Rookie Here

4:35 p.m. on July 15, 2008 (EDT)
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Hi All,

I'm new to this forum. I've become very intrigued by mountaineering, of recent. I have little to no mountaineering experience. I'm 26 and in good shape. I have done a fair amount of strenuous backpacking (Quetico - canoeing; Chimanimani Mountains - Zimbabwe; Colorado, etc) but nothing that would qualifyy as mountaineering, per se.

My question is this: I've been looking at guided expeditions on Mt. Rainier, since through my research this seems to be considered a good jumping off point for people who are interested in this passtime. Is this a reasonable place for an in-shape novice to start(In addition to the research and conditioning I need to do)? I saw that a few outfits even offered McKinley prep courses (that include Ranier summits).

Any suggestions are much appreciated.



11:45 p.m. on July 15, 2008 (EDT)
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The National Park Service opened the guiding permits on Rainier to more than just Rainier Mountaineering a couple years ago. A couple of the guide services (including RMI) also guide Denali (there are only 5 companies currently allowed to guide Denali). Paying a guide service, like American Alpine Institute, is a fairly good, albeit expensive, way to learn mountaineering. These guide services have courses in everything from the basics of camping in winter and high altitude conditions (as well as basic basic beginner camping for the person who has never stayed outside a motel) on up through basic, intermediate, and advanced rock climbing, alpine mountaineering, and ice climbing. They usually have a series of courses they would like you to take, leading up to their expeditions. Based on my observations of the courses and expeditions involving various guide services, I would put the two AAI's above the rest in quality of instruction and running their expeditions. RMI has a tendency to run "cattle drives" on both Rainier and Denali, at least the expeditions and courses I have seen them do in both places, where American Alpine Institute and Alpine Ascents International give more individualized attention and seem to have better guide to client ratios (I have friends who guide for all 3 of these guide services, as well as a few others).

Some of the training courses are given on Mt Baker, in the North Cascades, which seems a bit better than Rainier for such things, since the crowds are less. I think the crevasses there are better for practice crevasse rescue as well.

One thing the guide service training courses do not give you is experience and development of judgment. They lead you by the hand through the the courses, and many of the expeditions led by the guide services are not a lot more than a high adventure version of a bus tour. That is, you don't get to do much participation in the decision processes, but are along for the hike, with the guides making all the decisions, from the meals, to when you go to bed and get up, to setting the pace (RMI also goes so far as to decide who has to turn back when if they think you are going too slow - but then they have lots of clients per guide, so "too slow" can mean a lot more than when you have only 2 or 3 clients per guide). Some of the services take your personal skill and experience into consideration more than others, and may split the groups during the courses by how well some are doing.

All in all, if all you are after is preparation to take a guided climb up a big mountain, the guide services are all pretty much fine. But you need to look more closely at them if you are looking to going on your own trips with your friends. The 2 AAI's are better, I think, at getting the groundwork for your own independent climbing eventually.

12:18 p.m. on July 16, 2008 (EDT)
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Oh, lets see....... I consider myself a total novice climber, I've done a 6 day Denali/intro to mountaineering with RMI up the Kautz glacier, a mt Baker climb with American Alpine institute, and I just returned from a climb up Sahale Peak with Mountain Madness, as well as doing Mt st. Helens and Mt. Adams on my own. I completely agree with Bill about RMI, if you want to get up and down Rainier as an intro RMI is fine. I was totally impressed by the professionalism of AAI in Bellingham, the guides were patient with everyone our rope team, and the guides explained everything and why we did it. My recent trip with mountain Maddness was fantastic, I had the best guides I've ever had. There were four clients and two guides on the trip. Certinly it is the guide more than the company who makes a trip go from good to unforgitable. I will definitly go with Mountain madness again!

These trips are expensive!!! I do not have a lot of money(I'm a teacher) but each one has given me skills that I can now use on my own, and I always pick the guides brain with questions like "I want to do a trip on my own I was thinking of ANYNAME Mt. Do you think it is within my skills to do on my own? Any advice for when I go? They always give you tons of Ideas.

Short answer is, yes Rainier is a fine place to start. I went in early June and there were 0 crowds. It was my first climb. I learned a ton.

2:04 p.m. on July 16, 2008 (EDT)
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jeffrey and Bill S,

Thanks a ton for your guidance here. I'm glad to hear that you think Rainier is a good jumping off point for someone who is trying to grasp the basics. While I would like to actually summit Rainier, part of me thinks it would be more beneficial to focus on their Denali prep course so I can really spent time focusing on the fundamentals. In any case, I appreciate your taking the time to offer your advice.


12:33 p.m. on July 17, 2008 (EDT)
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Something to keep in mind is that mountains like Rainier and especially Denali are serious undertakings. Last night, one of our local PBS stations re-ran the Nova program Deadly Ascent. This is, like all Nova programs, a serious science program, discussing the risks, with a focus on the physiological aspects. The major discussion is by Dr. Peter Hackett, one of the foremost researchers in high altitude physiology. The program documents an expedition to measure a lot of the physical aspects, including the first time a "thermometer pill" was used. This is a capsule that measures internal temperature (you swallow it), measured by a radio transmission from the pill as it passes through your GI to an external receiver. The climbers are 2 guides (Colby Coombs and his wife) and a NASA scientist (John Grunsfeld, Chief Scientist for NASA). It was done in 1999, when I was on my 3rd expedition to Denali. As it turned out, John is an astronomer by training and an astronaut who I knew from my research time at Goddard SFC. After a week of waiting out storms at 17,000 ft, I had picked up a viral infection in my upper respiratory system (took 3 weeks after returning to get rid of it). So I didn't head for the summit with the others in my party who did successfully summit. Instead, I spent the day with John, comparing notes on things like oxygen saturation.

Thing about the mountains is that they are challenging in many ways, and you are taking risks. You have to monitor your health at all times, plus there are the objective dangers. This season has been a particularly bad one. One climber collapsed on the summit without warning. At this point, the cause of death is unknown. There was another similar death, plus 2 climbers who just disappeared, as well as a major rescue effort (successful) of a climber who fell some 2000 ft from the West Buttress.

Not to dissuade you from your dream, but become and stay fully aware that big mountains are serious business. Don't get macho, and keep your hubris under control. If you do that, you are a long way toward a very satisfying, exciting, and fun activity. Make sure you are climbing for the right reasons, not because you are "proving" something.

2:17 p.m. on July 17, 2008 (EDT)
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Thanks Bill. I understand that Ranier and Denali are serious undertakings, which is why I want to approach this with as much caution and planning as possible - starting with finding the outfit that can provide me the best training. You're guys guidance has been helpful in this quest.

Very interesting stuff re: your expedition with John Grunsfeld. I've been doing some reading on Pulmanary and Cerebral edema. Sort of creepy given that it seems to pretty unpredictable.

If you don't mind me asking, what were some other memorable expeditions you've been on? Have you climbed in any other countries?

3:33 p.m. on July 17, 2008 (EDT)
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You can see trip reports for my Dec 2006 Antarctic trip and my Dec 2007 Tanzania trip in the News forum here on Trailspace. So yes, I have climbed in about 10 or 12 countries on 6 continents (Antarctica officially by international treaty is not any country, though several countries insist on claiming parts of the continent just in case the treaty gets abrogated by some maverick group). Never been to Asia.

Memorable expeditions? Actually, some weekend trips to the Sierra have been more memorable than Denali. Denali is just a long snow slog, when you come right down to it - 10 days of slogging uphill through the snow hauling 40 pounds on your back and pulling a 50-60 pound sled, sometimes in a whiteout blizzard where you can't see anything, along with 5 to 7 days of sitting in a tent flapping in a 70 knot wind and no visibility, and a half hour enjoying and photographing fabulous views on a perfect day at the summit. I would have to place a couple of week-long trips to the Bugaboos, climbing that fantastic rock with good friends, near the top of memorable "expeditions". The Tanzania trip was memorable because of the combination of getting up close and personal with critters (photosafari shared with Barb) and the hike up Kili where I became good friends with the required crew of guide, cook, and porters. The Vinson trip was also a case of sharing the trek with friends.

Actually, that's what makes a trip of any kind memorable - good companions.

8:30 a.m. on July 28, 2008 (EDT)
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Hey i am new here to.I was wondering from where did you learn that course of climbing.
any knowledge of climbing schools would proove healpfull to me .


10:33 a.m. on July 28, 2008 (EDT)
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I came across this company just from doing online research. Based on what more experienced folks have told me, its a reputable outfit.


1:21 p.m. on July 28, 2008 (EDT)
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michell -
First thing is, you are going to have to travel a ways from Florida to learn climbing beyond the climbing gym level (climbing on plastic is very different from climbing on real rock). There is active rock climbing in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, the closest areas to you. I am not familiar with any climbing schools, if they exist, in those areas.

I learned climbing and the outdoors from a lifetime of mostly working with mentors, with very little in formal "climbing schools". My parents had me in the outdoors before I could walk. I learned a fair amount from Boy Scouts (my father was also a scout leader, so that could be considered "parents" as well, along with a number of other adults who worked with scouts). As I got into high school, I came in contact with more experienced climbers, most of whom were happy to provide hints and tutoring to a young beginner. In college (both undergrad and grad), I joined the university climbing clubs, as well as joining the Sierra Club (they had active rock climbing, mountaineering, and ski mountaineering sections in most chapters in those days, before they went super political and before the insurance companies boosted rates astronomically, due to all the lawsuits). Still, most of the learning took place with more experienced climbers who I met through the clubs and at the climbing areas. There are a few formal courses I have taken - wilderness first aid and wilderness first responder are two of the most important, courses put on by the former rock climbing sections of Sierra Club chapters (these do not exist anymore), avalanche safety courses, backcountry and telemark ski instruction (skiing is a skill that does require some formal instruction to avoid or break bad habits), and some courses when I wanted a quick jump to more advanced skills in ice climbing and crevasse rescue. Mainly, it is getting out and doing it with more experienced people.

Formal courses and, to some extent, books can provide a basis and an introduction to fundamentals. But there is no substitute for getting out with more experienced mentors.

Having said that, there are commercial guide services, like Alpine Ascents International (Seattle), American Alpine Institute (Bellingham), Yosemite Climbing School (Yosemite National Park), Alpine Skills International (Truckee, CA), Exum Guides (Wyoming), Mountain Adventure Seminars (Bear Valley, CA), National Outdoor Leadership Schools, Outward Bound, International Mountain Schools (IME, North Conway, NH), and others, and climbing clubs like Colorado Mountain Club, Mazamas (Oregon)and Seattle Mountaineers that provide very good instruction. Each one of these has different styles, philosophies, and approaches, some of which might suit you, some of which definitely will be a really bad fit (all depends on your attitude and experience). The ones I named have good reputations and aim toward getting you out on your own. There are numerous guide services that want you to keep coming back to them, so they don't really teach you a lot that can make you independent. The particular instructors you get may or may not be a good fit for you. I have some good friends who are professional guides, who are reasonable as occasional climbing partners, but I really would not want as an instructor. Yet I have heard their students rave about how great they were as instructors.

2:24 p.m. on July 28, 2008 (EDT)
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I have not gone on a trip with Alpine Ascents Int yet but I hear they are good. I thought you may be interested in the video I made on my Denali prep course on Rainier with RMI
It was a six day course we learned how to use ascenders, make snow anchors, Ice climb on seracs, mixed climbing, crevasse rescue, self arrest, etc. You can also see we moved camps up the mountain slowly like you would on Denali. I was pleased with the amount I learned in those few short days. Though I would not be able to set up the z pulley system again without the help of someone else, I feel familiar enough with the concept that I would be able to learn it again very fast. If you don't use it you lose it right!

I still can't say enough good things about American Alpine institute or Mountain Madness. Both companies had fantastic guides that were great teachers. They always told you why and when to use every technique, and if they didn't I asked! Next trip I go on with a guide service it will probably be with MM or AAI in Bellingham. Both are top notch! Just for fun I'll post the video again from the Mountain madness climb. I wish you could taste how good the food was through the video!

I definitely agree with Bill about learning from others climbers and clubs. My goal is to some day become a more independent climber, and like anything else you learn best by doing. Being from Florida it has been difficult to find partners and clubs to learn from in the mountains. Going through a guiding company has made the mountains accessible without being a burden or liability on a club trip. IMO it is the clients responsibility to pick the brain of the guide as much as possible to learn. When you go, ask the guide questions like "how did you decide we should go this way" or "how can you tell the snow bridge is safe to cross?" Build your knowledge

Have fun!

June 19, 2018
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