Friday, June 29, 2012

A Mountain Film for People who didn't like Vertical Limit

I’m a relative newbie when it comes to the mountain film scene. Of course I’ve seen The Eiger Sanction and Touching the Void, but I’ve never been to the Banff Mountain Film series. So I’m by no means a connoisseur.

Having made this disclaimer, I recommend The White Hell of Pitz Palu to anyone who has an interest in the cultural history of climbing. A German silent thriller that came out in 1929, it was restored and reissued with English titles and symphonic soundtrack in 1997 by the German Film Archive. Along with Holy Mountain and a few others, it is a prime exemplar of the Bergfilm genre, which emerged in Germany between the World Wars and is apparently considered by some critics to be the quintessentially German film genre, analogous to the American Western.

The plot of the movie is simple enough. Maria and Hans, a young couple newly engaged, arrive at a hut on the flanks of Piz Palu in the Bernina Alps of southeast Switzerland. They are riding a wave of excitement and romance. But then a stranger arrives: Dr. Johannes Krafft, who years earlier had lost his wife to a crevasse fall on the Palu, and has wandered the mountain ever since, attempting new routes solo and brooding on his loss. This dangerous figure disrupts the harmonious drama of the newly engaged couple, stirring Maria’s interest and Hans’s competitive ego. The three embark on an ill-contemplated attempt on the North Face of the mountain. Trouble follows.

A series of clips from Leni Riefenstahl's Bergfilme career.

Despite the clear potential for weary psychodrama, the film does not develop a heavy-handed allegory, and instead stays in the realm of the concrete. The special effects -- including an artificial ice cliff, man-made avalanches and serac falls, and a torch-lit search operation in the underworld of the glacier -- are matched only by the fine mountain cinematography.

As enjoyable as the film may be in itself, what makes it really interesting is how it sheds light on some less obvious links between climbing and the larger history of European popular culture. Climbing was something close to a national obsession in Germany between the wars, and was connected to a much broader interest in physical fitness and spiritual overcoming. These interests in turn informed aspects of the Nazi ideology. Leni Riefenstahl, who plays Maria in The White Hell and starred in other Bergfilme, went on to direct her own films in the service of Hitler and Goebbels. Her Triumph of the Will, the film record of the 1934 party rally in Nuremberg, shares many thematic interests and visual motifs with The White Hell.

For those of us who ruminate on the dark side of our sport – the fatalism, the obsession, and the egomania, and where these can lead – the White Hell is a good feed.

Details: You might have some trouble finding it. Bellingham’s excellent high-brow video store Film Is Truth 24 Times a Second stocks it thanks to Graham, our former shop manager who once worked there. Netflix has it. Good luck finding it at any mainstream video store.

-- Tom Kirby
AAI Instructor and Guide

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Climbing Word Origins

Every word has an origin somewhere. In climbing there are tons of interesting words and most of them probably came from interesting places. As there are too many interesting words to cover in a short blog, I've chosen three, Belay, GriGri and Arete.


As climbers we use the word belay every day. And those of us who sail or work in theaters know that the word is occasionally used in other settings as well.

Belay is a word that was derived from the Old English word "belecgan." The original literal meaning of the word was: to surround a thing with objects. It was commonly used figuratively to refer to an kind of encircling or coiling around something. Over time this evolved into a nautical meaning, "to secure a length of rope by wrapping it around a cleat or pin, especially a rope attached to sails."

It wasn't until the 20th century that belay took on the meaning, "to tie oneself, as a stationary member of a roped party, to a firm rock projection, or to piton, in order to secure oneself and to afford a safeguard to the moving climber." Source.


Yes, we all know the GriGri as a mechanical belay device. But most people probably aren't aware that the term grigri is derived from Voodoo. Yep, the same mysticism that gave us pin dolls and zombies gave us a term that we use every day in climbing.
According to TheMystica.Org, "gris-gris resemble charms or talismans which are kept for good luck or to ward off evil. Originally, gris-gris were probably dolls or images of the gods, but presently most gris-gris are small cloth bags containing herbs, oils, stones, small bones, hair and nails, pieces of cloth soaked with perspiration and/or other personal items gathered under the directions of a god for the protection of the owner."

As climbers we often feel like we get to summits or finish routes because we were lucky one day. And indeed, whether a climber is religious or not, most feel some kind of a spiritual connection to the mountains when they get to the top of something. As such it makes a lot of sense for the marketing people at Petzl to name a device after a mystical good luck charm.


Arete is generally thought of as a French word that means "a sharp, narrow mountain ridge or spur." Climbers generally use this word as such. Often we use it interchangeably with buttress or ridge.

The word arete was derived from Greek. It originally meant the goodness or the virtue of a person. Answers.Com notes that, "in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, virtue is connected with performing a function (ergon), just as an eye is good if it performs its proper function of vision. This is its telos or purpose (see also teleology). AretÄ“ is therefore identified with what enables a person to live well or successfully."

For a climber this makes sense. An arete is often a line of weakness in a feature. These are also often considered "good" or fun lines.

Knowing the background of climbing words will not make you a better climber. It will not allow you to fit your fingers into a tinier crack or crimp a smaller hold, but it will give you something cool to talk about at the crag. And really, part of the fun of climbing is talking about cool stuff with people you meet at the crag...!

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, June 25, 2012

Trip Report: Denali Team 5

I just got back from my second Denali trip of the year, and once again the weather ruled the trip.   This was my second trip of the season, and unlike the first was quite warm.  Unfortunately the high winds were still present, and were accompanied by lots of snow. 
With the strongest team I have had on the mountain I left Talkeetna fairly optimistic about our summit chances.  The first few days on the lower glacier were perfect.  Not too hot and not too stormy. 
When we got to 11,200ft camp the weather changed, and as is typical for that area of the mountain we got a lot of snow overnight.  So much in fact that it collapsed our cook tent and broke all our poles.  This combined with a little stove accident pretty much ended the life of our cook tent.  We spent the next day repairing the tent.

We did manage to carry a load up and around windy corner after a short delay. 
The following day we moved to camp at 14,200ft.

Once arriving at 14,200 the weather took a turn for the worse and the snow started falling. 

We did manage to carry a load up to a cache spot of 16,700 ft.  Little did we know on this day that the weather would never improve enough for us to return and retrieve our cache. 
After returning to camp a storm rolled in and dropped several feet of snow, which is fairly uncommon at 14k this time of year.  In addition to the heavy snow there were very strong winds which caused some very dangerous avalanche conditions all over the mountain.  See the previous post for some photos and a short movie. 
We had cached 4 days of food just below Washburn’s Thumb, and then sat at 14 camp day after day watching the winds hammer the upper mountain, and load the leeward slopes.  We were stuck at 14 camp unable to go up and get our cache, and unable to go down.  Below are some photos of some of our time at 14. 
With only a single dinner left and no lunch to hand out until we got down to a cache at 11k camp we had to descend without ever returning to the upper mountain.   The only team that summited within a week of us leaving was a group that had been sitting at 17 camp for 11 days.  Each person in the group sustained serious frostbite injuries in what might be one of the worst pieces of decision making I heard of on the mountain this year. 
The move down from 14 camp was not a simple walk.  Thigh deep snow around windy corner made travel difficult. 
We walked through the night to get to basecamp for the flight out the following morning.  It was truly a beautiful night…

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Climbing Events June and July 2012

6/23-6/24 -- Mazama, WA -- Rockfest 2012 

6/23 -- Pasadena, CA -- Eaton Canyon Clean Up Party

7/11 - 7/13 -- Chamonix, France -- Climbing World Cup: View Tour Calendar

8/2 -- Stevens Pass, WA -- Volunteer Clean Up Day

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!

The forecast is looking pretty wet this weekend in the PNW, but we can dream of drier days.  Ryan Palo and Ethan Pringle rock it out in this video from Smith Rock and Idaho.  Also be sure to check out Ryan's fingerboard workout videos.

The next clip is a trailer for a new documentary about climbing K2. Looks pretty interesting!

Alex Honnald started off this month well by completing the first ever solo link up of Yosemite's Mt. Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome. And just the other day now (June 17), he and Hans Florine broke the speed record on the Nose, coming in at 2:23:46, about 13 minutes faster than the old record! The following clip is a trailer from the next Reel Rock festival featuring Alex's triple link up.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Avalanches at 14K Camp on Denali

Just got back from my second Denali trip of the season.  Here is a video of some photos I shot of an avalanche running through camp at 14k.  The news has just been released that there was four climbers from Japan killed in an avalanche on Motorcycle hill just a few hours after I shot these photos.  I have never seen such unstable snow conditions on Denali as I did on this trip and the video below shows just one of the many avalanches we witnessed over a 48 hour period.  

Lots of new snow and very high winds created very unstable snow conditions over much of the mountain.  This made it too dangerous for us to continue up the mountain, and just as dangerous to go down.  We were stuck at 14,000ft camp for several days waiting for the conditions to improve.  During this time several other parties were either climbing or descending the fixed lines.  Two of these groups were caught in separate avalanches.  One group of three was caught just below the fixed lines and lost much of their gear and sustained numerous puncture wounds.  The other party was caught just above camp and sustained relatively minor injuries.  The decision to move higher or lower on the mountain is often a difficult one, but in the conditions that we observed there was no disagreement that our group would not be moving until conditions stabilized.  When conditions were safe for us to descend we had only one meal left, and we were forced to abandon our cache of gear and food higher on the mountain due to safety concerns.  Luckily our cache will almost certainly be removed from the mountain by another American Alpine Institute group later this week. 

Avalanche debris from a slide of the Messner Coulour.  

A huge debris pile from a slide on the Orient Express.  

The photo below is looking back toward Motorcycle hill, and clearly shows the debris and crown from the avalanche which is now believed to have killed 4 climbers.  Upon deciding to leave camp at 14,000ft we had heard from a group at 11,000ft camp that the hill had avalanched in the night and therefore was safe for us to  descend.  At that point no one knew that the avalanche was human triggered and underneath the debris were 4 climbers. 

More details of the accident can be found here: Anchorage Daily News.

Alasdair Turner, Instructor and Guide

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Climbers, Skiers and World War Z

I just finished reading the best of the best of the subgenre of horror that one might refer to as "zombie-apocalypse-punk." You know, because there's splatterpunk and cyberpunk and steampunk.  I don't know if zombie-apocalypse-punk has made it into the lexicon of genre fiction yet, but if it hasn't, we should probably help it get there...

Anyway, I just finished reading World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. If you're not familiar with the book, Brooks uses a clever tactic to tell his story.  A series of individuals from all over the world tell an interviewer their stories about the zombie apocalypse.  This provides a wide array of viewpoints on the story, from soldiers and housewives, to dog trainers and scuba divers, from scammers trying to get rich off the plague, to politicians trying to rebuild society.  It is an incredibly engaging read.

But the interviews fell significantly short in one area.

Yep, you guessed it.  They didn't talk about climbers and skiers.

After reading this book, it is my contention that climbers and skiers would fare much better in a zombie apocalypse than many others.  The duel facts that zombies can't really climb and that they can't ski would give us a great advantage.

Think about it. Zombies are mindless.  There is no way they could climb much of anything.  Their fingers  probably wouldn't stay on their hands if there was any real cranking to be done.

In the winter, zombies would have a hard time in the snow.  In World War Z, many zombies freeze solid during the coldest months, making them harmless.  Add to that the fact that zombies wouldn't have the wherewithal to use floatation, and skiers would have free reign in the mountains without fear!

So what do you think? How would the world of climbers and skiers fare in the Zombie Apocalypse?

And yeah...this is reaching a bit for a blog topic. But hey, who doesn't want to talk about zombies?

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, June 18, 2012

Avalanche Recovery Effort Suspended

The American Alpine Institute received the following email from Denali National Park yesterday:

TALKEETNA, Alaska:   A two-day ground search of the debris path from a fatal avalanche on Mt. McKinley has been suspended after clues were found confirming the likely location of four deceased climbers.  Mr. Yoshiaki Kato, Ms. Masako Suda, Ms. Michiko Suzuki, and Mr. Tamao Suzuki of the Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation (MWAF) expedition are presumed to have died in the avalanche, while one team member, Mr. Hitoshi Ogi, survived the event with a minor hand injury.

The fatal avalanche happened at approximately 11,800-feet on the West Buttress, and was originally believed to have occurred early morning June 14.  However NPS rangers have since confirmed with both Ogi and multiple teams on the mountain that the slide occurred during the early morning hours of Wednesday, June 13.  Ogi first reported the event to NPS rangers when he arrived at the Kahiltna Basecamp the afternoon of June 14.

An aerial hasty search took place on June 14 followed by an initial four-member NPS ground search the following day.  On Saturday, June 16, an expanded 10-person ground crew consisting of NPS rangers, volunteer patrol members, a dog handler, and a trained search and rescue dog probed and further investigated the debris zone.  During the search, NPS mountaineering ranger Tucker Chenoweth descended into the same crevasse that the survivor Hitoshi Ogi had fallen into during the avalanche.  While probing through the debris roughly 30 meters below the glacier surface, Chenoweth found a broken rope end that matched the MWAF team’s rope.  He began to dig further, but encountered heavily compacted ice and snow debris.  Due to the danger of ice fall within the crevasse, it was decided to permanently suspend the recovery efforts.

There have six climbing fatalities on Mt. McKinley this season.   Since 1932, a total of 120 climbers have perished on the mountain, 12 due to avalanches.  This week’s four avalanche fatalities were the first to occur on the popular West Buttress route.

The Alpine Clutch

The Garda Hitch or the Alpine Clutch...

These are two names for a hitch that is sometimes used as a one-way ratchet in a variety of systems. In other words, when the hitch is tied correctly, the rope only moves in one direction.  Following is a short video on how to tie the alpine clutch:

There are some downsides to the garda hitch. First, it cannot be tied well on locking carabiners. The locks sometimes separate the carabiners just enough to make the hitch slip.  Second, if the carabiners somehow lose their orientation, the hitch can slip. Third, you must use similar style carabiners to tie the knot. The problem with similar carabiners is that those that work really well, D carabiners, can unclip themselves. Fourth, the hitch is difficult to release under load. Fifth, the garda hitch can never be used instead of a belay device as it can cut the rope. And sixth, the hitch creates a lot of friction in hauling systems.

It seems a little bit sketchy to put all of your eggs into a basket that doesn't allow for locking carabiners. It also seems a little bit sketchy that if the carabiners shift, the whole thing can come apart.  And there is that thing about all those other problems....  So why do people use this?

The main reason is that the garda hitch is quick.  The set-up takes mere seconds.

The most common uses of the hitch are in crevasse rescue systems, pack hauling systems and in rope climbing systems.  I personally tend to use the hitch in the latter two applications, which allows me to use it in "non-essential" areas or areas that are easily backed up. I don't tend to use it as the main ratchet in crevasse rescue because of the problems listed above.

Certainly many guides do use the garda very effectively in crevasse rescue systems. However, I would caution that if you do elect to use it in this way, that your system is backed up with a clove-hitch and that there is never more than six feet of slack in the system.

If this particular hitch interests you, I would suggest playing with it in your systems at non-essential points before committing to it as a main point...

--Jason D. Martin

Sunday, June 17, 2012

June and July Climbing Events 2012

6/19 -- Boulder, CO -- Slide Show: Richard Parks 737 challenge, at Neptune Mountaineering Club

6/21 -- Red Rock Canyon, NV -- BLM Open House 4pm - 8pm at the Red Rock Visitor Center.

6/21 -- Boulder, C\O -- Mountaineering in Antartctica Slide Show by David Gildea

6/23-6/24 -- Mazama, WA -- Rockfest 2012 

6/23 -- Pasadena, CA -- Eaton Canyon Clean Up Party

7/11 - 7/13 -- Chamonix, France -- Climbing World Cup: View Tour Calendar

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ice Anchors (Part 2)

So Part 1 showed how to make ice anchors with two screws. Part 2 will show you how to make ice anchors in more complicated scenarios. Let's get to it.

How to Make a 3-Screw Anchor

Sometimes you want an extra screw for security. It could be because the ice itself is not that strong and you want another anchor point to add to the mix. It could also be that you only have shorter screws, which can sometimes leave you wanting another piece.

The process itself is quite similar to a 2-screw anchor. Place three screws in the ice, ideally about one foot away from the others. it is best to offset the screws a bit on both vertical and horizontal planes. Clip a carabiner to each screw, and clip in your anchor material. A triple-length sling or cordalette works really well with 3-screw anchors.

And then tie your figure-8 knot. Make sure to keep the cordalette's knot (the one shown in the upper left) away from the figure-8 knot:

And clip in your master 'biner (always a locker):

How to Make a V-thread and Screw Anchor

Sometimes you may want to add in a V-thread to your anchor. I use this especially in the summer on glaciers on Mt. Baker, where we toprope for hours in the hot July sun. Screws can melt out quite quickly in this case because they conduct heat. So I'll often make a V-thread to add to an anchor. Sometimes I'll even do an anchor with two V-threads, but I'll show just one V-thread and one ice screw:

To make this anchor, do a V-thread (see a following blog for how to make V-threads) and put in a screw. Again, make the screw up and to one side of the V-thread. Clip a carabiner to each piece. Clip in your anchor material (shown is a 48" runner). Tie your figure-8 knot to create a masterpoint and clip in your master locker. Voila! A similar setup can be used to backup a V-thread for rappels. Stay tuned to the blog for more info about how to do this.

--Mike Pond, instructor and guide.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ice Anchors (Part 1)

There are loads of different types of anchors, but they all use the same fundamental strategy: connect multiple, sound points of protection together to use their combined strength and redundancy to make a unified anchor. In this series, we'll look at different anchors you can make on ice. In Part 1 (the current entry) we'll do a basic 2-screw anchor. Part 2 will deal with other types of ice anchors.

I took these pictures during a recent course in Ouray, Colorado, where we practice making different types of anchors on ice. Note that these are all on water ice, not glacier ice. The two are different at times in character, but we use the same principals for anchors.

Step 1: Find a safe location with bomber ice.

Ice climbers send down some shrapnel! Make sure that you're out of the way to avoid getting hit. This usually means going to the side of an ice flow or hunkering down under an overhang.

Step 2: Find good quality ice for anchor.

Good ice is not fractured, hollow, or aerated, and is attached to whatever it's on (usually rock). It's a little difficult to describe exactly, but this part is fairly intuitive.

Step 3: Place the first screw.

Locate a place that the ice is fairly flat. If there are any protruding points of ice, feel free to use the adze or pick of your ice tool to knock them out to make the surface smooth. You'll want about a 10-inch diameter to allow the ice screw to rotate completely around. The angle of the screw should be roughly perpendicular to the surface of the ice. If anything, have it go just slightly (less than 10-degrees) downward. Drive the screw on home!


Step 4: Place the second screw. 

 Locate a place at least one foot away from the first screw, ideally up and to the side. Rumor has it that ice fractures along it's horizontal and vertical axes, so if you put the screw in up and to one side it should avoid that potential problem. (I have never even seen an ice screw fracture ice, let alone break it, so I cannot fortunately, say from personal experience on this one).

 Step 4: Clip a carabiner to each ice screw.

I usually use wire-gate non-locking biners.

Step 5: Clip your anchor material to each biner.

You can use a double-length (48") sling, which seems to be the perfect length for ice anchors. You can, of course, use a cordelette, or triple-length sling as well.

 Step 6: Tie your figure-8 knot to create a masterpoint.

Step 7: Attach your lockers, and belay on!

See Part 2 to see ways to make ice anchors on more complex terrain.

--Mike Pond, Instructor and Guide