100 Peaks #11: Kulshan (Baker) and the History of Glacier Travel

Kulshan is a friendly-looking trapezoid with a smooth snowy appearance from the direction of Seattle. Fittingly, this is the training ground for many beginner mountaineers and is the graduation climb for the largest mountaineering club in the area, The Mountaineers, as well as many others. It’s accessible, has a ski lodge, and has tons of obvious crevasses to look at and practice hauling people out of.

I took my glacier skills class on Kulshan, a shorter class that just focused on this subset of mountaineering skills. The whole time, Rachel and Wade and I asked questions to get to the bottom of why things are done a certain way. Why do you use this rope length? How do you know when crevasse danger is significant? Why do you hold your ice axe this way and another organization tells you this way?

“You know what they call this ice axe grip, in French?” Our Chilean guide asked. “Chicken shit. If you are going to hold it that way, don’t do it in Chamonix.” It sounds silly, but this is at least hotly contested on mountaineering forums (but what isn’t). And safety issues, especially ones that are difficult to test or are very situation dependent, are certainly not treated the same way in every organization, region, or group.

And they haven’t been the same over time. The very first Mountaineers newsletters recommend sturdy boots with nails in them, a far cry from crampons today. Sometime in the 20th century, hunters’ four-point traction devices were adapted to create something like modern crampons. Even after crampons were invented, a slew of changes have been made. Early literature recommends different numbers of points for different sizes of feet, a strange concept that doesn’t seem to hold any weight anymore. Anti-balling plates or other technology to keep snow from sticking in crampons and rendering them ineffective has become basically standard, but this problem used to be the source of many accidents.

Crampons are one of the older and more standard glacier tools, however. Early in the history of mountaineering, climbers were derided for using a rope on glaciers, a practice that is commonplace and generally recommended today. Ropes, when they were used, were made of hemp and didn’t always hold. In addition, techniques for how far apart to walk were very underdeveloped, and there were no climbing harnesses, so that falling with a rope tied to one’s waist frequently meant horrific back injuries.

Nowadays, there are countless organizations with different standards and systems. Some issues everyone agrees on. For some every organization has their own version, and the variety of opinions can be tough to navigate. And we did have many discussions with our guides about how people do things differently in different countries, resulting in weird relics like the name “European Death Knot” for a knot which has many perfectly acceptable applications.

Of course, it was hard to spend all that time on Kulshan without visiting the top, so we returned. On that early morning, the hype about glaciers made me strangely concerned about my hands. My fingers, which rapidly lose dexterity in the cold because of a previous cold injury (which also makes them less effective all the time with what seems to be permanent nerve damage), got cold on the way up because it was raining. I somewhat irrationally worried about the seemingly committing and stationary act of roping up for the glacier, but by the time we got there the sun was out and I was feeling pretty great about my mittens. It was just the strange anxiety that inexplicably comes with new things. On this trip, we had our fair share of learning and talking about crevasses, carefully probing some of them and oohing and aahing. We tried practicing some crevasse rescue methods, of which there are so many. Stacking different methods of gaining mechanical advantage to haul someone out makes my head hurt. We all had our own safety opinions, and it was wonderful to spend some time under the sun and the blue sky on the intricately-crevassed glacier learning how to be a better team, like so many before us.

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