Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Rope Length on a Glacier

How much rope should be between people on a glacier?

Twenty feet? Forty feet? Sixty feet? It seems like there should be a clear-cut answer to the question, but unfortunately there's not.

Some years ago a friend of mine was coming down the Coleman-Deming route on Mount Baker late in the season. He was at the back of the rope team. The person at the front of the team slowly began to work his way across a snowbridge. Approximately half-way across, the bridge collapsed.

The leader dropped into the crevasse. The guy in the middle of the rope team did not attempt to arrest the fall at all. And my friend immediately dropped into a self-arrest position. Each of the two climbers at the front of the team were essentially lowered to the bottom of the crevasse. But unfortunately, my friend was dragged in and fell to the bottom.

The Coleman Glacier on Mount Baker

As the crevasse wasn't that deep, no one was seriously hurt in the incident. But it was a very close call. One could make a very good argument that if there were just a few more feet between these individuals, that then the fall could have been arrested before it became as serious as it became.

There are three things to consider when deciding on rope length:

1) How big are the crevasses?

Obviously, you will need enough rope out to make sure that two members of the team are not on the same crevasse. If you're in the Alaska Range or the Himalaya, this is significantly more rope than it is if you are in the Cascades, the Canadian Rockies, or the Andes.

2) How many people are on the team and what kind of room will you need to arrest?

The more people on the rope, the more weight there is. On a team with five people, I've seen a person fall into a crevasse and stop without a single member of the team self-arresting. While larger teams tend to be slower and more difficult to manage, they are better when it comes to arresting a fall.

It is also important to make sure that there is not only enough room between each member of the team to arrest a fall, but that there is also enough rope out to arrest the fall before getting dragged into the crevasse. Essentially, this means that there should be more rope out between people when there are smaller teams. Having lots of rope out between people doesn't matter as much with larger teams.

3) Is there enough rope to perform a rescue?

Why not just put all the rope out? Won't this ensure that you always have enough room to arrest?

Certainly there are places where having all the rope out is good. In ranges with giant house-eating crevasses like the Himalaya and the Alaska Range, it's probably best to put all of the rope out. But this does make crevasse rescue more difficult and it doesn't give you a lot to work with if someone gets hurt in a fall.

One of the things that we teach at AAI is that, if possible, you should have some rescue rope on either end of your team. This rope should be long enough to reach the next person on your team. This is so that if there is a major injury in a crevasse fall, that you have enough rope to rappel down and perform first aid before pulling a person out.

If you plan to travel to a range where you will need to have all of your rope out, it is good to practice crevasse rescue without rescue coils. Unfortunately, it is a slower and more tedious technique.

Rope Measurement for Smaller Ranges

I have a simple system for measuring rope length in the Cascades. I'm six feet tall and so my wing span is also approximately six feet. I will generally separate people by measuring the rope with my arms. Here is a team breakdown:

Two person team - 8 arm lengths - 48 feet between climbers
Three person team - 7 arm lengths - 42 feet between climbers
Four person team - 6 arm lengths - 36 feet between climbers
Five person team - 5 arm lengths - 30 feet between climbers

In a pinch, it's possible to have a larger team, but it is not optimal. And you should never go below 30 feet between climbers.

When you get to teams with five or six people on them, generally there is not enough rope on either end to perform a rescue. In such a case, you should have the leader (i.e. the strongest/most experienced person on the team) carry any rescue rope that's available.


Certainly, the amount of rope out between people is a personal and team choice. Some of you who are reading this are probably shocked at how little rope I suggest between people. And others are just as shocked about how much I suggest. Either way, I can say comfortably that I personally feel as safe as is reasonable with these lengths on the glaciers of the Northwest...

--Jason D. Martin

Update --

The guide who fell into a crevasse back in 2000 responded to this post. Following are his comments on the topic:

Hey Jason, I was checkin out your AAI blog this morning and I saw your post on rope distance on glaciers. Nice article - well written and a great topic. I thought about trying to write about that topic recently but got side-tracked.

Interesting to see an anecdote told about my experience. I learned a few things from that, and as such I might disagree with a couple of your premises - or at least have a few other factors to consider. After my accident, some people told me (Crusty old Tom Bridge being one of them) that I could have benefited from the rope distance being a bit longer. I saw that you put that in your blog as well. Keep in mind however that had there not been a little "floor" in that crevasse, an extra few meters would not have mattered, and we probably all would have gone in anyway - and died. Yeah, more rope distance = more "time to react" but only to a point. The amount of rope out was for me a tiny little variable. The other key thing worth pointing out (and you did anyway) is that it was a small, visible bridge that failed over an open crevasse, rather than the failure of a soft blanket of snow over a hidden crevasse.

My clients and I were tied the "standard" 35 or so feet apart. In the following season or two, I heeded Tom B. and others' advice that I should go more like 40-45 feet on cascades glaciers. It wasn't until 2005 or 2006 or so when I realized, that all things being equal, I should have gone way closer than 35 feet. When I started going through the AMGA alpine program, that confirmed it for me. For me rope distance ceased to become a function of anticipated crevasse width. I now go even closer in AK too. I think the most likley consequences of a crevasse fall is usually trauma to the victim - not "the whole rope team getting sucked in". The circumstances of my crevasse fall in 2000 should never be used as an example of how far apart to tie in for glacier travel. We should have been in short rope mode - and thats what I would do if I could go back to that moment on Sept 28th, 2000 (at about 1:45pm in the afternoon to be exact).

At some point that day as we descended, the snow got firmer and the crevasses became more open. It was probably around 8000 feet on the coleman glacier. S-R mode would have allowed me to route-find better and just end-run the crevasse (which was the most logical and "safe" way of solving that particular guiding problem that day. Long-roping is a great technique for crossing glaciers where hidden crevasses comprise the greatest hazard, but in our case most everything that could open was already open. Short-roping would allow a guide to routefind much better than trying to long-rope with a client 80 feet in front of you leading the way (on that piece of glacier, I thought
about going first but the risk of slips and falls was high - thus another reason to S-R and not L-R.

The other thing to remember about your blog topic is that crevasse falls are not the only big hazard on glaciers. Slips and falls on steep terrain are sometimes more severe, and a rope team moving together while tied in far apart is not well prepared (in my opinion) to deal with those hazards.

So, to make a long story longer, when I am trying to figure out how far apart to tie my rope, I think about a few of the following variables (above and beyond crevasse size, numbers of people, etc...)

- Is long-roping more appropriate or less appropriate than short-roping right now? (L-R when soft snow, bad vis, lots of hidden slots, etc... S-R when late season, Firn, most slots are open, route-finding in complex (but not whiteout) terrain.
- Is the snow firm or soft? I might short rope routes these days in the morning, but then L-R them in the afternoon when they have softened up.

- How fit are the clients and how important is my communication with them and with each other? - if client safety benefits more from communication, pacing, direction, etc then I might go shorter rather than longer. Its a lot easier to remind your clients to keep the rope tight when they are 25-30 feet away than it is when they are 40. Its also easier to keep the rope tight, as well as direct, warn, caution, etc... I have gotten so sick and tired of tying my clients in 40 feet apart only to see them tripping on my rope with their crampons. They sometimes do such a bad job monitoring rope tension that the additional distance ceases to become a benefit. And you know this is true for recreationalists (comprising much of your blog audience) as well.

- Is adjustability important? Build a system into the rope team that allows one or more members to drop an intermediate knot - thus extending themselves temporarily - It isn't that hard to teach even the greenest of clients. If we are approaching a monster slot where I am afraid of its strenght and of having 2 or more people on it at once, its easy to go quickly from 25 feet to 40 feet if neccessary - or even switch to a belay-from-anchor. Furthermore, I think there are hardly any monster slots out there (bigger than 20-25 feet or so) that don't manifest themselves on the surface some how. The biggest slots I have ever seen outside of AK are down in Antarctica, and they always reveal themselves one way or another.

Instead of asking myself "how long should I go with my rope distance" when I rope up with my clients, I now try to ask my self 1): Is a rope even necessary? (because sometimes it isn't of course - or sometimes the presence of a rope makes things more dangerous than less - I asked my clients to unrope on a relatively crevasse-free glacier on Mt Blanc this summer because I felt the risk of rockfall from above far outweighed the likelihood of an unroped crevasse fall. 2): How short can I safely go? I bet there are plenty of days on Baker late in the season where one could short rope the vast majority of the route and argue logically that it exposed the team to less risk than long-roping.

The caveat of all of this, and the reason that it is on my mind so much (besides me being the lucky survivor of the story you told) is because of all the 14 guide fatalities in France last year, many of them were due to crevasse falls. Many euro guides can be seen short roping here and there on heavily crevassed glaciers, and it really makes me wonder sometimes... I find myself long roping lots of terrain that fellow french, italian, or swiss guides might be short roping on. There was an inquiry at ENSA (the french guide school) last year after many of the accidents and the ENSA instructors were asked if they teach new guides to S-R the glaciers. "No" they said. "We teach our candidates to use longer distances of rope when the risk of crevasse falls is high" they said. "We don't know why these guides learn one way with us then do something completely different (and much less safe) when they complete their UIAGM diploma".

That about wraps her up... Sorry this isn't very short but as you might know I have a very personal connection to crevasse falls and crevasse-related risk management. Plenty of people probably don't agree with me by the way, but I'd happily maintain that there is little or no evidence to support the claim that more rope in the team equates to less crevasse fall risk.
I witnessed two crevasse falls in a 30 minute period while guiding the Dufourspitze in Switzerland last summer. I rescued both victims myself. One team (a czech team) tied in a about 35 feet, and did a poor job of watching their tension. A girl popped through a weak bridge in the dark and yanked the other two guys off their feet. She went deep-until she corked. If she hadn't corked she might have dragged them both in. 15 minutes later an Italian climber passed me as I was probing a suspicions area (he wasn't concerned). He and his (single) partner were tied in 25 feet apart. He fell in - and the tension went immediatey onto his partner - who self arrested (crampons on, toes in the snow! - It works!). His partner was dragged a little bit but not much, and successfully stopped the fall. We hauled that guy out too. One of your blog points was that smaller teams should tie in further apart than big teams. I disagree (with some exceptions). I think they can go just as close (and use heaps of butterfly knots). I honestly believe the benifits outweigh the disadvantages, and overall - if people are skilled and aware - going a little closer is often safer.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

Salomon FreeSki TV gives us an insight into the life and death of a ski area, from mom-and-pop T-bars, to massive mega resorts that blossom in a matter of years.  And as usual, there is some sweet skiing footage in there as well.

There are a lot of these "People are Awesome" videos out there, but guy at the end really surprised me.  We've shown some free-soloing clips before, but this guy is on a different level.

Since this is the last Weekend Warrior of the year.  I thought I'd throw this video in to show you all what it means to be truly STOKED!! After skiing solo to the South Pole and back to the coast, Aleksander Gamme comes upon his food cache and surprises himself with its contents (be sure to turn on the captions).

Happy New Year! - James

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

In our first clip this weekend, Pep Fujas rips some backcountry booters in this short called "Tracing Skylines" from Poor Boyz Productions.

The Salomon crew shows us in this next clip how to make the best out of series of not-so-great situations.  When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!

In this trailer from the Reel Rock film tour, "High Tension" examines the massive fight on the slopes of Everest between climbers Ueli Steck and Simone Moro, and a group of Sherpas who had been trying to fix lines on the mountain.

And last, but not least, here's a little something to get you in the Holiday Spirit!

Merry Christmas! - James

Friday, December 20, 2013

Trip Report: Drury Falls

With the cold clear weather caused by the Fraser outflow two weeks ago, I got the urge to do some ski mountaineering.  Fellow AAI guide Chad Chocran and I cruised up the Twin Lakes road in an attempt to ski Mount Larrabee.  It was a total failure.  First the temperatures were frigid.  Second our stove stopped working, and third we got the god awful idea to eat a can of beans we found in the lookout.

Please don't try this at home.   
Although we woke to a crystal clear morning, our inability to make water and the residual effects of the beans, coupled with the frigid temps rapidly led to a hasty retreat back to the car.  The day after our attempt the winds picked up and proceeded to make ski mountaineering a less than desirable option.  In an attempt to redeem myself I figured I would switch sports and try some climbing.  With the freezing temps WA had been experiencing for the last week it seamed that some ice had to be in shape somewhere.  

Kurt Hicks, a long time friend, suggested taking a look at Drury Falls in Leavenworth.  Some friends of his in Leavenworth had climbed it recently and said it was in relatively good conditions.  So I packed up the car and drove east.  As we passed Drury falls on the way into town it appeared we had made the right call.
The route from Hwy 2.
Excited that the route appeared to be in good conditions we finished the drive to town and proceeded to track down a boat that we would need the next morning as one must cross the Wenatchee River to get to the falls.  Given the length of the route, we figured we would be coming down in the dark regardless of what time we embarked.  As we had to cross a river in the morning in a craft that was barely large enough for two, we decided we would get a relatively late start and meet at nine.  The crossing proved to be difficult as the low temps had caused a good portion of the river to freeze. This forced us to start on the ice, transition to open water, and then transition back to ice on the opposite shore.  It was exciting.
Kurt and Blake pulling themselves out to open water in our trusty rowboat.
Once across the river, two hours of hiking saw us to the base of the route. Before the main falls start there are several approach pitches.  While they were relatively low angle they still require ice tools and a decent amount of caution, a slip here while not fatal would definitely be a show stopper.
Approaching the main falls
After we were through the low angle approach ice we put the rope on and started climbing.  There were many pitches of moderate ice climbing that led the the final tier. 
Pitch 1 Photo-Kurt Hicks
Mid-height in the route,
Finally we reached the top tier of the climb which proved to have the hardest climbing.  I led up to the crux and built a belay below it.  It looked hard especially given it was our first day out.  Despite the early season and not having swung his tools in over a year Kurt was able to make it happen in great style.  
The crux was below the upper pillar.  Its longer than it looks in the photo.
Once we topped out it was almost dark.  We put the headlamps on and started the long descent. 
Nighttime rapping Photo-Kurt Hicks
Several rappels, a long walk, and a cold boat ride saw us back to the car around ten pm.  While WA ice isn't always in, when it is, it's pretty good.

--Dustin Byrne, Instructor and Guide

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Route Profile: North Ridge of Mt. Baker, III+

Washington climbers have a huge array of glaciated peaks to climb throughout the Cascades.  But when they are ready to push themselves further and decide to start climbing steeper alpine ice and snow, one of the best places to do that is the North Ridge of Mt. Baker. (Click the link for a more up-to-date version of this page.) With its relatively short approach, moderate climbing and picturesque views, it is a great first foray into the world of alpine ice climbing.

Mt. Baker in the summer with Roman Mustache (right, red),
Coleman Headwall (center, blue) & North Ridge (left, purple).  Andrew Yasso

The North Ridge is usually climbed between the start of May and the end of August, but it can be done almost year-round.  In early season, you have to contend with deep, soft snow from the previous winter, and in late season you have to carefully navigate through the maze of crevasses on the Coleman Glacier.

From Helioptrope Ridge Trailhead, hike the trail until approximately 5400'.  From here, you can either branch off and head east towards Harrison Camp (aka Mirkwood), although most climbers continue up the trail to higher camps either on the bare rock at the edge of the Coleman Glacier, or up on flat areas of the Glacier at approximately 6800' - 7000'.  To start the climb you drop down and traverse through the Coleman, weaving through the crevasses along a ramp at about 6600'.  Once you've made it across the glacier, climbers have two options:  throughout the majority of the season, you can climb through the hourglass (shown in the photo above), or in later season when the hourglass is melted out, you may have to circle around further to the left before starting up the ridge proper.  The later option adds more time to the climb, but avoids serious rock-fall potential.

AAI guide, Tad McCrea, starting up the ice bulge on the
first pitch of ice on the North Ridge. 
Climb the lower half of the Ridge until 8800', where you will transition from glacier travel mode into roped climbing mode.  Climbers will head out and around to the left (East) of the starting ice bulge for 1-1/2 to 2 pitches, then topping out at a broader, more northerly facing and lower-angled slope.  This broad slope can vary in difficulty, ranging from deep snow wallowing in early season to firm neve-kicking later on.  Progress up these shallower slopes for 2-3 pitches as you are funneled towards the lobe of the upper ice cap.  At 9600', there is another step of 60 - 70 degree ice for 2 pitches.  After topping out on the shoulder of the ice cap, trend to the left (east), winding through crevasses, to reach the summit proper.  

A climber near the top of the last steep pitches
of the North Ridge. Alasdair Turner

For the descent, head west across the broad summit plateau and descend the Roman Wall to the saddle between the Demming and Coleman Glaciers at 9000'.  From the saddle, descend to the north and traverse below the Black Buttes and return to camp at Heliotrope Ridge.

AAI climbs this route regularly as part of our Alpine Ice Course.  This 6-day course reviews basic glacier travel and crevasse rescue skills before diving into more complex crampon and ice axe techniques. We will teach you the skills necessary for difficult alpine ice climbs, including ice screw placement, anchor building, hazard evaluation, glacier travel and navigation, and more. We have these courses scheduled every week from May through August.  Please email us or call for more information on climbing this amazing route!

- James Pierson

Monday, December 16, 2013

Dynafit Bindings: What they are and how 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.

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 theHaute 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 wildsnow.com or give our backcountry skiing courses a try!

-- Ben Traxler, AAI Guide

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

Alpine Institute guide Tad McCrea put together this little video from this last summer.  He dropped by just before heading to Patagonia for the season.  He's got some big climbs in mind down there, so we wish him the best of luck.  If you'd like to sign up to climb with Tad when he get's back next summer, give us a call!

Cascade Country Club: guided ascents from tad mccrea on Vimeo.

Beacon Rock is a basalt monolith on Washington's southern border along the Columbia River.  The south face is criss-crossed with dozens of routes that work their way to the top.

Beacon Rock - Then & Now from Adam Baylor on Vimeo.

Petzl put together this "instructional" video showing some very bad habits found in climbing.  You should steer clear of this guy!

The World's Worst Belayer [EN] Bad belaying techniques from Petzl-sport on Vimeo.

Best regards,

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Route Profile : East Buttress of Mt. Whitney, III 5.7

As someone who's had the opportunity to travel and climb around the country over the past nine years I've gotten used to (but never tired of) visiting a new area and being told, "Oh, you need to go check out X, Y, and Z routes; they're classics!"  And there is still a sense of adventure and discovery that wells up in us climbers every time we're in that situation. These folks are right, and their prized routes stand out for their perfect in-cut crimps, their pleasing movement, the engaging variety of techniques they demand, or simply their aesthetic surroundings.

Very occasionally, you'll happen upon a route that seems to combine all of these things, and after climbing it you'll tuck the memory away to cherish until you get a chance to come back and do it again. The East Buttress of Mt. Whitney (which at 14,494' is the highest peak in the lower 48 states) is such a route.
AAI Guide Ian McEleney kicks his shoes off by
Lower Boyscout Lake on the approach to
the East Buttress.  Casey O'Brien
The hike in to Iceberg Lake at the base of Mt. Whitney begins at the Whitney Portal trailhead (8360'), about 20 minutes West of the town of Lone Pine.  From there, the trail climbs steadily, gaining 4,300' in just over 4 miles as it winds its way up a creek drainage through the forest and past beautiful lakes before emerging in the alpine and scree at the base of the peak and route.

The distinctive ridges of Mt. Russell, just North of
Whitney, exemplify "the Range of Light."  Casey O'Brien
The route itself seems unlikely from a distance, but as one nears the base, obvious lines of weakness appear amidst the blocky assemblage of the Buttress.  The climbing is straightforward and engaging from the start, and pitch after pitch has the leader shifting back and forth between fun 4th class scrambling, and short, steep moderate cruxes.  Moving up the arĂȘte, the leader has their pick of easily protected variations ranging from 5.6 to 5.8 on a number of pitches, which makes for fun route finding and allows climbers to move between several different style of climbing in rapid succession.

AAI videographer John Grace moves up toward the Second Tower.  Casey O'Brien.
Eleven pitches and 1,000 feet of varied and exceptional climbing after the day begins, climbers top out on Whitney's deceptively broad summit and have a chance to savor their accomplishment and the broad vistas stretched out below them.  The registry beside the small stone shack at the summit affords a quaint opportunity to document your presence on the summit before descending back to Iceberg Lake via the Mountaineers Route.

Looking down the East Buttress from the upper pitches.  Casey O'Brien
Though imposing from the base, intermediate climbers will find the East Buttress to be a suitable challenge, an awe inspiring route and a significant accomplishment that they can take away with them. Thankfully, once you've climbed the East Buttress there are innumerable other climbs in the High Sierra to challenge and inspire you in all seasons.  The range is an ideal place to learn and push yourself ice climbing, Winter mountaineering, or backcountry skiing; if you haven't already, this ought to be the year you get out there and explore.

A post-climb fortune cookie puts us on the right track.
Casey O'Brien

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Danger of Tree Wells

At the American Alpine Institute, we spend a lot of time talking about avalanches. We run dozens of avalanche courses a season and highlight avalanche near misses and fatalities on this blog. But we haven't spent much time talking about another major frontcountry and backcountry danger: tree-wells

Every year there are stories about people who have gone into a tree-well upside down and suffocated. Essentially, a skier or a snowboarder takes a fall and slides into a tree-well upside down. When this happens it's very difficult for one to extract him or herself. Indeed, struggling upside down in a well can actually cause an individual to slip down further. The result is very similar to an avalanche, an individual suffocates in the snow.

Occasionally we report on frontcountry avalanches, but they are rare. Tree-well accidents happen every year both in-bounds and out-of-bounds. The wells are particularly dangerous after a big snow storm that dropped a lot of powder.

The Tree-Well and Deep Snow Safety website indicates that, "the odds of surviving a deep snow immersion accident are low; especially if you are not with a partner. In two experiments conducted in the U.S. and Canada in which volunteers were temporarily placed in a tree well, 90% COULD NOT rescue themselves."

The following video portrays a shocking demonstration of just how dangerous tree-wells can be:

Following is a breakdown of what to do in the event of a tree-well accident:

Ski with a Partner

First and foremost, skiing with a partner is the most important part of staying safe on a powder day. And skiing with a partner means keeping track of him or her visually. If you speed ahead and are waiting at the bottom of the slope for your partner in the tree-well, then you have failed to truly ski with your partner. Many of those who have died as a result of a tree-well incident were with partners, but they did not actually witness the fall. Visual contact is important!

In addition to staying in visual contact, it is important to be close enough to your partner that you could dig him out if an accident occurs. How long does that person have? Well, about as long as you can hold your breath...so you should be close enough to perform a rescue quickly.

If your partner goes into a hole, don't leave to get help. Dig him or her out! Once you have reached the person's face, be sure to clear the airway as there might be snow in the mouth.

Carry Backcountry Equipment

Obviously digging requires a shovel. Be sure that you have a shovel, a beacon and a probe on any big snow days, in-bounds or out.

If you're a skier, remove your ski pole straps. People who go into tree-wells often have trouble removing these straps while in a hole.

Stay on Groomed Trails

On big powder days, groomed trails are always the safest. However, if you really want to enjoy the powder or you want to ski in the backcountry, you'll expose yourself to tree-well danger.

If you are off the groomed trails, stay away from the trees. There will not be a tree-well where there is no tree.

If You Fall in a Tree-Well

If you realize that you are falling into a tree-well, try to grab the tree and the tree-branches. Once you've fallen in, try to hold onto the tree or branches so that you don't fall in further.

Struggling in a tree-well often makes you sink more deeply. So if you're in the hole, think. Don't panic. Try to breathe calmly in order to conserve the little bit of air you might have while waiting for a rescue.

If you are in the hole, try to create a breathing space near your face. If you're secure, try to rock your body gently in order to increase this space. Over time, heat from your body, along with rocking motions, will compact the snow. The hardening of the snow around you might allow you to work your way out of the hole.


Following are a few great sites with information about tree-well related incidents:

Stevens Pass Tree-Wells
Tree-Well and Deep Snow Safety
How to Escape a Tree-Well

Tree-wells are dangerous, but they are a danger that can be mitigated and avoided. Pay attention to your surroundings and to your partners in order to stay safe while skiing or snowboarding.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, December 6, 2013

Ice Screw Testing in Europe

A small crew in Europe went out to test ice screws and v-threads The following video is one of those "breaking gear" type videos that we occasionally post. This one is well worth watching.

I was surprised to learn that the v-threads that they placed were weaker than the screws. I had always thought that a v-thread was stronger because it involved more surface area. This series of tests found that screws and v-threads fail in a similar way, but that screws were ultimately stronger.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, December 2, 2013

Liz Daley and the Daley Splitter Episode II

AAI Guide Liz Daley is continuing to make her excellent web series for Epic TV. In this second episode, we catch up with Liz and her partner climbing an excellent line in the Alps and missing their last tram down the mountain.

To see the video, click below:

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

If you're not recovered from Thursday, then you better hold on, because we've got some more tasty morsels for you this weekend.  In our first clip, Jens Holsten puts up a new route, Mainsail (5.12d), in Leavenworth.

Mainsail from Max Hasson on Vimeo.

In the latest from Salomon Freeski TV, Josh Daiek, Mike Henitiuk & Kieran Nikula head to an abandoned mining village in the BC backcountry in search of their own "white gold."

Fred Wert resides in Winthrop, WA and used to climb many of these peaks shown in our next video. It was taken over several winters from his Cessna 182.  Fred says his videos are, "a way to share a view of these magnificent peaks that few people can ever see. And it is to provide a different perspective and view of the many sides of many peaks that are not usually even seen by mountain travelers."

How many of these peaks can you name?

Flying the North Cascades from MtnsFlyer on Vimeo.

And finally, for those of you who are still in a food coma and can't get out, here is 45 minutes of climbing.... in Turkey!

Have a great weekend!!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Eye Protection on Long Expeditions

Anyone who has spent any time on a glacier when the sun is out, will tell you how fast their skin started to tan or burn. The reflective nature of snow and ice greatly magnifies the suns power, and proper measures need to be taken to protect our skin and eyes from UV rays. Putting on sunscreen and wearing sun glasses seems like basic common sense when the sun is out, however it is not as obvious when the clouds are overhead. The fact is though, that even when the clouds are out, those damaging UV rays are still making their way through, and your chances of becoming snow blind or burning your skin is still high. On long expeditions, the chance of you encountering bad weather and having to deal with variable conditions is almost a guarantee, and as such you should come prepared.

The author, rocking out his Spectron 4 shades in the bright light on Denali

This leaves you with a bit of a dilemma, seeing as sunglasses generally are made for when the sun is out, right? Most sunglasses are just too dark to use when the clouds are out, making visibility even a bigger issue. Julbo USA realizes this issue, and as such have created glacier glasses with much higher visible light transmission. They use a lens system which range from Spectron 1 - 4, with the higher number eliminating more of the visible light. They have even created a lens system, which they cal lCamel, that is photochromatic - meaning it transitions between two different lens categories depending on the amount of light available.

This feature however, can price some people out of these glasses, and personally, I choose another option anyway. On long expeditions, I will bring 3 different sets of eye wear, for a variety of reason. The first, is a pair of sunglasses that have Spectron 4 lenses, for those days that are bluebird and the sun is out shining. The second pair, will have Spectron 3 lenses in it, and an anti-fog coating. I tend to find that when I'm in a white out, there is a lot more heat and moisture and my glasses will fog up. That is why it is most important to have an anti-fog coating on this pair.

The author, with his Spectron 3 glasses - preparing for when that fog rolls in.

My final pair, will be some goggles, with the highest visible light transmission possible. If I have goggles on, it is probably because the weather is so terrible and the wind is blowing so hard, that I will need to be able to see as much as possible. Smith Optics makes a great pair of lenses called the sensor mirror, which seem to increase contrast and really help with the flat light that can be found in a blizzard.

Smith goggles with the Sensor Mirror Lens.

The important thing to note, is that all of these glasses/lenses filter out 100% of UVA/UVB rays. The amount of visible light that is transmitted is a completely different story, which is why you can still remain protected while altering your lens to the current conditions. Additionally, you could very well get a pair of glasses with Spectron 3 lenses, and they would serve most all of your purposes. I choose 3 pairs of eye protection because I like to have redundancy in this system. If I, or someone else on my team, loses or breaks their glasses - there will be a back up pair. I would rather carry the extra weight of a second pair of glasses, than go snow blind.

The author, covering up his skin and rocking a different pair of shades on the summit of Denali.

Let's not forget the most important reason to carry more than one pair of sunglasses however. Sometimes it's nice to switch up your style while on the mountain!

--Andrew Yasso, Instructor and Guide

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Top Rope Anchors off Bolts or Chains – Part II

I’ve been meaning to write on this topic for a while now and thought it would be a good follow up to Jason Martin's Toproping Sport Climbs

My initial inspiration for this topic came from the following Mountain Project Thread: How to use rap rings and chains properly

I find it interesting how such a simple topic receives so much controversy and attention, but I do understand why. I believe that most climbing, especially toproping, is extremely safe when done correctly, but the consequence of a simple mistake can prove fatal.

It's always tough weeding through threads like this for the good information. There are many misnomers in the thread like reference to the “AMGA Way” or self proclaimed experts that believe their knowledge base is greater than the combined knowledge of hundreds of AMGA guides and then accusing the AMGA of teaching incorrect methods.

There really is no AMGA Way; if you asked 5 Certified AMGA Rock guides to build a toprope anchor off bolts, I’m pretty sure you would see 2 or 3 different ways. Through my experience of taking both my Rock Instructor course and Rock Guide Course/Aspirant Exam I’ve found that the AMGA teaches us to use many different techniques, but the main thing they try to do is help us to develop sound judgment to decide what techniques are appropriate for the given situation. A common theme throughout advanced courses is, “what is the price paid (in time and energy) and what is gained from that?”

So how does this relate back to the topic of building topropes off bolts or chains? I think there are a few factors you should consider before deciding on what method to use. For the purpose of this discussion, I am working under the assumption that we have two well placed, solid, 3/8” or larger bolts. Anything less than this, you may want to consider working another anchor point or back up into the system.

One of the techniques discussed in the thread is toproping off two quickdraws. I don’t see a big safety issue with a toprope through two opposite and opposed quickdraws that are well equalized, overhanging and in sight. My question with this is “how much time and effort would it be to incorporate a draw with a locking carabiner?” I think a locker adds a considerable safety factor with very little effort. Also, in real life, the bolts aren’t always placed so the draws meet all of the above requirements.

If anchor bolts are out of sight, not well equalized, or rubbing against rock, my favorite toprope setup in the Quad. This is a form of the equalette and can be found in John Longs Climbing Anchors on page 172.

One of the great things about the Quad is that it self-equalizes, but for that gain you lose part of your "No Extension." My rule of thumb for extension is something that I learned in Search and Rescue Training: "Keep it to 6 inches or less" The quad can typically be tied and used on multiple anchors with little or no adjustments to the extension limiting knots to keep it less than 6 inches. I also like to use the quad on multipitch climbs with bolted belays stations, in that application I anchor into only two strands(using 7 mil cord) and then belay and anchor the second into the other two.

No matter what method you decide to use to set up your toprope anchor, you should try to take into consideration the above factors and anything else that could affect your setup and build it to SERENE principals.

I hope everyone had a great fall and is getting stoked for some good snow and ice.

Doug Foust, Instructor and Guide

Monday, November 25, 2013

Mountain and Backcountry Smart Phone Apps

Over the last couple of years, smart phone technology has developed at a pace that is unprecedented.  Engineers who develop phones are only part of the story though. Application developers are the other part of the story. And yet another part of the story are developers who create programs for outdoor enthusiasts.

There are three kinds of apps for backcountry users and climbers. The first kind is for entertainment. Sometimes they have useful beta, but not always. The second type provides pre-trip planning beta.  And the third type provides onsite beta.  There is value to all three types of apps, but those that present beta that has value in the moment provide the most bang for the buck.

Recently guides have been spending a lot of time trading ideas on apps for backcountry use.  Here is a short list of apps that some guides are beginning to carry:

Mapping and GPS Apps

A backcountry GPS is no small purchase. Most run between $100 and $400.  However, the smart phone applications that many are using these days work almost as well.

When I was first told about this GPS option, I thought that it wasn't for me. I thought that you had to be in cell phone range for these to work. That is absolutely not the case. In the proper settings your smart phone GPS application will work even when you are in airplane mode.

Trimble Outdoors Navigator and US Topo Maps

These two applications represent the gold standard of GPS backcountry app technology.  While each of these programs have their quirks, they both work well even when you are far from 4G technology. Indeed, I have to say that I often find that these programs operate more effectively than my (admittedly old) GPS unit.

Google Earth

The ski guide who told me about this uses Google Earth to find potential ski runs in the backcountry. Mountain Rescue volunteers and professionals also use this app to develop search plans in complex terrain.


Though this isn't really a backcountry app, it can certainly get you from one place to another. I've been using mapquest regularly to get to towns or landmarks near climbing areas that I've never visited before. The application "speaks" to you, telling you where to go and when to turn. It's a must have for the traveling climber.

Medical Apps

Wilderness First Aid

In this day and age it seems ludicrous to carry a book into the mountains, whether it be for personal reading or for reference. There is currently at least one free first aid app available and dozens of apps that you have to pay for.


Weather Bug Elite

Like most weather programs, there is a free version and an upgrade. I really like the Weather Bug Elite. In part it's because this program not only provides the weather, but gives updates on where lightning strikes are taking place. Unfortunately, this program doesn't work without connectivity.

NOAA Weather

At the American Alpine Institute, we use NOAA regularly to determine where to run trips and programs. We look at the telemetry to determine everything you can imagine. Like the Weather Bug, the program doesn't work without connectivity.

Camping Apps

Campground Finder and RV Parky are two apps that I use to find campgrounds nearby. The downside of each of these is that they don't seem to be able to find the same campgrounds. So, if you show up to a campground and it's full, you might need to use both programs in order to find something suitable.

These programs use the GPS in your phone to provide you with camping options. It's too bad that there isn't an app that also shows good free or hidden campgrounds...

When I've pitched these programs to people in the past, they've become worried that they only list places for RV camping. This is not the case. Both programs provide info on both RV and tent camping options.

Skiing and Snow Apps

Avalanche Forecasts

The Avalanche Forecasts app provides information on avalanche conditions in the Northwestern United States. I haven't dug very deeply, but I suspect that there are apps for other regions as well.

BCA Assessor App

This program helps you with both your avalanche assessments and tour plans. I haven't used the app yet though, because it's only for Iphones and I have an Android. However, those who use it certainly like it.

Ski Report

The Ski Report app provides "on piste" information from ski resorts all over the place. The information provided from a ski resort may help you to decide whether you want to visit the resort or play in the backcountry nearby.


Mountain Project

For a small  fee you can download Mountain Project. If you're not already aware of this resource, you should be. Mountain Project is an online guidebook built by users all over the world. The app allows you to access tons of route beta through your phone...  Just don't drop your phone when you're up there reading about where the next pitch goes!

Climb Tracker

I've been looking for some kind of a fitness app for the rock gym, one that I could track my progress on as well as my other training activities. Unfortunately, the app that I really want doesn't exist. What does exist is an app called the Climb Tracker. It's a very easy to use app for you to keep track of the routes you completed. You could use this to track everything you've done as almost a climbing resume, or you could use as I have been, to track gym training...


This is more of a standard app than a backcountry app. It is a program that allows you to take notes and then sync them to all of your devices. And notes can include anything from photos, to web clippings, to maps. I regularly put information into my Evernote notes on my computer in order to have them on my phone when I'm in the field.

Magazine and Book Downloads

There is something to be said about ebooks and magazine subscriptions in your phone. You can get Climbing magazine through your phone as a subscription based service. You could also download any instructional books or documents that you might need. Many guidebooks may now be purchased as ebooks. This could make the weight in your pack go down significantly.

What do you use?

We're incredibly interested in finding out what others are using on their phones in the backcountry. Please let us know either here in the comments or on our facebook page.

And lastly, if you intend to use your smartphone in the backcountry, bring spare batteries and potentially even a solar charger... The last thing you want is to run out of juice!

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

Dubsatch Collective brings it one more time with some sweet footage from their Japan trip.

Hakuba from Dubsatch Collective on Vimeo.

With most of the major ski resorts across the US ramping up this weekend, I thought it was a good idea to drop this one for you Weekend Warrior out there.  If you decide to duck that rope and travel into the backcountry, be sure you know what you're getting yourself into.  Stay safe out there.

Weak Layer, Slab, Trigger = Avalanche from Trent Meisenheimer on Vimeo.

Lastly, for those of you who just aren't ready for (or frankly Scarlet, don't give a damn about) snow, here's a little something rad to keep you stoked as we roll into the weekend.

RAD DAYS - Teaser from kim feast on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend! - James

Friday, November 22, 2013

AORE Conference 2013 Round-Up

The Association for Outdoor Recreation and Education (AORE) is the the premier conference of it's type in the United States. The focus of the AORE conference is to bring together college and university outdoor educators, outdoor rec students and professors, military rec planners and community rec planners to share ideas.

This conference was my fourth representing the American Alpine Institute. I have attended the conference in Keystone, Colorado; in San Antonio, Texas; in Snowbird, Utah; and finally, this year in College Park, Maryland, just outside of Washington DC.

One of the valuable things about the AORE conference is that the clinics and seminars don't just revolve around hard technical skills. Many discuss academic papers and studies concerning the outdoors, as well as issues that young outdoor professionals might face. I attended seminars on everything from mentorship to how to fix a van that broke down on a program.  I also presented on two topics. I co-presented a lecture with Ed Crothers from the American Mountain Guides Association on "How to Become a Professional Mountain Guide," and I presented a lecture on "Professionalism in the Outdoor Industry." Both of which were well attended.

AAI Guide Mike Pond, presented a lecture from his outdoor recreation thesis on spiritualism in climbing. He didn't look at religion as much as how individuals feel when they are in the moment on a climb when they feel connected spiritually to the universe.

Following is a photo essay on the conference as well as on my journeys in Washington DC.

 The Univeristy of Maryland, College Park has an excellent 
outdoor climbing wall and bouldering cave.

AAI Guide Mike Pond presenting his 
research on climbing and spirituality.

During the AORE Auction, this guy modeled jackets without his shirt on.

The Capitol 

Nobody ever talks about the Korean War Memoral, but I think it's the most 
haunting of all the war memorials. One can really feel the pain 
and suffering in the eyes of these statues.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial

The Washington Monument, under repair.

The Martin Luther King Memorial

The Boy Scout Memorial

The Air and Space Museum was a highlight of the tourist part of my trip.

 Another highlight was the Natural History Museum.

 There are very few things cooler in the world than dinosaur bones.

This was my favorite old sign from the American History Museum.
Perhaps this is still apt today with all the traffic and global warming and on and on...

Sorry for the "my trip to DC" slideshow, but it was my first time there. Next year the AORE Conference will take place in Portland, Oregon. I'm looking forward to another spectacular conference...

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

AMGA Rock Guide Course Reflection

AAI Guide Andrew Yasso just finished his Advanced Rock Guide course with the American Mountain Guides Association. The Rock Guide Course is not just another course, the course also tests guide skill with an assessment that is referred to as an "Aspirant Exam." This is a prestigious and difficult program. Andrew wrote about his experience withe program in the following blog:


The AMGA Rock Guide Course/Aspirant Exam (RGC/AE) was more than I could have asked for. It clarified and solidified many of the techniques I use as good habit and best practice, in addition it showed me new perspectives to evaluate situations and skills to better manage them. There is truly no better resource than having multiple IFMGA level guides as your instructors. The long days during the course were a testament to their dedication to ensuring ample time to practice and digest the material. The knowledge I received from these instructors was well worth the time and investment.

Each day focused on either introducing new concepts or applying our novel skills in real terrain. For example, one day we focused on short-roping techniques to ascend and descend a feature, practicing with one and then two mock guests. The following day we applied these skills and climbed an objective that involved real world short-roping. This style of learning, practicing, and then performing is seriously effective in hammering home the skills and judgement required for keeping a rope team safe in non-fifth class terrain. I am thankful for the practice and could use plenty more, especially under the watchful eye of a more highly trained and experienced guide.

Overall I think my favorite part of the course was interacting with my peers, and seeing how they responded to challenges in a guide role. Most of the students in the course had significant guiding experience under their belts, and I felt lucky to be among a class that could share that experience in a positive and constructive way. I hope that throughout the AMGA process and my career as a whole, I will continue to be among individuals who are dedicated to becoming the best guides they can possibly be, and they truly motivated and encouraged me while on this course.

Of course there were challenges as well, however, they seemed minor in comparison to the positive aspects of the course. The government shutdown began on the first day of our course limiting our terrain selection, and weather on the final day cut our aspirant exam objectives short. These challenges however, became opportunities and assets to the instructors as they found new and varied venues to deal with area closures. The inclement weather on the final day served to teach me a very important lesson while on AMGA exams: When in guide mode - stay in guide mode. Not only did I learn how to “bail safely” off a climb, I learned to bail in style.

I am fortunate to work as the lead guide in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area for the American Alpine Institute during the Winter/Spring season. I see the AMGA as the premier source for education and career advancement in the United States, and as such I looked to this course to build my knowledge-base and skill set. I am grateful to have taken, and passed, my RGC/AE. To add to my excitement, I applied for and received a very generous full-tuition scholarship from Petzl. It is an amazing feeling to know that friends, family, and even equipment manufacturers, believe in and support my passion and career. For that, and to Petzl directly, I am extremely grateful.

 --Andrew Yasso, Instructor and Guide

Monday, November 18, 2013

Toproping Sport Climbs - Part I

Pulling through the last few moves on “Lude Crude and Misconstrued,” a popular 5.9 located in the Black Corridor of Red Rock Canyon, is not a particularly difficult thing to do. The moves at the top are easy. No instead, the scariest part of the climb is not the climb itself, but the anchors. So many people have put their rope through the chains at the top of the route and then proceeded to toprope or lower off the anchors that the sawing action of hundreds of ropes has nearly eaten them clean through.

This is a chronic problem at sport climbing areas across America. Chain and quicklink anchors are severely damaged due to ignorance or laziness. The problem is most visible however, in places where it is sandy. Once a rope gets sand in the sheath it literally becomes like sandpaper. The repeated sawing action of a moving tensioned rope -- especially one with sand in the sheath -- may severely damage anchor chains in as little as a matter of hours.

The question then must be asked, who is responsible for a newly damaged anchor? Is it the first ascent party's responsibility to replace the anchor? Is it the responsibility of a local guide service? Does it become the problem of local climbing conservation groups? Or are the people who damaged the anchor responsible?

There is no right answer to the preceeding question. I have personally replaced innumerable anchors out of my own pocket. I know a number of others that have the same. We do this because we don't want to see anybody get hurt. But it's not something that we want to do.

Most of us who put up new routes or repair existing climbs simply avoid toproping directly through the chains. Instead, we use a cordelette or a double shoulder-length sling in conjunction with locking carabiners.

Above is an example of a rope threaded directly through the anchor.Do not do this for anything but a rappel.

On the left-hand side, the anchor is composed of quick links. These are easier to change-out when they are damaged. On the right, the anchor is made up of chain purchased from a hardware store. This is more difficult to replace when damaged.

The photo above provides an example of a properly set-up toprope. The anchor is composed of a double shoulder-length sling, tied into a pre-equalized eight. At the bottom, clipped into the power-point (sometimes called the master-point) are two opposite and opposed locking carabiners. This is the best possible system as it meets the requirements for a SRENE or ERNEST anchor and protects the anchor chains from damage.

There are two organizations that are currently replacing bolts and anchors throughout the country. The first is the nonprofit American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA) and the second is the Anchor Replacement Inititive(ARI) sponsored by Climbing magazine, the North Face and Petzl . It is possible to support the ASCA with donations and to support the ARI by purchasing items from their corporate sponsors.

Checking anchors to make sure that they are not damaged, replacing those that are or providing financial support to those who will replace them, and reporting damaged anchors to individuals who will fix them is the responsibility of every climber. But perhaps the greater responsibility is to simply avoid damaging an anchor to begin with.

--Jason D. Martin