Monday, January 17, 2022

Avalanche Airbags and You

It was February of 2012, and three skiers were dead just outside of the Stevens Pass Ski Area in the Tunnel Creek drainage. Five people were initially caught in the backcountry avalanche. One of the survivors became wedged between two trees while snow rushed over him. The other survivor – Elyse Saugstad – deployed an avalanche airbag, which kept her near the surface of the snow and allowed rescuers to find her quickly.

Saugstad’s survival created a great deal of interest in avalanche airbags. Our shop at the American Alpine Institute began to receive almost daily inquiries about these potentially lifesaving tools. And now today, these devices are standard for ski patrollers and backcountry ski guides.

The BCA Float 42 is a single balloon pack
with 42-liters of space.

But what are they?

In essence an avalanche airbag is a regular backpack with one or more large balloons stowed in the top and the side. The idea is that if there is an avalanche, the skier can pull a ripcord and deploy the rapid inflation balloons almost immediately. And then in theory, these balloons will keep your body near the surface of a moving avalanche, allowing for an easier rescue.

There are many aspects that must be taken into account prior to the purchase of one of these systems. First, of course, there's affordability. Second, there's the difficulty of refilling the cartridge. Third, there's the question of how easy it is to stow and retrieve the trigger. And lastly, one's perception of a given brand and indeed, even one's loyalty to it.

Before making any purchasing decisions, you must look at the advantages and disadvantages of three main aspects of this system.

  1. What type of gas is being used to inflate the balloon chamber?
  2. How many balloons are being inflated?
  3. What type of mechanism is being used to trigger the deployment of the balloon(s)?
To decide what kind of gas (compressed air or nitrogen) is the most appropriate for you, first and foremost, you must think about where you are going to use your pack. Air temperatures and altitude may have an effect on cartridge performance and in effect, the speed by which the gas moves from the cartridge to the balloon(s). It appears that the compressed air works a little better at lower altitudes – like those found in the PNW – while nitrogen works a little bit better up high, like those found in Colorado.

One additional concern that should be mentioned is the difficulty that some have had taking these backpacks abroad. For some reason the TSA doesn't like weird cartridges of gas stashed inside backpacks on their planes...

North Face Avalanche Airbag Pack
Note that this is a two balloon system.

The terrain that you're skiing is another factor to take into account. If you’re skiing in a place where there are lots of sharp trees and branches, or in a place where there are a lot of sharp rocks, there is the possibility that you are going to puncture a balloon. Some systems employ a two balloon pack with two valves for two reasons -- first, in case one of the valves malfunctions; and second, in case one of the balloons is punctured after deployment. Some brands have worked hard to develop a configuration that provides more "floatability" by playing with the volume and spatial adjustability of the balloons...

If you are going to be using the pack as a recreationalist you may have different needs than a ski patroller or a guide. Why? Because each group has different needs. The recreationalist needs affordability and functionality with a simple pull. Professionals often use packs with mini-explosives that (according to the respective marketing departments) will guarantee deployment above and beyond the minimum standards. And lastly, a guide may want a remote control triggering mechanism in case one of his or her participants is in a slide, but fails to trigger the system.

Now the real trick of these packs is not that they might "save" you from an avalanche. Instead, it's that they might trick you into a false sense of security. The pack will give you a better chance if you're in a slide (about 16% overall or about a bit more than half of those who would have otherwise died in an avalanche), but it won't save you from drop-offs or trees or boulders or any number of other terrible things that could happen to you if you're involved in a slide. The best tool that you have to avoid an avalanche is your own brain and your own ability to use it. If you haven't taken an avalanche course, then you're missing the key ingredient.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, January 14, 2022

The Backpack as Luggage

Air travel is a pain. And frankly, I'm sick of it. I sometimes think it would be better to drive eight hours than to take a short flight...

I used to really enjoy the process of flying...when I was eight or nine. But now as an adult, I find it to be an expensive, uncomfortable and nerve-racking process. It's a game. What will I have to pay for? Will I get to use the arm-rest? Have the others in my row elected to use deodorant? Will my neighbor's body fat "share" my seat? Will my luggage get there? How long will I have to sit on a plane that isn't moving?

I hate it.

But I also recognize that it is part of the process. To go anywhere really cool, you have to fly. And flying somewhere on a climbing trip means that you have to check baggage.

Obviously one of the key components to a flight is your backpack. There are a couple of ways to deal with this ever-so-important item.

A smaller pack (under 3500 cubic inches) can often be brought into the cabin with you. On foreign mountaineering trips, we often recommend that climbers stow their boots and hard-shells in the pack. These are things that you won't be able to replace if your luggage gets lost.

Some people suggest carrying a rock rack or harness in your carry-on. If you elect to do this, expect to spend significant time at the security check-point. If you have things on your harness, don't forget to check your harness knife, otherwise they'll take it away.

One thing that can be helpful if you're carrying a rack on a plane is to bring some climbing magazines. You might also consider having some pictures of your rack in use on your phone. The reason to do this is so that you can show a TSA agent how the devices within your pack are used.

This should be common sense, but don't even consider carrying an ice rack, ice tools or an ice axe in your carry-on. You can expect to have significant problems trying to get through security with such items...and an attempt to bring so many sharp things through, could lead to all kinds of additional problems (i.e. a "backroom" search).

If you intend on checking a backpack, it should be noted that pack-straps can cause significant issues on the different machines used in airports to maneuver luggage. It's important to pull the shoulder straps tight and to clip the waist belt around the body of the pack.

In this photo, note that the shoulder straps have been pulled as tightly as possible and 
that the waist belt has been clipped on the opposite side of the pack.

There are still a lot of straps that could get caught, but by pulling everything tight, 
there are a lot less loops that could get caught in airport machinery.

Some airlines will simply put a backpack in a large plastic sack. This would also be a perfectly acceptable way for you to ensure that nothing on your pack got stuck.

Airline travel is terrible...but to do what we love to do, it is often a necessary evil.

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 1/13/21


--It seems very likely that the Glacier Creek Road, the road used to access the North Side of Mt. Baker, will remain closed at approximately mile 3 throughout the 2022 climbing season. The road is eight miles long.

--We're all aware of the current situation at Stevens Pass and Whistler. There is significant pushback against the resorts manager, the Vail corporation. The specific concerns revolve around the lack of parking, terrain that isn't open, and the lack of reasonable wages for employees that likely lead to less employees and, as such, less open terrain. To read about it, click here. Here's a letter from the new GM.

--In an announcement late yesterday, the current general manager of Stevens Pass is being replaced. To read about it, click here.

--Snowbrains is reporting that, "On December 18th, 2021, officials at Kimberley Alpine Resort (KAR) found the Northstar Chairlifts in flames. This lift is the main access point to the Canadian ski resort, and as a result resort officials have had to try and come up with unique ways to get visitors up the mountain. This fire could not have come at a worse time for KAR, as they had just opened the mountain for winter operations. Because of the loss of an important asset and major inconvenience to visitors, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police began an ongoing investigation to determine the cause of the detrimental fire." To read more, click here.

--Gripped is reporting on a new ice route that went up near Lillooet: "Brent Nixon, Steve Janes and Jordan Craven found and climbed a route they’re calling Too Many Heroes, a 90-metre WI4. Nixon, who climbed this new WI6+ last week, said that it’s 'roughly on the eastern flank of Mount McLean in the Lillooet Range' and above the sawmill as you drive toward Duffy Lake." To read more, click here.


--USA Today is reporting that, "Friends and co-workers are mourning the loss of an experienced, free-spirited skier whose body was found this weekend a few miles from a California ski resort where he disappeared in a blizzard two weeks ago. Rory Angelotta, 43, had been skiing in whiteout conditions at Northstar Ski Resort on Christmas Day. The primary search effort was called off Dec. 30. But on Saturday, teams expanded the search area and brought in a rescue canine, the Placer County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement." To read more, click here.

--Two climbers are attempting to free climb the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite. Only three climbers have completed this objective, and two of them had a movie made about it. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--Here's a running list of bad bolts in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Colorado and Utah:

--It appears that two snowshoers and their dog died in an avalanche over the weekend near Breckenridge. To read more, click here.

--By the time you read this, patrollers at Park City may be on strike. From the Salt Lake Tribune: "The 50th bargaining session between the Park City ski patrol union and Vail Resorts on Monday night resulted in the same conclusion as the previous 49 talks: a stalemate. Going into Monday evening’s negotiation, the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association announced that nearly all of its 171 members had voted to authorize a strike, but Vail Resorts did not bring a new contract proposal to the table, despite the development." To read more, click here.

--A number of climbers lost their homes during the recent fires on the outskirts of Boulder. To read about it, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--A water pipe burst at Beech Mountain in North Carolina on January 7th. A jet of water came shooting out of the ground, hosing skiers on a lift. The incident resulted in non-life-threatening injuries, but... It is insane. Check out the video below:

--Outside magazine -- a subsidiary of Pocket Outdoor Media -- has unionized. All fifteen members of their editorial staff are now a part of Denver Newspaper Guild and Communications Workers of America. To read about it, click here.

--National Parks Traveler is reporting that, "the National Park Service stands to lose more than $1 billion in revenues that could be used to hire rangers and create a Civilian Climate Corps if the Senate cannot appease U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and pass the administration's Build Back Better plan. The West Virginia Democrat on Sunday said he would vote against the current version of President Biden's signature plan to attack climate change, provide expanded health coverage, and extend the child tax credit, saying it was too big and expensive." To read more, click here.

--SGB Media is reporting that, "in an open letter entitled “Looking forward to seeing you in Denver on January 26,” Outdoor Retailer show organizers said they have no current plans to cancel the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show 2022 amid a surge in COVID-19 outbreaks tied to the Omicron variant. Enhanced safety measures, including mandatory masks, are being implemented, said show organizers." To read more, click here.

--Wildcat Ski Area in New Hampshire just had a chair fall off their lift, resulting in injuries. This is a Vail property, and people are getting more and more angry at the corporation. To read more, click here.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Closing the System and Staying Alive

It was a short day in December of 2007 and I had to get at least one more route in. The climbers who'd come in to climb with me were supposed to do a multi-pitch the next day.  So I rushed to the top and moved the rope from one top-rope anchor to the next.

I didn't notice that the ends on the ground had become offset.

I rappelled the rope, until one end slid easily through my device and I fell.  It was a short fall, only six feet, but I still ended up in the hospital. It took three months to recover from my fractured pelvis.

When I think back on this accident, the thing that burns me the most is that it could have been easily prevented. All that I had to do was to put stopper knots in the end of the rope, then it wouldn't have mattered if the ends were offset.

Most people think of rappelling off the end of your rope as some kind of grand thing that only happens way up off the ground. The reality is that it happens all the time in much less dramatic circumstances. It happens exactly the way it happened to me, with one end that didn't quite touch the ground. Often times the injuries are minor, but sometimes they're not.

The thing is that it is very easy to protect yourself from this type of accident. The way to do it is to "close the system." In other words, make sure that what happened to me simply can't happen to you...

Single-Pitch Rappel

In a single-pitch setting it's very easy to put a stopper knot in both ends of the rope.  This works well as there are limited concerns about the rope getting stuck somehow below you. The best knot to use is the barrel knot, or stopper knot. This is essentially half of a double-fisherman's knot. Though any knot will do.

A Stopper Knot (Barrel Knot)


A second situation that is different, but related, is the possibility of dropping someone by lowering them  until the rope runs out.  In such a situation, the rope runs through an unsuspecting belayer's hands, and then it's gone...and the climber falls to the ground.

Once again, this is extremely preventable.  Every single time you climb, you should tie a stopper knot in the open end of the rope. It doesn't matter if there is a hundred feet of rope on the ground.  The idea is to make knotting the end of your rope part of your process, so that when something does happen, nothing happens...

Multi-Pitch Rappels

When I preach the gospel of tying knots in the ends of ropes, a lot of people bring up a very valid concern.  On multi-pitch rappels, it's not uncommon for the ends of the rope to fall past a rappel station. If there are knots in those ends below, they can get caught down there.

One simple way to avoid this is to tie an overhand or an eight on a bite at the ends of the ropes.  Clip these to your harness before tossing the line. Then when you are ready to pull your rope, you can untie them.  If you keep them clipped to your harness until the very last moment, there are three advantages:

  1. The first advantage was the point of all this. You won't rappel off the end of your rope.
  2. The second advantage is that the knots can't get stuck below you and you have the end of your rope.
  3. And lastly, if you keep these clipped to your harness until the very last moment, it will also help you to remember to untie the knot at the end of the rope before pulling it.
Rappelling off the end of your rope or dropping someone are both things that most of us would like to avoid.  Climbing is dangerous. Something as simple as tying a knot can make it less so...

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, January 7, 2022

Crampon Technique for Ice Climbing

It is said again and again in rock climbing, "use your feet." Unsuprisingly, it is also said over and over again in ice climbing. Good foot technique is the core to overall good climbing technique.

Ice climbers don't have as many options as rock climbers. When an ice climber is on a frozen waterfall, there are only a few things that she can do to use her feet. She can frontpoint (the German technique), she can use the American technique or she can use the French technique.

Following is a simple breakdown of these techniques as they pertain to ice climbing.


In mountaineering, we try to avoid frontpointing as much as possible. This is because it wears out the calves quickly. In waterfall ice climbing, it is incredibly difficult to avoid this technique. Indeed, most of the climbing that one will do on steep and vertical ice will require frontpointing.

In this photo, the author's feet are splayed out and he is frontpointing on steep ice.
Photo by Gene Pires

Proper frontpointing requires that not only the front two spikes are engaged, but that the second set of teeth are also engaged. To do this, a climber must drop her heels. This allows the secondary spikes to bite into the ice.

In this frontpointing photo, it is possible to see that the climber has dropped his heels.

Ice climbing requires a tremendous amount of calf strength. One of the best things that you can do to prepare for an ice trip is to train your calf muscles for extended periods of use. You could also do your best to limit the amount of time you spend on your frontpoints...

American Technique

The American Technique is a great way to rest your calves while ice climbing. It is quite common for people to get fixated on frontpointing and not to take rests. The American technique allows for rests.

American Technique Demonstrated on Glacier Ice

This technique, also referred to as Pied Troisieme, requires one foot to be placed with the frontpoints engaged while the other food is flat in a French position. French technique is essentially a technique wherein the spikes on the bottom of the crampons are fully engaged on the ice.

French Technique

Fully engaged crampons do not work the legs anywhere near as hard as techniques that require frontpoints to be engaged. As stated above, French technique is a way to avoid overuse of your calves.

The simplest way to explain French Technique is that the feet stay flat. All points are in the ice. If you can do this on steepish terrain, then this will really allow you to rest. Indeed, areas where you can employ this technique are also some of the best for placing ice screws. Never ignore an opportunity to rest if it allows you to get gear, this can be scarce on ice climbs sometimes...

Some time ago, we did an entire article on French Technique and the use of the Cross-Over Step. To read that article, click here.

Whenever you ice climb, think about your feet. But don't just think about them as cold lumps that might help you through the climb, but instead as a dynamic part of your body. If you always think of them as dynamic, it is far more likely that you will be able to use them in an effective way.

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 1/6/22


--Watch Don't Look Up on Netflix. The film chronicles how scientists react to an existential threat to the planet, in this case an astroid, and how nearly everyone ignores it. It's a metaphor for our current climate situation, a situation that those of us who recreate in the mountains deal with constantly...


--Global News is reporting that, "One person is suffering from a broken leg after an avalanche on Hollyburn Mountain near West Vancouver, North Shore Rescue confirms. The injured backcountry skier was rescued Monday afternoon by ground as cloud cover obscured the path for a helicopter." To read more, click here.

--CBS News is reporting that, "two 19-year-old hikers who went winter camping were rescued near Eugene, Oregon, by the U.S. Coast Guard after signaling for help by writing an "SOS" sign in the snow, officials said. CBS affiliate KOIN-TV reports the two men went camping near Swastika Mountain southeast of Eugene around Christmas Day and failed to return as expected on Dec. 29. Officials said the men were reported missing on New Year's Eve." To read more, click here.

--Things are not going well at Stevens Pass Ski Resort this year. This is an awesome place with an awesome staff. But Vail Resorts -- which owns Stevens -- needs to step up. Check out this article about the issues there this season.

--Snowbrains is reporting that, "due to the popularity of Crystal Mountain Resort and to help offer the best guest experience possible during a busy season, Crystal Mountain will require lift reservations for all skiers and riders, including Ikon Pass holders, local pass holders, and local day products, starting Saturday, January 8, 2022." To read more, click here.

--Unofficial Networks is reporting that, "one of British Columbia’s mega-resort construction projects will soon begin. The Rocky Mountain Goat reports that logging work will commence in the next couple of weeks at the Valemount Glacier Destinations. While funding hasn’t been found yet, logging will allow for quicker construction if the contracts were to go through. Also, a local ski society wants to run a community hill on the site before the grand proposal comes to fruition. A two hundred and eighty-meter handle tow will service these initial slopes." To read more, click here.

--And yet another new mixed line went up in Squamish during the cold snap. Read about it, here. And don't miss this article about people ice climbing on the Apron.

Desert Southwest:

--A New Mexico ski resort tram had a hard time at the end of the year. From LiftBlog: "The new year started with a long, cold night for a group of Sandia Peak employees. Late on New Year’s Eve, the resort’s aerial tramway stopped midway through a trip due to icing of cables from precipitation and high winds. Twenty passengers in cabin 2 and an attendant in cabin 1 were stuck until early this afternoon. The tram cars are not heated but rescuers were able to climb tower 2 and provide one of the cabins with food, water and emergency blankets. By 2:00 pm, a number of passengers had been lowered down from that cabin and taken off the mountain by helicopter." To read more, click here.

Colorado and Utah:

--A grass fire ripped through communities adjacent to Boulder, Colorado last week. Winter wildfires are unusual, but may become the new normal as the climate continues to change. To read about the fire and devastation, click here.

--The following video took place on December 26th. Some skiers see a dog avalanched. After assuming it was dead, they found and dug it out, alive...

--In other avalanche video news, here's a controlled avalanche in Alta on January 2nd:

--It should be noted that two patrollers were caught in this slide, though no one was injured. You can see them on the far left side of the screen as two black dots. Information about this and some additional info about the Utah avy scene has been published by Deseret News: "Just four days into the new year, there have been 17 reported avalanches across Utah, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. Most occurred naturally, although some were a result of backcountry skiers, snowboarders or snowmobilers. There are likely more slides that went unreported." To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--The saddest thing that Climbing puts out every year is the Climbers We Lost article. You can read about all these incredible people, here.

--Buckrail is reporting that, "on Sunday, Jan. 2. Teton County Search and Rescue was called to assist a woman who had injured her knee while backcountry skiing on Windy Ridge, on the west side of Teton Pass. Avalanche danger was moderate/considerable at different elevations, and rescue crews had to consider the hazards before loading up the helicopter." To read more, click here.

---SGB Media is reporting that, "Helen of Troy Limited announced the successful completion of its previously announced acquisition of Osprey Packs, Inc, for $414.7 million in cash, which includes the impact of a $5.3 million favorable customary closing net working capital adjustment." To read more, click here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Perfecting the Powder Turn

I don't think I'll ever be the skier I want to be. I'm constantly working on something. That's one of the cool things about skiing. It can be a life-long obsession in making perfect turns.

And no turn is more fun to make than a turn in powder...

Today's Stomp It Tutorial covers five tips to develop and perfect your powder turn. There's so much in this video, I'm about to watch it again!

--Jason D. Martin