Before leaving for the Himalayas on TechRepublic’s almostEverest expedition, David and I thought it would be prudent to meet our Colorado Mountain School guide, Bruce Andrews, for some instruction on snow and ice. Besides, in Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, we could experience some sort of altitude—even if 8,000 feet was a mere bagatelle when compared to Imja Tse’s 20,285 feet.

Therefore, on March 15, our aircraft descended through blue skies, and gently touched down in Denver. I wish! During the worst snow storm of the year, our jet carefully felt its way through a whiteout that revealed a ghostly runway only seconds before the landing gear made contact.

Buffeted by snow, we climbed into a rented Ford Explorer and crept over ice for three hours before arriving at Estes Park, the school’s home base. On a normal day, the drive lasts a little more than one and a half hours.

When we arrived at our motel at 11:30 P.M., our room had already been cancelled—the desk clerk assumed no guests would make it through the foot of new snow that blanketed the range. However, to us, the snow was an opportunity to practice careful extreme trekking. If we couldn’t make it to Estes Park, how could we be expected to climb a 45-degree ice slope?

But at that moment, we were practicing some extreme motel check-in skills. Bleary eyed, we waited a half-hour until our rooms were ready. Sleep found us quickly.

Early the next morning, we made our way to the Colorado Mountain School. The snow had ceased and left in its wake a land of frosted beauty. Gentle gusts blew through the aspens and firs; dusty clouds of snow drizzled off their laden branches. Elk wandered nonchalantly on sidewalks and footpaths. In the distance, jagged, white-capped mountains intercepted the few clouds that tried to pass.

The Colorado Mountain School is a small cabin with a gear shop, changing rooms, and racks of equipment for outings. As we talked over our expedition with Bruce, a crew that had been stranded on the way to Longs Peak was just coming in, dragging sleds of gear and food that hadn’t been used. As the storm commenced, a ranger had left a note on their vehicles advising them to make camp in the parking lot, that they’d be back in the morning with plows to dig them out.

Bruce Andrews, co-owner of the Colorado Mountain School, geared up for a climb.

Bruce went over our itinerary in meticulous detail; we chose our double-insulated boots and our crampons for the Himalayas. Then we changed into snow gear (fleece long johns, GORE-TEX snow pants, gaiters, and boots), shouldered our packs, and headed out to Lumpy Ridge.

David Bard takes time out to enjoy the beauty of Estes Park.

Not far from town, Lumpy Ridge is well described by its name—boulders are haphazardly strewn about. Barely reaching 8,000 feet, it’s just the foothills (nearby Longs Peak rises to a respectable 14,256 feet); nevertheless, that morning, I could feel the altitude. It just seemed as if there wasn’t enough air; I became winded just tying my shoelaces. I learned to respect altitude—especially the altitude that awaited us. With only 33 percent of sea-level oxygen present, summiting Island Peak won’t be easy.

Fortunately, by the end of the day I was already acclimating—walking with a pack had ceased to be a terrible burden. David had a high-altitude headache but otherwise was in good shape.

During our short three-hour orientation, we had plenty of work to do. We practiced tying in, walking as a roped team, and using our ice axes. We learned three knots, as many types of steps, how to use a fixed line for support, and the most necessary skill of all: self-arrest.

Self-arrest is the technique that saves your life. When you first start to fall, you yell “falling!” so your team can brace themselves for the imminent pull on the line. You take the pick of your ice axe and shove it into the ice as far and as fast as you can, pulling up on the end of the shaft as you do to further anchor yourself. Without self-arrest, you would become a rapidly accelerating object of some concern, especially as GORE-TEX has almost no friction on ice.

Mike Jackman learns the ropes.

For David, an experienced ice climber, the trip was mostly a refresher. For me, much of the information was new. I had done technical climbing with ropes, carabiners, and pitons in my youth, but it has been many years. Techniques, and equipment, have changed. And adding snow and ice to the mix was new, as well.

Bruce Andrews inspired confidence. He came across as experienced, safety-conscious, and dependable. Yet, he also seemed like a man who truly loves the wilderness and high adventure. We returned to TechRepublic confident in our guide’s abilities. Bruce drove out to Utah’s Moad and Indian Creek regions for some more climbing before we were to meet up in Kathmandu.

Are we ready for Himalayan trekking and for Imja Tse? Perhaps, like marriage, having a child, and other life-changing events, we’re not ready until we do it. But it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.
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Mike Jackman is an editor-in-chief of TechProGuild, an editor of PC Troubleshooter and Windows Support Professional, and also works as a freelance Web designer and consultant. Together with his co-editor-in-chief David Bard, he is traveling to Nepal to report on high-altitude technology and to climb 20,285-foot Imja Tse. In his spare time (when he can find some), Mike’s an avid devourer and writer of science fiction, parent to two perpetually adolescent cats, and a hiking enthusiast.