Micro 4/3 Update: Olympus OM-D E-M1 ; Olympus 12mm-40mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens ; Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Prime Lens

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.

OM-D E-M1 with Olympus 12-40mm Zoom on the left; OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 45mm prime on the right

Case-2

E-M1 in the Optech Digital D neoprene case on left; E-M5 on right

Case-3

Think Tank Digital Holster 10 on the left, with OMD EM5 on the right for a size comparison

 

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.

Skiing with the OM-D E-M1 in the Optech Case (Look closely, and you can see it slung over my shoulder)

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.

OMD-#M1 works well with legacy Olympus four thirds lenses' autofocus

OMD-EM1 works well with legacy Olympus four thirds lenses’ autofocus. This picture was taken using the Olympus 50-200mm zoom lens that was made for the Olympus 4/3 DSLR camera line.

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.   

12-40mm Lens at 12mm

Olympus 12-40mm Lens at 12mm

Olympus  12-40mm lens at 40mm

Olympus 12-40mm lens at 40mm

 

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.

Documenting a day of early season ice climbing with the 12-40mm zoom

Documenting a day of early season ice climbing with the EM1 camera and the Olympus 12-40mm zoom. This is a very rugged, weather resistant combination.

Weather proofing means that snow doesn't  affect your ability to keep shooting

Weather proofing means that snow and sleet doesn’t affect your ability to keep shooting

Night time shot at ISO 25600  with heavy, wet snow falling.

Night time shot at ISO 25600 with heavy, wet snow falling.

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.

75mm and 12-40 are approximately the same size

75mm and 12-40 are approximately the same size

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.

75mm is good for isolating subject with shallow depth of field.  (1/500 second at f/3.2)

75mm is good for isolating subject with shallow depth of field. (1/500 second at f/3.2)

100% crop shows how sharp this lens is.

100% crop of above photo shows how sharp this lens is.

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.

100% Crop photo of a Critter taken with the 75mm prime

100% Crop photo of a critter taken with the 75mm prime

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.

Download Panorama Full size TIF File HERE  (69Megabyte File)

Panorama stitched from 2 images taken with the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 prime

Panorama stitched from 2 images taken with the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 prime

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.

Stage camera:  Olympus 75mm; ISO 640  (1/160 second at f/1.8)

Stage camera: Photographing a high school musical with the Olympus 75mm; ISO 640 (1/160 second at f/1.8)

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.

Vintage Gear

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.

Two generations of Karrimor Alpiniste backpacks, and two generations of climbers

Two generations of Karrimor Alpiniste backpacks, and two generations of climbers.  The Pink Alpiniste is older than the climber carrying it.

Chouinard Equipment:

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.

Chouinard Hawaii 5.10 shirt

The Chouinard Hawaii 5.10 shirt is an awesome Hawaiian shirt with a climbing gear theme.  I’ve seen them go on Ebay for over $400, but I’m not even tempted to sell it.  Here it is, keeping me cool in the Utah desert near Indian Creek.

This Chouinard Expedition Sewing Kit holds needles, thread, sewing awl for sewing heavy pack fabrics, repair tape, and other necessities.

This Chouinard Expedition Sewing Kit holds needles, thread, sewing awl for sewing heavy pack fabrics, repair tape, and other necessities.

Cotton interior. Nylon exterior. Tough Comfortable. Chouinard Rock Bottoms climbing pants

Cotton interior. Nylon exterior. Tough. Comfortable. Chouinard Rock Bottoms climbing pants.  Still cragging.

Chouinard Rock Bottoms pants in action

Chouinard Rock Bottoms pants in action

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.

Old school leather boots and Lowe Footfangs still climbing

Old school leather boots and Lowe Footfangs still climbing.  I don’t use these myself, but I loaned the boots and Fangs to a friend for his son to use at the Ouray Ice Park, 2013.

Latok Gear Sling

Latok Gear Sling. Lightly padded, adjustable, with a tacky material that keeps it from sliding around on your shoulder. Made circa 1986, and I haven’t yet found anything better for alpine climbing.

 

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.

Lowe Cloudwalker Papillon Sweater

Lowe Cloudwalker Papillon Sweater

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.

Dachstein Sweaters in Winter Conditions

Dachstein Sweaters in Winter Conditions.  My son (on the left) is wearing my original sweater, which I outgrew a long time ago.  I got the one I’m wearing on ebay a few years ago for $70.

If you can’t find a suitable Dachstein sweater on ebay, the Sweater Chalet sells them brand new on their website.  Dach Uber Guide

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.

Calma Lynx. 28 years old, and still climbing.

Calma Lynx. 28 years old, and still climbing.  Still a good shoe for long days on granite.

These Scarpa Brio rock shoes have been resoled twice, and are older than the climber who's wearing them.

These Scarpa Brio rock shoes have been resoled twice, and are older than the climber who’s wearing them.

Revue Thommen Swiss Alps Challenge Airspeed Altimeter Watch:  

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.

thommen

Revue Thommen altimeter watch and granite.

thommen2

Navigating through a ski traverse in the high Sierras.

 

Suunto Ambit 2 Saphire (HR)

For over a decade, I’ve used a Suunto Vector watch with built in compass and barometer/altimeter.  I’ve been pretty happy with the Vector, but have always thought that having a wrist-top GPS would be useful.  About 6 or 7 years ago, I bought a wrist-top GPS, but ended up getting rid of it because it was big and bulky and had a very difficult time getting a GPS fix.  At that time, the wristwatch GPS tech just wasn’t that good.

Fast forward to the present, and you see GPS tech in all kinds of small devices.  I figured it may be time to try a wrist watch GPS again.  REI had the Suunto Ambit2 on sale, and the discounted price coupled with my long and positive experience with my Suunto Vector made me decide to take the plunge and buy this watch.  The model I purchased was the Suunto Ambit2 with a sapphire crystal and heart rate monitor.  After about 6 months of pretty regular use, these are my thoughts:

Suunto Ambit2 Sapphire

Suunto Ambit2 Sapphire

Form Factor and Physical Design:

The Ambit2 is not all that big.  It’s more or less the same size as my old Suunto Vector.  The Ambit2 is maybe a tiny bit wider, but it is also a tiny bit thinner than the Vector.  It’s a large watch, but it isn’t so large or bulky that it is annoying to wear.  One thing I do miss, however, is the lanyard kit that you could buy for the Vector.  If I’m rock climbing, I don’t ever wear a watch on my wrist, and in such instances, I typically would wear the Vector around my neck, using the accessory lanyard kit that Suunto sold.  I have not seen any similar kit available for the Ambit2.  I may have to jury rig something myself if I want to carry the watch in this manner.

I paid a bit extra and got the sapphire crystal.  I like the extra durability and scratch resistance that a sapphire crystal provides, particularly because I occasionally subject my watch to some bumps and scrapes during the hard-knock backcountry activities of climbing, hiking, and skiing.

The Ambit 2 is water proof to 100 meters.  I’m not a scuba diver, so I will never have to test that claim.  (If I’m at 100+ meters of depth when I’m fly fishing, something will have gone terribly wrong.)   The battery is re-chargeable via a USB charger, which is nice.  I always hated having to change the battery in my Vector, so being able to just plug in the Ambit 2 and have it charge up is a nice feature.  Charging doesn’t take very long.  It will go from 40% power to 100% in about an hour.  Battery life is pretty good.  The watch will run for weeks if you aren’t using the GPS, and with the GPS engaged, (in hiking mode with 1 minute updates) I have been able to go for 14 hours and still have 84% of my battery life left.  From my use, the Suunto estimates of 50 hours of battery life in GPS mode appear accurate.  This battery life has been sufficient for my uses.  If you’re hiking a long trail over more than a week, and planning on tracking your progress via the GPS function, or if you’re settings have the GPS updating every few seconds, you might need to plan on recharging your batteries at some point during the trip.

Suunto Vector on left, Suunto Ambit 2 on right

Suunto Vector on left, Suunto Ambit 2 on right

Vector and Lanyard Kit (No such accessory is available for the Ambit 2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Generic functions, Alarm and Backlight, Barometer and Altimeter

The Ambit 2 has various time keeping functions, including 12 or 24 hour display, stop watch, date, etc.  One big improvement that the Ambit 2 has over the Vector, and many other digital watches I’ve used is that the alarm is pretty loud.  Many watches have very weak alarms, which don’t have the volume to wake you up for an alpine start, especially if they are muffled by your sleeping bag.  The Ambit 2 alarm is much louder than the Vector’s alarm, and not nearly so easy to sleep through.

Another great feature of the Ambit 2 is the backlight.  It’s really bright.  Not only does it really light up the watch face, but it is actually bright enough to illuminate the area around you a bit.  It’s perfect for navigating your way through a darkened alpine hut, where you don’t want to use a headlamp because you don’t want to shine your headlamp beam on others who are sleeping around you.  It’s also great for shining around in your tent when you are trying to find your headlamp.  Obviously, it’s not going to replace a headlamp, but I have found it to be very useful in a number of nighttime situations.

The altimeter function is GPS corrected, which makes it very accurate and not as affected by weather as a traditional altimeter that relies solely on barometric pressure.  I’ve found it to be accurate to within a few feet.  There is a barometric pressure tracker as well, which graphs the pressure over time.  This is useful to look at in the morning, to see what the pressure has done while you were asleep.  If the pressure has risen, that’s generally a good sign of fair weather.  If the pressure has dropped, then that’s often a portent of incoming storms.

GPS and Navigation Functions

This is where the Ambit 2 really shines.  The GPS in this watch is really good.  I have never failed to get a quick GPS fix when I have been in the backcountry.  The Ambit 2 can almost always get a location fix in about 30 seconds or so from the time I turn on the GPS function.  Once the GPS is activated, the Ambit 2 will give you your GPS coordinates, which you can then use to locate your position on a map.

However, even better, the Ambit 2 can be used in conjunction with your computer to pre-plan routes.  You can create a route using Google Earth and export it to Suunto’s website (called Movescount.com) as a .kml file.  Then, you can download the route into the Ambit 2’s memory.  When you activate the navigation functions, the Ambit 2 allows you to select one of these pre-stored routes and will point you in the direction you need to go to follow this route.

I have found this to be very useful.  For example, this past summer, I was planning to hike and climb a local peak, however, we would not be following an established trail for part of the approach, and we needed to locate a specific ridgeline in the dark.  I plotted out my path on Google Earth, then uploaded the path to the Suunto web site, and downloaded it into my Ambit 2 as a route.  Sure enough, in the pre-dawn hours, we became confused as to the path we needed to take, and I used the Ambit 2 to help us navigate the correct route.  Having the Ambit 2 was sufficient for us to navigate even though it was too dark to see any decent land marks.  We just followed the path on my watch, correcting our path to keep the arrow pointer on the route layed out on the watch face.

To give an example of how this works, below are two pictures which show how routefinding is done.  This first picture is of a short route that I created using Google Earth and then uploaded to the Suunto Movescount Site.   You can see the path laid out on the map.

Sample Route that I created on Google Earth and uploaded to the Suunto Movescount Web Site

This next picture is a photo of what this route looks like when downloaded to the Suunto Ambit 2.  The route path is laid out on the screen, and the arrow pointer shows my current position and direction.  I can use this arrow pointer and the track line to keep myself on the selected route.

Ambit 2 Navigation Screen with route shown (At this point, I am partway through the route.)

The usefulness of this functionality should be readily apparent to anyone who has ever been lost or just unsure of their position.  For a climber, you could, for example, create a route showing you the descent route down the Emmons Glacier on Mount Rainier.  With the GPS navigation function, you could have the possibility of finding your way down from the summit even in whiteout conditions.

You also have the ability to create GPS waypoints at any time while using the watch.  If you are hiking, and discover an interesting place, and want to be able to find your way back, you can mark the location and save it in the Ambit 2’s memory as a point of interest.  This feature also allows you to leave a “trail of breadcrumbs” as you go, so you can retrace your footsteps whenever you wish.

The Ambit 2 does not have the benefits of a standalone GPS with a big color screen, that is loaded with area maps, but it does provide a lot of navigation functionality, particularly if you spend the effort ahead of time to create your routes in advance.

Tracking features  

In addition to helping you navigate and know where you need to go, the Ambit 2 is very good at tracking your progress and showing you where you’ve been.  You can activate the GPS and have it track your location as you move, and then you can upload this data to the Movescount web site and see where you were.  Here’s an example of an uploaded track that recorded one of my hikes on a local mountain.

Uploaded GPS Data that tracked my hike and climb of a local peak, along with data regarding the distance, altitude, etc.

As you can see from the screen shot above, the data collected includes the path traveled, as well as aggregated information on average speed, altitude gain and loss, distances, etc.  This is great for tracking your training and assessing your accomplishments.

Training Aids

In addition to the various navigation features, the Ambit 2 will keep track of training.  It works in conjunction with a heart rate belt to monitor and track heart rate.  You can track both distance (via GPS) and heart rates if you’re running or biking or doing other mobile training activities.   I use the Ambit 2 to keep track of my work outs at the gym.  I don’t use the GPS function because I’m staying in one place, but I do keep track of my heart rate data.

Here’s a typical data screen for an indoor workout, in this case a 90 minute bout on the stair stepper:

Data Capture from a stair stepper work out

Data Capture from a stair stepper work out

Apps and Customization:

There are a number of apps available for the Ambit 2, both from Suunto and also user created apps.  They range from practical (storm alarms) to silly (virtual cat hunting.)  There are tons of training apps available, but the only app I had any interest in was an app that provides me with sunrise and sunset times.  However, I found out that the sunrise/sunset information is available without the need for an app simply as an option on the barometer screen.  So, I don’t currently have any apps installed.

Dislikes and Problems:

I had to put this section in here, but I honestly can’t think of very much to say that I don’t like about this device.  It could always be smaller, but if that compromised the functionality, then I would not be in favor of miniaturizing it.

The price is high, but I assume that it will be discounted as the Ambit 3 hits the market.

The menu systems can be a bit overwhelming and hard to remember, but with increased use I have become increasingly familiar with the various menu options, and navigating to the feature or function I want is getting easier and easier over time.

Conclusions:

The Ambit 2 has become an “indispensable” piece of gear for me.  I use it to track my training, I use it for navigation, and I use it for mundane tasks like knowing what time it is.  If I lost it tomorrow, I would go out and buy a new one.  It’s really a quality piece of gear that delivers a lot of functionality in a small and compact package.  I just hope that it proves to be as durable as my old Vector has been.  If so, I will still be using the Ambit 10 years from now.

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down Jacket

The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer line of clothing are pieces that are designed with the overall goal of providing protection with the least possible weight and bulk.  I own the hooded down jacket and the hooded windbreaker.    This review is of the hooded down jacket

Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down Jacket   8.8 ounces (size X-Large)  

I’ve owned the Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down Jacket for about 9 months now, and it has become one of my favorite and most used pieces of clothing.  It weighs only 8.8 ounces and is filled with water resistant 850 fill power down.  The quilting on it is of sewn through construction, rather than box baffled.  The hooded down jacket provides warmth and wind protection that is greater than a fleece jacket, at considerably less bulk and weight.  It’s an excellent light “puffy” for climbing, or any backcountry activity where you need some lightweight warmth.

I’ve been taking this jacket with me on backcountry ski trips, on “shoulder season” rock climbs in the spring and fall, and summer alpine climbs.  It fits easily into a small daypack, and provides me with warmth for chilly belays or cold evenings.  For how light and compact it is, it provides a remarkable amount of warmth.

Cold day in the desert:  Ghost Whiperer down jacket on Castleton Tower

Cold day in the desert: Ghost Whisperer down jacket on Castleton Tower

The hood fits nicely over a helmet, and the elasticized cuffs and simple elastic cord at the hem keep out drafts.  The Ghost Whisperer fabric is water resistant, and I’ve had no issues fending off light drizzle and mist.  The 850 fill power down is treated with something called “Q-Shield” which is supposed to make it more water resistant than normal down.  I can’t really comment on the effectiveness of this down treatment because I haven’t ever soaked this jacket.

Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket on the Lower Saddle, Tetons.

Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket on the Lower Saddle, Tetons.

There are two zippered handwarmer pockets, and you can stuff the Ghost Whisperer into a pocket for storage.  There is a loop so that you can clip the stuffed jacket onto a carabiner.

Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded Jacket stuffed into its own pocket

Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded Jacket stuffed into its own pocket

The jacket does have some limitations due to its light weight design.  The fabric is extremely light weight.  I haven’t managed to rip it or wear a hole in it, even after climbing in it a bit, but it really isn’t made to take much abuse.  If you’re looking for a jacket for groveling up chimneys and off-width climbs, this is probably not a good choice.  The zipper is very lightweight and it doesn’t take a whole lot of pressure to pull it apart.  I’ve had several occasions when it has separated from the bottom and come undone.   So far, this hasn’t been a big issue, as I’ve been able to unzip it and then zip it back up again.  The zipper coils haven’t seemed to have been harmed by this.

Regarding warmth, this jacket is very warm for its weight, but it’s not a substitute for a thick insulated jacket for really cold conditions.  For cold winter ice climbs and high alpine bivis, I would still want a thicker, heavier belay jacket, but for most other situations, the Ghost Whisperer is sufficient.

Sizing on this jacket is a little on the small side for an over-layer.   I tend to wear a size large in most jackets, and a size large would have fit me, but I wouldn’t have had much room with a size large to layer clothing underneath.  An X-large size gives me room to use this as a top layer.   If you’re planning on using this jacket as a mid layer, then I’d suggest you get your normal size.  If you want to use it to layer on top, then I’d suggest going up a size.

Here’s a list of other insulated jackets to give some perspective and comparisons of weights:  The only other jacket I’ve used that is close to the same weight class is the Montbell UL thermawrap jacket, which is not as warm and which doesn’t have a hood.

Insulating Layers  (Size Large unless otherwise noted)
Montbell UL Thermawrap jacket 9.2
Montbell Thermawrap parka 16.2
Arcteryx Atom LT Hoody 14.9
Patagonia R2 pullover 13.3
Golite Coal Jacket w/hood 19.5
Jeff Lowe Cloudwalker Papillon Sweater 22.5
Arcteryx Dually Belay parka 29 oz (XL) 26.5 oz (L)
Brooks Range Alpini mountain anorak down hoodie (XL) 13.6
Patagonia Encapsil Down Belay Jacket (XL) 20.6
Montbell Mirage Down Jacket (XL) 14.7
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down Jacket  (XL)  8.8
Patagonia Nano Air Hoody  14.5

First Aid, Repair, and Emergency Survival Kit

Over the years, my first aid kit has morphed, getting bigger or smaller depending on my level of optimism.  I’ve carried big kits with everything plus the kitchen sink, and minimalist kits consisting of a few aspirin and a roll of tape.

After decades of fluctuation, I’ve finally settled on a largish kit (at least by climber standards.)  It has supplies in it that allow me to deal with some of the more common backcountry injuries:  blisters, cuts, abrasions, bleeding, and pain.  In addition to the first aid supplies, I have materials to start a fire and repair fabrics.  A small leatherman tool and a small emergency flashlight provide some functionality for repairing and fixing things, cutting, and vision after dark.

I carry this kit with me pretty much any time I head into the backcountry.  I’ve used everything in it at one time or another.

Here’s the contents of my current standard kit.  Total weight is 13.3 ounces.

First aid/emergency kit, with contents labeled.

First aid/emergency kit, with contents labeled.

1st Aid Kit

All packed up into a relatively small package

Assisted Braking Belay Rappel Devices Suitable for Trad and Alpine Climbing: Edelrid Mega Jul and Micro Jul, CT Alpine Up

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); Sigma (DP1); 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.

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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

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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.

Excellent image quality in a tiny package

Excellent image quality in a tiny package