Saturday, February 28, 2009

Weekend Warrior -- Videos to get you stoked!

Well Warriors, another weekend is upon us and I have decided to do something a little different this week.  I decided to mix it up with some other extreme outdoor sports.  I figured that all Weekend Warriors can appreciate beautiful scenery, insane athletes, and a healthy dose of pure adrenaline.  So grab your coffee, hold onto your armchair and use caution if you have high blood pressure, because these will get your blood pumping!

The first video features some very talented mountain bikers flying down dirt trails, defying gravity, and risking serious bodily harm all at the same time.  Enjoy!

If the first video didn't get that heart rate up than this one sure will.  I think that base jumping combined with these "squirrel suits" is the closest that humans have ever come to flying without using any type of motor.  Pure adrenaline and purely incredible.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Carabou Recovery Rock 'n Roll!

AAI just received this email from the Conservation Connection:

This month, more than a year after the original landmark agreement for the highly endangered mountain caribou, the British Columbia government legalized a caribou recovery plan that protects more than 90% of the caribou's best winter habitat from logging and road building. That's more than 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres), an area eight times the size of North Cascades National Park, of globally unique Inland Temperate Rainforest.

The victory comes following years of hard work by Conservation Northwest and our close allies, Wildsight, Forest Ethics, and others in the Mountain Caribou Project. Still needed is careful attention to conservation "IOUs" promised in the original agreement. But today, one of North America's most endangered mammals, the mountain caribou, just became a little less endangered.

Tour Planning and Navigation - Part 1

Tools for Success

Planning a backcountry ski or climbing trip encompasses a wide range of details that can ultimately define the safety and success of any adven
ture into the wild. In the field climbers make countless difficult decisions dealing with route options and safety. Why not be prepared for them with a bomb-proof Tour Plan? Here we will detail the materials needed to get you started.

Details, Details. A USGS 7.5 minute series map is the preferred scale for domestic trips.

The basic sighting compass with adjustable declination, slope meter, sight, mirror, and rulers.

The basic materials for any trip are a good map and compass. Without the ability to interpret them both, route finding would be pretty tricky eh?

We want to have as detailed up to date maps as possible so that major route options and hazards can be easily identified before the trip and found along the way. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) produces multiple series maps covering a vast majority of the United States and parts of other countries. Typically domestic outdoor recreationist use the USGS 7.5 minute scale topographic series maps which offer excellent detail. If traveling in other countries similar map series can be found, some of which will offer even more accurate detail than the maps found in the US, and others well….good luck.

A sighting compass is also one of our most valuable tools in the mountains. Like selecting a new car, make sure your compass has all the options, but not
so many that you will get confused with it. A basic sighting compass with mirror, and adjustable declination arrow will make your orienteering efforts much more accurate especially when triangulating (resection) on unknown locations. Other options that make things plush are a built in slope meter, distance rulers (printed on the base plate), and a magnifier (which I use to ID snow crystals). Prices range from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars, in my experience don’t spend hundreds but get something a little higher end than the one from your 8yr olds outdoor detective kit. You want something with a few more options.

Write in the rain #311 notebook

Tools of the trade. GPS, Altimeter, Map tool, and map…

Brooks Range Map Tool. Sweet!
In the digital age we can use a few more items to make our planning and route finding more efficient. Knowledge and use of basic GPS units, an altimeter, and a map/utm grid tools will help you create pinpoint accurate plans in little time.

Get yourself an altimeter! This can be one of the most useful planning and navigational tools. I also use this item to help forecast weather events by monitoring the barometer/altimeter at camps. Currently the most common wrist top altimeter watch can be found at just about any outdoor retailer and is made by Suunto. You can also look for a really cool large yellow plastic thing on someone’s wrist at your local rock climbing wall. It’s probably an altimeter watch. Ask them “whats your elevation man?” for me…

A GPS unit can make planning, in conjunction with a computer, super easy. Getting acquainted with these sytems can take time but will create a plan quickly and can be printed out at home custom, with a multitude of different mapping programs. When selecting the right program for yourself realize that they all have there limitations, and one user may prefer one over another, most systems create the same product so it is important to ask around and see what other users recommend with the ever changing technology. Personally
I use a basic Garmin GPS unit, in conjunction with the National Geographic TOPO program. This seems to work really well for all of the western US and Alaska. Disclaimer: A GPS is not a replacement for good map reading and compass work! Get really good with your maps.

Now find yourself a Brooks Range ( All –in- One map tool for easy UTM grid reading, and distances on varying scales of maps. This tool incorporates just about all the information you need to formulate an accurate tour plan on almost any type map. Now… put all of this information into a nice weather proof journal. I use the Write in the rain #311 ( type book for all planning, forecasting, and snow science reports. That’s a lot of information! Guess what? You will be super excited to have it when making difficult decisions with your friends!

Have fun!

Where am I? aHH

-- Ben Traxler, AAI Guide

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

North Cascade Highway

AAI just received the following email from the Washington State Department of Transportation:

The preliminary best guess is that we'll be able to start reopening the North Cascades Highway the last week in March or the first week in April.

Our Avalanche Control and Maintenance technicians traveled from the east closure point at Early Winters, west of Mazama 20 miles to Rainy Pass on snowmobiles and a snow cat this morning, assessing the conditions. They encountered overcast skies, 27 degree temperatures and no new snow. Only 4/100ths of an inch of precipitation was recorded in the last 24 hours, and most of that was rain. We expect to be able to free up the personnel and equipment we need for the reopening from Stevens Pass and some of our other facilities by late March or early April, depending on weather, equipment and manpower.

They found only moderate snow depths this year. For example the snow at Washington summit is only 5-1/2 feet deep when it's usually 7 to 9 feet deep. At the same time they found more slides and they’re a different consistency - they look like lava. The slides at Liberty Bell Mtn., just east of Washington Pass are an example: The highway passes under them, and loops back to the east around Spiral Gulch.

The snow is 40-feet deep and 1200-feet wide below LB 2 and 3, but it came down with such force that the same slide covered the highway on the opposite side of the gulch with snow that’s 25-feet deep and 1200 feet wide. Further east in the avalanche chutes in the Cutthroat Ridge zone,some slides were as much as 20 feet deep and 12 to 1500 feet wide. Another anomaly for this season is a 40-foot deep slide near Bridge Creek, between Rainy and Washington Passes. The avalanche crew had never seen a slide there before.

The highway was closed for the season on December 11th. Last spring, the highway reopened on May 1st. Visit the WSDOT FlickR photo page to view pictures from the assessment:

For more information, visit the North Cascades Highway web page:

The official news release with the official scheduled dates and some of the photos should be approved and posted sometime tomorrow. Lets hope that the lava-look avalanches are only a crust and won't take any longer to cut through than normal - a nice, uneventful 4 week clearing effort would be nice - we've had enough "disasters" this winter...!

Film Review: Touching the Void

The following review was first published at Movies Online in 2003. Touching the Void has been available on DVD for nearly six years and may be obtained at any video store. This piece was written for a non-climber audience.

I recently rewatched this film and there is no doubt in my mind, this tremendous documentary still packs a whole lotta' punch!


In the 1993 catastrophe of a film,
Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone scaled vertical rock walls in freezing ice storms wearing nothing but a tank top. In the year 2000, Tom Cruise ascended a steep desert tower without ropes or any other type of climbing gear to protect himself in Mission Impossible 2. And who could forget Chris O'Donell as a nitroglycerin toting rescuer in that ludicrous attempt at a climbing movie called Vertical Limit? Yes, big Hollywood movies which include mountain climbers of any type over the last few years have done little more than to portray ridiculous plots with equally ridiculous characters. So walking into the new independent film Touching the Void was a little frightening. The last thing I needed to see was yet another half-witted actor struggling to remember five word sentences in a mind-numbing action movie.

Touching the Void is anything but a predictable action film. Indeed, the movie is a documentary or a docu-drama, instead of a conventional film and is based on the best-selling memoir by Joe Simpson of the same title. A large percentage of American audiences hear the word documentary and run screaming from the theatre. But this piece is different, the story and the adventure narrative behind it make the film an utterly compelling piece of entertainment.

In 1985, British mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates made a trip to the Peruvian Andes in order to scale the tremendously steep and as yet unclimbed west face of Siula Grande. The pair attacked the mountain using a relatively new style of climbing at the time. They ascended the peak employing an "alpine style." This particular method of climbing essentially indicates that the climbers ascend the mountain in a single push. This is in direct opposition to the rather old school "expedition style" of climbing, where ropes are strung from the bottom of the mountain to the top. The advantage to this latter method is that if something goes wrong, climbers can easily descend the mountain. The disadvantage to this style of climbing is that it takes a very long time to ascend to the summit. An expedition climb might take months, whereas an alpine style climb might take days.

Unfortunately for Simpson and Yates, something did go wrong during their alpine style climb. While descending the mountain Simpson fell and seriously broke his leg. As the men didn't have any means of easily descending the mountain, Yates was forced to lower Simpson down a steep icy slope a few hundred feet at a time. They managed to descend a large portion of the mountain before a second incident occurred, an incident that has become an integral part of modern mountaineering lore...

Without giving too much away, it's enough to know that Simpson and Yates become seperated. We watch Simpson, broken at the bottom of a gaping crevasse, struggling to escape and we watch Yates back in basecamp, racked with guilt and dealing with the belief that his friend is dead. Much of the remaining film focuses on Simpson's battle to survive, while exploring the psycological and emotional trumoil surrounding the utter belief that he is going to die.

It is perhaps this last part of the film which strikes the average non-climbing audience member the most deeply. Existential angst runs through Simpson like blood as he lay dying in a crevasse. He swears, he weeps, and then hedecides that there is no God, that there is only the void. Tom Hanks rotting alone on a deserted island in Castaway never made such philosophical discoveries, nor have countless characters in countless films that were facing a lonely and horrible death. Indeed, it is this element which raises the film beyond a simple documentary about mountain climbers and makes it something more profound. This exploration of the void takes the film to a stage where it becomes a universal look at what it means to be alone and dying.

Director Kevin Macdonald expertly weaves this story together, intercutting interviews of present-day Simpson and Yates with images of the foreboding Peruvian mountain they climbed nearly twenty years ago. Two young actors, Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron are convincingly used to play the parts of these now middle-aged men, making the drama part of the docu-drama all that more intense.

Macdonald has shown a great deal of growth as a filmmaker. His previous Oscar-winning documentary, One Day in September, delved into the terrorist attack on the 1972 Olympics wherein a number of athletes were kidnapped and executed. One Day in September was spliced together using a combination of old footage and interviews in much the same way as this current film, but it never achieves the tightness and fluidity of Touching the Void.

Though Macdonald has put together a fantastic film, it does have a couple of shortcomings. The movie starts with clips of both Yates and Simpson speaking about their endeavor. As a result, before the action really starts, the audience is aware that both of the climbers survived their encounter with nature. This particular element draws back some of the tension which could have been created were the film shot without present day clips of Simpson and Yates speaking.

A secondary issue in the film is its length. At over a hundred minutes the movie begins to drag toward the end. There is a point where the audience knows that Simpson will survive and so for the sake of dramatic tension, Macdonald should have cut about ten minutes off the final scenes of the movie.

When all is said and done, Touching the Void is a powerful and dramatic piece of cinema which will surly go down in history as perhaps one of the best films about mountain climbing ever made. The scripts and the action of obscenely bad climbing movies like Vertical Limit and Cliffhanger have nothing on this movie. The reason they don't is because they are nothing more than fantasy. Joe Simpson and Simon Yates are real people who survived a real life harrowing endeavor.

Indeed, they touched the void...

--Jason D. Martin

February and March Climbing Events

--February 27-March 28 -- DC Metro Area -- Hera Climb 4 Life

--March 6-8 -- Anchorage, AK -- Alaska Ice Climbing Festival

--March 11-12 -- San Francisco -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

--March 12 -- Las Vegas, NV -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

--March 20-22 -- Las Vegas, NV -- Red Rock Rendezvous

--March 20-21 -- Anchorage, AK -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

--March 27-28 -- Bishop, CA -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

Monday, February 23, 2009

Intro To Aid Technique

Free climbing is the technique of ascending a route with equipment and climbing protection, but without directly using that equipment to assist one's ascent. Instead, the equipment is used solely for safety. In direct opposition to this, aid climbing is the direct use of climbing equipment to climb a wall.

A basic aid pitch requires one to place a piece of protection. Once the piece is secure, the climber will clip an etrier or aider to that piece of gear. An etrier (which some people refer to as an aider) is a nylon ladder. The climber will climb up the etrier until she is as high as possible. The climber will then place another piece of gear and clip another etrier to this. An aid pitch requires one to do this repeatedly as he or she works up the route.

A Climber Relaxes on a Portaledge
Photo from

A big wall climb is a route that is so big, that it generally takes more than a day to complete. Many walls require one to haul bags full of food, water and equipment as well as to use a portable ledge (a portaledge). This type of climbing can be equated to vertical backpacking.

Most big wall climbs require a great deal of aid climbing. Part of the reason that one must sleep on the wall is because aid climbing is incredibly slow. There has to be a piece of gear of some sort every six feet. If a climber is not quick with her system, then the time will add up very quickly and a Grade IV will turn into a Grade VI.

Aid climbing requires a lot of unusual gear. Following is a quick glossary of simple aid terms. There is a lot more to this aspect of climbing and this should simply be thought of as a quick intro:
  1. Hook -- This is literally a hook that one might use as a piece of protection. A climber will put a small metal hook over a rock lip and then clip the etrier to it in order to move up.
  2. Jumar -- The second (the follower) on an aid pitch is required to climb the rope instead of the rock. The second will usually do this with mechanical ascenders called jumars. The act of climbing up the rope with these is called jugging.
  3. A1-A5 -- The aid grade system. An A1 placement is perfect and could hold a bus. An A5 placement is really bad and will only hold bodyweight.
  4. Daisy Chain -- This is a personal anchor system with a series of loops sewn into it. A climber can place a hook (called a fifi hook) on her harness an hook the loops of the daisy to shorten it.
  5. Hauling -- The act of dragging a bag up the wall. This is the most miserable part of an aid climb.
  6. Copperhead -- A wire with a maleable copper top. These can be pounded into a crack and will usually hold bodyweight on high end aid climbs.
  7. Nailing -- A pitch that requires the use of pitons.
The following videos provide an introduction to aid technique with a focus on the methods required to climb a big wall.

At AAI we will begin teaching aid and big wall technique in a classroom format for the first time this summer. Previously, we have only taught these courses on a private basis. This summer we will be offering aid and big wall technique in Part III of our Alpine Mountaineering and Technical Leadership series.

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Weekend Warrior -- Videos to get you stoked!

Ahoy Weekend Warriors!

This weeks videos are dedicated to the epic amount of snow that has recently dumped in the Sierras.  I don't know if you've heard but they were blessed with a bountiful amount of the white stuff, sending throngs of snow-starved skiers and boarders into the mountains to get their powder fix.  So sit back, relax and be prepared to be transported to a winter wonderland!

The first video is for all you snowboarders out there.  Don't let the 5 minute length deter you from checking this one out.  Hang in there and watch these guys cruise some incredible me, it is well worth it!

The second video we've got for you should make any tele-skiers mouth begin to water.   So many much beautiful!!!

The final video is for anyone who, like me, is stuck behind a desk all week.  I've come up with a new technique to help satiate that powder hunger that always seems to come near the end of the week.  First, set up a big fan by your computer.  Second, lean way in towards the screen.  Third, put on your ski goggles. Lastly, watch this video (full screen) and be prepared to find yourself cruisin' the pow with the Pointer Sisters blasting on your iPod.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Rock Rescue: The Munter-Mule

In the following clip, a climber demonstrates two things. First, he shows us how to tie a munter hitch on a carabiner clipped to a harness. And second, he shows us how to mule off a munter hitch that is clipped to a locker on a pre-equalized anchor.

The munter-mule is one of the most useful combination's that one can employ in any rock rescue scenario. It provides the basis for load transfers and for a number of other rescue techniques.

In the video, the climber refers to the mule knot as a slip knot...which it is, but the official name for what he is doing is the "mule."

It is important to watch how the climber releases the mule. He never takes his hand off the break strand. I believe that the most common mistake that people make in this particular setting is that they completely let go of the break strand as they jump their break hand up the strand and closer to the hitch. When you practice, be aware of this and be careful to avoid letting go of the break strand.

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Scaling Summits - AAI Climber Art Huseonica Profiled

Long time AAI climber, Art Huseonica, was recently the subject of a Toastmaster's article written by Julie Bawden-Davis.

Failure to communicate is not an option when you are dangling on a rope, tied to a partner at 18,000 above sea level. Toastmaster Art Huseonica enjoys the many parallels between his worldwide climbing adventures and his Toastmasters experience. Recently back from a speed ascent of Washington’s Mt. Rainer with accomplished American climber Ed Viesturs, Huseonica says leadership, preparation and precise communication are essential for survival both in front of an audience and on top of a mountain.

Taking Toastmasters to New Heights

Scaling Summits

From the Toastmaster magazine, January 2009

By Julie Bawden Davis

Taking Toastmasters to New Heights

Art Huseonica’s idea of fun takes his breath away – literally. When he’s where he wants to be, this Toastmaster is climbing in thin air at 17,000 feet, and he couldn’t be happier.

“People say I’m crazy, but I like the mental and physical challenges of high-altitude mountain climbing,” says Huseonica. “Even though I’m breathing hard and it feels like I’ve got cellophane over my face, the experience is exhilarating.”

Huseonica, a member of the Kritikos club in Odenton, Maryland, has been involved in extreme sports for many years, including skydiving and hot-air ballooning, but he didn’t begin serious mountaineering until four years ago. Since then, he has reached 17,200 feet on Alaska’s Mount McKinley (also known as Denali – “The Great One”), turning back from its 20,320-foot summit because his guide was ill; climbed the Andes in South America twice, and scaled Mount Rainier four times.

When Huseonica joined Toastmasters in January 2008, he did so to improve his presentation skills, but he soon discovered significant parallels between the skills needed in his club and climbing.

“Good communication is critical with mountain climbing,” says Huseonica, who serves as vice president public relations for his club. “When faced with extreme physical situations, it’s important that you communicate precisely and concisely and are very articulate so as not to waste your breath.” He has seen other climbers suffer from conditions such as altitude sickness because of reduced air pressure and oxygen. This can affect the brain and lungs and even lead to death, so it’s important that climbers pay attention to one another’s body language.

“If another climber gets wobbly legs and starts walking like he or she is drunk, that’s an indication that something is wrong,” says Huseonica, who notes that climbers watch out for each other. “At times, in order to conserve oxygen, we’ll use a simple thumbs up or down to check on each other’s well-being.”

Huesonica notes that many aspects of the Toastmasters Promise also apply to mountain climbing, and he has done a speech on the subject.

“Seven out of 10 of the Promise items relate to mountain climbing,” he says. “For instance, Number Two is to be prepared. In mountain climbing, physical and mental preparation are key. Physically, you train and get all of the right gear, and mentally you psyche yourself into the climb.”

Number 10 also applies, he says. “Maintaining honest and highly ethical standards during the conduct of all activities can be seen through the ‘leave no trace’ standards that climbers strive to meet by bringing down all solid waste and only leaving their boot prints on the mountains they visit.”

Fellow club member Anita Hoffman enjoys Huseonica’s speeches about his climbing expeditions. “He’s a very good speaker who is comfortable with his audience, and he has thrilling subject matter that keeps us all on the edge of our seats,” she says.

Coley Gentzel has climbed with Huseonica on several occasions. He is the program coordinator and a guide for the American Alpine Institute, a Bellingham, Washington-based company that conducts mountain tours. “People like Art are in a category all of their own,” says Gentzel. “He’s very passionate about climbing and great at sharing his enthusiasm with other climbers. He was instrumental in spearheading the Denali climb, which consisted of climbers who were almost all over the age of 50. Known as the ‘Ice Agers,’ they took a slightly less aggressive approach up the mountain. Art facilitated the group’s correspondence in the months leading up to the 24-day trip. He and another climber even created logos and T-shirts.”

Huseonica’s wife, Karen, feels that her husband’s involvement with Toastmasters has positively affected his climbing. “His membership has reinforced his confidence and self-assurance, making him even more careful and prepared when he climbs,” she says.

Known as “Base-camp Karen” by everyone who climbs with Huseonica, she talks with her husband via satellite telephone during his adventures and then e-mails her reports to friends and family.

Huseonica’s climbing mentor is Ed Viesturs, America’s leading high-altitude mountaineer, and the two men have twice scaled Mount Rainier together.

Though he enjoys all of his climbs, Huseonica especially looks forward to his treks with Viesturs, whom he met during the famous mountaineer’s travels across the U.S. promoting his IMAX-format film, Everest. “Ed and I got to talking at some of his book signings, and I gave him some suggestions for his Web site,” says Huseonica. “Eventually he invited me on a climb. The best part of climbing with Ed is that I learn something new every time.”

On their most recent climb together, on Mount Rainier, they did a speed ascent in order to prevent altitude sickness. During that climb, Viesturs took the picture of Huseonica holding the Kritikos Toastmasters logo.

Huseonica suspects that the urge to climb mountains has something to do with his upbringing. He grew up in Homer City, Pennsylvania, an isolated town of just 200 people in central western Pennsylvania. “My father worked in the local coal mine, and we had outdoor plumbing,” he says. “The town was so small, there was just one store, one gas station and a small post office. From that experience I learned about self-reliance and depending on family.”

After leaving home, Huseonica served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years. Adventure comes naturally to him; he spent a lot of time at sea and in isolated shore stations, and was trained to fly aircraft and work on submarines. Since retiring, he has worked in higher education administration and is currently a Web consultant and part-time teacher for the University of Maryland University College and warehouse manager for a school supply company. He also regularly uses his Toastmasters training to speak at local organizations and recently published his club’s Web site.

As for future climbing, Huseonica has been offered a 2010 spot in a Denali climb, and he is waiting for word about another Mount Rainier expedition with Viesturs. “I’d also like to go back to the Grand Canyon with my friend Ray Bellem and do that climb again,” he says. “It’s a beautiful area, and we have a great time climbing together.”

Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and longtime contributor to the Toastmaster magazine.

February and March Climbing Events

--February 20-21 -- Dayton, OH -- The Adventure Summit

--February 20-28 -- Vancouver, BC -- Vancouver Mountain Film Festival

--February 21 -- Golden, CO -- AAC Annual Benefit Dinner

--February 22 -- Rochester, MN -- Best of the Midwest Bouldering Challenge

--February 27-March 28 -- DC Metro Area -- Hera Climb 4 Life

--March 6-8 -- Anchorage, AK -- Alaska Ice Climbing Festival

--March 11-12 -- San Francisco -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

--March 12 -- Las Vegas, NV -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

--March 20-22 -- Las Vegas, NV -- Red Rock Rendezvous

--March 20-21 -- Anchorage, AK -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

--March 27-28 -- Bishop, CA -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

Monday, February 16, 2009

Red Rock Rendezvous -- What is it?

Approximately six years ago, I was guiding in Red Rock Canyon just outside of Las Vegas when I heard about it. There was going to be a two-day climbing festival in Vegas...and it wasn't going to be just any climbing festival, it was going to be massive.

At the time I honestly didn't want anything to do with a massive climbing festival. Thousands of climbers descending on Red Rock Canyon at the same time like a hoard of locust was the last thing that I wanted for the crag in my backyard. So I ignored the festival...which was really too bad. I didn't know what I was missing.

Camping at Spring Mountain Ranch during Rendezvous
Photo by Shawn Olson

The following year, I covered the Red Rock Rendezvous for Climbing magazine. I was provided the opportunity to attend the event for free. And what I found was an utterly phenomenal climber's festival. They provided a number of climbing clinics, slide shows, and seminars for a nominal price. Indeed, they also included food, beer and camping in the price. They did this for climbers of all ability levels and people attended from all over the world. I was somewhat amazed by what they were able to do for the climbers that attended. And I was even more amazed by the fact that they gave away a large portion of the money that they made to the American Alpine Club and to the Access Fund while also supporting the American Safe Climbing Association and the Las Vegas Climber's Liaison Council.

Humaneering is a popular event at the festival. Individuals must boulder on people.
Photo by Shawn Olson

It was during this journalistic excursion in 2005 that I met Paul Fish, the president of Mountain Gear. Mountain Gear is the primary sponsor of the festival and Paul is the event's number one cheerleader. Over the years, he and Mountain Gear have jumped through hoop after hoop in order to make this the premiere climbing event of the year.

Paul wanted to expand the event from two-days of clinics to three days. He wanted to develop a Friday event that focused totally on beginning level climbers. And he wanted to do this with a highly respected guide service that held a commercial use permit for Red Rock Canyon. In other words, he wanted to work with us.

The dyno competition is often a crowd pleaser.
Photo by Shawn Olson

In 2006, the American Alpine Institute joined Mountain Gear and a number of other companies and non-profit organizations for the Third Annual Red Rock Rendezvous. We ran the Friday beginner clinic and placed guides in numerous half-day climbing clinics on Saturday and Sunday as well. The festival was a massive success...and our guides had an absolute blast.

The festival takes place in two locations. The climbing clinics take place inside the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, while the actual event takes place at Spring Mountain Ranch, a State Park within the boundaries of the Conservation Area. Spring Mountain Ranch features a stage, grassy fields, and a historic ranch house that was owned by Howard Hughs.

Holly Martin shows off a picture of her Dad a the 2008 Red Rock Rendezvous
Photo by Jason Martin

The festival hasn't always been perfect. Last year, a group of climbers got a bit unruly. Somebody broke into the ranch house and left a Red Rock Rendezvous water bottle in there. Another group of climbers built a campfire in the parking lot and refused to put it out when asked by rangers to do so. The combination of these things have caused Mountain Gear personnel and Spring Mountain Ranch rangers to tighten the reigns on the festival. They are limiting the number of participants this year, something that hasn't happened in the past. Unfortunately, these incidents have put the entire Rendezvous at risk. We are all hopeful that everybody will be on their best behavior at the 2009 Rendezvous.

This year's Rendezvous will take place from March 20-22 and eighteen American Alpine Institute Guides will be working the event this year. In addition to the guides, dozens of professional climbers will be teaching clincis as well. These climbers include Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, Peter Croft, Ivo Ninov, Katie Brown, Ammon McNealy, as well as many others...

Climbers Toprope at the Gallery during Rendezvous
Photo by Shawn Olson

We will be offering private guiding before and after the event, as well as AMGA Single Pitch Instructor courses and Learn to Lead courses. In addition to that, we are planning a rock oriented guide training and lots of personal climbing. Many of our guides have climbing projects that they want to complete during their trip to Vegas this year.

To read more about the Rendezvous, to see pictures of previous events and to register for the Rendezvous, please check out their homepage. We are very excited about this year's event and look forward to more fun in the desert sun!

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Weekend Warrior -- Videos to Tickle Your Funny Bone!

Earlier this week, we discussed two very popular survival shows on the Discovery Channel. Man vs. Wild and Survivorman have both become extraordinarily popular amongst outdoor adventurers and backcountry travelers.

In my discussion of the two television shows, I pointed out how bad I thought Man vs. Wild was in relation to Survivorman. My premise was essentially that the host of the show would do just about anything that was sensational and as such couldn't be trusted as an expert on outdoor survival techniques.

Now there's a third show that can't be trusted. But this one is a spoof of the other two. Sam Seder, a comedian from Air America, takes on the wilderness in his youtube spoof, Survival Sam.

Following are a few of his very funny videos:

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, February 13, 2009

Trip Report: Skiing the Stoneman

Making Fire with the Stone Man

Teaching avalanche courses and going to school every morning this winter has recently derailed me of getting any personal skiing done this season. With my first day off in six weeks, I was really excited to finally make some turns of my own. Last Friday, I set my sights on stretching my legs, seeing some 'new-to-me' places to tour around Mt. Herman (in the Mt. Baker backcountry) and skiing the ever-looming steep skiing objective that stares me down every time I drive up to Heather Meadows - the Stone Man Couloir.

A sunny view of the couloir from the Heather Meadows Lodge at Mt. Baker.

Justin getting stoked for the STONE MAN ......

Winter thrill seekers too often dismiss the potential for fun to be had in the backcountry anytime there's less than several feet of new snow. I'm all for skiing the steep and deep when it's around, but I'm also keen on being able to tour longer distances without
breaking trail for hours. Last week, a few inches of fresh provided just the right balance between good skiing and touring conditions, during a time of relatively safe avalanche hazard. We settled on a tour plan that would traverse over the shoulder of Mt. Herman and allow us to ski downhill to the base of the couloir.

The traverse over Herman to the Stone Man Couloir is outlined in black.

Justin's wife, Zephyr, with her skis on her back.

Visibility was sparse early in the morning. Finding our way up to the first high col on Mt. Herman took a while with the coming and going white-out conditions. It was nice when it cleared enough for me to put away the GPS as we started booting up the final fe
w feet, just before our first run of the of the day. We ripped skins off our skis at the 5800' col on Mt. Herman and enjoyed a 500 foot run to the base of the Stone Man.

Justin and Zephyr's route through the Stone Man Couloir is drawn in black.

We booted up the 800', 45+ degree Stone Man couloir, arriving at its top in windy conditions and zero visibility all around. Conditions in the couloir truly involved survival skiing. The chute is so steep it had sloughed off most of the previous
week's new snow. What snow remained peeled away beneath my ski tips exposing an icy crust ahead of each successive turn. Skiing out the left exit around the cliffs at the bottom involved negotiating the chute's steepest pitch which neared 50 degrees.

Zephyr climbing the chute.

To finish the tour, we continued traversing north from the base of the Stone Man couloir. Along the way we found some of the best snow of the entire day as we skied through the trees completing the circuit back to Heather Meadows and the Mt. Baker Ski Area. All in all, the tour involved 3000' of elevation gain and loss we skied a distance of about 4 miles.

-- Justin Wood, AAI Guide

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Discovery Channel Survival Shows

Until October, I never had cable television. Climbers I'd worked with over the years told me about Survivorman and about Man vs. Wild on the Discovery Channel, but I never had the opportunity to see these shows.

For those of you who are as clueless as I was, Survivorman follows a survival expert named Les Stroud on his exploits. Stroud brings his own camera equipment and records himself making survival decisions. In Man vs. Wild, a former officer in the British Special Forces named Bear Grylls is followed by a camera crew as he "survives" in the wilderness.

At the beginning of October I finally broke down and got basic cable. And with basic cable came my opinion about these two shows. In short, Survivorman is both entertaining and full of useful survival techniques. Man vs. Wild is completely and utterly ludicrous.

Les Stroud knows what he's doing. He masterfully builds shelters, hunts, forages, and uses good mountain sense. Bear Grylls does the most sensational things -- many of which would get you killed in a real survival situation -- in order to raise the ratings of his innane show.

There are a few great examples of Grylls and his lack of mountain sense. In one show he swings on a vine over a sink hole with no idea whether or not the vine will hold. In another he says it's minus twenty degrees as he jumps in the water...clearly it wasn't or he would have died. And in another he makes a toboggan to slide down a steep hill with cliffs on either side when he could have just walked. This is also the guy who eats snakes, frogs and a variety of other animals without killing or cooking them. It's all about sensationalism.

It appears that Bear actually enjoys a little luxury when he's supposed to be in the wild. Numerous reports have come out about this so-called outdoor hardman, which indicate that he is not quite so hard. Indeed, there are a list of grievances against the television star. That which tops the list is the use of a hotel. Yep, his highly honed survival instincts have allegedly brought him to a shower and a warm bed on more than one occasion when it appears to the television audience that he is spending the night in the wilderness.

ABC News published the following on some of the other television illusions from Man vs. Wild:

Among the Grylls grievances is an episode supposedly set on a deserted island (actually Hawaii) that shows him building a raft, which was actually constructed and then disassembled by show consultants so that the host could easily put it together.

And though Grylls claims to be a horse wrangler, another charge maintains that the wild horses Grylls happened upon in the Sierra Nevada were not so wild, and were in fact from a trekking station.

It's clear that Stroud doesn't have the ability to get to a hotel or a motel to take a break. Instead he does what he says he does; he uses a variety of time-tested survival techniques to stay alive. This guy provides valuable information for the wilderness traveler that could potentially be used in a a number of environments.

Following is a great example that some fan of Survivorman posted on the internet about the difference between the two shows. Note the sensationalism of Man vs. Wild. And also note that Bear is an idiot.

Survivorman Vs. Bear Grylls - Click here for funny video clips

Stroud and Grylls have both attained lucrative advertising contracts. These alone provide some insight into who actually respects these individuals. SPOT locators have hired Stroud to be their spokesman and Trail Mix Cereal hired Grylls be theirs for a ludicrous commercial. SPOT is somewhat respected by outdoors people for the creation of their backcountry emergency locators. Trail Mix Cereal is cereal. I don't think anybody really respects cereal.

Ultimately SPOT vs. the cereal is a great metaphor for the substance of each show's quality. Stroud knows what he's doing and the techniques he teaches are educational and interesting. Grylls is a complete doof who doesn't really do anything that is worth anything.

--Jason D. Martin

February and March Climbing Events

--February 10 -- Golden, CO -- AAC Book Club Meeting

--February 10 -- Seattle, WA -- Safe Travel at High Altitude

--February 13-16 -- Cody, WY -- South Fork Ice Festival

--February 20-21 -- Dayton, OH -- The Adventure Summit

--February 20-21 -- Vancouver, BC -- Vancouver Mountain Film Festival

--February 21 -- Golden, CO -- AAC Annual Benefit Dinner

--February 27-March 28 -- DC Metro Area -- Hera Climb 4 Life

--March 6-8 -- Anchorage, AK -- Alaska Ice Climbing Festival

--March 11-12 -- San Francisco -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

--March 12 -- Las Vegas, NV -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

--March 20-22 -- Las Vegas, NV -- Red Rock Rendezvous

--March 20-21 -- Anchorage, AK -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

--March 27-28 -- Bishop, CA -- Banff Mountain Film Festival

Monday, February 9, 2009

Highlights, Lowlights, and Everything In Between

As many who know the Institute well may have heard, I (one Coley Gentzel) am leaving my post here as Program Coordinator, Guide, water and whipping boy, life counselor, physical fitness coach, data entry guy, cook, sled-dragger, copy machine fixer, gear sorter, and confidant.

As the generic, lifeless, and impersonal auto-responder on my email account currently says, the last 9 seasons here at AAI have been the most meaningful of my life, and it is with many mixed feelings that I have come to the decision that my future path and full time employment with AAI would not continue along the same course. First, before we get too far into the mushy gooshy stuff, thanks to all that have given me the opportunity to serve them in the office and the field, to those that I have had the chance to work along side and work for, to those that I have had the opportunity to learn from and to teach, and most of all for the memories and life changing experiences that have gone hand in hand with all of these interactions.

Coley and Andy on the summit of Dragontail Peak in the winter

What initially attracted me to AAI, above and beyond getting to go climbing a lot, was people. Not to go so far as to say that I knew may folks here when I started, I most certainly didn't, but my main motivation in leaving the corporate world for a mountain based lifestyle was the deep and inescapable desire to connect with like-minded individuals with the same passions, interests, values, and motivations that I was just starting to grow into. People are exactly what has given this job, this place, and our cause the meaning that it has. If I were to sit down and make a list of all of all of your, well let's just say you wouldn't want the read through all of the pages. So, again, thank you.

Andy Niskanen taking it all in, Picket Range, WA

The last few days have been strange for me. As you might imagine, after a handful of years in a give a given place, doing a certain thing, you start to get used to the things around you and develop a certain comfort with the way things are. Part of this leaving process has included cleaning out my desk area here in the offices of AAI. Something that as I carried out, I realized, I had never really done before. I am not just talking about messes here, there were more than a few of those tucked away in the corners, but it was a fun walk back through time to scroll through old post cards, reports, photos, letters from past clients, guides, friends, and get to revisit some of my early days here.

Coley and Gary Kuehn have an impromptu "guide's meeting" on Denali

I will try and share a few of these, recently relived memories with you on my way out, and in doing so, hope that you all have the chance to continue making memories in the mountains.

Many of my favorite memories from my time here at AAI have to do with firsts. One of my favorite things in climbing, and I think one of the things the draws so many to the pursuit, is the opportunity to see new and beautiful places.

My first "real" climbing trip was the the Enchantment Lakes area with a few co-workers. Andy Bourne, long time Program Coordinator and currently guide for AAI, myself, and a few other folks had planned a week off of work during the busy time at AAI. When I first started, one of the main concerns that the current administration had was that Andy and I would try to take too much time off at the same time. Of course we both assured them this would not be the case, and no more than a month later we were off on this trip. Somehow it worked out.

Our goal on this trip was to climb the Serpentine Arete on Dragontail Peak and the West Ridge of Prusik Peak. Up to that point in our collective climbing careers, we hadn't done much more than a few multi-pitch cragging routes,and so the prospect of a 2500-foot route up a big face with notoriously loose rock was fairly daunting. I won't elaborate on the details of the climb, but instead say that getting back to camp just as the sunset was lighting up the face in alpenglow, and looking back up at the route we had just completed was one of the best feelings I could remember having. The end of that day was particularly unfortunate for one of the team members who had left his boots at the base of the climb and had to walk down the snowy Asgaard Pass route in his rock shoes..cough, cough...Andy, but I won't mention his name.

Hiding from the elements in an ice cave on Mount Baker with Andrew Selby.

Next, a picture of a fellow named Mike Layton appeared in one of the many piles on my desk. The picture was of Mike's face, barely visible through a tangle of greenery, buskwacking deep in the heart of the North Cascades. Mike and I had gone in to climb the Direct North Buttress of Bear Mountain, one of the few long and relatively high quality grade V rock routes in the Cascades. AAI guide Alan Kearney had put the route up back in the 70's and until the last handful of years, the route hadn't seen many ascents really at all. That summer was perhaps the best climbing summer of my life. I was fortunate to somehow scrape together enough change to take trips to the Bugaboos, the Sierra, and climb nearly every weekend in the Cascades. Erik Johnson, AAI guide, and I completed the Northeast Buttress of Slesse Mountain and the Beckey-Chounaird route on South Howser Tower that summer as well, and all of these climbs still rank among my most memorable.

The happy birthday wish that the AAI crew pasted all over signs, cars, and campground in Leavenworth, WA

The first few weeks, even month or two here at AAI went by in a blur for me. I started at the beginning of the busy season and it was a whirlwind of people, places, new experiences, and of course work duties. Sometime shortly after I had started, AAI had it's annual company party...

Let me back up a bit. Before I started at AAI, I had been growing gradually more unsatisfied with life in the city and had been gobbling up up every piece of climbing literature that I could get my hands on to help me while away the time and dream of far off places. Fairly late in that process, not too long before I finally quite my job and moved to Bellingham to work for AAI, I remember reading a particularly moving article about two climbers who had set off to climb the Moonflower Buttress on Mount Hunter's North Face in the Alaska Range. Some 4,000-feet up the route, the author's climbing partner was struck and killed by a snow mushroom that collapsed on him. I remember reading the account of the author's epic descent, cold, alone, running out of gear, and having just lost his partner and dear friend. I don't know what it was about that article that really grabbed me. Perhaps the tone, perhaps the experience itself, perhaps because it was the first time that I had really stopped to ponder the consequences that can be part of the alpine game, how alone you can be high in the hills and far above the ground.

AAI guides ascent of the North Ridge of Mount Baker.

So it was at this company party that I first got to meet the author of this article, shake his hand for the first time, and come to the realization that now, here at AAI, I was in the company of greatness. The people that have been a part of this company, over the years, have shaped the modern guiding and climbing world, and to have been a small part of that has meant the world to me.

Happy climbing and I hope to see you in the hills.


Coley and his fiance Lara enjoy the view from the top of South Early Winter Spire, 2008

The End of an Era

Coley Gentzel started at AAI in the year 2000. Over the years he has become a fixture at this company. He has worked as a registrar, a guide manager, a program coordinator, and a guide. Perhaps, most importantly, he has been a friend to all of us here and to countless climbers on countless trips.

Coley was responsible for updating our Alaska programs. He tirelessly worked to make our Denali trips and our Alaska Range programs the best in the business. He did this by guiding several trips in the area as well as by making significant personal ascents in the Alaska Range.

Friday was Coley's last full day in the office. He has taken a job as a Mountaineering Ranger in Denali National Park. So we'll still see him around in the Alaska Range, but it's still the end of an era...

Following is a photo essay of Coley's years at the Institute:

Coley Leading Ham and Eggs on the Moose's Tooth, Alaska Range
Photo by Seth Hobby

Resting on the Ruth Glacier, Alaska Range
Photo by Seth Hobby

Woah, that was a crazy party! A Grade V Halloween Party

Coley on the Triple Couloirs, Cascades

Dinner is Served, Denali, Alaska Range

Resting in the Chehalis Range

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Weekend Warrior -- Videos to Get You Stoked!

There are some very high quality climbing films out there. What makes them high quality? Well one thing is the production values. It's fun to watch climbers that have been filmed by people who know what they're doing. Following are two trailers for films that were shot and edited by such artists.

First, we have a trailer for the new film, Extreme Climbing: Beyond Gravity. This film showcases world-class climbers in different disciplines including rock, ice, aid, alpine, big-wall, bouldering and free-soloing.

Narrated by acclaimed climber and author Greg Child, this internationally praised and multiple award-winning documentary features many of North America's top climbers including Peter Croft, Lynn Hill, Barry Blanchard, Katie Brown, Sean Isaac, Nancy Feagin, Joe Josephson, Steve House, Abby Watkins and many others.

And second, we have the trailer from a British film entitled, Psyche. This film features the best of British climbers including Steve McClure, Andy Kirkpatrick, Ian Parnell and Dave Birkett. And it explores a number of avenues of climbing from hard trad to big mountains to hard sport.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dynafit Bindings - What are they and how do they work?

Backcountry skiing is becoming enormously popular in the mountain regions of the United States. Enthusiasts are demanding more from their ski equipment and in response, the ski industry has been constantly improving its products. Recently, bindings have become an important decision when purchasing a new alpine touring set-up. Consumers are looking for a binding that provides good control over the ski, lightweight, uphill efficiency, durability, and ease of use. Enter the Dynafit binding, a well-designed and lightweight binding choice with few limitations.

The original 1993 purple and pink model!

Dynafit bindings have gained popularity in the US after decades of development and use in Europe, mainly amongst ski mountaineer and randonee racers. In 1993 the Dynafit TLT type binding became the first available in North America. Today the company sells more than 13,000 pair a year and as many as 8 different models of bindings here in the US. Even after this type of popularity many new to the ski world have never seen this type of set-up.

The Dynafit TLT type binding with boot attached

After seeing my first pair of these bindings in use during a ski trip on the Haute Route of France I returned to the US sans my telemark bindings with my prized new Dynafit set-up. Simply put this binding offers the lightest option for ski touring and offers the downhill performance that most are looking for in the backcountry.

The Haute Route French and Swiss Alps

The Dynafit binding works by rather ingenious engineering. Unlike most AT (alpine touring) bindings that have a bar connecting the toe and heel plates, the Dynafit binding uses the entire boot to attach the two together through the rigid nature of plastic ski boots. This means that a specific Dynafit compatible boot is necessary for the system to be complete, where the toe and heel piece of the binding actually “prongs” itself into the boot. This eliminates much of the extra metal that would construct a binding made in the more classic downhill style.
The Fritshi Diamir type binding with a more classic alpine type construction

The Dynafit compatible boot. Notice the metal toe and heel inserts.

Dynafit products have some small limitations. These are really limited to only a few problems including the overall release mechanism which can be somewhat trigger happy if you are a super aggressive cliff jumper and bump skier. The binding can also not provide enough power for a skier to handle a super fat ski. So if you are looking for a binding and boot combination for super fat, big mountain heli-skis you might look elsewhere. In terms of tourability this is the right choice for the touring-minded backcountry skier. For more information on Dynafit bindings online check out or give our new backcountry skiing courses a try!

-- Ben Traxler, AAI Guide

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why Climbers Should Care About the Economic Stimulus Bill

AAI just received the following email from the Access Fund:

Access Fund Supporter,

After passing in the House, the $800 billion economic stimulus bill is heading for the Senate. This massive stimulus package hopes to put three million people to work on short-term projects that will have lasting benefits.

If passed, this bill will allocate a large amount of funding to federal land management agencies - the same agencies that manage many of our country's most treasured climbing areas. These agencies, including US Park Service, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management, will spend up to $3 billion of stimulus money on construction-related projects such as road maintenance. And while we don't have influence on whether this bill passes, we do have the opportunity to make suggestions on where this funding will be spent, and help these agencies prioritize projects in and around our climbing areas.

We need your input on potential projects
The Access Fund has joined forces with other members of the Outdoor Alliance to compile a list of infrastructure projects that are important to the active outdoor recreation community. We will put this list in front of the federal land management agencies during upcoming meetings in Washington, D.C. to provide guidance on how to spend this stimulus money.

We need to hear from you! This is your chance to propose a project or highlight a problem with a road, trail, river, or landscape in your back yard that needs increased financial support. Suggestions might include design of new roads, bridges, trails, remediation of abandoned mine sites, and even restoration projects. Please take the following brief survey by Friday February 6 and provide as much information about your suggested project as possible. Take the survey