Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Crevasse Falls - Do Knots Work to Decrease Fall Potential?

In 2012, the French National Mountain Guide School (ENSA) began to research how knots in climbing ropes decrease the impact of a fall on a climber. Guides have been testing this for years in unscientific ways and have always come up with the same result. Mostly it works.

The difference between a guide does in a training and what ENSA did is that ENSA took a scientific approach to the question. They used a load cell to measure the force...and what they found wasn't terribly surprising. Knots do help...

Check out the following video for more:

In review, they found that bulky knots are better. They recommend that you use a figure-eight on a bight rethreaded through itself. Most American guides have been using butterfly knots, but this video may have a long term impact on that methodology.

They found that in icy conditions, knots don't help that much.

And they recommended the following distances for rope between knots:

It should be noted that they style in which you elect to haul someone out of a crevasse may be determined by whether or not you have knots in your system. If you intend to use prusiks and a single haul system, knots may hinder these things. It's important to make sure you have a plan for extraction (a drop loop works well) if you put knots in your rope.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, May 27, 2019

Cleaning a Sport Anchor

There are a lot of ways to deal with a sport anchor. Jullie Ellison at Climbing magazine hosts the following video where a very simple and relatively safe way to do this is discussed.

It should be noted that climbing is not "safe" and if a mistake is made in this system, the results could be catastrophic.

Steps to Cleaning a Sport Anchor:

1) Once you reach the anchor, clip two draws into the anchor. Ideally, the gates of the draws are facing away from one another.

2) Clip the rope through one draw and clip the second draw directly into the belay loop. The belayer should keep you on belay the whole time.

3) Pull slack between yourself and the draw that the rope is running through and then tie an overhand or an eight.

3) Clip the loop in the overhand or the eight to your harness with a locker. This will allow you to have redundancy while transitioning.

4) Untie the figure eight that is tied into your harness and run it through the chains.

5) Retye the figure eight into your harness. Double and triple check that this has been done the right way.

6) Remove locking carabiner and knot.

7) Test the system by weighting the knot on the belayer before unclipping yourself from the draw.

8) Clean the draws and then lower to the ground...

Addditional Note:

There are a lot of ways to do this. Some people lower from the anchor, while others rappel. It's important to tell your belayer while you're still on the ground what your plan is; and if you plan to lower, there is never any reason to ask the belayer to take you off belay. There are several accidents a year due to miscommunication surrounding anchor cleaning...

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, May 24, 2019

Training Drills - Footwork

The Climbing Movement Essential Training Series on Youtube is kind of awesome. The series is composed of a number of well produced videos that focus on different aspects of training for climbing.

They always say "use your feet." And indeed, it's pretty common for people to come off because they aren't using their feet. This video shows several drills that one can use to increase the precision and efficacy of their footwork.

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Film Review: Third Man on the Mountain

There really haven't been that many movies made about mountain guides. I mean, there have been some...

Sanaa Lathan plays a world class guide in Alien vs. Predator...and she clearly demonstrates that bloodthirsty extraterrestrials are no match for an experienced mountain guide. I would tend to concur.

Robin Tunney plays a mountain guide on K2 in the worst best climbing movie of all time, Vertical Limit. We all learned a valuable lesson about guides in that movie, the lesson that it's important to bring nitroglycerin on any and all mountain expeditions.

And then there's Third Man on the Mountain.

You'd be forgiven if you didn't know this 1959 Disney film. But you're probably aware of the Matterhorn ride in Disneyland. This film was the inspiration for that ride. And it's no wonder, because the iconic mountain plays a central role in the film, as an infamous peak known as the Citadel.

Third Man on the Mountain is a beautiful film set high in the Alps during the golden age of alpinism. In other words, it was a time when guides and their charges worked together to develop new lines on unclimbed peaks. 

Disney promotes the film with the following plot synopsis:

Rudi Matt, a young kitchen worker, is determined to conquer the Citadel – the jagged, snowcapped peak that claimed his father's life. Encouraged by both a famed English climber and the youth's devoted girlfriend, Rudi goes through a grueling training period before he is ready to face the incredible dangers of the killer mountain.

What they don't say in this short synopsis is that the character Rudi Matt is the son of a mountain guide. And they don't say that the young man has a great desire to become a guide himself...

There is a great deal of climbing in the film that doesn't seem realistic, but it can be forgiven. Why? Because the heart of the film is in the right place. It's a coming of age story about a climber who wants to make the mountains a permanent part of his life. It's the story of an imposing route that that young man looks at every day. And it's ultimately the story of the young man's journey to the mountain.

Most of us can relate to this story.

It's sometimes difficult for those of us who are used to high end special effects to watch older films. It's usually obvious when they shift from scenes that were shot on location to scenes that were shot in a studio. Occasionally you can tell that you're looking at a matte painting... But the story is so nicely portrayed that I was able to suspend my disbelief and live in the moment throughout the film.

Of particular note, Gaston Rebufatt directed the second unit film crew for all the mountain and climbing shots. Rebufatt was the French guide who wrote the iconic book, Starlight and Storm, and participated in the first ascent of Annapurna.

Third Man on the Mountain was based on the 1954 young adult novel Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ulmann. This award winning book was republished in 1988 by Harper Teen and is apparently used as a middle and high school reading assignment.

Though I haven't read Banner in the Sky, I'm glad to know that this story is being read and even taught to young adults. It's likely that most students have the opportunity to watch the film after they've completed the book. It's good to know that this film has a life somewhere... It deserves it. It really does...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, May 20, 2019

Route Profile: Liberty Bell - The Beckey Route (5.6, II)

When I was twenty-years-old, some friends and I made our way up toward Liberty Bell Mountain in the North Cascades. We had climbed a few multi-pitch routes prior to that, but this was going to be one of our first real alpine multi-pitch climbs.

We approached in the late afternoon with the intent to bivy. That was the night that a marmot tried to cuddle up with me in my sleeping bag. I awoke with a shout, just as scared as the little furry animal as it darted away into the night.

The next morning we made our way up to the Beckey Route. I remember thinking that it was hard for the grade, which is something that I still think over twenty years later. I remember my partner being terrified on the rappels, even though they're not that exposed. And that's about all I remember from that first ascent of the route.

Since then, I've climbed the route literally dozens of times. I'never camped below it again. The route is totally reasonable from the car and back in a day. But it remains an incredibly fun line.

Most of the time the approach to the base is trivial. But in the spring of 2013, we found
getting on the route to be the crux of the day. A snowstorm had plastered ice all over the 
base of the route. Luckily, we were able to climb past it and up into the sun.

 This is a photo of a climber leading the first pitch of the route.
As this is an easy photo to get, it is a popular spot to take an iconic photo.

 Climbing the chimney on the second pitch. This pitch is always easier
without a backpack.

Climbers moving down the upper part of the mountain.

The AAI Guide Class of 2012, on the summit of Liberty Bell.
From left to right: Liz Daley, Everett Chamberlain, Tad McCrea, James Pierson

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, May 17, 2019

Self-Arrest with Crampons

We teach self arrest a lot.

You could argue that we teach this skill more than any other. Every single course that goes out onto a glacier will spend at least some time covering this foundational skill. Some will spend all day, whereas others may only spend a short period of time. But it happens on just about every mountaineering trip...

There are a lot of different elements to a successful self-arrest and this particular post wasn't written to address them all. Instead, this post was written to discuss the one area of self-arrest where there is a fair bit of contention: toes up or toes down.

One school of thought is that when you arrest, you need to kick your toes up off the ground. This is so that if you are wearing crampons, they won't catch and flip you over.

The second school of thought is that you should kick your toes into the snow to help arrest the fall. In this school of thought, your toes should go in immediately to provide more resistance to the slide. However, this school also believes that you should only do this if you are not wearing crampons. This school believes that you should not kick your toes in if you are wearing crampons for fear of injury or flipping over.

The third school of thought is that you should always kick your toes into the snow, regardless of whether or not you are wearing crampons. The theory here is that stopping is the most important thing and that it's worth the risk of getting flipped over or injuring your ankles to stop.

Most AAI guides teach a combination of the second and third schools of thought. Programs that teach the first concept are definitely in the minority these days. The number one focus of any self-arrest activity is to stop a slide and most of the time, that means using your feet as part of the arresting system.

The real question comes when we look at the most obvious break between the second and third schools of thought. In the second, you kick your feet up while wearing crampons and in the third, you put them into the snow no matter what. Each of these styles of thinking are a little bit too rigid. In alpine climbing there are seldom absolutes. Both concepts have validity in one venue or in another. The problem is that it depends on snow conditions.

If you are on hard, solid ice or neve, then it's usually better to kick your feet up into the air. If you are on semi-solid terrain with occasional harder sections, then it's probably better to kick your toes in. This "it depends" approach isn't what most people want to hear. They want to hear a black and white answer; in part because a black and white answer is easier to remember in the heat of the moment.

Strategical thinking when moving in the mountains, in any kind of terrain, should always be composed of two questions. What is is the likelhood of a fall? And, what are the consequences of a fall? If these questions are always at the forefront of your thinking, then a black-and-white answer may not be so important. If you are constantly strategizing what you'll do in the event of a fall, then it is likely that you will react appropriately when the right skill is needed.

There is no easy closure on this question. There will always be people who argue vehemently for one of the three schools of thought. When all is said and done, none of the arguments matter. All that matters is that you can stop yourself when you fall.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, May 10, 2019

Diamox - The Wonder Drug?

Diamox is the trade name for a drug called Acetazolamide. This is a "altitude wonder drug" that many people take to increase the speed of their acclimatization. It is also a drug that some people put a little too much hope into instead of acclimitizing properly.

The reality is that Diamox is not a wonder drug. It is is a carbonic anhydrase inhibitor that is commonly used to treat glaucoma, epilepsy, hypertension, cystinuria, dural ectasia and of course, altitude sickness. The drug is designed to help your body make the chemical changes that it needs to make in order to function better at altitude.

We get a lot of questions about this drug from people who are planning a Denali climb or other high-altitude objective. But we also get them from people who are going to go on relatively low-altitude climbs.

Those who are climbing peaks that are less than 14,000 feet tall really shouldn't worry about any type of specialized drug to acclimatize. They should just take their time. Those who are climbing peaks that are between 14,000 and 16,000 feet should only take the drug if they've had problems in the past. And those climbing peaks that are 16,000 feet tall or more, should really see how their body reacts before filling it full of drugs.

The reason that we advise caution with this drug is that it has side-effects that can be difficult to deal with. Diamox is a diuretic. It causes you to urinate frequently. This, of course, can lead to dehydration, which is a contributing factor to altitude sickness. It can also cause a very unusual sensation in the fingers and toes. It feels like they have fallen asleep. This could be confusing or even scary in extremely cold environments.

Diamox - A Prophylactic?

Some climbers choose to take Diamox prophylactically, starting a few days before going to altitude. A percentage of climbers respond well to this, especially if they take between 125 milligrams (mg) to 500 mg per day before ascending rapidly to 10,000 feet or more.

What is rapidly? This is generally a fast one to two day ascent from sea level. Examples of rapid ascents might include Mount Rainier or Mount Whitney in two days...

Those who have a history of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) are urged to take Diamox prophylactically especially with plans for a rapid ascent or plans to ascend 2000 feet or more per day after reaching 10,000 feet.

Diamox forces the kidneys to excrete bicarbonate, the conjugate base of carbonic acid. The more bicarbonate excreted, the more acidic the blood gets. The more acidic the blood gets, the more that ventilation is stimulated. This will ultimately result in more oxygen in the blood.

Clearly the changes in the blood take time. It takes time for the body to catch up to your altitude. As such, Diamox cannot be seen as an immediate fix for AMS. If the symptoms are bad, then climbers are urged to immediately descend before the AMS devolves into a life-threatening cerebral or pulmonary edema.

When to Take Diamox

Many guides argue that the best time to take a drug like Diamox is right before bed. As I know that I don't tend to breathe as deeply at night as during the day, I will usually take Diamox before I go to bed when I'm at high camps on high altitude peaks.

On the one hand an evening dose of the drug may help you acclimatize better up high at night. It may also keep you from getting sick at night. But on the other, you are unlikely to sleep well due to the whole, "I have to pee every five minutes" thing.

Others feel that the morning is better because it doesn't interrupt your sleep.


There has been a lot of research over the last few years that indicate that Ginkgo Biloba may work extremely well in acclimatization. As this is easily attainable at health food stores and has few side effects in healthy people, it may be a much better alternative to Diamox.

On the other hand, those taking anticoagulants such as ibuprofen, aspirin, warfarin, or antidepressants should be wary of potentially dangerous side effects.

Altitude Research

Understanding altitude and its effects on the body is an extremely broad topic. This blog has only touched on the bare surface of the subject and indeed, only on the bare surface of the uses of Diamox. Those interested in learning more should check out Going Higher: Oxygen, Man and Mountains by Charles Houston or Altitude Illness: Prevention and Treatment by Stephen Bezruchka.

A Final Note

We are not doctors. We are climbers. And the advice here is just that, advice. All the information here is based on our experiences working at altitude and everyone's body reacts differently under such circumstances.

Diamox is a prescription drug. And it is extremely important that you get proper medical advice before self-medicating with any such drug. If you are on an expedition with a guide, it is also important to tell your guide whenever you take any drugs.

High altitude climbing is an awesome experience. Diamox is merely one tool that will help you to get up high. Another, and perhaps far more important tool, is to use good sense, good judgment and to acclimitize properly.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, May 6, 2019

Route Profile: Cotopaxi

Cotapaxi and the José Ribas Refuge Seen From The Entrance

Ecuador is home to a lot of great climbing throughout the country, but what brings most climbers down is Ecuador's range of highly accessible glaciated Andean peaks, which cut through the middle of the country.

Of these Volcanoes, Cotopaxi (5,897m) is most likely the most famous and most popular. It is located in the Cotopaxi province of Ecuador, about 50 km south of Ecuador's largest city Quito.

The volcano is a very popular destination for foreigners and Ecuadorians alike, bringing in thousands of visitors each year. Due to its close proximity to Quito, the volcano is very easy to access and trips from Quito are just as easy.

The ease of travel, combined with the fact that the volcano is one of the world’s most aesthetically shaped peaks (a perfectly symmetrical cone), surely adds to its appeal.

Most of the visitors, however, don’t make it past the base camp, and of those who attempt the summit, success rates are only around 50%.

Though the route itself isn’t considered very “technical”, it is still requires a relatively high level of fitness and acclimitzaion. For that reason, the undertaking should not be taken lightly, especially if you are new to high-altitude climbing.

Those who do make the summit will be rewarded with breathtaking views of nearby Chimborazo, the Andean Mountains, and an experience they will surely remember for a lifetime. 

The Climb (PD/WS+)

Ecuadorian law requires that you hire an approved guide prior to attempting to summit Cotopaxi, no matter your level of experience. Luckily, the American Alpine Institute provides several programs in Ecuador.

Though the climb is not “technically” difficult, it still requires the use of crampons, ice axes and the ability to safely navigate glaciers.

In addition to these challenges there are also two crevases which must be crossed with ladders (already set up for you). This challenge requires that you have a good level of fitness, be comfortable with heights, and have good balance.

Prior to attempting the summit, it is advisable that you spend a few days acclimatizing, especially if you are coming from a low elevation. The more time you spend acclimatizing, the higher your chances of successfully reaching the summit. There are no shortage of nearby hikes or climbs to keep you busy for a few days after you arrive.

All summit expeditions arrive via the main highway through the park entrance. From the entrance it is a one to two hour hike up to the José F. Ribas Refuge. The Refuge has some simple but comfortable beds, a restaurant, and a small shop with basic supplies.

When we arrived, we spent the day hiking around the Refuge and practicing the use of crampons and ice axes. The climb to the summit started at night (around 12am), and took approximately six hours to reach the top. The path was well marked and easy to follow and, of course, we were working with a highly trained guide the whole time. We reached the summit just after dawn, spent some time taking pictures, and then started our descent before the sun’s powerful rays began to defrost the glacier.

Memorials To Climbers Lost at the Base of Cotopaxi

By 10am, we were back where we stared at the Refuge, where we enjoyed a quick cup of coca leaf tea, organized our things, and then hiked back down to the entrance to catch a bus back to Quito.

Cotopaxi was a very enjoyable climb. Much like Huayna Potosi in Bolivia, the climb is mostly a steep jaunt with crampons, ice axe and rope. But due to the accessibility of the volcano, the non-technical route, and the incredible views, it is likely that Cotopaxi will remain one of Ecuador's most popular places to climb for years to come.


Jacob Bushmaker: Avid Climber, Professional Traveler, an expert on South American climbing destinations and Founder of The Wandering Climber. Go here now to download his FREE PDF, learn the “best places to climb” in South America and plan your next adventure.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Review: Packit Gourmet

Camping at Moose Lake in Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

There are few things more important than getting the right nutrition in the backcountry. On Denali, we like to say that you "eat and drink your way up the mountain" — in short, nutrition and hydration are key to taking care of yourself, especially at altitude. But with food, you run into the same problems you often run into with other gear: what matters the most to you, comfort or weight? With Packit Gourmet, you don't have to make tradeoffs because you get delicious, packable and fairly lightweight (though not "ultralight") meals.

Packit Gourmet was kind enough to send me a set of breakfast, lunch and dinner foods to test, which I and a friend tested on an overnight backpacking trip to Echo Lake in the Sierra Nevada, another overnight to Kennedy Meadows in the Sierra, an 8-day, off-trail backpacking trip in Sequoia and Kings Canyon and again on an overnight skiing and camping trip outside of Lake Tahoe.

Packing for an 8-day trip in Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

Packit Gourmet is a small, family-owned company based outside of Austin in the Texas Hill Country. Their meals are hand-mixed and made in small batches. The meals are composed primarily of dehydrated and freeze-dried ingredients and are shelf-stable. While some meals are more involved, many you can cook by adding boiled water and then heating in an insulated "Cook-in-Bag" you can get from Packit Gourmet.

The thing that stands out the most to me about the food from Packit Gourmet is how delicious it is. It tastes far better than anything I've ever had from Mountain House or Backpacker's Pantry. The meals are clearly created with care — their "Austintacious Tortilla Soup", for example, comes with dehydrated lime and a packet of hot sauce to add — and the higher-quality ingredients are reflected in the taste. Apart from the "Austintacious Tortilla Soup," for dinners I also tested "Dottie's Chicken and Dumplings," "Texas State Fair Chilli", "Ramen Rescue" (which you add to regular Ramen), "Shepherd's Cottage Pie" and "The 'Big Easy' Cajun Gumbo." Each one was a winner and filling after a long day in the backcountry.

Packit Gourmet also has an array of breakfast and lunch options. While I didn't try the breakfast smoothies, my friend reported general deliciousness, though you need to be sure to pack your own straw. For lunches, we tried both the "Many Beans Salad" and the "Kickin' Chicken Hot Wings Wrap" and they were great. The lunch portions were incredibly filling, and even when splitting a lunch we still often had leftovers. Be sure to check the directions because sometimes you need to pack additional ingredients — for the wrap, for example, Packit Gourmet sends you the filling but you have to pack your own tortillas.

Getting lunch ready.

These meals are quite packable for mountain adventures. For our 8-day trip, we were able to pack enough food for two people in two large bear canisters. Because of the number of steps and spice packets involved in each of the meals, I wouldn't pack these for a gnarly bivy in storm conditions but would pack them for just about everything else.

On both weight and price, they are comparable to meals offered by Backpacker's Pantry and Mountain House, only way more delicious. Most breakfasts are $6-8, lunches are $8 and dinners are $8-9. The lightest dinner that doesn't require additional ingredients (like your own tortillas) is the "Austintacious Tortilla Soup" at 3.8oz and the heaviest is the "Pasta Beef Bolognese" at 7.4oz.

If you're looking for an easy, tasty, grab-and-go meal for the mountains, I'd definitely recommend Packit Gourmet. I expect to be enjoying their meals for many years to come.

--Shelby Carpenter, former AAI Instructor and Guide, Outdoor Writer

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 5/2/19


--If there's any such thing as Bigfoot, he's safe in the Mt. Baker foothills. It's a Bigfoot Protection and Refuge Area. To read more, click here.

--The Seattle Times is reporting on a sad loss for the Seattle climbing community. "After 23 years of serving the outdoors community, gear retailer Ascent Outdoors has permanently closed its stores in Redmond and Ballard and its partner store, Ascent Cycles, also in Ballard. The company has made no official announcement, but last weekend, several patrons noticed their stores were closed and posted images on social media of a sign on the door of the Ballard location that stated it was 'no longer open for business.'" To read more, click here.


--The Yosemite Facelift will take place on September 24th. Information about the event can be found, here.

Desert Southwest:

--The Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive was closed for a period of time on Tuesday, while police tried to find and apprehend a suicidal woman who was armed. Eventually, she was located and taken into custody. To read more, click here.

Colorado and Utah:

--SGB Media is reporting that, "Vail Resorts reported season-to-date total lift ticket revenue at the company’s North American mountain resorts, including an allocated portion of season pass revenue for each applicable period, was up 9.3 percent compared to the prior year season-to-date period." To read more, click here.

--The outdoor industry is trying to limit single use plastic from its key event, the Outdoor Retailer Show. Ninety-six brands have signed onto the plastic impact alliance. To read more, click here.

--There is a move amongst some Colorado climbers to develop a better infrastructure for those dealing with grief after a friend or family member dies in the mountains. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--High Country News is reporting that, "the Blackfeet Nation is trying to open its own national park
Members of the Blackfeet Nation want tourists to understand how the story of Glacier National Park is really the story of their nation." To read more, click here.

--The Nepalese are cracking down on the sale of faulty oxygen equipment to climbers who wish to climb Mt. Everest. To read more, click here.

--Montana's Bear Tooth Basin, a summer ski hill, is looking for support to help it stay open. To read more, click here.

--The New Yorker has a piece out about a crazy ski party in the Alps. To read the piece, click here.

--Here's a great piece on eight women who are changing the face of the climbing community.

--Outside ranked all the gear used on Game of Thrones. Check it out!

--Rock and Ice is reporting that, "The sport of climbing is growing rapidly in the United States and around the world. With this expansion comes responsibility from the community to ensure that the sport is open and inclusive to everyone no matter their race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. USA Climbing wants to become a leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion in the sport. USA Climbing announces the formation of a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force (DEITF) to best assess, identify, and implement changes to these areas in competitive and recreational climbing throughout the country." To read more, click here.

--So for what it's worth, there's a new Guinness record for the fastest person to run a marathon in ski boots...