Friday, June 13, 2008

Get to Know Your Guide: An bio and story from Mike Pond

Every week, we take the reader into the interesting and ever-changing life of an American Alpine Institute guide. Every AAI guide is very experienced in alpine and rock climbing, and all have received professional training in advanced guiding techniques and rescue. Collectively they have one of the highest levels of wilderness first aid, avalanche, and Leave No Trace training among the world's international guide services.

This week, we interview Mike Pond, one of our most recent hires. We are very excited to have Mike guiding with us - his enthusiasm and personal climbing experiences are remarkable.

Hometown: Somers, New York
Recent trips and expeditions with AAI: Alpine Ice Climbing, Mt. Baker Skill and Climb, Alpinism 1
Upcoming courses with AAI: Alpine Mountaineering and Technical Leadership, and additional Alpine Ice courses and Mt. Baker Skill and Climb trips.

This week, instead of an interview, we asked Mike to write a story on a recent summit of Mt. Baker.

On Tuesday, June 3rd, my climbing partner (an AAI climber) and I climbed the Coleman-Deming route on Mt. Baker to conclude his four-day alpine ice climbing course.

On the Lower Coleman Glacier near our camp at tree line, my climbing partner and I had three days of preparatory instruction in glacial travel, crevasse rescue, ice and snow climbing, and extensive rope work. My partner's mountain experience showed as we reviewed the "basic" techniques, and were able to go quite in-depth into rescue and anchor systems. After an eleven-hour skills day concluding in a tour of the lower Coleman Glacier, I knew that we would make a good team to attempt the summit of Mt. Baker.

The route we set our eyes on was the Coleman-Deming route, which climbs the gradually-ascending Coleman glacier to the saddle between Baker and its neighbor, Colefax. From there, route finding becomes more difficult as one climbs the Deming glacier to its top, ascending steep snow and a little ice until the peak's summit plateau. The steep upper sections are the technical crux of the climb, but the route's true difficulty lies in its length. We anticipated that it would take over sixteen hours to complete.

We woke at midnight to see weather we anticipated: cold fog and light snow – not terrible, but not promising, either. The lack of visibility was what would be the big challenge: in a whiteout, navigation becomes the crux of a climb, added onto the route's other inherent challenges from terrain. We decided to climb, agreeing that we would continually reevaluate the weather conditions as we neared the upper sections of the climb. He understood we could turn back if he ever started feeling uncomfortable with the weather or the climb itself.

At 12:30am, we left by headlamp, seeing the lights of another summit team above us on the low lateral morraine called the Hog's Back, which is used to approach the northern lobe of the Coleman glacier. It was colder this morning than in the past week, resulting in firm snow that made travel easy and fast. We made good time during the first five hours of climbing. As the sun rose, it brought deteriorating weather. The flurries and fog turned into continuous snow and lowering visibility: not too optimistic, but the mountains rarely offer predictable weather.

During the following 45 minutes, the conditions improved, enabling us to see at least a hundred meters – and snow had slowed. As we were right on schedule, feeling strong, and seeing the weather improve, we decided to go for the summit.

I shortened the rope and started up a steeper section of the glacier with my partner close behind, following in my steps. Despite the large number of climbers that recently climbed this route, we saw only faint tracks in the snow, indicative of the recent weather: the high winds and precipitation wiped them out, leaving little for us to follow. We stepped over a few "ankle-biter" crevasses and were on our way.

After a half-hour, the climbing got harder and the weather worse. Steep, firm snow made us put on crampons and walk cautiously while the wind increased. Light snow turned into a freezing rain-sleet mixture that covered our sides in a quarter-inch thick layer of ice. The greater visibility we enjoyed lower vanished as the visibility dropped to under forty feet. Following the compass and a set of bearings that we had carefully plotted out the previous night, we fought the wind and snow on our way toward the top. Climbing in these conditions was both a physical and a mental workout, as we worked diligently to maintain our course as we switch-backed our way next to the Roman Wall, the steepest section of climbing on the route. My climbing partner applied his recently-honed French technique skills that we practiced during the previous days' training on the lower glacier.

After a few hundred meters of similar terrain, a sudden blast of wind informed me that we had reached the top of the Roman Wall and the base of the summit plateau. This is the last stretch of climbing leading to the top. I planted a ski pole to aid in our return navigation and set a new bearing for the true summit of Mt. Baker. A few chilly minutes later, we both agreed that we were at the top because, well, we couldn't see anything above us (we couldn't see much of anything anyway, but we were satisfied that we were standing on, or had already passed the summit).

Now that we were nearly half-way through our day, I followed the compass to our ski pole that marked the way down. As we set up the rope for the descent, I chuckled at our rope's condition: the ice that built up during the past few hours made unscrewing our carabiners and uncoiling the rope quite difficult. I had to hold the biners in my hand for a minute before they thawed enough to open, and we could only uncoil half of the rope.

For the steep upper section, I set up belays and did a series of lowers for my partner, after which I down climbed to him. When the slope mellowed, we walked together down to the col (with a short route finding error on my part - sorry!). At the col, we were greeted by an absence of wind, which we relished as we took a much-appreciated break. We then followed the Coleman glacier down to the Hog's Back and glissaded our way down to our camp, where some friends on another AAI course were practicing the snow climbing techniques we used hours before.

Tired, and tired of walking, we found ourselves back at camp thirteen hours after leaving. Instead of spending a nice afternoon in camp, we packed and began the five mile hike out in heavy rain. With tired legs and aching feet, we arrived at the van at 5:30pm - only seventeen hours after starting. Not a bad day out in the mountains.

For more information on our Mt. Baker Skills and Climb course, please follow this link.

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