Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Art of the Plunge Step

The plunge step is a simple technique for walking downhill in the snow. However, it is one of those techniques that seems relatively straight-forward in certain snow types, while difficult in others.

To do a standard plunge step, stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Bend your knees and drop your rear end. As you step down the hill during your descent, be sure to lead with the heel of your foot. The heel of your boot should be like a dagger, the pointy section of the heel slicing into the snow first.

In soft snow, this technique is relatively easy to understand. On our courses, we will often play games of Red Light/Green Light with students racing down the hill. In soft snow, everybody tends to stay on their feet and in control when we say red light. Hard snow is a different story. It's not uncommon to see people slip and fall trying to plunge step in such conditions. And sometimes it can be quite amusing to play Red Light/Green Light in such conditions...

The main reason that plunge stepping becomes more difficult in firm snow conditions is because your heel doesn't penetrate the snow as easily. Indeed, you have to be incredibly aggressive to get your heel into the snow.

In hard conditions, it's not uncommon for people to become tentative in their steps. Such movement can cause an individual to be more likely to slip as opposed to less likely. Occasionally this develops into a dangerous and frustrating cycle. A climber slips once, becomes more tentative, slips again, and becomes even more tentative, creating yet even a higher likelihood of slipping. The only way to kill this potentially hazardous cycle is to become more aggressive, stabbing your foot deeply into the snow no matter how hard it is.

Moving effectively in the snow is one of the most important things that climbers do. And learning to employ a solid plunge step in all the different kinds of conditions that you might encounter can only help you to become a faster and more solid climber.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, June 29, 2015

Route Profile: Mt Triumph - Northeast Ridge (5.6, III+)

Mt. Triumph is one of those mountains that looks both incredible and incredibly hard to climb. It is a sharp tooth sticking up above the town or Marblemount that begs to be climbed.

The Northeast Ridge is a reasonable route to the summit. It's only about 5.6, but that doesn't mean any of the climbing on the route should be taken for granted. It is a full-on alpine experience that includes some loose and scratchy rock, some moss and giant snow blocks. The mountain is not that far back, but the approach is extremely physical.

Though the route can be done in two days, it is a far more comfortable ascent in three...

Here's a write-up on the mountain from Summitpost.org:

Mt. Triumph is an important mountain in North Cascades National Park. It is located about six miles WNW of the town of Newhalem, WA. It lies entirely within the Skagit River drainage. The peak is not as high as a lot of the other important peaks of the park, yet it possesses just as much chutzpah. Certainly, on the whole, it is more precipitous than most of those peaks. You can see the very top of the peak from Marblemount as it rises over the nearer summit of Oakes Peak. This extra rise hints at its prominence above peaks immediately to the south. Mt. Triumph is connected via Triumph Pass to a slightly higher Mt. Despair--an aptly named tandem if their ever was one. Although Despair is an easier climb than Triumph (at least in terms of the climbing on the mountain itself; Despair requires a longer approach) maybe the peaks should be named in reverse. But then, one feels triumphant to have climbed Triumph, for there is no easy way up it.

Yes, Mt. Triumph is characterized by verticality and sharpness. It is rugged on all flanks. On a topo or from directly overhead, the peak has the appearance of a three-bladed propeller. Evenly spaced Northeast, Northwest, and South Ridges divide evenly spaced East, North, and West Faces. The mountain cradles two rapidly declining glaciers below the East and North Faces. In particular, the eastside glacier is very sickly. It is much reduced from that depicted on topographic maps. A veritable pool table slate of slabs below the glacier makes for quite the tumbling ground for billiard cubes of ice excising themselves from the glacier's lower terminus. The northside glacier isn't faring much better. On both of these we often heard blocks of ice careening down the slabs.

A note about the name: Triumph was named by Lage Wernstedt, the famous surveyor of the North Cascades (namely, in the Pasayten region) in the early part of the 20th Century. In addition, Wernstedt was responsible for the naming of Mt. Despair, Mt. Fury, Mt. Terror, Mt. Challenger, Inspiration Peak, and the "Picket Range." It should be noted that Wernstedt did not climb any of these peaks. Information courtesy of Harry Majors.

Following is a photo essay from a recent ascent of Mt. Triumph:

The approach passes by a series of beautiful alpine lakes.

 The approach is very physical. 
Camping options are at the top of the pass shown in the picture.

Mt. Triumph: The Northeast Ridge is the right-hand skyline. 

The final approach to the ridge requires a traverse across steep snow. 

 The Southern Picket Range

Mt. Triumph 

Looking back at the col where most people camp. 

Climbing the Northeast Ridge

 The obligatory summit selfie.

Looking back at Triumph on the way out.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, June 26, 2015

Healthy Forest Fires

As the warm and dry weather of summer approaches, we all get excited about going out to play in the splitter weather. However, along with the blue skies comes the increased likelihood of forest fires...and for most of us, the idea of a forest fire in the areas we frequent turns our stomachs.

Forest Fires often ravage the areas we care for, leaving them desolate waste lands in which the native flora and fauna are devastated, rural houses are destroyed and our access to the mountains is blocked. The list of the cons to forest fires seems daunting, especially the list of cons for those fires which are responsible for the loss of property, or even worse the loss of human life...but surprisingly, some wildland fires can actually be beneficial, especially the smaller ground fires which do not ravage the entire forest.

Forest fires can help stimulate the new growth and germination of many different plant species. For brevity, we'll look specifically at one type of plant that is affected positively by wildfires, the sequoia tree.

Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park need forest fires to help them reproduce. When a fire moves through, the heat dries out the cones up high in the canopy, which causes the seeds to release and fall to the ground. In addition to this, the fires clear out the lower vegetation that would otherwise block the light and compete for nutrients with the sequoia seedlings. Without these fires, the great sequoias and other plants that need fires to aid in germination would not be able to successfully repopulate.

In the same way that wildland fires clear out brush and smaller trees to help the sequoia seeds get the nutrients they need, fires can also “reset” the vegetation for an area. Aggressive plants often choke out slower growing plant-life. When the existing vegetation is burned-up, the competition is limited and this promotes more diversity of plant-life on the forest floor.

In addition to aiding in the life cycle process of some vegetation and vegetation diversity, forest fires are also efficient in pest eradication and pest population control. This has a positive affect on a number of forest trees and plants that are adversely affected by these pests.

Certainly, some fires are bad. Some fires completely devastate everything in their path. And while these large fires have some benefits, it's more common for the smaller ground fires to provide the most benefit. Indeed, part of the reason that some fires are so large, is because there haven't been enough of these smaller fires to clear out the debris on the forest floor; the debris that when stacked-up can create a real tinderbox. This is part of the reason that some National Parks and National Forests have taken to setting controlled burns. By doing this they are helping manage some of that debris on the forest floor while providing the positive benefits of a small ground-fire.

So while none of us want a forest fire in any of the wilderness areas that we visit regularly, it is good to know that when they do affect these areas, they're not all bad.

To keep up with the forest fires in your area, click here.

Following is a public service announcement about forest fires that was produced in the 60s. You'll probably recognize the celebrity who narrates this commercial as Rod Serling, Mr. Twilight Zone himself...

--Erik Budsberg, AAI Staff

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 6/25/15


--An injured climber was rescued Sunday after he fell while ascending Dome Peak in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. To read more, click here.

--For those of you who have been to the Grand Wall boulders at the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park lately, the forest appears to be in an unnatural state. Ropes, stages, fake boulders and florescent flagging tape line the boulders, as a film crew sets up for a shoot that will take place at the end of the week. When walking through the area, it feels as though the boulders have been invaded without care from BC Parks, who granted access for filming in this location, or the film crew, who has been setting up since last Monday. To read more, click here.

--A massive year-round ski resort project has been put on hold in British Columbia. Environment Minister Mary Polak has determined that the Jumbo Glacier Resort project has not been substantially started. As a result, the environmental assessment certificate has expired and Glacier Resorts Ltd. cannot proceed with developing this project unless a new certificate is obtained. To read more, click here.

--Some guys recently put up the longest slackline in Canadian history in Squamish. The following video shows some awesome slacklining, but the Squamish stuff doesn't come on until about 2:51.


--Washington state expanded a burn ban statewide Monday as hot, dry weather persists in drought conditions. "Westside forests are drying out and the outlook is for continued warm, dry weather," said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. "These conditions make it clear it's time for a statewide burn ban." To read more, click here.

--As the clock ticks down on Washington state’s second overtime legislative session, House Democrats released their latest budget proposal Monday, a plan that doesn’t include any new taxes but looks for additional revenue through closing or limiting several tax exemptions. If Washington state officials fail to pass a budget by June 30, the state will go into a partial shutdown starting July 1, a move that would partially close some departments and completely close others including state parks. This means popular state-owned camping and recreational areas could be closed for business just in time for the Fourth of July weekend. To read more, click here.


--Last week the National Park Service announced it has selected Aramark, the food and hospitality partner for national and state parks and other leisure and cultural attractions across the country, as the new concessioner for Yosemite National Park. Under the 15-year contract, scheduled to begin on March 1, 2016, Aramark will manage Yosemite’s hospitality programs encompassing lodging, food and beverage, retail, recreational and transportation services. To read more, click here.

--A massive rockfall ripped down one of the canyon walls of Tenya Canyon in Yosemite on June 14th. To read more, click here. To see a video with some embedded photos, click below:

Desert Southwest:

--A 38-year-old woman from Flagstaff was injured last week while climbing at Arizona's Mount Elden. It appears that a handhold broke while she was placing protection. To read more, click here.

--The new climbing gym in Vegas -- Origin Climbing and Fitness -- is awesome! Check it out.


--A college student in Colorado fell nearly 100 feet off a cliff and survived. Maggie Michael was studying rare plants when she lost her footing. To read more, click here.


--AAI Team 6 made Denali's summit on Sunday. And now there is only one expedition still on the mountain. AAI Team 7 will be moving to high camp soon. To check out their progress, click here.

--In a new study, scientists with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and several other institutions report a staggering finding: Glaciers of the United States’ largest — and only Arctic — state, Alaska, have lost 75 gigatons (a gigaton is a billion metric tons) of ice per year from 1994 through 2013. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--The USA has averaged 28 avalanche fatalities per year over the past 10 winters. This winter, there have only been 11 avalanche fatalities. That is an enormous drop in avalanche deaths. That’s 60% less avalanche deaths this year than the annual average. To read more, click here.

--The Access Fund and the American Alpine Club have come together to create one unified document that describes desired fixed anchor policy. To read the document, click here.

--Two Swiss climbers lied about their need to be rescued in the Alps. And now they're paying the price, literally. They have been fined 3000 euros. To read more, click here.

--There is a small glimmer of hope that climbing will still be included in the 2020 Olympics to take place in Tokyo, Japan. To read more, click here.

--Ueli Steck of Switzerland and Michi Wohlleben of Germany plan on climbing 82 summits in 80-days. To read more, click here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Route Profile: Forbidden Peak, West Ridge, 5.6, Grade III

If you are an alpine climber in the Cascades, you can basically be divided into two groups.  You have either climbed the West Ridge of Forbidden, or you want to.  With amazing views, thrilling exposure, solid rock and moderate climbing, there is no wonder why it is listed as one of 50 classic climbs in North America.

Forbidden Peak from Boston Basin.  The summit is to the far right.  Dawn Glanc.

The climb starts up the finger of snow to the right of the photo.  There are also rock variations to the left of the couloir.
The West Ridge to the left, with Mt. Torment to the far left.
Taken from the summit of Sahale Peak.  James Pierson
Climbing up the snow couloir.  Alasdair Turner
Heading up the ridge.  Alasdair Turner.

Climber on the last pitch of Forbidden with Moraine Lake and
Eldorado Peak in the background.  Dawn Glac

Monday, June 22, 2015

Nine Lessons from Rock Climbing

Recently this video has been making its rounds on the web. The piece is from a motivational speaking conference sponsored by TED -- a motivational speaker agency -- and features Matthew Childs, a former climbing guide.

Matthew Childs is a specialist in digital branding and interactive services. According to his biography, Childs seeks out new trends in competitive markets. As an advertising lead at Razorfish, he draws from extensive experience in the marketing world, having led Nike's global internal communications department. Before that, he was a writer and editor for Outside Magazine and Playboy.

In this video, the speaker relates nine lessons learned in rock climbing to the "real world." Though the video was created for non-climbers, Childs uses enough climbing lingo that it's likely that climbers will get the most out of his insights.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, June 19, 2015

Self-Arrest Techniques

Self-arrest is perhaps the most important skill that we practice in snow school. The British Mountaineering Council put together a nice video on the self-arrest techniques that one should practice.

Though this video is quite good, there are a couple of things that we teach differently:
  1. It is breezed over in the video, but the best way to self-arrest is to avoid falling. Good snow climbing technique should be practiced on low-angle slopes so that when you are on high-angle slopes it comes as second nature.
  2. We teach the piolet canne (cane) position as the baseline position. We only hold the piolet in the self-arrest position when it appears that a fall is likely. As the piolet canne position is the most stable walking position and it provides the most security, we like to see people move up the mountain in this position. One should practice self-arrest starting from the piolet canne position.
  3. There is some debate on whether you should put your feet up or not. The concern -- as the guide in the video points out -- is that if you put your feet down and your crampon points catch, that you might flip head-over-heels. On the other hand, it might stop you more quickly. We teach people to put their toes into the snow to arrest the fall.
There is some controversy about whether to use a leash on an ice axe or not. Most of our guides choose not to use a leash on standard mountaineering routes like the Coleman/Deming on Mount Baker or on the Emmons Glacier on Mount Rainier.

Many people like wrist-leashes because they limit the possibility of dropping the axe. Our guides prefer them for steep terrain. There are two downsides to the constant use of a leash. First, it adds time to a turn, because the axe must be on the uphill side of your body. Moving the wrist-leash from one hand to the other many hundreds of times throughout the day adds time to the clock. Second, if you fall and lose control of the axe, it may become a liability. The last thing that you want in a fall is to be punctured by the axe.

Some people like to attach the ice-axe leash to their harness. This is a very bad place to attach a leash. Any loss of control during a fall could lead to a catastrophic torso puncture injury.

People are very adamant about wanting to use a wrist-leash while climbing for fear of dropping the axe. But really, how common is it for a climber to drop an axe? Not common at all. An ice axe is like a mountaineer's weapon. How many soldiers in the heat of battle drop their weapons? While mountain climbing is definitely not as intense as a war, it can be a dangerous pursuit and most climbers are unlikely to drop the most important tool they carry.

In preparing this blog, I watched a number of videos about self-arrest techniques. There were quite a few bad examples and indeed, some that were just flat dangerous. If you practice self-arrest, always wear a helmet and do not attach the leash of the axe to yourself. Always practice in a place where there is a good run-out. And be conservative in your practice of the head-first/stomach technique as this is a very easy one to get hurt practicing.

Jason D. Martin