Why the Mountaineers Suck

 

There are so many reasons not to join the mountaineers that you must ask yourself why would anyone join the organization? I joined so that I would have a pool of available people who are willing to go camping or climbing or just go on a hike when my friends were not available or willing. Mostly, I had been trying to climb Mt. Rainier and was finding a shortage of qualified people. I was even willing to train people myself in crevasse rescue but was still unable to find enough people. And certainly scheduling flexibility was a must. So I joined the mountaineers in September 2003, with the intent of enrolling in the Basic Climbing course in January.

 

The basic climbing course is a beginner’s course, covering all aspects from rock climbing to glacier travel to outdoor camping. The course has no pre-requisites and does not assume any previous knowledge. To complete the course, students must attend approximately 5 lectures, 5 field trips, and complete 3 “basic” climbs, which include a climb of Mt. Rainier. A climb is only completed if the summit is reached. None of the lectures are truly useful – they all assume students have read the book and provide opportunity to rehash what you read in groups.

 

 

Varying Levels of Experience Required to Graduate

 

Students must complete 3 climbs to pass the course. Some students succeed on the first 3 tries, others could potentially never summit. We’ll assume that it takes the average student 5 climbs to summit 3 times. Presumably this climbing requirement is to ensure all students get enough experience before moving on past the basic climbs. Obviously, since the mountaineers allow it, only 3 climbs are required to have sufficient experience. Yet what of the student who has to give up 5 weekends (one climb generally takes an entire weekend) simply because twice their party decided to turn around, perhaps just feet from the summit, due to bad weather, an injury, or fatigue. I suggest that a failed climb is a better learning experience than a success. Some of the basic climbs are so easy that you simply walk up the mountain, then walk back down (ok, maybe not quite, but you get the idea). For the students that do this three times, they begin to think that mountain climbing is an easy sport without much danger, and that they can succeed at whatever climb they try. However, the students who had an injury in their party and had to help someone off the mountain, or were chased down by thunder and lightning, or were simply too tired to continue realize that they are not invincible, and that it is possible to get in over their heads. I’d rather be climbing with someone who has been in thunderstorms on a mountain before and realizes their danger, rather than someone who got lucky once and now wants to push on to the summit, claiming “we can make it and be back down before the rain even starts.”

 

Obviously, the mountaineers cannot require 3 failed climbs for the course, nor can they allow students to get a third of the way up a mountain only to turn around out of laziness to count as part of their climbs. However, I think that the three climb requirement should be relaxed to include climbs where the party has gone at least half way up a mountain and turned around either due to weather or injury, and ¾ of the way up and turned around due to fatigue. One successful climb can still be required; out of three attempts, one ought to succeed, and students will only need to devote three weekends to the course instead of five.

 

At the Rock I field trip at Spanaway Park, we were required to perform a few rappels (3, I think) along with our climbs. I remember waiting for my first rappel when I noticed a girl crying at the top of her rappel due to a fear of heights, being consoled by two instructors. I rappelled and came back for my second. She was still there by the time I had completed my third and final rappel. I understand that people are terrified of heights. I’m certainly quite uncomfortable myself. And I realize that during various potions of the basic course, such fears may become very apparent, perhaps for the first time. However, I don’t believe that spending a large portion of a field trip working through those fears while monopolizing two instructors is something that should be acceptable. There needs to be a system where instructors can tell a student they are not ready to complete the course, but they should come back next year once they have worked through a fear.

 

 

Poor Instruction

 

Related to the time issue, probably the major problems with the course is its lack of organization and poor instruction. The course is taught by volunteers. Long-time Mountaineers members organize the course, teach at the lectures, and supervise field trips. However, the actual grades are handed out by the instructors, who tend to be first-year Intermediate Climbing students. This means, for most of them, they barely have any more experience than the average of 5 climbs from the basic course they took just one year earlier. This lack of experience is painfully obvious in the teaching methods and lesson content. Many instructors do even the smallest things in different ways, and some of them expect all students they see to do it their way. When the students move on to the next instructor, their previously correct method of doing something is corrected to match the new instructor’s preferences. The worst part is that the instructors vary so much in how much attention they pay to each student (and how much the instructor cares each student does things correctly) that some instructors will allow blatantly incorrect techniques to go uncorrected.

 

Each instructor is encouraged to give students suggestions related to climbing, and tips and tricks the instructor may have picked up in their climbing career. Many of these tips are conflicting and irrelevant, and none are provided in a formal manner. Basic students are told to avoid daisy chains, but many instructors recommend them. Some instructors have a particular method of clipping items onto a harness; the next day a different instructor will tell you their way is better. The Mountaineers attempt (pretend?) to provide a strict method of climbing where everyone is trained to the same basic safety precautions and does everything the same way, yet students are presented with a hodgepodge of conflicting advice throughout the entire class and held to inconsistent performance standards.

 

Students are warned that during field trips they will be tested for proficiency with techniques taught in the course, and if they cannot perform correctly and safely, they will fail. However, instructors are told to consult with a field trip leader prior to failing any student, and many of them are patient with incompetent students. I myself witnessed many grievous errors made by students, but none more so than the students I saw releasing a belay with their brake hand. I pointed out one of these to the instructor, who promptly told the student to keep their hand on the brake, but did nothing further. If the goal of the class is to ensure everyone who climbs in the mountaineers is trained to a certain level of safety, this goal is not met in the slightest, and the false confidence instilled by the class can lead students to trust other students without question. If a dangerous situation, such as releasing the brake hand from a belay, is witnessed, a student should immediately fail the course without recourse.

 

 

Ill-Equipped Instructors

 

Additionally, the instructors themselves are often ill-prepared for field trips and small group lecture activities. On almost every field trip I have had to lend the instructor some of my gear for demonstration as the instructor had not brought enough gear for the presentation. I have had to correct instructors on everything ranging from the boot-axe belay set up, to correct stomach/head-first self-arrest technique, to crevasse rescue set up. When I see instructors making so many small mistakes, it makes it difficult for me as a student to take any of their advice seriously – how do I know that what they are telling me to do is right, if so many things I have seen them do are wrong? Worse yet, if I don’t trust the instructors to the point where I’d be uncomfortable climbing with them, I can’t even begin to express the fears I would have climbing with students who have no experience other than lessons from these very instructors whose own techniques are faulty.

 

 

Poor Organization: Snow I Field Trip

 

The worst experience of the class came during the Snow I field trip, which I did in late April at Alpental. This was the first overnight field trip. All day on Saturday it rained and snowed, alternating wind with hail and cold. After an exhausting day waking up at 5am and walking around on snow, we arrive back at our camp at 4:00pm. The schedule we were given stated we were to be shown a crevasse rescue demonstration. However, the instructors were not ready and we were told to go off and do whatever we wanted until 5:30. I would have wanted to eat dinner and go to bed, but unfortunately as it had been raining all day, I was soaking wet and didn’t want to go inside my tent and make everything inside wet as well. Eating dinner in wet boots and wet clothing while being cold and unable to go inside the tent is a very miserable experience. At 5:30, we were given a 15 minute demonstration, without any real explanation of what was going on or how to do it ourselves. That’s fine, but the teaching value of observing a 15 minute skit is minimal, and is reduced even further by having an entire class of miserable, cold, wet students. (I understand that an argument could be made that I was unprepared for the conditions, and that the misery was entirely my own, but in my defense we were never told we’d be sitting around for an hour and a half at the beginning of the day, and I was dressed appropriately for activity, not for sitting for over an hour.)

 

 

Poor Organization: Crevasse Rescue Field Trip

 

Of course, the misery of Snow I was outdone handily by the chaotic stupidity of the Crevasse Rescue field trip a couple weeks later. I arrived at the Paradise parking lot at 6am, a full hour before the 7:00 am meeting time. I took a nap and walked up at 6:50 am. I was assigned to a group of 10 students, and we waited until everything was sorted out. When we finally started up the mountain, it was 9:00 am. We’d wasted two hours standing around, which always puts me in a foul humor when I come to the realization that I could have slept in my warm bed for an extra two hours. I’m okay with waking up early, but not if I have to spend two hours waiting for those who didn’t wake up early.

 

The half of us who were assigned to Crevasse Rescue practice on Saturday hiked up to around 6200 ft where we roped up and headed out across the glacier. In total there were about 65 of us including instructors. We walked single file. Assuming 30 foot spacing between people, the distance works out to a single file of people half a kilometer long. My rope team was near the back, which means that every time someone in front of us stops, for any reason, we stop. It was irritating to have to stop and go, stop and go, over and over. There is no excuse whatsoever to have 65 people walking single file. A group that large needs to be split up into smaller groups and find separate crevasses. Especially when the majority of the people in the group have little to no experience walking roped up and thus don’t realize the importance of maintaining a steady pace.

 

Adding to the frustration was the fact that the leaders were not able to find a suitable crevasse. I fully realize that crevasses are not always in the same place, and that finding a suitable one for 65 people to practice crevasse rescue from at the same time can be difficult, but the leadership had only a vague idea of where crevasses would be found. Perhaps someone had scouted the previous weekend and was trying to lead us to the same crevasse by sight and compass? I never did find out being at the far end, but I heard many theories. When leading a group of 65 people, it would be useful for someone to have gone out the day before and gotten GPS coordinates of a suitable crevasse and passed those coordinates on to the leaders the next day to save some time. When one person wastes 60 minutes, an hour is wasted. When 65 people waste 60 minutes, almost three days are wasted. We finally located a crevasse at 1:30 pm, after four and a half hours of hiking, and more than 6 hours after we were initially scheduled to start up the mountain.

 

The instructors secured safety lines throughout the “base” and told us to belay each other in. I found myself being coiled in with no form of belay, and had to notify an instructor, who merely dismissed it as a lapse of judgment on my rope mate’s part, and had me clip into the safety lines as soon as I could. Here we are, having walked single file for god knows how long, only to have safety lapse at the top. This is precisely the inconsistency on the part of the instructors to enforce basic safety rules and of fellow students to climb safely which leads to my severe frustration with the Mountaineers.

 

It took another hour to set up belay stations and start rescue scenarios (everything was set up by 2:30pm). We were told to hurry and that it was possible not everyone on each team would be able to try each position. The plan was to begin breaking down the base at 4:30 and start heading down by 5pm. My team managed to finish first, having done an entire rotation with everyone working each position once. We were one of the first teams to clear out and rope up, but we had to wait until every other team was roped up and ready to go. And, ironically, we were the third to last rope team to start heading down the hill. Again, the painful process of stop and go walking behind half a kilometer of people was repeated. Along the way, my rope team even managed to pass a few other rope teams, as everyone was in a hurry to get off the mountain. We made it to the un-roping spot, well off the glacier (so much off that we should have un-roped earlier, according to several instructors). While my team was un-roping, the people who had been waiting took off down the mountain. When we tried to follow, we were told that we were so far in the back we’d have to wait for everyone else who was straggling before heading down. I felt very resentful at having had to wait for all the other teams to rope up before heading down the mountain, only to watch those same rope teams go down the mountain while I had to wait for the very last person in the group.

 

I had reservations to stay in the Paradise Inn Saturday night. Descending, I had told myself that if I made it down in time to eat in comfort at the Paradise Inn, I’d stay and finish Snow II on Sunday, but that if I had to leave the mountain to get hot food, I wouldn’t come back. In the end, we got down to the Paradise parking lot 30 minutes before the restaurant closed, and I couldn’t locate my roommate for the night since she had come down hours earlier with the Saturday Snow II group. The front desk wouldn’t let me in the room since my name was not on the reservation, and I just decided to leave. I rationalized the decision with the thought that if I really wanted to stay in the class, I could still go do my scheduled climbs, and maybe no one would notice I didn’t show up for Snow II.

 

Later, I was told by a friend who did Snow II on Saturday and Crevasse Rescue on Sunday that the same crevasse we had used on Saturday started falling apart and became unsafe on Sunday, and their group came down and finished their rescues in the parking lot.

 

Epilogue

 

I had a particularly bad experience with the Mountaineers. I got unlucky, I realize. A different Snow I field trip date or location, or a different instructor for Snow II or a different date would probably have made all the difference between graduating and sitting here writing this as a non-graduate. However, I think the general lack of expertise and consistency on the instructors’ part is prevalent throughout all the Mountaineers courses. I enrolled in Mountaineering Oriented First Aid in the fall prior to starting the Basic Course since I knew the class was required for graduation. I graduated. I also enrolled in the Navigation course and passed that with flying colors, even being asked to become an instructor. Both of these classes showed the same general issues as described here, leading me to believe that probably all classes at the Mountaineers have them.

 

I still plan to go climbing and reach summits. I plan to meet new friends doing it. I plan on having a safe climbing career with safe people whom I would trust with my life. I know there are people in the mountaineers whom I would trust with my life. I also know I won’t be paying money to belong to an organization which pretends to care so deeply about safety yet overlooks so many transgressions. For about the same amount of money as the Basic course, the previous year I had taken the Mountain Climbing class and the Crevasse Rescue class with RMI. They led a no-nonsense group where all the guides knew exactly what they were doing, and agreed on how to do it. It doesn’t matter than there are different ways to do some things – because every RMI guide was consistent, every RMI student learned it consistently, and as a result, I felt I could trust the RMI students. I may climb with individual Mountaineers in the future, but they’ll be friends I trust first, and friends who happen to be Mountaineers second. If you decide to pursue the Basic Climbing course, I wish you the best of luck, but I also urge you to be wary.