Friday, May 20, 2011

A Big Sky

One of my favorite places near the Gunks to take pictures from is Walkill View Farms. This is the farm just outside of New Paltz that has the rows of sunflowers lining the road in the later summer. On a clear day you can see some of the cliffs and lots of sky. It's nice to get out and take some pictures of the sky occasionally, especially as the warmer weather begins to cause convective lifting making for nice big puffy clouds (and eventually thunderstorms!). I hope everyone has had  the chance to get out and enjoy the spring a bit, despite the wet weather.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Toprope Anchors - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Ask any other guide and they'll tell you the same thing I tell most people I work with - it's only pure chance and good luck that there aren't many more accidents out there at the cliffs. I find myself holding my breath and biting my nails while I watch potentially disastrous scenarios unfold on a near-weekly basis. This doesn't mean that many climbers aren't well trained or prepared, just that so many others are completely oblivious to the risks associated with their actions. As with other types of accidents, it's never one thing that causes a problem, but a number of small things that compound into something much worse. Risk management is the name of the game.

As a guide, I spend tons of time working with clients interested in how to build good, solid anchors in a toprope environment. Busy weekends at Peterskill and the Mohonk Preserve frequently offer great "teachable moments" where we can discuss good anchor building techniques and practices. This was the case two weekends ago, while I was teaching toprope anchor building classes at Peterskill. On our way along the top of the cliff to our work site for the day we discussed some of the anchors we saw.

I'm going to discuss three of the anchors we viewed. They're some of the best and worst anchors I've seen so far this season. Before we begin let's review some anchor-building criteria in the form of the acronym EARNeST:

Equalized - Anchor components (gear, trees, boulders, etc) should be equalized.

Angles - Angles between anchor components should be low, less than 90 degrees, and ideally 10-45 degrees.

Redundant - Is the anchor, beginning at the components, redundant all the way through to the climbing rope?

No extension - If a component fails will the other components get shock loaded?

Secure - Anchor components should be unquestionably strong.

Timely - Last and least importantly, the anchor shouldn't take all day to build. Climbing is the real objective, isn't it?

Let's look at the good anchor first.

This anchor uses 10mm static rope to equalize two solid bolts. The angles are low and the static rope extends over the edge to protect the climbing rope from undue wear. There is webbing (acting as a sheath) over the static rope, providing additional edge protection and a prusik hitch on the right side for the person to use as a tether while they're building the anchor (falling off the cliff could ruin your day).

Out of sight over the edge there are two bight knots in the static rope where it meets two locking carabiners and the climbing rope. The static rope is attached to the bolts with a figure eight on a bight on one side and with a clove hitch on the other side. The clove hitch is adjustable making it easy to get good equalization.  Behind the clove hitch is an overhand on a bight, just in case the clove slips or is tied improperly (slippage is highly improbable but it's still good to have this).

Now for the bad.

Ahh. The American Death Traingle, a lazy person's anchor configuration. I can't remember the last time I saw one of these. It might have been 1999. Is this anchor awful? No, not really, but it's not good either. The american triangle places undue stress on the individual anchor components by multiplying forces. It pulls the anchors together and down. At 45 degrees nearly 100% of the load is placed on each bolt.

The bolts are strong, new, close together and have stainless rappel rings on them. So, the anchor components are good. However, This anchor lacks redundancy because there is only one sling. If this sling fails it's a game-ender. Is redundancy required all the time? No. If you can be nearby to constantly evaluate the anchor for wear (like in a cliff-top management scenario where all belaying is done from near the anchors on top) then redundancy is not as important. Here though, the anchors are 80 feet away and out of sight. Redundancy is peace of mind in these situations.

Finally, the very ugly.

There's more bad than good here. There are two good bolts but that's the only thing going here, and the relatively sharp steel anchors could lead to this anchor's undoing in a hurry. We have the american death triangle again here and I've included the chart below so you can calculate the forces associated with this and the previous anchor if you like.

This anchor is equalized and redundant, but the angles are very high (120 degrees) and if the shorter sling fails the longer sling will get shockloaded.

The problem with this anchor is the lack of carabiners on the bolts. Placing nylon on square-edged steel is like placing your anchor slings over a dull knife. The sling's not going to cut right away, but eventually it will get severed. Had there been carabiners on the bolts the sling would maintain it's full strength (about 5000 lbs of force or 22kn).  Without the carabiners the slings will fail at some unspecified lower load. With the large angles the forces on the sling are multiplied. Each time a climber leans back on the anchor and the belayer counterbalances their weight each bolt experiences approximately 800lbs of static load (assuming the climber and belayer are each 200lbs. and that's disregarding the much higher dynamic loads associated with falls, even toprope falls). This means that there is nearly 1600lbs of force between the bolts, being placed on the sling. Any load strong enough to cut the first sling will almost definitely damage the second, looser sling too.

The carabiners on the rope are also being triaxially loaded - they are being pulled out of the axis of highest strength by the 120 degree angled sling. This will probably cause the carabiners to fail at a lower load as well.

Here is the same group's redirect so they can climb on the other side of the block. This is also pretty wacky. The angle between anchors here is 180 degrees, and the webbing attached to the small pitch pine rubs over a pretty rough edge. If this piece fails when the climber falls they're going to drop 4-5 feet (hopefully they're not too close to the ground). This configuration is also putting severe kinks in the rope, which can be seen between both top anchors. This is a good way to cause premature sheath slippage on your climbing rope.

It's important to remember that all of the gear we use is exceptionally strong when used correctly. As a guide we're constantly hearing the phrase "the right application at the right time" and this phrase is very true. Our gear is only very strong when we are armed with the knowledge of how to use it properly.


Rock Climbing Anchors: A Comprehensive Guide, Craig Luebben - This is one of the best books in print on the topic of climbing anchors. It, and the other Mountaineers Outdoor Expert Series are worth every penny.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Climberism - Keeping the Stoke High

I think it was last winter that I began to notice Climberism. I would check in every so often to see what was happening with the website. I kept thinking "What's the plan for this website? Will it become something bigger?" It reminded me a bit of Splitter Choss and Climbing Narc, two other climbing blogs that cover news and do reviews of climbing-related gear.

I know what you're thinking.... If you're like me you think shredder porn (the magazines and websites) is dumb. I probably pick up an issue of Climbing magazine once/year and I seldom surf for climbing blogs that have no relation to me whatsoever. The only climbing publication I look at regularly is Alpinist.

Why would I cruise over to Climberism frequently then? The answer is simple - it focuses exclusively on climbers and climbs in the northeast. Moab, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Yosemite are all awesome, but they're 2000+ miles away. The newsworthy content on Climberism has all taken place within a few hours of your home and my home (and we don't even live near each other;). You can watch videos of boulderers cranking amazing b@llsh%t houdini moves up steep blank faces in the Gunks and CT, read about northeast climbers cranking really hard trad and sport routes, see pictures of the newest northeast mixed testpiece and get local climbers' opinions on new gear.

It makes total sense - humans care more about people they know than people they have no association with whatsoever. Climberism has run away with this concept and I think they're hitting a homerun.

David Crothers, who designed and manages Climberism does it for "fun" and considers it his second full time job. I spoke with him on the phone last week and he said his own climbing time has suffered as a result but that he enjoys what he's doing. Climberism's growth has been measured and steady, a surefire way to prove to advertisers that you have what it takes to keep viewers coming back. He's now selling adspace to major gear companies and getting about 1000 pageviews/day.

Dave has also been publishing a bimonthly online magazine through Climberism. I usually read each issue cover-to-cover right away. The focus is always on climbing areas I can check out soon, or places I love visiting and go to often. The interviews are with people you'll meet at the cliffs in the northeast, and the photos are great.

We have so much good climbing in the northeast, and a community of climbers that are psyched to climb year-round despite weather that can be discouraging. It's good to finally have a devoted climbing news outlet too. The next time you have a spare minute or several to waste browsing the web head over to Climberism, you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thank Your Mother

For most of us, it seems, there is the distinct possibility that we wouldn't be where we are today without the help and support of our parents. I know I wouldn't be who I am today without the unconditional love and complete support of my parents. When I was a kid they drove me all over the place so that I could go to mountain bike races, and on hiking and backpacking trips. As an adult they have embraced my decision to be a full-time climbing guide. In fact they might even be my biggest followers and promoters of this site.

So, if your mom is anything like my Mom, remember to thank her today and everyday for being a wonderful, hard-working person and helping you to achieve success in this life. Thank you dad too; he'll appreciate it;)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Wrestling Demons in the Central Alaska Range

As I begin to write this I'm not even home yet and next year's trip is already in the works. The gears are grinding and I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to swing a trip to the Alaska Range for several weeks next year. Perhaps I'm a bit delirious; it could be the jet lag, or the strange sleep schedule one keeps on alpine climbing trips, or the really long Alaskan days. One thing's for certain, the Alaska Range is one of the most amazing alpine climbing areas in North America.

Marty, the owner and director of Alpine Endeavors has been dreaming of going to the Moose's Tooth since he began climbing. This year, with a very wonderful regular Alpine Endeavors client, Richard Vlasak, interested in the trip he planned a six-day late April trip to the Ruth Gorge. The planned objective would be Ham and Eggs on the south face of the Moose's Tooth, situated above a small pocket glacier 2000' above the Ruth Gorge proper.

With two young children at home and a busy guide service to run Marty didn't feel like he could get away for the eight-day trip. Five weeks ago he dropped the trip in my lap. What was I supposed to say? No?

No way. I was in, immediately. He didn't have to twist my arm.

April 17-18

So, after a few weather delays and several airline customer service calls I left Hartford on my way to Alaska. Twenty hours and several layovers later I was in Anchorage and less that a day after that Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi dropped us off below the Moose's Tooth. It was almost too easy. Richard and I were standing below a nearly unbroken 3000' wall of golden granite under the bluest of skies.

The flight in to the Root Canal, like most other glacier flights, is nothing short of spectacular and can only be performed in good weather. Paul flew us and two other climbers in under deep blue windless skies. It was the kind of weather that doesn't last very long. One of the harsh realities of this style of climbing, where a glacier flight is mandatory, is that travel days and climbing days require the same type of weather; those near perfect clear days. Even the slightest blip in the weather leaves you grounded on the airstrip waiting to fly, or stuck in camp on the glacier waiting to climb. My last major northern trip, to the East Ridge of Mount Logan in 2003 was a lesson in patience and a reminder that much of the time it isn't your skills that determine if you summit, it's the weather. On that trip 12 of 18 days were spent waiting out the weather.

Richard and I set up camp and went to sleep, determined to make the best of the blue skies that were currently overhead. With a party slated to climb Ham and Eggs we decided to walk over and check out Shaken Not Stirred. Shaken is a slightly shorter, harder, narrower version of Ham and Eggs with mostly moderate snow climbing and occasional vertical mixed/ice bulges. It's an amazing natural passage up a really imposing wall.

April 19th

We were told by another party, and quickly realized, that the route wasn't in great shape. Richard and I bypassed the normal start using a gully system and snow ramp to the right of the route. Five pitches later we were back on route in the couloir. The detour had cost us a lot time though (even though it's easier climbing it is circuitous) and left us concerned about the condition of the route. An abnormally low snow season combined with the early season conditions (a lack of freeze-thaw) meant that there was little more than overhung sugary snow and unprotectable thin ice at each chockstone bulge.

A few pitches later we decided to go down. The sun had begun to swing around into the couloir and the climbing didn't match our topo of the route. In Talkeetna, upon our return from the Moose's Tooth, we bumped into several other climbers who had been to other spots in the Ruth. They confirmed what we had been seeing – the Ruth didn't have much ice this season.

Rappelling out of Shaken Not Stirred is a frightening experience. In 2003 a party fell several hundred feet on Shaken when one of their rappel anchors failed during their descent. Luckily, and unbelievably, they were alive after their fall. I learned quickly that you shouldn't pass up a rappel anchor, even if you've descended less than 100'. The granite is almost crack- free and fixed anchors are hard to come by. On several occasions I found myself climbing back up the couloir to get to an anchor I could barely reach (remember the low snow?) that I thought was too close to my last anchor. The rappel anchors ran the gamut, from decent to utterly abhorrent frightfests that left me not wanting to lean back. Safely back on the glacier, Richard and I snacked and made our way back to camp in the sweltering midday heat.

April 20th

With another party queued up for Ham and Eggs, Richard and I took an easy day. After a late start and a pancake breakfast we headed to a little bump on the Root Canal just before things drop precipitously to the Ruth Glacier 2000' below. A 30 minute walk, a short snow slope, and some scrambling put us on top a little peak that probably looks quite commanding from the Ruth Gorge proper but barely stands out from the Root Canal above. [singlepic id=610 w=320 h=240 float=right] Had it been clear we would have had amazing views of the Cobra Pillar and Japanese Couloir on Mt. Barrille and the unbroken 5000' tall face of Mt. Dickey. Unfortunately this was the beginning of a cloudy weather pattern that would deposit 3 feet of snow over the next two and a half days.

With 4” of new snow during the day the party on Ham and Eggs managed to summit and avoid any slough avalanches in the couloir. There had, in fact, been only one spindrift avalanche during the whole day. This was a good sign for Richard and I, as we were planning to give Ham and Eggs a try the following day.

April 21st

We awoke at 2:30 the following morning to clear skies and very little overnight snow accumulations. Great, I thought, we can give Ham and Eggs a go. Richard and I did our business in camp and headed over to the start of the snow traverse to gain the actual route. As the sky lightened and clouds descended it began to snow higher up. With the colder morning temperatures and thicker cloud cover than the previous day the new snow wasn't staying in place.

As I belayed Richard to the top of pitch 2 the couloir to my right (where the actual Ham and Eggs Couloir begins) avalanched 5 times. Richard gained the belay as spindrift began flowing over our heads and the spindrift avalanches from Ham and Eggs to our right had begun to fill the air around us. It was time to go down.

4 very business-like rappels put us on the ground safely. As I walked back towards camp, Richard ahead of me, I turned back frequently to stare at the 3000' tall monolith that had just shut us down twice in three days. Richard seemed to understand that this was how the alpine game works; he was okay with getting shut down. Ultimately I would be too, but not right now.

How was it possible that we weren't able to climb these routes? I'd put up half a dozen M8 first ascents in the Catskills and guided 1000' of WI5/5+ in a day at Lake Willoughby this winter. The fitness I had gained from these exploits was supposed to carry over to the mountains.

Weather happens though. So much is decided by the weather here. If it's good you may very well summit, and if not you just have to roll with the punches in camp.

April 22nd-23rd

Cloudy weather forecasts for Anchorage and Talkeetna frequently mean snow for the mountains.It continued to snow until the night of the 23rd. Paul Roderick would be picking us up on the 24th provided the weather was good.

Anyone who's waited around in camp for weather to clear knows the drill; Eat, sleep, urinate, defecate, and repeat. Too little sleep is hard on one's body, but so is 14-16 hours a night for several nights in a row. Mystery soreness appears and boredom can drive you crazy if you're not careful.

Richard and I opted to dig a large snow cave with two of our campmates. This shelter gave us a nice, yet soaking objective and ultimately allowed us to cook and hang out in a sheltered, windless spot. We made two friends, Chris and Aaron, in the process. Rangers from Yosemite National Park, they were on a vacation of their own and had climbed Ham and Eggs the day before we attempted it. When Paul Roderick of TAT came to pick us up the 24th he would be transporting them to an airstrip below Peak 11,300.

On the evening of April 23rd the clouds began to lift and we were treated to the first blue skies in three days. Tomorrow was going to be a bluebird day. Paul would definitely be picking us up tomorrow.

Leaving unclimbed objectives behind is bittersweet. It's nice to return to take showers, eat burgers, and catch up with friends and family, but the lack of a summit and “success” is a tough pill to swallow. It's a good reason to plan another trip, dig another snowcave, make new friends, and try to scrap your way up some giant Alaskan peak.

Sadly, at 1 a.m. on Thursday, April 27th a climber, Chris Lackey, from Houston TX was killed on the Root Canal when a serac collapsed on the Bear Tooth above camp. He was most likely one of the three climbers we met in passing as Paul Roderick shuttled us out and another party in to the Root Canal. The serac avalanched routinely when we were in camp, but must have had an extremely large piece calve off due to a small earthquake registered by the USGS at approximately the same time. The debris displaced by this ice fall blew the five climbers on the Root Canal out of there tents and scattered gear all over the glacier. A rescue was mounted the next morning and Chris Lackey was pronounced dead in the helicopter on the way out from the Ruth Gorge. Please keep him and his family in your hearts and minds. It could very well have been any one of us.