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Climbing into the Wild 

By Alexis Perry

"This class is not for the faint of heart," Brad Pointer tells students on the first day of Intro to Mountaineering. This isn't news to most, as Pointer, the course instructor and U-Rec assistant director, had previously emailed the 18 registered students, urging them to start training, uphill and weighted when possible, and inviting them on dawn patrol hikes up Mount Spokane. Students like Sarah Scott '21 had been working out every day to build stamina in hopes of summitting Mount Hood with the class in May.

Pointer's statement isn't meant to scare students away. Instead, he hopes to clue them in to the resolve, dedication and perseverance mountaineering requires. "The moment when people realize that this is harder than they thought, that's where I capture them," he says, "and then they start getting serious."

Intro to Mountaineering is a six-week immersion in the essential skills of mountaineering, which culminates in a trip to climb Mount Hood. Students learn skills like tying figure-eight knots and gathering rope into a mountaineer's coil, and they practice crevasse rescue and avalanche safety. They try on crampons, learn to properly pack a 40-plus-pound backpack, and practice rope-team travel in The Loop.

"The exciting thing is that students get the chance to do something that is unique and powerfully impactful," Pointer says, "and it's part of their academic curriculum and gives them credit."

The course provides an opportunity to deep dive into the skills, gear and lingo of mountaineering, which are fairly exclusive to the sport and would be difficult to learn outside of expensive courses or guided climbs. "The opportunity to do this while at Whitworth is something I won't be able to ever do again," Tristan Renz '20 says. "It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime chance."

Many students register for the course to extend their experience with backpacking, skiing or rock climbing, and most are driven by pure curiosity and a desire to press into the unknown. For Associate Dean and Associate Professor of English John Pell, an unofficial co-instructor with Pointer this semester, curiosity is integral to adventure and is a key element of a Whitworth education.

"We should be a place that is always pushing to go farther and farther into the wilderness," he says, "whether that's how we're growing as people in our dorm rooms or how we're challenging ourselves theologically and politically in the classroom." (Pell typically teaches an adventure writing component of the course but was on sabbatical this spring.)

More than curiosity though, the course requires grit. Regardless of students' skills in rope tying and using an ice axe, success on the push up Mount Hood boils down to one thing: a willingness to suffer. "That's what it takes," Pointer says, "just having that mental space to be like, 'OK, I just need to continue to put one foot in front of the other.'" In the midst of suffering is where most students find breakthrough.

Landon Crecelius '04, director of Student Success and an instructor with Spokane Mountaineers, teaches avalanche safety and rescue for the course. He also joins the end-of-term climbs when he can and relishes the opportunity to encourage students. "I love being in the back," he says. "I love checking in with students and helping them see past their own perceived limitations to make it to the top."

In the end, mountaineering is not all about reaching the summit. Climbs can be cut short for reasons like weather, time or exhaustion, and while summiting is certainly an exhilarating and humbling experience, a climb amounts to more than that single moment. Students encounter the real lessons of mountaineering when pushing through blisters, cramps, fatigue and cold. "Climbing Mount Hood," says Bryn Redal '20, who took the course last spring, "redefined my interpretations of grit, perseverance and dedication."

For students like Drew O'Brien '20, a second-year teaching assistant for the course, cutting a climb short can offer the biggest lesson of all. "As a leader, you have to slow down and guarantee the success of others more than yourself," he says. "What comes with being a leader on a trip like this is being willing to turn around for the group."

Pell hopes these lessons stick with students long past their time on the mountain. "The big idea I want them to take away is that they are capable of doing some really incredible things," he says. "There's not any external force telling them they have to do any of these things – it all has to come from the inside."

Explore photos, videos and reflections from the Whitworthians who persevered to the summit.

Meeting the Mount Hood Challenge

This story appears in the spring 2019 issue of Whitworth Today magazine.

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