Wakeup was at 3 am. The winter campsite was getting hit by 40-mph winds and had 9 inches of new snow. The mountaineering students had to tarp off their snow shelters and build a makeshift kitchen for food.
There was talk of calling it. Turning around.
"We collectively made the decision that this is what mountaineering is like and let the students ride it out," Spokane Mountaineers Vice President Li Ciavola recalls of last year's Mountain School trip to Stevens Peak in North Idaho. "Students are going to come to a brutal confrontation of what can change and go wrong."
The three-month, intensive class begins in February each year and culminates with a summit of Mount Athabasca (11,453 feet) in Alberta's Columbia Icefields.
"It's more intense than a full-on semester of a college course," Ciavola says.
Although, this year, things were a little different.
When the initial coronavirus shutdowns hit Washington, the Spokane Mountaineers had to make a tough call. Should they cancel Mountain School?
The Mountaineers tried to keep the classes alive through distance learning at first, but in the end, they decided instructors wouldn't be able to do enough hands-on teaching with their students for important, lifesaving skills at high altitudes. Instead, the 2020 students were given a choice of a refund or a do-over in 2021.
After the 2020 quarantine, Ciavola expects a surge of renewed interest with new students looking to experience the wilderness unlike they ever have before.
"I think the purpose of the Mountaineers and the purpose of Mountain School is, in general, we want people to understand the freedom you can feel as a competent outdoors person," Ciavola says. "That sense of self-sufficiency and accomplishment you can feel by accomplishing outdoor feats is irreplaceable in the world."
But Mountain School isn't for everyone.
Applicants need to have a solid foundation of outdoors skills and gear before they can be considered for the course that begins in February each year. They should also be in good physical and mental shape. (Ciavola recommends taking the Mountaineers Backpack School before applying. "We would happily accept anybody who's completed Backpack School into the Mountain School program," he says.)
Mountain School instruction takes place in the classroom after business hours on weekdays, but students can expect regular meetups on the weekends and overnight trips to learn necessary skills, such as snow camping, summit climbing and crevasse rescue.
"You can't just show up and half-ass it and graduate," Ciavola says. "Mountaineering is a sport where you choose your own destiny. You set your own teams and routes and you shoot from the hip on these mountains."
Beginning climbers are expected to provide their own gear, including at a minimum:
- Backpacking gear: backpack, tent, sleeping bag/pad, stove, and other camping equipment
- Essential climbing gear: harness, carabiners, helmet, ice axe, crampons
- Appropriate mountaineering clothing
In addition to the $325 tuition and $50 organization membership, Ciavola says students should expect to pay about an extra $1,000 if they're planning on purchasing new gear. It's "not an inexpensive sport," he says.
"It's step one of 10 for some people. It's a bucket list for others." ♦
The 2021 Mountain School application period begins in November. Head to spokanemountaineers.org for more details.