Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Pre-Climb Checklist

There is no doubt that the vast majority of accidents that take place in the mountains happen due to human error. Indeed, many climbers read accident reports looking for the human error, just so that they can say to themselves, "at least I won't make that mistake."

This is a very dangerous thing to think. Any of us can make a human error mistake anytime. As a result, we should do everything in our power to keep such a mistake from happening. Things to consider include, tying knots at the end of the rope before belaying or rappelling, using an autoblock for a rappel, wearing a helmet, etc. In this blog post, we will go through the steps required for a safe and fun climb.

A Climber in Joshua Tree
Photo by Ian McEleney

1) Anchor -- Is the anchor you built for the climb adequate? If you're top-roping, are there two opposite and opposed locking carabiners at the top? Are the pieces good? If you're using bolts, are the bolts good?

Does the belayer need to be tied into a bottom anchor? The default answer is, "yes." If the belayer is not tied into a bottom anchor, you should be able to articulate why.

2) Belayer -- Is the belayer's harness on correctly? Is it doubled-back? Is the belay device threaded properly? Are you using a locking carabiner on the belay device? Is the carabiner locked? Usually a visual check is not good enough to prove that a locker is locked. It's always good to give it a quick squeeze check. Is his helmet on properly? Does he have a nut tool to remove gear if he's going to follow?

3) Climber -- Is the climber's harness on correctly? Is it doubled-back? Is the belay device threaded properly? Is he tied-in properly? Is his figure-eight dressed and neat? If he is leading, does he have the rack? Is his helmet on properly?

4) System -- Is the system closed? In other words, have you made sure that the end of the rope is either tied directly into the belayer or that there is a knot at the end? Open systems are responsible for a large percentage of climbing injuries and fatalities.

5) Commands -- Are you both on the same page as far as commands are concerned? Many people use different variations of commands and it's not a good thing to get them mixed up. Do you have a communication plan for places where it's difficult to hear?

6) Multi-Pitch -- Do you have the climbing topo? Do you have food, water and clothes for the day? What is the weather forecast? Do you have a second rope in case you need to descend in an emergency? Do you have extra cordage and sling material to leave behind? Do you have a strategy?

Climbing is a game with few rules. One of those few is to make sure that you are completely prepared for the situation at hand. Go through the check-list every time. It could save somebody's life...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, July 24, 2017

Snow Climbing Techniques: The Stomper Belay

You pull up over the final crest and you're off the steep terrain. Time to build a belay. But what to do? What would be the fastest and effective?

One very quick technique is the stomper belay, also known as the carabiner/ice-axe belay. This technique takes mere moments to employ and is very effective in places where it is easy and safe to stand.

To set-up this belay, stomp your ice axe into the snow. Clip a carabiner to the head of the axe and then clip the rope to the carabiner. Step on top of the axe to hold it in and then belay off your body using a hip belay, a shoulder belay or a device off your harness.

In the following photo, IFMGA guide and AAI lead guide trainer, Mike Powers, demonstrates a stomper belay on low-angle snow for a guide training. Note that he is using a hip belay, with the rope to the climber redirected off the top of the ice axe.



In this second photo, Mike demonstrates a stomper belay with a shoulder belay. Shoulder belays are almost never as effective as hip belays and indeed, it is a bit painful to hold a fall on a shoulder belay with a stomper belay, whereas one barely feels it when set-up on a hip belay.



The stomper belay is very effective when it comes to belaying high-angle snow from a low-angle position. In other words if you're on rolly terrain or at the top of the technical climbing, this technique is appropriate. It is not appropriate to do a stomper belay in the middle of a high angle section. This is primarily because the leader would not have a lot of security while standing in such terrain. A hip belay from a snow seat, or a sitting axe belay would be more appropriate.

One note of caution, the rope should always be clipped cleanly through a carabiner on the head of the axe. The rope should NEVER be set-up on the carabiner as a munter-hitch. There was a major accident in Canada when this was done inappropriately, and the rope ran from the climber to a munter-hitch on the head of the axe and then up to the hip-belay. And unfortunately, there were fatalities as a result of this mistake.

As with any new technique, it's good to practice in terrain where there are no consequences. Try the stomper belay with a partner on low angle terrain. Have your partner take mock falls and see how it feels. Try each of the different belay styles, off the hip, off the shoulder and off the harness and see what works best for you.

The stomper belay is a very nice little technique to have in your toolbox. When used correctly it is fast, efficient and very effective...

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, July 21, 2017

Book Review: Buried in the Sky

There are a lot of great stories from a lot of horrible tragedies in the Himalaya. This is one of the great ironies of mountaineering literature. The most horrific stories are the ones that lead to the most interest amongst those of us that follow this type of literature. But there is more to these stories than just tragedy. As in tales of war or natural disaster, there tend to be people who show great compassion and courage, even when their lives are on the line. And for many readers this is the true value of mountain literature.

Most books that deal in Himalayan expeditions are about the Western climbers who make their way to the mountains. They tell the stories of Americans, Brits, Europeans, Aussies, and New Zealanders. They tell stories of Western privilege, Western mountain success, and the tragedy of Western death in the mountains. Most books don't tell the stories of the indigenous climbers, their struggles and their tragedies...

At least most books hadn't told that story... Until now.

Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day, written by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan is one of the very few pieces of writing that explores Sherpa culture and those factors that bring Sherpa climbers into the Death Zone. It is an extraordinary piece of investigative writing that provides a glimpse of the economic and cultural factors that lead Sherpas to work for foreign expeditions while examining the worst disaster in K2's climbing history.


In 2008, the news trickled out of Nepal slowly. There had been yet another tragedy in the Himalaya that made headlines around the world; and when the dust settled 11 people were dead. The main culprit? A combination of things, but perhaps of most importance, ignoring turn-around times at altitude and the destruction of the fixed lines by serac-fall in a feature known as the Bottleneck.

The events that took place between July 31st and August 3rd, 2008 provide the perfect lens for Zuckerman and Padoan to focus our attention not on the expeditions from a variety of different countries on the mountain, but instead on the Nepali and Pakistani climbers who assisted the international expeditions. And indeed, not just on their culture, but also on their hopes, dreams and nightmares. For many of these people Himalayan expeditions provide good jobs with decent pay in an economically depressed area. They are happy to accept the risk inherent in climbing mountains because it puts food on the table and allows their children to go to school. For many, there is little choice.

Some high-altitude workers have been incredibly successful. They have completed numerous climbs of mountains like Everest and Cho Oyu. Success on a peak as difficult and dangerous as K2 provides them with a major status boost and can provide them with more work opportunities at a higher rate of pay.

Buried in the Sky is the first piece -- that I've read, anyway -- that explores the cultural and religious significance of the mountains to the Sherpa people.  It explores the legends and the history as the Sherpas understand it and delves into the political and ethnic divisions that define their lives.

With this cultural history underlining the narrative, the book follows the stories of a number of Sherpa and Shimshali (Pakistani) climbers.  But two of them stand out, their narratives a step beyond the rest. Pasang Lama and Chhiring Dorje were both involved in the tragedy and were also both involved in an amazing rescue.

While descending and still high on the mountain, Pasang was forced to use his ice axe to secure a fixed line into place. The anchor was weak and the axe was needed to keep it secure. There were people below on the ropes and he couldn't stomach the thought of an anchor blowing out. He thought he could rappel and follow the fixed lines down to camp, without the need of an axe. At the time he was completely unaware of the fact that the line below him had been destroyed by icefall. And so, when he reached the end of the rope, he had no means to continue down...

When the ropes through the Bottleneck disappeared, Pasang had figured it was his time to die. Stranded, he was unable to climb up or down without help. Why would anyone try to save him? A climber who attached himself to Pasang would surely fall, too. Using an ice axe to catch the weight of one mountaineer skidding down the Bottleneck is nearly impossible. Stopping two bodies presents twice the difficulty, twice the risk. A rescue would be suicidal, Pasang thought. Mountaineers are supposed to be self-sufficient. Any pragmatic person would leave him to die.

Chhiring found the axeless Sherpa and decided not to be pragmatic. Instead, he attached a line to the man and began to short-rope him through the exposed space. It didn't take long for the two climbers greatest fears to come true, the pair slipped and were not able to arrest their fall.

The pair fell hundreds of feet, but eventually came to rest. Ironically, neither of the men were seriously injured and were able to make it back to camp.

The authors indicate that had this been a "Western rescue" where one person surrendered his ice axe for the safety of many and where another helped the first to safety, such a selfless rescue story would have made it into the mountaineering history books. But because it was a pair of Sherpas, the story was barely reported.

In the aftermath of the tragedy there were a number of accusations made about the way that teams worked together and the differences between the Nepali and Pakistani climbers. As with many mountaineering triumphs and tragedies, arguments over specifics can easily degenerate into "he-said, she-said" style arguments. The truth can be difficult to come by.

The writing team for this book studied the incidents around the 2008 tragedy for two years. They made seven trips to Nepal and three trips to Pakistan, trekking to regions that are almost never visited by foreigners and obtaining unprecedented access to military and government sources. It is likely that their accounting of the tragedy is the most objective put on paper to date.  But it would be understandable if it offends some readers. It doesn't always paint the foreign climbers in the best light.

Buried in the Sky is a beautifully crafted piece and it stands out in the world of mountain literature. Many armchair mountaineers are infatuated with Mount Everest and the stories that revolve around the tallest mountain in the world.  But Mount Everest isn't the Savage Mountain. No, that name is reserved for K2, a mountain inhabited by the last of a group of bloodthirsty goddesses hunted by an ancient warrior.

The final sister -- Takar Dolsangma, the youngest, with a green face -- was a hard case. She mounted a turquoise dragon and fled northward to the land of three boarders. In modern Rolwaling folklore, this is Pakistan. Guru Rinpoche (the ancient warrior) chased after her and eventually cornered her on a glacier called the Chogo Lungma. Takar Dolsangma appeared remorseful and, spurring her dragon, ascended K2, accepting a new position as the goddess of security. Although Guru Rinpoche never doubted her sincerity, maybe he should have: Takar Dolsangma, it seems, still enjoys the taste of human flesh...

--Jason D. Martin




Thursday, July 20, 2017

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 7/20/17

Northwest:

--A skier was killed in a crevasse fall on Mount Rainier on Sunday. It appears that the team skied to the summit and Michael Naiman, 42, accidently skied into a crevasse on the way down. To read more, click here.

--The American Alpine Club Cragging Classic is happening in Smith Rock this September. To learn more, click here.

There are stewardship events at the Goldbar Boulders 
this weekend and next.

--There are still several stewardship events available in the Pacific Northwest for climbers who would like to give back to their community. To read more, click here.

Sierra:

--California News 4 is reporting that, "A rock climber was rescued on Thursday after falling in the Twin Crags area near Tahoe City, according to the California Highway Patrol. Authorities say at around 11:10 a.m. Thursday, July 13, a CHP Helicopter 20 (H-20) was contacted by Cal-Fire Grass Valley Dispatch requesting a hoist for a fallen rock climber in the Twin Crags area near Tahoe City. H-20 was in the Truckee area and responded from Stampede Reservoir." To read more, click here.

--Alex Honnold held his own on Jimmy Kimmel Live this week. Check it out below:


Desert Southwest:

--The Las Vegas Review-Journal is reporting that, "The National Park Service is considering a year-round online reservation system for access to Zion’s most popular trails and attractions in response to a massive surge in visitation at the park 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas." To read more, click here.

Colorado:

--The Aspen Times is reporting that, "A 25-year-old man was attempting to make his way over the top of a large boulder on the way up Capitol Peak on Saturday when it came loose and he fell to his death, an official said Monday." To read more, click here.

--A Colorado-based Instagram account is naming and shaming people who post inappropriate photos of themselves breaking rules in the backcountry. Check out this article about the account!

Notes from All Over:

--KUTV.com is reporting that, "Tragedy struck at a popular climbing spot in Utah's Big Cottonwood Canyon, Thursday as a climber fell to his death in front of his girlfriend and friends. Matt Hearn, who happens to be a member of the KUTV family, was climbing when he fell 100. According to investigators his gear somehow failed him." To read more, click here.

--The Register-Herald is reporting that, "a climber was airlifted from Burnsville Ranger Station to Charleston Area Medical Center Saturday after falling 40 feet while climbing cliffs at the Endless Wall Trail in West Virginia's New River Gorge Saturday evening, Fayette County officials reported Monday." To read more, click here.

--There have been several SAR incidents in New York State over the last week. At least one included a rock climber. To read more, click here.

--IFLScience and many others are reporting that, A pair of bodies discovered in a shrinking glacier in Switzerland are believed to be a couple who went missing 75 years ago, according to a report in Swiss newspaper Le Matin. Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin disappeared in the area in August 1942 while tending to their cows." To read more, click here.

--And finally, if you're 62 or over, the lifetime NPS Parks Pass is about to jump from $10 to $80. Get it before this happens! To read more, click here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Technique: Oppositional Forces

The Beta Angel series provides a series of excellent coaching tips for beginner to advanced level climbers. In this video, the Beta Angel coach demonstrates several techniques for oppositional climbing.



--Jason D. Martin

Monday, July 17, 2017

Women's Concerns on Day Trips

All climbers in the backcountry need to find the best way to interact with the environment and also take care of their health while they are out-of-doors. Women sometimes have different needs in the backcountry than men do. If you’re a woman signed up for a daylong course with AAI, here are a few tips and tricks to help you have fun and be successful:

1    Peeing outside.

For most AAI courses, you will not have consistent access to a flush toilet or latrine throughout the day. This means that you will need to pee outside at the location your instructor designates (feel free to ask if they don’t mention early in the day where you should go). You will want to bring some toilet paper and a Ziploc bag or bandana to use to wipe after going to the bathroom.

To go to the bathroom, go to the designated spot and squat to pee. Then wipe and pack out any toilet paper in a Ziploc bag. If you use a bandana instead of TP, you can tie it on your pack to dry out afterward. A small container of hand sanitizer is nice to have to clean your hands after going to the bathroom.

2    If you have your period…

Be sure to pack out any used tampons or pads in a Ziploc bag. You can wrap the outside of the Ziploc with duct tape ahead of time to keep it discrete if you want.  

Menstrual cups such as the DIVA Cup are also great for the backcountry, though you shouldn’t feel the need to invest in one just for a short course if you don’t already use one. DIVA Cups can often be worn all day without needing to empty them.

3    Stay hydrated.

Be sure to drink plenty of water while you are out on your course—at least two liters throughout the day, and possibly more if you are in the desert and the temperatures are high. Some women let themselves get dehydrated so they can avoid going to the bathroom outside, then crash and burn on their course. Don’t let that happen to you!


We hope to see you out there on one of our courses soon. We get a ton of women on different AAI trips and courses, so if you haven’t climbed before don’t be intimidated. Just sign up and get after it!

--Shelby Carpenter, AAI Instructor and Guide

Friday, July 14, 2017

Leave No Trace: Leave What You Find

It's not especially intuitive...

You see a beautiful flower, a cool native arrowhead, a colorful rock, or something else that you just want to take home and keep...but you know what's going to happen to it. That flower will be destroyed in your pack. That arrowhead will just end up in a junk drawer. And who knows what you'll do with the rock?

In the fall of 2006, a friend and I were on our way out to climb Jackass Flats (II, 5.6) in Red Rock Canyon. The route is located in a part of the canyon that is not visited very often. Indeed, until a few years ago a heard of wild horses roamed freely in the desert there. Wild burros still make their way across the desert in this area with very little oversight by humans.

It was on this approach that we found it...the skeleton of a wild burro. The bones were a bit scattered, but they were all there. The most spectacular part of the skeleton was the skull, bleached white by the desert sun. It was an incredible find.

My friend indicated that he thought that he could sell the skull on Ebay for a fair bit of money. I didn't feel comfortable with this. Finding that skeleton made our day. Ultimately, we decided that it was best to leave the skull for the next visitor. We decided that the experience of finding something like that was one of the values of playing in the mountains.

A Burro Skull found in the shadow of Windy Peak in Red Rock Canyon
Photo by Jason Martin


When we left the skull, we were adhering to the fourth of the seven principals of Leave No Trace, Leave What you Find. The following text about this principal is from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics website:

Minimize Site Alterations

Leave areas as you found them. Do not dig trenches for tents or construct lean-tos, tables, chairs, or other rudimentary improvements. If you clear an area of surface rocks, twigs or pine cones, replace these items before leaving. On high impact sites, it is appropriate to clean up the site and dismantle inappropriate user-built facilities, such as multiple fire rings and constructed seats or tables. Consider the idea that good campsites are found and not made.

In many locations, properly located and legally constructed facilities, such as a single fire ring, should be left. Dismantling them will cause additional impact because they will be rebuilt with new rocks and thus impact a new area. Learn to evaluate all situations you find.

Avoid Damaging Live Trees and Plants

Avoid hammering nails into trees for hanging things, hacking at them with hatchets and saws, or tying tent guy lines to trunks, thus girdling the tree. Carving initials into trees is unacceptable. The cutting of boughs for use as sleeping pads creates minimal benefit and maximum impact. Sleeping pads are available at stores catering to campers.

Picking a few flowers does not seem like it would have any great impact and, if only a few flowers were picked, it wouldn't. But, if every visitor thought "I'll just take a few", a much more significant impact might result. Take a picture or sketch the flower instead of picking it. Experienced campers may enjoy an occasional edible plant, but they are careful not to deplete the surviving vegetation or disturb plants that are rare or are slow to reproduce.

Leave Natural Objects and Cultural Artifacts


Natural objects of beauty or interest such as antlers, petrified wood, or colored rocks add to the mood of the backcountry and should be left so others can experience a sense of discovery. In National Parks and some other areas it is illegal to remove natural objects.

The same ethic is applicable to cultural artifacts found on public land. Cultural artifacts are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. It is illegal to remove or disturb archeological sites, historic sites, or artifacts such as pot shards, arrowheads, structures, and even antique bottles found on public lands.

Ironically -- as stated above -- even trash that has been left for over fifty years could be considered a cultural artifact. Imagine the remains of a mining operation that are hundreds of years old or the vestiges of an old pioneer settlement...these items develop value by staying where they are. Indeed, in some National Parks it's actually illegal to pick up items that are over fifty years old.

Leave What You Find wasn't designed for outdoor educators to wag their fingers at people with, but instead was designed to give people an opportunity to relish in an outdoor environment that hasn't been impacted by modern people. Finding beautiful plants, beautiful trees, beautiful rocks, beautiful animals, beautiful artifacts and beautiful vistas are one of the main reasons that we visit the outdoors. If everybody takes a bit of that a way, there will be nothing left to look at...

--Jason D. Martin