Friday, November 15, 2019

Fixed-Point Belay Techniques

There has been a lot of talk in the industry lately about fixed-point belay techniques. Many guides are beginning to employ these techniques on ice climbs and on sketchy alpine climbs.

Essentially a fixed-point belay is a lead belay directly off the anchor, as opposed to the more standard belay technique of operating a device off one's harness. The idea is that a lead fall simply doesn't impact  the belayer the same way that a lead fall impacts him or her in a normal setting.

At a guide training in 2008, a number of our guides experimented with this technique, finding mixed results.  We found that both a tube style device and a munter-hitch worked well, but not so much for a GriGri.  Assisted locking devices seem to transfer a lot more force into the falling person and without movement in the anchor, this resulted in a painful fall for our leader.

The Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) has put out a video on this particular technique.  It is a long and comprehensive video on the subject, but it is very good. Please see it below:

The French Guide Training organization, ENSA has also put out a comprehensive video:

At a 2014 AMGA training we experimented with this technique some more and decided that using a tube-style device wasn't appropriate at all. The best application appeared to incorporate the use of a munter-hitch.

In the photo above, we built a separate anchor from the anchor the climber was belaying on. We found that when an individual took a leader fall, it was easier to manage if your hands were far away from the munter-hitch. If your hands were close, you got pulled up into the anchor more easily. Additionally, the fall was greater because the anchor moved up substantially before catching the falling climber.

In the photo above the belayer has just held a fall on a fixed-point system. This system with a piece designed specifically to deal with the upward pull was easier to manage.

So why would you use this system?

It is a very guidey thing to do and it does require one to learn a new belay technique, so it doesn't make much sense...unless you're working with significant weight differences in a multipitch setting. If you intend to take children or small teens up a multi-pitch route, a leader fall may be so dramatic that they get pulled into the anchor and let go. This negates that possibility.

And while there aren't that many uses for a fixed-point anchor, it is one of those things that when you need really need it...

 --Jason D. Martin

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 11/14/19


--The Cosley-Houston Route on Colfax Peak is in shape. But beware, it's always thinner and harder in the fall than in the spring...


--Gripped is reporting that, "Jennifer Shedden, 34, of Mammoth Lakes, and Michelle Xue, 22, of Los Angeles, were killed in a rockfall accident while climbing the North Couloir on Red Slate Mountain earlier (last week). Friends reported the two women were overdue and Mono County Search and Rescue sent a team along with a helicopter from the the California Highway Patrol. The women were found midway up a steep couloir at 3,700 metres on Monday. 'Based on observations from both teams, their positioning and lack of response they were presumed deceased.'" To read more, click here. Here's a piece from Rock and Ice about this accident.

--It looks like Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, Kevin Jorgeson and Austin Siadak just completed a new free line El Cap. Check it out.

--Gripped is reporting that, "Belgian climber Seb Berthe has freed The Nose on El Cap after an eight-day push. Climbing with partner Loic Debry." To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

A climber rappels down the Panty Wall.

--It appears that there was an accident on the Panty Wall in Red Rock Canyon over the weekend. It's likely that the climber rappelled off the end of his rope. The Panty Wall has been the site of several rappelling accidents over the years, including two separate accidents that involved guides rappelling off the ends of their ropes. To read more, click here.

--The Desert Sun is reporting that, "as attendance soars at Joshua Tree National Park, plans to ease wait times and add visitor centers on the table." To read more, click here.

--Taking pictures near an edge is extremely dangerous. My rule of thumb is that you should never turn your back to the edge unless you're clipped in, if you're less than a body-length from the edge. Check out this close call at the Grand Canyon.

Colorado and Utah:

--Out There Colorado is reporting that, "A climber took a fall in Clear Creek Canyon over the weekend, on November 9, closing down US 6 while technical rescue crews preformed an extraction between US 40 and Colorado 119. While the condition of the fallen climber was not initially known, the climber was reported to be alert and mobile while on the trip to the hospital. The road reopened following the rescue." To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over: is in trouble. Big Trouble. They tried to sue several companies that used the word "backcountry" in their names, and the outdoor community went nuts... SNEWS probably has the best breakdown of what's happened with the mess. The most recent update from SNEWS is that, "Circulating a letter of apology was the first step. Now, Backcountry CEO Jonathan Nielsen says he is making personal calls and visits to repair relationships with companies hurt in the online retailer's trademark litigation over use of the word 'backcountry.'" To read more, click here.

--Here is another perspective on the debacle. This one looks at it from a "business" perspective.

--NPR is reporting that, "The number of people using goats to pack gear, game and food into the backcountry is rising rapidly, and national forests in at least 10 western states have proposed partial pack goat bans to prevent the spread of pathogens that could prove deadly to the west's iconic populations of bighorn sheep." To read more, click here.

--Elevation Outdoors is running a piece on the Roadless Rule, which is under attack. "Public lands management is almost always a contentious subject, but there are values that Americans overwhelmingly agree upon, at least at their broadest level: We care about conservation, and we care, as well, about opportunities to enjoy the places we all own in common. Despite these shared values, there are actually relatively few tools for land managers to protect these values in tandem. One of the most important–and least known–is the Forest Service’s 2001 Roadless Rule." To read more, click here.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Film Review: The Way Back

In our culture -- the climbing and outdoor culture that is -- there is an amazing appetite for epic adventure stories.  People love films like Seven Years in Tibet, Alive, Lawrence of Arabia, or even less realistic films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Three Kings.

What do all of these films have in common?

In each of them there is a an epic adventure that is uniquely connected to the environment. There is often cultural conflict and usually there is extended travel by difficult means.  These types of films tend strike a cord among outdoor adventurers.  They affect us because we intentionally seek out struggle and strife in far off places.

The Way Back is an absolutely stellar adventure movie.  It is exactly the type of film that engages the outdoor adventurist the most.  The story -- inspired by a true story -- deals with an epic journey, minor cultural conflict and significant wilderness travel.

Janusz, a young Polish officer played by Jim Sturgess, is held for interrogation by the Soviet Secret Police.  When he will not admit to working as a foreign spy, they torture his wife into revealing him as such and send him to a POW camp in Siberia.  Conditions in the camp are absolutely atrocious and Janusz isn't sure that he will survive one year, much less the twenty years of his sentence.

Before long, Janusz creates alliances with a number of other prisoners including the hardened criminal Valka (Colin Farrell), Polish artist Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), a Latvian priest Voss (Gustaf SkarsgĂ„rd), a Pole suffering from night blindness Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), and an accountant from Yugoslavia Zoran (Dragos Bucur). Together the ragtag crew of misfit prisoners escape the prison and lead by Janusz, they begin to travel on foot overland to freedom.  The problem and the central storyline of the movie is that true freedom is nowhere nearby.  The team must travel across Siberia, Mongolia, and Tibet to find freedom in India.  In other words, they must walk 4000 miles through the wilderness including a traverse of both the Gobi Desert and the Himalaya before they can say they truly escaped.

Director Peter Weir hasn't been heavily involved in filmmaking since his 2003 epic, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but he clearly has a love for the adventure genre.  He is also responsible for films like The Mosquito Coast, Witness, and Gallipoli.  Additionally he has been the directoral mind behind dramas such as Dead Poet's Society and the Truman Show.

In The Way Back, one can see a director late in his career with a long filmography as a complete master of his craft. The film is never an edge of your seat thriller, but it is still hard to look away. Weir has created a beautiful adventure that inspires tension from the opening shot to the closing sequence.  This masterful storytelling combined with beautiful natural images keeps the audience thoroughly engaged with the characters throughout every second of the film.

The Way Back is a grand movie on a grand campus about grand people. It is exactly the type of film that you should put on your movies to see list right way...

Following is a trailer for The Way Back:

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, November 11, 2019

Tag Lines for Rappels - Reepschnur Hitch

It is not uncommon for climbers to have to carry two ropes for rappel. Unless you're on a team of three, having an extra line can be heavy. As such, many people elect to use a tag line with a "reepschnur hitch."

The following video from Outdoor Research and the AMGA show how to do this technique...

In review, the process is:

1) Tie a blocker knot and clip it to the single rated climbing rope with a locker.
2) Tie the tag line to the backside of the blocker knot.
3) Thread both ropes through your belay device. You're rappelling on the "main line," but by threading both, you can decrease the amount the tag line gets hung up.
4) At the bottom, Dale clipped the line through his carabiner to help him remember to take out the blocker knot at the bottom of the system.

It should be noted that super skinny tag lines can easily become a tangled mess. It is strongly recommended that you practice this on smaller climbs, before employing it on a large wall where a tangle might get you stuck out in the dark...

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, November 8, 2019

Setting Up an Toprope on a Two-Bolt Anchor

This video, produced by the AMGA and Outdoor Research, covers several techniques that one might use to set-up a toprope.

The techniques included are:

  • Two Draws
  • One Draw, One Locker Draw
  • Pre-Equalized Anchor (Mono-Directional Anchor)
  • Quad
  • Mussey Hooks
  • Pre-Threaded No-Impact Anchor
Check it out:

At the end of the video, it notes that people should not lower off of fixed hardware when toproping. And that if they do wish to lower, then they should lower once. While I generally agree with this, there are certainly some areas where the local ethic allows for toproping off fixed gear. That said, it's important to know if something like that is acceptable before committing to it...

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Route Profile: Johnny Vegas, 5.7, II+

Johnny Vegas is an extremely popular, extremely cool little route that can be found on the lower tier of the Solar Slab Wall in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. This phenomenal 5.6 or 5.7 route (depending on who you talk to) climbs up through three enjoyable pitches, all of which are in a spectacular position.

A father and daughter team low on Johnny Vegas.
Photo by Jason Martin

This is a slightly older route. It was put up in 1994, but didn't make it into a guidebook until 2000. The result is that this super classic line was overlooked for six full years.

In 1999, I was climbing Beulah's Book, a classic 5.9 found just to the left, when I saw a rock jock leading a 5.10 variation to Johnny Vegas. I looked down to see an older man with a very small frame encouraging his much younger partner on. The belayer was none-other than the iconic Red Rock climber, George Uriosite.

A happy climber on the second pitch.
Photo by Jason Martin

George and his ex-wife Joanne were Red Rock pioneers. They were responsible for dozens and dozens of classic lines throughout the park. It was very cool to meet such an important person in the history of Red Rock. And everytime I've run into him since has been just as great.

It was also cool to see those guys on a route that I knew nothing about. So I thought it was important as a Vegas local to get on that thing as soon as possible. The very next day my partner and I returned to the Solar Slab area to make an ascent of Johnny Vegas. And we were incredibly happy that we did.

A climber nearing the top of the route.
Photo by Jason Martin

Since that first time on the route, I've climbed the line dozens and dozens of times. There are a few little things that people should know before sending Johnny Vegas:

  1. Purists will say that the route is four pitches, not three. Indeed, super purists might even call it five pitches. It is three real pitches. Sometimes people make a tiny pitch to attain the base of the route. And there is a long stretch of 5.0 climbing at the top of the route.
  2. Some guidebooks say to rappel this route. It is a rope eating nightmare. It is far better to rappel the nearby Solar Slab Gully.
  3. There are two starts to the bottom of the route. If a party is going very slow on the right hand start, some may elect to pass them on the left.
  4. The bottom of the route goes into the shade in the winter from approximately 10am to noon. When it's cold in the shade, this can make the route very very chilly.

This has become a super popular route. Make sure to get up early!

--Jason D. Martin

Technique: Frogging

Niel Gresham's Masterclass Youtube site is pretty darn good. He has a lot of quick snippets on there about technique that can help nearly anyone improve on the rock. In this particular segment, Neil talks about frogging, the technique where you use the inside of both feet in order to save energy...

--Jason D. Martin