A Brief History of the Mountaineering School by Bill Brose (with updates from Ron Edwards)
Prior to the 1980’s, mountaineering instruction in the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh apparently took a variety of forms. ECP founder Ivan Jirak ran an outdoor club at Perry High School where he taught in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and from there brought people to the Explorers Club. He provided mountaineering-related instruction in those days with other early ECP members like Jimmy Pacyzinski. It was around this time that Ivan made his three trips to Angel Falls in Venezuela, culminating in a successful ascent with three other club members, two of them being George Bogel and John Timo. Ivan also lead a famous mountaineering trip to Peru in about 1969 with 33 club members such as Marge McKenna. The 70’s saw continued mountaineering instruction with participation by the likes of George Bogel, Jay Hellman, Bruce Cox and Jim Painter.In 1981, following his expedition to Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas in the late 70’s, Bruce McClellan instituted a formal mountaineering school for the club and ran it for several years. This school included a full schedule of classes and outings, increased discipline, and for the first time a screening process for prospective students. At that time I was just starting to rock climb, and Bruce bluntly told me that I didn’t have enough experience to take the school. While I never have taken the school, it wasn’t long after that, in 1983, that I went on my first mountaineering trip, lead by Bruce to the Mexican Volcanoes. That trip culminated with a successful ascent of Orizaba, third highest peak in North America. Some other club members on that trip were Bruce Cox, Joe and Linda Perry, and Charlie Kennedy.
The intensity of the school declined for a few years, and picked up again in the late 80’s. Blake Ward was the director in 1989, and Rick Huggins ran it in 1990 along with Bernd Bruegge. It was in 1988 when Blake, a Canadian, lead the first club trip to the Canadian Rockies, a destination that subsequently has been visited many times by the club for rock, ice, and alpine climbing. Rick and I were on that first trip to the Canadian Rockies and are among those who have frequented the area. In 1989 Blake and Bernd, along with Rick Korf, completed a successful ascent of the difficult West Rib route on Mt. McKinley.In the winter seasons starting in 1991 and 1992, Bruce McClellan and Chip Kamin ran two well-remembered mountaineering schools. Chip’s credentials included an ascent of Ama Dablam in the Himalayas, for which he received recognition from the American Alpine Club. Those schools produced a number of graduates who went on to become avid mountaineers, including Tom Brooks, B.J. Miller, and Tim McKivigan. The 92-93 school culminated with a trip to Ecuador in which a majority of the group got ill to the point of extensive vomiting at the Cotopaxi hut, and yet B.J., Steve Downing, Ralph Melocchi, and Tim McKivigan went on to summit Chimborazo at nearly 21,000’.
The school languished again for a few years until I revived it in 1996. In 1995 I had summited the North Face of Athabasca in the Canadian Rockies with Tom Brooks, Rick Huggins, and Mike Brown, and in 1996 traveled to the Peruvian Andes with Tom, Tim McKivigan, and Dave Kahley for an attempt on Huascaron. In the fall of 1996 I thought it was time for me to run the school. It’s been run at a high level every year since then to the present. When I started the school the first of the three years I ran it, I looked over all the materials and schedules available to me from previous schools, particularly those by Bruce and Chip, and strove to put together a comprehensive schedule of classes and outings, application form, and list of requirements for students and instructors. I also introduced required readings from a new book, Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue by Andy Selters, to add to those from the classic Freedom of the Hills. Much of that material is still in use today. In those schools I emphasized becoming comfortable with ice axe and crampons. The graduation trip was changed from Mt. Washington in the White Mountain to the Adirondacks, in order to do more ice climbing. Some of my students were people whose names you know well today, such as Aaron Bennett, David Micklo, Bill “Willie” Molczan, Paul Tompkins, Shawn Klimek, Donna Ruff, and Jason DeChicchis. It have since been on a number of climbs with them, such as Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier, Edith Cavell and Mt. Belanger in the Canadian Rockies, Ausangate in Peru, and Condoriri and Pequeno Alpamayo in Bolivia.
For three years starting in the 1999-2000 season, David Micklo and Aaron Bennett ran very solid mountaineering schools, producing mountaineers of the like of Tom Prigg, John Hrizo, and Brad Johnston. During this period the school also went fully digital, with all communication by listserve and email. David and Aaron also returned the graduation trip to its mountaineering school roots on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. In 2003, Dave Micklo, Jason DeChicchis, Paul Tompkins, and Shawn Klimek summited Mt. McKinley. In that same year, I watched Aaron Bennett, Willie Molczan, and Craig Mills ascend the North Face of Athabasca while I climbed nearby on the North Ridge of Athabasca with Tom Brooks and Jack Lux. We all met on the summit and descended together.
In the 02-03 and 03-04 seasons, Tom Prigg ran the mountaineering school, with John Hrizo taking over late in the second school. I believe it was during this period that an avalanche class was added, several members having taken weekend avalanche schools in the While Mountains. Emphasis was also added to conditioning of the students and tracking of same, at a time when several instructors participated regularly in adventure races. Just a few weeks before writing this, Tom and Dave Micklo returned from a successful ascent of the Regular Northwest Face route on Half Dome in Yosemite. This and a few ascents of El Capitan in Yosemite are the only successful big wall aid climbing ascents I know of by club members.
The 2004-2005 mountaineering school saw John Hrizo as director with Dan Tenant and Brian Wolovich as assistant directors.
From 2006 to present, the School has continued to evolve including: leadership change to two or three co-Directors, contributing roles for committee members, the creation of a Student Handbook (in digital form), migration to Google Groups as a communication and collaboration tool, migration of the standalone website to be integrated within the ECP site, consistent gear upgrades, curriculum adjustments, reference books and editions changes, classroom locations, and much, much more. (Our faithful old tradition of the Cathedral of Learning stairs remains!)
The enduring devotion of volunteers from many past years' graduates continues to feed into the following generations - an endless stream of energy, enthusiasm, and hard work to pay it forward keeps the school humming along and preparing future mountaineers. From Pittsburgh. Yea, you heard me right, "from Pittsburgh". Every new season’s mountaineering students and past graduates continue the strong tradition of climbing out of our humble little hilly 'burg to the high places around the globe.