Chalk bags are a pretty generic piece of climbing gear. It’s hard to get excited about a chalk bag. They are really just a bag that holds chalk. Arcteryx came up with a fancy twisting mechanism for keeping the chalk from spilling with their “Aperture” chalk bag, but other than that innovation, chalk bags haven’t changed much since I started climbing in the 80’s.
However, I have found a chalk bag that I am actually quite excited about. It’s made by Tufa Climbing, a small company that turns out chalk bags and other climbing soft goods in Missoula, Montana. We worked together on the design, and ultimately I ended up with what I think is the greatest chalk bag ever made. They call it the Houdini Chalk Bag. It’s available on their web site HERE.
The thing that makes the Houdini chalk bag worthy of excitement is the bottom zippered pocket. There are lots of chalk bags with zippered pockets, but this design has a pocket that actually is large enough to hold some useful emergency items. The pocket is located in the bottom of the bag, and accessible with a water resistant zipper. The position and orientation of the pocket makes it so that you can stuff the pocket full, and it doesn’t interfere with the function of the chalk bag. (Side pockets tend to impinge on access to the chalk when stuffed too full.)
I have two of these Tufa Houdini chalk bags, one slightly smaller that I use for everyday cragging, and a larger one that I use on long alpine routes. The pocket in the smaller bag is large enough to comfortably fit a headlamp, a knife, a small sparklight and a couple of tinder tabs, along with an ultralight windbreaker (Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded Jacket.) The pocket in the larger Alpine chalk bag bag is large enough to hold those items, plus a few Gu packs or the like.
What this means, is that whenever I’m climbing, I’m never without some basic emergency gear. I’ve already made use of this once, as we got behind a really slow party on a multi-pitch route at one of the local crags. We finished in the dark, and it was very handy to have the headlamp and the windbreaker available.
In normal climbing use, the Houdini chalk bag functions just like a regular chalk bag, and I pretty much forget I’m even carrying anything in it other than chalk.
So, there you have it. The greatest chalk bag ever made, and the first and only chalk bag I have been excited enough about to write a review on.
Some folk built like this, some folk built like that But the way I’m built, Don’t you call me fat Because I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed But I got everything, oh, that a good girl need Howlin Wolf: Built for Comfort
The North Ice Project is definitely a pack that is built for comfort, not speed. It’s not “light and fast” it’s heavy and slow. It’s a pack that is made for ice climbing at your local crags. I first saw the Ice Project at last year’s Summer Outdoor Retailer show. The pack was designed by Conrad Anker, and I was fortunate enough to get to chat with him about the pack’s various features at the North Face booth. I got a sweet deal on it, and couldn’t resist the purchase, in spite of the fact that I usually buy stripped down, lightweight packs.
This pack keeps things organized and easy to get to, unlike my top loading pack that I previously used for ice cragging. Instead of just dumping everything out in the snow when I get to the climb, with the Ice Project, I can unzip the pack and have access to all my gear and clothing.
There is a large top pocket of waterproof fabric that holds your crampons, and a smaller top pocket that’s good for sunscreen, sunglasses, and snacks. Your ice tools go inside the pack, secured by sleeves and straps. There’s a snap-out row of sleeves to keep your ice screws in, and a pouch that holds various items. There’s even a sewn-in sleeve to hold your file.
The zip off clamshell section has a big mesh pocket that’s perfect for storing extra clothing. You can flip this section out, and have a soft, insulated place to sit while you’re adjusting your boots and putting on your crampons.
The pack is listed at 2746 cubic inches, but it seems bigger to me. Perhaps it’s just because the design allows for better organization and more efficient use of space. There’s room in the pack for pretty much everything you would need for a day of ice climbing. I carry rope, rack, helmet, tools, extra clothing, snacks, and miscellaneous stuff. Also, unlike other packs, where I’ve got crampons and ice tools strapped to the outside, everything fits inside the pack itself. There’s no pokey things on the outside that are going to rip holes in your car seats when you toss this pack into your back seat of your car. If you absolutely must have more storage, there’s daisy chains you can use to strap stuff the outside.
The construction is bomber. It’s built like a base camp duffel bag, with heavy fabrics, big zippers, and reinforced stitching. You would have to work really really hard to wear this pack out. It’s got grab handles on the body, so you can man-handle it like you would with luggage.
The pack carries pretty well, and is comfortable for hiking. One thing that I appreciate is that it comes in two back sizes. I have a longer than average back, and am glad that it’s available in a long back length. While it’s comfortable for hiking it really isn’t a climbing pack however. I’ve climbed with it on my back a couple of times, and it’s way too stiff, and the top of the pack interferes with your helmet when you look up. This is not a pack to take with you if you plan on doing any actual climbing while wearing the pack.
What this pack is perfect for, however, is a trip to Ouray, or any other ice climbing venue where you hike in, drop your pack, and then climb without the pack.
The pack is kind of heavy. (Mine weighs 5 pounds, 1.6 ounces in a size large.) However, that’s the price you pay for the burly construction and multitude of features.
The only real complaint I have about this pack is the number of ice screw sleeves. The pack has 10 sleeves, but I sometimes use 12 screws. I wish the ice screw carrier had a couple more slots. One other nit pick is that the beefy zipper can be a bit of a chore to operate, especially when the pack is cold.
Overall, I really like this pack. The North Face has made a niche pack that’s specialized for ice cragging. However, I suspect that it will be fairly popular, because, my guess is that there are more folks that go ice cragging than people who are doing hard core alpine climbing. The Ice Project is a perfect pack for the days at the local ice fall that constitute the majority of my actual ice climbing days. It’s a niche product that fills its niche very well.
In 2014, I had a trip to Alaska planned, to climb the Ham & Eggs route on the Moose’s Tooth. However, icefall closed down the glacier landing access, and the trip got cancelled.
I scheduled another trip to Moose’s Tooth for May of 2015, and kept my fingers crossed, hoping for good conditions.
The trip was a guided trip, through Skyward Mountaineering, the guide service owned by Steve House and Vince Anderson. The participants were me, another client named Joe, and our guide, Buster.
The three of us met May 4th at the airport in Anchorage. We rented a car, bought a bunch of food, then drove to Talkeetna.
Talkeetna is a small tourist town that owes its existence mostly to the fact that it’s the jumping off point for Denali and other mountains in the Alaska Range. It’s home to several air services that fly planes into the mountains, including our service, Talkeetna Air Taxi.
We spent the night at the Talkeetna Air Taxi bunkhouse, and then packed up and went to the Talkeetna Air Taxi office at the airport, where we loaded up our stuff into a beautiful 1950’s vintage Dehaviland Beaver and flew to the Root Canal Glacier at the foot of the Moose’s Tooth. As the prize for winning an epic game of Paper Scissors Rock, I won the opportunity to sit in the front seat next to the pilot.
The flight was amazing. Once we got over the Alaska Range, the scenery was breathtaking in every direction. I was a little bit nervous about the glacier landing, but it turned out to be more smooth than most landings on a runway.
We emptied our stuff out of the plane, and a group of folks who had been on the glacier traded places with us and the plane whisked them away, lifting off of the glacier in what seemed to be a very very short distance.
We set up camp, ate dinner, and prepared for the climb. The weather window looked good for the next day, so we planned on waking up at 4:00 and heading out to climb the route.
It never really got very dark that night, but I slept pretty well anyway. We woke at 4, and left camp at 5. We short roped up the initial snow sections, and then began pitching it out beginning with a mixed section that was mostly rock. The climbing was fun here, scratching up granite with ice tools and crampons, occasionally using gloved hands to grasp rock features. After the mixed section, we traversed down and right and established ourselves in the main couloir.
The climbing from here on out was a relatively straightforward mix of neve and water ice of varying steepness. There were a number of bulging sections of steep ice that presented a good challenge, particularly for Buster who was leading them, because the steeper sections of the ice tended to be somewhat aerated and rotten. In a couple of spots I worried that if he fell, the screws might not hold his fall. However, he pretty much crushed everything, cruising up the steep ice in a fluid, controlled style.
Lots of spindrift mixed with ice poured down on us as we climbed. We pulled our hoods up over our helmets to keep our jackets from filling up with snow. On several occasions, I would pull up over a lip, and get a steady stream of snow and debris in my face. In spite of the perfect weather, the spindrift gave the climb an alpine feel.
We were making good time, and had reached 9000 feet, having passed the two crux sections, when I got hit by falling ice. Joe was belaying, and I was just hanging out and relaxing when I got whacked. The ice glanced off my helmet and impacted my neck and upper shoulder. I blacked out for just a moment, and my whole body felt like it was being poked with pins or electricity. Joe asked me if I was OK, and I told him that I didn’t think I was OK. I was dizzy, and was having a hard time moving my neck. I could turn it to the right and look down, but looking up or turning it to the left hurt a lot. I was having trouble with my left arm too, and couldn’t use it very well. I felt like I was on the deck of a moving ship, and things around me seemed to be moving up and down a bit.
After a short while, Buster rappelled down to check on my condition, and by the time he got there, I was nauseous. I kept retching and dry heaving, but my stomach was pretty empty and I didn’t have anything to throw up. I took a sip of water. (And later found out that I had put my water bottle back in my pack without the lid on.)
I felt pretty awful, and Buster wasn’t keen on dragging me up an Alaskan corniced ridge while I was dizzy and shaken up, so we decided to head down. It took us about 4 hours to rappel to the base of the route. By the time we got to camp, I was feeling somewhat better, but had a really really sore neck and shoulder.
I felt pretty bad that we hadn’t been able to tag the summit. I felt especially bad for Joe and Buster, as my injury had messed up their chances to reach the top. It was the first time that an injury had prevented me from continuing on a climb. If we had been able to get to a sheltered spot and allow me to rest and recuperate for an hour or so, I might have been able to continue, but there wasn’t really any good spot to do this out of the line of fire from more falling ice.
We got back down to camp about 12 hours after we had left, only to find that it had been ransacked by ravens. The crafty birds had opened the zippers on our duffel bags, and had spread the contents about. After dealing with the raven damage, I took 4 ibuprofen tablets and crawled into my sleeping bag. We figured that after a rest day, we’d have another shot at the route.
However, the weather did not cooperate. It started snowing that night, and snowed heavily and continuously for most of the next five days. We spent our time sleeping, talking, eating, and digging a snow hole.
After days of snowfall and watching sluffs avalanche down the route, we realized that we were not going to get another shot at climbing Ham & Eggs. We turned our efforts towards getting off the glacier. We’d go and stamp out a landing zone runway for the airplane, only to see our work covered up by more fresh snow. We dug our tents out, ate, and tried not to get too bored.
Finally, the weather cleared enough for the planes to fly again. We stamped out a runway and were rewarded by the sight of a Dehaviland Otter coming to rescue us from our basecamp existence.
We stowed some of the Skyward Mountaineering equipment at the Talkeetna Air Taxi gear stash, then we had dinner and a night at the Talkeetna Air Taxi Bunkhouse. The next day, we drove back to Anchorage and flew home.
Overall, it was a great trip, in spite of the fact that I didn’t make it to the top of the Moose’s Tooth. Several weeks after the trip, my neck is still a bit stiff, but I’m otherwise fully recovered from my injury, and ready to do some more climbing. The trip really whetted my appetite for Alaskan climbing, and I hope to return to the Alaska Range some day. Until then, I will have to satisfy myself with objectives closer to home.
Guided Hut to Hut skiing in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range with Sun Valley Trekking
March 16-20, 2015
For the past few seasons, I’ve done a multi-day backcountry ski trip with a group of friends. So far, we’ve done a traverse of the Teton Crest traverse, a Sierra trip from Mammoth to Lee Vining Canyon, and a trip to the Baldy Knoll Yurt in the Teton Backcountry. This year, we opted for a trip to Idaho’s Sawtooth Range. Rather than staying in tents, we would be staying in backcountry huts. Unlike past trips, we decided to hire a guide.
We arranged the trip through Sun Valley Trekking, which operates a number of yurts and huts in the Sawtooth range. It was an “all inclusive” trip that included our hut accommodations, food, and guiding for the week. Not having done a guided ski trip before, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. As it turned out, it was the most decadently comfortable backcountry ski trip I’ve ever done.
We split our time between two huts, the Bench Hut, and the Fishhook Hut. The first day we spent skiing into the Bench Hut. It was a pretty easy day, made even easier by the fact that the guide service had a couple of porters that brought in all of our food on a sled.
The Bench Hut is a large structure made of fabric on a wooden frame that comfortably accommodated our large group of 8 people.
Conditions were not ideal. When we had booked the trip back in November, we figured that mid March would be prime powder skiing season. However, Idaho, like most of the Mountain West, had suffered through a warm, dry winter, so the snowpack was more like it would be in very late spring. On the trip in to the Bench Hut, we were getting rained on, which is never an auspicious way to start a ski trip.
The good news was that the food that the Sun Valley Trekking folks provided for us was terrific. We just lounged around in the hut, while the guides cooked us a great meal. It didn’t feel much like backcountry skiing at all. It was way too cushy. (But I wasn’t complaining about that.)
The next day, we took off to see if we could find some decent snow. It was warm and wet, with low clouds and intermittent rain. The snow was thick and not particularly fun or easy to ski. We skinned up to the Bench Lakes high above the hut, and toured around a bit, but overall, it was something of a disappointment. I could tell that our guides were worried that the trip was going to a bust, in spite of their best efforts to find us some skiable terrain. Sadly, there was not much they could do about the weather and snow conditions.
That night, however, the temperatures dropped significantly, and there was some snow instead of rain. We awoke to clear skies and firm snow. We took that opportunity to hit the trail early and get some skiing in before things got too warm and mushy. We skinned up to a peak above the bench hut, and got some turns on the way down. Then we slowly made our way back to the hut, yo-yo-ing some nice slopes olong the way. It was a fun day, although by the afternoon, the snow was getting very thick and mushy again due to the warm temps.
The next day, our goal was a traverse from the Bench Hut to the Fishhook Hut. Again, it was sort of like cheating, because the Sun Valley Trekking porters took our sleeping bags and other non-skiing gear, along with our food, and sledded it to the Fishhook hut for us. We were able to ski the entire day with lightweight day packs.
The skiing was a lot of fun. Snow conditions were excellent, with a dusting of powder over a nice, firm supportable base.
It was an amazing day, with great snow conditions for skiing, eye-popping scenery, and perfect weather. The fun sort of ran out near the bottom as we approached the Fishhook hut and had to navigate through the tight trees and brush of the area our guides referred to as “the Jungle.” Still, it was an excellent and memorable day of backcountry skiing.
The Fishhook hut was as comfortable as the Bench Hut had been, with an added bonus; It has a hot tub!!! I can’t think of how many times I’ve been in the mountains and thought about how nice it would be to have a hot tub to relax in. This trip, that fantasy came true. It was so amazing to soak my tired body in hot water. Again, it seemed like cheating.
The next day was not particularly memorable. We woke up late, and skied out from the Fishhook hut to the trailhead. The warm weather had taken its toll on the snowpack, and there were sections of dirt where the snow had all melted out. Eventually, however, we made it back to the cars.
Overall, it was a great trip in spite of the marginal weather and snow conditions. The day we spent skiing from Bench Hut to Fishhook Hut really made the whole trip. It was one of the better days I’ve spent backcountry skiing. The Sun Valley Trekking guides were terrific, especially J.P., our lead guide. They took good care of our entire group, and helped make the experience a lot of fun.
However, as fun as the trip was, I think that next year, we’re going to do something a bit less cushy and comfortable. After two years in a row of yurt/hut trips, I think we’re all ready for something a bit more primitive. (although I will definitely miss that hot tub.)
The winter of 2014-15 was something of a disappointment for those of us living in the Mountain West. Temperatures were warm. Precipitation was scarce, and often fell in the form of rain instead of snow. Here in Utah, the ice climbing season was short and inconsistent. As a result, I only got out for a couple of days locally, and took a couple of trips down to Ouray, which also was suffering through a relatively warm winter.
I did get to try out some new ice screws by Salewa, and also got to use my aluminum Petzl Speed Light screws a bit more. Here are my impressions:
The Salewa Quick Screw is a screw that incorporates a number of interesting features. It has a compact head with a fold out crank. The head is some sort of composite that supposedly makes the screw less prone to melting out when placed in direct sunlight. The most unusual feature of the Salewa Quck Screw is that it comes with an integral racking system. The screw is permanently attached to a quick draw via a sliding hanger, and the quick draw attaches to the screw by means of a plastic clip. This makes them very easy to carry. There is no need for racking on a separate biner, caritool, etc. Biners and screws are color coded by length.
The racking system is very convenient, however, it does require a few extra steps when placing the screw one-handed on steep ice. Here is the sequence:
1: You grab the carabiner that the screw is racked with. you’ve got hold of the carabiner, but the screw is still clipped into the plastic carrier, and the head of the screw is dangling down.
2: Work your hand up the screw until you are grasping the head and the carabiner is hanging down. Then, whack the screw up against the ice to break the grip of the plastic carrier and release the screw body.
3: Press the teeth into the ice and start turning it in. When the teeth catch, you deploy the crank handle and crank it in.
4: Clip your rope into the biner, and you’re good.
Once you are grabbing the head, the screw goes in very nicely. It bites as well as any other screw I’ve used, and the shape of the head makes it very easy to get pressure on the screw when you’re starting it.
I bought 4 of the Salewa screws, and after using them a bit, I want more. They are easy to place, and easy to access when they are clipped on your harness. After some initial practice, I can deploy, place, and clip these screws faster than any other.
The only real downside to these screws is that they are expensive and (in the US at least) hard to find.
Petzl Laser Speed Light Aluminum Ice Screw
Last fall, I posted my first impressions of the aluminum Laser Speed Light screw HERE.
After using them climbing water ice this winter, my first impressions have been mostly confirmed. I love the light weight, and their aggressive teeth make starting them very very easy. Although I bought them primarily as a light weight alpine ice screw, I find that I’m using them as a go-to all around water ice screw as well.
However, the binding issues I encountered when I first used the screws have continued to occur. These screws tend to freeze into the ice when placing them in temperatures near freezing. Colder temperatures seem to result in less freezing/binding. I have seen other people posting on the internet with similar experiences, so my conclusion is that this is not my imagination, but is something inherent in the aluminum design (probably related to aluminum’s conductivity.)
The bottom line, however, is that the binding/freezing issue is relatively minor when compared with the excellent traits of these screws. Their light weight and high performance have earned them a place on my climbing rack both for water ice and alpine ice.
It is not UIAA approved, and is not suitable for technical ice climbing, but after some use, I have concluded that this is a terrific axe for snow and low angle glacier travel.
I bought this axe in anticipation of a trip to the Bugaboos. Approaches and descents in the Bugs generally require travel over glacial terrain. An axe is needed for self arrest, balance, step cutting, and easy climbing. Having an ice axe that is as light as possible is a benefit because when you’re rock climbing, the axe is just dead weight.
After some use and testing in the Bugaboos, and on snow slopes closer to home, here are my thoughts on the TiCa axe.
It’t not for long, steep, technical climbing. This seems obvious, but I figured I would state it up front. The axe doesn’t have enough heft to swing all day on steep ice. If you’re climbing something steep enough to require front pointing and it continues for more than 10 or 20 meters, you will probably be better served with a real ice axe. I wouldn’t want to use the TiCa Ice Tool on water ice either, other than just the occasional patch of water ice. It’s just too light to have enough momentum to sink the pick into hard water ice very efficiently.
You’re not going to have an easy time using the TiCa to climb out of a deep, overhanging crevasse. However, you really aren’t going to be able to climb out of a deep, overhanging crevasse with only one tool, no matter how technical that tool is. If you’re only carrying a single ice axe, you’re going to need to rely on prussiks to self-rescue anyway, regardless of what sort of axe you’ve got.
It’s not safety rated by the UIAA. That means that I can’t really trust it for boot/axe belays or as an anchor when used in a T-Slot.
What it is good for:
It cuts steps. Before I had the chance to test it out, I wondered if the TiCa axe would be any good at cutting steps. It’s so light that I worried that the axe would not have enough heft to chop steps. As it turns out, it does a pretty good job. Even though it is feather light, all of the weight is concentrated in the head, so the swing weight is pretty good. I cut steps in hard glacial ice in the Bugaboos without any problems, using both the adze and the pick. If you need to cut steps to get you across a patch of steep, icy ground, the TiCa works well.
The pick is functional for upward progress and for self arrest. I used the TiCa axe for climbing out of a bergshund, and it worked fine. I played around with it on steep glacier ice, and it works fine. It’s not a technical tool, and as I wrote above, I wouldn’t use the TiCa for long bouts of climbing AI3 or water ice, but for occasional use on steeper ground, it will work. There is no hand rest, and I didn’t use a leash, but the titanium spike on the bottom sticks out a little bit, and this gives you a sufficient grip on the shaft for pulling. The titanium pick bites into ice adequately for decent security using piolet ancre technique.
Note that the pick is shipped from the factory un-sharpened. I sharpened it with a file to give it better bite on ice. If you want to use the TiCa for anything other than self arrest, I would recommend that you sharpen the pick.
For self arrest, the TiCa works just like any other ice axe. I found it no harder to use than any other mountain axe.
The spike on the bottom of the shaft works fine for plunging in snow and softer glacial ice. It’s not particularly sharp, so it’s not as effective on harder ice. Still, I found it adequate for general mountaineering use in piolet canne technique.
Overall, the TiCa is something of a niche product. It’s for times when you want something for self arrest, and for negotiating the occasional icy step, but you don’t necessarily need a full on ice axe. Ski mountaineering, easy glacier travel, snowy cols, approaches to alpine rock climbs, and other such situations are where the TiCa axe comes into its own.
I think I will be using the TiCa as my go-to axe for non-technical situations. It’s just so light, that I can put up with its other limitations. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone as their only axe, but for times when you just need a very simple ice tool for non-technical climbing, and weight is at a premium, I feel it is a good choice.
I recently bought some of the new Petzl Laser Speed Light ice screws. The Speed Light screw is one of two screws on the market that is constructed with aluminum. (The other aluminum screw is the E-Climb Klau screw which I reviewed previously HERE.)
Based on this initial use, these are my first impressions of the Petzl screw. I will update this post when I get more opportunities to use these screws and have enough data to provide a more thorough review.
TheSpeed Light is made mostly from aluminum. The body and hanger are aluminum. The teeth and the crank handle are steel. The crank is a fold-out handle that provides extra leverage when turning the screw into the ice.
Light weight is the primary benefit of an aluminum bodied screw. The Petzl Laser Speed Light is significantly lighter than a steel screw, and is also a little lighter than the E-Climb Klau aluminum screw.
Weights for the Petzl Speed Lights are as follows:
13cm 3.1 ounces
17cm 3.5 ounces
21cm 3.8 ounces
Some other screw weights for comparison:
19 cm Black Diamond screw 5.7 ounces;
22cm Black Diamond screw 6.2 ounces
16 cm Grivel 360 screw 6.2 ounces
14 cm E-Climb Klau aluminum screw 4 ounces
18 cm E-Climb Klau aluminum screw 4.4 ounces
22 cm E-Climb Klau aluminum screw 4.7 ounces
The Petzl Speed light achieves this low weight because most of the screw is made from aluminum, including the tube body and the hanger. The E-Climb Klau incorporates an aluminum tube, but the hanger is constructed from steel. On the Petzl, only the teeth and crank handle are steel.
Ergonomics and Placement
The Speed Light racks well. The screws have hangers that nest neatly on the ice clipper and don’t get tangled or fouled up easily.
The teeth are aggressive, and the Speed Light starts easily. In my use, they seemed to start about as well as the E-Climb Klau, but the ice we were climbing on was relatively soft and warm, so I can’t really say which might be better, as most any screw will start easily in softer ice. I will need to wait until I encounter harder colder ice conditions before I will be able to do a real evaluation of how easily the screw bites and starts compared with its competitors.
One negative thing I did notice when using the Laser Speed Light was that it had a tendency to bind up and become quite difficult to turn on occasion. This happened constantly on the alpine ice route I was using them on. I would start the Speed Light, begin cranking, and then, rather suddenly, the screw would become very difficult to turn. The first time this happened, I wondered if I had hit a rock. Given the depth of the ice, however, I determined that this was unlikely, and decided to just keep cranking. After a fair amount of effort, the screw began to turn normally again. This was a common occurrence with the Petzl Speed Light screws, with the “binding” occuring once or twice with just about every Petzl screw I placed. My partner also experienced the same binding as I did.
I’m not sure why this happened, but my speculation is that the ice core was melting and then re-freezing in the tube. Temperatures we were climbing in were hovering right around freezing, and it’s possible that the friction of placing the screw was causing slight melting of the ice core, and then it was freezing up again, creating blockage. Aluminum conducts changes in temperature more readily than steel, which may contribute to this effect.
I have noticed that when using aluminum screws, (both Petzl and the E-Climb screws) it is generally a bit harder to clear the core from the tube than when using a steel screw, which seems to support this theory. However, I really don’t have anything else to support this belief or otherwise explain this behavior of the screws. I also don’t even know if this is going to be common when using the Speed Light, or if this “binding up” was just the result of an unusual combination of ice conditions and temperature. I should note, however, that I did not experience any similar binding when using the aluminum E-Climb Klau screws.
At this point, I’m not sure what to make of this experience. I need more use of the Laser Speed Light in a variety of conditions to determine how much of a factor this will be. At any rate, the screws were still usable, they just require significant effort to get them started again once they bind up.
I don’t have enough uses of these screws across broad conditions to come to final conclusions, but based on my initial use, I think that these screws will find a place on my alpine climbing rack when weight is at a premium. They start easily, rack easily, and weigh significantly less than steel screws. There is the issue of binding up when driving them home, but my suspicion is that the binding issue is likely limited to specific temperature and ice combinations, and won’t be a universal problem.
I am looking forward to using them more.
UPDATE: My updated conclusions after using these screws a bit more can be found HERE.
Tower 1 Gully on Mount Helen is considered the premier alpine ice climb in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. It’s a long, moderate alpine ice route that has been on my hit list for a while. Opportunities for climbing ice in the fall are not that common in my area of the country, so I was stoked to finally get this one checked off. Here’s what the guidebook has to say about this route:
“Tower 1Gully (IV Al 3+). The north-facing couloir between Towers 1 and 2 appears especially fearsome when viewed from Dinwoody Pass. With ten pitches and steepness up to 60 degrees, Tower 1 Gully is the Wind Rivers’ classic ice route. It is comparable in length and difficulty to the Grand Teton’s Black Ice Couloir, though never as hard as the Black Ice’s crux.You can anchor belays in adjacent rock.”
(Joe Kelsey. Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, 3rd Edition)
I didn’t get a decent picture of the entire climb, so here’s a photo of the climb taken from space (via Google Earth.) The red arrow shows the start of the actual climbing on the route. This photo was taken early season. Our conditions were quite a bit less snowy.
Mount Helen is located in the Titcomb Basin part of the Wind River Range. It’s about a 17 mile hike from the Elkhart Park trailhead just outside of the town of Pinedale. We decided to break up the approach hike into two days. I picked up my partner, Dallen, at 4:00 a.m. Thursday morning, and drove from Salt Lake to the trailhead, stopping in Pinedale for breakfast along the way. With our early start, we were hiking before 10:00 a.m.
The trail to Titcomb Basin is pretty pleasant, with relatively gentle gradients and beautiful scenery. We stopped along the way to fish a bit, but we didn’t catch anything. We ended up camping Thursday evening between Seneca Lake and Little Seneca Lake, about 10 miles from the trailhead. We fished a bit that evening, again without any success. Weather was beautiful, with clear skies and mild temperatures.
Friday, we continued our approach hike in to Titcomb basin. We hiked about five and a half miles, and set up our camp between the upper and middle Titcomb lakes. It was a beautiful spot, with a great view of the towers, including Mount Helen’s Tower 1, our objective for the following day. (Although our particular route was on the other side of the mountain.)
We spent the rest of the evening reconnoitering the approach to the route, fishing, and relaxing. Dallen caught a big, beautiful golden trout, I caught a small rainbow, and we packed up for the next day’s climb. The most exciting thing, however, is that we saw a wolverine walking along not far from our camp. I’ve never seen a wolverine in the wild before. It was really cool to see it there, moving along with its odd, bounding gait. It kept its distance from us, and I wasn’t able to get a decent photo because of how far away it was.
The next morning, we woke up at 5:00 ate some food, and hit the trail to the climb. The approach hike was steep and unpleasant, with lots of boulder hopping and shuffling up scree slopes. I was really happy when we reached the tongue of the big snow slope that leads to the Tower 1 Gully, and I could use my crampons. Moving up the steep neve snow was much better than groveling up the scree, and putting on my crampons made me feel like I was climbing at last.
We cruised up the snow slope unroped, and roped up when we reached the base of Tower 1 Gully. From the base of the route, we couldn’t really tell how long the climb was going to be. The guidebook says it’s ten pitches. From the bottom, with foreshortening, and no real way to judge scale, it didn’t look nearly that long. We wondered if it was really only going to be 2 or 3 pitches in length.
We began climbing, and it soon became apparent that the route was much longer than it appeared from below. That was a good thing, as the climbing was a lot of fun. The conditions were excellent. The route was mostly solid neve that took axe and crampon placements very securely. The neve alternated with consolidated snow and patches of water ice. The lower pitches were at a relatively low angle, and climbing went quickly. Although ice screw placements were not very common due to the fact that there wasn’t consistent sections of hard ice on the route, it was generally easy to get protection in the rock walls on the margins of the climb, where there were cracks for nuts, cams, and pitons.
The climbing got steeper as the route progressed, and by the 4th pitch, it felt like real climbing, although it wasn’t particularly difficult due to the “thunker” ice conditions that provided for really secure tool and crampon placements. It was really enjoyable climbing, and we were both having a grand time of it.
About the 3rd or 4th pitch, the weather began to change, and we started to get pelted with precipitation, first in the form of graupel, and then changing to snow. It wasn’t bad, however, and just gave the climb a bit more of an alpine flavor.
After 6 full pitches of neve, snow and ice, and one short pitch through the easy rock band at the top, we finished the route and topped out on the saddle between Tower 1 and Tower 2. By this time, the snow was falling hard, and the wind was blowing hard. When I pulled up over the top of the saddle, I got hit by icy wind driven snow. Our climb had been pretty sheltered, but this side of the mountain was getting pounded hard. Our plan for the descent had been to either continue to the top of Mount Helen and descend by the snow couloir, or rappel down the back side, or rappel down the climbing route on V-threads. The snow made continuing to the summit on rock much more challenging than we were interested in, and the thought of trying to rappel down the other side in the wind driven snow was also not appealing. We decided to descend back down the climbing route. We couldn’t use V-threads because there wasn’t sufficient water ice, so we used nuts hammered into cracks as our rappel anchors.
When we got the base of the route, we descended down the big snow couloir by a combination of down climbing, rappelling on a bollard, and a couple of rappels on some fixed gear we found in the (climber’s left hand) side of the couloir.
As we descended the route, the snow turned to sleet, then to hard driving rain. By the time we got back to our camp by the Titcomb lakes, we were both soaked. I was wearing a full waterproof hard shell jacket, but my pants were a water resistant soft shell (Patagonia Knifeblade.) These pants would have been fine for fending off a typical thunderstorm that only lasted an hour or so, but their water resistance was finally overwhelmed in the face of several hours of heavy wind-driven rain. As a result, my long johns were soaked, my socks were soaked, and my boots filled up with water.
The weather was unrelenting, with constant wind and heavy rain all night long. We spent a long, uncomfortable night in wet clothes, and damp down sleeping bags. I didn’t freeze, but I was just cold enough that whenever I started to fall asleep, the cold would make me shiver and wake me up again. I was just happy that it wasn’t 10 degrees colder. Had the temperature dropped a bit, I would have been really really cold, and we would have been facing a hike out in several feet of snow.
Next morning, we hurriedly crammed our soaking wet gear into our backpacks and began the 16 mile death march back to the car. It continued to rain all day, and the trails had turned into creeks, and the creeks into raging torrents. The only good news is that we started off with soaking socks and boots, so when we had to wade through calf-deep water, we weren’t getting any wetter.
After a really long, wet, exhausting day of hiking, carrying packs made even heavier by all the water weight, we finally reached the trailhead at a little before six in the evening. We changed into dry clothes, drove into Pinedale for a terrific dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and then headed back to Salt Lake.
Overall, the trip was very rewarding. The scenery was great, the climbing was fun, and the nasty weather gave us a generous dose of suffering that made us feel like we’d done some real alpine climbing.
2 ice screws are all that is really needed for this ice climb because of the plentiful opportunities for rock protection on the sides of the route. We didn’t place more than two screws on any pitch. We generally followed the left hand margin of the climb and found adequate cracks for running protection and belay anchors. A half set of Camalots (#.75 green to #3 blue) and 3 smaller Metolius cams, a set of stoppers, and 3 Tri-cams, along with a piton (#3 Moses Tomahawk) were more than enough for us to protect the climb and establish belays.
We left fixed rappel anchors along the route (varied between left and right hand sides) consisting mostly of stoppers “welded” into place by hammering them into the rock. If you use these anchors, make sure they are secure before you trust your life to them, as nuts can loosen over time.
Review of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Camera; Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens; and the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Prime Lens
I have been a proponent of Olympus Micro 4/3 camera systems for a long time. The flexibility of having an interchangeable lens camera that is a fraction of the size of a traditional DSLR is great for my needs, particularly when I am taking my camera into the backcountry, where weight and bulk are the enemy.
I’ve been using the Olympus OM-D E-M5 as my primary camera for a couple of years now, and overall have been very happy with it. See my review of the E-M5 and my Micro 4/3 System by Clicking HERE.
However, I’m always a sucker for shiny new gadgets, and so when the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 was released, I decided I would get it as an upgrade to my E-M5 body. (I kept the E-M5 as a backup.) I also picked up a couple of new Olympus micro 4/3 lenses; the 12-40 f/2.8 zoom, and the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 prime. After using this new kit for about a year, these are my impressions:
Weights of gear reviewed in this blog entry: Think Tank Digital Holster 10 10.4 ounces
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Camera body with battery 17.7 ounces
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom lens 15.4 ounces
Olympus 75mm f/1.8 prime lens with lens hood 14.1 ounces
Optech Digital D Midsize Camera case 3 ounces
Shoulder Strap 1.8 ounces
OM-D E-M1 Camera Body There are a ton of reviews of the EM1 on the web. They discuss everything from ergonomics to image quality. One of the better review sites is DP Review and their take on the EM1 can be found here: OM-D E-M1 Review at DP Review
I’m not going to try to duplicate all of these reviews, as I don’t have the resources they have for all of the analytics they use to assess camera quality. I’m going to focus on how the EM1 works for my needs, with an emphasis on using the EM1 as a backcountry camera for use in climbing, skiing, backpacking, and other backcountry pursuits.
Physical Characteristics of the E-M1.
The EM1 weighs 17.7 ounces without a lens. That is a couple ounces heavier than the EM5, which comes in at 15.3 ounces. While the weights of the EM5 and EM1 are so close as to be practically indistinguishable in real life use, the EM1 is a bit bulkier, due to the larger hand grip. The effect of the bigger hand grip is that I can’t quite fit the EM1 into the same carrying case that the EM5 is compatible with and still have room for all the lenses. The EM5 will fit into a Mountainsmith Small Zoom case with 3 prime lenses. The EM1 will only fit 2 primes.
Although the hand grip on the EM1 adds some bulk, it makes one handed shooting with the EM1 very secure. It feels good in your hand, and obviates the need for a wrist strap.
The controls of the EM1 are well thought out, and easy to use even with gloves on. One very simple feature I appreciate is that the PASM control ring is easily locked so you don’t end up changing shooting modes by accident. The tilt screen is useful, and I’ve often used the tilt screen to compose a shot while holding the camera away from my body for a slightly different perspective. (Especially good for taking pictures of your climbing partner from above.)
Battery life with the EM1 is excellent, and I can take hundreds of shots without needing to change it. The viewfinder is very bright and clear. Image quality of the photographs is also excellent, with a very slight but (barely) noticeable improvement over the EM5 in color rendition and dynamic range.
The EM1 is weather resistant, which means that its body is sealed against dust and rain. You can’t take it swimming, but rain and snow will not harm the camera, provided that it is used in conjunction with a weather sealed lens. (The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens is weather sealed.) The EM1 is also somewhat shock resistant. Theoretically, you can drop it or bang it around and it will be more likely to survive such abuse than a normal camera. I try not to test this feature, but I have subjected the EM1 to a fair amount of abuse (including some falls while skiing) and so far it seems unaffected by the bumps and falls inherent in backcountry activities.
I use the EM1 most often in combination with the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom. (More on that lens below.) The case I use 90% of the time with the EM1 body and 12-40mm lens combo is an Optech Digital D Midsize neoprene camera cover. This soft neoprene cover fits the EM1 with the 12-40mm lens perfectly, and provides some protection from bumps, scratches, dust, and precipitation. Generally, I just keep the camera slung cross-body over my shoulder using a detachable shoulder strap. When I need to use the camera, I just pull the stretchy Optech neoprene cover off, take some photos, then slip the cover back on. The Optech cover is not as weather proof or padded as a traditional camera case, but because both the camera body and lens are weather proof, I don’t really worry much about keeping things absolutely dry.
For those occasions when I want additional protection, or when I want to attach the camera to a pack hipbelt, I use the Think Tank Digital Holster 10. This camera case fits the EM1 very well when the EM1 is coupled with the 12-40mm lens, and the case can even expand a bit to accommodate a longer lens if necessary.
In general, I have found that for just about every activity other than difficult climbing, the easiest way to carry the EM1 is in the Optech case, slung over my shoulder. This is my preferred method for skiing and hiking. For climbing, having the camera slung over my shoulder tends to get in the way of my gear and flops around a bit too much. When I take this camera climbing, I either attach it to my packbelt in the Digital Holster, or I just leave it in the Optech case and put it in my pack. Having the EM1 in my pack while climbing means that I only get it out when I’m at a belay. This typically isn’t a big problem, however, because I always have a pocket camera with me on climbs, so I use the pocket camera for impromptu photo opportunities where it’s inconvenient to access the EM1.
Some useful features of the EM1 (that the EM5 doesn’t have) that are helpful when using legacy (non micro 4/3) lenses.
A couple of advantages of the EM1 when compared with the EM5 relate to use of non-micro 4/3 lenses. The first is the ability to utilize autofocus with Olympus DSLR lenses. The EM1 uses both contrast detection and phase detection auto-focus, while the EM5 is contrast detection only. I actually have no idea what “phase detection” even means, but the practical result of having phase detection is that I can use legacy Olympus four thirds DSLR lenses on the EM1 (with an adapter) and the auto focus works like it should. This is useful to me, because I happen to own a very nice Olympus 50-200 f/2.8-3.5 zoom lens, and I can now fully utilize the autofocus features of this lens. With the EM5, the autofocus performance was so bad, I pretty much had to just use manual focus.
The other feature that the EM1 has that the EM5 lacks is “focus peaking.” Focus peaking is a focusing aid that helps when you are using manual focus lenses, including the old Canon FD lenses that I often use with my Olympus micro 4/3 cameras. The focus peaking feature provides a little “halo” on the edges of whatever part of the picture is the center of focus. This makes focusing with a manual focus lens quite a bit faster. If you’ve never used focus peaking before, you may have a difficult time understanding exactly what I’m talking about. If you’d like an explanation, here’s a nice video that demonstrates focus peaking on the EM1.
The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens
This lens has become my go-to lens for my EM1 camera. When I sorted my EM1 photos in Lightroom, I found that I have taken more EM1 shots with the 12-40mm zoom lens than all of my other lenses combined. It is really close to being the perfect “one size fits all” backcountry lens. The 12-40 zoom range on a micro 4/3 camera is the equivalent of a 24-80 zoom on a full frame camera. This combination of wide angle and short telephoto capability is ideal for climbing, as it allows you to get both “scenic” captures and “up close and personal” shots as well. The two photos below give a good representation of the versatility of the 12-40mm zoom range. I have found the lens to be very sharp across the entire zoom range and apertures. Some of the high quality primes may be better, but in real-world use, I haven’t had any reason to complain about the image quality I get when using this zoom lens. For those who are interested in the details of the optical qualities of this lens, there is a very comprehensive review of the 12-40mm lens at SLRGEAR.com Click HERE.
The lens has an f/2.8 aperture that is constant across the entire zoom range. 2.8 isn’t as fast as some of the prime lens options that are available, but I’ve found that it is adequate for most dim lighting situations, particularly because the EM1 has excellent image stabilization capabilities and decent high-ISO performance. As mentioned above, this lens is weather resistant and dust resistant. When coupled with the similarly sealed EM1, you don’t have to worry about rain or snow ruining your camera gear, and I can dispense with a heavy water proof camera bag. I happily carry the camera in any weather without worry.
Overall, I am extremely pleased with the Olympus 12-40mm lens. It feels like it was made specifically to complement the EM1 camera body. Indeed, I really feel like if you have the EM1, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t also buy the 12-40mm zoom to go with it. This camera lens combination is what I take with me now for the majority of my backcountry trips (When climbing, I’m typically carry a pocket camera in addition to or instead of my micro 4/3 camera.) The benefits of of great image quality, rugged weatherproof build, and a relatively compact design (for an interchangeable lens camera) make the EM1 and 12-40mm zoom an ideal combination for outdoor photography.
The Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Prime Lens
As outlined above, the EM1 and 12-40mm zoom is my new go-to camera-lens combination for backcountry photography. However, if I’m going to add an additional lens to my backcountry quiver, the 75mm is generally the first lens I will toss in to supplement the 12-40mm zoom.
The Olympus 75mm lens is an extremely high quality piece of glass. Reviews of this lens have been universally positive, and the excellence of this lens has been borne out by my experiences with it as well. For a feel for the detailed optical characteristics of this lens, you can check out a Review of the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens HERE
Size and weight of the 75mm lens are pretty close to the 12-40mm zoom. The zoom is about an ounce and a half heavier, and they have comparable bulk.
This 75mm lens is not weatherproof, so you have to be more careful with it than with the sealed 12-40mm zoom. Another negative is that the lens does not come with a lens hood, and you need to buy the hood separately if you want one. (I bought a generic hood rather than the uber-expensive Olympus hood.)
On a micro 4/3 camera, the 75mm length is the equivalent of a 150mm on a full frame sensor, so it serves as a medium telephoto. For me, this is a good compromise between bulk, weight and telephoto capability. Generally, I don’t have the dedication to carry anything bigger or heavier than this into the backcountry unless it’s just a short day trip. However, I’ve become accustomed to carrying the 75mm with me, as it gives me decent telephoto capability in a relatively lightweight package. Below are some examples of the sorts of photos you can capture with the 75mm. The longer focal length gives you more control over depth of field than you would have with a wider angle lens, and the medium telephoto capability also allows you to get a little tighter on your subject.
While the 75mm length isn’t going to replace a super telephoto for true wildlife shooting, I’ve found that it’s often sufficient for taking photos of various shy critters that I encounter while traveling the backcountry. The medium telephoto focal length allows me to keep enough distance between me and my subject that I can often avoid spooking the animal, provided I am careful and slow in my movements.
One use I have found for the 75mm lens is taking very detailed panorama shots of big vistas. The photograph below is a panorama stitch of two photographs taken with the 75mm lens. I could have taken the same field of view with a wider angle lens, but I would not have been able to capture the same level of detail with a regular wide angle shot. Looking at the full size TIF file, I am impressed by the detail in the photo, and it serves to emphasize the utility of a telephoto lens as a landscape tool when used in combination with panorama stitching software.
The f/1.8 maximum aperture of this lens makes it good for low lighting situations. It’s not really backcountry related, but I have found it to be a great “stage” lens for taking photos of performances in less than ideal lighting situations.
Really, I can’t say enough good things about the 75mm lens. Combined with the 12-40mm zoom, it has become the 2nd part of my 2 lens backcountry solution. It combines sharpness, medium telephoto reach, and terrific build quality in a reasonably compact package.
I love old gear. I collect old gear catalogs (some scans from my collection here.) Even though modern clothing and equipment is (usually) better than old school stuff, there is an undeniable satisfaction in using a piece of gear of clothing that has been around the block and proven itself over the years.
There’s some vintage gear you couldn’t pay me to use (old ice screws, for example.) However, even though I generally am one of the first people to run out and buy the latest and greatest stuff, there are some pieces of gear that I’m still using that’s many years (sometimes decades) old.
Here’s some examples of vintage gear that’s still getting use:
Karrimor: It’s no secret I’m a big fan of vintage Karrimor rucksacks. I have a web page devoted to vintage Karrimor packs here. My Karrimor packs are no longer my first choice for long alpine routes, but they are my go-to cragging packs.
When I started climbing, Chouinard Equipment was the premier mountaineering company.
Although my old Chouinard hexes have been replaced with cams, and my Chouinard X-Tools have been replaced by new leashless tools, there are a few pieces of Chouinard gear that I’ve held on to and still use.
Lowe, Latok, and Cloudwalker:
Jeff Lowe has been one of the most prolific innovators in climbing equipment and clothing. Although I’m not going to go back to using Snargs instead of modern ice screws, there’s still some Lowe gear that I’m using.
Jeff Lowe Cloudwalker Papillon Sweater
The Papillon sweater is named for its “butterfly” neck closure that has two “wings” of material that zip up to create a very cozy closure around your neck. I really like this design, and over the years, I’ve only seen two other pieces of clothing with this feature (the original Lowe Papillon fleece sweater and the original Patagonia Talus softshell pullover.) This particular sweater is made from a quilted fabric that is soft, wind resistant, and hard wearing. It makes a great cold weather rock climbing piece.
The Dachstien Sweater
Dachstein sweaters were the original insulated softshells. These sweaters are knit in Austria from heavy wool, which is boiled and felted to provide extra wind and weather resistance. They are warm, durable, wind and water resistant, and have a surprisingly broad temperature comfort range. I don’t use my Dachstein sweater for anything technical (they are too heavy) but my Dachstein is still my go-to clothing for cool and cold weather car camping, wilderness survival practice, and working outdoors in the winter.
If you can’t find a suitable Dachstein sweater on ebay, the Sweater Chalet sells them brand new on their website.
Old School Rock shoes:
Today’s shoes are all downturned, slingshot-randed, slip-lasted high-performance affairs.
Sometimes, however, all you need is a comfortable pair of shoes with sticky rubber.
Revue Thommen is a venerable Swiss company known for making mechanical watches and traditional aneroid altimeters. They were not the first company to make an altimeter watch (The first altimeter watch was the “Bivouac” watch by Favre Leuba.) However, the Revue Thommen Airspeed Altimeter was to my knowledge the 2nd watch to incorporate a mechanical movement coupled with an altimeter. It’s a beautiful and elegant piece of Swiss engineering. It’s calibrated in meters, which makes it a bit of a chore to use in conjunction with U.S. maps, and it is not as accurate or useful as a GPS, but I still take it to the mountains on occasion.