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.

Conclusion

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.  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. Jeremy Wilson
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

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Murder of the Impossible

In 1971, Reinhold Messner was already a well-known alpinist. So when he wrote an essay that became one of the most heavily quoted and debated pieces of writing in climbing's history, people paid attention. In 1971, Messner wrote, The Murder of the Impossible.


Reinhold Messner

Messner became one of the most well-known alpinists in the world after he became the first person to summit Mount Everest without Oxygen in 1978 and then the first person climb all 14 8000 meter peaks in 1986. These accomplishments culminated to make him an important voice in the world of climbing. It also served to keep his essay alive and under constant scruitny.

Following are a series of select incendiary quotes from the essay. Some of the most quoted parts have been highlighted:

Expansion bolts are taken for granted nowadays; they are kept to hand just in case some difficulty cannot be overcome by ordinary methods. Today's climber doesn't want to cut himself off from the possibility of retreat: he carries his courage in his rucksack, in the form of bolts and equipment. Rock faces are no longer overcome by climbing skill, but are humbled, pitch by pitch, by methodical manual labor; what isn't done today will be done tomorrow. Free-climbing routes are dangerous, so the are protected by pegs. Ambitions are no longer built on skill, but on equipment and the length of time available. The decisive factor isn't courage, but technique; an ascent may take days and days, and the pegs and bolts counted in the hundreds. Retreat has become dishonorable, because everyone knows now that a combination of bolts and singlemindedness will get you up anything, even the most repulsive-looking direttissima.

Times change, and with them concepts and values. Faith in equipment has replaced faith in oneself; a team is admired for the number of bivouacs it makes, while the courage of those who still climb "free" is derided as a manifestation of lack of conscientiousness.

Who has polluted the pure spring of mountaineering?

"Impossible": it doesn't exist anymore. The dragon is dead, poisoned, and the hero Siegfried is unemployed. Now anyone can work on a rock face, using tools to bend it to his own idea of possibility.

Anyone who doesn't play ball is laughed at for daring take a stand against current opinion. The plumbline generation has already consolidated itself and has thoughtlessly killed the ideal of the impossible. Anyone who doesn't oppose this makes himself an accomplice of the murderers.

I'm worried about that dead dragon: we should do something before the impossible is finally interred. We have hurled ourselves, in a fury of pegs and bolts, on increasingly savage rock faces: the next generation will have to know how to free itself from all these unnecessary trappings. We have learned from the plumbline routes; our successors will once again have to reach the summits by other routes. It's time we repaid our debts and searched again for the limits of possibility - for we must have such limits if we are going to use the virtue of courage to approach them. And we must reach them. Where else will we be able to find refuge in our flight from the oppression of everyday humdrum routine? In the Himalaya? In the Andes? Yes certainly, if we can get there; but for most of us there'll only be these old Alps.

So let's save the dragon; and in the future let's follow the road that past climbers marked out. I'm convinced it's still the right one.

Put on your boots and get going. If you've got a companion, take a rope with you and a couple of pitons for your belays, but nothing else. I'm already on my way, ready for anything - even for retreat, if I meet the impossible. I'm not going to be killing any dragons, but if anyone wants to come with me, we'll go to the top together on the routes we can do without branding ourselves murderers.

So forty-two years later, we have to ask whether or not the impossible has been murdered? Has the advent and popularity of sport climbing changed the way that we think of climbing? How about aid climbing? What about mixed climbing? We've seen ascent after ascent over the last few years that required such a high level of commitment and technical ability, that it's hard to say that the impossible has been murdered.

On the other hand, imagine a route up a blank rock face where every four feet there is a bolt. Anybody could climb such a route using aid techniques. This would definitely fit into Messner's description of the murder of the impossible. But now imagine that same route with a bolt every seven feet. There might be climbers out there who could climb such a route and then again there might not...

Most climbers don't think about whether or not they are murdering the impossible with their techniques. Most are just out there to have a good time and maybe do something cool.

The reality is that the introduction of 5.15 into the grade system and wild expeditions to the edges of the Earth continue to show us that every generation of climbers has a new "impossible" to overcome. As long as we continue to follow the ethics of a given area or range, meeting the impossible on its own terms will always be possible...

--Jason D. Martin

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,
James

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.

Resources

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