Sunday, September 27, 2009

Alpine Exam

Lows and high of becoming a mountain guide

Part I: Alpine Exam

As I flew back to Seattle from a summer of guiding in Europe in early August, I was really excited to explore a little more of the Cascades and check out some the routes we were going to do. I called my friend Willie Benegas to see what his plans were. He said he was going with Craig Luebben to climb the unfamed Torrent-Forbidden traverse in Boston Basin starting the following day. I told him I would come along. Since the weather didn't look great, I bailed on them and instead headed to Leavenworth with Forest McBrian - another guide and fellow candidate.

The weather was beautiful that day and I started regretting not going on the climb with Willie and Craig, as there was a great chance of us doing this route on the exam. I had gone on it the year before with my husband, Adam, and had hated the sheer looseness of the climb. I thought then that I didn't need to do this climb twice and that I would just onsight it on an exam if I had to, but had no interest in doing it for myself and he had bailed.

I called Willie after coming down from the Dragontail in Leavenworth to check on how it had gone for them. I teased him, hoping for him to say that they had not been able to climb it because of the rain. Yet, he uttered in a faint voice and with his strong Argentinian accent: "No, there has been accident. Craig is dead". I couldn't grasp what he was saying. I must have misunderstood. I had him repeat the unthinkable. Craig Luebben - AMGA instructor, guide, mentor to many, creator of the Big Bros, writer of books, father and husband - had fallen with one of his favorite elements - ice - and had been killed by it? And Willie suffered injuries to one leg? I couldn't wrap my head around it. I was meant to have been with them that day, on that climb. I hadn't gone. What if I had gone with them? What if...

The news spread like fire. All the candidates on the Alpine Exam and the examiners were shell-shoked. Craig was meant to retake his exams to get his Alpine Certification with Dale Remsberg and this was the reason he had been up there that day, to train. Willie was meant to be on the exam with us, and now he wasn't going to be there, leaving a loud void within the group. It was all very eerie. The tone for the exam was set: be aware, be conservative with the terrain. The exam started with a minute of silence for Craig and his family. A great loss we all acknowledged. A reminder of our mortality, especially up there in the mountains. With a very warm summer in the northwest this summer - temps broke a historical 100F! - conditions, as we would soon witness - had rapidly deteriorated in the mountains.

Our group of four candidates - Dave Ahrens, Ben Mitchell, Ian Nicholson and myself - along with our examiners - Dale Remsberg and Marc Chauvin - headed up into Boston Basin, home to the Mount Torment, Forbidden Peak, Sharkin Tower, Boston Peak and Sahale. We were instantly shocked by how dry conditions were. Out of respect for Craig, the Torment Forbidden Traverse no longer was an option. We therefore headed up and over the crazily chossy Sharkin Col to camp on a col at the base of the north ridge of Forbidden. The following day, we did crevasse rescue on the glacier and went and scoped out the following day's objective. On Day 4 (Day 1 was spent doing movement skills exams on rock: climbing a 5.10 route in shoes, 5.8 in boots and 4 class terrain speed traveling at Mount Eerie), we woke up early to climb the NW face of Forbidden (Ben, Dale and I), while Ian, Dave and Marc climbed the North Rib of Forbidden - a parallel buttress.

Crossing the moat that morning was one of those intensely scary experiences, where you feel that you should not be where you are: the only place to cross was on a thin rib of rather soft snow barely touching the rock and hanging over 500ft of void. Gloups. The once NW face of Forbidden was now a few pitches of ice, leading to broken rock and more ice. The mountain was a mere the image of itself. I led most of the day that day since I hadn't lead on Day 2. Day 5, we climbed Sharfin Tower and left Boston Basin. The initial plan had been to swap areas with the other group - Dawn Glanc, Forest McBrian, Danny Ulhmann, Keith Garvey and Tom Hargis. They were in the Marble Creek Cirque, climbing the west arete of Eldorado and Early Morning Spire.

Yet, moats were also very dangerous there and they had almost all gotten killed by a car size boulder which fell right where they were standing only a few minutes earlier. Going in there was no longer an option. So we headed to Washington Pass, a much welcome trade-off, where beautiful weather and granite spires greeted us. Our program consisted of Cutthroat, South Early Winter Spire, Liberty Bell's NW face, and Spontaneity Arete on the Petit Cheval. One more day of climbing around Bellingham and it was all over already.

Time on the exam flew by with climbing, prepping for the next days climbs, writing tour plans, stress (although our examiners did an amazing job at mitigating that aspect of the exam), driving to and from places. With this year's new rule, we now had to wait for the results. Our examiners prepared us for what to expect, yet until you see it in print, you just can't be a 100% sure that you passed. For the "instant reward" kinda girl that I am, there just isn't much more frustrating.

The sound of my new iPhone resonates in my car. It's Ian Nicholson, one of my partners on our August 16-26th 2009 Alpine Exam: "Caroline, I am so happy! I passed!!!" he exclaims. Wait a minute, I wonder. How does he know. Lucky for us: the results have been published earlier than planned! I am one click away from finding out. And there it is...

As I scroll down the page, the word "Pass", written next to "Alpine Exam" has never yet shone so brightly. Excitement and pride translate into a big wide grin on my face. I am one step closer! Closer to what? Well, to have this lifelong dream of mine come true: that of becoming an IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations) certified guide, a world-wide recognized mountain guide.

Next? As I write these words, I am in the midst of unpacking from this exam and packing for my next one: the rock exam in Vegas. After that, I'll consider signing up for the ski exam next spring. But right now, I am just happy with having come this far. One step at a time, and now, one exam at a time...