Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ice Climbing for Mountaineers

Mountaineering, alpine climbing, peak-bagging, alpinism… I don't care what you call it. All who head to cold and wild high-country have more in common than we are different. Of those, many come to me asking about waterfall ice climbing. Most envision ice climbing as preparation for steep and technical frozen terrain on gnarly peaks. To some, that makes winter, day-trip, frozen waterfall climbing an appealing practice. To others, those who say "I'll only ever climb walk-up or scrambling peaks in snowy or dry conditions. I don't need to know about bashing a waterfall into drink-sized cubes with four spiky appendages", ice climbing seems like an uncomfortable distraction. I'll argue, however, that neither of these perspectives is all that accurate, and that learning and practicing ice climbing should have much broader appeal.
One of the best preparations for mountaineering?
I think so. Meagan in the Catskills of New York. 

First, for those that wish to dedicate a great deal of time to high-end, steep-ice climbing technique for their alpine climbing aspirations, a word of reality. While, indeed, elite climbers tackle sustained walls of near- and past-vertical ice on huge wilderness peaks, well over 99% of traditional alpine climbs require little to no steep ice climbing. For instance, on hundreds of alpine routes in all corners of North America (Including Alaska, Greenland,  Canada, and all over the "lower 48) I can count on my non-frostbite-damaged hands the number of ice pitches that exceeded 70 degrees in steepness (and half of them were on Mount Logan's notorious "Hummingbird Ridge"). In short, even if you aspire to alpine climbs of more technical repute (like Rainier's Liberty Ridge, or Hunter's West Ridge), the amount of truly steep ice is quite small.

If then, as I posit, mountaineers have precious little opportunity to employ steep ice technique, what is the appeal? Why do I find myself recommending ice climbing training to such a wide range of mountain aspirants? It comes down to two big things.

More than the athletic demands, ice climbing is an environmental and logistical challenge. Actual ice moves aren't that difficult. What you learn on any given day of ice climbing is how to care for oneself in truly miserable conditions. Even if you'll stick to Sierra summer peak bagging (reputed to be among the mellowest of mountain endeavors. I beg to differ, but I'm biased), you'll do well to be prepared for gnarly conditions. There is no better preparation than ice climbing.

Secondly, ice climbing is one of the best ways (backcountry skiing is another…) for many mountaineers to motivate for travel to high and steep country in the depth of winter. More time in mountain settings, regardless of the way one spends his or her time, is sure to help.

So git ya some! Right now is peak ice climbing season. On the East Coast, in California, and every mountain zone in between, the ice is in and ready for you!

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Things

Life has me focusing outside the mountains lately. Family time, mainly, is the current emphasis. Staying sharp for the mountains, especially with fairly high-end guiding gigs coming up, is nonetheless still a priority. Long drives, flat topography, holiday food, and non-physical work all seem to conspire against effective climbing conditioning. Turns out, not all training can be ideal. What's a city- or vacation-bound climber and ski-mountaineer to do?

Pullups on the shore of Lake Huron. "Let me take a #Selfie"
Creativity, motivation, and foundational knowledge serve the ill-equipped athlete. Without mountains or routine, the easy path is to revert and retire. However, wherever you are there is always something to carry, somewhere to run, and time to breathe hard. In the easy times, build good habits and skill with binges of coaching and gym-time and actual climbing, and one can continue to train even under less than ideal conditions.

It is all in the attitude. Alpine climbing and ski mountaineering inevitably present unique physical and mental challenges. No two peaks, pitches, or moves are the same. One's training prepares the body for that, in many cases by mimicking the ever varied nature. The rest of life can do the same, or not. Seeking challenges and learning can be its own reward. It is a matter of perspective. On one hand, learning is scary and uncomfortable. "I can't" are the words, fear is the emotion. "This is hard and it hurts" are the words, discomfort is the feeling. 
On the other hand, learning is empowering and inspirational. I have the distinct pleasure of spending a great deal of time with guests in the mountains, guests who are pushing their limits. Given how unfamiliar to them that environment is, I am constantly blown away by how seldom I hear "I can't." It would be easy to forgive these people, paying good money to be incredibly uncomfortable and challenged, for self-obstructive language and attitude. However, there is something inspiring about mountains and the guided experience that pushes people's attitudes out of their own way. Either that, or I am just lucky to work with only those of incredible fortitude of character. In any case, trying something new with mind open to the feelings instead of succumbing to the "I can't"s and the "This hurts"s is bound to deliver different results. 

Try new things. Body and mind, unstressed, inherently weaken. It's that whole second law of thermodynamics. I am a professional athlete in my middle thirties. My body is ever more fragile, and ever more valuable to my livelihood. It would be easy to lay low and justify taking the easy path. Stick with what is familiar. However, my lovely wife recently pushed me out of my comfort zone. She pulled from her own open mind and athletic soul a childhood playground trick. She hadn't flipped from the horizontal bar in 30 years. But her muscle memory was there. When I was 7, when learning something like this was more socially acceptable and easier on the bones, I didn't happen to learn this move. Here I am, a 35 year old with a lot to lose, inspired on a new trick. It was scary. I almost cried. No joke. But Meagan talked me through it. I never said "I can't". Nor did I fall on my head and make youtube history. I learned something new and, most importantly, remembered that I can keep learning new things. One can't get better without learning new things. One can't learn new things without getting better. And one can't train one's body without getting better. Learning, improvement, and physical training are all intertwined. They are one and the same. 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Year in Review, Professionally

I do this each year (2012, 2013). Each year my professional life evolves just a little bit. As does my personal life. In short, 2014 will be remembered for an intentional dearth of guiding work and a beautiful abundance of personal life changes. The two go hand in hand. The combination of a huge expedition smack in the middle of the summer (and the associated training and preparation for that expedition) and marriage to, and travel with, my lovely Meagan means that I did much less guiding than usual. I lowered my financial overhead even lower than usual, took on additional writing work and have been able to come out even further ahead, financially, than I'm accustomed to. Wins all around!
A Valdez Ski touring week should be on every skiers list. April 2014 wasn't "all time". But, even when it's bad in AK, it's still damn good!

Here's what my guiding life looked like, by the numbers:

  • I worked 33 guiding trips
  • Of those, 16 were single-day outings.
  • 7 were two day commitments. 
  • 3 were for 3 days
  • 4 trips went for four days
  • Chad and I did a 6-day trip in Sequoia
  • And Jon and I did an 18-day trip to Mount Hunter
  • Of all those trips, I slept in the backcountry for work just 25 nights. 
  • That adds up to 79 guiding days.
  • Of course, for every 3-4 guiding days, there is about one day of administrative work that includes packing, unpacking, food prep, etc. 
  • Of those 33 trips, nine of them were for alpine climbing.
  • 10 were ice climbing
  • 3 were rock climbing
  • 10 were for skiing
  • And one was a trekking, non-technical trip.
Center of the Sierra, wild, beautiful light. 

Nature of the people I work with and our goals together:
  • 15 of the 33 trips I did were with returning clients
  • on 18 of the 33 trips, the primary objective was education.
  • On 11 trips the primary objective was a peak or specific route.
  • The remaining 4 had other sorts of objectives, usually skiing where good snow is the goal.
  • Of the 11 trips on which the primary objective was a summit, summits, or specific route(s), on five did we accomplish exactly what we set out to do. That is a 45% success rate. This statistic deserves a little further explanation. I keep my records based on whether we accomplished our entire itinerary exactly as planned. If we set out to attempt three peaks, but only do 2 of them, the trip doesn't get marked as 100% successful. As I work more and more with returning guests, and we get more and more ambitious together, these longer trips get more and more common. Also, these returning guests are seeking more remote and obscure objectives. For instance, my biggest Sierra trip in 2014 was with long-time guest Chad B. We've ticked all the technical fourteeners together, skied big peaks, and done extensive rock climbing skills courses together. In 2014 we headed to the way obscure, cooking up a burly six-day itinerary to the center of the range. Our plan involved over 50 miles of walking, three technical routes (one of which was new in 2008, one of which has probably never been guided, and the last of which has been completed perhaps less than 20 times). When sending the North Arete of Hamilton Dome immediately followed by the West Ridge of Black Kaweah beat us down (all in a stormy cycle), we opted out of the Sabre Ridge. While I would call the trip we did a great one, because we did not tick all we set out to do, the trip is marked on my sheet as less than "100% successful". Maybe it's time for a new recording standard, in light of these burly, multi-peak itineraries…

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ski Mountaineering Gear, Winter 2014-2015

Ski mountaineering is a broad category. People practice a wide range of skiing and refer to it as ski mountaineering. One way to define ski mountaineering is skiing in which the hazard or concern is something other than, or in addition to, avalanches. Maybe you're going for speed on a low-hazard day. Maybe you're going for distance over multiple passes. Maybe its spring-time corn touring.  Perhaps its high altitude, or glaciated, or requires technical climbing equipment and skill. Here are some thoughts and notes on what I carry for this.  To see what I use on "simpler" missions, check out this article. To see what I carry for winter alpine climbing, check this out.  Additionally, help support this blog and Eastern Sierra business by shopping at Sage to Summit.  Anything that I use that is sold there, is linked accordingly.

Ski Gear.  Keep it small, light and simple.  Use skill to negotiate funky snow and terrain:
  • Dynafit TLT 5P boots- no tongues, no powerstrap.
  • Black Diamond Stigma Skis (80mm underfoot)
  • BD mohair skins
  • Trab race bindings
  • Black Diamond Fixed Carbon poles
Clothes.  Most carry and wear too much.  Keep it simple, move fast, carry an awesome puffy jacket. 
  • Darn Tough Socks
  • Arc Teryx Sawatch pants
  • Syn boxers.
  • Syn/wool t-shirt. 
  • OR Rumor Hoody.
  • Patagonia Houdini Shell
  • Feathered Friends Daybreak Hooded jacket
  • Dynafit Ski Touring Expert Gloves
  • Warm hat
  • Sun hat
  • Kaenon Burnet Sunglasses

Safety Gear, etc:
  • Pieps DSP Pro, Voile Telepack shovel, BD Carbon 240 Probe.
  • Communication- Sometimes as simple as a cell phone, sometimes a SPOT Device, occasionally (mainly in Canada) a 2-meter, 2-way radio, and more and more my new Iridium sat phone or Iridium GO Smartphone modem.  Adventure is awesome, thriftiness is noble, but failure to consider communication with the outside world is ridiculous.
  • Navigation- 80% of the time the phone, preloaded with maps and apps, is enough.  Carry a "back-up" paper map.  In big, new-to-me, complicated terrain where visibility is likely to shut down, I'll bring the full kit:  Dedicated GPS (Suunto Ambit 2), large-scale waterproofed paper map, compass, altimeter, clinometer.  
  • Emergency Shelter- Very occasionally it is as simple as the mylar (space blanket style) bivy bag that lives in my omnipresent First Aid/Emergency kit.  Usually though, I bring the 8.5'x8.5' 9 oz Hyperlight Mountain Gear Cuben Tarp.  
  • Emergency Evacuation- Sometimes it's as simple as the bivy or tarp.  Drag someone on that.  In many cases, I'll carry the Brooks Range Eskimo Sled.  If you are not already packing a rope, carry a chunk of cord for dragging a packaged casualty.
  • First aid kit.
  • Ski repair kit.  (it should be around a pound for groups.  Less is probably inadequate.  More is silly.  Let me know if you want more detail on what I carry)
  • Snow Study:  Saw, crystal card, magnifier, ruler, documentation.  Be equipped and trained to make sound decisions for yourself and large column tests for the avalanche center.
  • Food, water. Whatever's clever.  
  • If I need a rope while skiing it's almost never less than a 40m half rope.  If I need a rope while skiing it's almost never more than a 60m single rope.  
  • Spikes.  As it gets steeper and firmer, add in this order: 
  • Also as needed:
    • BD Vapor Helmet
    • CAMP Blitz Harness
    • Rack of gear.  If it requires more than 5 of anything (cams, nuts, screws, slings) leave the skis behind.  
  • Glaciers?  Crevasse rescue skills and equipment.  
  • Pack:  Maybe the BCA balloon pack, maybe an alpine pack (Cold Cold World Valdez), maybe the little CAMP Rapid race pack.  
Multi Day Ski Touring
This is what we live for.  Getting way out there, going out of contact.  Seeing what few get to see.  Most of the gear is the same as for day trips.  But you'll add in camping gear.  And eliminate some things.  You won't need emergency shelter if you have a dedicated tent, for instance.  
Living the good life in British Columbia's Coast Range.  April 2013.

  • Shelter.  I pick from three, in increasing weight and weather protection:  Black Diamond Betalight, Black Diamond Firstlight, and Hilleberg Nallo 2.  
  • Feathered Friends Widgeon -10 sleeping bag.
  • Thermarest NeoAir XTherm.
  • Jetboil with 2 oz per person per day of fuel
  • Lighter and matches.
  • Bigger Pack.  Hyperlight Mountain Gear 4400 Ice Pack
  • Food.  Just add water for dinner and breakfast.  A mess of bars and energy candy and jerky and cheese for lunches.  It should all add up to about 2 pounds per person per day.  Depending on individual metabolism and work load.
  • Water bottles.  2 gatorade bottles.  Nothing more, nothing less.