By building walls you can sometimes be tearing them down at the same time. Just ask climbing course coordinators at The Mountaineers.It has been more than two years since the 106-year-old organization pulled its stakes from the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle and set up base camp in Magnuson Park. And since the walls came down at the old building, Mountaineers have been busy building new walls. But these walls are actually making other walls disappear.

Following an “instructional vision” established before the move to Magnuson Park, the new Mountaineers Program Center has broadened its reach greatly since leaving Queen Anne, says Gene Yore, climbing program chair for the Seattle Branch of The Mountaineers.

“Our overall goal is to teach as many climbing skills in town as realistically as we can,” notes Yore, “so that every mountaineering and climbing skill can be taught and practiced.”

©Brad Stracener

The latest advent to teaching climbing skills is the dry-tool wall in the basement of what used to be a motor-pool garage for the naval station when it inhabited Magnuson Park. According to Yore, an avid climber who just returned from some really big walls at Yosemite, the new dry-tool wall “is yet another step toward the instructional vision.”

The wall for dry-tooling—a type of ice climbing that requires a mix of climbing tools for ice falls that begin well above ground level—has opened the door for more advanced climbers to practice and hone their skills. “The dry-tooling wall is definitely beyond basic, but it’s possible for a climber with only basic skills to kick the tires and try it—and maybe catch the mixed-climbing bug,” says Yore, who notes that the real beauty of the wall is that it was built and funded by Mountaineers volunteers who love to share their passion for climbing, as well as their carpentry skills.

The Mountaineers’ instructional vision started with indoor and outdoor walls that simulate rock faces, designed to give beginning climbers, experienced climbers and the general public a chance to try the sport. The 76-foot-wide outdoor wall, which covers the entire south side of the program center and features two towers of 34 and 28 feet in height, is open to the public year-round at all hours of the day. At night it is not unusual to see beams of light dancing about high and low against the blackness—climbers and their belay partners wearing headlamps while practicing their craft.

Courses can run up to 50 students a day through their climbing rigors on the outdoor wall, cast against a sky-blue background and easily visible during the day as one approaches the program center, located on the north end of Magnuson Park and a couple hundred feet from Sand Point Way. Yore proudly notes that in just the basic climbing course alone, Mountaineers have saved 3,600 gallons of gas that otherwise would have been emitted into the air on travel to and from the Cascades or beyond.

The side of the building opposite the outdoor climbing wall facilitates crevasse-rescue practice with belay anchors on the roof and bolts dotting the north wall. Yore says that although it is not quite the real thing, with snow or rain pelting the student as he or she rigs to pull someone from a crevasse, it allows students to practice their skills repeatedly without the distraction of high alpine weather.

The indoor wall, about 37 feet wide and 20 feet high, especially opens The Mountaineers door to the young, who can tag along with mom or dad—who are sometimes on belay—to get a leg up on the sport. During the current school year, Family Climb Days have introduced nearly 50 kids to climbing. Additionally, the local YMCAs, youth shelters and Girl Scout troops have had the opportunity to learn basic climbing techniques under the mentorship of experienced volunteer Mountaineers climbers.

© Brad Stracener

In total, more than 150 youth in the community have had the opportunity to experience climbing at The Mountaineers. “This is the first year since our move to Magnuson Park that The Mountaineers has put such emphasis on Youth Outreach,” notes Becca Polglase, a climber and education manager for The Mountaineers.

“Utilizing our indoor wall for Youth Outreach is not only central to our mission, but it fits perfectly with the kids’ and adults’ schedules. We can teach youth when the wall isn’t being used for adult education,” Polglase adds. The kids can learn to rock climb “in a low-pressure environment with experienced instructors and belayers whose focus is on safety,” she notes.

Introduction to climbing doesn’t stop with just the kids. Parents wanting to belay their children can take a 2-1/2 hour course on basic belaying. Adults wishing to get a taste of rock climbing can take a two-hour Experience Rock Climbing class, created by Jim Nelson, a world-class climber and Mountaineers volunteer who wants to help introduce people to the sport. Sometimes this is taught on the outdoor wall when the weather is cooperative. All part of The Mountaineers Getting Started Series, these mini-courses have introduced more than 70 adults to basic climbing techniques over the past six months. When not free, the Getting Started sessions often range from $25 to $40.

Even though The Mountaineers Program Center is quickly gaining the reputation for being the most comprehensive training center in the nation for mountaineering—outside of an actual mountain range—the instructional vision is not yet complete.

Four 28-foot basalt columns are to be erected this summer in front of The Mountaineers Program Center. Largely funded by donations and, again, many volunteer hours from The Mountaineers pool of the skilled and willing, the columns will do something that none of the current walls do, according to Yore. “Climbers will actually be able to put protection in,” he said in reference to cams and bolts, as well as other devices which provide protection from a fall. It will consist of real basalt and will especially help those who want to learn how to lead pitches on rock (setting the route for their climbing companions below).

The columns, like the indoor facilities, will save gas that would otherwise spew emissions into the air and provide a controlled environment for instruction, Yore says.

Then there is the plan for a friction slab—another wall and a vital component to expanding the “instructional vision”—and perhaps a story for another time.

© Jessica Todd
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