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Santa Barbara Middle School Mountaineers Aim for the Top

16 students, two teachers and two parents set off for a spring break adventure of technique, leadership and survival

As the majority of local schools prepared for spring break, 16 students, two teachers and two parents from Santa Barbara Middle School prepared for a winter mountaineering adventure that could take them as high as 12,000 feet.

Every March, Santa Barbara Middle School science teacher Victor Dominocielo puts his sheriff’s search and rescue skills together to lead the students in three days of mountaineering curriculum and a hike up Mount Whitney. With the recent storms, however, Dominocielo has had to go to Plan B, which includes an extra two-hour drive to Death Valley, and a mountain called Telescope Peak.

This week, 10 girls and six boys — all eighth-graders — will learn everything from water purification and avalanche rescue to analyzing the snow pack.

“We’re not just interested in going up and down the mountain,” Dominocielo said. “We’re interested in technique, curriculum and learning.”

The first day the group learns to build a survival shelter. Dominocielo said teams of three or four compete to build the best snow shelter — after getting some instruction.

“They use snow and available materials — a fallen, hollowed-out tree, for instance — anything that uses the least amount of energy in making the shelter,” Dominocielo said, adding that last year, three students slept in their snow dome every night rather than their tent.

On day two, there is an ice axe arrest workshop. Once again mixing fun and fundamentals, Dominocielo says they create a hilly course to slide down with an ice axe in hand.

“Head first, feet first, sitting up, lying down or lying on their back — all with an ice axe in their hand while they figure out how to stop,” he says.

Assisting Dominocielo again this year is former SBMS student and current teacher Megan O’Meara.

“It’s a good chance to test yourself,” she says. “Now I know that if I did want to go on my own or lead a group, I’d feel confident just from the training I’ve received while working with Victor.”

O’Meara said the trip teaches valuable lessons such as sleeping with your boots inside your sleeping bag, how to plan and prepare your own food and how to respect the extreme elements.

“On a bike trip, if you don’t wear your socks it’s no big deal, but if you make a mistake with wet socks up there, it can really cause some issues,” she said.

Students learn firsthand about slopes that are potential avalanches, but never camp or hike near one. Their base camp for the trip is at 8,500 feet, and on each of the first three days, they take short hikes in order to acclimate to the altitude. They practice with avalanche beacons, probes and ropes, and learn a specific inverted-V digging technique that is used to rescue someone buried in an avalanche. They learn to test the snow pack by digging a 4-foot-by-4-foot-by-4-foot snow pit and deciphering the clues that the snow pack provides regarding snow fall amounts and temperatures.

On their final day, the group takes a three-mile hike up the mountain.

“They have all their skills,” Dominocielo said. “We start out early, and we come back in the dark.”

He points out that the trip is the culmination of two months of rock climbing and backpacking preparation.

“Mountaineering has a reputation around school for being hard, but it’s not hard at all — it’s more learning and fun than it is strenuous,” Dominocielo says.

Santa Barbara Middle School is well known for bike trips, backpacking, kayaking and other outdoor experiential learning. But O’Meara says the mountaineering class is a step up.

“I do believe this is one of the best leadership programs we have because of the extreme conditions of the mountain,” she said. “You learn that you can actually live out in the elements, in the snow, but if you have the right skills, you can survive.”

We’ll be keeping you up to date on a daily basis during this week’s expedition. Don’t forget to check back and see how the students are experiencing the mountain.

— Larry Good is a Santa Barbara Middle School parent.

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