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