It was only about 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I was sleeping in a hole in the snow that I dug out with my shovel, and the only thing that was separating my body from the wind and heavy snow and sleet pounding the side of the mountain that I happened to be on, was a flimsy, but determined tent.
I was poking the ceiling of my tent with my trekking pole every half hour to keep the snow that was accumulating there from in caving in, which would have caused myself and the seven other individuals that I was bundled in with to asphyxiate or freeze to death, whichever happened first. I really hoped that I wouldn't have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, because if I left my campsite, I could have easily fallen up to my arms in snow that was well over 60 feet deep.
I wasn't doing this as a drill, and I wasn't training with my unit in a remote region of Alaska. I was 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 & 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, and 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.
Of all the camping trips that I've been on during my life, this was literally the coolest (it was freezing), and certainly the most unique.
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.
After completing the basic course, many students then go off to climb Mount Rainier and other mountains in the Pacific Northwest. Some students will 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, then 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."
After heading to Mount Everest base camp last year, in the Nepali Himalayas, I immediately knew that I wanted to make the mountains even more a part of my life. It wasn't enough to just be surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world - I had to start climbing them. For me, climbing Mount Rainier was the obvious next step. I just needed a way in.
I signed up for the Basic Alpine course after stumbling upon JBLM Outdoor Recreation's Facebook page by accident.
As a specialist in charge of the public affairs office of the 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, an Army Reserve unit headquartered at the base of Mount Rainier, in the heart of the Pacific Northwest (our unit patch even has the mighty Columbia River on it!), the JBLM Alpine Club stood out like a sore thumb, in the best possible way.
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."
"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.
Mountaineering is a very expensive and cost-prohibitive sport to get into - at least initially. The JBLM Alpine Club provided a cost and opportunity into that world that I might not have otherwise been able to access. They even have that you can rent for much cheaper than you can get from civilian outfitters.
"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.
For more information visit jblmalpineclub.blogspot.com , or email JBLMalpineclub@gmail.com