Sunday, January 24, 2016

How to be a mountaineer (when you can't climb in the summer)

When I took an alpine mountaineering class at 25, I didn't know how much I would like it.  Although I was a strong hiker, I'd never climbed before.  Showing up for the six day class, I was intimidated.  I didn't know anyone.  The instructors, a super fit, attractive couple named Matt and Julie, stomped through deep snow toward our campsite on Mt. Baker while the students followed meekly, loaded down with tents and group climbing gear.  What have I gotten myself into, I wondered.

But I had nothing to worry about.  Everyone was friendly.  I ended up sharing a tent with an amiable Australian named Andrew.  We all made the summit on a sunny June day.  I decided I liked this mountaineering stuff.  However, I didn't anticipate how much my job would get in the way.
Mt. Baker summit. Not very high tech gear, but I made it! Note duct taped pants, from a crampon mishap.
As a wildland firefighter, you pretty much write off the months between May and October (and often, April and November) for anything other than preparing to fight fire, fighting fire, and closing up shop after fighting fire.  This is sort of a challenge, but through the years I've made it work.  Here's how:

1.  Give up on North America and probably Europe and a lot of other places (I'm not really interested in struggling up peaks in the winter). This means no Mt. Rainier for you.  This is kind of a bummer, because it means your trips will probably take longer and cost more. There probably won't be any do-overs if you don't make the summit.  But every trip will be an adventure!  (see #5 for an alternate plan).

2.   Go south. Kilimanjaro!  The volcanoes of Ecuador!  Nepal trekking peaks! Even Antarctica!  All those mountains are out there, and you'll meet people from all over the world climbing them.
At Stella Point on the way to the summit of Kilimanjaro
3.  Embrace high elevation.  I've climbed a lot higher than I would have if I had summers off and climbed domestically.  In Nepal, Mt. Rainier would be a little hill; climb Mera Peak instead and get to over 21,000'.  Impress your friends.
Summit of Mera. Mt. Everest is the highest peak in the back center of this photo.
4.  Use your hard work to fund your trips. Eight hundred or more hours of overtime in a summer is a grind.  Long days on the fireline and on wind-scoured helibases, supervising a bunch of minions, isn't always easy.  But, it does help pay for a great trip to an amazing place.
Climbing in Antarctica
And, if all else fails and there is some place you really, really want to go in June, Iceland for example:

5.  Catch your boss in a good mood and ask (mine's almost always in a good mood so it was easy)! That's how I was able to climb mountains last June for the first time since Mt. Baker so many years ago.  Hello Northern Hemisphere! I've missed you.  Where can I go next?
Climbing in Iceland in a whiteout


  1. Really love the photos! Iceland in June does not look like summer climbing! So many wonderful traveling and climbing adventures, on many continents. You can look back at these and say, "That was amazing!"

  2. I love hearing about your adventures!!!

  3. wow your life seems so happening :) best wishes

  4. With all your time off in the winters, you should get into ski mountaineering ;) Looks like you have been on some amazing trips.


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