Monday, June 26, 2017

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

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

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Trip Report: Mt. Baker Ski Descent

I love those rare moments when you see an activity that sets your imagination alive and you say to yourself, “I want to do that.” It is the inspiration that drives most of us to start along the path to become climbers, skiers and skilled outdoor participants. 

 In June of 1985, during staff training for the summer climbing season in the Cascades, ten of us ascended the south side of Mt. Baker. Alan Kearney and Kitty Calhoun slept in late and carried skis to the summit. Long after we had left the summit and were plunge stepping down the mountain, they came sweeping by on perfect corn snow, carving interlacing turns down the Easton Glacier below us until they disappeared from view, popping up a few minutes later as two tiny dots next to our campsite. 

 Both jealous at the ease of their descent and intrigued at the possibilities, I told myself that I would someday acquire the skills and equipment to accomplish the feat of skiing 5,000-feet or more off the summit of a Cascade volcano.

Over thirty-years later and with ski descents of most of the volcanoes of the western states and many seasons of backcounty skiing under my belt, ski mountaineering is now a very popular mountain sport. In June on Mt. Baker, the number of skiers ascending to the top nearly equals the number climbing to the summit. It would have been hard to imagine as I watched the rare sight of Alan and Kitty skiing down the mountain, that I would someday have the opportunity to guide parties on ski descents of Mt. Baker.

In May I was fortunate to guide two skiers on a three day Mt. Baker ski mountaineering trip. It was and exceptional experience for the quality of the skiing and the enjoyment I derived from helping two enthusiastic students learn the skills needed to ascend and ski off of a big mountain like Mt. Baker.

My skiers, Jared and Cindy were a couple with a storybook romance. After a solo voyage across the Pacific in his 30-foot sailboat, Jared met Cindy a few hours after making landfall in Hawaii. Cindy was a French woman on a week holiday. The Seattle residents have been married two years and share a love of the mountains, sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter. They were experienced winter campers and skilled skiers and wanted to take those skills into the alpine for new adventures.

Jared and Cindy, loaded up and excited for an adventure on the mountain.

Leaving the Grouse Creek Drainage and ascending the Coleman to High Camp

We spent day one, completing the pre-trip meeting and packing, driving to the trailhead and on the long climb to our high camp at the Black Buttes. The forecast for the three-day trip was not positive for an ascent of the mountain. Clouds, cold temps and the occasional snow squall backed up the forecast of mixed cloud and occasional snow. Cindy and Jared hunkered down in a pyramid tent while I pitched nearby in my first light and rested easily that night behind our snow walls.

 Jared and Cindy at our high camp after the second day attempt to reach the summit.

Day two was spent in a white ascending to Coleman Saddle and back to camp after giving up on an ascent of the mountain without visibility. The conditions gave us the opportunity to work on white out navigation, roped glacier travel and hazard evaluation. The skiing was excellent, 2-5 inches of fresh cold snow. The storm helped to underscore the importance of visibility when descending alpine terrain. Back at camp, we spent the remaining daylight hours practicing crevasse rescue skills.

At four am on our last morning I poked my head out of the tent in the early light to find a cloudless sky. The upper plug of Mt Baker was dark against the morning horizon. The thermometer read 21 degrees F inside my tent. Our feet crunched the cold snow as we packed excitedly for our departure.

With the help of the previous days skin track to the saddle, we took 90 minutes to reach the bottom of the pumice ridge where we shouldered our skis for the long boot pack to the summit. Roping up at the end of the pumice ridge we short roped to the summit slopes with the normal Roman Wall zig zag boot track. I was pleased to find excellent conditions on the upper face, dense wind buff snow with 5-10 inches of light powder. At the top of the Roman Wall the temperature inversion had us shedding winter layers in the warm sunshine without the normal bone chilling wind rolling over the top. We unclipped the skis from our packs and skinned the final few hundred feet to the summit.

 Top of the Roman Wall after short roping from the Pumice Ridge.

The Broad summit slopes of Mt. Baker.

Clicking into our skis after lunch in the rare warmth of windless Baker summit, we enjoyed the best ski conditions of my long experience with the mountain. Light powder on a wind buff surface on the Roman Wall transitioned to lovely settled powder lower down. A sea of clouds skirted the mountain as we dropped into one of the best ski descents in the Northwest, the long upper face of the Deming Glacier.

Fantastic powder skiing in May at the 8,000 foot level

Back at camp we loaded up our kit and continued down the mountain and out the road to the car. The clouds, so spectacular from above, preserved the cold temps and provided us with good snow all the way to the woods at the bottom of Grouse Creek. As with the best ski descents, walking in ski boots was limited to a five minute tramp down the pavement.

Sometimes those “I want to do that” moments provide a lifetime of satisfying experiences.

 Back at the car after an enjoyable time out.

Back at camp we loaded up our kit and continued down the mountain and out the road to the car. The clouds, so spectacular from above, preserved the cold temps and provided us with good snow all the way to the woods at the bottom of Grouse Creek. As with the best ski descents, walking in ski boots was limited to a five minute tramp down the pavement.

Sometimes those “I want to do that” moments provide a lifetime of satisfying experiences.

-Gregg Oliveri

Monday, June 19, 2017

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

Snow Climbing Techniques: The Butt-Axe Belay

In the past we've run an article about the stomper belay, a snow climbing belay technique.  In the vein of continuing to explore snow climbing belay techniques, we decided that we should spend some time on the butt-axe technique.

No.  Not the buttocks technique...the butt-axe technique. So wipe that smirk off your face!

Seriously, the butt-axe technique is a good secure snow belay for steep terrain.  This is an excellent technique for forty to fifty-degree steep snow.  Part of the reason that it is so good, is that it is extremely fast.

The reason that this is referred to as a butt-axe belay is because after the axe is placed vertically in the snow, and a bite of rope is clipped to the axe, the climber must sit down on the head of the tool.  After he sits, he will kick his heels in to create a better snow seat on top of the axe.

The climber is generally tied in directly to the end of the rope.  He measures one to two feet of rope out from his harness and then clips it into the head of the axe.  Once he's done this, he can sit down on it.  A loop of rope is created coming from his harness to the axe.  This loop becomes a new belay loop.

In the following picture you can see the loop coming out from the climber's knot to a carabiner with a munter-hitch on it.  The rope then contours back underneath him to the axe.

In the preceding picture, the climber is using a munter-hitch to belay.  It would also be possible to belay from the loop with a device.

The butt-axe belay is super fast, super simple, and super effective.  But like the other techniques described here, it's best to experiment with this belay on low-angle terrain with minimal consequences before employing it in a real setting.  You will want to know exactly how well this works in different kinds of snow prior to putting it to the test in the field.

Snow is one of the most variable mediums that we climb.  It constantly changes, providing us with many different experiences throughout the season.  The more techniques you have in your quiver, the more effective a snow climber you'll be!

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 6/15/17


--There are some closures in Squamish. See below:

Click to Enlarge

--The Everett Herald is reporting that, "Researchers from two Texas universities plan to visit the Big Four Ice Caves this summer to study hikers’ risky behavior and how it might be averted. Options could include rerouting or redesigning the end of the trail, which draws tens of thousands of visitors each year. Posts on social media show that hikers already have been adventuring up into the shadow of Big Four Mountain this spring. A snow field stretches out around massive mounds of snow, ice and avalanche debris where the caves usually form, in a gully on the north side of the mountain. Snowmelt and warm air start to hollow out caverns as the weather heats up. The caves have not yet formed this year." To read more, click here.


--It appears that there's been a rockfall incident on the El Portal Road in Yosemite:

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--There was another big first on El Capitan this week. Leah Pappajohn and Jonathan Fleury became the first people to climb it naked... To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--Outside magazine and many others are reporting that, "On Monday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recommended that President Trump reduce the size of the controversial Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah, which Barack Obama created in December during the final days of his presidency. If Trump acts on the recommendation, the move to reduce the monument will almost certainly end up in court." To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--Here's a fun little article about some of the stupid things people do in our National Parks...

--SNews reprinted a scathing note from Jeremy Jones (Jones Snowboards and Protect Our Winters) to President Trump. The letter deals with climate change and the the lack of leadership on this issue by the United States. Jeremy asks, "what will we tell our kids?" To read the letter, click here.

--After a whole bunch of back-and-forth, American climbers have confirmed that the Hillary Step is actually gone. To read more, click here.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Route Profile: Aiguille de I'M - North Ridge

The Aiguille de I'M is an odd feature in Boston Basin in the North Cascades National Park. Often referred to as "The M," this feature actually looks like an "M." Found just south of the Torment Forbidden Traverse, the small peak splits Boston Basin from Torment Basin, with the Taboo Glacier on the west side and the Unnamed Glacier on the east...

Aiguille de I'M
(Click to Enlarge)

The Aiguille de I'M has two named routes on it. The first is the South Ridge, a cool 5.6 romp up an exposed ridge. And the second is the North Ridge, a 5.5 exposed ridge line.

(Click to Enlarge)

Approach: Approach as for Forbidden Peak in Boston Basin (see Selected Climbs in the Cascades, Volume I) and camp at either the lower or the upper bivy sites. From the bivy, make your way up toward the Forbidden Gully or the Cat Scratch Gullies (the two options commonly used to access Forbidden Peak.) Traverse toward the notch to the right of the North Ridge of Aiguille de I'M.

Classic Sharp Ridge Climbing on "The M."

Route: From the notch make three or four fourth class pitches to the base of a tower. Make a final forty-foot 5.5. pitch to the top of the tower. It is possible to climb further, but not recommended as the true summit looks like it's about to topple over.

A cllimber cruising up the sharp ridge.

Working up the Summit Tower. 

Looking back on the ridge from the summit tower.

Descent: Make one forty-foot rappel and then reverse the ridge climb.

The North Ridge is a very cool ridge line. It can easily be done as a half-day climb from Boston Basin. And it is far less committing than almost anything else in the Basin since it is so short.

There are dozens of these little gems in the Cascades that are often missed. The M is well worth your time...

--Jason D. Martin