Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Staying Alive in the Mountains: A Glossary

Mountain, ski, and climbing pursuits are athletic exercises in risk management. Much of what we do in the mountains are efforts to keep us alive in this unforgiving environment. Staying alive is a thought process. A thought process is simply application of a vocabulary. The more sophisticated your vocabulary, the more sophisticated your thought process will be. Wanna stay "safe" in the mountains? Improve your risk management vocabulary.

Likelihood of something bad happening here? Consequences? 

A strong analytical thinker, free-soloing on bad rock,
in a storm. Ian has cultivated his balance. 
  • Bilateral thought process. Decision-making can be broken into two major types of thinking. We all think, at times, intuitively or analytically. We each certainly have our strong suit. Those that are strong intuitive decision makers owe it to themselves to cultivate, no matter how uncomfortable that cultivation may be, their analytical side. And, of course, vice versa. 
  • Intuitive Thought Process. Thoughts, preferences, and ideas that come to mind quickly. Your "instincts". You make intuitive choices when you ski powder in the trees and when you climb the moves of a boulder problem or between the cams of a trad route. In these cases, application of intuitive thought process is appropriate and the best choice. Intuitive choices are most effective either in low-consequence environments or when the practitioner has a very high level of expertise. Intuitively interpreting the weather ("I feel like the blue window will be long enough") in an unfamiliar range is a bad idea. Intuitively interpreting snow stability ("Feels good to me") in your first decade of backcountry skiing is a bad idea. Other good things to do intuitively include: 
    • walk 
    • adjust your clothing layers
    • assess your own and other's motivations
    • most rock climbing moves
    • trust your feet
    • swing your ice tools
    • most things you literally have a decade of experience analyzing

  • Analytical Thought Process. The breakdown of a complicated subject into its component parts for your own review. Analytical thought processes are inherently slow, but very thorough. Analyzing which brake lever to pull on your mountain bike is a bad idea. Analyzing whether to smear or edge while run-out trad climbing is a bad idea. Analyzing whether to ski left or right of that microwave sized rock is a bad idea. Good things to analyze include 
    • the weather (past, present, and future)
    • rock and ice quality
    • snowpack history
    • group dynamics
    • time plan
    • map, terrain, navigation
    • environment impact
    • financial costs and travel considerations 
    • likelihood of success and failure
    • patterns and statistics in mountain accidents
    • your packing list
I dug long and hard through a deep photo library to find a shot that illustrated someone applying analytical thought processes. Best I could come up with is this shot of a map and a guy picking his nose. It's just not sexy to develop or celebrate analytical thinking. I am a huge champion of analytical thinking, and I could find one picture in thousands that illustrated it. 

  • "Ignorance is Bliss". The crutch and mantra of strong intuitive decision-makers. Cultivate your analytical side. You are not invincible. 
  • "Statistics never lie". "I am a very safety conscious climber". "I read Accidents in North American Climbing, cover to cover every year, for my own safety".  The crutches and mantras of strong analytical decision makers. Cultivate your intuitive side. You deserve it. 


  • Hazard. A condition that presents a risk or threat. Avalanche hazard, for instance, exists whether we go there or not. 
  • Danger. The power to cause harm. A hazard can be dangerous, or not, depending on our exposure to it. That avalanche isn't dangerous unless someone is there to be hit. 
  • Risk. The chance that someone will be harmed by the hazard. With consideration given to the degree of harm. What are the chances you will be hit, and degree of harm sustained, by an avalanche under certain conditions? That is your risk. Risk is a function of likelihood, consequence, and exposure. 
  • Reward. That which you serve to gain. Some rewards (summits, powder turns, mental and physical challenge of a certain pitch or move, etc) are worth great risks. Others are not. Each person's assessment of the risk:reward ratio is theirs, is sacred, and is fluid. 
  • Fear. What is scary is not exactly the same as what is dangerous. Intuitive thought processes muddle the difference between that which is fear-inducing and that which is dangerous. Analytical thought processes help separate that which is dangerous from that which is scary. 
  • Failure. A myth. Coming home intact is success. Coming home dead isn't a failure. 'Cause you don't know the difference. 
  • Priorities. Write yours down. My mountain "mission statement" (yeah, I have a mountain mission statement. My analytical game is strong) contains "... to learn things and work hard." Way down the list is a summit or a send or a steep set of turns. Someone smart once said his goal, in this order, is "to come home intact, to come home friends, and to come home with a summit". 
Jon says "I'm trying to aspire to be the man I pretend to be on Instagram but Patagonia won't let me".

  • Objective Hazard. Conditions we have little to no control over. In most cases, our only recourses to manage objective hazards are avoidance or timing. Rockfall, avalanche, and lightning are all objective hazards. 
  • Subjective Hazard. Conditions we have at least a little more control over. We can mitigate subjective hazards with avoidance and timing, but also with movement skill, fitness, equipment, and planning. The hazard of falling is a subjective hazard. As is cold, wind, precipitation. 
  • Exposure. The time or distance over which one is exposed to a hazard. 
  • Likelihood. The probability of a dangerous event transpiring. 
  • Consequence. The degree of harm possible in a dangerous event. 
  • Safety. A myth. We are fragile bags of flesh and bone, choosing to recreate in a serious environment, often intentionally toying with kinetic and potential energy. We don't go to the mountains with the goal of being "safe". We go to the mountains with the goal of mitigating risk while maximizing reward. 



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

2018 Expeditions!

It is time. Time to map out your big goals for 2018. At least the first part of the year. Whether skiing, ice climbing, or expeditioning, I've got what you need!



The big theme of this coming year is collaborative efforts with my favorite climbing partners. Sharing the mountains in small groups has always been my focus. Alone with guests, you know me to deliver top-notch mountain experiences. You also know me for high-end personal climbs and ski trips with a cadre of phenomenal partners. This year I am honored to be offering a suite of trips guided by myself plus one or more of these phenomenal partners. Those few who have experienced this already will acknowledge that a great mountain and guiding team is greater than the sum of its parts. My business, climbing, and guiding partners make me better, I make them better, and everyone's experience benefits from this betterment.

Rogers Pass, BC. Forever Young Couloir. 

calendar page fully breaks down my availability. This here is the bullet-point summary of what you oughta be checking out:
  • March 17-25, 2018. Team Smiley and I are headed to Canada. Join us for what I feel is the best way to ski Canada's legendary backcountry. Details here. 
  • April 17-29, 2018. Again, Team Smiley and I. This time, Alaska! A Jeremy Jones-style fly-in ski mountaineering base camp. In the pool of "bucket list" trips, this quickly floats to the top. Anyone who's made a home on a glacier for a week or more, ticking off the peaks and lines and faces in sight, knows exactly what matters and what doesn't. For skiers, this sort of trip matters! Details here. 
  • May and/or June. Denali's West Rib with Ian McEleney. Details still in process. Get in while you can shape this excellent trip. 
  • September 22-October 3, 2018. Chilean volcano road tripping! Git some. The best of South America, the best of peak-bagging, the best skiing on the planet this time of year! Get your "turns-all-year" in the classiest way possible. Details here. 
Epic high Chugach ski mountaineering, Alaska. 

Get your deposit in before the end of business on 9/20 and we'll get you some goods. One trip: the CAMP Alp Racing harness. Two trips, an Arc Teryx Proton AR jacket. Sign up for all three and we'll select and purchase for you a set of touring skis for exactly your purposes. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Summer Climbing Gear Thoughts, a Retrospective

With miles and miles of big mountain terrain traveled this summer, I've got some thoughts on gear. This is me just rambling on about what has worked for me, this year in this environment with the selection I have at my disposal.

The CAMP Flash Harness is great. It was initially plugged as a sport climbing product, with minimal adjustments and doodads. They then offered an "Alpine" version, with more adjustment and features. I don't feel I need the additional features of the Flash Alpine. The regular Flash is all I've needed in Patagonia, sport climbing, on giant trad multi pitch routes like the Direct South Buttress of Moran, and on the Grand Traverse. That's pretty dang versatile.


In 2009 I took my AMGA Alpine Guide Course here in the Tetons with Exum and the legendary Tom Hargis. Hargis both impressed and bewildered me with his approach shoe selection. Over the 10 days Tom changed shoes like Elton John changes concert outfits. On one trip to Baxter's Pinnacle (literally, the shortest technical summit climb in the range. It's a 10 minute boat ride, a 30 minute walk, 5 easy pitches, and one harder pitch) Tom wore three different pairs of shoes. I'd always done fine, up to that point, with a pair of approach shoes and some rock shoes. After three seasons here, I get it now... I have a literal wall of shoes. I also have a couple sponsorships. However, even without the gear deals, I'd have multiple approach shoes. This is what I think an alpine rock climber should have to choose from, listed from most "climbable" to most "walkable":

  • comfortable rock shoes. (I use Evolv Supras, sized up. See below for more thoughts on rock shoes...)
  • Techy approach shoes. Worn when spending the entire day in one pair of shoes, from approach through the pitches of a moderate (moderate for you... A few grades below your max) route, and back down. These are optimized for climbing. Just barely walkable. The Evolv Cruzer Psyche is my favorite. I also have a pair of Evolv prototypes that are even better. 
  • Descent shoes. Ultralight, sticky rubber soles, worn to complement rock shoes when the approach/descent is short and the up pitches are hard. The classic Evolv Cruzer invented this category and still leads the charge. 
  • High-tops. For using with crampons. I use discontinued Evolv Maximus. 
  • Walking/running shoes. These are fully optimized for non-climbing. Treaded outsole, thick foam midsole, light upper. When you will have other shoes for the climbing portion of your day, your feet deserve proper walking shoes. I use Garmont 9.81 hiking shoes. Kicks optimized for walking really are better for walking than any "approach shoes" out there. 

More on rock shoes... For years I've had a rotating set of rock shoe models but watched jealously those that could use the same ones for every sort of steep climbing they did. The real pros seemed to have one preferred model in two different sizes. A tight pair for hard cragging and a sloppy fitting pair for long routes. Finally, with the Supra, Evolv has made a model that will work for 95% of the climbing I do. Basically every pitch I've climbed this summer has been in Supras. One pair fit to wear with socks on long routes, and one pair fit closer (note, not tight... the right shoes on good climbers don't need to be vice tight) for sending. To complement the Supras, in very specialized settings, I have a couple other pairs in the mix. I have high tops (watch for the Evolv General coming out soon, to replace the Astroman) for wide cracks and Addict slippers for Indian Creek. 
Supra, socks, smoky light. On the "black face" pitch of the Grand Teton's Lower Exum Ridge. September 7, 2017. 

The Cassin Eghen pack has proven to be my go-to bag all summer long. I've long been a fan of boutique handmade small alpine packs. The mass-produced packs just weren't ever simple enough. The Eghen 22 is finally a mass-produced product that is just right for basically all alpine rock climbing. It is big enough to hold what I need to guide the 3-day Grand Traverse, but cleverly folds down to hold a water bottle, first aid kit, and extra jacket for the steep pitches of the Dihedral of Horrors or the Snaz. 

I'll likely eat my words but I think non-locking carabiners have reached a sort of plateaued maturity. The tiniest, lightest carabiners are now advancing literally one gram at a time. The CAMP Nano 22 brings a big improvement in ergonomics and a tiny improvement in weight over the Nano 23. Mid-size, wire-gated, notch-less carabiners like the CAMP Dyon do everything the ultralights can't do. 

Enjoy alpine rock climbing? Get more ropes in more lengths... Figure out how to do it... Sell a set of cams, skip an extravagant pair of approach shoes, something... This summer I have used ropes in 28, 30, 35, 40, 42, 45, 50, 60, and 70 meter lengths. And each was the right tool for the job, at the time and under those circumstances. Longer ropes weigh more, for sure. More importantly, its more to coil and more to restack and more to tangle. If I had to pick two ropes for all my climbing they would be a 40 and a 60. If I had to pick 3, it would be a 30, a 50, and a 70. Diameter? That doesn't matter nearly as much as length. The fattest 45 weighs less than the skinniest 70... I can't tell you how many folks walk into Garnet Canyon with 2-3 times the rope length they need. 

You now, officially, have no reason to use a device that doesn't offer some sort of assisted braking function for belaying a leader. The Edelrid Jul (unqualified, for skinny ropes. Mega Jul for more "normal" diameters) does everything your ATC Guide or Reverso does, plus adds a very real margin for error. I have a contractual obligation to Edelrid's competition, but I'll risk that here with this endorsement. This is that important to me. The one hang-up of the Jul is in belaying a second or two on moderate to fatter ropes (like, thicker than 9.2mm or so). In that context the CAMP Ovo feeds easily. Carry a Jul (or Mammut Smart, or Grigri, or CAMP Matik) to belay the leader, and an Ovo to belay the second(s). Yes, you can rappel "like normal" on a Jul or Mega Jul. Yes, you can belay one or two seconds on a Jul or Mega Jul. Yes, you can belay a leader on a kinky rope with a Jul or Mega Jul. Yes, you can belay a leader on two ropes with a Jul or Mega Jul. Read the instructions, try something new, get outside of your comfort zone, and realize the true risk-management advantages of this tool (and those like it).

First Aid kit... I like having a full-function "emergency kit" that I can take anywhere. It is ever evolving, always under review, and subject to only the most occasional trip-specific edits. This summer I worked closely with IFMGA guide and ER physician Alan Oram to really polish the kit. Operating under the premise that "bandaids don't save lives", I now carry a few fairly specific-but-quite-valuable items. The kit has gotten bigger and heavier, but I am truly better equipped to save lives.

Camping stuff... Don't tell Ian, but I've recently caved in and started carrying an inflatable pad on traverses. I used to suffer on rigid foam, just under my torso. I've gotten soft. Also, I think there is a ton of room for improvement in mountain bivy shelters. The Black Diamond Firstlight is great, and head-and-shoulders above the competition in many ways. But a few super simple tweaks would really bring it all together. First? Add some fricken mid-wall tie-outs on the sides. Next, make the dang thing waterproof. Sleeping bag... I continue to use the Feathered Friends Vireo for almost everything. I've observed, only slightly joking, that the biggest advantage of this zipper less sock is that I don't ever need to decide whether to zip it or not. Eliminate those choices and my brain is freed up to obsess on other even more pointless tasks. 

*I suspect that it is fully clear, but in the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I work with the manufacturers of much of the above recommended equipment. They provide me with equipment, but I provide the opinions. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Three Things Thursday, Issue #23


Wydaho Sunset. July 15, 2017

  • All you need to know about alpine climbing. Well, at least close to all you need to know... 
  • I think maybe I've said it before, but rock and alpine and ice climbers have fewer and fewer good reasons to belay a leader with something less than an assisted braking belay device. Your regular "ATC" or plate-style device, even if that device has friction "teeth" or a "guide mode" is out of date. Use a Camp Matik, Grigri, Edelrid Jul, Mammut Smart, or something like it. Use it well, but use it. It grants a real margin for error over the older alternative. I don't care if it seems more complicated. Rock climbing is complicated, and dropping your buddy is real complicated. Learn complicated skills. 
  • Stay tuned for me to drop my entire 2018 calendar in your lap. My time fills up fast, and 2018 looks to be no exception. I'm excited to be working with a variety of partners to offer world-wide adventures.