1st Ascent
Black Pyramid

Cruising the Zodiac
Chamonix: To Climb
or Not to Climb

Twight's New Route
Oregon's Smith Rock

El Dorado
Eldorado: A Classic Northwest Climb
Learning to Love Alpine Climbing in Six Days

Eldorado. It means something to everyone. Maybe it's your dad's 76 Cadillac with power everything? Or a lost Spanish city of gold? Perhaps your friend's red, white and blue K2 snowboard that you ran over. Somehow even that song Desperado kept ringing in my ears for some tormenting reason, but I'll spare you from The Eagles.

"Then, as if our minds weren't already full, there was always more to learn, like how you can whip up smoked salmon over pasta with a basil and dill sauce while camped on a glacier..."

Our band of merry makers was comprised mostly of a bunch of 30-something's: a pilot marathoner from Texas; a Kiwi personal trainer from LA; a caterer from Arizona; an ex-fireman turned artificial bonemaker; an architect wannabe; a few freaky consultants; and a self proclaimed Freeloader and me, all guided by two of the northwest's best.

The Northwest... lush, thick, old growth; ranges rolling into the sea, glacial peaks as far as the eye can see and clouds that never seem to break free. I was accustomed to, and prepared for, the worst. Rain to mist, spit, and eventually a downpour while we fumbled with wet knots, clothes and gear. The Washington Cascades, however, proved to be everything Art Wolfe's pictures always seem to show and we were blessed with more sun than we could stand.

El Dorado
Knot Tying
This, however, was an Alpine Ascent International (AAI) gig so, it wasn't about sun bathing, but about learning mountainous techniques in our lush Cascade classroom. Our two tenacious guides were surrounded by 11 eager elves all committed to soaking up all they could despite sun exposed minds.

After a long and delirious morning, carrying heavy packs up steep, thick forests of green, we broke free of the trees, set camp and fed. We learned to tie knots and prussiks and were forced also to get to the "poop" of the matter, regarding personal waste and the "leave no trace" policy, which means you really get to know your neighbor. We also quickly realized the inevitable quick Kiwi humor would be from here on out ever present and we were all okay with that.

Day two was all about snow school. We slipped, slid and self-arrested in as many contorted positions as possible, and it became all too clear how easy it is to slide down, and sometimes off, a mountain. By noon, every orifice was stuffed with snow as we attempted to hang tight to the mountain using everything from axes to toes. We had became one with our axe extensions; we spoke of layers, cornices, steps, surface slides and routes exposed; and, we did not entertain the comments about kickers no matter how many times I reiterated "Big American Kicker" (pronounced beeeg Amer-eee-kan keeeker) in my best Bratislavan accent.

We dried off only to get schooled some more about ropes, technique, and compass and route finding. We wiggled on ropes and dangled in trees, with knots connecting everything and everyone — intertwined in perfect harmony. We talked tech, lingo and the history of AAI's rope team methodology. This is where the beauty of our AAI guides shined — their instruction via history, how techniques have long evolved, allowed student to see all methods used in climbing today, and how AAI came to develop its standard practices.

Then, as if our minds weren't already full, there was always more to learn, like how you can whip up smoked salmon over pasta with a basil and dill sauce while camped on a glacier. For the record, I filled up on dehydrated gruel, though they did offer.

"So we drop back into camp and strip down to our skivvies in attempt to cool down under the ever watching sun..."
On the fourth day, we strapped on our crampons and relearned how to walk, all before the sun was fully up. Then we moved on, stepping up to angles, steeps, steps and axe integration. As we broke camp and meandered through snowfields up to the base of the glacier, the snow was softening fast under the scorching sun. I ignited some simple marching music in my head and tried not to melt before cresting the ridgeline to rest beside our quiet glacier. The imposing Johannesburg peak, however, is anything but quiet, as avalanches erupted nearly every hour.

The sun bore down on us as we learned all about anchors, pickets, placement, pitches, and supplements of all kind that will hold you to the snow. Yes, even a mini-Bic lighter. Then we hid from the ever brightening snow before class resumed for Glaciology 101. We learned cracks, crevasses and compression, moraines, massifs and movement and, most importantly, travel, timing and teams. And only then did we talk of an early morning attack of the summit hoping for a remnant of firm snow before the inevitable knee deep postholing begins. We then scarf and sleep well, regardless of the avalanches rumbling across the valley all through the night.

We woke up at 2am and, with eyes wide and packs nearly empty, we left camp under the guidance of the stars in two teams of four and one of three. The conversation quieted as we made our way into the night and over the glacier. Just when it became too quiet, a flash over our heads produced a glow which lit up the surrounding terrain. We all agreed it was the closest we've ever come to an asteroid.

El Dorado
The Summit
As the sun rose and the winds spun us, the summit came into sight and the teams scrambled to put on more layers. Although it was Monday morning, it is Eldorado and summit capacity is about 12. So we waited in the glowing sunrise anticipating the summit while parties from National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and some tele-freaks made their way down.

Then the summit was ours and ours alone. There were even some nice steps running up the ridge. Sure I'm on the self-proclaimed Team Flail, but I am mouse enough to admit that I returned to my knuckle-dragging, low-down snowboarder stance to navigate the perilously narrow knife ridge at the summit. I guess I just feel at home on edge. Breathe and bask for a moment and reflect, click, click, click and we were on our way dooowwwwwwn. Soon Team Flail was attempting the ever perilous roped together jog across the glacier. This lasted some torturous twenty-five seconds before we were all waist deep in the slush of summer...exhausted.

So we drop back into camp and strip down to our skivvies in an attempt to cool down under the ever present sun. There was no time to sleep before we broke back into class. In crevasse rescue, everyone got a turn falling, arresting and building a pulley system to save a comrade who had fallen and couldn't get up. We end our 19 hour day feeding.

I could have eaten a whole goat at that point, but settled on some eight cups of dehydrated stuff shoveled together with hot water. Luckily I brought the sauce of life.

El Dorado
Self Arrest
On the sixth day, the guides again woke to fresh baked cinnamon rolls and I inquired just how the hell they baked with butane. I was privy to this information, but that's one perk you need to earn at altitude, on your own. We practiced our final test of the course: repel and belay against the now refreshing, more typical northwest weather clouding our views and easily chilling us to the core.

We then descended out of the clouds and back into the forest where everyone's legs o' Gumby giving out at least once before we reached the final tree crossing the river. The babbling brook we crossed the first day was a rushing river upon our return. It made our last hurtle one of the most challenging with everyone handing packs over a stump with bodies a-following.

Strangers became friends, individuals became teams, and flatland folk became mountain men and women. We all agreed the class was second to none and many shared experiences of guides herding people up mountains like Yaks with only the summit in mind. We left no trace, pushed our limits, both mental and physical, and finally shared pizza and beer and hopes of someday crossing paths again somewhere in the mountains.

Hans Prosl, finding fresh love for old mountains for

[ Home]
[Climbing Home] [Alpine Ascents Home]