Thursday, November 24, 2011

Moved to

Moved to as of November 25, 2011.

I'm putting this blog along with all my various old websites, blogs, etc. together on, come on over and check it out! New post up on a mixed climbing accident/video, interesting.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Are Ice Tool Leashes As Archaic as Gaiters, Screamers and Third Tools?

The picture above is the last one I could find in my photo collection where I have a leash on a tool--Norway 2005.

This is another blog post inspired by a question from a reader. The question was roughly, "I was wondering your take on leashless climbing for beginners?  I am a sorta old school ice climber that still uses leashes for those 4 days a year I manage to get out ice climbing. (father in washington state)  I feel that I don't get enough time on ice to get strong enough to enjoy the benefits of leashless climbing.

I have heard many peoples opinion that beginners should start out leashless for several reasons.  many guides start clients this way.  I feel that the beginners need every advantage they can get to enjoy the day.

What is your take?"

Back in the day I thought leashes for ice tools were the only way to hang onto ice tools, and that gaiters were the only way to keep snow out of my boots. I now seldom to never use either leashes or gaiters. And I don't use Screamers/Force limiters much on ice screws, and I don't carry a third tool either. Amazing how what was once standard equipment is now history.

Leashes: To start with, very, very few people set their leashes up correctly to begin with. Most people grab their ice tool at 90 degrees to the shaft, set the leash length and call it good. But your hand tends to rotate when actually hanging on so the index finger isn't anywhere near 90; usually it points more "up" than parallell to the ground. This rotates the pinky up, putting it several centimetres higher than it should be. If your pinky isn't almost falling off the bottom of your tool the tool when hanging onto the tool it won't rotate correctly when swung. Different thicknesses of gloves will also effect where your hand is on the tool. So if you're going to use leashes at least set them up properly, and use a decent one for technical ice climbing like the Android.

That said, I can't remember the last time I used leashes, and don't think in most situations for most people they are worthwhile. Most people are strong enough rock climbers to hold onto the tools when (and not if, when) their feet blow. I have seen a mitten or glove still hanging through a wrist loop on a lonesome tool after the climber has fallen off; leashes help hold on, but not as much as is commonly assumed, and modern leashless tools are surprisingly easy to hold on to. It probably makes sense for people who don't rock climb at all during the sumer to use leashes; they may not have the hand strength to hang on if their feet blow. And in this situation an Android or equivalent really solid leash has to be used or the benefit is missed. I have sometimes used leashes for alpine climbing with hazard overhead, but more often I get too annoyed and just end up climbing leashless. However, I can see the theory even if I can't practice it.

I won't go into the benefits of leashless, other than to say the only thing a leashed tool still does better than a leashless tool is significant: Leashed tools swing better. I have yet to get a better swing out of a leashless tool than a well set-up leashed tool. The perfectly relaxed fast swing is the holy grail of leashless tools, and so far I haven't felt it, and I try every new tool I can. It's just that the other advantages of leashless tools outweight the disadvantages. Many climbers have only swung leashless tools; I've swung both thousands or maybe millions of times by now, and I have yet to swing a leashless tool that swings as fluidly as a leashed tool.

I was also very concerned about dropping leashless ice tools, but I've dropped more leashed tools than leashless tools over the years. I'm not sure why this is, but it's true for me. Occasionally I'll use the BD Spinner, mostly on alpine terrain. I used to think leashes were a good idea for novices so they didn't drop their tools, but they seem to mostly just leave them in the ice and hang on the rope. If they do fall I'm not sure having a leashed tool spinning around them is a great improvement in novice (close to the ground) environments... It might be better to just go pick it up. BD Spinners aren't rated for the sort of impacts a fall can generate and there are all kinds of skull and crossbones warnings on the packaging, but somehow they do occasionally hold slips. Best not to slip so far you need to rely on a piece of gear that's not at all designed for catching a slip...

There's a temptation to set your tools up to work with leashes as well as leashless "just in case." But a tool set up for leashless climbing has a different pommel/lower grip and swing than a leashed tool; the pommel/finger grip interferes so much with a leashed swing that it renders the tool near-useless. You can still swing a pair of leashless tools with the leashes clipped off to their own straps on your wrists if you set the "manacle" part up short, but not the other way around. If you're so pumped or weak that you want leashes then you should probably stop, clip into the bottom of the tool and rest on it anyhow, whether you've got leashes on or not. Climbing stupid pumped on ice is stupid, it removes any safety factor. Rest, retreat, whatever, just don't fall.

So, if you're a much better ice climber than you are a rock climber, and don't have the strength to hang on then your choices are either get stronger, which won't take all that much work, use leashes, or don't ice climb. Two of those solutions are reasonable.

And then there's gaiters. I use these slightly more than leashed tools (I just realized I don't even have a set of tools set up with leashes anymore so that's not saying a lot), but I like pants like the Arcteryx Gamma that have grommet holes and a grippy strip around the cuff. This offers a great seal without turning your boots into sweat baths like gaiters--a great deal of moisture goes out the top of your boots, gaiters just seal that in and soak everything. Most of my winter boots also have built-in gaiters, but these are more for warmth than to shed snow. Still, the combination of the pant with a lace hook/rubber strip/underfoot strap and a boot with a built in gaiter means no snow gets into my boots even when swimming in the deep stuff. If I'm wearing really light, low-cut boots like I'll use for sumer alpine adventures then I'll occasionally break out the lightest, most breathable gaiter I can find. But I don't like 'em, they are an inelegant solution to a problem.

Screamers: A good rope has relatively low impact force (single, I don't use half ropes much except for low-angle alpine scrabbling, their impact forces are often too high to be worthwhile except for gentle falls), so unless the gear is super sketchy I don't use Screamers anymore. I work hard to get good ice gear, and retreat if I can't. The nebulous line between "maybe good enough" and "GOOD" is too fine for me. I want my gear to be good, or I either solo or go home. Bad gear leads to bad decisions for me, others may have more self-restraint. Gear is not meant to be jewelry, it's meant to be solid. Playing games with shitty gear is seldom going to work out better than retreating if the movement isn't well within my skills. I used to believe "Some gear is better than none," but I'm moving more toward, "I like good gear, and will work hard to get it. If I can't get good gear then I go into solo mode, or retreat." 

Third Tools: haven't carried one in 20 years since replaceable picks came out. I did drop a tool once and had to borrow Jack Tackle's third tool, that was embarrassing enough I haven't done it since then, but appreciated the loaner.

So, what are we going to lose next? Socks? Hammers on our tools? Oh right, we lost those too! The future is definitely less, not more when it comes to gear. In the future leashed tools, gaiters and 60/40 Anoraks will all be found in the same section, and only available in dull earth colours. Or maybe, like tie-die shirts and disco, everything old will be new again one day, we'll see.

Thanks for the question.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ice Season Cometh: Q and A

First off, sorry for the long delay in blogging. I've been stupid busy with everything from getting my first guiding exam done, family, writing, doing a couple of TV shows and of course climbing, mountain biking (broke some ribs, healing now), travel, and just life. Enough excuses, I'm back, thanks for the heckling/encouraging emails.

I'm going to do a new section of this blog where I answer questions from readers, starting with these:

1) There has be a lot of discussion on knots for tying ropes to rappel. While for that purpose only few people are still using the double fishermans (I use an EDK backed up with a second EDK), it seems to be the knot of choice for tying abalakow slings. Why? Couldn’t I use a doubled EDK here as well? That would seem much easier to tie with gloves on.

2) Now this might sound stupid: While I would never think this could work, I have read a few accounts of long, repeated abseils where it sounded as if the climbing rope itself had been fed directly through the V-thread, saving cord. Did I get that wrong? Can that work? I would assume under load the rope would freeze in place for sure. Maybe something was lost in translation…

-Greetings to the Rockies from Hamburg, Germany.

A #1: The EDK (simple overhand knot) is used for a couple of different reasons: It's relatively easy to untie, it's relatively low-profile on the pull so it's less likely to get hang up, and it's very simple. It does require relatively long tails in case it rolls; if a second EDK is used then that requires yet more rope. An EDK may not be the best choice for ropes of different diameters; I have never seen or heard of a problem with an EDK in the fieldand different diameter ropes, but there's likely a reason some people won't use the EDK with different diameter ropes. Even when weighted you can usually work an EDK out. Sounds like a pretty good knot for rappels with the same ropes.

A fisherman's in contrast, is hard to untie and takes relatively little additional cord for long tails. That sounds like a pretty good knot for a v-thread/Abalokov for me. A simple overhand/EDK might work OK for a V-thread, but would require more cord for tails, and more monitoring. There was fatality here a few years ago where the climbers came down, clipped into the thread, pulled their rope, and the thread "broke." What actually happened is that they had clipped into the long tails on the thread, which had re-frozen into the ice. Sad as hell. Always make sure you're clipped into the true thread and not the tails. Why use a knot that requires long tails for threads? I like to be able to rotate the thread to check the cord all the way around. And I always back threads up with a screw, or two if I don't know the solidity of the thread.

Here's where it starts to get rather pedantic, but there are more reasons I like the EDK (just one with relatively long tails for me in general, but two is a standard in some circles) for raps and a fisherman's for threads. A rappel is a relatively low-load scenario where only the climber's weight is on the rope really, and only half the climber's weight on any one strand (assuming the rope isn't a pullley through the v-thread, which would be bad as it would cut the material through the thread!). So a simple overhand is really, really unlikely to flip under the low load. But a V-thread may have a lot of weight on it due to two or more climbers clipping into it, and the likely scenario of a climber clipped a sling into the thread above it and then slamming down below the thread if they blow undoing their belay device or something... I'd want something really strong that wouldn't roll for my thread material, full stop. If I were using webbing I'd tie a water knot, cord I like a Fisherman's.

You could use a lot of different knots for a thread, and for a rappel pull, and you'd likely live, but I like a fishermans for V-thread cord, and a water knot for webbing, and an EDK for rappels. Do use at least 7mm cord for threads.

#2: Yes, and I've done it lots. BUT, if the rope re-freezes even a tiny bit in the hole, or there's a lot of rope drag from, say, twists, you can rapidly have a bad experience with a stuck rope. If you want to rap using a rope fed through the thread you'll be feeding the "fat" rope through the hole; if you climb on two 8mm ropes or a single 9.1 then no problem, but if you're rapping off with ropes of different diameters then you need, as normal, to pull "skinny," which means the fat rope goes through the hole. If the rope is a hairy beast of rope or frozen up at all then the sharp bend in the back of the thread, or if you didn't get the thread perfect (and I normally am off by 20 percent or so) then there's a natural "pinch point" in the back of the thread. I actually leave 7mm cord or one-inch webbing with old 'biners or quicklinks on the cord if getting the rope stuck would be any problem at all, and definitely don't feed it through. It's one of those ideas that works really well occasionally, but in general opens up a mess of problems.

So there is a really long answer to two short questions! And there are levels to all of this; for me recreationally I'm totally fine with one loop of good-quality 7mm cord for the thread, but that' far from "full strength."

Few solutions or concepts in climbing are absolute. I've been playing this game for more than 30 years, and each year I revise, tune, toss out and otherwise change my systems in light of new ideas or data. This summer I took the first guiding course and exam here in Canada; I learned a lot, but the most important thing I learned was a different way of looking at climbing.The big thing is to have an understanding of what you're dealing with, or reduce the situation to parts that do make sense and will do the job at hand.

Finally, Mark Beverly has done a lot of good research, here is some he did on horizontal vs. vertical V-threads, as well as the differences materials make in the strength of threads. Fatter material is better. I'm not yet sold on the benefits of vertical vs. horizontal V-thread placements, but will play more with them this winter.

And there is ice in the Canadian Rockies, saw it today. Go get it!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Quick Review Notes on the Spot 2 and Spot Connect

Summary: If you're pondering buying a Spot for tracking and emegencies I'd suggest NOT getting the Spot Connect. To do anything but send an SOS message doesn't work without a bluetooth phone, and the bluetooth pairing is sketchy even sitting at your desk at home. A spot 2 is better if you're actually outside of civilization, which is where I generally use a Spot. Bad product design. Spot needs a Spot Connect with Spot 2 physical buttons/menus.


Spot beacons are a great idea. They send short satellite messages from anywhere, and there's a button for "SOS" services so if things go totally sideways the Spot may save your life. But the more day-to-day useful functions include tracking, which shows where you are every 20 minutes or so on a Google Map accessible to anyone on the internet. Your friends, family, etc. can see where you are (some screen grabs here), and Spot tracking pages are increasingly common for adventure races, expeditions, guiding, wherever people are out of cell range. The Spot 1 and 2 also have a button for an "OK" message, which sends that message to a set of friends/family/whatever emails. So far so good.

I recently bought the Spot Connect, which theoretically does all the same stuff as the Spot 1 and 2, but also allows you to send 40-character text messages, which seemed cool. You compose these messages on a Bluetooth "smart" phone (Iphone, Droid, whatever) App, and then send them to the Spot over Bluetooth. If you're paired properly and if your phone has battery juice then this system works. But my phone did not pair well with the Spot; or rather, the phone paired well with the Spot, but the Spott App wouldn't recognize that connection, and wouldn't allow me to send messages at least half the time.

This is only annoying at first, but after 24 hours your Spot Connect basically becomes a brick only capable of sending SOS messages unless you can connect to it with Bluetooth (and the App will work, not guaranteed). Put another way, to turn Tracking on or off, or send an OK message you need to have a Bluetooth phone connection, which is flaky at best. With the Spot 1 and Spot 2 models the physical buttons turn tracking on and off and send OK messages, so as long as you had Spot power you were good to go. With the Spot Connect there are no buttons beyond the SOS and power buttons, and after 24 hours you can't use the Tracking or "I'm OK" features. Those features must be turned on through the phone after 24 hours or they shut off and can't be turned back on physically, only through the phone... Oh, and if you turn the Spot Connect off (to replace or conserve batteries for example) during that 24 hours then when you turn it back on it's in "brick/SOS-only" mode again, and you'll need to pair it with your dead cellphone's bluetooth connection that doesn't work so well anyhow.

I think this is really poor product design. A product designed to be used outside of cell range should not be reliant on a cell phone for most of its functions. All it would take is a couple of buttons on the Spot Connect so it would do the same stuff as the Spot 2 at least. I didn't believe the Spot Connect would have such bad design when I bought it; generally new products do more than the old ones.

If you're using your spot primarily in the backcountry, as I imagine most of you reading this are, I'd also suggest adding a line in your Spot emergency contact information that you will most likely need helicopter rescue. Some friends of mine had an accident, hit the SOS button, only to eventually have an ambulance pull up at the trailhead 10K away... Make it clear in your pre-defined message that you're likely to be in a wilderness setting without road access.

So I'm taking my Spot Connect back and getting a Spot 2 until Spot makes something more functional. The added function of the 40-character messages on the Spot Connect is a nice idea, but for most people the ability to use the Tracking and "I'm OK" features is more important.

I didn't find any good reviews on the Spot Connect on the web, so I thought this info might be helpful to those pondering a Spot purchase.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


I'm finding it hard to finish off the writing about my flying trip from Vernon home. The basic reason is simple: A week after that trip my friend Stewart crashed his glider on Lady Mac as I watched impotently from 1,000 feet over his head. He would not likely have been there if I hadn't stated that I was going to walk up, and walked with him when he wanted to go. Stewart's now recovering, but the starting point for that recovery is a broken neck with currently serious spinal cord issues. The battle back is going to be difficult, but Stewart is nothing if not resourceful mentally and physically, and he has a great family and friends to help. I also have to say a deep thanks to the professionals and hikers who helped Stewart out when he crashed; without them, well, they made all the difference.

So three of the absolute best flights of my life are juxtaposed with horror. My images of the Bugaboos, of landing and sleeping in the alpine meadows south of Revelstoke, of just the idea and joy of a flying adventure are mixed with images of a badly broken friend. I don't think his accident is my fault, but I do have to wonder about the mental game we all must play with risk sports in order to keep doing them. No one flight is worth what Stewart is going through, so the sum must be worth the risk or we wouldn't do it. Or are we pretending that the risks aren't real for us? I'm writing about this topic now and it feels good to write, but it's not ready for public consumption. My words are too full of contradiction, too full of nothing, too full of circular logic that would stand a pig on its head to fly into the sky. Yeah, my writing makes about as much sense as that image.

I'm also training hard for my assistant rock guide exam, which is a lot of fun thanks to the many people who are allowing me to run around the mountains with them. Climbing is a relatively static world; as I sit in the sun 1,000 feet up a cliff face belaying I feel the dynamic force of the wind, and connect it to the clouds over my head, and hear the whip of the thermals cracking by. I move my hands simply to belay, and hope my friend Stewart gets that experience again soon. The commonplace is only common when you can do it all the time. Today is not only another day, but a day with extreme freedom and ease compared to what so many people in the world are experiencing for no other reason than they were born were they were. Risk, freedom,, movement, life, death, it's all reflecting back at us every second of every day even if we don't see it. I intend to be looking at those reflections a lot more in the coming days, really looking at them and not just letting it all slip past.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Invermere to Canmore

I'm back home after flying the final leg of the whole trip. Yesterday was a really intense flight--windy, powerful air, cool terrain, and a flight I've dreamed of doing for at least ten years. Boom, the end of an adventure. Today it's way too windy up high to fly; I had incredibly good luck that yesterday was just on the edge of flyable, just. The screen grab of the Spot tracking page shows the basic line, but it doesn't show the waiting in the air, analyzing, or the wind...

I'll post some thoughts, more pictures and a little video (I didn't shoot much, but some) here as I get time and settle back down, it's been the best week of flying I've ever had. So many good experiences! I know I've just had some tremendously good luck with the weather, life and flying. The buzz from this whole trip is going to take a long time to wear off. You don't get many experiences like this week in life, hell yeah!

The trip would not have been possible without a few key people, including Dough Nitchie in Vernon (thanks for the socks, weather and stoke), Becky Bristow in Revelstoke (it's good to have friends who will come and get you when you call up on the satellite phone and say, "Help!"), Al Polster and Lisa in Revelstoke (they got me back in the game when I was beaten down, and up the hill), and Frank Kernick and Tracye in Invermere, who again kept the psyche up through a combination of water skiing, a soft bed, and a great attitude. And of course my mom, who I had to call from a cut block to figure out how to get out on her computer's Google Earth...

Friday, August 05, 2011

Invermere from near Revelstoke via the Bugaboos

In the last 48 hours I've top-landed in the alpine twice, camped high, had a ton of help from friends in Revelstoke and Invermere, and flown the coolest mountain flight I've ever had. And sunk out into a cut block, but escaped this time!

I have some wicked photos of flying right through the Bugaboos, a flight I've dreamed of for going on 15 years. Never have I flown so deep for so many hours, so stoked! From just south of Revelstoke to Brisco to landing on the beach in Inveremere, where a bunch of friends were having dinner. The Spot log should show the line, I'll post photos when I get home as all I have is my phone. Today's weather doesn't look as good but Swansea launch awaits, want to try and fly home... Fired up!

-sent from my rotten Apple.