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?