Friday, November 28, 2014

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 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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 11/27/14


--The American Alpine Institute shop now has Bellingham Mountain Rescue Council calendars for sale!

--Permits to cut Christmas Trees are now available in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. To learn more, click here.


--Former AAI Guide Chantel Astoriga, continues to get after it on the big stone. She recently made the first sub-24-hour female ascent of the Nose on El Capitan. To read more, click here.

--World class free-soloist Alex Honnold recently responded to the loss of his sponsorship from Clif Bar in an editorial to the New York Times. Cedar Wright also responded in an article in Men's Journal. To read the article, click here.

--This past year has been a busy one for the Mono County Sheriff Search and Rescue (SAR) Team. The all-volunteer team “dedicated to saving lives” has responded to 31 callouts in 2014. These incidents involved 41 subjects; all but one was visitors to the Eastern Sierra and Mono County. These incidents also included 15 searches and 19 rescues that resulted in over 275 volunteer team hours spent in the field. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--Thanksgiving weekend is considered one of the busiest weekends of the year in the desert. If you're reading this, you're probably not out there...yet. If you're headed out, make sure to have a backup plan for camping if the campgrounds are all full.

--Thanksgiving is one of the busiest times of year for Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The BLM is warning that there may be parking issues or even occasional closures to deal with the crowds. To read more, click here.

--Due to overpopulation in and around Zion National Park, state biologists have been capturing desert bighorn sheep and releasing them into less populated areas since the early 1970s. To see a video about this activity, click below. To read more, click here.


--Searchers have recovered the body of a Colorado man who was reported missing after he told friends he planned to climb the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--A 28-year old-woman was killed in a climbing fall in the Gunks when her foot slipped at the bottom of a route she was leading. She was approximately 20-feet up and had not placed any gear yet. To read more, click here.

--A cross-country skier was rescued earlier this week near West Yellowstone, Montana. The 17-year-old female had twisted her knee and needed to be extracted by Search and Rescue. To read more, click here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

That Thing Called Twitter

When I first heard about Twitter, I thought it was dumb.

Outdoor social media guru, Sara Lingafelter, (also known as rock climber girl, after her extremely popular blog, came to visit us in 2009. At that time she introduced us to the art of tweeting.

We started slow.  Really slow.

But we got some tweets out there are started to get a few followers.

And in an email to the guides, I even wrote, "we're on twitter now.  So if you're interested, check out @AlpineInstitute, but if you don't know what Twitter is, don't worry about it.  It's kinda' stupid.

My initial response was more due to the fact that some people use Twitter to announce things to the world that don't matter.  I could care less if your grocery cart has a squeeky wheel.  And I definitely don't care if the person next to you on the bus smells bad...

But then I discovered that Twitter can be fun and useful.  This became especially true when we discovered some of the best "Twitterbugs" out there.

Here is a list of some of our favorites:

Climbing Gear Shops:

@AAI_Shop - Yep, that's our gear shop, chocked full of equipment specialists that work with our guides to understand the strengths and weaknesses of every type of outdoor equipment that we use!

Climbing, Skiing, and Mountaineering News:

The following is a list of the best of the best when it comes to climbing and skiing news:

@AmericanAlpine, @AlpinistMag, @ClimbingMag, @SkiingMag, @OutsideMagazine, @YosemiteNews, @rockandice, @GrippedMagazine, @BackpackerMag, @AccessFund, @MtRescueAssoc, @UIAAMountains, @supertopo

National Park,  National Forest and BLM News and Information:

@NPCA -- This is the National Parks Conservation Association. They provide a great overview of National Parks issues.

Here are some other important twitterfeeds from land managers that regularly concern climbers and skiers:

@DenaliNPS, @JoshuaTreeNP, @BLM_Nevada, @GrandTetonNPS, @YosemiteNPS, @SequioaKingsNPS, @WrangellStENPS, @AlaskaNPS, @NCascadesNPS, @OkaWenNF, @BlackCanyonNPS, @ZionNPS, @ParksCanada

Hodgepodge of Others that We Like:

@Jetboil, @ArcTeryx, @OspreyPacks, @MtneersBooks, @ConservationNW, @SharpEndBooks, @MetoliousClimb, @CascadeClimbers, @UCMAG, @Petzl, @AMGAUSA, @ExtremeSurvival, @RichLouv, @NWF, @Wilderness, @PowderMagazine, @5Ten, @K8tlevy, @SARblip, @backpacknews, @ChildrenNature, @leavenotrace, @TetonGravity, Friends_NWAC, @OurayIcePark, @BlackDiamondUSA

Guilty Pleasure Twitterbugs:

We have one really great guilty pleasure Twitterfeed:

@DeathStarPR - These guys are really funny. They are supposed to be the PR department for the Death Star.  Yeah, that Death Star, the one from Star Wars.  Here are a few of my favorite tweets:

Kids, if a man in a brown bathrobe who lives in a cave offers to show you "the ways of the Force," DON'T GO. #JediAwarenessWeek

Tyler Perry is the highest paid man in Hollywood. See, this is why you guys don't deserve to not get exploded.

Nothing in life is free. Unless you can crush people's windpipes with your mind. Then people are strangely generous.

 We didn't destroy Alderaan, we created the Alderaan Memorial Asteroid Park.  #DeathStarCares

So that's how I waste my day.  How about you guys?  What am I missing that's consistently informative and interesting for the climber/skier...?

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, November 24, 2014

Non-Event Feedback Loops

Many climbing and ski mountaineering accidents are the result of human error. There are a number of types of human error, but the most disconcerting and common type results from a non-event feedback loop.

--I've been doing it this this way for years and nothing bad has ever happened.

--We skied the slope all day and it was fine. How were we to know that it would slide?

--The boot-track went right under the ice cliff. I just went the way everybody else went.

The thinking process behind non-event feedback is predicated on the following belief: Nothing bad happened last time and nothing bad happened to someone else; therefore, nothing bad will happen this time to me. The psychology of non-event feedback is complex, but its very existence leads to following reality:

The crag that you climb the most, the slope that you ski the most, the mountain that you've been up the most times...these are the most dangerous places that you will ever go.

Non-event feedback takes on a new dimension with group dynamics. A beginner may follow a competent leader up a mountain. The leader may look at the conditions and decide that they're safe. If the leader doesn't go through his entire thinking process, the beginner may then make the assumption that the conditions are always safe.

Avalanche research indicates that the likelihood of skiers tackling a dangerous slope increases dramatically after one person successfully skis the slope first. In other words, once someone sees someone else get away with something, they subconsciously believe that they can get away with it too.

The only way to avoid getting stuck in non-event feedback loops is to constantly question yourself. Is this safe today? Am I just following the leader? And lastly, am I responding to the conditions as they are or as I wish they were?

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

Last year, Cedar Wright and Alex Honnold shared with us an adventure with possibly as many laughs and it did climbs during their biking and climbing epic, "Sufferfest."  Well, they are back at it again - this time with desert towers.  "Sufferfest 2" looks to be just as awesome!

Sufferfest 2: Desert Alpine, AKA 34 Pieces of Choss and 5 Horrendous Life Experiences, Starring Alex Honnold and Cedar Wright - Trailer from Cedar Wright on Vimeo.

Last week we showed DPS Skis' first foray into cinema, and it was no disappointment.  This week brings the second episode in their Shadow Campaign.  "Whitewash"  features Zach Giffon, Olaf Larsson, Piers Solomon, and some deep, deep Mt. Baker backcountry.  Keep up the good work DPS!

The Shadow Campaign // Whitewash from DPS SKIS on Vimeo.

While most of the Northeast is getting pummeled by the massive lake-effect snow storm, I am sure lots of folks are going to be out this weekend enjoying some amazing powder.  But I found this video of a couple enjoying the storm in a different way and had to share it!

WNY - Blizzard Surfing from Kevin Cullen on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend! - James

Friday, November 21, 2014

Book Review: Cold Wars by Andy Kirkpatrick

A few weeks ago we reviewed Andy Kirkpatrick's amazing book, Psychovertical. That piece humorously chronicles Kirkpatrick's obsession with climbing. That first piece was so well-written that I quickly picked up Kirkpatrick's second book, Cold Wars.

One might ask how an individual who is approximately forty-years old could write an autobiography and then follow it up with yet more autobiographical material. This would be a legitimate question if we were talking about a politician or a musician or an actor. Your every day person worships these types of  people because they appear to be doing something with their lives. Those who live for outdoor adventure are doing something with their lives every day...and it's almost always interesting. So Kirkpatrick's second book is just as engaging as his first. But he addresses this question nonetheless...

Psychovertical was a book about a man who is struggling: against the wall, against himself, but who wins through. The story is a hundred thousand word answer to the question: 'Why do you climb?'

Cold Wars asks a different question: 'What is the price?'

Kirkpatrick is married and has two children. The routes that he chooses are almost universally "high end" and are incredibly dangerous. He has a penchant for winter alpinism and for second ascents of serious lines. He aslo sometimes goes months without climbing. Cold Wars is a humorous and often tender book about the life of a climber and about what we give up to be in the mountains. Kirkpatrick regularly writes about the strange irony that many climbers feel. When they are at home, they can't wait to be away. But, when they are in the mountains, they wish they were home.

We've all felt this way at one point or another. In the following passage we see this tension as Kirkpatrick pines over his young daughter while sitting before one of those incredible views at one of those incredible moments that only climbers in the high mountains get to experience.

'I can't get Ella crying out of my head. Every time I do anything I keep thinking that I have to get home to her, that she means more to me than this.'

I switched on my phone, to see if I had any messages. It beeped.


I showed it to Ian.

'Maybe you're falling out of love with climbing,' said Ian, switching off his headtorch to save the battery as the sky towards Chamonix turned red, and the rising sun lit up the spires of the Aiguilles, one by one.

'I really hope so,' I said.

While this book appears to be more serious with a heavier question than the simplistic "why do you climb," it is still chalked full of Kirkpatrick's humorous climbing anecdotes. Indeed, as this book is structured more anecdotally than his first book, it could be argued that it is a funnier tome. Here is one great example of an experience the author had in the Alps shortly after losing a ski.

Now I was really in trouble, as the snow was too deep to walk in, and skiing on a single board was beyond me.

I took off my remaining ski and sat on it bum-shuffling down the slope, knowing full well that there had never been a more pathetic sight in the history of ski mountianeering. To make matters worse, a French guide swooshed down to me, looking like skiing's answer to Mikhail Baryshnikov, asking if I was alright.

'I'm British,' I said looking at the floor, trying hard not to burst into tears.

'I understand,' he said, no doubt embarrassed for me, and then skied off. 

Perhaps part of the reason I enjoy Kirkpatrick's writing so much is because I recognize myself in it.  He is absolutely obsessed with climbing, as am I. He loves writing, but hates doing it, as do I. He has a family that keeps him grounded, as do I. And he lives in two worlds, the first is a world where he has a wife and two kids and they all live normal lives and do normal things. The second is a world where he "hangs it out," on high end alpine climbs and extreme big walls. I don't generally push the bounds of safety too far, but a few times a year I definitely push the limits. As a forty-two year-old mountain guide with a family, I really understand and appreciate his work. And I think that anybody who spends a lot of time on the sharp end and feels like they have something to lose will understand his writing too.

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 11/20/14


--Searchers say they have recovered the body of a climber who fell from a mountain this week. Benjamin Newkirk’s body was discovered Sunday, after a multi-day search complicated by extreme weather. The 39-year-old from Bend was on Middle Sister, a 10,052-foot volcanic peak in central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness, with another climber Wednesday night when he fell about 900 feet off the mountain’s southeast ridge. To read more, click here.

--Prosecutors have dropped an arson charge against a man who lit a backburn during the Carlton complex fires and reduced charges against another. A third man is headed to trial Dec. 2 for the fire he allegedly set. To read more, click here.

--NPR produced an excellent story on the effects of glacial loss in the North Cascades last week. To read the story, click here.


--A new bathroom has been constructed in the Buttermilks. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

A Climber ascends "The Eiger" on Angel Food Wall in Red Rock Canyon.

--Next week is considered one of the busiest weeks of the season from desert climbing. If you are traveling to a place like Red Rock Canyon, Joshua Tree or Smith Rock, make sure that you have a plan b for camping and for climbing. It's not the best week to get on the most popular climb in a given area.

--A lost hiker was rescued from Joshua Tree National Park last week. To read more, click here.


--Rescuers are searching for a Colorado man three days after he failed to return from a climbing trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. To read more, click here.

-- 2014 will be the new benchmark for summer tourism in Colorado. Lodges saw record occupancy and were able to push room rates higher. And visitors spent more, with nearly every resort community posting record sales-tax revenues in May, June, July and August. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--AAI Guide Aiden Loehr recently had a training article published by Men's Journal. Beyond being a climber and guide, Aiden is also a pilot and professional mountain trainer. To read the article and to get some tips to train for your next big climb, click here.

--Cliffbar has fired all it's athletes who BASE jump, who slackline and who freesolo. Athletes include Steph Davis, Dean Potter and Alex Honnold. To read more, click here. Cliffbar responded to the controversy with this letter.

--A trio of climbers ticked a new mixed route in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana in October. They climbed 2,000 feet over 13 pitches, finding excellent conditions. To read more, click here.