This was our campsite in Lassen Volcanic National Park. The “black” triangle in the top center is Brokeoff Mountain (also known as Mt Tehama). This was at 4am. We had just woken up to an “alpine start”, to try and summit the peak while the snow was still hard, before the sun came out and turned it into something too slushy to ascent in. The moon had just set in the West behind that ridge – and its afterglow still leaked into the sky, leaving only the brightest stars visible.
When out in the backcountry, especially in the winter, you can’t really count on having any marked trails. We spent a good amount of time studying maps of the area, identifying the trailhead, waypoints and landmark features before we even left home. We also researched recent trip reports from others and talked to the rangers on the phone to better understand what to anticipate on the ground. Then we plotted our planned route with waypoints on the map using the Garmin software on my laptop. We loaded the map and route onto the GPS. And then also printed the map on paper and laminated it so it wouldn’t get damaged in the snow.
On the trail, it took us way longer than our most liberal estimate as we got lost quite a few times and had to backtrack and re-evaluate our plan a few times. Eventually, the GPS battery died. We had 4 more sets of backup batteries between the two of us so that wasn’t an actual problem. But a GPS can stop working for various other reasons.
So we decided to use this as an opportunity to sharpen our compass-based way-finding skills. Paper doesn’t run out of power 😋 Not so fast, however. We hadn’t checked our compasses closely. Both of them had developed bubbles after years of use. Maybe we left our packs out in too much heat without realizing it. But that meant it became very unreliable to sight using the compasses.
So we finally switched to the last fail-safe. Using landmarks (and elevation using the solar altimeter) to locate ourselves and chart our progress. That turned out to be quite easy as there were a lot of streams that served as natural guide-rails. We emerged exactly where we had parked our car within +/- 10ft error. That was a little surprising but quite awesome.
Always carry extra batteries for every electronic device you rely on. Always have an analog backup if possible. Spend some time thinking about things that are most likely to go wrong and have mitigations in place.
We attempted a late season climb of Mt Baker in Washington state. We were not experience enough to be just a two-person rope team – so that was kinda stupid. But we were quite risk averse in other ways. When we realized that the sun was beating quite hard and the snow bridges were beginning to melt, we decided it wasn’t safe to continue upwards. Given 80% of mountaineering accidents happen on the way down, we didn’t want to push our luck. Two other parties continued ascending and they did summit and also came back down safely. Different risk appetite, and luck.
Alpine Climbing Equipment
When going out into the backcountry, one has to be prepared for all kinds of weather. The goal is to read the weather and understand the conditions in advance and avoid running into a bad weather window to begin with. But it’s all a probability and everything helps in making sure you stay safe. Here’s the climbing gear between two climbers:
Starting from the bottom is the insulation pads to protect from the cold snow on which you sleep. The crampons attach to the climbing boots and provide traction in icy terrain. The helmets are a must to protect from rock-fall caused by other climbers or melting snow. These boots have a 3’4th shank of metal in the sole which is very useful for kicking steps in the snow and for getting strong levarage when trying to step on 1” ledges on rocks.
The best way to carry water in the cold, freezing conditions is these wide mouth ones. Easy to put fresh snow into as you sip from it. At night it also doubles up as a warm water bottle that you slip into your sleeping bag. The rope here is not the actual climbing rope we used – the purpose of rope in alpine climbing is also for traversing on glaciers and rescuing from crevasses. The ice-axe is the hiking stick, gives you support when going up, helps you arrest a fall when you slip, can be used as a quick belay, as a deadweight anchor etc. The gaiters are worn on the boots to prevent any snow from creeping into the feet. Climbing harness, carabiners, rescue pulley
Sleeping bags, down summit jacket, extra fleece layer – when in doubt, throw in an extra layer. Gloves, hats, mittens, redundancy is very useful. If you lose a glove, and that’s all you have, you will eventually lose your hand or have to turn around. Tent, tent poles and tent snow stakes. All 3. If you forget one, you are screwed. We learned it a very very hard way.
We carry a fancy GPS, but also carry old school compass and maps. Sophisticated technology is more likely to fail. Redundancy, and proficiency helps.
Glacier glasses. When you are exposed to bright snow for 16hours, your eyes get fried. It can take a day or two to be able to use them again. Glacier glasses are a must. They prevent light from entering from anywhere. On that note, you have to protect even the inside of your nostrils from the sun. Anything exposed to light will get sunburned and it’s painful.
Pickets to create quick anchors when you end up in tricky spots or to rescue someone. A quick showel to create a platform for the tent, or to dig out a teammate from an avalanche (can’t really joke about this).
Stove, firestarter, fuel. Duct tape. Be safe.