogs. Boston Basin is a beautiful, rugged area with a burly approach and legitimate alpine climbs all around your camp. Below are some photos that were taken during our 9 day course along with a brief write up of where we went and what we learned. Enjoy!

Day 1 : 

I picked Jason up from his hotel, we swung by the Kaffice (Kaf Adventures Office) to do a quick gear check and to load up nine days worth of food, fuel, and group gear. Within an hour we were eastbound on our way to vantage to work on our rock skills. The forecast was calling for rain just about everywhere in Western Washington including our intended destination of Index. It isn’t necessary to point out that Vantage is a far cry from a true alpine arena, but with plenty of steep climbing, loose rock and cracks to place gear in, we made it work while we reviewed basic rock craft.

Day 1 – Welcome to Washington

We reached the crag around noon and got down to the Sunshine Wall to climb a few of the classic routes before the masses arrived for the weekend. Jason and I enjoyed several pitches of easy climbing on fun routes while reviewing belaying, clipping, rope handling, rappelling, footwork, and leading technique. We had the place to ourselves for the most part and got a chance to get acquainted. We finished the day in the shade out in The Feathers area before heading over to set up camp and eating some Pad Thai, one of my favorite course menu options.

Anchor Cleaning & Rappelling
Cleaning active/passive gear and Chimney Technique
Vantage provides some pretty great sunsets.

Day 2 :

We started off with a couple of quick sport routes before moving into our curriculum for the day. After a couple of pitches we went into Traditional Climbing Fundamentals and Anchor Building. We covered the nuts and bolts (cams) of the hardware used in the alpine environment, discussing weight, weaknesses, pro & cons, and applications. We moved into an Anchor Building session, discussing several options and where they’re best applied, along with a little slingcraft.

Jason displays his equalette, a bomber self-equalizing anchor.

After lunch, we covered belaying from above, belay transitions and rope management. On longer multi-pitch rock climbs, efficiency is key to finishing with enough light to descend safely. Recently I’ve come to discover how saving time at belay transitions can be critical when spending long days in the mountains.

After we were finished practicing Anchor Building and Transitions, we went on to short-roping and short-pitching techniques for use on less difficult terrain. Agathla Tower had some 4th class routes that worked well for practicing these skills.  We spent the rest of the day building leader confidence until dinner.

Jason Tops out on Agathla Tower via the 4th Class route

Day 3 :

Jason and I got up early and ate a couple of bagels before hitting the road enroute to Mazama, WA. Our forecast was clearing, and the goal for the day was to get a longer Multi-Pitch rock route in. I chose Methow Inspiration (5.9) as a fun 5 pitch route that would afford us the opportunity to work on transitions and rappelling while climbing on some dry rock.

We arrived to a very wet Mazama, but decided to make the approach anyhow, and hope that we would stay dry for the day. We left the car quickly and started climbing around 10am with a grey ominous sky above and winds coming in heavy from the west “Well, we’re here! We might as well try” I said to Jason. We climbed the 5 pitches in just over 2.5 hours.

No rain!
Jason Leads his pitch
Washington pass getting precip in the background
Jason following up the crux pitch
On the top!
Nice and clear on the way down

With the clouds getting lighter and the sun high above, we short-roped and short-pitched our way to the top of the formation before descending back down to the truck. Our splitter weather later in the day demonstrated the value of “Just Trying”.

Day 4

We woke up in Mazama and headed for the Marblemount Ranger station. The forecast didn’t hold out, and we had some light precip, but it made permits easy to come by! We worked hard to get 5 days of equipment and food into our bags along with clothing, a rack, an alpine rope, and a bear can each!

Real Wet

We made it to camp in about 4 hours and got set up for our time in the basin. When we arrived we couldn’t see a single peak other than Johannesburg with the clouds that were surrounding us. Once established we cooked dinner and packed our bags for the next day. We had a brief clearing just before bed, enough to see one or two peaks at a time. Jason seemed stoked to finally see something we might climb.

For our 5 nights in Boston Basin I chose the Mega Light / Mega Bug combo from Black Diamond, Using my trekking (ski) poles rather than the carbon fiber pole that is included with the Mega Light. This combo is roomy for a team of two, and knowing that we would be wet and had a lot of gear we would want to store inside the tent, it made a great choice at a minor weight penalty. The combination, less trekking poles and ski straps weighs less than 6lbs, the bug heavier than the tarp. It sleeps 2 with luxury, 3 comfortably, and presumably 4 reasonably, though I have yet to use it with that many partners.

Day 5:

We awoke to similar scenery as the day before; socked in, grey, misty, damp. I felt the need to remain upbeat and motivated enough for the both of us. We packed our bags to climb the Sharkfin tower, with the contingency of a Crevasse Rescue day if the weather refused to provide the opportunity to climb.

Packed up and ready to go for the day

After ascending the slabs and loose rock up to the Quein Sabe Glacier we started to get some light precipitation and decided to go with Plan B: Crevasse Rescue. I covered a block of instruction on Snow Anchors and the application of Pickets before moving into the Canadian Drop Loop system.

Deadman anchor construction
Wet and Socked in

I taught Jason a 2 man glacier travel/crevasse rescue system, which utilizes a Garda Hitch for the progress capture. Of the rope team setups i’ve used, this has been one of the most effective and simple systems for a team of two and it utilizes the same gear a team would already have for pretty much any cascadian alpine rock route. Jason picked it up very quickly and we ascended the glacier for a little while before moving into a practical exercise.

Jason arrests as I take advantage of a prime photo opportunity
Heading down after a successful day of learning new skills

We descended into rolling whiteouts until we reached the lower basin and got back to camp in the early afternoon for some hot drinks and dry clothes. The planning for the next day took place over dinner.

Day 6:

With the weather improving, but still not a safe bet, we decided to try a low commitment rock route that we could do if poor weather persisted. The formation has recently been named the Aiguille de I’M and has two routes on it. The formation is beautiful and offers great exposure while remaining less challenging technically. We chose the 4th class route that follows the North Ridge, which was incredibly narrow in places. This route was a perfect choice to simulate the climbing that would be encountered if we decided to try one of Forbidden Peak’s ridge routes.

Pre-climb foot care
The Aiguille de I’M behind me, a brief weather window

As we approached, the weather improved. We met a party camped at the high bivy, and chatted with them a bit about their plans. They were visiting from the Northeast and had plans to climb the West Ridge of Forbidden when the weather improved the next day. I offered some beta about the route and its many places to burn a lot of time before Jason and I made our way up to our objective for the day.

Jason starts out toward the beginning of the route

The route was fairly easy climbing over 3rd class rock for a majority of the route. We reached the 4th Class step which we would later rappel on our descent. The exposure was fantastic, and climbing in the clouds gave the feeling that we were much higher up.

A little exposure!
Jason on the Summit! Only large enough for one at a time.

I reached the summit puzzled. It was about the size of a pizza box, and I had was having trouble deciding if it was solid enough for both of us to sit on. I wrapped the rope through a notch and descended a few feet to build an anchor before belaying Jason to the summit. It was awesome to watch Jason tag a summit after two days of hanging out in the wet and cloudy weather.

Rappelling the route

We descended the same route, making one rap down the steep and now slippery 4th class section. The route had no shortage of lichen and loose rock, maybe with some more attention and traffic this will be a more classic objective for poor weather days in the basin.

Descending back to camp in better weather.

We descended and debriefed our day in detail. Following our debrief, Jason was asking a lot of questions about Forbidden’s West Ridge route and eventually expressed that he would be most interested in that route if we only had one good weather day. I told Jason that it would definitely be a long day, and we would have to start very early to get off of it before the sun went down. After talking about other options, we decided to go for it on the West Ridge, with a 2:30 wake up. We slammed some calories and went to bed pretty early.

Day 7:

The warmth of a whisperlight at 2:30am

We woke up and I was instantly in “Go-Mode”. I don’t think I said more than a few words to Jason as I racked my brain about every part of the climb and what I might be forgetting. Forbidden Peak is a big objective, more so if one decides to pitch out the entire route. The route has a couloir at the base that is climbed to reach the notch on the West Ridge. The couloir can vary considerably this time of year, from firm 40-50 degree neve to impassable and slushy with a bergschrund. Taking a client up such terrain without much experience was a major consideration. Alternatively, in late season, one can ascend the “Cat Scratch gully” a loose, hard to protect grassy and muddy 5th class gully for 600 feet. I told Jason the night prior that we would have to decide when we reached the base, and we would take the safest route, considering speed as part of our decision making process.

We started up the trail at a slow pace, trying to move as efficiently as possible taking a break just above the high camp to put on crampons to help with the firm and slick snow. We reached the base of the couloir just after sunrise, and met the east coast fellas at the base whom we had met the day before. We decided to stay behind them and pitch out the couloir, which was in fantastic shape.

In the party above us was Matt Baldelli, an amazing photographer. He took several of the photos posted below. Here is a link to his website. Thanks Matt for letting me use these amazing photos.

Photo: Matt Baldelli
Photo: Matt Baldelli
Photo: Matt Baldelli
Jason starting out on the couloir
Front pointing in 40 degree snow

The couloir was firm neve, prime conditions by any standards. I’m not sure Jason had any idea how lucky we were to catch it in such fine shape. I led the couloir, climbing up, placing an axe and picket anchor, then bringing Jason up and having him replace my axe with his before I led the next section.

Photo: Matt Baldelli
Photo: Matt Baldelli
Matt Baldelli climbing up the couloir after the rock and ice step.
Jason finishing up the couloir
Big smile for a good reason

After the couloir we took a moment to transition and take off our crampons and stow our axes for the rock section that would take us to the West Ridge Notch. A full rope length later we were at the notch and putting on our rock shoes, stashing snow gear at the notch since we would descend the route we would climb.

We started up the West Ridge behind our east coast friends for the first couple of pitches. Jason was moving quickly and our transitions were dialed thanks to the practice from the previous days. We negotiated the first couple of obstacles including a large air step and a horn that needed to be down climbed for a few steps.

Photo: Matt Baldelli
Photo: Matt Baldelli
Jason somewhere near the middle of the rock portion of the route

Our east coast friends let us pass them around the 3rd pitch of the route and we moved quickly to keep from slowing them down. We reached the Summit at 2pm as the clouds moved in for the weather change. SUMMIT! My 3rd time topping out on Forbidden Peak!

Jason on the false summit, with some of the best scenery that the North Cascades have to offer behind him.

We took a very short break on the summit, and began our descent. We rappelled from about mid route onto a loose ledge system on the north face and traversed for several hundred meters, regaining the route around the top of the second pitch where it was more level and easy to down climb. Our descent took 3 hours to get to the notch. Jim Nelson says in one of his guidebooks “There is no easy way off of forbidden peak”. What an understatement.

The east coast guys waited for us at the notch like true gentlemen and we descended together down the catscratch gullies, encountering choss, stuck ropes, and 3 full length raps to the glacier. Having 5 people to descend, we reached the glacier at dark around 9:30pm in whiteout conditions with visibility fluctuating between 100 and 200ft. It was cold, windy and we could hardly see. We met about 1000 feet below the bottom of the rap station on the snowfield and navigated back to camp together. We were wiped out; Jason and I didn’t reach camp until nearly midnight. We high five’d for the last time that day, he went strait to bed, and I ate about 1000 calories of mashed potatoes and tuna before crawling into bed.

Photo: Matt Baldelli
Photo: Matt Baldelli

Day 8:

Day 8 was a recovery day, after going for more than 20 hours the day before, we needed to sleep in and eat our way back to health. We debriefed our Forbidden climb in great detail, exchanging feedback and discussing techniques that I used that hadn’t been taught during our previous days together.

We ate lunch and practiced rock rescue for the rest of the day until we were getting soaked with rain. We nailed a short weather window, and I couldn’t be happier to have delivered the full Cascade Alpine Climbing experience to Jason, who is from Wisconsin and doesn’t have the pleasure of climbing these peaks every week of the summer.

We got into our tent for the evening and listened to a couple of podcasts from The Enormocast (a climbing podcast) while we rested and sat out the rain in the hotel de mega light.

Day 9:

We awoke to rain on the tent walls and got up for breakfast. We decided not to linger, and packed up camp quickly. The descent from Boston Basin is grueling with careful footwork and wet slabs, it takes almost as long as it does to ascend.

A nice break in the weather in Boston Basin

Boston Basin is one of my favorite places in the Cascades. Every time I return I feel closer to it, despite the mice, the marmots, and the burly approach. Walking down the trail back to the car, Jason and I both took some quiet time to reflect on the previous 8 days together and all we had learned. I feel fortunate to have a job where I get to teach important skills in such beautiful places. While I am teaching, I have the opportunity to learn more about myself, the mountains, and Alpine Climbing; What a gift.


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