Friday, September 29, 2017

The Daisy Chain Conundrum

To daisy or not to daisy, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mountains to suffer
The lightning and the wind tied in with a clove
Or to take arms against a sea of anchors
With a Daisy or a PAS...Alas a broken daisy,
To die, to sleep -- the undiscovered mountain --
From which no climber has ever returned...

Okay, I admit it, I'm not Shakespeare and even the most serious of free soloists is nowhere near as depressed as the Prince of Denmark. But I have spent a fair bit of time thinking about both Hamlet and daisy chains. I know some of you are wondering how they are connected. They're not...except in my very bad Shakespearean verse.

Daisy chains are a very tricky tool. When used correctly than can be tremendously valuable to a climber. When used incorrectly, they can be incredibly dangerous.

Daisy Chain

A daisy chain is a length of webbing that is easily identified by the sewn loops the run the length of the chain. One end of the daisy is usually girth-hitched through the tie-in point on the climber's harness. The loops on the length of webbing may then be clipped with a carabiner and attached to an anchor, providing a safety attachment for the climber.

The main advantage to the use of a daisy chain is that most people leave them permanently affixed to their harnesses. As such, when they get to an anchor they can quickly and easily clip in. The use of daisy chains is especially valuable when one is trying to set-up a top-rope and needs to clip into something near the lip to remain safe or when one needs a safety attachment for a series of rappels.

It is possible for a daisy chain to fail. If you clip the end of the chain and then clip a loop, the internal loops can come apart as well, causing a catastrophic failure. There are two ways to avoid this. First, you can put a twist in the end of the daisy so that it cannot fail. Or second, it is possible to use two carabiners.

There is another alternative to the daisy chain. The PAS (Personal Anchor System) is a series of independent loops that are sewn together in a chain. Climbers who use the PAS will use it in much the same way as a daisy chain, but do not have to worry about catastrophic failure.
Personal Anchor System (PAS)

Some climbers elect to girth-hitch the daisy directly to the belay loop. If you attach it directly to the belay loop, this very important part of the harness may see damage. Once something is girth-hitched to the belay loop, the loop is no longer allowed to shift at the tie-in point. This causes the loop to get rubbed in the same spot repeatedly. In addition to this, the loop is crushed by the girth-hitch, which may also accelerate the damage to the loop.

The preferred attachment to the harness should be via the tie-in point. A girth-hitch through the tie-in will do significantly less damage to the harness and will ultimately be safer.

Most guides do not use daisy chains or the PAS. Instead, they will use their rope to tie directly into the anchor with a clove-hitch. The advantage to a clove-hitch is that it is adjustable once you are off belay. There are styles of daisy chains which allow this, but the amount of adjustment provided is minimal. With a rope, one has the ability to make major adjustments. For example, it's nice to tie into the anchor with a clove, then give yourself enough slack to go back over to the edge of the cliff, so that you can hear and be heard.

Guides often use slings in lieu of a daisy chain. The is because there is little need of a daisy in most multi-pitch environments.

Daisy chains are most useful in either a single pitch or an aid climbing environment. If you're climbing primarily in these environments, then you should definitely consider using a daisy. If you only occasionally play in these types of environments, then a couple of slings are much lighter and can be used in more applications.

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Urban Dictionary Definition - MountainSexual

Yep, the urban dictionary has defined us...


Similar to metrosexual, but one who lives in the mountains or otherwise pursues the outdoors adventure lifestyle. Kind of a cleaned-up granola, a woodsy GQ kinda' guy with a splash of bohemian. Knows that he doesn't have to look or smell like a dirtbag to enjoy climbing, hiking, cycling, skiing, (all forms), snowshoeing, etc. Probably reads Men's Journal, Outside, and Alpinist. Brands: Patagonia, Keen, Kuhl, The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Marmot, Mountain Khakis. Stong environmental ethic. Drives a well-maintained truck, performance SUV, or cross-over when absolutely necessary but walks or rides a bicycle whenever possible. Works out at the gym, but primarily to be in shape for outdoor pursuits. Shuns chain stores and shops.

"For such an outdoorsy guy, that dude sure has great style."

"Yeah, he's a veritable MountainSexual!"

It's funny because it's true...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, September 25, 2017

Gourmet Backcountry Food for Backpacking

AAI Backpacking guide Jeff Ries has a great advantage over our mountaineering guides. If you take out your rope and your harness and your pickets and your cams, suddenly your pack is a lot lighter. Some might argue that perhaps that weight shouldn't go completely away. Perhaps it should be replaced with food. Really good food.

Jeff has been cooking gourmet food on his backpacking trips over the last few years and has put together the following blog about how to eat really well in the mountains. Yeah, it might be a little bit on the heavy side...and if you're looking to lighten up then this won't be for you. But if you're okay with carrying a little extra and want to eat well, then check it out...

Before leaving the trailhead, I like to have everyone enjoy the option of a treat from a nice bakery and offer everyone a scone or something similar. On the hike in on the first day I offer grapes and bing cherries at the first rest stop. They are a bit heavy to carry further but the water and sugar content are both well appreciated.

A good first lunch is some fruit and pastries, rather than a larger meal that could slow strenuous activity. I prefer eating a little around 11am and a little more around 2pm, so I offer snacks like fruit, gorp and energy bars. Gourmet crackers with flavored cream cheese, like Laughing Cow products work well.

It doesn't take as much effort to carry a little more weight to the first camp, I splurge a bit with beef stroganoff on the first evening. I grill some fillet mignon medium rare a couple days before the trip; it will cook the rest of the way just before it is served. Then I cut it up into 1 inch cubes and freeze it. It will keep other foods cold on the hike in. I cook a stroganoff noodle mix and then add fresh sour cream, a little white wine and then the fillet mignon. The rest of the wine is served with or before the meal. If it is cold and rainy, I also serve soup. If it is hot and the climb has been tough, it is a good time for Frito's or baby carrots dipped in french onion dip (made with the rest of the sour cream). Variations I have used for the first evening include grilled salmon instead of fillet mignon and apple slices dipped in carmel dip as the appetizer.

For the next morning, eggs and hash browns work well, especially with some tomatoes. I always have some flavored oatmeal for people who don't like to eat eggs. A little ham and/or cheese is nice to put in the eggs. I boil some water for tea, coffee or hot chocolate before the main course.

The second lunch is a good time for fresh fruit; apples or oranges. I also like to provide some quality dinner rolls or flavored bread (last trip the bakery had spinach feta) with some flavored cheese spread.

Dinner on the second night is a good time for ham as it keeps well for 2 days and a night (as long as temperatures are not too hot). I serve soup if it as cold and cold beer if it is hot. If I have a campfire, I wrap some potatoes in foil and put them in or by the fire while cooking fresh broccoli. If there is no campfire, I slice the potatoes and boil them. Chocolate covered blueberries make a great dessert.

The rest of the trip breakfasts offer a choice of precooked Mountain House scrambled eggs with bacon (sometimes with potatoes - the skillet selection), flavored oatmeal, granola and of course coffee/tea/hot chocolate.

Lunch on the third day includes flavored wheat thins with extra sharp cheese and salami. If there is any fresh fruit left over, we finish it up today.

The third night's dinner is time for something that keeps well for a few days. I prefer precooked flavored chicken breasts in a foil pouch, available at some grocery stores. I serve them with instant flavored potatoes and baby carrots. Chocolate covered espresso beans are a hit with the coffee drinkers.

Beef steak nuggets, Bakers breakfast cookies and dried fruit (different types) make great lunches an later days of a trip. Bagels and cream cheese also keeps well. Soup is always nice when it is cold and stopping for a long lunch, I sometimes build a campfire to warm bodies and dry clothing.

For dinner on the fourth and subsequent nights, I offer a variety of Mountain House brand freeze dried dinners. I want the backpackers to try different entrees so I bring several 2 serving choices. If anyone is still hungry after emptying the foil pouch in which it cooks, I add an envelope of instant potatoes and the appropriate amount of boiling water to make sure everyone has had enough. This keeps dish cleaning to a minimum as there are no dishes to clean these nights.

--Jeff Ries, AAI Backpacking Guide

Friday, September 22, 2017

Film Review: High Lane

There are a lot of horror-style movies out there that involve climbing in some way. Most of them are not just bad, but are really bad. It's actually somewhat uncommon to come across one that is...mediocre.

The reality of most film of all genres is that it's mediocre. You're often not totally bored. You find some engagement with the characters and then when the movie is over, you quickly forget it. Surprisingly, really bad films tend to stay with you a bit longer.

High Lane (2009) is one of those mediocre films that will likely drop out of my brain shortly after I write this blog. But that doesn't mean that I wasn't engaged by it. For a "horror-thriller" style film, set in the mountains, it was much better than most of its competitors, but that's not really saying much.

Five friends decide to go on a trip to Croatia where they will take a via ferrata route up into the mountains. For those who are uninitiated, via ferrata is a form of climbing where one wears a harness rigged with lobster claws. The via ferrata routes follow cables and ladders -- many of which were set during World War II -- through the mountains. If you fall, the lobster claws attached to your harness will catch you.

In any case the friends are composed of two women and three men. One of the women, Chloé (Fanny Valette), previously dated one of the men, Loïc (Johan Libéreau) and is currently dating one of the other men, Guillaume, (Raphaël Lenglet). This provides a bit of tension throughout the story, and indeed, is one of the subplots that raises this film above many of its competitors.

The group is lead by Fred (Nicolas Giraud), an accomplished climber who is sure that he can bring the group up into the mountains on a via ferreta route that is rusty and falling apart. Needless to say, he doesn't do a good job and the team gets caught in the mountains. And of course, the fact that they're caught is compounded by the fact that there is a delusional psychopath in the mountains that has set traps all over the place and might be a cannibal...or something. All of this leads to where most horror movies lead to, a combination of blood and guts and edge-of-your-seat tension.

There is one scene that is particularly interesting for climbers. The via ferrata completely falls apart and the climbers are stuck with two injured people in the forest above the cliffs. They have a rope, but pretty much nothing else: no gear, no extra clothes, nothing.

One of the great values of a film like this is that we tend to put ourselves in the characters shoes...and I have to admit that this was one time where I wasn't sure what I would do. The situation was incredibly difficult. Especially with the lack of equipment to rig anything. It's scenes like this that make this type of film worth watching. What would you do...?

High Lane is a French film that has been dubbed. This is a bit disconcerting at the start. I generally prefer films that have subtitles. But the dubbing is doubly disconcerting because there are sections in English where the characters lips line up, but then they start speaking in French again. This is annoying. However, the plot is just interesting enough to allow you to forget about the dubbing.

A second larger problem with this film is the way that the director (Abel Ferry) elected to cut together footage that was designed to raise tension.

Here's an example: A character is running. Another character is loading a crossbow. A character is running. Another character is still loading the crossbow. The first character is still running and the music is intense so he must be in danger, but the other character is still loading the crossbow.

Most directors would make three cuts where Ferry elected to make six or seven. The intent to create tension goes on for so long that there is no tension anymore...

Early in this review I noted that there is tension between two male characters over a female character. Though the characters actions are sometimes stupid (like fighting with one another while being hunted by a madman), this little subplot provides a small amount of depth to otherwise flat characters. It also provides a few plot twists that allow for a more interesting story.

The via ferreta sequences are mostly true to the way they would actually be...minus cables randomly breaking. That's a given in this kind of film, and I'm willing to suspend my disbelief. Indeed though, if nothing else, this film gets viewers psyched for cool via ferrata routes

High Lane is an engaging ride that explores some places that other similar mountain thrill-horror movies do not. But that doesn't mean it's a good movie...but if you've got nothing else to do, it might be worth an hour and a half of your time...

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Fixed Lines for Cragging

There are many types of fixed lines. Some climbers use fixed lines in aid climbing to get back to their high point. Some climbers use them in expeditionary climbing to protect exhaustingly long slopes. And others use them more simply just to move up and down from the top of a smaller crag.

Each style of fixed rope has its uses, but surprisingly, the style used the most is the third style. Short sections of fixed rope are common at cragging areas throughout the country. Most of these ropes are used to facilitate classes for beginners.

Fixed lines are designed to protect an individual who is moving over exposed second, third or even fourth class terrain. In this application (with beginners) they shouldn't be used for more difficult terrain. Instead, such terrain should probably be belayed.

Fixed lines are relatively simple to install. Build a 12-point SERENE anchor at the top and then work your way down the exposed area, placing gear along the way. At each piece of gear, the fixed line should be clipped in with an overhand eight knot. It should not run through the carabiners freely as this would defeat the purpose of the pieces. Each stretch of rope should be isolated.

There are three ways that an individual might use a fixed line. First, they might simply use it as a handline. This is the simplest way as there is little for climbers to do but hold the line. Such a use indicates that the likelyhood of a fall is low and that an individual or a group simply needs a little bit of additional security.

Climbers moving down a hand-line.

Second, they might use the lobster claw technique. This is where an individual girth-hitches two slings to their tie-in point. A locking carabiner is then clipped to the end of each sling. A climber can then clip both slings to the fixed line as he or she moves up the line. As the climber gets to set pieces, he or she can clip past the piece without coming completely off the rope.

A static line protecting a brushy ledge. Note the pieces along the rope.

Another view of a static line protecting an exposed area along a trail.

The third technique is to place a prussik on the fixed line. A prussik offers the most security as it won't allow a person to fall anywhere if they slip. If you have one section that requires such tactics, it's not a bad idea to pre-rig the prussiks so that the beginner doesn't have to rig it in an exposed area.

No matter which style of line you employ, a good rule of thumb is that only one person should be attached to a given part of the line. You should never have two people in the same part of the system.

Fixed lines are great, but they should not take the place of a real belay. Before exposing your beginner friends to a fixed line, be sure that it makes sense. Be sure that it is the best solution to your problem. And be sure that everybody knows what they're supposed to do when they move up or down the line...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, September 18, 2017

Definitions for Beginners: Top-Rope vs. Lead vs. Bouldering vs. Free Solo

There is a legitimate concern that some have put forward concerning this blog. Occasionally, I get a little bit too techy and forget that climbers with a multitude of skill levels read these articles. It's good to step back a little bit sometimes and make sure that everyone is on board with some of the basics.

There are four terms that we use quite often on this blog.  First, the term top-rope.  Second, the term lead, as in lead-climber. Third, the term bouldering.  And fourth, the term free-soloing.  Following is a breakdown of these terms and their definitions.

Top-Rope Climber

A top-rope climber is a person who has a rope running from his or her harness, up to an anchor at the top of a cliff and then back down to a belayer at the base.  This is a standard technique, and it is the technique regularly used for beginning level climbers and at rock gyms.

A Climber Belays another Climber on Top-Rope in Joshua Tree National Park
Photo by Jason Martin

The value of a top-rope is that it is highly unlikely that a climber will fall very far.  The rope can be somewhat tight if the climber is a beginner or somewhat loose if he or she is comfortable.

Lead Climber

In essence, the lead climber is the guy that "gets the rope up there." A belayer pays out rope to a person as he climbs up.  The leader places rock protection as he goes and clips his rope to it.  He then continues climbing above the protection.  Should the leader fall ten feet above his last piece of protection, he will fall past his gear, and the belayer will catch him after he has fallen twenty feet.  The rope stretches so that the impact is not as great on the leader.

A Leader Working His Way Up a Climb

The act of falling on lead can be very safe, or quite dangerous.  It all depends on whether the fall is "clean" or not.  A clean fall means that there is nothing for the leader to hit.  A fall above a ledge or a protrusion could lead to serious injury.

Leading can be done in a very responsible way that limits one's exposure to danger.  But it does take a lot of training and practice to bring one's abilities to such a level where he or she has a good understanding of what kind of gear placements will hold a fall and what kind will not.


Bouldering is one of the fastest growing types of climbing.  In this, a climber does not use a rope, but also does not climb more than a few feet off the ground.  A boulderer is focused on making a handful of hard moves and will often work on those moves for a long period of time before completing a sequence.

Most boulderers use a pad or commercial bouldering mattress to protect themselves from ground-falls.  Every climber who falls bouldering hits a mat or the ground, as such there is some danger involved in the sport. 

Free Soloing

Often confused with free climbing, (which is simply climbing without the use of direct aid, but with a rope) free soloing is the art of climbing a route without a rope.

Obviously free soloing is the most dangerous type of climbing that there is.  If an individual falls in this situation, survival is highly unlikely.

Climbing is a varied sport with many different aspects to it.  Not every aspect is for every person.  Ultimately, the amount of risk that you choose to engage in within the sport is completely up to you. Indeed, the level of accomplishment you feel engaging in any kind of climbing is also completely personal.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Birth and Death of a Carabiner

A few weeks ago we put up a post on rope construction. Black Diamond has produced a little video entitled, "The Birth of a Carabiner." The video doesn't dwell on narration or anything else, it's just a quick peak inside a shop where carabiners are made.

Of course, once carabiners are made, a couple are tested from every batch. In other words, this is the death part of this blog.

The following video from Omega Pacific shows a force test on a carabiner. This is an awesome video. It's pretty intense to watch as the tester puts more and more and more pressure on it...

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 9/14/17


--In this era of hurricanes and wildfires, it's good for all of us to think about our carbon footprints and what we can do in our lives to fight climate change. With that in mind, Powder magazine has a nice article on skiing the volcanoes with a smaller carbon footprint. To read the article, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--There are almost 60,000 cigarette butts on trails in Grand Canyon National Park. Gross. To read more, click here.


--The Durango Herald is reporting that, "A 40-year-old rock climber from Durango who fell 100 feet while climbing in an area northeast of Durango on Saturday is expected to recover from his injuries, friends of the man said Sunday." To read more, click here.

--Here's a cool story about the climber mural on the side of a building in Denver.

Notes from All Over:

--Totem has issued a voluntary recall of cams. To read more, click here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Tree Ratings in kN

At one of the American Mountain Guides Association Single Pitch Instructor Provider continuing education programs, we discussed the strength of trees. One SPI provider noted that he had pull tested a tree to failure with a load cell and found that the tree had a 17kN value.

17kN is a decently high value. A kilonewton (kN) is worth approximately 225lbs. And most carabiners and slings are rated at 21-24kN. 17kN isn't quite high enough for a stand-alone anchor, but it is plenty high enough for a rappel or for an anchor component.

Just how good is that tree in the crack?

As soon as the provider finished speaking, several people challenged him. "That rating was only good for that tree at that spot," one person said. "It's all about the root system," another said. "You can't tell anything with one test," a third said.

All three of the people who challenged the provider were right. One test on one tree in one area doesn't really provide you with any real data. You need something more...

A few weeks later I attended the International Technical Rescue Symposium. The symposium brings together some of he best minds in rope rescue. Many participants do research and present papers at the event. At this particular symposium John Morton, a rescue technician from Everett Mountain Rescue and the Snohomish Helicopter Rescue Team, presented a paper on the kN value of trees.

Morton started working on determing the values of trees some years earlier with Mark Miller, a mountain guide and rescue instructor who was tragically killed in an accident early in 2015. After Mark's death, Morton continued to work on this project.

Essentially, he came at this problem in a new way. He looked at trees as anchors that have already been the wind.

When there is a windstorm, trees are seriously stressed. Indeed, they are tested just like any other piece of rescue or climbing equipment. They act almost like a sail and capture a tremendous amount of wind. If they don't fall over, then they've been tested to a certain level of kN.

Morton took this and developed a formula based on a combination of tree species profile and how windstorms impact those trees. In the process he further refined his formula to accommodate for trees on the lee side of hills. And when he was done... He had a means to actively give every tree everywhere a kN rating.

Click to Enlarge

The preceding shows the circumference of several trees in the Pacific Northwest and their kN rating based on Morton's formula.

For a rappel anchor, we probably want something that has a minimum value of at least 8kN. Leader falls are often given a value of approximately 7.5kN, so while a rappel shouldn't provide that kind of impact, we should be prepared for it.

For a climbing anchor, we want something with a minimum of 20kN. And for a rescue anchor, we should probably have at least 30kN.

By these figures, every tree in the PNW that is at least 22-inches in circumference is adequate for a climbing anchor. And every tree that is at least 25-inches in circumference is adequate for a rescue anchor.

For SAR personnel, Morton recommends carrying a field guide so that you might be able to look specifically at a given tree species and determine how small you can go.

This is really cool work. To see Morton's complete paper, please log onto and search for John Morton, "What if Trees had Ratings in kN? Tree Anchor Ratings Based on Wind Loading."

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, September 11, 2017

Film Review: Meru

Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin have been major names in the climbing world for a long time. Both of the athletes have built themselves into climbing superstars.  Conrad is world famous for his ascents and even made waves in the non-climbing world by finding the body of George Mallory on Mt. Everest. Jimmy is well known for his climbing photography and cinematography.

In 2004, I was living in Las Vegas and guiding in Red Rock Canyon every day. Many of my friends at the time were living the "dirt bag" lifestyle, living out of their cars and getting after it whenever they could. It was then that I met a young climber who had just linked up three huge classic lines in Red Rock. Renan Ozturk linked Epinephrine (5.9, IV), Cloud Tower (5.12a, IV) and Levitation 29 (5.11c, IV) in a single day. I was absolutely amazed. Each of those lines are not only big, but are nowhere near each other...

It didn't surprise me when I started to hear stories about Renan climbing with Conrad and Jimmy. There's no doubt that he had the chops to play in the same world class arena as the other two.

There have been several articles and films that featured each one of these climbers over the last several years. But none of them come close to the aesthetic quality and the human tension that exists in the film, Meru.

Meru tells the story of the three climbers and one mountain: Meru. Or to be more specific, the Shark's Fin of Meru, which is a massive granite peak that combines mountaineering, ice climbing, mixed climbing and A4 big wall climbing skills to ascend. Dozens of parties have tried the route, but no one had succeeded.

Conrad attempted the route in 2003 with Doug Chabot and Bruce Miller, but failed. They simply didn't expect it to be as challenging as it was. The film chronicles his return to the mountain with Renan and Jimmy in 2008 and 2011.

In the course of the film, we discover that all three of the men have dealt with close calls and loss. Conrad's mentor died first, and then his best friend. Renan becomes seriously injured in an avalanche. And Jimmy barely escapes from another avalanche with his life.

The three men all have different reasons for climbing Meru. It was a dream passed down to Conrad from Mugs Stump, his alpine mentor. It was a passion for Jimmy as he slowly brought himself back into the climbing and skiing world from his brush with death. And it was an absolute necessity for Renan to prove to himself that he still is who he was before his accident.

Meru is a beautiful film. The scenery mixed with the expert cinematography is breathtaking. But the real story is the story of the three men, mountain partners who work together to achieve a goal while sealing the bonds of friendship...

There is no doubt that it was a tremendously difficult task to make such a film in such conditions. There were times when I was amazed by the fact that the camera elevates as if by a boom (where did they get a boom in the mountains?) to provide a better shot. There were other times that I was shocked that they kept the camera rolling when someone was clearly in pain or at the edge. And there were times that I was amazed by the fact that they probably had to climb something twice or even three times in order to get a shot. And indeed, I was amazed by the fact that it all came together so seamlessly. Meru is a testament to documentary filmmaking. It is a testament to what can be done...

I had an unusual experience in this film. It was the first documentary-style climbing film that I had ever seen with a non-climber audience. Most of the films that I see like this are at Reel Rock Film Festival, at Banff Film Festival or at 5 Point Film Festival. The people watching films at these types of festivals tend to be like-minded individuals, who don't hyperventilate at the heights depicted or question the motives of the climbers.

It was valuable to have this experience watching the film with non-climbers, in part because hearing the reactions and the gasps of the audience reminded me what a beautiful place the mountains are, and how the images of what we do inspire others. But we need inspiration too. And that's where the value of a movie like this comes into play. Those of us who are not world class climbers need people like Conrad, Jimmy and Renan to inspire us. And a film like Meru does exactly that. It reminds us what is possible...

Jason D. Martin

Friday, September 8, 2017

Bad Belay Video

When we saw this we were literally falling over laughing. These images are funny because they're -- unfortunately -- sometimes true.

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Climbing News from Here and Abroad - 9/7/17


--News Channel 21 is reporting that, "A Portland woman climbing at Smith Rock State Park on Sunday fell about 20 feet and was injured, prompting a rescue operation, Deschutes County sheriff's deputies said." To read more, click here.

--The Guardian is reporting that, "A fire burning over 30,000 acres in the Columbia river gorge just outside Portland was started by a teenager setting off fireworks on a forest trail last Saturday, police say. Oregon state police spokesman Bill Fugate said that the suspect under investigation by police was a 15-year old-male from Vancouver, Washington. Fugate said: 'In this case we’re pretty confident that the fire was started by a firework.'" To read more, click here.


--Here is an awesome piece from Outside on Yosemite Search and Rescue...

--The New York Times published an opinion piece on the name change taking place with the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. The author equates the name changes to the recent spate of Confederate monuments that have been removed. To read the article, click here.

--There are several women who are actively incarcerated in California that have chosen to work on firefighting teams combating wildfires for as little as $2 a day. Check out this great article from the New York Times Magazine on this subject.

Desert Southwest:

--Here's an update on wildfires in the Sierra.


--Fox 31 is reporting that, "Custer County Search and Rescue confirmed a climber fell to death on Sunday while climbing 14,081-foot Challenger Point." To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--The Gear Junkie is reporting that, "Joe ‘Stringbean’ McConaughy, a well-known speed hiker, set a new record on the Appalachian Trail today. He hiked the 2,190-mile route in an unofficial fastest known time (FKT) of 45 days, 12 hours, 15 minutes." To read more, click here.

--Quartz is reporting that political tensions in the Himalaya are making it hard for yaks to mate. Who knew? To read more, click here.

--Adam Ondra may have just climbed the hardest graded route in the world. To read about it, click here.

--Glacier National Park is being crushed by wildfires. To read more, click here.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Torment-Forbidden Traverse: a Trip Report.

In an article he penned for the 1972 Chouinard Equipment catalogue, legendary guide and author Doug Robinson wrote that “the true object [of climbing]... is not simply to get up things and check them off in our guidebook - it is to challenge ourselves”. By that measure, fellow AAI guide Kevin McGarity and my recent ascent (entirely summit-less) of the Torment-Forbidden traverse was certainly a success.

The Torment-Forbidden Traverse.  Photo taken from just below the summit of Torment.  The triangular spike of a peak in the background is Forbidden.
The TFT is one of the most prized objectives in the North Cascades. It is long (grade 5), strikingly aesthetic, and requires the full gamut of alpine skills to complete successfully. Simply determining where to go is often a challenge as the line of least resistance constantly weaves back and forth on both sides of the ridge. There is complex glacier travel that requires a number of transitions from roped technical climbing to snow/ice and vice versa. It is also committing. While one could conceivably bail off of the ridge at any point, retreat between the first rappel and the start of the west ridge of Forbidden Peak (a distance of nearly a mile) would be more hazardous than simply finishing the traverse.

Most people choose to climb the TFT in a comfortable two days (although it has been completed in as little as 9 hours car to car!). While this would have been the prudent option, Kevin and I were both keen for a challenge. Trying to on-sight an objective like the TFT in a day adds an additional level of complexity to the whole operation. Naturally it's essential to travel as light as possible. The downside of going light, of course, is that the margin of safety grows smaller in case of incident or bad weather etc. Additionally, it was mid-August and the TFT is well known for becoming more difficult later in the season. All the cruxes are on snow and sections of the route that are relatively straightforward step kicking in June can turn to cracked up, bullet hard glacier ice by august.

Knowing all of this, we chose our gear carefully and trusted in our judgement and technical skills to overcome whatever obstacles presented themselves. After discussing it, we settled on one 8.7 millimeter triple-rated rope, six cams, a set of stoppers, two ice screws, five alpine runners, one ice axe each and approach shoes with strap on crampons. We also brought one lightweight blanket which, together with the removable back panel from my climbing pack and the rope, would allow us to survive an unplanned bivy in relative comfort. Thus geared up we set a 2 am departure time from Bellingham and tried to get some sleep.

Johannesburg seen through the clouds on the approach

In alpine climbing, pacing is everything. We knew we had to go fast otherwise we would never make it. Too fast and we wouldn't be able to last all day like we needed to. I was also a little nervous because I had only gotten around 3 hours of sleep. Fortunately my fears were unfounded. As soon as we started hiking my body took over and I was suddenly grateful for all of the days I had spent guiding with a heavy pack in the North Cascades and on Denali this season. We made good time, reaching low camp at around 5500 feet in around an hour and a half and the base of the Taboo glacier below Mount Torment an hour after that.

Fortunately the glacier looked to be in good condition. The snow was firm enough that snow bridges would likely be solid yet soft enough that our crampon points bit well into the surface. Route-finding also proved straight forward with a relatively crevasse-free path to the access couloir. We reached the base of the rock quickly and found the moat at the edge of the glacier in very reasonable condition. Stowing our ice axes and crampons we scrambled for a hundred feet or so to the notch in the ridge that marks the start of the climbing on Mount Torment.

The author starting up the Taboo Glacier with the summit of Torment directly above his head.

While the west ridge of Forbidden Peak (a fifty-classic climb) is a masterpiece of clean lines and proud features that beg to be climbed, its cousin to the west is a total trash heap. The rock is loose and of poor quality; the line is indirect; and the extremely misnamed south ridge route (because it rarely travels within shooting distance of the actual ridge) links a series of sandy, scree-covered, sloping ledges with short steps of 4th or easy 5th class climbing. The whole thing is covered in grass and looks like a large pile of sand and gravel magnified.

Kevin on the south ridge of Torment (one of the only sections with decent rock)
Using a combination of simul-climbing and short pitching, Kevin and I reached the ledge system just below the summit of Torment about 4 and half hours after leaving the car. Feeling a little pressed for time since it was already 9 am we decided to bypass the true summit and head straight for the notch that marks the rappel onto the glaciated north side of the ridge.

Kevin following some sandy choss on the west side of Torment
Upon reaching the rappel station, it was immediately apparent that the short glacier traverse back to rock would be tricky. There were large open crevasses in the snow slope we had to descend and a large moat at the base of the rappel. Kevin volunteered to go first. Giving him my ice axe, I lowered him into the moat and then kept him on belay as he ice climbed out of it. He attached the climbing rope to an anchor on the glacier and I did a weird free hanging rappel traverse to join him. The snow here was firm and the slope steep. A fall would almost certainly mean a tumble into one of the waiting crevasses below. All of a sudden our decision to leave the mountain boots at home seemed a little hasty. Fortunately, the snow was just soft enough to allow purchase and we took turns belaying each other the hundred or so feet to safer terrain without incident. For the next hour things went smoothly. We regained the rock and wound our way up enjoyable fourth class terrain on the north side of the ridge. Eventually we regained the ridge crest just before the route's crux snow traverse.

Kevin being lowered into the moat.  He then ice climbed back onto the glacier with two straight axes, and strap-on crampons on approach shoes!

Belayed down climb off a T-slot anchor

Finishing the snow traverse.  The rappel notch we came from is the right most notch in the photo.  We then had to down-climb between the obvious crevasses below it before traversing back to the rock
The crux traverse is several hundred feet of roughly 50 degree snow and ice. In early season it's relatively easy and secure to kick steps across it. As the snow melts, it gets increasingly severe and difficult to protect. We knew it would be way too firm to climb safely in approach shoes. Fortunately, we had anticipated tough conditions on the traverse and had other plans.
The crux snow traverse seen from low on the north side of the ridge.  To avoid it, we repelled out of the notch at the top-right of the photo, onto the south side of the ridge and traversed third and fourth class ledges in a whiteout before regaining the ridge near the triangular tower in the upper left of the photo.

In a 2009 trip report, Steph Abegg wrote that she and her partner had found a passage entirely on rock. By climbing up and over several gendarmes above the snow traverse it was possible, she wrote, to make two rappels onto the south side of the ridge to access a 3rd and 4th class ledge system written about by Fred Beckey in the Cascade Alpine Guide. This ledge system would eventually connect to the normal route several hundred feet after the end of the snow traverse. We decided to give it a go. A hundred or so feet of easy climbing brought us to a rappel station on top of the first tower. We rapped into the next gulley over and started up a chimney system that looked promising. After a few short lived route-finding challenges we found a rappel station that allowed access to the south face of the ridge. Unfortunately, sometime between the saddle before the snow traverse and the rappels, the weather decided to shift.

What had started out as a beautiful high pressure day was fast succumbing to a thick, pea soup like fog. The wind began to pick up and before long it was misting. As we did our first 30 meter rappel onto the south face, visibility was such that we could no longer make out any of the towers in the distance or much of the terrain beneath our feet. The whole face was covered in “grassy ledges” and without visibility it was nearly impossible to tell which ledge systems would allow passage and which would dead end. We ended the rappel on what looked to be a large one. Since there was no evidence of a second anchor we decided to rope up and look around. After traversing eastward for a rope length we wound up on a rock ledge from which we could see what we assumed to be the ledge from Steph's trip report 40 feet below us. We rapped from a rock horn and resumed walking. After several hundred feet of easy travel the ledge we were on seemed to dead-end. Without landmarks to guide us, it was impossible to know which direction to go in. After several minutes of discussion we decided to try climbing a 4th and easy 5th class ramp up towards the ridge crest. Our gamble paid off. After two hundred feet we reached a talus field on the ridge that eventually led us to the start of the knife edges.

The author route finds in the mist!
The Knife edge ridge

Kevin smiling despite being on uncertain terrain
By this time, the misting drizzle we had been experiencing was beginning to take a toll on the rock. Moves that would normally be quite secure seemed slippery. Fortunately the climbing was easy and we reached the “sidewalk in the sky” that marks the end of the traverse and the start of the west ridge of forbidden peak fairly quickly. Rapping from slung blocks at the end of the sidewalk we gained a 3rd class ledge system that we followed to the base of Forbidden. Re-evaluating the conditions and our timing we realized that the fog had slowed us down quite a bit and it was much later than we wanted it to be to start up the west ridge of Forbidden Peak. We were also nearly out of food which made a minimalist bivy unappealing. We decided to descend.

The author standing atop the sidewalk in the sky
After 5 or 6 rappels down the gullies at the base of the ridge, we reached our last major obstacle: the glacier at the base of the route. Having gained the ridge almost a mile to the west we had no idea how best to negotiate the glacier or the rock bands below. Visibility was still low. Fortunately Kevin had been to Boston Basin several weeks earlier for work and had several GPS tracks that all indicated the same thing: go left. Good advice. Before long we had gained the slabs at the base of the glacier and finally retreated below the cloud ceiling. Knowing the biggest obstacles were behind us we breathed a collective sigh of relief, re-packed and started the two hour hike to the trailhead.

Our route in red.  Photo taken on the approach
One of the most time honored questions in climbing is: why do it? As a guide I have observed several schools of thought on the subject. Doug Robinson summed it up nicely when he laid out the alternatives as either to check a box or challenge oneself. While my climbing career has led me to embrace the latter approach, I would also add to it: that in the challenge there is fear and joy; and by the interaction of these emotions it is possible to learn about yourself and to grow. While Kevin and my Torment-Forbidden Traverse didn't achieve a single summit it was the type of rich experience that keeps me coming back to the mountains year after year.

--Eric Shaw, AAI Instructor and Guide

Monday, September 4, 2017

How to Choose a Sleeping Bag

Choosing a sleeping bag can be a difficult endeavor. What's right for you may not be right for others. Following is a short video with some baseline considerations:

This video identifies five things that you should consider when looking for a sleeping bag:

  1.  Warmth - Consider how cold it will be on most of your trips, then go at least ten degrees colder...unless you sleep cold. If you sleep cold, consider dropping the temperature more.
  2. Features - Zipper length can vary. Do you want pockets or extra drawstrings? What makes the most sense to you?
  3. Shape - Most mountaineers and climbers will want a mummy bag. These decrease dead air space and increase efficiency.
  4. Insulation - There are two types of insulation, down and synthetic. Down fill is warmer and more compressible, but it doesn't work well if wet. New technology may be changing this dynamic. Synthetic bags are heavier and may be better for wet conditions...
  5. Try it Out - Make sure the bag fits. Can you operate it effectively? Can you reach the drawcords and zippers...?

The preceding five questions are a good start. But they're not the end of the equation. Most mountaineers have a quiver of sleeping bags. I personally have two workhorse bags, but many people have more.

First, I have my moderately cold bag. This is a 10-degree down bag that I use when I'm actively mountaineering, climbing or hiking in the snow. And second, I have my 40-degree lightweight bag. I use this for summer climbing and backpacking. This second bag is quite small and light...

Many guides also have an arctic bag. This is a -20 to -40-degree bag that is designed for high altitude-cold weather trips. These bags are specifically designed for places like Denali, Everest or Antarctica. Some guides use a heavy bag and a lighter bag together to create a "Denali Bag."

And finally, most guides also have a bivy sack. This is a very light sack that only provides 10 to 15-degrees of additional warmth. This can be used in conjunction with a sleeping bag or completely without one for super light -- but cold -- ascents.

Some bags have vapor barriers on the outside. I'm not a big fan of that. I commonly use my sleeping bag as a drying machine and any type of barrier on the outside will trap water inside. As I currently use down bags that are not water resistant, I don't want any water near my body.

About the use of "old down..." It's important to note that while this is a lightweight and extremely packable option, it is a risk. If you elect to go this way, you should be very careful with your sleeping bag. It should never ever get wet...

There's a lot more to think about when it comes to the right bag for the right job. Consider this a primer and ask your favorite shop employee or mountain guide what he or she thinks is right for you...

--Jason D. Martin