Cascade Mountaineers snow skills weekend

Our local mountaineering club, the Cascades Mountaineers, has had a slow year with very few trips to glaciated mountains surrounding Oregon and Washington. This has mainly been due to a dearth of people qualified to lead groups up into the alpine wilderness. In response, the club’s board members enticed local mountain legend Mike Volk to teach a 6-day course, spread over 3 weekends, in order to qualify motivated club members to lead trips in the future. Luckily I was one of the members able to register and am very excited to be able to learn some new skills from such an esteemed member of the central Oregon climbing community. 

There are 9 of us learning how to lead mountaineering trips and it appears we all have differing levels of climbing experience. Some are more comfortable on rock, some on snow, and some are mostly hikers and campers with little technical climbing experience. Nevertheless we all seem to get along well and can all learn from one another over these 6 days. 

Our first weekend was June 2-3 2018, held at Three Creeks Lake, near Sisters, Oregon. The goal was to review basic snow skills such as using an ice axe and proper crampon technique. Mike is a classically trained mountaineer and taught us all the French terms for different axe positions and how to walk in crampons on slopes of varying steepness. It was great to put these skills to immediate use on the steep snowfields of Tam McArthur Rim above the lake, and we had absolutely perfect weather to boot!

Saturday afternoon we practiced self-arrest, creating snow anchors using pickets, axes, and natural features, belaying and rappelling using the Münter hitch, and walking as a member of a rope team. By the time 4pm rolled around we were all beat from being in the direct sun all day and gratefully stumbled the short but steep hillside back to camp. Several folks took an evening swim in the chilly lake while the rest of us sat in conversation and swatted away mosquitos. 

After the requisite campfire burned to embers, I slept very well under the stars in my down sleeping bag, didn’t get cold and enjoyed an excellent interstellar display of light.

Sunday morning we mobilized early and were walking back up Tam McArthur just after 7am with the goal of climbing Broken Hand, a sub peak to the east of Broken Top.  Most of the elevation gain is within the first few miles and pretty soon we could see our objective across the plateau separating Broken Hand and Tam McArthur Rim. Getting to the base of the climb was slow going as the snow was not very firm and led to a lot of post-holing for the first few hikers. 

To make matters worse, one fellow’s boot began to shed it’s sole and we had to do a duct tape repair job mid-approach. By midday we had arrived at the base of Broken Hand and Mike quickly scampered off to set a fixed line across a short, steep snow traverse. He found a sturdy anchor rock, set the handline, and we all confidently followed his track to solid ground. The second obstacle was a 30-foot section of class 4 rock scrambling that I led up and fixed another rope again using several stout rocks as anchors. Mike scrambled up after me and offered a few helpful pointers to improve my anchor, which I was thankful for, as the art of alpine anchoring is much less scientific than bolted sport climbing, and I have a lot to learn in this area. 

Once on top of Broken Hand we marveled at the view of the Three Sisters, Broken Top, and beyond but didn’t linger too long as ominous clouds were moving in and the wind was picking up. We made our usual slow, post holing progress across the snowy plateau and cut down Tam Rim on the way back to camp, adding some steep downhill hiking but ultimately saving us several miles on the return. 

Everyone seemed pretty worked back at camp and we mostly picked up our area, packed the cars, and took off for home. The drive back was quiet and contemplative as we considered the new skills we had learned and tried not to fall asleep from exhaustion. Overall this was a very useful weekend spent reinforcing snow climbing skills and I am looking forward to our next meeting, in July, when we will practice crevasse rescue. 

Have Fun and Stay Safe, 





Andrew Kersh