Friday, February 5, 2016

Leading with Beginners

The proceeding information is a mildly edited excerpt from Rock Climbing: The AMGA Single Pitch Manual, by Bob Gaines and Jason D. Martin.

It is not uncommon for an individual to take a friend climbing who has a limited climbing background. Many crags require one to lead in order to set-up the rope. This creates a potentially dangerous situation for the experienced person, since the newbie may not have the appropriate experience to belay a leader.

Lead Belay Training

If you take a beginner to a venue that requires a lead in order to access the anchors, it is important to teach the beginner how to lead belay in the lesson. Once the PBUS technique has been taught and the student demonstrates proficiency, then you may move into a lesson on lead belaying.

The orientation of the beginner’s hands while belaying a leader should reflect the posture taken in the break position of the PBUS. The student will pay out rope with a guide hand above the device, while the brake-hand remains in the same position below the device. If the beginner needs to bring rope back in, they simply revert back to the PBUS toproping technique.

To practice the lead belay, it is best to place a piece ten feet or so up, then run the rope through it. You can practice paying out rope and "taking falls" prior to actually getting onto the sharp end of the rope.

Lead Belay with an Assisted Breaking Device

There are guides who prefer to have students belay them with an assisted braking device. The advantage to these devices is that they reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic failure of the system. The problem with them is they are far from foolproof and require specialized instruction and technique.

There are a number of devices on the market and they all have their own idiosyncrasies. It’s important to read all associated instructions before using a new device, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, heed the manufacturer’s warnings, and practice with it prior to using in an institutional setting.

The Petzl GriGri is one of the more common devices on the market. As a result, lead belay technique with this device is demonstrated in the following video. This video shows both the "old style" of lead belaying, as well as the "new style."

Belaying a Leader with a GriGri - The "New Style"

The primary belaying position for the GriGri is the PBUS position, with a guide hand above the device on the rope and a brake-hand below. As a leader moves up the rock, the belayer slowly feeds rope through the device, gently pulling with the guide hand, while pushing rope through with the brake-hand. If the rope is fed at an appropriate speed, the cam in the GriGri will not engage.

In this principal belay position, the belayer’s brake-hand never leaves the rope. If there is a need to bring in slack, the belayer reverts to the PBUS technique.

AAI Guide Richard Riquelme belaying a leader using the principal belay position for a Grigri.

Because the cam automatically engages with a sudden acceleration of the rope, it can be difficult to pay out slack quickly. The simplest solution to this problem is to never allow the rope to suddenly accelerate. This may accomplished by the leader placing gear at chest level or lower and extending the protection with runners. Doing so allows the leader to clip into the protection without having to give a quick tug on the rope.

If the goal is to teach a student the finer points of lead belaying, then there are two ways to give slack to a climber who needs it quickly. The first and easiest way is to simply step in toward the wall. This will immediately put slack into the system and works well. However, this technique is not recommended for novice belayers.

The second way is to shift the brake-hand, sliding it up the rope to the device, bracing the index finger against the lip of the moving sideplate. Press the thumb of the brake-hand down on the cam where the handle is attached while continuing to hold the brake-strand of the rope. Pull slack with the guide-hand. Once finished, immediately return to the principal belay position.

The proper way to give slack quickly with a Petzl Grigri.

Petzl recommends that you:

1) Always keep the brake-strand in the brake hand. There is never a valid reason to let go of the brake-strand.

2) Never grip the device with the entire hand.

3) Anticipate the climber’s movement, including when additional rope is needed to make the clip.

In a toprope setting, a rope is generally set-up early in the day and may be used to practice belaying. In a lead setting, practicing this skill requires some creativity. One method is to clip the first bolt of a sport route, or to place a piece of gear about ten-feet up. Clip the rope and then have the student practice belaying a leader on this short mock set-up.

Student Belay Backups, Ground Anchors and Knots

In addition to using an assisted breaking device and placing a lot of protection, here are three other ways to increase instructor security during a lead. First, use a ground anchor. Second, employ a backup belayer. And third, tie knots in the rope behind the belayer and the backup belayer.

A ground anchor keeps the belayer under control. The belayer is fixed to a given spot. If the belayer is anchored, the opportunity to trip, fall over, and pull the instructor off is greatly reduced. They will remain in the designated stance.

With two or more beginners, a backup belayer will increase security. It is far less likely that both students will drop the leader. To add even greater security, put a friction hitch on the rope behind the belayer and attach to the backup belayer’s belay loop. Rather than being dependent on a hand belay, the backup belayer manages the rope with the assistance of a third hand.

Some instructors tie knots in the rope behind the belayer and the back-up belayer. As the instructor leads and the knots approach the belay team, either the backup belayer or, ideally, a third student unties them. Even if there are a series of mistakes, the leader will still have a reasonable margin of error.

No matter what steps are taken to increase your security, it remains important to regularly look down and check on the belayer. Make sure that the belay system is employed appropriately and communicate error corrections as needed.

Descent Options

If walking off or down climbing is not possible, the other descent options from the top of a route are either to rappel or lower.

The most secure method is to rappel. When being lowered the instructor is completely reliant on the belay system and at the greatest exposure to risk of system failure. If there are any doubts about the security of the system (i.e. the belayer,) rappel.

Jim Belanger lowers clipped to a friction hitch on the belay strand of the rope.

However, if your goal is to teach the beginner how to operate as an independent climber, then the he will have to learn how to lower. When faced with that situation a technique that can be used to help mitigate the risk is for you to back yourself up by placing a friction-hitch on the belay strand of the rope, clipping the friction hitch to a sling that is then clipped into the instructor’s belay loop with a locking carabiner. While being lowered, you manage the friction hitch, releasing it if the belayer loses control of the brake strand.

Leading is fun, but getting dropped isn't. Put in as much time as you need in belay training before getting onto the sharp end with a new leader...

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 2/4/16


--Five snowmobilers were killed in an avalanche on Friday, January 30th near McBride British Columbia. To read more, click here.

--Police say a 20-year-old man died in an avalanche while snowmobiling in the Twin Lakes area Sunday afternoon. The Adams County Sheriff's Office reported the death around 2:30 p.m. Kirk Bradley Kinzer Jr., of Lewiston, was snowmobiling with family and friends north of Idaho's Brundage Ski Resort when an avalanche hit him. To read more, click here.

-- A 14-year-old girl died over the weekend in a skiing accident at Soldier Mountain. The Camas County Sheriff's Office stated that the girl was skiing down the mountain toward the lodge when at some point she lost control and crashed into the side of a restroom building and was found unconscious and not breathing. She was later flown to a Boise hospital where she died as a result of her injuries.

--If camping at The Enchantments is on your bucket list, getting to the fabled high-country lakes southwest of Leavenworth just got a little tougher. The U.S. Forest Service announced Monday it is extending by six weeks the season for required, limited-entry permits for overnight camping in this fragile zone of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. To read more, click here.

--A snowboarder survived two nights in heavy snow this weekend after he got lost in the backcountry north of the Mt. Baker Ski Area. To read more, click here.

Read more here:

--Squaw Valley is taking a bold initiative to reduce the amount of garbage produced by the resort by prohibiting bottled water sales and installing 20 water refill stations around the mountain. Squaw expects to eliminate as many as 28,000 single-use plastic bottles a year with this simple step towards environmentally friendly hydration. To read more, click here.

--The Inyo County Board of Supervisors hasn’t taken a stand on the new Wilderness Areas proposed in the Inyo National Forest Plan, but they did approve of the process used to arrive at the initial draft. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--The best climbing festival of the year is now accepting registrations. Red Rock Rendezvous will run from April 1-3. Come on out to Vegas and get your climb on! To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--Summit County Search and Rescue crews, joined by ski patrol members, found the body of a skier who had been missing from the Park City resort area since Sunday night. The skier — 50-year-old Stephen Jones — had been involved in an avalanche, according to a tweet from the Summit County Sheriff's Office. At about 2 p.m. Tuesday, searchers found his body buried in about three feet of snow in an area called Shale Shot in Lambs Canyon. To read more, click here.

--Officials say a Massachusetts ice climber was rescued from a New Hampshire Mountain after he fell about 20 feet. The Concord Monitor reports Peter Lindahl, of Medford, Massachusetts fell Sunday afternoon around 1 p.m. near Crawford Notch State Park in Hart's Location. He was climbing on Mount Willard when it happened. To read more, click here.

-- A man ice climbing at Frankenstein Cliffs in New Hampshire has been taken to a hospital after he fell about 30 feet and was rescued by other climbers and emergency responders. To read more, click here.

--A crazy video was posted last week of some hikers on South America's Aconcagua crossing what appears to be a minor debris flow. Suddenly, they hear a sound similar to that of an airplane and quickly move out of the way. The debris flow turns into a massive wall of rocks sliding down the drainage. The take-away is not to treat these types of things as minor. If something seems off, move quickly or stay away from it... To see the video, click below. To read more, click here.

--Two people were taken to the hospital after an accident on the ski lift at New Hampshire's Granite Gorge Ski Area Sunday afternoon. To read more, click here.

--So, a skier in Alberta was attacked by an owl this week. He has multiple punctures in his scalp. After the incident he resolves to wear a helmet now. To read more, click here.

--Alex Honnold and Colin Haley recently completed the Torre Traverse in Patagonia in 21 hours. Yes, that's the traverse of the Cerro Torre massif. To read more, click here.

--Climbing magazine's 2015 Golden Piton Awards have been awarded. To see who won, click here.

--In the mounting battle to keep public lands in public hands, certain voices have been louder than others. Private interests, including those heavily backed by oil and gas - have been vocal that our public lands should be privatized, allowing those groups to sidestep environmental regulations to allow for increased mining, timber, and real estate development. Tens of thousands of Americans who love public lands have also spoken out against the effort to seize and sell off our parks, forests, and open spaces, seeking continued protection of the wild places to enjoy. Often forgotten in this fight, however, are the thousands of public servants who have dedicated their lives to caring for these places and ensuring balance in how we care for our millions of acres of American public lands. To read more, click here.

--Following on from its popular appearance in the Olympic Park at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, ice climbing will feature as part of the sports initiation program at the 2nd edition of the Youth Olympic Games to be held in Lillehammer, Norway, from 12-21 February. To read more, click here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Avalanche Awareness: Beacon Check

The American Mountain Guides Association and Outdoor Research have come together to create a video on avalanche beacons and the morning beacon check. Arguably, this check is one of the most important parts of the day. If your beacon doesn't work, you're not going to be found if you get avalanched, and you certainly won't be able to find your friend if he gets avalanched...

Check out the video below:

Here is a good process for completing a beacon check:

1) Turn on the beacons and confirm that there is power. Each individual should state their battery life. Batteries that are at less than 80% should be changed out. Rechargeable batteries are not as good as off-the-shelf batteries as they appear to have a lot of power but then lose it quickly.

2) Everybody accept for one person (the leader) should switch their beacons to search mode. They should see if they can "see" the person in transmit mode and the distance on their beacons. Don't touch beacons together when you practice this as direct contact can fry the circuits.

3) The team should turn their beacons back to transmit. The leader can then switch his beacon to search and have the members of the team file by as he checks that he can "see" them with his beacon.

4) Once this is complete, one person should watch as the leader turns his beacon back to transmit.

5) Beacons can be stored in the beacon harness or in a pocket. If in a pocket, the pocket should be integrated (so that it can't tear off) and it should have a zipper.

6) Note that cell phones, Go Pros, radios, or other electronic devices may adversely impact the effectiveness of a beacon. These devices should be stored away from the beacon.

Your avalanche beacon is your life. Make sure that it's on and that it has been adequately checked before going out to ski!

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, February 1, 2016

Assisting a Follower from Above

In cooperation with Outdoor Research, the American Mountain Guides Association has made several videos for beginning level climbers.

In this video, AMGA Instructor Team Member Margaret Wheeler demonstrates two techniques that one might use to provide a follower with assistance from above.

Following are the notes from the end of the video.

Vector Pull

Pull the climber's rope perpendicular to the way the rope runs. Like pulling a bow string and shooting an arrow.

3 to 1

Increases pulling power by three times. But it also requires the belayer to pull three feet for every one foot the climber rises.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, January 29, 2016

The "What People Think" Internet Meme

A couple years ago, there were a lot of "what people think" memes placed on social networking sites.  These usually involved a series of pictures subtitled with lines like, "what my mom thinks I do" or "what society thinks I do." Usually at the very end there is a final photographic punchline.

We've scoured the internet in order to find a handful of these that apply to our culture. If you find these hard to read, please click on them to enlarge:

It should be no surprise that there are some skiing memes out there:

Unfortunately, we couldn't find any that applied to mountaineering or mountain guides.  So our very own Andrew Yasso made the following memes:

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 1/28/16


--Wolf Bauer, a staple of the 20th century climbing and rescue scene in the Pacific Northwest, died this week at the age of 104. Wolf was a leader in the creation of the Mountain Rescue Council. To read more, click here.

--A Bellingham skier’s body was recovered Monday afternoon, Jan. 25, a day after he died in an avalanche on Mount Herman, near the Mt. Baker Ski Area. On Sunday afternoon the man, identified as Mark Panthen, 36, and a friend had been skiing at the 4,200-foot level on the north slope of Herman, a popular backcountry destination just north of Mount Baker when the slide hit. To read more, click here. Mark leaves behind a wife and two children. A memorial fund has been set up to help them out, here.

--Not much info, but a BASE jumper apparently got stuck in the trees in Index. To read more, click here.

Read more here:

--American Alpine Institute Guide Like Liz Scholarship applications are due on January, 31, 2016.

--AAI Guide and Director of IT and Marketing, Tom Kirby, recently talked to Backcountry Magazine about the Guide Like Liz scholarship. To read the article, click here.


--There is a new opportunity available for guides to access Yosemite National Park. Currently the Park only provides climbing through a concession run by the same large concession holder that oversees food service and busses. This new plan will allow guides from companies like AAI to access the park. Please write in support of this potential change. Here is some information that you might use:

Here is the link to the public announcement. The form to submit comments is here. For a public comment to be valuable, the comments must be individualized and personalized. That means that copying and pasting is not going to work well.

Below are some general talking points that can help you craft a letter. If you would like further information on any of these ideas, is a good resource.

1. The current system does not provide sufficiently diverse opportunities for visitors who would choose to access Yosemite wilderness with a guide.

2. Modern professional mountain guiding helps realize the formal educational public purpose of wilderness-from the skills training we all provide to guide education programs such as the AMGA.

3. As rock climbing and mountaineering are not at capacity in Yosemite wilderness, the plan's analysis of commercial services should reflect that, and should provide for additional diverse opportunities for the guided public.

4. Modern, trained guides are invested, professional stewards of the land and the wilderness resource.

5. Additional rock climbing and mountaineering guiding opportunities should be made available in the form of limited, low-ratio Commercial Use Authorizations (CUAs) that are reasonable for sole proprietors and small businesses to obtain.

6. The highest professional terrain-specific credentials should be considered as selection criteria for obtaining a CUA. These provide the highest quantifiable assessment of guide quality and skill, and serve to enhance visitor safety, resource stewardship, and reduction of social impacts. Those credentials are the AMGA Rock Guide, the AMGA Alpine Guide, and the IFMGA Mountain Guide (certified in rock, alpine, and ski mountaineering).

--Brady Robinson, the executive director of the Access Fund, wrote an excellent opinion letter to the New York Times about the Delaware North Company and it's immoral theft of Yosemite National Park's place names. To read the letter, click here.

--The independently-owned Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe is officially up for sale. Fritz Buser, majority owner of the Reno-area winter resort since 1971, “is looking to sell the resort,” according to a statement issued late Saturday afternoon. To read more, click here.


--The best climbing festival of the year is now accepting registrations. Red Rock Rendezvous will run from April 1-3. Come on out to Vegas and get your climb on! To read more, click here.

--Las Vegas rock climber David Allfrey got a big nod from the American Alpine Club last week, winning the prestigious Robert Hicks Bates Award. The annual award recognizes a young climber who has exhibited exceptional skill and character in the climbing or mountaineering arts, and who has outstanding promise for future accomplishment. To read more, click here.

--A small earthquake hit Joshua Tree National Park on January 24th. There were no reports of damage. To read more, click here.


--After making it through mid-January without an avalanche death, Colorado, the country's notorious leader in such deaths, has recorded its first two deaths just two days apart last week. To read more, click here.

--A skier suspected of throwing a snowboarder off a chairlift Sunday at Aspen Highlands will be charged with a crime “in the near future,” a law enforcement official said Thursday. To read more, click here.

--It shouldn't be that surprising that ski area employees are having a hard time with housing in posh exclusive ski towns.

--The Environment Foundation, an Aspen Skiing Company employee-funded, founded and directed foundation has awarded more than $2.8 million to 469 diverse local environmental projects since its inception in December 1997. Almost 1,800 employees per year contribute to the foundation directly from their paychecks. During the fall 2015 funding cycle, the Environment Foundation Board’s largest grants focused on renewable energy and planning efforts to preserve the heavily impacted Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness areas. Grants to improve the health of the Roaring Fork River, support communities opposed to inappropriate oil and gas development, cultivate future environmental stewards, and ensure popular hiking and biking trails remain in sound condition were also funded. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--British explorer Henry Worsley set out in November to become the first person to traverse Antarctica solo. After 913 miles and suffering from a stomach infection, he was airlifted to a hospital in Chile on Friday, where he died over the weekend. To read more, click here.

--An avalanche near Big Sky that resulted in a ski patrol member's death was triggered by humans, an investigation shows. On Jan. 19, Darren Johnson, 34, died while assisting the Montana State University Avalanche Research Team in the Cedar Basin area, according to a release from the Yellowstone Club. To read more, click here.

--A 22-year-old skier was caught, partially buried and injured in a large avalanche at Holy Toledo Tuesday afternoon. Officials said the avalanche was on a steep northwest slope about 10,200 ft. in Cardiff in Big Cottonwood Canyon. To read more, click here.

--The editor-and-chief of Alpinist magazine is being recognized at the American Alpine Club dinner for excellence in climbing literature next month. This is a well-deserved award. To read more, click here.

--Professional freeskier Angel Collinson recently took a major fall on an Alaskan peak. In a gut-wrenching video she can be seen tumbling down a guy over a thousand feet. Luckily, she only injured two fingers in the incredible fall. To see a video of the fall, click below. To read more, click here.

--Alpinist, Colin Haley recently completed the the first solo ascent of Torre Egger, a peak considered the most difficult summit of the Torre Group in Patagonia. To read more, click here.

--Motorists in Northern California have been dealing with a new kind of road hazard: Overly aggressive coyotes who may have consumed hallucinogenic mushrooms. Pacific Sun reports that at least two coyotes have been staring down motorists on Highway 1 in Bolinas, a community in Marin County, and striding onto the road. When a driver stops to avoid hitting them, the coyotes usually sniff around the car before running off. To read more, click here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Closing the System and Staying Alive

It was a short day in December of 2007 and I had to get at least one more route in. The climbers who'd come in to climb with me were supposed to do a multi-pitch the next day.  So I rushed to the top and moved the rope from one top-rope anchor to the next.

I didn't notice that the ends on the ground had become offset.

I rappelled the rope, until one end slid easily through my device and I fell.  It was a short fall, only six feet, but I still ended up in the hospital. It took three months to recover from my fractured pelvis.

When I think back on this accident, the thing that burns me the most is that it could have been easily prevented. All that I had to do was to put stopper knots in the end of the rope, then it wouldn't have mattered if the ends were offset.

Most people think of rappelling off the end of your rope as some kind of grand thing that only happens way up off the ground. The reality is that it happens all the time in much less dramatic circumstances. It happens exactly the way it happened to me, with one end that didn't quite touch the ground. Often times the injuries are minor, but sometimes they're not.

The thing is that it is very easy to protect yourself from this type of accident. The way to do it is to "close the system." In other words, make sure that what happened to me simply can't happen to you...

Single-Pitch Rappel

In a single-pitch setting it's very easy to put a stopper knot in both ends of the rope.  This works well as there are limited concerns about the rope getting stuck somehow below you. The best knot to use is the barrel knot, or stopper knot. This is essentially half of a double-fisherman's knot. Though any knot will do.

A Stopper Knot (Barrel Knot)


A second situation that is different, but related, is the possibility of dropping someone by lowering them  until the rope runs out.  In such a situation, the rope runs through an unsuspecting belayer's hands, and then it's gone...and the climber falls to the ground.

Once again, this is extremely preventable.  Every single time you climb, you should tie a stopper knot in the open end of the rope. It doesn't matter if there is a hundred feet of rope on the ground.  The idea is to make knotting the end of your rope part of your process, so that when something does happen, nothing happens...

Multi-Pitch Rappels

When I preach the gospel of tying knots in the ends of ropes, a lot of people bring up a very valid concern.  On multi-pitch rappels, it's not uncommon for the ends of the rope to fall past a rappel station. If there are knots in those ends below, they can get caught down there.

One simple way to avoid this is to tie an overhand or an eight on a bite at the ends of the ropes.  Clip these to your harness before tossing the line. Then when you are ready to pull your rope, you can untie them.  If you keep them clipped to your harness until the very last moment, there are three advantages:

  1. The first advantage was the point of all this. You won't rappel off the end of your rope.
  2. The second advantage is that the knots can't get stuck below you and you have the end of your rope.
  3. And lastly, if you keep these clipped to your harness until the very last moment, it will also help you to remember to untie the knot at the end of the rope before pulling it.
Rappelling off the end of your rope or dropping someone are both things that most of us would like to avoid.  Climbing is dangerous. Something as simple as tying a knot can make it less so...

--Jason D. Martin