Assisted Braking Belay Rappel Devices Suitable for Trad and Alpine Climbing

I am becoming more and more convinced that belay/rappel devices with assisted braking are a big improvement over traditional ATC or Reverso type belay/rappel devices.

Assisted braking devices are not fully auto-locking like a Gri Gri, but provide significant extra friction when catching a falling leader or rappelling, when compared with an ATC or Reverso.  I really like the added security of the braking assist.  When catching lead fall, the effort needed to control the rope running through the device is minimal, and there is very little rope slippage.  Similarly, when rappelling, it’s very easy to stop yourself while on rappel.  Generally, you can just take your hand off the device, and it stops itself.  In most circumstances, this eliminates the need for a prussik back up when rappelling.

My first assisted braking device was the Mammut Smart Alpine (see my initial review of that device HERE.)

Mammut Smart Alpine in belay mode

Mammut Smart Alpine in belay mode

The Smart Alpine is a pretty good design, but it has a few flaws that have led me to abandon it in favor of some newer devices:  First, the Smart Alpine tends to lock up too easily when feeding out rope.  It also had a habit of allowing thinner ropes to migrate under the separator bar, causing the ropes to get stuck, and a somewhat jerky rappel mode when in auto-lock configuration.  I put up with these issues because of the enhanced safety of the assisted braking, but these flaws made me interested in trying out other assisted braking options.

Enter the Edelrid Mega Jul and Micro Jul:

My next trial of an assisted braking device was the Mega Jul and Micro Jul by Edelrid.  These devices are identical in design, but the Mega Jul is designed for ropes of diameter from 7.8mm to 10.5mm, while the smaller Micro Jul is made for skinny ropes from 6.9 to 8.5mm.

My first impressions using these devices were so good that I bought 2 Mega Juls and 2 Micro Jules.  They seemed like they would replace all my other belay devices.  However, I was somewhat disappointed and worried when the thumb cables failed, first on my Micro Jul, and then on a Mega Jul.  I sent all four of them back to the Edelrid distributor, and they eventually replaced them with new ones that have improved connection between the device and the cable.

Early Jul devices had weak cable attachment

Early Jul devices had weak cable attachment

The new and improved Mega Jul and Micro Jul devices seem to have solved the problem of the weak cable attachment, as I have used them without any failures.  These devices are really very good.  They are made of steel instead of aluminum, so they can be made very compact and still retain the needed strength.  The Mega Jul is very compact and weighs only 2.3 ounces.

Belaying with the Mega Jul

In spite of its small size, the Mega Jul is a very versatile device.  It provides a very effective assisted braking function while lead belaying, can be used in guide mode to belay one or two seconds (with an autoblock function that locks up automatically in the event they weight the rope,) and can be used to rappel in either an assisted braking mode, or in a normal mode similar to a regular ATC or Reverso.

Paying out rope to the leader is pretty easy.  I found the Mega Jul (and Micro Jul) to be easier to use for lead belaying than the Alpine Smart.  They hang up less often than the Alpine Smart, and are smoother when paying out rope.  Lowering a leader and rappelling are about the same as the Alpine Smart.  Both devices are adequate, but are not super smooth.  They tend to be a bit jerky when lowering or rappelling.  Rappelling is greatly facilitated by using a separate carabiner, although you can use the thumb release.  If you use a separate carabiner, it needs to have a nose that is narrow enough to fit in the carabiner hole.  (The Edelrid small locker biner fits well, but not all others do.)

Video showing the various techniques for belaying and rappelling with the Mega Jul and Micro Jul.

Guide mode is also reasonably good.  Taking in rope requires about as much effort as with an ATC Guide or Reverso, and lowering a second while in guide mode isn’t overly hard.  (It requires a third carabiner inserted into the carabiner hole to release tension.)

Overall, the Mega Jul and Micro Jul are superior to the Mammut Smart Alpinet.  They outperform the Smart Alpine in lead belaying, and are much smaller and lighter.  Performance in guide mode and rappelling are about the same.

Climbing Technology Alpine Up.  

The Alpine Up is made by the Italian company, Climbing Technology.  It has some advantages over the Edelrid Jul devices, but is signficantly heavier and bulkier.  The Alpine Up weighs in at 6.2 ounces, which is close to double the weight of the tiny Mega Jul.  It is designed to work with twin and half ropes from 7.9mm to 9mm in diameter, and single ropes from 8.9 to 10.5mm in diameter.

If you can overlook the significant disadvantage in size and weight, the Alpine Up is the best performing assisted braking device I’ve ever used.   The signature feature of the Alpine up is the “click up” mode.  The click up feature allows the rope to run more smoothly than any other device.  This is because when the rope is not weighted, the rope runs in a loose, large radius curve that allows for very quick and easy rope control.  Paying out or taking in rope is effortless, with very little friction and resistance.  However, when the rope is weighted (when the climber falls) the rope changes position, and “clicks” into a tighter assisted braking position.

Alpine Up in Click up Mode. The rope is not weighted, and runs very smoothly with very little resistance.

This feature makes the Alpine Up by far the easiest of the assisted braking devices for belaying a leader.  It doesn’t hang up or bind, and makes taking in or paying out rope super easy and smooth.

The rope has been weighted, and the rope and carabiner have clicked into locking position, providing assisted braking force.

 

Once the device is locked, a flip-out lever allows for easy lowering of the leader if necessary.  If the leader begins climbing again after a fall, you just give a tug on the carabiner and move it back into the non-braking position.

The assisted braking configuration is also used for rappelling, with the lever controlling the rate of descent.  Rappelling is very smooth and easily controlled, and you automatically stop if you take your hand off of the release lever.

Guide mode with the Alpine Up is very smooth, and requires the least effort of any belay device I have used other than the Kong GiGi, which is designed specifically for use in guide mode.

Overall, the performance of the Alpine Up is superior to any other belay device I have used.  The only drawbacks of the Alpine Up are price (about $100 including a carabiner) and weight and bulk.

Instructional video detailing how to use the Alpine Up

Bottom Line:  What is the Best Assisted Braking Device?  

So, given my views regarding the Alpine Up’s performance, It would seem as though it would replace my other belay devices.  However, even though it’s the best performer, there are times when I still prefer the Edelrid Mega Jul or Micro Jul.

The Mega Jul and Micro Jul are significantly lighter and more compact, so when weight and space are at a premium (i.e. alpine climbing) I will usually reach for one of the Edelrid devices over the Alpine Up.  Also, the Micro Jul is the only device capable of being used with really skinny twin ropes, such as the 6.9mm Edelrid Flycatcher.

Bottom line is that when I’m cragging, I generally take the Alpine Up.  When I’m alpine climbing, I generally take the Mega Jul or Micro Jul.

Ski Pulk sled

Ski Pulk sled, heavily loaded

Ski Pulk sled, heavily loaded

 

I’ve used sleds on occasion to carry large winter loads.  However, the sleds I’ve used have always been home made jobs.  I’ve bought kiddie sleds and modified them in various ways to make them serve as ski sleds.  My modifications began relatively simply, just drilling holes in the front of the sled and attaching cords to pull with.  These simple sleds performed poorly, being next to impossible to control on anything other than level terrain, so I tried more elaborate modifications, using ski pole sections to make solid poles to help control the sled and make it more easy to turn and stop.  However, in spite of my best efforts at do-it-yourself modifications, my sleds pretty much sucked.

When I needed a sled for a yurt trip this past spring, I decided to buy a commercially built sled specifically designed for use by a skier.

After doing a bit of internet research, I decided on a sled by the Ski Pulk company.

The sled I bought was the Paris Backcountry Sled with Split Poles.

After dragging this sled uphill for miles, and skiing with it on downhill for more miles, I have to say that I’ve been very happy with it.  It’s worlds better than my home made jobs.  The first thing I noticed are the poles.  I bought poles that break down into two pieces, which makes the poles more compact when disassembled.  The poles screw together neatly and securely, and there is no slop in the threads.  The attachment points from the poles to the sled are also very secure.  The poles flex a bit, which adds to the comfort, but are rigid enough to provide for good steerability.

The hip belt is much like a padded hipbelt for a back pack.  It’s comfortable, and allows for differing attachment points for the poles, allowing you to vary the level of control and response over the sled.  (Moving the attachment points outward tends to increase control, but also makes the sled react a bit more to the natural movement of your hips as you stride.)

Pulling the pulk up a steep, narrow track

Pulling the pulk up a steep, narrow track

The sled also comes with a set of fins that provides better tracking on steep terrain.  They are easily removable, and can be screwed inverted in the bowl of the sled when not in use.  If you decide you need them, it takes less than 5 minutes to unfasten them, move them under the sled, and screw them in deployed mode.

An optional duffel bag is available, but I just used one of my own.  The sled comes with straps and buckles so you can strap your stuff down securely in the sled.

In use, the sled pulls well, with excellent control.  I used the Ski Pulk on an approach to a backcountry yurt followed a steep, narrow, winding path.  Going up in fresh snow was not a problem, even when loaded with 50-60 pounds.  Much more surprising and impressive was the sled’s downhill performance.  On hard snow, going down a path that resembled a bobsled run lined with trees was surprisingly easy.  The sled handles very well.  The slight flex in the poles helps to cushion dramatic turns, aiding balance, but the poles have enough stiffness to allow for radical changes of direction when needed.    On easy, open slopes, I could ski fun turns, and the sled just followed obediently behind me, hardly interfering at all.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the Ski Pulk sled.  After using this thoughfully designed and well built sled, there’s no way I will ever consider using a home built sled again.

 

Climbing Communication and Commands

Communication is key when your partner is out of sight.

Simple communication strategies are especially important when your partner is out of sight.

Go to a climbing crag anywhere in the United States, and you’ll hear a chorus of climbers yelling, “On Belay’” “Belay Off’” “Take’” “Climbing,” “Climb On,” etc.  These communications work fine on a short route, with no wind, where you can easily see and hear your partner.  However, on a long route, where wind and other conditions interfere with communication, “on belay” sounds a lot like “belay off” which also sounds a lot like “take.”

For over a decade, I’ve used a non-standard set of signals and commands when climbing.  I don’t use the standard commands because, in my experience, they are too prone to confusion.  When I climb, I use a simplified set of commands and signals that has tended to work better for me, especially on long alpine routes.  I’ve taken this approach by emulating what my guides in Europe do and adapting their system to my needs.

Here are the commands I use:

When I get to the top of a pitch and secure myself to an anchor, I yell, “SECURE!”   This means that my belayer can take me off belay.  At the new belay, I first take care of whatever I need to do other than pulling up the rope. After I’ve done everything else I need to do, I make sure the belay device is handy, and as my very last task, I pull up the rope.  When it goes tight, I quickly engage the rope in the belay device and yell, “ON BELAY!.”

That’s it.  Only two commands.  Neither of these commands sounds like the other.  They don’t share any long vowel sounds (like On Belay, Off Belay, and Take.)

In the event that my belayer can’t hear me at all, the consistent practice of not pulling up the rope until I’m ready to engage the belay device provides a non-verbal communication.  My partner knows that when the rope goes tight, the very next thing I’m going to do is put him on belay.  If we can’t hear one another at all, he nonetheless knows that when the rope goes tight, within a minute, I will have him on belay and will begin bringing the rope up through the belay device.

When the pitch is 55 Meters long, simple communications are best

When the pitch is 55 Meters long, simple communications are best

This system has proven much better in my experience than the myriad of confusingly similar commands that are the general rule here in the U.S.   Every time a new edition of Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills comes out, I look to see if they have revised the climbing commands to make it simpler and more rational.  So far, they’ve kept the traditional, confusing American system.   I’m hoping that this will change eventually.

 

Hiring a Guide

A rope joins two beings who have only one life; the guide for some hours ties himself to an unknown man who is going to become a friend.  When two men share the best and the worst, they are no longer strangers.    The guide does not climb for himself; he opens the gates of his mountains for his companion.    Gaston Rebuffat,  Between Heaven and Earth

Guides

Hiring a guide is somewhat uncommon here in the United States.  Very few US climbers that I know have ever climbed with a guide.  This is in contrast to Europe, where guided climbing is much more common. 

Hiring a guide can be an excellent experience.  A good guide will not only guide you up a route, but will also teach you skills that will carry over to unguided climbing going forward.   

The process of hiring a guide is different in Europe than it is in North America.  In the United States, many of the more popular climbing areas are located within national park boundaries.  In these national parks, the Federal Government awards guiding “concessions” to selected guide companies.  Unless a guide is affiliated with one of these concessions, that guide is not allowed to guide in that area.  In addition, there are often restrictions on which routes are allowed to be guided, and which are off limits to guided parties.  (For example,  on Mount Rainier, no guiding is allowed on Ptarmigan Ridge.)  

Because you’re working with a company as opposed to an individual guide, it may be difficult, for example, to retain the same guide if you want to undertake guided climbing in Grand Teton National Park, Mount Rainier, and Rocky Mountain Park.  Because of the concession restrictions, you will likely be forced to use three separate guides, one for each location.  

Regulations are a bit more relaxed outside of national parks, but many federal and state lands regulate guiding activities.  It is often the case that some sort of commercial permit is required to legally guide on public lands.  The reason usually given for these restrictions is the need for quality control.  Personally, I think that this justification is somewhat lame.  I participated in a guided class in a national park that was attended by a park ranger who was there to “audit” the guide service and assess whether or not their guide permit should be extended.  It was abundantly clear that the auditing ranger knew little or nothing about climbing.  Unless somebody died during the class, it would have been pretty much impossible for him to draw any valid conclusions as to the quality of the services provided.  

However, government oversight of some sort isn’t necessarily a bad idea.  This is because, in the United States, there is generally no requirement that a guide have any formal training.  This is in stark contrast to Europe, where every professional guide must complete a very rigorous, multi-year program in the guiding profession.  In Europe, the UIAGM (or IFMGA depending on the language) is the body that must certify an aspiring guide.  Without this certification, a person can not legally guide in Europe.  In the US, they regulate real estate agents, lawyers, and hair dressers, but anyone who wants to can call himself a guide.  

However, although certification is not mandatory in the United States, some guides do go through a certification process.  In the USA, the equivalent of the UIAGM is the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA.)   The AMGA provides training and certification for guides.  However, not all certifications are equal.  The AMGA provides training and certification in a number of climbing disciplines, including “Certified Single Pitch Instructor”; “Certified Alpine Guide” “Certified Climbing Wall Instructor.”  These various certifications clearly involve widely varying degrees of competence and expertise.  So, it’s not enough to simply know that your guide is AMGA certified.  It is much more important to know exactly what disciplines that the certification applies to.  There are very few US guides who are certified across all of the AMGA disciplines.  To make the situation even more confusing, guide services are often referred to as “AMGA accredited.”  However, this doesn’t mean that all of the guides at that services are certified.

Don’t take this to mean that American guides are unqualified.  There are many good guides in the US, regardless of certification.  However, the lack of consistent requirements means that you need to do more homework when checking on your potential guide’s qualifications.  

So, when compared with Europe, the situation in the US manages to be both more complex in terms of regulations, and yet less transparent and consistent in terms of guide qualifications.  

With regards to costs and booking procedures, North America also differs significantly from Europe.  In North America, you typically reserve a guided trip some time in advance, and you pay a fixed fee by the day for the guide’s time.  Travel expenses, food, etc. are extra.  Differing guide companies have different policies regarding refunds, so it makes sense to ask what will happen if your climb is cancelled or cut short due to bad weather or other circumstances.  Depending on the situation and policies, they might refund your money, might offer to reschedule, or you could just be out of the money.  

My guide and friend, Franco Obert, of the Chamonix Guide Company

My guide and friend, Franco Obert, of the Chamonix Guide Company

 

The profession of guiding, and the process of hiring a guide is quite different in Europe than it is in the United States.  
 
First, as already mentioned, European guides must be certified by the UIAGM.  If you hire a mountain guide in Europe, you can be assured that he/she has undertaken a very rigorous formal curriculum in guiding.   
 
Second, in Europe, any certified guide can guide pretty much anywhere in Europe.  There are no “concessions” like in the US.  You can climb with the same guide in Chamonix, Zermatt, and the Dolomites.  
 
Third, the fees are calculated differently in Europe.  In contrast to North America, where a guide’s fees are typically a fixed daily rate, in Europe, the fee is dependent on the route climbed.  Generally, the longer and more serious the route is, the higher the fee.  As in North America, expenses (typically hut fees, and teleferique costs) are the responsibility of the client.  One advantage of the European system is that you typically don’t pay for days not spent climbing.  If you’re climbing out of your guide’s home base town and the weather is bad, you won’t pay for days spent trapped in town by bad weather even if you’ve made reservations to climb with him.  Unless you’re requiring your guide to leave his base of operations, if you don’t climb due to nasty weather, you typically don’t owe anything.  Similarly, if the climb is aborted due to sickness or other such event, you’ll only owe a reduced fee for a single day.  
 
Overall, I much prefer the European approach to guiding.  It makes it much easier to develop a long-term relationship with an individual guide, and it’s much more flexible.  Also, because of the requirement for universal certification, you can be assured of a uniformly high standard of competence when hiring a guide in Europe.
   
Some Advice About Being Guided:
I’ve hired a number of guides, in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  Here are some observations about getting the most out of hiring a guide.
 
Selecting a lesser traveled route will endear you to your guide.  Most areas have a number of “trade routes” that are climbed with monotonous regularity by guides.  Choose something else,or better yet, collaborate with your guide to choose a route.  The lesser known route will be less crowded, the experience will likely be more enjoyable, and your guide will be excited to be doing something new.  
 
Be honest with your guide regarding your abilities, and don’t get in over your head.  Your guide isn’t there to drag you up a climb that you aren’t technically capable of climbing.  Remember, your guide isn’t Superman.  He’s trusting his life to you just as you are placing your life in his hands.  You have a responsibility to look after his safety that is not any less than his responsibility to take care of yours.  Similarly, just because you’re being guided, you can’t give up responsibility for your own safety.  Continue to exercise independent judgement, and don’t turn your brain off just because you’ve got a guide with you.    
 
Observe your guide carefully.  Watch the way he uses his crampons and ice tools, how he climbs rock, what clothing and equipment he favors.  Examine the paths he chooses, how he places protection and belay anchors, the way he manages the rope, how he moves, etc.  Ask questions as time and circumstances allow, but don’t waste too much time with questions while on the mountain.  Make a mental list of questions to ask him after the climb is over and you’re relaxing in a restaurant having a post-climb feast.  This is a great opportunity to learn how an expert climbs.  Take advantage of it.   
 
There are advantages to hiring a guide that is local to the area that you’re climbing at.  This is particularly the case in Europe.  A local guide can often get you on the very first cable car in the morning, the best spot at a crowded hut and other perks of local knowledge and connections.  
 
Lastly, don’t be afraid to find another guide if your experience with a particular guide is less than you had hoped for.  I’ve never had the misfortune to climb with an incompetent guide, but I have climbed with a guide that was a poor fit for me and my personality.  We just didn’t have much fun when we were in the mountains.  Luckily, I’ve found a number of guides that have been terrific, particularly my Chamonix guide, Franco Obert, a wonderful man with whom I have shared some of the best days of my life.
The amazing Barry Blanchard

The amazing Barry Blanchard

Some things I learned from Barry Blanchard:

I had the terrrific opportunity to climb with Barry Blanchard, one of the most notable climbers in North America.  Over the 10 days we spent together, I learned a lot of useful and interesting things:
1:   Snickers Bars, cheese sticks, and pepperoni are the foundation of mountain climbing nutrition. 
2:  It’s possible to climb 5.9 sport routes in your sneakers (if your name is Barry Blanchard.) 
3.  Always bring more than one pair of gloves with you on an alpine climb.
4.  Bring lots of 6 mil cord for retreating and improvising anchors.
5.  Not all alpine climbs have to start at 2:00 a.m. 
6.  Coiling your rope in a mountaineer’s coil makes it a lot easier to carry when wearing a pack.
7.  Keep a sense of humor no matter what’s going on, and remember climbing is fun (even when it isn’t.)

 

 

Ricoh GR Pocket Camera

I am a big proponent of using small, compact cameras when climbing.  Although I sometimes take larger, interchangeable lens cameras with me on climbs, there are many circumstances where the bulk and weight of a big camera doesn’t make sense.  If I’m climbing something difficult, I will often opt for a pocket camera.  Even if I’m bringing an interchangeable lens Micro 4/3 camera, I typically will also carry a pocket camera as a backup.

Over the years, I’ve used more than a dozen different pocket cameras.  In my days of shooting film, one of my favorite pocket cameras was the Ricoh GR-1.  It was light and compact, had a very sharp fixed 28mm lens, and took excellent quality photos.  It was like having a little SLR with a 28mm prime lens in my pocket.

Since I made the switch from film to digital, I’ve been on an unending search for the perfect pocket camera.  I’ve used most  of the high end digital options, including the top of the line offerings from Ricoh (GRD); Panasonic (LX3 and LX5) Canon (S100) and Sony (RX100.)

While I have been generally happy with these pocket cameras, I never had quite the same quality of results that I enjoyed with my larger cameras.  The image quality from the pocket cameras were good, but when I compared the photos with photos taken with my Micro 4/3 system cameras, (especially the OMD-EM5) the pocket camera photos came up a little short.  In general, the pictures were not quite as sharp, and photos with wide dynamic ranges did not come out as well.  None of these pocket cameras fulfilled my need for a tiny camera that could measure up to the quality of my Micro 4/3 system.

The Ricoh GR is the first digital  pocket camera I’ve owned that has image quality that rivals that of my Micro 4/3 system cameras.  It has a large, APS-C sensor, shoe-horned into a really small package.  It has a fixed (non-zoom) 28mm (equivalent) lens that is very sharp, with an aperture of 2.8.   The best technical review of the GR that I’ve seen is the very detailed review at DP Review HERE.   My review will focus on my working impressions of the camera, with an emphasis on performance in climbing and backcountry photography.

Ricoh GR and Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case

The GR body is very light and compact.  It fits perfectly into a Mountainsmith Cyber Small case.  This case will attach to a pack strap with velcro straps, or can be secured to a climbing harness with carabiners.  In colder weather, when I’m wearing a jacket, I typically dispense with the case altogether and just put the GR in an ultralight ditty bag and keep it in a chest pocket.  Ease of access is everything in climbing and backcountry photography.  If your camera is in your back pack, you won’t get the photos you want.  The small size of the GR makes it easy to keep close at hand.

GR in the Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case fits nicely on a climbing harness

GR in the Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case fits nicely on a climbing harness

The camera controls are customizable, and are pretty easy to use.  I can change exposure settings and other critical controls even when wearing gloves.  The view screen is decent, and is visible even in bright glare conditions often encountered on the snow.

The sensor is very good at handling high-contrast scenes.  This is particularly important for winter use, as snow scenes can be particularly challenging for other pocket cameras I’ve used.

GR

High contrast shots are not a problem for the GR

Color rendition is very pleasing, and photos are crisp and sharp.

climb-1

Unlike most pocket cameras, the GR does not have a zoom lens.  With the GR, you’ve got to do all of your shooting with a wide angle (28mm equivalent) lens.  Generally, I don’t find this to be a problem.  The wide angle of view is great for scenic shots, and helps capture perspective on climbs as well, where you’re trying to capture a climber and also some background.  Zoom lenses can provide some flexibility, but I generally put more value on the superior optical quality of a fixed lens.

Fixed 28mm field of view is great for scenic shots

Fixed 28mm field of view is great for scenic shots

castleton-11

Wide angle of view allows capture of climber and the climb

After several months of use, I have been increasingly impressed with the Ricoh GR.  Because it delivers consistently excellent image quality,  I’m getting more and more comfortable using it as my primary climbing camera.  This means that I’m carrying my larger Micro 4/3 system cameras less often, which allows me to go light and fast, while still having a high quality photography option in my pocket.

The Ricoh GR is the first digital pocket camera I’ve used that has lived up to the standards of the GR-1 film camera.  It really is capable of providing SLR quality in a tiny package.  Because of this, the GR has become my new climbing/backcountry photography tool of choice.

Patagonia Knifeblade and Northwall Lines: Winter Clothing made from Polartech Powerstretch Pro Fabric

Patagonia Knifeblade Pullover and Northwall Pants

Patagonia Knifeblade Pullover and Northwall Pants at Ouray

Polartech Powerstretch Pro is a new highly breathable and water resistant fabric from the folks at Malden Mills.   Patagonia incorporated it into two different lines of clothing, the Knifeblade and Northwall lines, which are blurring the lines between softshells and hardshells.   The Knifeblade line is uninsulated, and the Northwall line has a light gridded fleece lining.  Knifeblade options are a full zip jacket, half-zip pullover, and pants.  Northwall line options are  jacket and pants.

Grovelling up a chimney in my Knifeblade Pullover. Bird Brain Boulevard, Ouray, CO

I’ve got a Knifeblade pullover, and Knifeblade pants, along with the Northwall pants.  These have become my all-time favorite winter climbing shells.

Here’s why I love them:

The Powerstretch Pro fabric  breathes really really well. When I am working hard, I am a heat inferno. Any hard shell I’ve ever used has never been able to cope with the amount of heat I put out when climbing. This soft shell fabric has no problem dealing with my prodigious heat output.  I sweat less, and stay dry from the inside.

Unlike traditional softshell garments, these pieces are functionally water proof.  They are billed as water resistant, but I’ve climbed in some very wet conditions and stayed dry, including once where I was pretty much stuck under a small waterfall while belaying. I’ve heard of some folks getting some seepage through the seams eventually, but I haven’t gotten wet yet.  For anything I’m doing in winter, they have more than adequate water resistance.

The fabric has a bit of stretch to it.  Just enough to add significant mobility.

The cut of the Knifeblade Pullover is perfect for ice climbing. The pullover style is very clean. Length is long enough that it stays put under a harness. Cut and material make for a good, body hugging fit that doesn’t blouse up and block my vision of my ice screws on my harness, but it has enough stretch and the cut is good enough that it’s not at all restrictive. Hood works very well over a helmet.   Pockets are high and out of the way of my harness.

The pants have articulated knees, and a high waist, coupled with suspenders to keep them up without needing a belt.  Freedom of movement is excellent.  Seat can be dropped via zippers if you’ve got to poo.   The Northwall pants are lightly insulated, which makes them great for really cold days.  The Knifeblade pants are uninsulated, and better suited for more moderate temperatures.

The fabric is very durable. Long chimneying sessions, sharp ice tools and general abuse have not had much effect at all on the Knifeblade Pullover.  I’ve managed to stab some crampon holes in my pants, but the fabric doesn’t rip easily, and the holes were easily repaired with repair tape and seamgrip.

I’ve heard rumors that Patagonia will be discontinuing both the Knifeblade and Northwall lines and won’t have any Powerstretch Pro fabric clothing to replace them.  I hope this is not true.  Just to be on the safe side, I bought spares to make sure I will still have my favorite winter clothes in the event I ever manage to wear out my current ones.

knifebladep

Knifeblade Pullover and Knifeblade Pants, climbing desert ice.

 

Backcountry Skiing in the Tetons at the Baldy Knoll Yurt

Fresh powder in the Teton backcountry

Fresh powder in the Teton backcountry 

For the past three years, me and a group of friends have done a backcountry ski tour together. Last year, we did a Sierra tour, and the year before, we did a tour in the Tetons. This year, we got back together, but rather than do a point to point traverse, we decided to rent a yurt to use as a base camp, and do day trips out from the yurt. I’ve done a fair amount of backcountry skiing, but up until this trip, I had never stayed in a backcountry yurt, I’ve always slept in a tent or a snow cave.

The yurt we chose was the Baldy Knoll Yurt, in the Teton backcountry, run by Teton Backcountry Guides.  We were there the third week in March. The first day of our trip was mostly spent driving to Victor, Idaho, on the Wyoming border, and then skinning up to the yurt.  The climb up to the yurt was a long, steady uphill grind that took us about 4 hours. We probably could have gone faster, but we were carrying very heavy packs (or pulling a heavy sled, in my case.) Not long after we started skiing in, it began to snow heavily, which was a portent of good things to come. We had a guide who took us to the yurt, and showed us how everything works. After that, he left, and we were on our own.

 

Skinning in to the yurt in heavy snow fall

Skinning in to the yurt in heavy snow fall

The yurt is pretty comfortable, especially when compared with a tent. It has a wood burning stove for heat and melting snow for water, and a two burner gas stove for cooking, along with pots, pans, and cooking utensils. There are gas lights. 3 bunk beds and 2 cots for sleeping. A covered outhouse nearby.  Overall, about what I expected.

Yurt Exterior

Yurt Exterior

Inside the Yurt

Inside the Yurt

The next morning, we woke up to over two feet of fresh powder. We were pretty stoked. We spent the next three days trying to track out as much of it as possible. There was great skiing right next to the yurt, and we started with that. After lunch, we ventured a little further afield and skied the terrain on the South side of the ridge connecting the yurt with a peak labeled 10024 on the map, which is East of the yurt.

Click Here For a Map of the Area

Powder!

Powder!

First Tracks

First Tracks.  South slope of the ridge connecting the yurt with Peak 10024

The snow was sublime, nice light powder. Definitely the best powder turns I’d had all season. When we were done skiing, we came back to the yurt and had dinner. The heavy loads we carried on the trip in paid off, as we were able to eat really well all week long. No freeze dried food on the whole trip. It was all fresh and tasty.

Beef, it's what's for dinner.

Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.

The third day, we skied up to the top of Peak 10024, and spent the day skiing Peak 10024 and the ridgeline just to the south, across the valley from Peak 10024. The snow continued to be amazing, and there were sections of full-on knee deep powder in the wind loaded pockets. It was too good to stop skiing for lunch, so we didn’t go back to the Yurt until evening. We were treated to a terrific sun set, and cooked another great dinner, then off to bed to rest up for the next day.

Climbing up to the summit of Peak 10024

Climbing up to the summit of Peak 10024

On the ridge that connects the Yurt to Peak 10024

On the ridge that connects the Yurt to Peak 10024 

Skinning up the ridgeline South of 10024

Skinning up to the ridgeline South of 10024

Better than fireworks

Better than fireworks

The bluebird sky and bright sunshine of the past day had begun to bake the South facing slopes, so we ended up skiing the North facing slopes right off of the ridge that leads to Peak 10024. The snow was not quite as light and fluffy as it had been, but it still was a lot of fun.

We opted to leave that afternoon rather than spend another night out in the Yurt, so we left that afternoon. It only took a little over an hour to get back to the car, which was much better than the 4+ hour approach on the way in.

Overall, it was a terrific experience. We had great weather, great snow, and a lot of great skiing. For anyone looking for a great backcountry yurt experience, I would highly recommend the Baldy Knoll Yurt. The yurt is comfortable, and the terrain it is close to is ideal for “earn your turns” backcountry powder skiing.

Desert Ice Climbing: Hidden Haven Falls

Hidden Haven is a red rock canyon in southern Utah.  It’s not far from Parowan, on the road to Brian Head ski resort.  In winter, the falls at the top of this narrow canyon freezes up, providing one of the most aesthetic ice climbs I’ve ever experienced.  I’m used to climbing frozen waterfalls, but climbing frozen falls in a sandstone slot canyon is a visual treat.

The climbing consists of 4 distinct steps, separated by some walking up the canyon.  The first three are all pretty short and relatively easy at WI 2 or 3, and the last pitch is the longest and steepest, about 110 feet and WI4.

The first ice step, at the entrance to Hidden Haven

The first ice step, at the entrance to Hidden Haven

I climbed this in March.  The ice in Utah’s Wasatch Range to the North had all pretty much melted out due to unseasonably warm temperatures, but because of the narrowness of the sunless canyon and the elevation (a bit over 6000 feet) the ice here remained climbable (albeit kind of wet.)

Climbing the first step to get into the canyon

Climbing the first step to get into the canyon (Photo:  Dallen Ward)

Once you get into the canyon, it’s very beautiful, and you traverse from one pitch to the next along the gentle frozen creekbed that flows along the canyon bottom.

Walking along the canyon

Dallen, walking along the canyon

Climbing the 2nd Ice Step

Climbing the 2nd Ice Step (Photo:  Dallen Ward)

The real payoff of this climb is the fourth and final pitch.  The final falls is set in a tall amphitheater of red sandstone, with a ribbon of ice ascending to a narrow slit of sky above.  It’s a gorgeous setting.  The ice is steep in places, but not particularly difficult.  Like all ice climbs, the difficulty varies depending on conditions.  When I climbed it, it was probably WI3+ or 4-.

4th pitch of Hidden Haven

4th pitch of Hidden Haven (Photo:  Dallen Ward)

 

The view from the belay, looking up the 4th pitch.

The view from the belay, looking up the 4th pitch. (Photo:  Dallen Ward)

I really loved this climb.  I’m definitely going back next season, but this time, I will bring some more friends so I can set up a photography perch on top of the 4th pitch and get some better pictures of this outstandingly beautiful route.  Gear Notes:  I brought rock gear, but didn’t use any of it.  Ice screws are all that’s needed. The descent is simple.  There are fixed slings and rap rings on trees above all of the steps.  A single 60 meter rope will get you down the rappel on the 4th pitch.

The view from the top of the 4th pitch.

The view from the top of the 4th pitch.

 

 

 

 

 

Eddie Bauer Guide and Guide Lite Gloves

I have 30+ pairs of outdoor gloves and mittens.  It seems like every year for the past 20 years, I’ve bought one or two new pairs of gloves, searching for the elusive perfect glove.

However, for the past couple of years, I’ve been using two gloves almost exclusively for my climbing; the Guide Gloves and Guide Lite Gloves from the Eddie Bauer First Ascent line.

Guide Gloves on ice.  Ouray Ice Park

Guide Gloves on ice. Ouray Ice Park

The problem with glove design is that it’s got conflicting goals.  A glove needs to be warm, but it also needs to not be too bulky.  It needs to keep your hands warm and dry and comfortable, but also needs to maintain dexterity.  They need to be tough enough to stand up to the abuse of climbing and rappelling, but not so stiff and heavy that they don’t perform well.  A good glove design is one that makes appropriate compromises between these conflicting goals.

Here’s why I really like the Eddie Bauer Guide and Guide Lite gloves:

1:  Fit.  They fit my hands really well.  I have relatively broad hands, but my fingers are not particularly long.  The Eddie Bauer glove pattern fits my hands almost perfectly.  Some glove makers (Black Diamond for example) tend to pattern their gloves with longer fingers.  When the gloves are cut too long in the fingers, it compromises dexterity and makes manipulating gear more difficult.  If you have extra long fingers, the Eddie Bauer gloves may not fit you well, but for me, they fit “like a glove.”

2:  No removable liner.   I hate removable liners in my gloves.  Almost without exception, removable liners make gloves more bulky, less dexterous, and harder to put on and take off.  Especially when my hands get damp with sweat, taking a close-fitting glove off will often pull out the liner, or invert the liner’s fingers, making it difficult to get back on.  I have used dozens of gloves with removable liners and have yet to find any that had the same functionality as a glove with an integral liner.   The supposed benefit of a removable liner is that you can take it out and dry it overnight.  In practice, I haven’t found this to be an advantage.  I just take my entire glove and put it next to my body inside my sleeping bag at night, and they are plenty dry by morning.

3:  Just the right amount of insulation.   The Eddie Bauer gloves have just the right amount of insulation for me for most conditions.  They both have an integral, non-removable liner made from a mix of acrylic and merino wool.  The Guide Glove has an additional layer of primaloft one insulation, while the Guide Lite just has the acrylic/wool insulation.  I use the Guide Lite gloves for climbing and am comfortable in them in temperatures down to the high teens.  The more generously insulated Guide Gloves are comfortable down to about zero Fahrenheit.  If I’m actually climbing, I can use them in colder temperatures, but I will typically need something warmer to wear on my hands when I’m not active (like when I’m standing around at the belay.)  I am seldom doing technical climbing in arctic or Himalayan temperatures, so these gloves have me covered for 95% of the conditions I’m climbing in.

I find these gloves to be considerably warmer for their bulk than any other gloves I’ve used, and are warmer than gloves that are considerably thicker.  I don’t know for sure why this is, but I suspect that the merino wool in the liner pulls away moisture and keeps my hands dry, which keeps them warm.

Guide Gloves (left) and Guide Lite Gloves (right)

Guide Gloves (left) and Guide Lite Gloves (right)

4:  Excellent Dexterity and Feel.  Both of these gloves provide exceptional dexterity and feel for manipulating equipment and climbing.  They are soft and supple, and don’t provide much resistance when clenching your fingers and gripping an ice tool.  The palms are relatively thin, and the fingers are sensitive enough to have a good feel when placing ice screws and rock gear.  The Guide Lite in particular is extremely good in this regard, providing about the same level of dexterity and sensitivity as uninsulated dry tooling gloves I’ve used that are not nearly as warm as the Guide Lite.

5:  Adequate Durability.  These gloves are generally pretty durable, with leather palms and reinforcements in high wear areas.  I have worn out a pair of these gloves, but they lasted as long as I expected, given the abuse I subjected them to.  I have had one defective pair of Guide Lites, where the knit cuff became unstitched from the glove long before the glove should have worn out.  This pair was replaced by Eddie Bauer under their lifetime warranty.  (Waiting for the replacement pair to come back, I used some other lightweight softshell gloves instead, and was reminded of how much better the Guide Lites are than my other lightweight softshell gloves.)  Bottom line is that I’ve been happy with the durability of these gloves.  They don’t last forever, but I don’t expect that of my climbing gear.

Nothing is perfect.  Guide Lite gloves unraveling.

Nothing is perfect. Guide Lite gloves unraveling.

6:  Adequate water resistance.  These gloves are not waterproof.  They don’t have Gore-tex inserts or seam sealed shells.  They have water resistant fabric, and water resistant leather (and come with some Nikwax leather treatment to increase that water resistance.) If you are climbing ice that is running with water, or you’re constantly plunging your hands into wet snow all day long, the gloves will get wet.  In almost all cases, I’ve found the water resistance of these gloves to be adequate.  Even if the leather gets wetted out, my hands have tended to stay warm and comfortable.  In general, I would rather have a glove that is water resistant than water proof, because I’ve never yet found a truly waterproof glove that has decent dexterity and fit for technical climbing.  If you demand a truly waterproof glove, then these aren’t the best choice.  I have found, however, that they are water resistant enough to do the job well in almost all conditions that I am climbing in.  They dry out overnight if I sleep with them under my clothing.

Conclusion:  In spite of the fact that I have a large box filled with gloves, the Guide and the Guide Lite are the ones that get the most use for technical climbing.  They perform better across a wider range of conditions than any other gloves I’ve used.  Combined with a super warm mitten for ultra-cold belaying duties, these gloves are pretty much all I use any more.

Skyward Mountaineering: Winter Alpine Climbing Intensive Workshop

Skyward Mountaineering is a guide service operated by alpinists Steve House and Vince Anderson.  In addition to offering guided climbs both locally and internationally, they also teach instructional workshops focusing on various aspects of climbing.  I was lucky enough to participate in their  three day Winter Alpine Climbing Intensive Workshop.

The workshop took place in Ouray Colorado, from Monday to Wednesday. Including me, there were four students.  Steve and Vince were the instructors.  The first day was spent climbing in the Ouray Ice Park.  Vince and Steve coached us on various aspects of ice and mixed climbing.  We spent time  learning how to move on low angle terrain, climbing moderate ice, downclimbing, and climbing steep ice and rock.  The emphasis was on moving efficiently with the least possible expenditure of energy.

Vince Anderson, headed up the ice to set up a directional anchor

Vince Anderson, headed up the ice to set up a directional anchor

I’ve done a fair amount of climbing in the past, but this training day was super helpful.  Viince and Steve would watch us climb, and give us pointers on our technique.  The instruction on climbing rock with crampons and ice tools was particularly useful for me, because I haven’t really done much dry tooling and mixed climbing.  By the end of the first day, I had climbed the most difficult rock climbing I’ve ever done in crampons, and was getting a much better idea of what I needed to do to stay balanced and in control on rock.

Vince, coaching me on Le Saucisson, a dry tooling route in the Ouray Ice Park

Vince, coaching me on Le Saucisson, a dry tooling route in the Ouray Ice Park

Day two began with a presentation by Steve and Vince on various skills and techniques needed for alpine climbing.  Vince talked about preparation for climbing, with a focus on mental preparation.  We discussed strategies for balancing speed and safety, and minimizing danger on route.  We got to see pictures and hear stories about various climbs he’d done to illustrate his points.

After Vince’s presentation, Steve led a discussion on gear and clothing systems. He brought duffel bags full of gear and clothing and Steve and Vince talked about what they used and why.  I was in gear geek heaven.  We talked about clothes, stoves, cams, ice screws, tents, sleeping bags and other stuff.  We got to see the sleeping bag that Steve made for their ascent of Nanga Parbat.  Steve talked about how gear and clothing design is evolving and gave us some hints about what we might see in the future.

Steve House, expressing his everlasting love for his DAS Parka

Steve House, expressing his undying love for his DAS Parka

After the gear discussion, we headed off up the Camp Bird Road to put some of the theories we’d learned into practice.  At the ice and mixed climbing spots near the road, we had some practical, hands-on instruction on the logistics of bivouacs, rope management, belays, anchors, communication, and other aspects of climbing.  We practiced belay changeovers, and set up a simulated bivi site on a narrow ledge.

Vince Anderson on the "bivi ledge" he chopped out.  (We decided not to sleep there for the night, however.)

Vince Anderson on the “bivi ledge” he chopped out. (We decided not to sleep there for the night, however.)

One of the most useful parts for me was the discussion on rope management and minimizing time spent doing changeovers at belays.  When I’m climbing, it always seems like the belay changeover takes way more time than it should.  They taught us a dozen little tricks to shave time off of the exchange.

Steve House instructing on belay changeovers, while Vince Anderson heads up the ice to set up a top rope.

Steve House instructing on belay changeovers, while Vince Anderson heads up the ice to set up a top rope.

Interspersed with the instruction on non-climbing techniques, we also did some more climbing, and Steve and Vince coached us on our movement skills.

Steve House, demonstrating relaxed form on steep ice.

Steve House, demonstrating relaxed form on steep ice.

We wrapped things up as the sun was setting, and later on that evening, we all met for dinner, where we chatted, listened to Steve and Vince’s stories, and generally had a great time.  It was at dinner that we learned of our objectives for the next day.  We were going to split into two rope teams of three, and climb two multi-pitch routes that are right next to each other.  My team, led by Vince, was going to climb Bird Brain Boulevard.  The other rope team, led by Steve, was going to climb The Ribbon.

The Ribbon is the prominent ice climb on the left.  Bird Brain Blvd is in the dark cleft and chimney system on the right.

The Ribbon is the prominent ice climb on the left. Bird Brain Blvd is in the dark cleft and chimney system on the right.

I have to admit that when I heard we were going to be attempting Bird Brain Boulevard, I was pretty worried.  It’s seven pitches (1200 feet) long, and rated WI5 M6, which is significantly harder than anything I’ve climbed before.  I’ve known about this route for years.  I remember seeing pictures from the first ascent it in an old Latok Mountain Gear catalog.  It holds a somewhat mythic status in my mind.  It’s a climb that is out of my league, even on top rope, with a guide.  I spent a mostly sleepless night that night, worrying about flailing, slowing the party down, and making a fool out of myself on a route that was too hard for me to climb.  We were planning a pre-dawn start, to ensure we got on the climb ahead of any other parties, but I was awake well before my alarm went off at 4:15.

Vince picked me up a little before 5, and we drove off in the dark to the trailhead.  We were all relieved to see that there were no other cars parked there.  We would be on the route first, which would minimize objective dangers of other parties knocking rock and ice down on our heads.  We took our time getting gear ready and took it easy on the approach, waiting for the sun to come out and give us some light to climb by.  We actually started climbing about 6:00, just as it was getting light enough to see.

The climbing was steep, and I had to keep in mind what I was doing, but none of it was beyond my abilities as long as I stayed calm and focused.  The biggest difficulty is that I had to poo, the Mexican food from last night’s dinner having wended its way through my digestive tract.  I took care of this call of nature on the belay ledge at the top of the second pitch, crapping in a ziplock bag so I wouldn’t befoul the route, and extending my clove hitched rope section a bit further so I could reach the farthest part of the ledge.  I was a bit anxious because I had slowed everything down and the other two in my party were now waiting for me high above at the top of the next pitch.

I unclipped the clove hitch that tied myself to the anchor, and was reaching out to unscrew an ice screw that was last remaining piece of the belay anchor, when my feet sheared through the snow, and I pitched right off the belay ledge.  I felt like a complete moron.  I’d climbed steep ice and rock up to this point without falling, but somehow managed to fall off of the belay ledge.  Luckily, I was on a top rope, and the only thing injured was my pride, so I climbed back up to the ledge, retrieved the ice screw, and proceeded up the climb, a little shaky from some extra adrenaline in my veins.

The view down the climb from the belay ledge.

The view down the climb from the belay ledge.

The climbing all along the route was pretty sustained.  Every pitch had some part of it that made me wonder if I could do it.  However, I just kept thinking back to the training of the previous two days:  “Place the tool.  Test it.  Believe in it?  Then trust it.”  “Keep your picks and your crampon points quiet and still once you place them.”  “Always keep in mind the direction of pressure when you choose a crampon point placement on rock.”  Find a crack and torque the pick.”  Vince and Steve’s coaching was fresh in my mind, and kept me progressing steadily upward from one section to the next.

Oli, on one of the steep ice sections, headed for the chimneys.

Oli, on one of the steep ice sections, headed for the chimneys.

The most tenuous part of the climb was a section that was mostly devoid of ice, and required stemming on bare rock up to a lip that had some  frozen moss that would take (gentle) sticks.  The most strenuous parts of the climb were a series of squeeze chimneys, where I had to wriggle up, thrutching my way higher, with my back pack dangling below me hung from a runner, wishing I wasn’t quite so thick.

Climbing good (thick) ice on Bird Brain Blvd

Climbing good (thick) ice on Bird Brain Blvd

Wriggling up a chimney on Bird Brain Blvd

Wriggling up a chimney on Bird Brain Blvd

Oli, pulling over a lip on Bird Brain Blvd

Oli, pulling over a lip on Bird Brain Blvd

Finally, we topped out, and then traversed and rappelled our way over to the Ribbon, where there is a series of fixed rappel stations.  I was worried that our ropes were going to get stuck in the trees along the rappel route, but we managed to avoid that hassle.  We got back to the car without incident, a little after 1:00 in the afternoon, which was a respectable time for a guided group of three people.   (I was glad to only have to use my headlamp for the approach, not the descent.)

Vince Anderson, navigating through trees on our rappel down to the Ribbon.

Vince Anderson, navigating through trees on our rappel down to the Ribbon.

I was really happy with how things had gone.  Other than my ignominious tumble off of the belay ledge, I’d managed to climb the route with no falls and no hanging on the rope, which was certainly better than I had feared.  It was the perfect end to a terrific three days.  I went back to town, soaked in a hot tub for a while, then met up with Steve and the rest of the group for an early dinner/late lunch at the local brew pub.  (Vince had headed back home to take care of some business.)    We chatted and ate, and then I finally said goodbye to my new friends.

The workshop exceeded my expectations on all levels.  I can’t think of a better way to tune up my alpine climbing skills than to spend three days with Vince and Steve, learning from the best in the business.  It was truly a terrific experience, and I’m already dreaming about climbing with them again.