Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Eddie Bauer First Ascent Downlight Sweater

If you spend a lot of time outside during the winter you need good insulating layers. Really cold days with long belays become "two-puffy days". On "two-puffy days" I typically wear one slim-fitting lightweight puffy and one heavier belay jacket.

The lighter slim-fitting puffy jacket is generally thin enough to wear while leading hard pitches and packable enough that it can fit in my pack as an emergency layer all the time. Over the past few years I've carried the Wild Things EP Jacket or the OR Fraction Hoody. Both of these garments were hooded lightweight Primaloft layers with a straight-sided, billowy fit. I still use them when I want a hood, or when the forecast calls for wet weather.

If the forecast is for colder or drier weather though, my insulating underlayer of choice right now is the Eddie Bauer First Ascent Downlight Sweater. How did I choose the Downlight Sweater? I didn't, it was given to me.

Prior to my AMGA Advanced Alpine Guides Course all of the participants were given a big bag of First Ascent gear. Eddie Bauer First Ascent has partnered with the AMGA and provides alpine course candidates with clothing to use during the program. I was given a 30 Liter pack, a full 3-ply shell outfit, long underwear, a fleece hoody, and the Downlight Sweater.

First Ascent has only been producing technical outerwear for a few years. As you would expect, the fit of their garments is still hit-or-miss. Some of the garments were too generously cut to fit well for climbing. Others, like the Downlight Sweater and Hangfire Hoody, have become staples in my everyday outerwear wardrobe.

The Downlight Sweater has a Euro-style cut which makes it a great 3-season belay jacket and a perfect insulating underlayer on really cold winter days. So far I've led rock routes and mixed routes up to M7 wearing the jacket, and used it as an underlayer when the temperature dips below twenty degrees outside.

With a slim and flattering cut, this layer goes everywhere with me. The highly compressible 800-fill power Downlight packs really well into the empty space in my Cold Cold World Ozone, making it a perfect emergency layer. Little additions like the fleece lined pockets make this a great around town jacket too. The durable YKK zippers also feel like they'll last through several seasons of use.

At $180, the Downlight Sweater is competitively priced. Still though, it isn't cheap and one pitch of rough rock could trash it. If you're careful this garment should last several seasons, and unlike Primaloft or Polarguard, the down won't lose it's loft as quickly. So, the next time you're looking for a new puffy layer, don't forget to consider the First Ascent Downlight Sweater and Hoody.

Friday, December 23, 2011


I've spoken with a few other friends recently, and many have agreed that we can't remember an ice season that began so late in a very long time. So, what do you do when you're in the throes of a paltry ice season and you need a fix?

If you answered "make a ridiculously long drive for two days of climbing somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Quebec" you read my mind. This week marked my friend and regular climbing partner Chris Beauchamp's 35th birthday, and to celebrate we went climbing in Quebec.

Even the Great White North is experiencing "winter lite" this season. We headed to Saint-Alban though, where most of the climbing is on overhanging limestone. 90 percent of the climbing is rock, although a handful of the routes manage to climb a few feet of ice.

This type of mixed climbing seems contrived. Nonetheless, it's really fun to clip bolts and crank away on routes that are radically overhanging. Here are a few photos from our 48-hour northern excursion.

The main climbing area at Saint-Alban

The easiest route at the cliff. A good spot to warm up.

Chris, working on an M8 in the center of the cliff

Cannon Goes Off!

Ice climbing is a little like surfing. An exceptional storm can create the “perfect” set of conditions. Once the word is out that conditions are good a crowd of devotees won't be far behind.

As a winter venue, Cannon Cliff only comes into shape after heavy rain followed by an intense cold snap. These conditions, which are common at either end of the season, don't last long. The sunny clear conditions that frequently accompany the post-rain cold snap are all that's needed to delaminate any thinner, climbable ice on Cannon, even if it's only fifteen degrees outside.

Last Saturday I went to Grafton Notch with my friend Erik Eisele. We got skunked; the Hackett-Tremblay, which was nearly in shape the weekend before, had literally disappeared. We spent the remainder of the day getting bouted on one of Erik's mixed projects in northern New Hampshire.

Sunday Erik went to Cannon, where he and his partner had the cliff to themselves. He took some photos throughout the day and posted them on NEIce and Facebook that evening. The photos were of a very fat Fafnir, Hassigs and Black Dike, and of Mean Streak and Omega. The routes looked healthy, a rarity during a normal season and an absolute anomaly during an almost non-existent season like the one we're currently experiencing.

By 7:30 the following morning (Monday) multiple parties had made plans to climb at Cannon on Tuesday. Michael Wejchert, Elliott Gaddy and I arrived at the Cannon parking lot at 7:30 Tuesday. There were already 5 cars in the parking lot, and while we were racking up there two more vehicles arrived.

We approached as for the Black Dike and traversed left below the cliff toward the Omega amphitheater. Near the base we bumped into Bayard Russell, Freddie Wilkinson and Matt McCormick racking up for Mean Streak. This challenging route has seen only a handful of ascents and involves continuously steep and challenging climbing.

With no one else in the amphitheater besides the party on Mean Streak we headed for Omega. Elliott, Michael and I have all tried Omega before. Not only is Omega a challenging ice climb, it's a tough route to catch in the right conditions. Like all other Cannon routes that involve thin ice climbing, getting to the climb before the sun delaminates all of the ice might be the biggest challenge. Elliott won the three-way rock-paper-scissors, and started up a rock and turf ramp to the right of the ice. The lower half of Omega rarely has enough ice to be climbable.

Rock climbing with crampons on the blank, slabby granite found at Cannon is an experience everyone should try at least once. Turn your points the wrong way and your feet will go skating off the sloped ledges. Turf shots are less abundant and always less substantial than one hopes as well, making even easy mixed climbing feel really challenging.

Elliott's lead turned out to be more challenging than it looked, and had less protection than is normally desirable. It was an impressive way to start the season. I took over at the belay and led up a fun well-protected rock pitch which ended on the halfway ledge, where the ice begins to get more abundant. Michael and Elliott were at the belay in no time.

Michael Wejchert below the crux on Omega

Michael, who's climbed more ice terrain than mixed terrain, took over at this point and led up steep thin ice to a slabby ledge above. As he stood on the ledge trying to find solid tool placements the hollow, unbonded 2-inch thick ice slab creaked and groaned. Michael decided the climbing above was more than he wanted to deal with. After a few sketchy moves back down, he was safe on the ledge. Elliott gave the pitch a go next. He climbed a few feet higher and managed to find two fixed pitons on the right wall of the corner. Above that, the thin ice of the crux was both unprotectable and not well bonded. After lowering off the two fixed pitons we decided to rappel. I didn't need to try the crux ice pitch as well to decide that leading a full pitch of hollow, unbonded ice was a risky proposition.

Safely back on the ground, we realized that not succeeding isn't the worst thing. It gives us a reason to come back, try again, and wander up what might be the East Coast's finest alpine venue.

Elliot giving the crux an attempt

Freddie, Bayard and Matt on the upper section of Mean

Saturday, December 17, 2011


There isn't any ice to speak of in the northeast right now. I took a ride up to Smuggler's Notch last weekend with a few good friends. Our findings were pretty grim - unfrozen ground, delaminated ice and very dry looking climbs. If this is any indication it's not going to be a banner season in the northeast. Despite the rainy October and tropical storm deluges of August and September things seem dry.

Here are a few shots from my Smuggler's Notch trip last weekend.

Michael Wejchert starting up Grand Confusion.

Ologai, on TR with no ice

Michael Wejchert nears the top of Elephant Head Gully

Alden Pellett in Ent Gully

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How I Use A Heart Rate Monitor For Training

All my life I've been addicted to aerobic exercise. In middle school and early on in high school I raced mountain bikes competitively. In high school I also ran track and cross-country.

My former coach, Jack Martin, who's a living legend among high school coaches in NJ, recognized talent in his athletes and pushed us hard. He pushed me harder than I thought I could go. Our squad trained hard multiple days a week and frequently did crippling workouts. With several highly motivated and talented runners on the team, our road runs precipitated into lung-busting race pace battles that went on for miles.

During college I would work out twice a day, and it wasn't uncommon for me to do a 40 mile road ride and run 4-6 miles in the same day. Sleep was unimportant and I ate whatever I wanted. Going hard during a workout was a given.

Now I'm 33. I'm pretty fit and I still eat whatever I want. Mostly. I can do without sleep too. For a few nights. However, going hard all the time isn't as easy to do anymore.

Rest is really important. It might be the most crucial component to an intensive training program, and it's frequently overlooked. Have you ever gone climbing after a hiatus from climbing and noticed you perform really well? Have you also noticed that this window of good performance only lasts 1-2 days? That good performance is likely due to the fact that the muscles you use for climbing are completely rested.

The first run after a break is like that too. The next day's run, not so much. That might be part of the reason so few people like running. You have to break through the hurt to get the reward. If you can break this cycle aerobic training begins to feel good, and it gets addictive.

Even good things like aerobic training can become counterproductive at times though. This is especially true when you're combining aerobic training with weight-training or climbing. It's easy to overtrain, and if you don't recognize the feeling you could get sick, injured, or just end up feeling unmotivated.

What's the best way to prevent overtraining? Eating well, staying hydrated and sleeping a lot are important. Resting is the most important thing you can do to prevent overtraining.

Have you ever felt more out of breath than normal on a climb or during a workout? Is your heart racing even though you feel like you're taking it easy? Perhaps you worked out several of the past few days. This is an indicator that you're efforts are becoming counterproductive. Feeling tired or lethargic is another sign. I'm not talking post workout lethargy, or the morning pre-coffee sleepies, I'm talking about a real fatigue that's hard to push through and doesn't go away for several days.

This is overtraining and it's easy to prevent. One way is to take several days or a week off. It's hard to do, but frequently this is the best way to recover from a serious training effort. Another effective way to prevent overtraining is by using a heart rate monitor for aerobic workouts.

This may seem counterintuitive, but I only use a heart rate monitor on easy days. When I want to work out hard I don't mind getting physically blasted. Many of your other training days should just be mileage though, and these days should be fairly easy. While not exactly leisurely, during these workouts you should be able to zone out, think about other things, or look around and enjoy the day.

If you're not careful though, these days can turn into something harder. All of a sudden you've done 3-4 semi-hard days in a row, you feel tired, and none of the workouts, except maybe the first one, were particularly fast or rewarding.

It's easy to psychologically trick yourself into working harder during the easy days and this is what you want to prevent. A heart rate monitor is useful for this. A good heart rate monitor will accurately measure your heart rate the way a tachometer measures RPM in your car. You can tell how hard your heart is working no matter how hard you feel like your body is working.

You can use the heart rate monitor and conduct a few tests to determine several training zones. Recently, I haven't concerned myself too much with all of the different target zones.  I've identified a range that I can roughly say is my running "lactate threshold" range. This is the range above which my muscles cells no longer work aerobically. The lactate threshold range can vary depending on activity (generally because of muscle size and efficiency or lack thereof) so if you're cycling and running to gain aerobic fitness, your lactate threshold range might be a bit lower for one (probably cycling) and a bit higher for the other (probably running).

I use the heart rate monitor on mileage and recovery days when I'm already feeling a bit tired. I can use it to keep my heart rate far below my "lactate threshold" range. This keeps that particular workout easy, no matter how slow or fast I'm actually running.

During hard workouts, if I wear the monitor at all, I use it to make sure I recover fully between hard efforts.

Look forward to more fitness posts in the future. I will be attempting to post more regularly about fitness.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I grew up in New Jersey. When I started rock climbing I visited places like Watchung, Allamuchy, and Wanaque. As soon as I discovered the Gunks, I didn't look back. During college I climbed in the Dacks on weekends, in the Gunks on long weekends, and explored other areas during the summer and winter breaks.

After school I lived in Oregon, Vermont, New York, North Carolina. I enjoyed climbing in all of those places, plus many other places. There is a lot of climbing in the United States

Most of my family is still living in New Jersey, and I like seeing them when I have the chance. To be honest, though, I don't really like going to New Jersey for too many other reasons. It's a busy place. Half the people there drive like real assholes.

The Ramapo Valley, along the border of New York and New Jersey, is a region of small hills and valleys. There are boulders and crags in many places throughout this valley. During my youth, as I drove through this area, I was convinced there must be climbing there. You can see half a dozen cliffs along the highway in the Ramapo Valley on the way to the Shawangunks.

On Sunday, after visiting family in New Jersey for the second weekend in a row, I visited one of several crags in the Ramapo Valley. We went to the spot climbers have begun to call Powerlinez and climbed at the Tower Wall.

I'm not going to call this spot scenic. There are huge high-tension wires buzzing overhead, there's a landfill across the street from the parking and you can always hear cars and trucks rumbling by on the New York State Thruway at the bottom of the valley.

The climbing was fun though. The rock is a heavily metamorphosed granitic gneiss which climbs like granite. There are lots of horizontal and vertical crack systems and the rock has good friction. The boulders below are beautiful and there's quite a bit of exploring that can be done here.

One of the best things about the Powerlinez is that it's south-facing, making it a warm spot all year long. Pretty much any sunny winter day, not matter how cold, will be good for climbing there.

The Ramapo Valley, only a 40-minute ride from NYC is bound to become popular day trip for climbers looking to get out of the city. More traffic will clean the routes up and make the rock feel more solid.

I'm really excited to go back again soon. If you live near the Ramapo Valley and haven't checked out the Powerlinez, make a trip there sometime this winter. The guidebook, written by a local climber and fellow Alpine Endeavors guide Jon Crefeld is available for sale at some of the local climbing gyms and gear shops

Monday, November 28, 2011

Stuff You Should Read

As climbers we make decisions that affect our safety all the time. Some of these decisions involve choosing the proper "application". How we apply a tool we have in our toolbox is very important. Some examples of tools we have as climbers are belay methods (ATC, Reverso/ATC Guide, Grigri, Munter hitch), knots (figure eight, flat overhand, bowline, clove hitch) and friction hitches (prusik, autoblock, and klemheist). Generally, my choice to use a particular tool isn't a random or haphazard decision.

Here's a simple example. If I need to do improvised rope ascension I can use friction hitches to grab the rope. However, I don't randomly choose any of the friction hitches I'm familiar with. I apply the best one for the task at hand. If I'm using a piece of cord to tie a friction hitch so I can ascend I'll use a prusik, as it grabs well but still releases easily. If I am have webbing, I'll use a klemheist as it grabs a bit better while using the slippery, flat webbing. I won't even consider an autoblock, as even loaded autoblocks slip easily when you grab them.

There's a lot of information out there, and much of it should be taken with a grain of salt. The list below isn't meant to be your final word when making technical decisions. It's only a reference that can help when choosing which knot to tie, which belay device to use, and which friction hitch to wrap in different scenarios.

Hang 'Em High: Hang 'em High is a test of belay device behavior under extreme loads. There's interesting information about why the GriGri is better than the Cinch, and also good information about how much load belay devices can hold. The article is a bit older now but still good for understanding loads, belay devices, and what a belay device should be able to hold in extreme conditions.

X-Mission: Tom Moyer and the SLC Mountain Rescue crew have done testing on all different types of material. Some of the interesting results in this link: a clove seems to be stronger than a bowline in pull testing, double fisherman's knot holds better than a water knot in tape, Big Honkin' Knot (double eight on a bight) is actually weaker than a single eight on a bight. 7mm prusik is really strong.

Tom Moyer's Test Page: More testing on materials from Tom Moyer. The water knot and EDK testing are pretty cool, testing of high strength cord too.

Guide Tricks for Climbers - SP Parker tested the clove hitch to see what happens with static slow pull testing. He had different results depending on where the load strand was (spine or gate). Either way the results show no slippage.

Climbing Mythbusters - Geir Hundal did some testing to bust a few climbing myths that everyone asks about. There's some cool stuff here including info about dropping gear, clove hitches, and the EDK. Also some good info about leader loads on gear while belaying with a grigri and a plate

Clove Hitch Testing - Testing by Dave Lane and John Yates (Yates climbing equip.) showing that the clove hitch won't slip.

Technical Rescue Magazine - Tests of belay methods for rescue loads. Very interesting and compelling arguments for the use of the Grigri for high load belays, and for the Tandem Prusik Belay for securing fixed lines and for use on the belay line during rescue scenarios.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Reminder

For three seasons I visited Red Rocks 1-2 times a year. I carefully catalogued approaches, route beta and descent information. I guided long moderates and climbed a lot of harder single pitch and multipitch lines. In April 2010, after spending 15 days in Las Vegas taking my AMGA Rock Guide Exam, I thought I might never go back to Red Rocks. I was disgusted by the opulence and excess of Las Vegas. I was sick of prickly, sharp objects getting stuck in my clothing. Most of all, I was tired of the climbing and the long approaches in and out of the canyons.

I don't generally get bored of climbing areas., However, after spending a part of each of the past five summers alpine guiding in the Washington Cascades and training for my AMGA Alpine Guide Exam, I've been feeling the same way about the Cascades. They've worn me out. They just feel old, or maybe they make me feel old.

Climbing in these special places tends to lose some of it's significance when we forget to see the beauty around us. It's wrong to populate your memory of a beautiful place solely with route information, gear beta, and details about a tricky descent or walk-off route. It happens though, especially if you're focused on particular objectives.

I just returned from Red Rocks, where I spent most of a week guiding a close friend up really fine climbs. With the exam monkey off my back I was able to enjoy the subtle beauties of Red Rocks. Warm sunny slabs below the Brownstone Wall, the calico-colored boulders in Oak Creek Canyon, and the quiet trickle of water in Pine Creek Canyon are a few of the subtle charms of Red Rocks.

Next time your head is down and your nose is to the grindstone, stop and look around. Remember why you choose to climb in the first place. I'm there because I love being outdoors as much as I love climbing. I bet you feel that way too. Let's just try not to forget it.

The climbing is beautiful there too! Here is a gallery of images from the trip.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Eagle Dance


Here's a shot of Leavitation from the last belay on Eagle Dance in Red Rocks. We're currently waiting for another party to leave the belay so we can rappel.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

'Tis the Season for A Nice Screw

'Tis the season for what? Well, for Jack-o-lanterns and Turkeys maybe, for Christmas spirit, no way. It's the season to start prepping your ice gear for the upcoming winter. I've used a lot of gear over the decade and a half that I've been ice climbing and I've learned the value of having good gear in flawless working order. Ice and mixed climbing is really gear intensive, and most accomplished climbers are fanatical about their own personal kit.

I realized about five years ago, after sandbagging a friend with my dull ice screws, that it was time to get some new, sharper screws. I replaced my whole rack over the course of the next season. Now I keep my screws sharp, and most of the time I can do minor touch-ups with a small flat file.

If I roll a tooth over big time though (this happens easily on thin ice over hard rock like granite) I need to replace the screw or have it professionally sharpened. In the past I've just replaced screws, relying on a good propurchase price for new ice screws. However, I won't be buying new ice screws any longer unless I need more screws. It seems silly to replace a screw when a good sharpening plus a little cleaning can make a dull screw perform just like a new one. It's better than replacing, better than recycling, you can just keep reusing the same screw until you no longer need it, which means that same screw might just last your whole life.

Quick, solid ice screw placements are both safety and speed on hard leads where the limit of one's endurance is pushed. So, if I'm not going to replace screws when they get dull, how am I going to keep them sharp for speedy placements?

When my screws need sharpening I'll be sending them to Jason Hurwitz, a local climber and guide in the New Paltz area. Jason, a jeweler by trade, has transitioned to guiding and life in the Hudson Valley over the past few years, and last season started a screw and pick sharpening business out of his home in Stone Ridge.

Jason began sharpening screws for friends in the New Paltz area, and many of them were so impressed with his work that they suggested he start a screw sharpening service to make some extra cash and help local climbers out. Alas, A Nice Screw was born.

If you want to have ice screws sharpened you have several options. You can send them to a facility with a jig and have the screws machine sharpened, or you can have them manually sharpened by someone with a finer touch. Either way, when you grind the screw too quickly you can ruin the temper on the steel. This is really easy to do on a machine, and the weakened metal on your screws will have a bluish black tinge that doesn't wipe away. It's harder to do this when you're working each tooth by hand. Jason, who has a jeweler's touch, does a really good job preserving the screw's heat treatment.

In many cases he can make your old screw bite better that it did when it came from the factory. This is especially true of older screws like the old style Black Diamond and Omega Pacific models.

If you're thinking of having some screws sharpened consider sending them to Jason. He's a climber, local and a true artisan; it makes good sense. I've included some images of Jason's work in this post and you can check out his cleverly named website here.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Some Thoughts About Climbing and Fitness

I rarely write about training for climbing. Fitness is something I take pretty seriously as a climber and guide, yet it's something I'm fairly unscientific about. I won't pretend to be an expert on the topic. The things I've learned have come from years of my own personal training for climbing and running.

I'm going to share my feelings about training, a few things that work for me, and my motivations. Most of us have extra free time, or a bit of extra cash. It's rare that any of us has both of those commodities. We either play a lot and make less money, or we work a lot, have extra money and are short on free time. I fall into the former category. During the busiest times of the year as a guide I have zero free time. However, once the season slows I might have 3-4 days each week to play. This has affected how I choose to train for climbing. At certain points during the year I might not be able to train at all, and that's fine. Being able to let go sometimes is important. Climbing fitness can be fleeting, and any serious prolonged training has always led to some form of finger injury for me.

My feeling is that the best training for climbing is.... wait for it, wait for it....

Again, bear in mind that I have a lot of time to climb during certain times of the year. I love climbing in all it's shapes and forms; the movement over rock and ice, psychological challenges and physical problem solving are immensely rewarding. The thought of doing something else to make me better at climbing isn't very appealing. Over the past few years I've seen a lot of people jump on the Crossfit bandwagon, but I'm not sold. I tried Crossfit for a short while and found the short, very intense workouts were quite satisfying. However, I also noticed that they made me so tired and inflexible that I couldn't climb well afterward. This actually scared me. If you can't climb well on lead because you're physically exhausted from a previous day's workout it becomes a safety issue, especially during the winter when you're wearing sharp things.

Two things about climbing, and climbers who climb well seem to stand out. Climbing is movement specific; the more you climb the larger your encyclopedia of body movements becomes, and the better you understand your own body's movement capabilities. If you don't understand how your body moves, and what it's limitations are you need to climb more. The other climbing specific aspect is related to time on a rope. Without “rope time” I'm unwilling to push it, on lead and toprope. When I don't get on a rope frequently enough I'm scared of falling, and I'll psychologically limit myself,

I don't want to diminish the importance of weight training, or aerobic/anaerobic/weight training combinations like Crossfit/Mountain Athlete for certain types of climbing at particular times of the year. It's good to have a base of fitness to avoid injury and build endurance and power. However, it's important to remember what we're training for here on the east coast. Are you training to schlep giant loads up Denali, or to speedily carry a moderately heavy pack up a steeper alpine objective like Mt. Hunter? No, most likely you're training to climb harder rock, ice or mixed routes locally. How do we train for that? Well, if you have a climbing area nearby that's probably your best bet. An indoor climbing gym would be a close second place. The challenging movements and smaller holds found on most harder rock climbs make the more straightforward movement with ice tools on ice seem easy.

We need to be honest about another thing too. As much as we tend to overlook hand/crimp strength, it's probably the single most important factor in determining how well one climbs. Chris Sharma is a great example of an individual with exceptional natural hand strength; he was climbing 5.13 only months after he started climbing. How many people do you know that climb 5.13? Do you think his movement skills were honed at that time? Probably not, but he had strong hands. We forget that without strong hands you can't hold on to small holds or tool handles to make those challenging moves.

I choose to spend what little money I make available for fitness on a membership at a climbing gym. At my local gym I share a two person membership with my girlfriend and the cost is about $45/person each month. That's comparable to a normal gym membership, and much less than the cost of most gyms that offer a workout of the day, especially considering that a remote training program will require a subscription and a local gym membership too. While at the climbing gym I attempt to focus on my own weaknesses or things that are “season specific” and work on being on the sharp end at the same time. Additionally, it's fun, I can do it with good friends and I might meet a new climbing partner or two (they're harder to come by than you think). Right now, for the upcoming ice and mixed season I've really been focusing on hanging on, the way one would on a longer mixed or ice route. The size of the holds doesn't change when you're hanging on your tools, but you might hang for 45 minutes to an hour in awkward positions during a hard onsight or redpoint. At this point mileage is key. Instead of getting fully blown out on any particular route I try to build endurance and work towards the ridiculous pump much later in the workout or day.

I like to supplement as much climbing as I can with a lot of aerobic/anaerobic exercise and core strengthening activities. Don't underestimate the importance of an aerobic fitness base. It helps your body supply much needed oxygen to your muscles when you're working hard and helps keep weight off. My activity of choice here is running. I'm fortunate enough to have good knees and an affinity for running. It's something I've been doing my whole life. I know there are others out there that detest it. I've got news for you though, if you want bang-for-your-buck you're going to have to cross country ski or run to get the toughest aerobic workout in the shortest amount of time. Years ago I was a competitive cyclist and a 4-6 hour ride some days was commonplace. That's just nuts. Most of us don't have that kind of time, and that's where running comes in. You can run for forty minutes 2-3 times a week and put together a pretty solid aerobic base. In the spring I purchased a heart rate monitor and began using it to help identify target training zones. I don't use it all the time now, but it was helpful for gauging how I should feel in certain zones. This year I've also participated in a few local Tuesday night 5k cross-country races and Thursday night track workouts when I'm at home. They've expanded my aerobic fitness which seems to help a lot – even when I'm climbing less I manage to climb well.

Rest is training component that is frequently overlooked. Overtraining happens, and it can land you with a cold, an injury or a lack of motivation. As I've aged I find that rest is has become more important. Mentally I'm able to push as hard as I used to, but afterwards I'm tired. I take full rest days more often, and during weeks that have a lot of hard climbing/guiding and workouts I make a concerted effort to rest. For me, a rest day has no exercise except some stretching and a leisurely walk with my dog.

What keeps me motivated? Doing new climbs is one of my main motivations. They don't have to be first ascents, but hopefully I've never climbed them before. Even as a guide I try not to repeat climbs too often. I seek out the obscure, dirty, and physical lost classics. There's more good climbing at small crags around New England than one might think. I'm not a project guy. I don't work things into submission and I get bored easily, so having a long list of “to do's” at the myriad of small crags in southern New England has been helpful for me. New route development in the Catskills is another motivator that starts to kick in during the late summer. The mixed climbing standard is slowly getting pushed higher, and establishing new routes in the M8-M10 range is going to require good fitness.

Would I benefit from a specific training program? Probably. Do I enjoy what I've been doing with my time? Definitely. Have I been able to climb newer routes and harder objectives each climbing season? You bet. So, if you have the time, a very climbing-focused training program may be just the way to get good results.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Big Agnes Air Core

I've spent a lot of nights snoozing on the ground this year. Between guided and recreational trips I'm edging towards the 60-night mark. For about 58 of those nights I've slept on a Big Agnes Air Core sleeping pad. If I was 7 again, I'd swear to you that I could catch waves at the Jersey shore with this funny looking raft-thing. Unfortunately, my 190lb body would probably sink that raft nowadays. You get the idea though, the Big Agnes Air Core sleeping pad is basically a simple air mattress with durable welded seams and full-length cylindrical chambers. At 2.5" thick it's easily the most comfortable sleeping pad I've ever owned, and I've slept many a sound night on it.

How did I settle on the Air Core, when there are lots of good lightweight sleeping pads on the market? Well, after several years of sleeping on thinner foam pads or 1' thick Thermarest pads, I decided that I wanted to sleep well outside. Multiple nights on hard ground with thinner pads left my back and hips (I'm a side sleeper) feeling pretty sore. Try sleeping on bare bedrock with a 3/4" thick sleeping pad for several nights in a row. The chiropractor will absolutely love you after your trip. Other new thicker, yet lightweight, mattress options were available to me, namely the Thermarest NeoAir and the Pacific Outdoor Equipment Ether Elite. The catch here is that I'm not made of money. The NeoAir is $120, the Ether Elite is $70, and the Air Core is only $50. I didn't want to spend a ton, and the Ether Elite, which is 5 ounces lighter than the Air Core was backordered so I ended up with an Air Core before my trip to the Ruth Gorge this past April.

At first I was skeptical. After all, if you pop this puppy you're screwed, and it seems like it would be easy to pop. The 70-denier nylon feels thin. 60 nights so far this year seem to indicate otherwise though. I've used the pad on glaciers in Alaska, snowfields on Mt. Rainier and in the North Cascades, and on dirt, gravel and grass throughout the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast all summer long. It seems durable to me so far, but I've been careful not to sleep on bare ground without some sort of layer underneath the Air Core.

Big Agnes suggests using a foam pad underneath when the temperatures dip below 35 degrees. This is sound advice, and I'd add that you should consider an additional piece of closed cell foam when you're going to sleep on snow even if it's 70 degrees outside. Air doesn't insulated the way foam does. A 5mm thick piece of evazote does the trick and doesn't weigh much either.  Evazote is hard to find in the states but can be ordered from the MEC website and has amazing insulative value. Look around at expedition pictures from the past and you'll see people using those bright yellow evazote pads in cold climates on big mountains. A good option is to use a full-length 5mm evazote pad as the backpad in your pack and then add it to your sleeping system in camp. This option works especially well with some of the smaller overnight/alpine climbing packs that have a foam insert as their frame.

The Air Core, while not as light as the NeoAir or Ether Elite, is still small and easy to pack. When rolled tightly it's about the size of a one liter water bottle. This is a major selling point; even if it doesn't give you substantial weight savings over your current sleeping pad it will reduce the size of your kit. Having a smaller, tighter pack for alpine climbs makes the climbing feel easier and safer. That alone is reason enough to choose one of the new inflatable pads like the Air Core.

So, if you're on a budget and in the market for a new pad, consider the Big Agnes Air Core. It's lightweight, small in size, and will provide you with a good night's sleep. What more could you ask for?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Pack Review: Cold Cold World Ozone

I'm a minimalist, climbing clutter drives me crazy. One of my recent attempts to unclutter my daily climbing routine began with a new daypack. I was so impressed with my new Chernobyl that I went ahead and ordered a cragging pack from CCW too. I ordered a stock Cold Cold World Ozone before I left for Washington.

Before we get any further I'd like to get a few things straight. Many packs are measured in liters. How many cubic inches are there in a liter anyways? Well, it turns out there are actually 61 cubic inches in each liter, so when you're trying to guess at a pack's volume and you hear someone say 30 liters you know it's 1800 cubic inches. We can do simple math all day, but let's get on with my real point. From my perspective it seems like most pack manufacturers use a volume measurement, like 30L, as a rough guideline to indicate how big their bag is. Unfortunately a lot of manufacturers also really seem to miss the mark when it comes to pack volume (and weight but that's another issue for some other whine and cheese party). A good example of this was my old BD Sphynx 32. It was a lot bigger than my current Ozone but was called a 32L bag. If the Ozone is actually 2300 cubic inches, and I'm inclined to believe Randy Rackcliff on this one, that means it's volume is 37L. If that's true then my Sphynx 32 was easily in the 40-45L range, which is an entirely different size pack with an entirely different set of applications. Why don't most pack manufacturers give exact volumes instead of being vague and potentially misleading?

This brings me to my next point - cragging packs don't really need to be anything more than a functional durable sack with a nice set of shoulder straps. Most large gear companies feel the need to continually make fabric and design refinements to "improve" existing products. These improvements seem to come at the cost of pack durability. Rather than waste time refining already good designs with fancy crap that won't last very long, why not charge the same price for a simple well-built bag made in the US or Canada by people who know our game intimately? If these companies could cut out the bullsh*t, save money on design and marketing and make a product that spoke for itself we'd probably be headed in the right direction.

I digress. Onwards.

The CCW Ozone is reminiscent of the timeless klettersac, a simple climbing bag meant to hold all your worldly possessions during a day in the mountains. I'm not that old, but I'd be willing to bet most climbers my age or younger have no idea what "klettersac" means, or that for generations they were the standard climber's pack. Nowadays you see zip-open climbing suitcases, expedition size packs and bags made of airy disposable ripstop fabric everywhere at the crag. One is hard pressed to find simple klettersacs anywhere these days. It's sort of a shame because klettersacs are, relatively speaking, cheap to produce, big on durability and functionality and small in size forcing one to actually think about what they're bringing to the cliff. You can't bring the kitchen sink along with you in a klettersac and you definitely won't look like a frumpy version of the leaning tower of Pisa as you approach the crag with this type of bag.

The devil is in the details, and with the Ozone there aren't many details, which was it's most attractive selling point for me. There are four pockets total, and the whole pack is made of bright red ballistics cloth meaning it just might outlast all of my other gear twice over.  There are two small zipper pockets in the lid and one along the backpad for extra storage of smaller/seldom used items. The same foam backpad that adorns all the other CCW packs is built into the Ozone too. There are no ax attachments, no compression straps and there is no padding on the 1.5" wide webbing waistbelt. It's a looker too, believe me; I get comments on the pack every day.

The Ozone was clearly carefully designed to fit only what's needed for a day at the cliffs and nothing extra. It will fit a full single rack, draws or runners, harness and chalkbag, shoes, helmet, 1 or 2 extra layers, 2 liters of water (in a dromedary for me), lunch and my emergency/med kit. The rope fits unbelievably well under the bonnet rounding out a really clean functional package. There isn't a whole lot of extra space and you have to stuff things in carefully for it all to fit. I want to emphasize that this pack, despite it's overtly simple design, is one of the most well-thought out pieces of gear I own. Elastic on the underside of the lid gives it the ability to stretch right over a coiled rope, keeping it comfortably in place, even when the pack is stuffed completely full.

The result of this careful, minimalist design is a pack that doesn't need a padded waistbelt to carry well. Instead, the pack rides just above the waist with everything tightly packed against your back.

I see a lot of potential in this simple design, and knowing that Randy can custom build a pack like this in slightly bigger sizes, or with lighter fabrics makes me want to have him build a slightly larger, custom alpine/ice version of this same design for winter use in the northeast and for light overnight forays on bigger alpine objectives.

If you're interested in the Ozone head over to the CCW site or give Randy a call, the customer service over at Cold Cold World rivals the quality of his designs and workmanship. All in all, the ordering experience is a breath of fresh air in our fully automated digital world, and his packs are the work of a true artisan.

For more information about the Ozone, or what the customization possibilities are with one of these packs have a look at these Coldthistle posts:

Sunday, September 25, 2011


When you're sitting around a fire on a climbing roadtrip yammering about all the awesome places there are to rock climb, Montana is rarely mentioned. It's true, there aren't any major venues there to visit, but the place is just brimming with climbable rock. Locals know this, and I think they've done a pretty good job of keeping things off the radar. To top this off the routes are incredibly sandbagged, and the climbs are graded similarly to some old school areas like Yosemite, Eldo and the Adirondacks.

Prior to my AMGA course in the Cascades I stopped in Bozeman, Montana for a bit of an alpine warmup in anticipation of my Cascade chossathlon. I have climbed ice in Montana on multiple occasions now, and I've climbed a day or two in Gallatin Canyon (an understated gem with bulletproof rock and beautiful climbing). It's not like I didn't know there was climbing in Montana. What I found on this most recent four-day trip though, was that Montana has giant alpine routes on bulletproof rock. This discovery was pleasantly surprising and a bit startling. You hear all the time about the Tetons, the Wind River Range and Rocky Mountain National Park. You never hear about the Absaroka Range or the Beartooths though when you're talking about the Rockies.

I landed in Bozeman at 1 p.m.; one of my favorite climbing partners, Lawrence Haas, was waiting when I arrived. By 4:30 p.m. most of a six-pack Deschutes Inversion IPA was gone and we were on our way to Livingston, bags packed and ready to go. At 5:30 (yes, only one hour from town!) we were on the trail. 9 uphill miles later we stumbled into camp, pitched our tent in a nice bivy site by Elbow Lake and sacked out. 22 hours of traveling plus a bit of elevation gain had pooped me out.

We woke the following morning to chilly temperatures and low lying clouds. The clouds prevented us from wanting to climb our objective, the Montana Centennial Route. After some serious caffeination, bloatmeal (I detest instant oatmeal) and the normal morning constitutionals we wandered up to some nearby formations on the left side of Elbow Lake. Here, a confusing looking set of towers stands sentinel over Elbow Lake and our camp. We decided on a short but beautiful corner system that stood out from camp.

As we approached the Papa Bear, the Mama Bear and the Baby Bear things became much clearer. What looked like one confusing cliff was actually three different buttresses with gullies between them. We found our corner system on the Baby Bear and soloed up the base to rope up. Woohoo! The laser cut corner system had not one but two splitter cracks at the back, at right angles to each other. I won the roshambo and started up the money pitch. 80 feet up, the splitters ended at an awkward 5.9 layback through a wide section. After a puzzling moment I was at the belay. Two moderate pitches later we were on top, with good views of our approach the following day and of the beautiful cirque above.

We awoke at 4:30 a.m. the following morning. The Montana Centennial Route, with a total of eleven 50m+ pitches including several pitches of 5.10 and 5.11 plus a whole bunch of 5.9 and 5.8, was going to take us all day. We were on the trail by 6 and racked up at the base by 7. Two slightly wandering 5.8 pitches deposited us at the first really engaging pitch, an awkward 5.10 crack system that ended with a strange holdless slab move through an overlap. Bizarre unprotected easy face climbing led to the belay.

From here the routefinding was straightforward but the climbing was continuously challenging and reminiscent of the Scenic Cruise in the Black Canyon. An amazing long corner (230' to be exact) with wild 5.9 climbing at the top led to a ramp system. From here a beautiful corner and crack took us to another nice ledge below the crux. The crux, which Lawrence led, consisted of a challenging roof traverse followed by fun corner climbing and a 5.11b layback/stand-up move to crappiest sloper on Earth. Apparently Gallatin Canyon has been good schooling for Larry, he sent the thing first go. I on the other hand, with 4-liters of water, jackets and shoes in the pack on my back, whined, inched and hung my way through things. Typical I guess; I always seem to get the beatdown on technical granite cruxes.

The exposed climbing above, which was intensified by rope-levitating winds, is solid, challenging and memorable. A red Camalot sized splitter runs for nearly a whole pitch at one point and the pitch above sports bizarre holdless friction moves and some thrutching up a beautiful wide crack and corner system. However, like so many other alpine routes that don't go to true summits, the route ends ignominiously on a loose 4th class ridge that's uncharacteristic of the lower 95% of the route.

A short walk and two rappels put us squarely on solid ground. From there it's a load of loose 3rd class plus a few rappels back to the base, or a long easy scramble to the back of the basin for the walk off. We chose the latter, and after a lot of getting cliffed out we finally found our traverse off. Forty minutes later we were sipping whiskey and chowing snacks at the tent.

Our descent down to the car was memorable for one reason only - it's all downhill for 9 miles, which really isn't that cool. Actually, after a while it sucks. However, the cold beverages stashed in the creek at the trailhead were our carrot on a stick.

The Montana Centennial Route, which is graded IV 5.11a, is similar in length to the Scenic Cruise (V, 5.10d) in the Black Canyon but with slightly harder climbing. This grade seems consistent with the sense of understatement and the traditional grading found on a lot of the climbs in Montana. The area was so impressive that Lawrence and I are already scheming about even bigger objectives in the Beartooths, just east of the Absaroka Range. So, if you're looking for good alpine climbing in an easy to access spot with zero crowds consider the Cowen Cirque in the Absaroka Range near Livingston MT, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Photoessay: AMGA Advanced Alpine Course

It's rare for me to post photos with only small amounts of text, as I am much more a writer than a photographer. However, I've just returned from a trip to the great "Northwet" region (the North Cascades!), where we had surprisingly dry weather for more than 90% of our 12-day AMGA Advanced Alpine Guides Course. The weather, route selection and positioning left me with some really great images. Below are some of the best, with the nighttime shots from Forbidden Peak's West Ridge Col being my favorite.

Thanks to Rob Hess, Jeff Ward, Thor Husted, Mark Fallender, Gary Falk, Mike Abbey and Karsten Delap for being great company on this 12-day choss odyssey!

Late September wildflowers on the Hogsback.
Heading up the Coleman Glacier for crevasse rescue training

Sunset on the Coleman Glacier
Crevasse rescue training on the upper White Salmon

Sunset at camp near the Upper Curtis Glacier

Sunset at the spectacular camp near the Upper Curtis Glacier

Nearing the Northeast Ridge of Shuksan's summit pyramid
Karsten Delap managing steep snow and moats near the NE Ridge

Thor Husted scoping a good line down the south side of Shuksan

Karsten Delap in the Fisher Chimneys

Rob Hess near the top of Cutthroat Peak
Karsten Delap looks for a good line on Concord Tower
Managing tough terrain on Concord Tower

Bellingham lights up the night sky

Cloud banks fill in the lowlands

Somehow, Pink Floyd comes to mind.

Bad weather on the W. Ridge of Forbidden