Monday, February 29, 2016

Backcountry Skiing: Skin Track Corners and Kick-Turns

Kick-turns can be difficult for first time backcountry skiers working their way up hill. There are a lot of variations to the turn, but the goal is always the same: change direction.

The American Mountain Guides Association and Outdoor Research teamed up to make a video on this subject. The following video not only talks about the basics of making a simple wishbone turn, but it also goes into some skills that an advanced skier might employ leading a beginner up the hill.

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 2/25/16


--A 55-year-old woman died after colliding with a snowboarder at British Columbia's Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. To read more, click here.

--A child recently had a problem on a chairlift at Whistler. Luckily the lift operators moved fast and were able to save the boy hanging from the chair from any serious injury. Check out the video below:

--And speaking of children in ski resorts, another child had a very close call at the Brundage Mountain Ski Resort in Idaho. Winston Goss was skiing between trees with his son Ethan at when the boy lost control and wiped out. Ethan went into a tree well and was immediately buried in snow. Had the boy's father not been there to pull him out, it is unlikely Ethan would have survived. To read more and to see the terrifying GoPro video of the incident, click here.

--The trail to the Big Four Ice Caves, closed since a deadly collapse of the caves in July, is likely to reopen this spring with updated warning signs and a winter’s worth of new snow from which the caves could reform. The U.S. Forest Service is finishing a risk assessment for the ice caves, the most visited hiking destination in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Thousands of hikers follow the trail every summer to the foot of Big Four Mountain, where packed snow from winter avalanches accumulates and lasts, sheltered in the shade of the mountain. As the weather warms in the spring and summer, meltwater and warm air currents carve caverns into the compressed snow. To read more, click here.

--By tapping his state’s first recreation advisor, Governor Jay Inslee—along with chief executives in Colorado and Utah—has sent Western policymakers a strong message and a challenge: Support the outdoor industry or lose one of your state’s biggest economic engines. When 200 outdoor recreation industry executives, nonprofits, guides, conservation groups, and other stakeholders gathered at the Big Tent Outdoor Recreation Coalition annual rally in Olympia, Washington, on February 3, they had a lot to celebrate. To read more, click here.


--Every year there are a few days in February where the sun lights up Yosemite's Horsetail Falls so that it looks like it's on fire. As the sun goes down, it hits the falls just perfectly. To see a video about this annual event, click below:

Desert Southwest:

--Death Valley National Park, one of the hottest places on Earth, is experiencing a rare occurrence fit for the record books. Despite its inhospitable climate, the below-sea-level basin in Furnace Creek, California -- about 150 miles west of Las Vegas -- is now teeming with millions of blooming wildflowers. To read more and to see photos, click here.

--Two remote former mining sites in Joshua Tree National Park have been closed — indefinitely. The theft of a heavy ore car and other items has resulted in the recent closures. And in recent years, Joshua Tree National Park has had a rash of vandalism forcing the closure of multiple areas. To read more, click here.

--Zion National Park has announced cliff closures to climbers for nesting peregrine falcons. To see the list, click here.

--The best climbing festival of the year is now accepting registrations. Red Rock Rendezvous will run from April 1-3. Come on out to Vegas and get your climb on! To read more, click here.


--More details have emerged on the massive avalanche north of Silverton last week that caught two backcountry skiers and shut down Red Mountain Pass but miraculously caused no injuries. To read more, click here.

--Czech climber Lucie Hrozová recently won the women's Ouray Ice Festival Mixed Climbing Competition and then shortly thereafter completed what may be the hardest mixed climb in America. To read more, click here.

--Want to know how much high end ski resorts pay for their land leases? Check out this article.

Notes from All Over:

--A Canmore climber suffered a 30-meter fall on Alberta's Professor Falls on Mt. Rundle this week. To read more, click here.

--A second ice climbing incident took place in Cody Wyoming. To read more, click here.

--A 65-year-old skier was killed after striking several trees at New York's Gore Mountain Ski Area. To read more, click here.

--A 56-year-old man was killed at Utah's Snowbasin Ski Resort. It appears that the man struck a tree and was not wearing a helmet. To read more, click here.

--One man is dead after he skirted a boundary rope, triggering a deadly slide on the backside of Grand Targhee Resort on Sunday afternoon. Another suffered cardiac arrest last week while backcountry skiing just outside of the resort boundary. Neither man perished within the resort. To read more, click here.

--A 39-year-old snowmobiler has died in an avalanche in northern Wyoming. To read more, click here. To read more, click here.

--With few clues to guide them, rescuers suspended their search Friday (Feb. 19) for a 67-year-old skier suspected to have gone missing in Taos Ski Valley during mid-January. To read more, click here.

--An anesthesiologist was arrested on Valentine's Day in an apparent "ski rage incident" involving a 12-year-old boy at New Jersey's Mountain Creek ski area, police said. Samuel G. Caruthers, 44, of Mountain Lakes, punched the boy in the mouth and struck him with the end of a ski pole during the assault at the ski resort on Sunday afternoon during a "ski rage incident," Vernon police Lt. Keith Kimkowski said in a news release. To read more, click here.

--A West Virginia ski lift malfunctioned this week. The malfunction resulted in nine injuries. Articles about the incident don't explain exactly what happened, instead they just say it was a "malfunction." To read more, click here.

--The National Parks are getting star treatment in a new IMAX 3-D film. Learn more, here.

Officials want to ensure that tourists observe the glaciers from a distance, not atop the glaciers themselves, according to a report published on Thursday by Xinhua, the state news agency.

--The American Alpine Institute does not support any specific candidate for president. However, something interesting happened recently. The Bernie Sanders campaign made a campaign video directed at climbers. This is a new precedent and it means that our voices - the voices of climbers and outdoor recreationalists - have value to politicians. And that is a really cool thing. Hopefully we'll see more of this from all of the candidates as this cycle continues. Check out the campaign video below:

--Concerned about the environmental impact of tourists on glaciers, the government of the Xinjiang province of China announced this month that it was banning glacial tourism across the region, which is one-sixth of the Chinese land mass. Many glaciers are found in Xinjiang, and in the Tianshan range in particular, which runs east-west through the middle of the vast region. To read more, click here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Winter Backcountry Travel 101: Improvised Snow Shelters

What to do with spare time at 14,000ft camp on Denali?  
Build a 16-person igloo! (Photo Credit: Dylan Cembalski)

So you're getting ready to spend an overnight in the mountains in winter. Even seasoned summer backcountry campers will find significantly more difficult challenges in winter camping; shorter days, a harsher climate, harder-earned water sources, and a deep snowpack as the only available medium on which to camp. With a little know-how and practice however, the latter can become your friend.

Snow is an excellent insulator. Snow inherently has so much air inside of it that it traps up to 95% of heat transfer. Also, because of this very principle, the snow closer to the ground will be warmer than the snow at the surface. This is why snow caves can be so comfortable. I have dug many snow caves, and spent many nights 10 ft deep in a Pacific Northwest snowpack, and while snow caves are super warm, they are time consuming to create. With two people, the fastest I have been able to dig out a proper cave is about 2 hrs. These days, I pretty much always just dig what is known as an improvised snow shelter. The improvised snow shelter doesn't have quite the insulating ability of a proper cave, but can be dug in 30 minutes and, if sealed proper, can retain a lot of heat without the moisture associated with the dripping roof of a slept-in snow cave.

Improvised Snow Shelter

The gear needed for an improvised snow shelter is pretty minimal. The shelter can take many forms to match the terrain and weather constrictions. If you have a lee-side incline with safe snow conditions, this will provide the best coverage with the least amount of digging. All you will really need is an ultra-light tarp equipped with guy-lines and stakes, and a shovel. I find that adding an extra-large emergency blanket to my sleeping setup really makes a difference in staying warm and dry. The idea is simple- measure out the area you have to work with by spreading out the tarp over the spot you've chosen. Mark the boundaries, then dig out the area, going as deep into the snow as you can- at least 6 feet. Flatten out the bottom of your pit. I like to dig out an area in the pit heading into the hillside that will be used for my kitchen. Make sure to poke some good-sized holes through the snow above this area to allow for adequate ventilation.

 After the pit is dug, carve out an entryway in one of the downhill corners. At a minimum, I try to make my entryway two feet deeper than the floor of my pit. This will create a 'cold-sink' (a place for cold air to escape thus allowing more hot air into the enclosure), provide protection from the elements, and a comfortable seat to put boots on. I then make sure to put an angle or curve into the walkway to further block wind from entering the shelter. When this is all complete, I tension out the tarp over the pit. Once it is tight, seal off the pit by putting snow on top of the tarp's edges and corners. Voila! Improvised shelter, complete!

                  Laying the groundwork for an improvised snow       The final product. (A.Stephen)
                      shelter (A. Stephen)

Staying Dry and Warm

The hardest part about camping and sleeping directly on snow is staying dry and warm.  The first step in this process begins when you leave the car.  Throughout the day, including when you begin to dig out your shelter, be cognizant of keeping crucial layers dry.  Any items that are impossible to keep dry such as gloves and socks, you should double up on.  While down jackets and sleeping bags are warm and packable, consider bringing either a jacket or sleeping bag that is synthetically insulated, since these pieces will retain their warmth even if they get wet.  If anything you are wearing starts to get full-on soaked, switch it out or find a way to dry it out immediately.  Drying out clothing in your sleeping bag at night is possible, but keep in mind that anything that is completely soaked is highly unlikely to be dry by morning, and the more wet things you pack around you, the more potential there is to spend the night shivering instead of sleeping.

An emergency blanket will come in handy to line the floor of your shelter so as to provide a bit of reflective heat, as well as a barrier from the snow in case your bag slides off your pad in the night, or if you need to make a quick exit.  If you are religious about staying dry, chances are you will be able to escape being cold, but going to sleep with a nalgene filled with boiling water can go a long ways toward making sure of this.

As with most mountain travel principles, experience is an equal to knowledge.  So go out and practice before you put yourself in a situation where you are fully dependent on your shelter.  I recommend packing extra warm layers your first few times using an improvised snow shelter so you can dial in your sleeping system without worrying about the consequences of any missteps.  As always, the American Alpine Institute is available to teach these skills in a more comprehensive, hands-on manner, helping you gain the knowledge and experience to become a smart and self-reliant backcountry traveler, climber, and skier. 

-Andy Stephen, Instructor and Guide

Monday, February 22, 2016

Review: Sweet Protection Igniter Alpiniste Helmet

Some pieces of gear do just one thing really well. Others try to do just too many things at once. The Sweet Protection Igniter Alpiniste is an example of the latter--it's a helmet that's dual-rated for both skiing and climbing, but it has just a few too many bells and whistles to be easy to use.

At first I had high hopes for the Alpiniste helmet since it solves an important problem: protecting your noggin for two activities--skiing and climbing--that inherently go together in the world of ski mountaineering. Since skiing and climbing put you at risk for different types of impact, helmets for each have distinct design and certification requirements. There are only a handful of dual-rated helmets on the market: the Camp Pulse, the Camp Speed 2.0, and the Mammut Alpine Rider are good examples of what's already out there.

The Alpiniste has several features that do make it well-suited to backcountry skiing and alpine climbing--the attachment point for ski goggles also works well for a headlamp, and its easy open-close vents help you adjust to varying levels of activity. The padding is decently comfortable.

The two big issues I had with the helmet, however, were adjustability and weight. There are just too many points of adjustment for the chin strap, with multiple buckles up by the ears and one under your chin that you all have to adjust to try and get it to fit right. Freezing my butt off in a whiteout on the top of Trimmer Peak a few weeks ago, I was less than thrilled with this issue.

The other problem is how heavy it is--it's listed on the Sweet Protection website for a M/L as 680g, or 20oz. That's almost twice as heavy as the Camp Pulse, which weighs 12.2oz for the large. For climbers and ski mountaineers the mantra of light is right prevails, and the Igniter Alpiniste just isn't light.

Sweet Protection is new to the U.S. market and it's products do show promise, it just still has some kinks to work out--including with the Igniter Alpiniste.

--Shebly Carpenter, Instructor and Guide

Friday, February 19, 2016

Film Review: The Wildest Dream

In 1924, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine made the first ascent of Mount Everest...

Or maybe they didn't...

It's hard to tell whether they made it or not. The pair was last seen alive 800 feet below the summit. Seventy-five years later, Mallory's body was discovered by mountaineer Conrad Anker on an expedition designed to find out what actually happened on the mountain in 1924.

Since that fateful day, the day that took the lives of Mallory and Irvine, whether or not the pair reached the summit of the tallest mountain in the world before their demise is one of the most hotly debated subjects in mountaineering history. There are many details that make one believe that perhaps they did summit. For example, Mallory carried a picture of his beloved wife Ruth which he said he would leave on top of the mountain when he summited. The picture was not found on his body, which could mean that it was left on the summit. But there are also details that make one believe that they might not have summited. For example the Second Step, a named feature on the mountain which now has a ladder on it, would require difficult rock climbing at altitude, something that might not have been possible in the twenties.

The IMAX documentary film, The Wildest Dream, delves deeply into the mystery surrounding the loss of Mallory and Irvine by chronicling the lives of both men as well as the life of modern day mountaineer, Conrad Anker. Anker returns to the mountain with climbing prodigy Leo Houlding, to continue to develop his understanding of the 1924 expedition and to try to surmount the major difficulty that some historians believe may have turned the pair around, the rock climbing required on Second Step.

The Wildest Dream is a fantastic visual journey chocked full of dramatic mountain images and dramatic mountain men. Anker and Mallory are linked through time by a mountain, by a route, and by their commitment to their families. Indeed, the most pertinent moment of the film is when Anker compares his feelings to those that Mallory expressed in his letters. When Mallory was at home with his wife and his family, he was always dreaming of the mountains. When Mallory was in the mountains, he was always dreaming of his wife and family. This is something that most of us in the mountain community can relate to.

The use of IMAX for this film was wise. However, it can make it difficult for those who do not have IMAX screens nearby. Indeed, it may no longer be shown on IMAX and may only be available to most on DVD.  The movie's artistic exploration through imagery is far more decisive and more dramatic than the 1998 IMAX film, Everest about the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy. In part this is because the filmmakers really commit to the format. If they didn't have the footage of a given spot on the mountain, they used high-end computer models, which looked incredibly realistic.

The one downside of the film is that it takes a firm stand on why Mallory chose Irvine as his climbing partner, without presenting the fact that historians see this choice as controversial. In part this is because a fit, acclimitized and experienced climber named Noel Odell was close at hand high on the mountain. Some believe that Mallory may have chosen Irvine as his partner because he was sexually attracted to the younger man. Mallory went through a well-documented period where he flirted with homosexuality. Others believe that he may have done this because he was attracted to the younger man's youth and saw himself in the man. But in the film, they tell us that without question, Mallory chose Irvine to be his companion because of his knowledge of the oxygen apparatus that the men carried. It would have been nice if they had at least alluded to the fact that this choice was considered controversial in such a documentary.

Artistically the use of Mallory and Irvine contrasted with Anker and Houlding works extremely well. As such, The Wildest Dream becomes a film about expeditions in the twenties and expeditions now. It becomes a film about men in the early nineteen-hundreds and men now. It becomes a film about the women who fell in love with these men. And finally it becomes a film about a mountain that has obsessed climbers for nearly a hundred years.

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Route Profile: Skiing the Shuksan Arm

Mt. Shuksan sits above the Mount Baker Ski area, a jagged jewel of rock and ice frosted in snow. The mountain is one of the most photographed mountains in the world, and for good reason. It is an absolutely stunning mountain.

Mt. Shuksan in the Winter

There are several ski tours that one can do out of the Mount Baker Ski Area. Some of them are quite easy, while others are more advanced. Skiing the Shuksan arm is one of the more aggressive ski days. Why? Because you cover quite a bit of ground. But the ground is absolutely awesome.

Here is a short photo essay from that tour:

 Skiers on the Shuksan Arm

A skier dropping down off the arm above Lake Ann 

The snow was literally like butter the day we were up nthere. 

 Okay, I admit it. I'm the one who screwed up the S turns by going straight.

The lower Curtis Glacier above Lake Ann

The American Alpine Institute runs private ski programs in the Cascades, the Sierra and in the San Juans every day throughout the winter. In the Cascades the ski programs run up to July...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, February 15, 2016

Heel Lifters for Backcountry Skiing

The American Mountain Guides Association and Outdoor Research recently teamed up to put together a video on heel lifters for skiing. Jeff Ward and Margaret Wheeler, two AMGA Instructor Team members, demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of heel lifters in the following video:

In review, the pros for no lifter are:

--Longer Stride

The cons for no lifter are:

--Strains the calf muscle on steep terrain.
--Can cause you to lean too far forward, which may lead to slipping backward.

Pros for the mid-lifter are:

--Eases calf stress as the terrain steepens.

Cons for the mid-lifter are:

--Shortens stride
--Lose some ski precision

Pros for the high-lifters are:

--Trail breaking in deeper snow is easier.

Cons for the high-lifters are:

--Harder to balance
--Short/too forward to stride
--Stressful on quads

It should also be noted that ski crampons don't work well with high lifters. Most brands won't bite well when your heel is highly raised. There are a few that remain fixed to the ski, but most don't...

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, February 12, 2016

Film Review: Touching the Void

The following review was first published at Movies Online in 2003. Touching the Void has been available on DVD for several years and streams on Netflix. This piece was written for a non-climber audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, they touched the void...

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 2/11/16


--A woman is safe after being buried by an avalanche north of Pemberton. On Sunday afternoon around 3:40 p.m., Pemberton RCMP received a call about an avalanche north of Pemberton off of the Duffly Lake Highway. There were a number of groups out skiing on February 9th when the avalanche occurred. One woman was fully buried 1.5 metres below the surface for three to five minutes, and three other people were partially buried. To read more, click here.

--There was a serious avalanche incident in the backcountry near Crystal Mountain Ski Area on Saturday. Both skiers survived and were able to self-rescue, but it was a close call. To read more about the incident, click here.

--A regional expert on grizzlies made the case last week for helping the “charismatic and controversial creatures” return to their historical home in the North Cascades. Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest has spent 20 years researching and advocating for grizzly bears, and shared his thoughts about the proposed recovery of grizzlies in nearby mountains with an audience at the North Cascades Basecamp on January 28th. To read more, click here.

--Alpinist, sponsored athlete and writer, Blake Herrington will be putting on a slideshow at Western Washington University to promote his new guidebook on February 24. Click on the announcement above for details.

--The Whistler Blackcomb resort is having a strong ski season so far and is on track to have a record number of visits, according to its parent company's latest financial report. In the three months that ended Dec. 31, it recorded 502,000 skier visits - up 23.3 per cent from the comparable quarter of 2014. By Feb. 8, in the midst of the company's second quarter, it had recorded 1.09 million skier visits. To read more, click here.

--Tim Emmett and Klemen Preml have established a new ice climb at Helmcken Falls in British Columbia—an overhanging, 260-foot WI 12, climbed in a single pitch. They call their new line Interstellar Spice. To read more, click here.


--In-bounds avalanches are rare. Ski patrollers do a lot to manage the avalanche hazards inside ski resorts. That said, occasionally they happen. The following video was posted by a skier named Tyler Karow after he was caught in an in-bounds avalanche at Mammoth Mountain.  Karow was trying to ski Philips on the far side of Paranoids...

--Another route on El Cap has gone free! The Heart Route climbs up the southwest face of El Captan. The route has 12-pitches of 5.11 and nine pitches of 5.13. To read more, click more.

--While temperatures around the Tahoe Basin are forecast to reach close to 15 degrees above average this week — with no precipitation expected — meteorologists and water resource officials say it’s not yet a cause for concern when it comes to the snowpack. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest: 

--A person died while visiting Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on Sunday. According to Las Vegas police, the death appears to have been the result of a medical episode. It was not the result of a fall. To read more, click here.

--The best climbing festival of the year is now accepting registrations. Red Rock Rendezvous will run from April 1-3. Come on out to Vegas and get your climb on! To read more, click here.


--Colorado recorded an avalanche fatality last Tuesday when a snowmobiler stuck in a gully triggered an avalanche on the east side of Wolf Creek Pass. The avalanche was not relatively large, but a lack of shovels and the terrain trap nature of the accident prevented a speedy recovery. To read more, click here.

--A snow bike rider was fatally buried by an avalanche Friday in the Cottonwood Pass area of Chaffee County. To read more, click here.

--Through January, avalanches had killed 21 people this winter in North America, including hikers, climbers and skiers and snowboarders. Snowmobilers—including the 5 killed in British Columbia—account for 12 of the 21 deaths. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--A 24-year-old woman died over the weekend after hitting a tree at Wisconsin's Cascade Mountain ski hill. To read more, click here.

--A Virginia rock climber pleaded guilty on Monday to killing the climber who was his mentor for 20 years, by hitting the man on the head with a claw hammer. David DiPaolo, 33, will likely be sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison, in accordance with the plea agreement, the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland said in a statement on Monday. To read more, click here.

--A person was injured after falling during a climb of a rock face in North Carolina's Linville Gorge area on Saturday afternoon. Ground crews helped the patient near Shortoff Mountain in Burke County until rescue teams could move the climber to a place where a military helicopter was able to land. To read more, click here.

--Black Diamond has issued a recall for some carabiners and some runners. To learn about the carabiner recall, click here. For the runner recall, click here.

--Two ski resorts in Vermont closed last week due to a lack of snow. To read more, click here.

-President Obama announced a proposal last week to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the 2017 budget, along with permanently reauthorizing annual mandatory funding for the program beginning in 2018. To read more, click here.

--So a guy did a really good job on a ski video with his Iphone and nothing else. Check it out below and read more, here.

--It's interesting to note that not all ski fatalities are listed in the different statistics. To read more about this, click here.

--Get the gear. Get the training. Get the forecast. That's the mantra of the industry that's built up around the rising popularity of back country sports — skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling — undertaken outside the groomed boundaries of ski resorts. But while more and more people are venturing out into the backcountry, sales of life-saving avalanche gear are not keeping pace. To read more, click here.

--The Obama administration is requesting $860 million to repair and upgrade our national parks to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The proposed parks budget -- part of a total Department of the Interior budget request of $13.4 billion -- includes $300 million in mandatory spending and $560 million in discretionary spending for 2017. It would fund restoration and maintenance projects in the parks over the next 10 years. To read more, click here.

A Spanish Skier Claims to have spotted a Yeti in the Pyrenees.
Photo via Twitter

--A skier claims to have proved the existence of the abominable snowman with a shaky three-second video clip filmed on a ski slope in the Pyrenees. The tourist claims his video is conclusive proof that a yeti-like monster exists. The creature was purportedly seen roaming the mountains by a holidaymaker in the ski resort of Formigal in north-eastern Spain. To read more and to see a super shaky video, click here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Belay Backup

When should a person have a belay backup?

In the American Mountain Guides Association Single Pitch Instructor Course, this question comes up constantly. When should I have someone back up my new belayer? When can I let them belay without a backup? And how should I back them up?

These are questions that exist throughout the climbing world. Many climbers who are not professional instructors regularly teach people to belay. So these are not simply esoteric guide questions, but are real and fundamental questions that anyone who has ever taught someone how to belay must consider.

New climbers should always have a backup of some sort. The possibility of dropping someone is very real for the rank beginner and is often still a possibility for someone with a little bit of experience.

The answer to when a person should no longer need a backup belayer is twofold. First, you should be comfortable with the fact that the person no longer needs a backup. A second, and far more important consideration, is when the individual feels comfortable enough to belay without a backup.

It is not uncommon for climbers -- especially very young climbers -- to teach their friends to belay and then to give them a hard time when they show concern about the level of responsibility they have been given. This is a recipe for disaster. One should never ignore or belittle a person's concerns about his or her belay skills. Indeed, this is exactly the type of red flag that would lead a guide to continue employing a belay backup.

Belay Backup Techniques

There are a number of individuals out there that have their hearts in the right place by providing a belay backup, but are doing it very poorly. Indeed, while putting together this blog, I found an instructional video that demonstrates poor belay backup technique.

It is unfortunately quite common for climbers to simply hold the rope to backup a belayer. This is often done in a lackadaisical manner (see photo below) and may not provide the appropriate amount of friction to adequately stop a fall if the belayer panics and lets go of the rope.

This is an example of a VERY BAD belay backup. Note that the backup 
belayer is not really holding the rope and that he is not in line with the device.
It is highly unlikely that he will be able to arrest a fall if the kid on the tree lets go.

There are two simple techniques to back someone up who is on flat terrain. The first option is to give the belayer a hip belay. And the second option is to simply run the rope through a second device on the backup belayer.

Occasionally I work with kids. In such a setting I tend to add yet another piece of redundancy to the system. I employ a backup belayer as well as a knot tyer. In other words, I have a kid tie backup knots every six or eight feet. This keeps a person occupied who would otherwise be a potential crag management hazard. Admittedly, tying knots in the rope is overkill with adults and even with competent high school students. But when it comes to middle school kids, the more activities they have the better...
If the belay is running through an Assisted Breaking Device like a GriGri or a Cinch, then it might be okay to have a slightly less radical approach to your backup belay. It doesn't take much to arrest a fall with such a device.

If you are not on flat ground and a backup belayer can get below the belayer, it might be acceptable to simply hold the rope for a backup. This is what is referred to as an inline belay backup.

An Inline Belay Backup

Another option that allows you to hold the rope is to create an inline redirect. In other words, the belay rope runs from the belayers device, to a ground anchor and then back to the backup belayer. In such a situation it is super easy for a backup belayer to arrest a fall by holding the rope.

A Backup Belay Running through a Redirect
Backup belays are an important part of the safety net for the beginner climber. If you're new to climbing don't hesitate to ask for a backup. And if you have the opportunity to teach someone how to belay, always always always employ a belay backup. It could save someone's life!

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, February 8, 2016

How to Sharpen and Maintain Ice Screws

Ice screws are expensive and they get damaged easily. Petzl has put together this absolutely great video on how to sharpen your screws. Beware though, these techniques take some minor skills with tools...

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, February 5, 2016

Leading with Beginners

The proceeding information is a mildly edited excerpt from Rock Climbing: The AMGA Single Pitch Manual, by Bob Gaines and Jason D. Martin.

It is not uncommon for an individual to take a friend climbing who has a limited climbing background. Many crags require one to lead in order to set-up the rope. This creates a potentially dangerous situation for the experienced person, since the newbie may not have the appropriate experience to belay a leader.

Lead Belay Training

If you take a beginner to a venue that requires a lead in order to access the anchors, it is important to teach the beginner how to lead belay in the lesson. Once the PBUS technique has been taught and the student demonstrates proficiency, then you may move into a lesson on lead belaying.

The orientation of the beginner’s hands while belaying a leader should reflect the posture taken in the break position of the PBUS. The student will pay out rope with a guide hand above the device, while the brake-hand remains in the same position below the device. If the beginner needs to bring rope back in, they simply revert back to the PBUS toproping technique.

To practice the lead belay, it is best to place a piece ten feet or so up, then run the rope through it. You can practice paying out rope and "taking falls" prior to actually getting onto the sharp end of the rope.

Lead Belay with an Assisted Breaking Device

There are guides who prefer to have students belay them with an assisted braking device. The advantage to these devices is that they reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic failure of the system. The problem with them is they are far from foolproof and require specialized instruction and technique.

There are a number of devices on the market and they all have their own idiosyncrasies. It’s important to read all associated instructions before using a new device, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, heed the manufacturer’s warnings, and practice with it prior to using in an institutional setting.

The Petzl GriGri is one of the more common devices on the market. As a result, lead belay technique with this device is demonstrated in the following video. This video shows both the "old style" of lead belaying, as well as the "new style."

Belaying a Leader with a GriGri - The "New Style"

The primary belaying position for the GriGri is the PBUS position, with a guide hand above the device on the rope and a brake-hand below. As a leader moves up the rock, the belayer slowly feeds rope through the device, gently pulling with the guide hand, while pushing rope through with the brake-hand. If the rope is fed at an appropriate speed, the cam in the GriGri will not engage.

In this principal belay position, the belayer’s brake-hand never leaves the rope. If there is a need to bring in slack, the belayer reverts to the PBUS technique.

AAI Guide Richard Riquelme belaying a leader using the principal belay position for a Grigri.

Because the cam automatically engages with a sudden acceleration of the rope, it can be difficult to pay out slack quickly. The simplest solution to this problem is to never allow the rope to suddenly accelerate. This may accomplished by the leader placing gear at chest level or lower and extending the protection with runners. Doing so allows the leader to clip into the protection without having to give a quick tug on the rope.

If the goal is to teach a student the finer points of lead belaying, then there are two ways to give slack to a climber who needs it quickly. The first and easiest way is to simply step in toward the wall. This will immediately put slack into the system and works well. However, this technique is not recommended for novice belayers.

The second way is to shift the brake-hand, sliding it up the rope to the device, bracing the index finger against the lip of the moving sideplate. Press the thumb of the brake-hand down on the cam where the handle is attached while continuing to hold the brake-strand of the rope. Pull slack with the guide-hand. Once finished, immediately return to the principal belay position.

The proper way to give slack quickly with a Petzl Grigri.

Petzl recommends that you:

1) Always keep the brake-strand in the brake hand. There is never a valid reason to let go of the brake-strand.

2) Never grip the device with the entire hand.

3) Anticipate the climber’s movement, including when additional rope is needed to make the clip.

In a toprope setting, a rope is generally set-up early in the day and may be used to practice belaying. In a lead setting, practicing this skill requires some creativity. One method is to clip the first bolt of a sport route, or to place a piece of gear about ten-feet up. Clip the rope and then have the student practice belaying a leader on this short mock set-up.

Student Belay Backups, Ground Anchors and Knots

In addition to using an assisted breaking device and placing a lot of protection, here are three other ways to increase instructor security during a lead. First, use a ground anchor. Second, employ a backup belayer. And third, tie knots in the rope behind the belayer and the backup belayer.

A ground anchor keeps the belayer under control. The belayer is fixed to a given spot. If the belayer is anchored, the opportunity to trip, fall over, and pull the instructor off is greatly reduced. They will remain in the designated stance.

With two or more beginners, a backup belayer will increase security. It is far less likely that both students will drop the leader. To add even greater security, put a friction hitch on the rope behind the belayer and attach to the backup belayer’s belay loop. Rather than being dependent on a hand belay, the backup belayer manages the rope with the assistance of a third hand.

Some instructors tie knots in the rope behind the belayer and the back-up belayer. As the instructor leads and the knots approach the belay team, either the backup belayer or, ideally, a third student unties them. Even if there are a series of mistakes, the leader will still have a reasonable margin of error.

No matter what steps are taken to increase your security, it remains important to regularly look down and check on the belayer. Make sure that the belay system is employed appropriately and communicate error corrections as needed.

Descent Options

If walking off or down climbing is not possible, the other descent options from the top of a route are either to rappel or lower.

The most secure method is to rappel. When being lowered the instructor is completely reliant on the belay system and at the greatest exposure to risk of system failure. If there are any doubts about the security of the system (i.e. the belayer,) rappel.

Jim Belanger lowers clipped to a friction hitch on the belay strand of the rope.

However, if your goal is to teach the beginner how to operate as an independent climber, then the he will have to learn how to lower. When faced with that situation a technique that can be used to help mitigate the risk is for you to back yourself up by placing a friction-hitch on the belay strand of the rope, clipping the friction hitch to a sling that is then clipped into the instructor’s belay loop with a locking carabiner. While being lowered, you manage the friction hitch, releasing it if the belayer loses control of the brake strand.

Leading is fun, but getting dropped isn't. Put in as much time as you need in belay training before getting onto the sharp end with a new leader...

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 2/4/16


--Five snowmobilers were killed in an avalanche on Friday, January 30th near McBride British Columbia. To read more, click here.

--Police say a 20-year-old man died in an avalanche while snowmobiling in the Twin Lakes area Sunday afternoon. The Adams County Sheriff's Office reported the death around 2:30 p.m. Kirk Bradley Kinzer Jr., of Lewiston, was snowmobiling with family and friends north of Idaho's Brundage Ski Resort when an avalanche hit him. To read more, click here.

-- A 14-year-old girl died over the weekend in a skiing accident at Soldier Mountain. The Camas County Sheriff's Office stated that the girl was skiing down the mountain toward the lodge when at some point she lost control and crashed into the side of a restroom building and was found unconscious and not breathing. She was later flown to a Boise hospital where she died as a result of her injuries.

--If camping at The Enchantments is on your bucket list, getting to the fabled high-country lakes southwest of Leavenworth just got a little tougher. The U.S. Forest Service announced Monday it is extending by six weeks the season for required, limited-entry permits for overnight camping in this fragile zone of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. To read more, click here.

--A snowboarder survived two nights in heavy snow this weekend after he got lost in the backcountry north of the Mt. Baker Ski Area. To read more, click here.

Read more here:

--Squaw Valley is taking a bold initiative to reduce the amount of garbage produced by the resort by prohibiting bottled water sales and installing 20 water refill stations around the mountain. Squaw expects to eliminate as many as 28,000 single-use plastic bottles a year with this simple step towards environmentally friendly hydration. To read more, click here.

--The Inyo County Board of Supervisors hasn’t taken a stand on the new Wilderness Areas proposed in the Inyo National Forest Plan, but they did approve of the process used to arrive at the initial draft. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--The best climbing festival of the year is now accepting registrations. Red Rock Rendezvous will run from April 1-3. Come on out to Vegas and get your climb on! To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--Summit County Search and Rescue crews, joined by ski patrol members, found the body of a skier who had been missing from the Park City resort area since Sunday night. The skier — 50-year-old Stephen Jones — had been involved in an avalanche, according to a tweet from the Summit County Sheriff's Office. At about 2 p.m. Tuesday, searchers found his body buried in about three feet of snow in an area called Shale Shot in Lambs Canyon. To read more, click here.

--Officials say a Massachusetts ice climber was rescued from a New Hampshire Mountain after he fell about 20 feet. The Concord Monitor reports Peter Lindahl, of Medford, Massachusetts fell Sunday afternoon around 1 p.m. near Crawford Notch State Park in Hart's Location. He was climbing on Mount Willard when it happened. To read more, click here.

-- A man ice climbing at Frankenstein Cliffs in New Hampshire has been taken to a hospital after he fell about 30 feet and was rescued by other climbers and emergency responders. To read more, click here.

--A crazy video was posted last week of some hikers on South America's Aconcagua crossing what appears to be a minor debris flow. Suddenly, they hear a sound similar to that of an airplane and quickly move out of the way. The debris flow turns into a massive wall of rocks sliding down the drainage. The take-away is not to treat these types of things as minor. If something seems off, move quickly or stay away from it... To see the video, click below. To read more, click here.

--Two people were taken to the hospital after an accident on the ski lift at New Hampshire's Granite Gorge Ski Area Sunday afternoon. To read more, click here.

--So, a skier in Alberta was attacked by an owl this week. He has multiple punctures in his scalp. After the incident he resolves to wear a helmet now. To read more, click here.

--Alex Honnold and Colin Haley recently completed the Torre Traverse in Patagonia in 21 hours. Yes, that's the traverse of the Cerro Torre massif. To read more, click here.

--Climbing magazine's 2015 Golden Piton Awards have been awarded. To see who won, click here.

--In the mounting battle to keep public lands in public hands, certain voices have been louder than others. Private interests, including those heavily backed by oil and gas - have been vocal that our public lands should be privatized, allowing those groups to sidestep environmental regulations to allow for increased mining, timber, and real estate development. Tens of thousands of Americans who love public lands have also spoken out against the effort to seize and sell off our parks, forests, and open spaces, seeking continued protection of the wild places to enjoy. Often forgotten in this fight, however, are the thousands of public servants who have dedicated their lives to caring for these places and ensuring balance in how we care for our millions of acres of American public lands. To read more, click here.

--Following on from its popular appearance in the Olympic Park at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, ice climbing will feature as part of the sports initiation program at the 2nd edition of the Youth Olympic Games to be held in Lillehammer, Norway, from 12-21 February. To read more, click here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Avalanche Awareness: Beacon Check

The American Mountain Guides Association and Outdoor Research have come together to create a video on avalanche beacons and the morning beacon check. Arguably, this check is one of the most important parts of the day. If your beacon doesn't work, you're not going to be found if you get avalanched, and you certainly won't be able to find your friend if he gets avalanched...

Check out the video below:

Here is a good process for completing a beacon check:

1) Turn on the beacons and confirm that there is power. Each individual should state their battery life. Batteries that are at less than 80% should be changed out. Rechargeable batteries are not as good as off-the-shelf batteries as they appear to have a lot of power but then lose it quickly.

2) Everybody accept for one person (the leader) should switch their beacons to search mode. They should see if they can "see" the person in transmit mode and the distance on their beacons. Don't touch beacons together when you practice this as direct contact can fry the circuits.

3) The team should turn their beacons back to transmit. The leader can then switch his beacon to search and have the members of the team file by as he checks that he can "see" them with his beacon.

4) Once this is complete, one person should watch as the leader turns his beacon back to transmit.

5) Beacons can be stored in the beacon harness or in a pocket. If in a pocket, the pocket should be integrated (so that it can't tear off) and it should have a zipper.

6) Note that cell phones, Go Pros, radios, or other electronic devices may adversely impact the effectiveness of a beacon. These devices should be stored away from the beacon.

Your avalanche beacon is your life. Make sure that it's on and that it has been adequately checked before going out to ski!

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, February 1, 2016

Assisting a Follower from Above

In cooperation with Outdoor Research, the American Mountain Guides Association has made several videos for beginning level climbers.

In this video, AMGA Instructor Team Member Margaret Wheeler demonstrates two techniques that one might use to provide a follower with assistance from above.

Following are the notes from the end of the video.

Vector Pull

Pull the climber's rope perpendicular to the way the rope runs. Like pulling a bow string and shooting an arrow.

3 to 1

Increases pulling power by three times. But it also requires the belayer to pull three feet for every one foot the climber rises.

--Jason D. Martin