Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Climbing Class and Grade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

It's finally here!!  This weekend is RED ROCK RENDEZVOUS!!!  Hopefully you are watching these videos on your phone and you are getting ready for your first clinic of the day.  If you are watching from home, you are missing out on an awesome time.  The videos this weekend will give you a glimpse into what the Rendezvous is all about.

This first video will give you a great preview of all the cool activities that go on during the Rendezvous.

Our next video highlights a new climber in one of the introductory Learn to Rock Climb clinics.

The Institute has been helping climbers achieve their goals in Red Rock for a long time.  This video shows all the cool programs and activities that we offer there.

American Alpine Institute - Red Rock Climbing from John Grace on Vimeo.

If you are at the Rendezvous, be sure to come by and say hi at our booth.  We've got some schwag to give away, so be sure to mention that you saw this in the blog!  If you didn't make it to Rendezvous, we'll have lots of guides in the area for the next couple of weeks, so give us a call to set up a personal climbing clinic of your very own!

Have a great weekend! - James

Friday, March 27, 2015

To Wag or Not to Wag...That is the Question...

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

What's a Wag Bag?

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

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

The following description is from the Wag Bag website.

The WAG BAG Toilet in a Bag waste kit is a biodegradable double-bag system made from puncture resistant materials.

Each waste kit includes a zip close disposal/transport bag, a waste collection bag preloaded with Poo Powder waste treatment, toilet paper and a hand sanitizer.

Our non-toxic Poo Powder waste treatment treats up to 32 ounces of liquid and solid waste allowing for multiple use. It turns liquid waste to a solid for hygenic and spillproof transport. The Poo Powder waste treatment controls odors and contains a decay catalyst that breaks down solid waste.

The WAG BAG Toilet in a Bag waste kits are biodegradable and approved for landfill disposal.

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

It should be noted that Wag Bag is a specific brand name that has become somewhat synonymous with backcountry sanitation. The main competitor to Wag Bags are the Restop sanitation kits. These work equally well.

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

The first video this weekend is a little something to get you motivated.  This 54 year old man just broke the Guinness World Record for pullups in a 24 hour period.  Can you guess how many he did?

Candide Thovex has been throwing it down this season. If you're ready to enjoy some of his twin-plank masterly, grab yourself a beverage, super-size this to "full screen" and get ready to enjoy Candide's latest full-length feature, "Few Words."

Sometimes it is the simple things that really get people excited. Here's a quick bit of wisdom to help get you going.

Stone Wisdom from Christian Lavery on Vimeo.

We've been getting a lot of calls recently asking about the conditions on Mt. Baker.  With the dismal snow down low and the closing of ski resorts, folks are worried about how this summer will be with the lack of snow.  Honestly, I'm a little worried too, but I'm going to hold off passing judgement until we see how these next couple of months pan out.

Throughout the winter, the snow levels have been relatively high, and all the rain that we've received down low has still been snow up high in the mountains.  It's just that we didn't get as many of those rainy/snowy days as we are normally accustomed to.  Currently, it is nuking up high on Baker and Shuksan.  Our final video for this weekend is from Monday when a couple headed up to the White Salmon Glacier on the northeast side of Mt. Shuksan.  It's not as good as what we'd normally see this time of year, but it is better than most people think.

Have a great weekend! - James

Friday, March 20, 2015

Route Profile: West Buttress - Denali

Denali from the Southwest. AAI Collection.

We make four camps as we climb alpine style, moving all camps higher as we go and leaving none established above or below. It is not uncommon for temperatures high on the mountain to fall as low as -30F, but at lower elevations daytime temperatures on the glacier can reach as high as 70F, so there we sometimes sleep in the day and ferry loads at night when temperatures are between 0F and 15F. The night's cold improves conditions under-foot, and we still have adequate light because of the extreme northern latitude. Double carries are done during the first part of the expedition to ease the work and to help with acclimatization.

AAI Guide Seth Hobby prepares for an early morning departure
from Talkeetna. AAI Collection
All expeditions begin with a meeting and orientation in Anchorage. We spend one night there, then travel by van the next morning to the small town of Talkeetna. There we repack our equipment, meet our ski plane pilots, and as soon as possible, make the beautiful flight to the Kahiltna Glacier at 7300 feet. Soon after our arrival and a review of glacier travel procedures, we begin moving to our first camp.
We establish our Camp 1 at 7800 feet at the confluence of the main Kahiltna Glacier and its rugged Northeast Fork, the approach for West Rib and Cassin Expeditions. Enjoying spectacular views the whole way, we continue on to Cache 1 at 9800 feet and Camp 2 at 11,200 feet while snowshoeing up moderate terrain. As we do throughout the climb, we travel in rope teams because of the ever-present crevasse hazard. To ease the burden of moving our expedition supplies, we use specially designed sleds that we tether to our packs and pull along the gentle sections of the lower mountain.

Advancing camp on Denali
with full sleds.
Kevin Cannon
Above Camp 2, the climbing steepens as our route takes us past the terminal walls of the West Buttress. We usually cache our snowshoes at 11,200 feet and continue our climb with crampons because of the gradient of the route and the hardening snowpack. We climb out of a basin to reach Windy Corner at 13,100 feet, then make an ascending traverse through seracs and heavily crevassed terrain as we approach the head of the Kahiltna Glacier at 14,200 feet. We enjoy spectacular views as we look down to the lower Kahiltna and out to 17,004-foot Mt. Foraker. In the other direction the impressive summit bulk of Denali rises above us, and we can easily see the details of the upper West Rib and Messner Couloir, as well as the steep headwall of the West Buttress that we will soon climb. At Camp 3 (14,200 feet), we take a well-deserved rest day and make final preparations for our summit bid, reorganizing our gear for the carry to the highest camps.

Ascending the lower part of the fixed lines.
AAI Colleciton

Looking across the top of the fixed lines 
and the crest of the Direct West Buttress.
AAI Collection
At this point we move into the most demanding part of the expedition: higher elevations combined with steeper ground. From Camp 3, we ascend 1100 feet up a gentle snow slope to the bergschrund at the base of the West Buttress. The bergschrund is at times quite steep but it is short and, with steps established in the ice, not difficult to surmount. We then begin our ascent to the top of the West Buttress on the 900-foot headwall of 45 and 50-degree slopes. Typically the pitches are of hard ice with some snow overlaid, and we protect them by using self-belays with jumars on a fixed rope. Because of the steepness of the route and the amount of elevation gained, we may make a double carry to establish Cache 3 at over 16,000 feet.

Emerging from the headwall onto the top of the Buttress, the atmosphere of the climb changes dramatically. While the earlier parts of the climb have all been on large glaciers and open slopes dominated by immense mountain masses towering above, we now move on an open ridge and enjoy that unmistakable feeling of climbing above most of the surrounding world. As we begin to move along the crest of the Buttress, we gain views across the Peters Glacier to the Alaskan tundra stretching out far beyond, and to the south we can look over the top of Mt. Hunter to the scores of other peaks in the Alaska Range. Initially the ridge is fairly broad, but as we reach the 16,400-foot level it narrows with steep drop-offs to both the north and south.

A fortified high camp at the 17,000 foot level on Denali. AAI Collection
The traverse to our final camp, Camp 4 (High Camp) at 17,200 feet, is one of the most beautiful climbs on Denali. We follow a steadily narrowing crest and at times move between and around a series of magnificent, pointed granite gendarmes up to fifty feet high. The climbing is never steeper than 35 degrees, but the exposure is very significant and requires caution as we move up a route that in some sections is reduced to ledges six feet wide. Further east the ridge finally begins to merge with the main part of the Denali massif, and there we establish camp in a basin just below Denali Pass, the low point between Denali's higher south summit and lower, 19,470-foot north peak. From this point we will climb to the summit in a single day.

Enjoying views of High Camp and Foraker from the Autobahn.
AAI Collection.
On summit day we make an ascending traverse to Denali Pass, crossing above some very large crevasses and traversing a fairly steep section between 17,600 and 18,000 feet. From there we climb gentle slopes to a plateau at 19,400 feet, from which we get impressive views down onto the Harper and Muldrow Glaciers and across to Denali's North Peak. Our final approach to the summit takes us up moderately steep slopes to the crest of the ridge between Kahiltna Horn (20,120') and the main summit. At the crest we peer down the 8000-foot drop of the precipitous South Face, looking between the Cassin Ridge to our right and the South Buttress to our left. We ascend the summit ridge on its exposed south side for two rope lengths, then cross to the north side for the final pitches that bring us to the 20,320-foot summit of North America. With steady drops on three sides and the abrupt face to the south, the final steps to the clearly defined summit point are a very exciting finish to a beautiful route.

Climbers approaching the summit of Denali. AAI Collection

Check out our Virtual Tour of a full Denali West Buttress expedition. The photos take you from the streets of Talkeetna to the summit of North America.

Have you been training hard lately, but haven't committed to a Denali team? We still have a few spaces open for 2014 and are taking reservations for 2015. Don't wait until the last minute!


Dylan Cembalski
AAI Guide
Alaska Programs and 7 Summits Coordinator

Monday, March 16, 2015

Diversity in the Outdoors

Stacy Bare was the keynote speaker at the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education Conference in 2014. I've been to several of these conferences over the years, but this is the first keynote that wasn't just interesting...it was important.

Stacy's speach about inclusion in adventure education wasn't short or quick and the video I have embedded here is over an hour long. But the content was really important, especially for those of us who work in the outdoor industry.

Following a bio of Stacy Bare, followed by a video of his keynote address.

Stacy Bare is the Director of the Sierra Club Outdoors Program and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 2014. Prior to working with the Sierra Club, Stacy served one tour of duty in Iraq as a Civil Affairs Team Leader, a tour in Bosnia leading a counter-terrorism team, and spent nearly two years in Angola and Abkhazia as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician. He has spent several years working on issues related to public health and the outdoors as well as increasing access for all people into wild and mild places outdoors. In his spare time, he is a skier, climber, mountaineer, and sometimes surfer. He received his commission into the Army from the University of Mississippi in philosophy and has a masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Urban Design, proving yet again, that the best thing to do with an Ivy League degree is take a hike. Stacy is also an ambassador for The North Face and he and his wife make their home in Salt Lake City, UT. 

In the coming years, Outdoor Recreation Educators have an opportunity to become leaders in the field of Public Health and ensuring we have a fit, healthy, and empathetic country. Shifting demographics and an increasingly more technology oriented client base can either create a defensive posture to try and react to, or we can see it as an opportunity to build and grow our programs. To 'point positive' and build strong, however, we need to change the way we do business to ensure all people, regardless of race, color, adaptive requirements, gender identity, religion, sexual preference, and veteran status feel welcome not just at the trail head, but on the trail. Making the changes required to create such powerful programs may feel frightening and even alienating to your existing customers and clients, however, making programs more accepting and ensuring risk management (physical and emotional) procedures are universal will, in the short and long run, create better programming for your 'average' customer. Looking for help along the way? Check out your student veterans. 

Here is the official AORE Press Release, announcing Keynote Speaker, Stacy Bare! Please share with friends, colleagues and media outlets! 

Stacy's keynote was a home run and he delivered an energizing and challenging message for each AORE member and organization. Stacy has been kind enough to allow us to share his keynote on the AORE website for viewing. Take the time now and in the future to capture that spark again, invigorate your spirit and encourage others in your department and organization to check out his talk!

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

In our first video of this weekend, the German wunderkind Alex Megos crushes "Lucid Dreaming," a V15 highball in Bishop, CA.  The FA was by Paul Robinson in March of 2010, and the only other repeat was by Daniel Woods in early 2014.

For most northwest skiers, this winter has been, well, pretty crappy.  But with these long stretches of high pressure and little to no new snow, we're having very spring-like conditions.  The avy danger has been low, the corn harvests have been good up at higher elevations, and now is the time for some quality ski mountaineering.  Jason Hummel, Jeff Rich, Andy Traslin, and Mike Traslin nabbed a plum with this awesome traverse.

The Forbidden Traverse from Jeff Rich on Vimeo.

Last November Juantxo Pons made the 3rd ascent of "El Gran Bellanco," a 9c (5.14d) in the Pilas Alcalinas cave in Montanejos, Spain. This area near Valencia was popular during the 80's, but recently the Spanish climbing spotlight has shifted toward Catalunya.  Juantxo's ascent shows just how great the climbing can be all over Spain.

Juantxo Pons on El Gran Bellanco, 9a in Montanejos from Valencia Climb on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend! - James

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sport Climbing Tips

I found the following video with a lot of good little tips for sport climbing on youtube. This film is in no way a complete overview of sport climbing, but definitely gives you a sample of the things that you need to think about when you are starting a pitch of sport climbing.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Rookie at Red Rock Rendezvous

Today I got the big news!  After dropping hints left and right, making my case for why it is important to my new career, my personal growth, my social life, and my spiritual wellbeing.  Explaining how it would not only make me better at my job but a better individual, a better citizen of this country, and at the very least a better rock climber.  I--the new girl in the office--will be going to RED ROCK RENDEZVOUS!

            For years I have heard the myths and legends surrounding the most infamous rock climbing festival in the country…dare I say world?!  Famous celebrity climbers, courses and clinics, a dyno competition, stupid human tricks, rock climbing (obviously) but also mountain biking, yoga, slack lining and if the rumors are true…an epic dance party!

            I’ve heard that every year it gets better and better.  I’ve heard that my whole life I have been missing out.  I’ve heard that after you experience Rendezvous life is never the same.  I’ve read the stories; I’ve seen the photos.  I’ve heard that I’ll come out of the weekend being a solid 5.12 climber.  Ok, maybe the last part is a little far fetched but I’m hoping for the best.

            And now, this is the year that I’ll finally be able to see for myself!  Stay tuned to see if the rumors are all true.  Now, it’s time to step up my training…not only at the climbing gym but also on the dance floor, the bike, and at the brewery.  I may be the rookie at Rendezvous but my excitement is off the charts.  Need proof?  This is how stoked I was to lead my first trad climb in Red Rock a few years ago.  See you in the desert at the end of March—if not, I’ve heard you’ll be missing out.

Lily in Red Rock

--Lily Hickenbottom, Southwest and Foreign Programs Coordinator

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

Dawn Glanc set a goal for herself last year to be the first American woman to climb M11.  This first video for the weekend shows how she committed herself to her training and showcases what an awesome job she did achieving her goal!

Committed from Mountain Hardwear on Vimeo.

Another amazing female climber, Alex Johnson hunted the boulders and cliffs of Red Rock Canyon to find this gem and get the First Ascent of a stout V10 called "The Swoop."

The Swoop Project from AJ on Vimeo.

I know it is technically still winter here in the Cascades, but with all this warm, sunny weather we've been having, it's hard not to want to go climbing.  In this video, Jimmy Webb shows off some sweet bouldering in Leavenworth last year.

Washington 2014 from Jimmy Webb on Vimeo.

This last video is a short by sweet one.  Using special rigs and supplemental oxygen, the team from Teton Gravity Research was able to capture some amazing footage of the Himalayas from an elevation of about 20,000'.  These are views that are rarely captured and are quite inspiring to an alpinist of any experience level.

The Himalayas from 20,000 ft. from Teton Gravity Research on Vimeo.

If you are called to climb one of these magnificent giants, Alpine Institute can work with you to meet your goals.  We have skills trainings to help you build your experience level, as well as full expeditions to the region.  Call or email us for more information.

Have a great weekend! - James

Friday, March 6, 2015

How-To: Spring Cleaning for Your Rock Rack

Climbers follow a route in the High Sierra (A. Stephen)
It's almost that time of year again!  As the days start to get longer, my thoughts naturally turn toward ungloved hands touching dry rock.  This year, I am giving up on winter especially early. I am heading to the Southwestern United States to begin my rock climbing season in a couple weeks, which means that the pile of unsorted rock gear that has occupied my house since fall must be dealt with.  I inspect, and clean my rack once a year both for safety and to increase the life of my cams.  Here's my process:

Organize, Re-Mark, Inspect

The first step is sorting out the gear.  I lay out all cams, stoppers, and other hardware, and separate carabiners from slings.  Once everything is laid out, I will inspect everything to make sure it is in good working order.  Things I'm looking for:

Cams/Nuts: Rust? Frayed cables? Trigger action?

Carabiners and Other Hardware: Dings or potentially sharp blemishes that could mess with my soft goods?  Good carabiner gate action?  Acceptable wear (See photo below)?

Soft Goods (Rope, slings, cords, harness): Core shots? Frayed slings? Sun damage(discoloration, or a stiff/chalky feeling)?  Especially important to carefully examine Dyneema! Alot of slings will tell you the date they were made- if it was more than five years ago, retire it! If you can't tell whether or not you have a core shot, try to bend the rope in half at the point of damage.  If you can, it's a core shot.

This sling was retired this year due to fraying and general wear.
Note the fuzziness of the sling itself as well as the fraying at the bar-tack 
This worn carabiner will be retired after this year, and will not be one I use
 as a connecting point in a top-rope setting ever again.
I remark all my gear every year- nail polish seems to last the longest.
Cam Maintenance

The best way to clean your cams is with a large pot of boiling water, a pipe-cleaner, and a teflon-based lubricant.  You can buy specialized cam lube from Metolius, but I have equally as good luck with Tri-Flow, a teflon-based bike lube that is easier to find and sometimes cheaper.

Metolius Cam Lube

Boil the business end of your cams, making sure that the webbing isn't put in harms way through touching the stove or being immersed in the boiling water.


The next step is to clean the dirt and grime away from the moving parts of the cam.  I focus on the axles and springs.  Make sure to pull the trigger to get access to different aspects of the axle.


The last step is to re-lube the axles.  The teflon-based lubricant will keep dirt away from the moving parts and give your cams like-new trigger action.  If you can find an applicator tube (Tri-Flow comes with one) that is ideal.  Just a drop or two per axle will do.

Now your rack is all set for another season of sending the gnar!

--Andy Stephen, Instructor and Guide

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Specialty Climbing Course with Hans Florine and American Alpine Institute

March 31 - April 2 in Red Rock, Nevada

Spend the day with Hans Florine and an American Alpine Institute guide. You can finally do that multi-pitch route in Red Rock you've always wanted to get on! Pick Hans's brain on ways to get yourself out more and cover more ground when doing so. Hans is flexible so if you want to get on a single pitch route or boulder problem and have him work with you on just about any climbing related skill, he is game. Lastly if you have any questions, contact Hans directly at Hans@hansflorine.com.

To register, contact American Alpine Institute at info@alpineinstitute.com or (360) 671-1505

Cost per person, per day: 
1 climber : 2 guides $1075
2 climbers : 2 guides $725

About Hans:

Hans Florine knows speed. He has repeatedly set and broken one of the most coveted speed records in the world: The Nose of El Capitan. In 2012, Hans and climbing partner Alex Honnold took the record again in 2 hours and 23 minutes, lowering the previous record by a full 13 minutes. In 2014, Hans set the record for fastest solo ascent of the Triple Direct. He holds several records throughout Yosemite Valley and around the world.

Hans won the first International Speed Climbing Championships in 1991 and has held the U.S. National title eleven times. He won gold at the ESPN X-Games three years in a row. He is the co-author of “Speed Climbing,” now in its second edition and the producer of the award-winning climbing documentary, “Wall Rats.”

Hans has been featured in San Francisco Chronicle, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Men’s Journal, Fitness Runner, Rock and Ice Magazine, Climbing Magazine, Alpinist, Diablo
Magazine, Master Athlete and more.

He is a sponsored athlete for Outdoor Research, KineSYS, Honey Stinger, Petzl, LaSportiva, Blue Water Ropes and NUUN. He is an ambassador for The Access Fund, an active member of The American Alpine Club and supporting member of the Yosemite Fund, Leave No Trace and the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL).