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Sierra Club's BMTC climbing instruction at Joshua Tree in 1985

Sierra Club Leads the Way to Life's Peaks
The Los Angeles Times, View Section
March 28, 1985

Story by BOB SIPCHEN / Photos by DON TORMEY

I'm going to show up at work tomorrow all black and blue. They're going to think someone beat me up," Jeannette Hauser said, leaning over a seat on the bus that was hauling her mildly battered body back across the Mojave Desert toward Orange County California.

In the seats around her, other members of the Sierra Club's Basic Mountaineering Training Course-high school students, retirees and folks from almost every age level and occupation in between-were talking, guzzling beer, eating ice cream, sleeping.

These same folks 36 hours earlier had stumbled groggily through a dark Anaheim Orange County parking lot and onto one of four idling buses, their bright foul-weather gear dripping cold, pre-dawn rain. Now they were exhausted.

Two days in the wind and sun at Joshua Tree National Monument had brought out the first pink skin and freckles of the year, and the sleepy, edgy babbling of the previous morning had been replaced by the frank, sometimes giddy conversation of budding camaraderie.

"When I saw this group at our first meeting I thought, 'Oh no!' They looked dull," confided ,Roger Blackwell, 23, an electrical engineer from Cypress, as the bus rolled homeward, past the snow-capped peaks of San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. "But we've done some dangerous things together now, and that's made us closer."

The Basic Mountaineering Training Course was begun in 1961 by the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club to teach the skills of safe mountain climbing. Interest grew, the program expanded, and there are now five sections (in the San Fernando Valley, West Los Angeles, Long Beach-South Bay, San Gabriel Valley and Orange County), each with nine evening meetings and four mandatory field trips.

With more than 10,000 graduates to date and about 1,000 students enrolled throughout Southern California, the course is probably the most popular of its kind in the country.
With its examinations, pep talks, "experience trips" rated according to difficulty and patches to be earned for skills, it is a bit like Boy Scouts for adults. By the time they went to Joshua Tree, the Orange County mountaineering students had already sat through half a dozen meetings featuring films, lectures and workshops on skills such as map and compass navigating and rock climbing, and had survived a 15-mile conditioning hike through the Santa Ana Mountains.

The course is run by volunteers, explained Bob Speik, 57, a mortgage banking executive from Fullerton who is current director of the program.

"The sport of mountaineering appeals to technically minded, goal-oriented people - the purpose, after all, is to reach the top of peaks," Speik said. And, he added, the program's executive committee doesn't hesitate to draft graduates with specialized skills into its service. He said more than 250 volunteers currently are devoting four to 50
or more hours a week to conducting the course.

Volunteers who want to become group leaders must pass an advanced mountaineering course, complete leadership training and survive a field apprenticeship.

Professional Know-How
Many volunteers apply their city-learned skills to the logistics of the course, Speik says. For instance, the treasurer overseeing the program's $100,000 yearly budget is also finance director of the City of Paramount. Hollywood pros work on training films, doctors and nurses lecture on mountaineering first aid, and management types orchestrate the potentially chaotic car pools and bus trips to the mountains.

The program has become so big that the U.S. Forest Service last year advised the group that the human waste left behind on field trips in the Sierra Nevada each winter was causing an odor problem in the spring. Now, some mountaineers who work as engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, are brainstorming to come up with an efficient waste management method for the wilderness, Speik said.

"I think one reason leaders keep coming back is because they see the appreciation from new students who've overcome their fear of a danger, real or perceived," observes Speik, who said he evolved from car camper to backpacker to full-fledged mountaineer during the '70s. "You see this almost ecstatic response from someone who's accomplished something they never thought they could do, and that's rewarding."

At the beginning of their Josh Tree trip, groups of about 20 students each quickly pitched clusters of colorful nylon tents, then off on a follow-the-Ieader type warm-up exercise. Some students scrambled over the often-sharp quartz monzonite rocks with the assurance of the indigenous gecko lizard. Others had to be coaxed, step by step.

"I was petrified. I have a deathly fear of heights," Jeannette Hauser said, back on flat ground. "I remember as a kid, I could climb the jungle gym, but when I got to the top and looked down, I'd panic."

A financial analyst at Hughes Aircraft, El Segundo, Hauser is active in the Sierra Club's Orange County singles group, the activities of which, she explains, are some times no more outdoorsy than a grueling trek around a Trivial Pursuit board. But Hauser hopes to become a leader on Sierra Club backpacking trips and feels she needs to learn more about mountaineering skills to be a responsible leader.

"Besides," said Hauser, who will be 30 this year, "time goes so much faster as you get older. You become more aware of your mortality. This is something I've always wanted to do, but I was afraid. Now I'm going to do it"

A couple of hours later, Hauser was contemplating her mortality from a new perspective. Her group had moved over to an outcropping of boulders through which the group leaders had strung a tangle of climbing ropes. Securely roped in, students clambered over the rock pile like children on the jungle gym of Hauser's childhood.

Coaching From Below
After a couple of relatively easy climbs, Hauser found herself about 15 feet off the ground, wedged into a vertical gash in the rock.

As another student patiently held the rope securing her, Hauser contorted her body to fit the crack, banging elbows and dinging knees in the struggle.

From the ground, leaders and students called out suggestions: "feel over to your left, there's a little knob there."

Hauser's hand scratched for a grip. Her jogging shoe grated against the cold quartzite. Finally, leader Julie Marino, of Garden Grove, climbed the wall beside the crevice and calmly talked Hauser out of the stalemate, from handhold to foothold, all the way to the top.

As the day progressed, word got around the rock pile that the "big rappel" had been set up. Completing the battery of tests, students scrambled through the boulder piles, shimmied up a narrow rock chimney and onto a ledge.

A cold wind whimpered over the rocks, making balance uncertain, but students dutifully pulled on helmets, secured themselves to a line held by a student belayer and prepared to make a Dulfersitz rappel.

Wrapping a second line through their legs, over a shoulder, then back under an arm, they practiced how they'd use the friction between the rope and their bodies to lower
themselves. Then, one by one, they stood with their backs to the breathtaking desert panorama below, quietly building up courage.

'Most Catatonic Student'
On the rock, Speik soothed each new arrival with assurances and last-minute advice. Then he verbally nudged them into doing something blatantly unreasonable -stepping backwards off the edge of the cliff.

It took more than a bit of cajoling to get Jeannette Hauser to take the big step.

"She's catatonic," Speik said, as Hauser edged toward the cliff. "She's the most catatonic student I've ever had."

In a gesture of moral support, assistant leader Ann Kominski had tied into a second rope and lowered herself down the face of the rock. With that reassurance, Hauser leaned back into the correct stance, then let the rope slide through her fingers. Very slowly, she walked backwards down the rock, landing to cheers and shouts of congratulations.

"My legs were trembling like leaves on a tree," Hauser said. "I looked up and was awestruck that I'd made it down that rock."

She wasn't alone in her apprehension.

Greg Feinberg, of Santa Ana, watched intently from a rock perch as 18- year-old Liv Hukset adorned herself with the red-and-white climbing ropes. A Riverside firefighter, Feinberg learned to rappel as part of his job. Hukset, an exchange student from Forde, Norway, who is living with Feinberg and his family, had had no such experience to draw upon.

"I wrote a letter to my boyfriend back home, and my mother heard about what I'm doing through him," Hukset said as she edged toward the precipice. "She's scared to death."

"What do you say before you get out there?" Kominski asked in a last-minute reminder of the signals the students had learned.

"God be with me?" Hukset asked.

Kominski shook her head. "On belay?" Hukset tried meek1y. Then she added: "I'm scared."

"No, you're not," Speik assured her

"I'm shaking! . . . I'm shaking!' she said, inching a half step closer to the drop.

"Everyone shakes," said Jim Kominski, the leader of the group and Ann's husband (they met in a mountaineering class, married, spent their honeymoon rockclimbing, and, later that year, ascended Mexico's highest volcano.

A moment later, Hukset let out some slack on the rope, disappeared over the edge of the rock slab and, after a slow but sure descent, touched the ground 50 feet below.

Two weeks after their weekend at Joshua Tree, the students again were up at 4 a.m., this time to assault a snow -covered Mount Baldy with their newly acquired skills with the mountaineering ice ax. As, the leaders watched, students flailed and tumbled, slowly learning how to jam the sharp ax into the snow to stop an unwanted descent.

Again, Hauser came back black and blue.

A couple of days before she was to face the final field trip of the class-two days and two nights in the snow-swept high Sierra-Hauser reflected on what she'd learned.

"I took (the course to learn the technical skills so that I could deal with emergencies in the wilderness," she said. "I got more out of it than I expected.

"Frankly, I never thought I'd do some of the things we've done. I thought I'd back down, psyche myself out. But the course has given me self-confidence. Now, I think I could gather the courage to overcome a life-or-death situation if I were leading a trip. It's taught me that if I'm determined enough, I can do just about anything."

The Los Angeles Times - Room at the Top


Personal comments
Note: In the mid 1980s, Robert Speik was Chair for three years of the Mountaineering Training Committee (MTC) of the Sierra Club's large Angeles Chapter in Southern California. The Committee was responsible for the training up to 1,000 people per year in Basic and Advanced Mountaineering Training with more than 250 volunteer Leaders in five geographical areas, qualified in several levels of technical competence and responsibility. Bob Speik edited a new MTC Staff Handbook in 1985, writing the chapter on technical Snow Climbing. Recently, he has conducted popular class room and field classes in several mountaineering subjects for Central Oregon Community College in Bend Oregon. He is the author of the popular website  -- Margaret Thompson Speik




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