Tuesday, March 28, 2017

How Those Bolts Got There...

The Canadian guide, Mike Barter, put up the following video on bolt placement. This is a rather rudimentary look at bolting. He gives the basics so that you know how that bolt actually got there, but there is a great deal more to placing bolts.

The best way to learn how to place a bolt properly is to work with an experienced bolter on replacing old bolts. This process will allow you to see where others have made mistakes. Understanding the most basic bolting mistakes is a great way to avoid making such mistakes.

The unfortunate reality is that most bolts are placed improperly. The fortunate reality is that most of these bolts that were placed improperly only have minor mistakes in their placement that make them unlikely to pull out most of the time. It's incredibly lucky that more people aren't injured or killed every year from poorly placed bolts.

If you decide to start bolting, it's important to do it right. Don't go out there and "just-figure-it-out." Seek out advice and guidance first...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, March 27, 2017

Training for the West Buttress of Denali

Sunrise over Denali (A. Stephen)
The West Buttress of Denali is definitely one of the most classic mountaineering routes up one of the most iconic mountains in the world.  From the beautiful position deep in the rugged Alaska Range to the chance to tag the tallest mountain in North America, an expedition to Denali is in no way easy, but the rewards vastly outweigh the effort.  I’ve guided the route three times, and I know from experience that nothing can fully prepare you for the West Buttress, but getting in good shape, and exercising your “suffering threshold” can help get you ready.  Here are some pages out of my training regimen for the Great One.

(A. Stephen)
Cold Weather

I think most experienced Alaska Range climbers would agree that you never really know what you are going to get.  As far as conditions and weather are concerned, the best thing you can do is try to have no expectations.  You can learn about trends in the weather, and conditions on the glacier via word of mouth or the internet, but considering that the average guided West Buttress trip takes 18-21 days, there is much that can happen once you’re fully committed.  An adage I find myself using a lot is that it is either “freeze or fry” out there- there is no middle ground.  While being too hot can be an issue, for most people being too cold is much more formidable.  You can train yourself to function in the cold pretty easily, however.  If you live in a cold-weather winter climate, go camping!  

Functioning in the cold isn’t ever too pleasant, but by gaining some experience with it you can gain the mental fortitude to make it work.  See one of my previous POSTS for some winter camping advice.  

If you don’t have access to a cold winter climate, one exercise that will help increase your cold threshold is to put your hands in ice water until you can’t stand it anymore, then try doing various activities such as tying knots, knitting, cooking dinner, etc.  This exercise is pretty limited however; the best thing you can do is either head to a cold climate for a winter camping excursion (at least one!).

Fellow Institute guide Nate Furman checking out the view on the upper
 mountain (A. Stephen)
Physical Training

As far as physical exertion goes, you should expect to carry packs weighing up to 70 lbs, while hauling a sled loaded with up to 80 lbs of gear.  Fortunately most programs will work off of a double carry system wherein the majority of days up to 16,000ft will only require carrying a fraction of that weight (an average of 50 lbs).  While the lower half of the route is at a fairly moderate pitch, the upper half can be quite steep, requiring precise footwork and a steady pace at altitude in order to stay warm.  No day's gain is more than around 3000ft in elevation, but climbers should be prepared to be moving 2 or 3 days in a row in between rest days.  I have tried to ask most of the guests I’ve had on the West Buttress what training program they used to get in shape.  I’ve heard everything from pulling tires around the cul-de-sac to a steady diet of mountaineering and backpacking to “nothing in particular.”   What we generally tell people at the Institute is that any regular physical activity focusing on cardio is decent, but there are some specific activities that are better than others.

Climbers using french cramponing technique to ascend a steep hill
with loaded sleds (A. Stephen)
One of the best things you can do to train is hiking with a weighted pack.  If you can find a hike in your area that steadily gains 3000ft in 3 or 4 miles, this is an ideal place to train.  Start by hiking the trail with very little weight or none at all.  I try to carry most of my weight in water, that way I can dump it out at the top and save my knees on the descent.  Every week, add a little bit at a time (no more than a 5% increase per week) until you have reached up to 70 lbs.  The rigors of pulling a sled involve muscles that even experienced climbers aren’t used to using, but if you can hike for 5 or 6 miles gaining 3000 ft of elevation or more in 4 hours without getting totally worked, this will be sufficient to develop the extra strong back and leg muscles needed to contend with an weighted and unruly sled.  The other benefit to hiking with a heavy pack as training is that it helps you prepare your mental muscles for carrying a heavy pack day after day.  Try to do the hike 3 times a week, with adequate rest days in between.  As with any training program, make sure you listen to your body and only attempt the hike when you are feeling fully rested.  You can get more details on creating a successful training program from a great book by former Institute employee and prolific climber Steve House, entitled “Training For The New Alpinism.” 

"Training for the New Alpinism", by Steve House and Scott Johnson is by far the best training manual I've come across.  Unlike others in its genre, it isn't too heavy on technical jargon, and written in a way that laymen can understand.  While it is written with the cutting edge, high-altitude athlete in mind, the book is very helpful for the basic level alpinist as well, and the training plans and exercises outlined are easily transferred for easier objectives (such as the West Buttress) than Steve House and company attempt.  Picking up a copy of this book should definitely be the first step for the prospective Denali climber.

The West Buttress also requires a decent amount of upper body and core strength.  I recommend doing a separate routine for each, twice a week.  Again, start slow (1 set per session, and add reps per week)!  You aren’t going for max strength here, instead building endurance for the long haul (up the section of fixed lines that is!).  The routines I use can be found in “Training For The New Alpinism,”  or many variations can be found online- but try to find a mountaineering-specific one.

Psyched climbers on the summit of Denali (A. Stephen)


One of the benefits of spending the extended time required for a double-carry strategy on the West Buttress is that it allows most people a chance to acclimatize as much as possible before we head to the upper mountain.  By doing “double-carries” (ferrying loads higher on the mountain while returning to a lower camp to sleep), you can maximize your acclimatization time.  So, theoretically, you can just show up in Talkeetna without getting any acclimatization experience.  

In fact, unless you are consistently living at 10,000ft, there really isn’t much you can do that will gain you the high altitude experience needed, since any acclimatization built through periods at altitude quickly disappears upon returning to sea-level.  The best thing you can do to be ready for high altitude is to make sure you are in good cardiovascular shape.  Supplementing your weighted pack training with an activity such as swimming, running, or biking is a great way to increase your cardio and lung capacity.  I find mountaineering-specific benefit in trail running, as you are not only building cardio fitness, but also training your leg muscles to handle stress.  I repeat: start slow and don’t overdo it!  Listen to your body first and foremost; it is always better to skip training days if you still feel tired than overdo it and risk injury.

Heading up the iconic ridgeline between 14k and 17k camps in less than
splitter conditions (A. Stephen)
Mountaineering Experience

An expedition to the Alaska Range, whether guided or not, should never be attempted without at least a basic level of mountaineering knowledge or experience.  The Range is home to some huge glaciers and unforgiving terrain.  Walking and climbing in crampons, ice-axe arrest, roped travel, and crevasse-rescue techniques should all be very familiar to the prospective West Buttress climber.  There is no substitute for actual glaciated travel here in my opinion.  Basic mountaineering routes on any of the Cascade volcanoes are great pre-requisites, and my favorite has to be Mt Baker, where you can get a wide variety of easily-accessible training and climbing in.  By far the best way to gain specific experience for the West Buttress is to take the Denali Prep Course offered by the Institute, which will provide broad mountaineering instruction, as well as winter camping and backcountry travel skills.

Fruits of the labor: A climber enjoying the view from 17k (A. Stephen) 
Peak season is fast approaching for climbing the West Buttress, so if you are planning on heading north, now is the time to make sure you are in the best shape possible. I highly recommend picking up a copy of “Training for the New Alpinism” and entering into the training program the book outlines. If you have any specific questions, or would like help designing a program that tailors to your specific goals and time constraints, feel free to contact usat the Institute.

-Andy Stephen, AAI Instructor and Guide

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lowering from a Loaded Belay Plate

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 Jeff Ward, demonstrates two techniques to lower a climber from a loaded autoblocking device (belay plate).

Following is a quick breakdown of the points made.

Technique 1 - Rocking the carabiner
--Good for lowering short distances
--Need an active break hand

Technique 2- Redirect the plate with a thin sling
--Better for slightly longer distance lowering
--Need hands free backup for break strand

There is actually a third technique that he didn't show. One can put a nut tool or the nose of a carabiner into the small hole on many of these devices and crank it backwards. This will allow the device to open. But like the first technique, it will be important to have an active break hand.

--Jason D.  Martin

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 3/23/17

Desert Southwest:

--The Las Vegas Review Journal is reporting that, "Save Red Rock, in an effort to halt progress on a proposed development near the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, has accused the Clark County Commission of violating open meeting laws. Save Red Rock attorney Justin Jones made the allegation in a counterclaim filed in Clark County District Court on Monday. It’s the latest development in an ongoing lawsuit between the environmental nonprofit, the County and mining company Gypsum Resources, which wants to build 5,025 homes on Blue Diamond Hill." To read more, click here.

--Red Rock Rendezvous is a world-class climbing event. There will be climbing instruction, competitions, slideshows, games and parties. This is one event that just gets better every year. AAI guides will be there to support the event and will be available for guided climbs or instructional programs both before and after the Red Rock Rendezvous. To learn more, click here.


--The Associated Press is reporting that, "The body of a climber missing on Longs Peak has been found. Rocky Mountain National Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson says the body of the 39-year-old man from Thornton was discovered by searchers on Sunday and flown down by helicopter." To read more, click here.

--The Gazette is reporting that "a 48-year-old Colorado Springs woman who fell while skiing on Pikes Peak died Sunday, the Teller County Sheriff's Office said, the latest death on a mountain whose steep chutes, ice and avalanches can make it extremely dangerous even for experts. Rachel A. Dewey, a middle school social studies teacher with Banning Lewis Ranch Academy and adjunct professor at Pikes Peak Community College, was skiing in an area known as Little Italy Couloir near Glen Cove with her husband and three teenage sons Sunday morning when she lost control and fell about 1,000 feet, the Sheriff's Office said." To read more, click here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Finger Board Excercises

The Climbing Movement Essential Training Series on Youtube is kind of awesome. The series is composed of a number of well produced videos that focus on different aspects of training for climbing.

In this particular video, the fingerboard is shown. The workout they describe is really good, but leaves one thing out. You should always, always warm up before using a fingerboard. I have definitely hurt myself on those things...

This is a power and endurance workout. The idea is simple. Create a thirty move sequence with clipping as one move.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, March 20, 2017

Climbing Class and Grade

One of the most confusing elements for a new climber is how the climbing class and grade systems work in the United States. Many individuals go to the rock gym and feel like they understand what a 5.7 feels like, but seldom understand where that grade came from. Many wonder why it's not simply a 2 or a 3 instead of a 5.7.

In North America we use the Yosemite Decimal System to define the class of a climb. This system provides a class number and then a specific grade. Following is a breakdown of the classes:

Class 1 - Hiking on a maintained trail.
Class 2 - Easy scrambling. Some may occasionally need their hands.Class 3 - Moderate scrambling. Hands may be employed more often.
Class 4 - Easy climbing. Hands are used all the time. Many will climb at this level without a rope.
Class 5 - Where real rock climbing begins. Technical equipment is employed at this level.

At Class 5 we add a decimal and a number to the system. Periodically a plus or a minus will be used in conjunction with the class identification (i.e. 5.6+ or 5.8-). Once the system hits 5.10, a letter grade is added. There are four letter grades before the number grade changes. (i.e. 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.11a, 511b...). Following is a breakdown of this system;

5.0-5.6 - Beginner level climber
5.7-5.9 - Intermediate level climber
5.10a-5.11c - Advanced level climber
5.11d-5.13d - Professional climber
5.14a-5.15b - World class climber

Currently 5.15b is the hardest grade climbed in the world. However, the system is open-ended and one day somebody will climb something that is 5.15c.

Though climbers strive for consistency in grades, this breakdown is often quite subjective. In other words, a 5.10a in Red Rock Canyon might be the equivalent of a 5.8 in Joshua Tree National Park. It's important for climbers to get a feel for how the grades work in every new area they visit before pushing themselves too hard.

Many long rock and alpine climbs also employ a Roman Numeral commitment grade. This grade gives the "average climber" an overview of how long the route will take, how many pitches are technical, how difficult the routefinding on the route might be, and in some cases it will also take into account the remoteness of the climb. The commitment grades are as follows:

Grade I - A very short route requiring one to two hours.
Grade II - A route that takes two to four hours.
Grade III - A route that takes the better part of a day. For slower parties a Grade III will be an all day endeavor.
Grade IV - A route that takes all day. Generally a day that requires in excess of 12 hours. The technical difficulties are more pronounced.
Grade V - Generally takes more that a day. There are clear technical difficulties to be overcome.
Grade VI - A multi-day climb that requires solid technical skills and often requires both aid and free climbing techniques.

As with the Yosemite Decimal System, the commitment grade system is not without problems. It is incredibly subjective. The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite is a Grade VI. When it was first climbed in 1958, it took 45 days. The speed record is currently under three hours and many parties complete the route in a day. So the question must then be asked, what is an "average" climber? How should these grades be set? Most guidebook authors will look for some kind of consensus. The real average party on the Nose still takes about four days. As such, the Grade VI will remain for the time being.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, March 17, 2017

To Wag or Not to Wag...

In many climbing areas and mountaineering destinations around the country, Wag Bags are required.

What's a Wag Bag?

A Wag Bag is a simple system for human waste disposal in the backcountry. These are essentially sanitary bags for human waste removal. They're not complex and there's no mystery. They're plastic bags that you poop in.

Wag Bags are a brand name. These are actually waste bags. And there are several brands on the market, including Biffy Bags and Restop.

Access to places like Mount Rainier, Mount Whitney and the desert are threatened by an overabundance of human waste. In some of these locations you are required to use a Wag Bag or the equivalent. Of course, part of the pack-it-in pack-it-out philosophy is not just using such a bag, but also bringing it back out with you. These areas are also threatened by an overabundance of used and discarded Wag Bags.

Timmy O'Neil is often considered the "funniest man in climbing." A few years ago, Timmy put together the following video about wag bags in the Utah desert.

--Jason D. Martin