Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Climbing Technique: Outside Edge, Flag and Drop Knee

The following is an excellent video for those who enjoy climbing steep terrain. On steep routes, we commonly talk about keeping the arms straight in order to conserve energy. There are three core movements shown in the video that allow for this on this type of terrain.

The first movement is the use of the Outside Edge. It's common for people to climb "frog-style," with their hips paralleling the wall. This type of movement is intensive and difficult. Instead, to increase stability and to decrease the amount of strength used, one should try to use the outside edge of the climbing shoe. This essentially forces you to cross your legs and allows you to achieve more height on each move. The narrator of the video below says, "the outside edge move should be considered the utility move for climbing steep walls."

The second movement is the Flag. If the holds are not lining up appropriately for you to effectively use the outside edge of your rock shoe, you might have to regularly swap feet. This of course is energy intensive. The answer is to flag. In this situation, instead of swapping feet to use the outside edge, you can use the inside edge and either cross the opposite foot in front or behind and brace it against the rock to stabilize the stance.

The third and final movement is the Drop Knee. The outside edge and the flag moves are used on a wall where you only have one foothold and the spare leg is used to achieve balance. If you have two footholds then dropping the knee to create counter pressure and to lengthen the reach also works well.

The following video describes each of these techniques in depth and is well-worth your time:

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, November 23, 2015

Ascending Systems

There are a million ascending systems out there. On this blog we have previously discussed jugging with mechanical ascenders, the prusik hitch and climbing the rope with an autoblocking device. These are all excellent techniques for climbing up a rope...but it doesn't mean that they're the only techniques.

Climbers are ultimately artists and part of the art of climbing is picking the right tool at the right time to get up or down something. As a result, the more things that you know, the more tools that you have in your toolbox. And the more things that you know, the more improvisational you can be in any type of climbing situation.

This blog will provide you with another option for climbing up a rope. To set-up this system, you will need a mechanical ascender, a GriGri and a double-shoulder length sling. The following photo shows how each of these components will be used.

Following are the steps that you will need to complete in order to make this system work:

Clip the mechanical ascender to the rope.
Clip a double-shoulder length sling to the base of the ascender. This will become your be for your foot.
Clip a carabiner to the top of the ascender, trapping the rope inside the ascender.
Run the rope through your GriGri below the ascender.
Redirect the rope from the break-hand of the GriGri up through the clip that is trapping the ascender on the rope.Once this is set-up you're ready to jug. Put your foot into the foot-sling and then stand up. Once you are standing, pull the backside of the rope through the GriGri. Sit back on the GriGri, kick you knee up to your chest and push the jug up the rope. Repeat until you're at the top.

One important thing to always remember is that you will need to tie back-up "catastrophe knots" in the rope as you climb. This should happen every ten feet or so. One should never forget to do this, as occasionally GriGris slip.

Obviously, the only way to really dial in this system is to practice it. The best way to work through this system is to print this blog out, bring it out into the field and then make it happen!

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, November 20, 2015

Route Profile: Johnny Vegas, 5.7, II+

Johnny Vegas is an extremely popular, extremely cool little route that can be found on the lower tier of the Solar Slab Wall in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. This phenomenal 5.6 or 5.7 route (depending on who you talk to) climbs up through three enjoyable pitches, all of which are in a spectacular position.

A father and daughter team low on Johnny Vegas.
Photo by Jason Martin

This is a slightly older route. It was put up in 1994, but didn't make it into a guidebook until 2000. The result is that this super classic line was overlooked for six full years.

In 1999, I was climbing Beulah's Book, a classic 5.9 found just to the left, when I saw a rock jock leading a 5.10 variation to Johnny Vegas. I looked down to see an older man with a very small frame encouraging his much younger partner on. The belayer was none-other than the iconic Red Rock climber, George Uriosite.

A happy climber on the second pitch.
Photo by Jason Martin

George and his ex-wife Joanne were Red Rock pioneers. They were responsible for dozens and dozens of classic lines throughout the park. It was very cool to meet such an important person in the history of Red Rock. And everytime I've run into him since has been just as great.

It was also cool to see those guys on a route that I knew nothing about. So I thought it was important as a Vegas local to get on that thing as soon as possible. The very next day my partner and I returned to the Solar Slab area to make an ascent of Johnny Vegas. And we were incredibly happy that we did.

A climber nearing the top of the route.
Photo by Jason Martin

Since that first time on the route, I've climbed the line dozens and dozens of times. There are a few little things that people should know before sending Johnny Vegas:

  1. Purists will say that the route is four pitches, not three. Indeed, super purists might even call it five pitches. It is three real pitches. Sometimes people make a tiny pitch to attain the base of the route. And there is a long stretch of 5.0 climbing at the top of the route.
  2. Some guidebooks say to rappel this route. It is a rope eating nightmare. It is far better to rappel the nearby Solar Slab Gully.
  3. There are two starts to the bottom of the route. If a party is going very slow on the right hand start, some may elect to pass them on the left.
  4. The bottom of the route goes into the shade in the winter from approximately 10am to noon. When it's cold in the shade, this can make the route very very chilly.

This has become a super popular route. Make sure to get up early!

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 11/19/15


--Andrew Bower was killed in a climbing accident while he was replacing bolts in the Dishman Hills Natural Area near Spokane, WA. As Andrew's gear was still in his pack, it appears that he may have slipped at the top of the cliff. To read a report of the incident, click here.

--The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has reversed itself and agreed to change the controversial names of two geographic features in the Cascades—Coon Lake and Coon Creek—to Howard Lake and Howard Creek, after a pioneering prospector who lived there in the 1890s. The reversal was confirmed by the board’s executive secretary, Lou Yost. To read more, click here.

--A moratorium on bolting has been placed on Idaho's Castle Rock State Park. To read more, click here.

--The owner of a Winlock lumber business and three other Lewis County men have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle for illegally logging and selling massive bigleaf maple trees from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. In an indictment, prosecutors say Ryan Anthony Justice, James Michael Miller and Kevin James Mullins stole wood from the national forest, located east of Cowlitz County. Prosecutors are also targeting Harold Clause Kupers and his Winlock-based business, J&L Tonewoods, claiming it was a front for poached maple, according to the indictment. To read more, click here.

--A Seattle art gallery has a installation right now about fire lookouts. To read about it, click here.


--Michael Meyers, a UCLA graduate student in physics, was reported missing Sunday night. He was last known to be hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Catherine Meyers, Meyers’ mother, said her son planned to climb Mount Russell or Mount Whitney on Nov. 6. She added she reported his disappearance to the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department Sunday night, and contacted university police Monday. To read more, click here.

--A backcountry skier was carried 150-vertical-feet by an avalanche and partially buried on Elephants Back off Caron Pass (hwy 88) near Lake Tahoe last week. He was able to dig himself out and was uninjured. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--This week marks the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area!


--A former instructor with the Aspen Skiing Co. has reached a settlement with the family of the boy she sued after the child, who was enrolled in her class, allegedly collided with her during a ski lesson in 2013. To read more, click here.

--The U.S. Forest Service is giving Vail Resorts a green light for more development on the slopes of the Tenmile Range, at Breckenridge Ski Area in Colorado. In a final decision released this week, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams approved a significant expansion of recreation infrastructure, including zip lines and canopy tours, as well as more off-highway vehicle tours and an expansion of the Peak 7 hut. All of the projects approved are on National Forest System lands and occur within Breckenridge Ski Resort’s Special Use Permit boundary. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--A key suspect in the 2013 massacre of foreign climbers in Pakistan is on the run after he hurled grenades at officers who were pursuing him, injuring 10 of them, officials said on Tuesday (Nov 17). The suspect, named by police as Rahimullah, has a bounty on his head of one million rupees (US$10,000) over his alleged involvement in the attack on the base camp at Nanga Parbat, Pakistan's second highest mountain. To read more, click here.

--A skier backcountry skiing alone, impaled his groin on a low branch this week in Montana. The individual was left alone and bleed for a long period of time before being rescued. To read more, click here.

--A snowmobiler in the eastern Alaska mountain range of Alaska triggered an avalanche and was buried in the avalanche debris for about 25 minutes on Sunday. This is the first full burial that has been reported in North America this season. To read more, click here.

--The National Outdoor Book Awards winners have been announced.

--Yellowstone National Park officials have received much criticism — some based on inaccurate information posted on social media — for their decision to euthanize a grizzly bear that killed a Montana man this past summer, a park wildlife manager said. To read more, click here.

--So it appears that there may be a cultural misunderstanding concerning how to use toilets in Grand Teton National Park. A group of foreign visitors appear to be placing their feet on toilet seats in vault toilets and squatting while using the bathroom. Apparently the Park had 42 broken seats this season as a result of this use. To read more, click here.

--The United Nations has recognized the Outdoor Industry Association among a handful of companies and associations moving the needle on global sustainability. To read more, click here.

--Here are 12 things that Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell believes every outdoor business should know.

--The North Face and biotech company Spiber have collaborated to create the “Moon Parka” – a coat woven out of synthetic spider silk. Spider silk is one of nature’s stretchiest and strongest materials – making it ideal for active sportswear. However, harvesting spider silk on an industrial scale is not very efficient, mainly due to spiders' competitive disposition to eat their rivals. To read more, click here.

--Death Valley sure got hammered by floods last week...

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Dangers of Tree-Wells

At the American Alpine Institute, we spend a lot of time talking about avalanches. We run dozens of avalanche courses a season and highlight avalanche near misses and fatalities on this blog. But we haven't spent much time talking about another major frontcountry and backcountry danger: tree-wells

Every year there are stories about people who have gone into a tree-well upside down and suffocated. Essentially, a skier or a snowboarder takes a fall and slides into a tree-well upside down. When this happens it's very difficult for one to extract him or herself. Indeed, struggling upside down in a well can actually cause an individual to slip down further. The result is very similar to an avalanche, an individual suffocates in the snow.

Occasionally we report on frontcountry avalanches, but they are rare. Tree-well accidents happen every year both in-bounds and out-of-bounds. The wells are particularly dangerous after a big snow storm that dropped a lot of powder.

The Tree-Well and Deep Snow Safety website indicates that, "the odds of surviving a deep snow immersion accident are low; especially if you are not with a partner. In two experiments conducted in the U.S. and Canada in which volunteers were temporarily placed in a tree well, 90% COULD NOT rescue themselves."

The following video portrays a shocking demonstration of just how dangerous tree-wells can be:

Following is a breakdown of what to do in the event of a tree-well accident:

Ski with a Partner

First and foremost, skiing with a partner is the most important part of staying safe on a powder day. And skiing with a partner means keeping track of him or her visually. If you speed ahead and are waiting at the bottom of the slope for your partner in the tree-well, then you have failed to truly ski with your partner. Many of those who have died as a result of a tree-well incident were with partners, but they did not actually witness the fall. Visual contact is important!

In addition to staying in visual contact, it is important to be close enough to your partner that you could dig him out if an accident occurs. How long does that person have? Well, about as long as you can hold your breath...so you should be close enough to perform a rescue quickly.

If your partner goes into a hole, don't leave to get help. Dig him or her out! Once you have reached the person's face, be sure to clear the airway as there might be snow in the mouth.

Carry Backcountry Equipment

Obviously digging requires a shovel. Be sure that you have a shovel, a beacon and a probe on any big snow days, in-bounds or out.

If you're a skier, remove your ski pole straps. People who go into tree-wells often have trouble removing these straps while in a hole.

Stay on Groomed Trails

On big powder days, groomed trails are always the safest. However, if you really want to enjoy the powder or you want to ski in the backcountry, you'll expose yourself to tree-well danger.

If you are off the groomed trails, stay away from the trees. There will not be a tree-well where there is no tree.

If You Fall in a Tree-Well

If you realize that you are falling into a tree-well, try to grab the tree and the tree-branches. Once you've fallen in, try to hold onto the tree or branches so that you don't fall in further.

Struggling in a tree-well often makes you sink more deeply. So if you're in the hole, think. Don't panic. Try to breathe calmly in order to conserve the little bit of air you might have while waiting for a rescue.

If you are in the hole, try to create a breathing space near your face. If you're secure, try to rock your body gently in order to increase this space. Over time, heat from your body, along with rocking motions, will compact the snow. The hardening of the snow around you might allow you to work your way out of the hole.


Following are a few great sites with information about tree-well related incidents:

Stevens Pass Tree-Wells
Tree-Well and Deep Snow Safety
How to Escape a Tree-Well

Tree-wells are dangerous, but they are a danger that can be mitigated and avoided. Pay attention to your surroundings and to your partners in order to stay safe while skiing or snowboarding.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Art of Early Season Ice Climbing

For the ice climber, mid-January is easy. In any given ice climbing venue, there is a host of fat climbs that are quite “in.” The ice abounds; the climber need only to choose which of these to climb. The rack consists of mostly long screws and draws. Early-season ice, however,is a much more challenging game.

At the start of each winter, I never cease to be amazed by the way ice forms. Mere trickles freeze just enough to allow the ice climber to pick and scratch their way up thin smears that grace slabs and rock faces.  The experienced ice climber has a rolodex of early-season climbs; he knows just where the ice comes in after the first cold nights of winter.

The first few days are usually the most memorable of the season. Ironically (yet fittingly), the first days of the ice season are the hardest – you’ve got to be on your “A game” right off the bat. Why? Protection. Ice is protected with ice screws. These screws come in various lengths and hold quite well in good ice. The problem is that the shortest screws are 10 cm. long. This is great when the ice itself is 12cm. thick or more. But what if it’s not? Then you can’t protect with screws. Sometimes you can fit some piece of rock gear in the underlying rock (often peckers, pins), or find cracks to the side of the flow to fit in cams and nuts. Often, though, it’s a moot point: the ice is often too thin, and without good protection where you need it.

These are the days where you lead with a rack of cajones. Experience and skill become the climber’s protection. A fall would be quite dangerous. So, you don’t fall. (The doctor says “If it hurts when you go like ‘this,’ don’t go like ‘this!’”).

Despite the danger, it can be relatively controllable with a little style and grace. The competent climber can be rewarded with a private dance with the ephemeral early-season ice maiden. And what an elegant dance it is!

Following are some shots from early season ice climbs:

 The author belaying off of three stubbies (the only part of the climb that took screws), 
reinforced with a good belay stance.

 Leading up the classic first pitch of Neurosis at Poke-O-Moonshine, NY. On this climb, there are actually a few bolts from the summer rock climb of the same name that the leader can chip out. There is also some rock gear in the corner to the right of the ice smear.

 Tick-Tacking up Neurosis.

Seconding up Choinard's Gulley, Adirondacks, NY. This climb, a historic classic, is one of the first to come in each winter. It becomes much fatter as the season progresses, seeing hundreds of ascents per year.

--Mike Pond, AAI Instructor and Guide

Friday, November 13, 2015

Fixed-Point Belay Techniques

There has been a lot of talk in the industry lately about fixed-point belay techniques. Many guides are beginning to employ these techniques on ice climbs and on sketchy alpine climbs.

Essentially a fixed-point belay is a lead belay directly off the anchor, as opposed to the more standard belay technique of operating a device off one's harness. The idea is that a lead fall simply doesn't impact  the belayer the same way that a lead fall impacts him or her in a normal setting.

At a guide training in 2008, a number of our guides experimented with this technique, finding mixed results.  We found that both a tube style device and a munter-hitch worked well, but not so much for a GriGri.  Assisted locking devices seem to transfer a lot more force into the falling person and without movement in the anchor, this resulted in a painful fall for our leader.

The Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) has put out a video on this particular technique.  It is a long and comprehensive video on the subject, but it is very good. Please see it below:


At a 2014 AMGA training we experimented with this technique some more and decided that using a tube-style device wasn't appropriate at all. The best application appeared to incorporate the use of a munter-hitch.

In the photo above, we built a separate anchor from the anchor the climber was belaying on. We found that when an individual took a leader fall, it was easier to manage if your hands were far away from the munter-hitch. If your hands were close, you got pulled up into the anchor more easily. Additionally, the fall was greater because the anchor moved up substantially before catching the falling climber.

In the photo above the belayer has just held a fall on a fixed-point system. This system with a piece designed specifically to deal with the upward pull was easier to manage.

So why would you use this system?

It is a very guidey thing to do and it does require one to learn a new belay technique, so it doesn't make much sense...unless you're working with significant weight differences in a multipitch setting. If you intend to take children or small teens up a multi-pitch route, a leader fall may be so dramatic that they get pulled into the anchor and let go. This negates that possibility.

And while there aren't that many uses for a fixed-point anchor, it is one of those things that when you need it...you really need it...

 --Jason D. Martin