Scrambling course, or, ‘Don’t Die in the Mountains’

The line between exhilarating and terrifying is very fine.

When you cross the line into terrifying, you know. Before you try something, though, it’s really hard to know where exactly that line is. I spent a day over the weekend looking for that line.

I’m taking a scrambling course through the Everett Mountaineers. I call it my “Don’t Die in the Mountains” class. The Mountaineers, a respected organization of outdoor enthusiasts, teach many classes on how to have fun — safely — outside. The focus is, of course, on the mountains. They teach snowshoeing, climbing, scrambling, hiking, backpacking and more.

I want to gain confidence in my ability to hike and backpack safely. I also want to test my limits in a safe way. So, all day Saturday, along with many other students, I practiced scrambling near Eightmile Campground outside Leavenworth.

My favorite part of the entire day was something called arm rappelling. In short, you use a rope strategically wrapped around your arms to rappel down a steep slope. I expected it to be terrifying. I listened to the instructor, I gave it a try. When I reached the bottom, I felt like a kid at the bottom of a slide. “THAT was fun,” I told the instructor. And then I felt the adrenalin kick in. I think I found the exact line between exhilaration and terror.

Later, I told another instructor how much I loved the rappelling. “Careful,” she teased, “that’s how it all started with me. I took the scrambling class and I said ‘I am never climbing,’ but it gets addictive.”

The field trip was broken into several parts. We worked on navigation first, one of the things I have been most excited to learn. I gained a lot of good, practical advice about map reading and how to figure out where you are. A few little tidbits:

  • If you’re trying to identify a peak, look for vegetation. If you think you’re looking at an 8,000 foot peak, and there are trees on top, you are wrong. Don’t expect any trees above 6,000 feet or so around here.
  • Distances can be tricky. If two peaks look similar distances apart, try looking at the trees. If on one you can see details, and on the other they look like match sticks, the latter is clearly farther away.
  • When you’re using the sun to tell the direction, look at your shadow and work backward, rather than trying to calculate the direction of the actual sun.
  • When reading a map, pay attention to what areas are indicated as vegetation-free. It can give you a lot of clues to what is what.

All of these things, after hearing them, seem beyond simple. It’s pure common sense, but they were all things I hadn’t thought of in that way. And it’s easier to understand when you’re actually outside, staring at a map and the terrain. I feel a lot more confident in my map skills after this excursion, and I know I’ll keep learning more in the next trips.

Another section of the field trip focused on walking on slab. The instructor showed us good techniques, showed us how to look for the best places to step and how to minimize the risk of falling or slipping.

The sections of rock where we practiced were rather entertaining. You could tell by the moss-free strip of rock that generations of scrambling students have worked on their skills here.

We learned to keep as much as our boot as possible on the rock, to keep our weight low, and our feet pointing straight in our direction of travel. I had trouble with that last one. I naturally wanted to step down sideways, but that put so much less of my boot on the rock that I quickly learned it made me less secure.

We also practiced bouldering. That was fun, but I had to fight some unhelpful instincts. The first rule they told us was “no knees, no elbow.” Huh. When I scramble up things, I make frequent use of my knees and elbows. Turns out, though, they are right. The closer your knee gets to the rock, the less weight you are putting on your feet. And that’s when your boots stop working and you slip. Your boots can’t hold you in place if you’re not keeping your weight over them. I managed to keep my knees off the rock. Mostly. And I only slipped a few times.

I also found one of my limits, standing up on a small surface. I stood up on one of the boulders with a very small flat area, and a drop on all sides. When I tried to look away from my feet, I swayed alarmingly. So, good to know. When on a small surface, don’t stop to admire the scenery.

Our final stop of the day was at “Hole in the Wall.” In this section we climbed up a small chimney-like opening in the rock. That was hard, and a bit scary. Climbing down, however, crossed the line from exhilarating to terrifying. The instructor with me, who deserves an award for patience, talked me through it over and over and over until I could do it. I made it down, but I wished for longer legs the entire time. At 5-feet, 4 inches, with relatively short arms and legs, I’m at a disadvantage. Steps that are an easy reach for someone even a few inches taller are big stretch, or impossible, for me.

Sadly, I’m pretty sure I’m done growing. I don’t think I can expect any more sudden height in my 30s.

My final activity of the day was something called stemming. The stemming itself is fun. You sit with your back against a wall and feet propped on a facing wall. (Another case where I’m at a disadvantage with my short legs – but this wall was close enough for me) Then you inch along. Turning around, however, was not easy. I was supposed to be able to turn from one direction to the other without using the handy safety rock below me. I finally got it, but it took me probably 15 minutes, when I know some of my classmates had sorted it out in moments. Yet another instructor deserves an award for patience. Once I got it, it was absurd how simple it was. And I did it repeatedly before coming down. It’s kind of embarrassing how accomplished I felt, given how long it took me to figure it out.

I ended the day exhausted, but excited. I tested some limits and found out they were farther than I thought. I found a few limits I didn’t even expect. I really appreciated the grippy soles on my hiking boots – good thing, since they cost a fortune.

The next trip is on snow. My goal: Learn how to use an ice ax without impaling myself or anyone else.

Also, I hear we may get to make a snow cave and the 6-year-old in me is giddy with excitement.

More about The Mountaineers

You can read more about the Everett Mountaineers here. They have a seminar coming up on hiking basics. You need to register, but it is free. Click here to read more about that and to register. You can learn more about the scrambling course here.

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