Imagine that it's 10 degrees outside. You're literally sleeping in a hole in the snow that you dug out with your shovel, and the only thing that's separating you from the wind and heavy snow and sleet pounding the side of the mountain that you're on is a flimsy, but determined tent.

You have to poke the ceiling of your tent with your trekking pole every half hour to keep the snow that's accumulating there from in caving in, which would cause you to asphyxiate or freeze to death if left unchecked. If you accidentally stumble outside of your campsite in the middle of the night, you could fall up to your arms in snow that could be well over 60 feet deep.

This isn't a drill, or mandatory unit readiness training in a remote region of Alaska. There are soldiers doing this for fun!

The Basic Alpine course is just one of several instructional mountaineering courses that the JBLM Alpine Club, a branch of Joint-Base Lewis-McChord Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) offers to service members, family members, retirees and Department of Defense (DoD) civilians.

"The Basic Alpine course is designed for people who want to experience mountaineering to dip their feet in and see if it's what they want," said John Dorman, Senior Alpine Guide and Instructor for JBLM Alpine Programs.

"It's to really open your eyes and show you what's out there," he added.

Feet in the Water

Consisting of four full days of instruction, spread over two weekends, the Basic Alpine course introduces and familiarizes students with a wide-range of mountaineering skills and knowledge, including self-arrest, glacier travel, how to use an ice axe, signs and symptoms of high-altitude sickness, crevasse rescue and more.

The course culminates in an overnight practical exercise at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. There, students learn how camp in the snow, survive sub-freezing temperatures, navigate the backcountry, and practice the skills that they learned in the classroom in a realistic training environment.

Going Higher

After completing the basic course, many students then go off to climb Mount Rainier and other mountains in the Northwest. Some also take the Intermediate Alpine course, and eventually head to Denali, North America's highest peak, in Alaska.

"Mount Rainier is what a lot of people start off doing," said Dorman. "If you want to do bigger and bigger mountains, obviously you have to go somewhere else. It's a natural progression of mountaineering."

"The ultimate destination of course, is Nepal, the Himalayas," Dorman said. We have the capability to do some of the 8,000 meter peaks. We've priced out Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, Island Peak, as well as some of the smaller peaks there. The sky is literally the limit."

Making the Grade

"I thought [the Basic Alpine Course] was phenomenal," said Mark Deschenes, an operations officer with I Corps. "These opportunities can't be found anywhere else that I'm aware of in my 27-year military career."

"We wanted to climb Mount Rainier," said Jeff Wilson, an active duty airman. "We're going in August," added his wife, Kim, who also took the course.

"John and Derrick have a very large depth of knowledge," said Joseph Byrnes, an active duty soldier stationed at JBLM. "You can tell that they're passionate about mountaineering and sharing their experiences."

Dream Big

"I have a gentleman who's doing the highest peak in every state," said Dorman. Mountains like Denali, Rainier and Mount Whitney require technical climbing skills, and "over the next three years, he's going to work with us to achieve that goal."

Another member of the club is training to climb K2, the world's second highest mountain, in 2020.

Since MWR is funded by the Department of Defense, the Alpine Club is able to offer its courses and trips for significantly less than equivalent offerings from civilian recreation companies, in some cases even as much as half as much.

Start Somewhere!

"If you're interested in mountaineering, and it's hard not to when you stare at Rainier every day from where we work, then you should absolutely go for it," said Deschenes.

"Go for it! Use your leave for something cool," added Wilson.

"Get out there, go do it!" concluded Dorman.

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