Local business offers winter mountaineering course

Published on Wed, Dec 9, 2009 by Tara Nelson

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Anyone who has looked up at Mount Baker from a distance may have wondered what it might be like to summit the smoldering, snow-covered giant or ski down its pristine backcountry slopes.

Fortunately, such adventures don’t have to be out of reach for those of us who aren’t career athletes or professional mountaineers. With a little physical training and minimal backpacking experience, even armchair recreationalists could find themselves conquering a mountain as part of a guided trip. And what better place to start than one’s own backyard?

“Everybody in Bellingham sees Mt. Baker and a lot of people don’t realize that is attainable for pretty much anyone who wants to spend a little bit of time to get in decent shape,” said Coley Gentzel, a guide with the American Alpine Institute in Bellingham. “That’s not to say it won’t feel like work. But it is very doable for the average person. That’s one good thing about moderate mountaineering, it’s very accessible to a lot of people; it’s basically walking uphill for many hours at a time, which most people are pretty capable of.”

The organization offers a variety of guided mountaineering trips in 16 states and six countries around the globe from South America to Africa and Antarctica. But founding owner Dunham Gooding says some of the best terrain is located right here in the North Cascades area where AAI conducts many of their avalanche safety courses, backcountry skiing excursions, and water ice climbing during the winter months. Gooding said it is the area’s access to wilderness and proximity of to major population centers, complexity and diversity of the microclimates, not to mention the sheer beauty of the North Cascades, that make Washington stand out among other regions.

“It’s the perfect location for the base of an international guide service,” Gooding said. “There are tremendous opportunities throughout the year for planning and backpacking in the summer and climbing, skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. The variety is great and the accessibility is excellent.”

“Places like the Sierra-Nevada Mountains and the Rockies have glaciers but they are little and they don’t exhibit the complexity of big mountains because they’re so tiny and they don’t move around much,” he said. “But at Baker, the things you see here and learn how to cope with are the same things you’ll find in the biggest mountain ranges in the world so you can expose people to everything. You can take the skills and knowledge you acquire here and go anywhere in the world.”

The organization was founded in 1975 as the Mount Baker Guide Service under the Gooding’s direction. Since then, it boasts nearly 30 guides and completes an average of 15 trips per year. It has also won rave reviews from media establishments such as Forbes Magazine, USA Today, Men’s Journal and The New York Times, which called it “The Harvard of climbing schools.”

Most winter mountaineering courses require participants to have a minimum of one overnight backpacking experience under their belt, but others, such as the level I and level II avalanche safety courses, are taught in the classroom and during day trips within the Mt. Baker Ski area.

The avalanche safety courses are geared for backcountry users such as snowboarders, skiers, snow shoers or, as Gentzel put it: “ basically anyone who wants to go walk around in the snow during the wintertime.”

Snow camping trips, meanwhile, (also called winter mountaineering), are scheduled on a private basis as requested and can be tailored to individuals and groups. For example, last year Gentzel said he arranged a private winter mountaineering trip as a sort-of baby shower for a group of six women, one of which was pregnant.

“It was an interesting concept,” Gentzel said. “We took them out and taught them how to make snow caves and how to set up a tent in the winter. They all had summer backpacking experience and were fairly proficient skiers and they had a blast.”

The organization is also one of a few local agencies to offer guided water ice climbing trips during the winter months. Although thought by many to be a “fringe”-type of outdoor activity, Ice climbing can be one of the most challenging and exciting winter pursuits. Because it is formed from frozen waterfalls and seeps, it is a sport that may be pursued in many venues throughout the country. The course is offered on its own or as a two-day segment within a comprehensive winter skills program and is often conducted within the Mt. Baker ski area at Pan Dome Falls or Table Mountain, near Artist Point.

Most of their courses, however, are taught during the summer. Gentzel said their most popular trip is a three-day adventure to the 10,778-foot summit on Mt. Baker and offers stunning views of the Cascades, British Columbia and the San Juan Islands.

For more information or for a complete list of programs and guided expeditions, visit www.aai.cc or call 360/671-1505. Their office is located at 1515 12th Street in Bellingham’s Fairhaven district.
Their equipment rental and gear shop is available online at www.guideschoice.com.