Sunday, December 30, 2012

Failing To Succeed

Cannon is the alpine venue for hard winter climbing on the east coast. There are many fine ice climbing areas, and there is a ton of cragging sprinkled throughout the northeast, but nothing rivals the climbing on Cannon, which feels much like the harder climbing found in greater ranges around the world. For this reason it's a great proving ground. With the exception of the Black Dike, all of the winter routes on Cannon feel hard. I know, some are thinking that even the Black Dike feels hard. However, when put into perspective at this 1000' tall cliff, the Black Dike is really the only giveaway.

I've become quite good at not succeeding at Cannon. My failure rate is pretty high. Four visits this year have only yielded two complete ascents for me. All in all, a 50% success rate up there feels pretty good to me though, and every visit has been a new learning experience. Over the years I've tried Fafnir several times in very early season conditions and been stopped by unbonded thin ice or unfrozen blocks. I've retreated off Omega twice now too. I've climbed the first pitch of Sam's Swan song twice only to be stopped by ice falling off above too. Most days I'm back at the car by 1 or 2, sipping beers in the parking lot.

However, every once in a while I'm able hit things just right. Last week, finally, I found some success. After several long rides (2:45 each way from my house in western MA) and short, unsuccessful days this season it was good to spend a full day getting pumped, getting scared and climbing a route I've had my eyes on for years.

Elliot Gaddy near the top of pitch 1 on SSS.

Michael Wejchert, Elliot Gaddy and I were up at Cannon a few weeks ago, just as things were shaping up and we decided to climb the first pitch of Sam's Swan Song. As the day warmed, ice began to rain down and we bailed. As we walked back down through the sketchy, lightly iced, seriously loose talus I kept looking over at Mean Streak. It looked like it was in shape. I kept thinking "why didn't we go over there today?" Last winter I watched Bayard Russell, Matt McCormick and Freddie Wilkinson dance up this steep shady route as I failed on Omega yet again. Cannon, it seems, has me figured out.

I've spent the entire year thinking about that Mean Streak. I knew Silas Rossi and Peter Doucette climbed it this season and I was eager to try it myself. Knowing my chances were growing slimmer as the narrow WI6 column at the start grew older and began sublimating, I began to get anxious. Cannon was actually keeping me up at night.

Alden Pellett and I made plans to meet on Thursday before Christmas to climb. We were hoping to find new routes in Smuggler's Notch. On a last minute whim, at 8:30 the night before, I called Alden and told him I wanted to go to Cannon. He said he'd meet me there at 7 the next morning.

Alden Pellett on Mean Streak

Along with Michael Wejchert and Peter Doucette, we headed over to the Omega amphitheater. Michael and Peter decided to climb the Henderson Buttress to Pilaf, a beautiful 5.9 handcrack. Rime-covered rock made their outing feel very Scottish.

Alden graciously obliged and I took the first lead. I'd been waiting a long time for this, and I was anxious; Cannon has a way of doing that to me. I started up the route. Good rock gear near the start of the ice helped calm my nerves temporarily. I slowly and methodically picked my way up the narrow, 4" thick strip of ice. I stretched out right to place a bomber 3" cam. As I continued up my hands went numb and I began to sweat.

Alden Pellett enters a tricky traverse on Mean Streak

When I read Will Mayo's first ascent report I remember thinking "WI6?". There aren't many routes deserving of that grade in the Northeast. I was skeptical. New England modesty has kept most hard ice routes in the WI5+ range. As I forced my body right, even though the ice was on the left, and struggled to protect the dead-vertical 4" thick, 2' wide strip of ice it occurred to me why Will Mayo, one of the Northeast's most talented winter climbers, was calling this section WI6. I had been bare-handing icicles, trusting so-so tool placements, and trying to find good stances despite the fact that there weren't any. At the end of the ice, below a roof I found my first really good stem and caught my breath.

I found 4 semi-mediocre gear placements and launched into the mixed climbing above. After several tool placements in turf that looked good but was actually poor I reach a flake that swallowed my picks. Relieved and elated I began placing small but solid gear and stemming up the corner. A little while later I reached the traverse where Will and Andy (and  Peter and Silas) exited the corner. I slung a giant detached obelisk and began traversing through snow-covered slabby rock to another corner. Rope drag made these moves tricky. I'm not sure why I was surprised, everything up to this point had been hard. A few minutes later I was off belay at a small square stance. Alden took a hike to warm up and I stacked ropes in lap coils at my waist. By the time I pulled all the rope up Alden was ready to go.

Peter Doucette on Pilaf

Alden, who claims he's out of shape (with a full-time job) dispatched the pitch easily. Not long after starting he was at the belay. We continued up the wall, me leading and Alden following for the remainder of the route. Steep, secure climbing punctuated by short insecure sections defines this excellent route. 30 feet from the end of the hard climbing I surrendered the lead to Alden. I was tired and it was getting late. Alden comfortably lead the final, loose 30 feet and belayed above. Not long after we were rappelling from the top of Pilaf.

Even during descent, Cannon has it out for me. Peter and Michael left an anchor on top of Pilaf. They had some trouble pulling their ropes but managed to get them back. Assuming their trouble was due to a lack of "rap rings" I left two bail carabiners on their slings. Safely on the ground, we pulled with all our might. Our ropes would not budge. In the darkness, we opted to leave them. I would come back for them the next day.

The next day, Friday, I returned and retrieved the ropes from above. In driving rain and howling wind I waded through wet snow and managed to find the top of Mean Streak. Silas had given me a few landmarks that made the task a little less daunting. I rappelled through slabby, vegetated terrain, put the soaking wet ropes in my Bullet Pack and began rope soloing back up the cliff. I had no issues, except for the fact that I had a pack full of four soaking wet ropes and a 40-minute descent down and icy, slush-covered trail.

The first pitch, photo courtesy of Peter Doucette

It's interesting. Mean Streak has temporarily satiated my appetite for hard winter climbing. The climb was a major tick on my list, and I've been sleeping better knowing that I don't have to get up at 3:30 a.m. again to go to Cannon anytime soon. For so many years I just climbed things because I'd never done them before and success came easily. I still do this to some extent, but my efforts are much more pointed, and when trying many of the Northeast's harder lines success doesn't come right away. It's a hard lesson to learn, but a good one - success frequently rides on the back of failure. You can't really have one without the other, especially when you're trying you're hardest.

Google+ gallery of images for this post can be found here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Planning Strategies

When I first began climbing I didn't plan or strategize at all. I would start late, or underestimate the size or difficulty of a particular climb. Consequently, I wouldn't always succeed on my chosen route.

There are many days now where I don't succeed, but for different reasons. The objectives I've chosen over the last few winter seasons have been more challenging, and success frequently happens only after several attempts and the right set of weather conditions. This, however, is not due to a lack of planning.

On the east coast, where terrain is small, it's easy to think that "shooting from the hip" will work as a strategy for planning. Usually things work out for the best. When it comes to approaching, climbing and descending on bigger routes though, I don't usually wing it and expect things to work out well.

Whenever I go somewhere I feel unfamiliar with I make a plan. If the route is straightforward and the weather is clear that plan might be as simple as a few mental notes about terrain and key route features. When the weather isn't expected to be clear or I'm navigating in the dark, and the approach, climbing, and descent are complicated I usually have a much more detailed plan. In this post I'm going to detail some planning strategies that many guides use to avoid getting lost, disoriented or stuck in a bad place at a bad time (usually when you'll get stuck).

Planning is common sense and yet it's overlooked by many folks. If you can begin planning more acutely for your trips you'll have greater confidence when the going gets tough. Remember, you're planning so things don't go wrong, not planning for if things go wrong. Here are a few important points you can use while planning your 1-2 day climbing objectives.

  1. Do your research - this means looking at guidebooks, maps, using the internet and trying to contact other climbers that have climbed the route, or climbed in that area in the past. Come up with a navigation plan, a reasonable time estimate and a required gear list.

  2. Develop an ERP - an Emergency Response Plan has information about what to do if things go wrong. This information can vary depending on the type of objective and it's location. This is usually information about where the nearest hospital is, emergency phone numbers for the local land manager (if there's an emergency number, sometimes you have to call 911), contact information for people in your party and perhaps a SOAP note/incident report form. You'll want to make sure your partners know what to do as well. Give them a copy of the ERP to keep in their packs as well. Sometimes I'll keep this emergency information on my smartphone. Storing emergency numbers as Google contacts ensures you have them when you get a new phone.

  3. Watch the weather - Watching the weather is really important. In the mountains the difference between getting to the top and turning back frequently amounts to differences in weather conditions. If you have the ability to choose your days outside you'll have better weather. This is tough if you are a weekend warrior.

  4. Carry the right gear - You'll want to choose the right ice tools and crampons for your route, or the right type of rock shoes for the style of climbing, an appropriately sized pack, the proper rack, and the right amount of food, water and clothing. If the climbing is easy you can bring less gear. If the climbing is more technically demanding things feel safer and easier with more gear. You can climb longer pitches, stop less often to belay and move with confidence because youll have gear to protect cruxes. Light is right on each route, but to go as light as possible  on every type of route your gear closet is going to be full and heavy.

  5. Don't carry too much - You can go a little hungry or a little thirsty if you know you're getting down at the end of the day, and bring less clothing if you can keep moving. During the winter the only extra clothing I have is a puffy jacket (gets worn when I follow pitches and for leading easier pitches) and extra gloves. Extra crap slows you down.

  6. Think about "alternative" first aid kits for shorter objectives - If the shit really hits the fan, what is a dinky little backcountry first aid kit going to do? Absolutely nothing. As a guide we carry a lightweight practical kit to address small issues. This is for client care. During personal climbs (even on very "full" day or single push routes) my first aid kit is nothing more than duct tape, a headlamp, a lighter and ibuprofen (benadryl in warmer weather for allergy stuff too). I'd be surprised if my partners carried anything more than that. Most of them might bring less. There really isn't much you can do in the field to address severe trauma except stabilize the injured area and get help. Band-Aids, ace bandages, gauze, etc won't help these things so you might consider leaving them at home.

  7. Trade the first aid kit for a useful communication tool - Part of doing your research is finding out what forms of communication work for areas you'll be visiting. If you have cell phone coverage, it's probably a good idea to bring it along. However, you might need a HAM radio, SPOT or Satellite phone and the knowledge of how those devices work. Self sufficiency is, and always will be the name of the game as a climber, but not having a form of emergency communication when it's easily available is negligent.
In an upcoming post I'm going to discuss the navigational planning aspect in greater detail. I'll look at navigation tools and techniques for creating tour plans which help you develop an idea of how long your route will take, where to go, and what type of elevation change is involved in your route.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Valley Vertical Adventures Guide Ryan Stefiuk in Subaru Drive Magazine

Valley Vertical Adventures guide Ryan Stefiuk was interviewed for an ice climbing article featured in this winter's Subaru Drive magazine. He and climbing partner Alden Pellett , who've made several trips to Newfoundland to climb ice above the ocean and in remote fjords together, both shared their feeling about ice climbing and why they continue to pursue such a strange, yet engaging pastime. The author Sky Barsch Gleiner wanted to understand what makes ice climbers tick and why they continue to engage in what can be a really challenging physical and psychological sport. Here is the link to the online version of this article

Monday, December 10, 2012

Shades of Granite and Far North

Well, for once I'm not the only one writing about my experiences. In fact, this time around I don't think there's too much to say, except that much of my success as a climber lies in the partners I've chosen along the way. I'm not a soloist, so climbing has always been a very social experience for me. Here are blog posts written by Erik Eisele and Michael Wejchert. Not only do these guys catalog our experience last weekend in Huntington well, they explore the more personal side of climbing in a way that isn't always addressed.

Below is a picture of Erik on the crux of Skywalker, a variation on Central Buttress in Huntington's. It's as steep as it looks. With big moves and a few insecure sections, the first pitch packs a punch, especially early season.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Winter Climbing in the White Mountains

Mount Washington and the surrounding Presidential Range have some of the world's worst weather. This makes the Presidential Range an ideal alpine training ground. Whether you're learning to winter camp, practicing ice ax self arrest, glacier travel, or training for a trip to Denali or Rainier, the Presidential Range is a good place to hone your skills.

Snow travel in Tuckerman Ravine, climbing gullies in Huntington Ravine, or doing a Presidential Traverse - you can do all of this and more in the Presidentials

Some fun winter objectives in northern New Hampshire:
  • Early season ice climbing in Tuckerman Ravine
  • Pinnacle Gully or Odell's Gully in Huntington Ravine
  • Presidential Traverse - 2-3 days
Please contact us if you'd like to set up a traverse or other northern NH trips during dates that aren't listed on our schedule. We're usually pretty flexible about most non-holiday dates.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Last of the Warm Days?

I was out rock climbing yesterday and Thanksgiving day, just trying to get some last licks in. It seems like cold weather is just around the corner. Yes, there will be more warm days, but they're fewer and further between this time of year. Lost City was wonderfully quiet and we were able to climb by ourselves all day long. Climbing with an odd number of people is fun because I'm able to get up above and take pictures, something I really enjoy doing but don't do enough of most of the time. Here are some images of Doug Ferguson, owner of Mountain Skills Climbing Guides, leading one of the many beautiful lines there.

Slide Climbing in the Adirondacks

The steep sided Adirondack High Peaks have boatloads of slide climbing. Eons of rain has removed the topsoil from steepest areas of several High Peaks creating beautiful rock slides. In the winter these slides get covered with a thin veneer of snow and ice, making them amazing long alpine outings.

Adirondack slides are a great place to practice using crampons and ice axes for bigger climbs. They're also a great way to take in the grand views of the tightest, most rugged mountain region in the northeast. Some good winter slide objectives are:

  • The Trap Dike - Mt.Colden
  • North Face of Gothics - 1000' of steep snow and low angle ice
  • Eagle Slide - a giant, mellow slide up a grand and sweeping face with amazing views of the High Peaks

Alpine Climbing in the North Cascades

The North Cascades are unlike any other mountain region in the lower 48 United States. The climbing there involves bushwhacking, glacier travel and rock climbing to reach the craggy 8000-foot summits. The region is rugged, and feels remote despite it's proximity to large cities like Seattle and Vancouver only a short drive away.

Climbers on the Northeast Ridge of Mt. Triumph
Climbers of all abilities will enjoy summer alpine climbing in the North Cascades, but the climbing is best suited to those that have some mountain experience. The average trip length for a summer North Cascades outing is 6-9 days. Contact us for more information or to set up your private trips. Rates vary based on the objective and the length of your stay.

Some great North Cascades objectives are:

  • Mt. Shuksan - Sulphide Glacier, Fisher Chimney or North Face
  • Boston Basin - Forbidden Peak and Sharkfin Tower
  • Mt. Triumph - Northeast Ridge/South Ridge traverse
  • Eldorado Basin - Dorado Needle and Eldorado Peak
  • Washington Pass - Liberty Bell, the Wine Spires, Early Winters Spires

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Cool Link - White Mountain Pachinko

Ice season has just begun but some of us have decided to get after it. Check out this really fun, well-written post, White Mountain Pachinko, by Michael Wejchert, who semi-rope-soloed the Black Dike and also soloed Damnation Gully in Huntington Ravine yesterday. I think I would have sh*t my pants dealing with a stuck rope in the middle of the Black Dike. Michael definitely has a cool head under pressure.

Tools that Inspire Confidence

Late last season I purchased a pair of Black Diamond Fusion ice tools. I had the chance to use them for about a month before the season ended. This was just enough time to get comfortable using them. I used them again yesterday, with the Fusion picks, while climbing the Black Dike. It's the first time I've used these tools for traditional mixed climbing that has more of an alpine feel. I can honestly say, after using the Fusions yesterday, that they were the best tool I could have brought along. The fatter Fusion picks still look pretty good; Cannon mixed routes have a tendency to destroy picks. Even more importantly, the tools are stiff, which makes them very responsive to feedback. Feeling around on snow-covered rock for hook placements demands a responsive tool. The hammer is another nice addition. I was able to pound a tool into deeper, pick-width cracks, using the head of the other tool. The solid steel head is good for pounding, and doesn't deform at all when it gets pounded on. I used to pound in my Nomics too, and this worked fine, but the head had a tendency to get very dinged up.


Here's my original review from last season. I'm looking forward to using the tool more this season.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Black Dike, 11/6

Early season ice ascents are always interesting. Approaches, lightly dusted with snow, feel sketchy. The ice usually doesn't protect well. Hands go numb easily and the movement feels very blocky and awkward. Turf isn't frozen yet and mixed climbing feels scary. It's a good reminder that ice climbing is a challenging pastime, and that upward progress over moderately difficult or difficult terrain is hard fought and feels scary.

Erik Eisele, one of my favorite climbing partners, and I climbed the Black Dike on Cannon Cliff yesterday under beautiful blue, sunny skies. Every year I say "this year I'm going to wait for real ice to form" yet nearly every year I do manage to sneak in a few early season winter climbing days. So much for waiting for winter to arrive.

By modern standards the Black Dike is an easy climb. However, nearly every season now it's my first climb of the winter and it always feels demanding. Ambling flows and balancey climbing up delaminated, unprotectable ice on pitch 1 leads to the fixed belay below the crux.

Leading the crux in early season conditions always gives me pause. Knocking the rust off takes a little while. I stand at a safe stance before I commit to the crux. Is this doable? Is it safe? Am I going to climb into a place where there's no gear only to get stuck? I'm left with more questions than answers, and this leads to intimidation. After a few moments I find some tool placements that hold my weight, stomp out a few footholds and move up. Eventually I find decent gear, and the confidence to proceed. The process repeats itself as I work my way up the ice-free chimney. I search for hooks and use one tool to pound the other tool in at each stance. I reach the ice as I run out of rock protection. Erik packed a single rack, which is more than adequate.  I would have brought more gear though. As I've aged my tolerance for risk has decreased and I like having more gear. It doesn't matter now though, there are good sticks in pretty yellow ice just above me. I let out a rebel yell and run up to the the fixed anchor 15 feet above.

Pitch 3 has a bit of challenging ice climbing, but if you've made it through pitch 2 this time of year, you're going to get to the top of the Dike. There was even enough ice for 4-5 screw placements. Erik marched up vertical flows and corners into the beautiful snow covered trees at the top. Fifteen minutes later we were walking down in the warmth of the mid-day sun. Now we can both go back to rock climbing for another month, as real ice begins to form in earnest. Let's hope for a better ice season than the last one.

I vote for ice climbing.

Only kidding.  Ice climbing is fun though.  Here's a picture of Erik Eisele leading pitch 3 of the Black Dike this morning. We found good conditions throughout with plenty of ice on the final pitch.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cold Weather Is Here

I've been watching the weather forecast for northern and higher elevation spots and we're getting our first week of cold weather. The screenshot below shows the 10-day forecast for Mt. Washington. It's going to remain cold throughout the week. Expect alpine areas like Smuggs, North Face of Pitchoff, Cannon and the ravines on Mt. Washington to have ice next weekend. It will be full on early season conditions with lots of running water and unfrozen turf, so If you do get out make sure you're careful out there.


Friday, November 2, 2012


This is a climbing blog. I'll be departing from the normal topics here because I feel this is important. The Hurricane Sandy warnings were pretty much just hype in my neck of the woods. We've had at least a dozen other days this fall where we received more rain than we did on Monday.

So, hearing from my family about the utter devastation that has occurred along the coast is heartbreaking. It's safe to say that the Jersey Shore many of us knew as children, growing up there, won't be the same again for some time to come. Some of my relatives don't have electricity yet. Gasoline is hard to find. School is cancelled and many people aren't able to go back to work just yet. My parents residence was spared, but just blocks away people's houses were torn apart. These people have nothing left and have to rebuild their lives and their homes.

Seabright, I think.

Most friends and family I've checked in with are fine. Many of them have been happy to here from me though and are glad for any contact or well-wishes we can offer. If you have friends in the NJ/NYC area and you haven't let them know you're thinking of them, why not do so right now? Most likely they don't need your help but they'll be glad to hear that you're thinking of them.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Improvised Self Rescue

Knowing what to do when disaster strikes is an integral, and frequently overlooked component of most climber's skills training. What do I do when I drop or forget my belay device? How do I escape the belay and rescue a fallen leader? What do I do if my belayer is struck by a rock while they're belaying me?

An improvised self-rescue kit
If you can't quickly solve problems like these, but you've been a climber for several seasons it's probably time to take an improvised self rescue course. Climbing, especially climbing in the winter and in the backcountry is all about self-sufficiency and self rescue is the name of the game. 

Each and every self rescue course we offer is concise, focused and emphasizes good judgment as a way to avoid emergency scenarios in the first place.

Some of the self-rescue topics we cover:
  • Single pitch self-rescue in top and base managed situations
  • Multipitch leader rescue and belay escapes which focus on the complicated transitions involved in descending with an injured or incapacitated climber
  • Glacier travel crevasse rescue

Friday, October 26, 2012

AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Course and Assessment

The Single Pitch Instructor Course is an introductory level guide course geared towards individuals looking to become climbing instructors or solidify their outdoor climbing skills. This 3-day course focuses on techniques and considerations needed while climbing in a single pitch environment - the type of terrain that many climbers spend nearly all of their time in.

A top-managed climbing site

This outstanding course covers base managed and top managed sites, basic improvised self rescue skills, and emphasizes the use of good decision making skills as the foundation for all climbing risk management.

Individuals interested in instructing/guiding afterward can take an additional 2-day assessment to gain a 3-year AMGA Single Pitch Instructor certification. Included in the cost of the course is the SPI Manual and a full-year AMGA membership.

The rate for this course varies by area. Please contact us for more details

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Road Bike Party

When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time at mountain bike races. At some of the national races, which turned into week-long trips, you could watch the pro downhill and trials competitions and this was always fun. It remains a special time in my life and I fondly look back at this period.

This video, which Dane at Cold Thistle posted last week, made my day. I knew immediately, by watching his bike handling skills, that Martyn Ashton was a pro trials rider. This video is impressive and uplifting. What's even more amazing is that he doesn't fully trash the $10,000+ road bike he's using. If you haven't seen this video yet, here it is. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Joe Vitti Receives AMGA President's Award

If you're a Gunks climber, Joe Vitti's face is probably familiar. You may not know him by name, but you'll probably recognize his friendly face and mellow demeanor. Joe has been guiding in the Gunks for seven years now, and I had the pleasure of working with him for several of those years. He is one of my favorite climbing partners.

Joe, who has a solid climbing background stemming from his traditional climbing past in central Connecticut, is a very worldly guy. Of all the guides I've spent time with over the years, Joe seems to find the best balance between family life, guiding and personal climbing. He's married with two teenagers at home, and he still manages to take trips to guide and climb in other areas. On top of this he's a student in a local paramedic program.

It should come as no surprise then, that Joe has chosen to donate some time out of his busy life to educating new climbers in the Gunks. This spring Joe started the "Saturday Night Live" series of clinics which focused on basic safety techniques for climbers of all abilities.

For his work running the "Saturday Night Live" series of clinics Joe has been awarded a 2012 AMGA President's Award. Only a few AMGA guides are given this presitgious award each year. Congrats Joe, you deserve it.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Android Camera Setup

About five years ago I began teaching myself HTML. I had a single $300 Toshiba laptop and a 3.2 Mp camera. I spent hours learning about HTML, CSS and how to use FTP and the CPanel on my web host. Some time passed and I discovered Wordpress, PHP and MySQL. I bought another laptop. A year and a half ago I bought my first Android phone, an HTC Evo 4G. It changed my life. It has revolutionized how I look at technology and how it can be used in the outdoors. A year ago I bought a netbook to play with. In June I upgraded my phone to a Samsung Galaxy S3. Several point and shoot cameras have come and gone. Currently I'm using an Lumix LX-5, which seems like the most robust point and shoot camera I've ever owned. I've played around with Linux (complete noob), rooted my phones and flashed more ROM's than I'm willing to count. I'm currently taking a basic programming class, trying to learn JQuery, and teaching myself how to use Blogger to build simple yet effective websites (way more than what most people use blogger for) that integrate all the Google tools into a low cost, easy to maintain website. On my desk most of the time are 3 computers, a smartphone, a Panasonic point and shoot and a printer/scanner - quite the mess.

The point is that I've become a major tech nerd. Climbing and technology are both passions of mine. I'm dying to get a tablet (a Nexus 7) and bluetooth keyboard, which I think is going to practically replace all of my devices except my phone. Tablets, with the touch interface but slightly larger screens (7-10") may very well replace laptops for most people in the next few years.

My HTC Evo 4G was amazing, and with good lighting I occasionally captured nice images. More often than not the images were alright, and if I bumped up the saturation and contrast in a photo editor they would look good on a computer screen. I still felt the need to carry around a nice point-and-shoot camera (Panasonic LX-5, robust and dependable). My Galaxy S3 has changed that. Samsung has clearly figured out the camera software for smartphones. As evidence they've just released a Galaxy camera. If I was a producer of point and shoot cameras I'd be nervous right now. My guess is that they're going to all but disappear as people upgrade to camera equipped smartphones.

Most days now I carry my GS3 in an Otterbox Defender and use it as my camera at the cliff. I removed the screen protector from the Otterbox Defender and added a Zagg Invisible Shield HD to the phone. This protects the screen and but still lets me see things clearly. I keep it in my pant side pocket nearly all the time and whip it out at belays to shoot photos.

I don't always like to transfer images from my phone to my computer for editing and batch resizing. Photos I've taken of clients during the day usually remain on my phone until they're resized and sent to people in a single compressed .zip file.

Just a few years ago this would have been impossible. Now though, with a 1.5Ghz dual core processor in my phone, plus 48Gb of storage (16Gb on phone/32Gb external card) and 2Gb of RAM I can do nearly all quick photo-editing tasks from the road using my phone. One entire homescreen on my phone holds photo-related apps. There are camera apps, gallery apps, photo editors, recovery programs, etc. all in one place.

Once I get a tablet there won't be any looking back. Using a touch UI (user interface) to edit photos just makes sense to me. One of the nicest thing about the apps - they transfer across all devices. When I upgrade I keep the app, and good apps are constantly being updated by the developer. Generally, if I like an app I usually buy the paid version so that the dev makes a little money. Below are the apps that I like and have begun to use more and more.

Camera apps

Manual mode, aperture priority and shutter priority feel like they're just around the corner for these devices. I'm not really an instant upload, media sharing type of person so apps like Instagram don't really appeal to me. I like to take photos and play with them or post them later. Still waiting for Photosynth to come to the Android world...

  • Stock Galaxy S3 camera - The stock GS3 app works well. It snaps photos and processes them quickly. The panorama stitching software is the best and fastest I've seen yet in any Android stock or aftermarket camera app. The interface is easy to use. I've tested a handful of other apps, and unless you're after a certain effect the  stock GS3 camera is the way to go. Even when using the AOSP ROM's like CyanogenMod 10, the GS3 camera works well. Were I using another phone I might have a different story. On my old Evo I used other apps, like the ones listed below.

  • ProCapture - This app, which I only bought recently, reminds me a lot of the GS3 stock camera. The interface is similar but there are more options. You can view the histogram to check and see if lighting is good and choose from lots of different effects. It's panorama software is also very good, but works much more slowly than the stock GS3's. In the future I'll be playing around and reviewing this in more depth. ProCapture is $3.99 on Google's PlayStore

Procapture is easy to use

  • Camera360 - I've mentioned this app before and it's remained at the top of my list. It's one of the easiest camera apps to use, there are lots of effects and it's free. The developer has recently added a cloud storage option which requires an account and login information (I'm wary of creating more accounts than I need). Otherwise this app is great. Images are taken at the specified resolution and then resized to 1280x960 if you apply any filters. Generally the effects are good and you can touch the screen to compare the original and the filtered image. I've had pretty good luck shooting screen quality images with this app. It's free.

Camera360 has a nice selection of

Camera360 from the HTC EVO 4G

  • HDR Camera+ - Another app I've mentioned in an earlier post and keep coming back to occasionally. The developer has other camera apps yet none of them seem quite as appealing as HDR Camera+. All this app does is apply HDR (High Dynamic Range) to an image. HDR was originally accomplished on digital cameras using at least 3 images with different levels of exposure. Mulltiple images are merged to get vibrant and well-lit images. On the phone it's all done with software which essentially bumps up color saturation and adjusts contrast, sharpness and brightness. The paid version of this app is $1.99
HDR Camera+

  • Camera Zoom FX - Google celebrated 25 billion app downloads last week with sales on lots of different apps. This one was 25 cents. It's a simple photo app similar to Camera360 that skins and edits images on the fly as you shoot them. Unlike Camera360, Camera Zoom FX maintains full size after edits, which is nice if you're considering printing a larger shot. It's easy to use and since it doesn't automatically downsize image it will most likely replace Camera360 for me. I'll be using it more extensively in the coming weeks.

  • Paper Camera - Pure fun. Not really for images so much as for cartoon and sketch like manipulation. Another app that was $.25 last week.

  • Photaf Panorama Pro - If you're still using Android 2.3 or under, Photaf may be a good way to go. I used it with some success. As long as you have a steady hand and set the app to "manual" picture taking mode you can get good results. The panoramas produced by Photaf are cropped a lot, meaning they'll look fine on a screen but might not be suitable for printing.

Gallery Apps

  • QuickPic - There is no comparison. This is the fastest, best gallery app. I used it exclusively on the Evo and now I use it on the GS3. You can make folders hidden, so you don't end up viewing things like icons, FB images and Picasa folders. Did I mention it's fast? It's not bad for image file management and small edits like cropping too. Free.
Quickpic is a great gallery app
  • Photo Mate Professional - Actually more of an editor, Photo Mate can be used to view images too, and has a cool slideshow function. It's a bit clunky compared to QuickPic though. $7.69 from the PlayStore.

Photo editors

My mind was blown when I discovered the apps below. In a way, once most users discover that they can do light editing on a tablet, using a touch UI they'll never use a desktop or laptop again. My phone instantly became way more useful since I've begun using these apps.

  • PhotoEditor - Photo Editor is one of many lightweight editors available for a low cost on the Google PlayStore. It's one of the most appealing to me. The interface isn't the nicest, but it's extreme easy to use and customize for your own preferences. A series of sliders allows easy adjustment of resize options, brightness, contrast and simple effects including the addition of text.

PhotoEditor is a great simple editor

  • PhotoMate Professional - I pulled the trigger and bought this one. It's $7.69, which makes it one of the most expensive apps I've purchased (Backcountry Navigator was $9.99 and worth every penny). It's a full featured photo editor that does batch conversions and resizing. It handles raw files as well, meaning you can do light duty editing to raw camera files from high-end point-and-shoot cameras and DSLR's. It's almost like using Adobe Lightroom. Images can be edited using a series of sliders and portions of images can be selected out so that lighting can be adjusted only for one portion of a photo. Batch resizing with PhotoMate is possible but seems to be limited by RAM or software limitations. When I set conversion quality to a low setting it will work, but leaving .jpg quality on high seems to stop batch conversion entirely. The app is constantly being updated and the dev is responsive though, so this app should improve over time.

PhotoMate Professional even edits raw files

  • ImageResize V2beta - Despite a clunky interface, this app does batch resizing of whole folders easily. That's all it does. It's free and it's useful.

 File Managers

It helps to have a few file managers. Some work better than others and none are perfect.

  • Astro - Astro File Manager is free and popular. Most of the time it works well. The most recent update is crap. Otherwise this has always been my file manager of choice and as soon as the developer gets rid of the bugs things should be fine.

  • ES File Explorer - Easy to use, but a little less intuitive, ES works reliably and can be used to compress files, and batch move entire folders or files.

Recovery Software

Every once in a while you delete something by accident. Recovery apps like Hexamob can help. Hexamob searches for deleted files and restores them. I've used it on several occasions and been really happy to have it.

Email clients

One glitch in this process is almost a dealbreaker. The Gmail app on my Android phone (I suspect all Android phones) doesn't handle zip files well. This is most likely for security reasons. As a result, I'm using K-9 Mail, an email client based on the stock Android email client, but with some really big improvements. It will handle compressed files and you can easily turn off sync so that the Gmail app is still your regular mail app.

If you have other apps that you think work well or have other ways you're using your Android outside feel free to comment below.

Hexamob, for when you accidentally
delete an image

Homescreen with image apps

Spider's Web panorama image, using GS3's stock pano app

Camera360 using HTC EVO 4G

Sulphide Glacier on Mt. Shuksan, GS3 Panorama mode

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Quick Way To Shorten Your Purcell Prusik

Most of the time my Purcell prusik feels like it's the right length. It's 2 to 4 feet long and usually that's how far I want to be from my anchor. However there are times when I want to be closer.

Sometimes simple fixes aren't immediately obvious though. This is one I didn't see right away. An easy way to shorten your Purcell prusik, when an anchor is near your waist, is by adding a big overhand bight knot in the prusik cord near the 3-wrap prusik.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

The $39 Wonder - MEC Alpinelite 30

Ok, so I guess I might just have a climbing pack fetish. I'm not afraid to admit it. Mostly, I go for highly functional daypacks that will work well across all climbing disciplines. I've reviewed several versions of the Cold Cold World Ozone in past posts. For simplicity, durability, and price the Ozone takes the cake. The fact that you can have it tailor made to your own specifications, with or without things like spindrift collar, axe loops and compression straps makes the Ozone about the best available option.

One other worthy contender, especially if you're looking for a low-priced alpine climbing pack, is the MEC Alpinelite 30. Clearance models of the pack are on sale right now at the MEC site for $39 CAD. Regularly priced at $54, this pack is worth the money and should last through many alpine or rock trips. At 660g for the standard length, the Alpinelite 30 is also one of the lighter packs available. Since the Ozone is about as good and simple as packs come,  I'll be using it as a reference throughout this review.

I've been aware of the Alpinelite 30 for several years now. MEC has produced many quality packs over the years, and their Serratus packs (discontinued several years ago) were the best value on the market. The Serratus Genie, a superlight summit pack has been used on many fast and light ascents. Look at some pictures of cutting edge Alaskan ascents from a decade ago and you'll spot the Genie on the backs of many climbers. I've kept my old Genie around just in case I needed it for an alpine trip or as a template for a new custom pack. MEC is now selling the Genie again, and both the Genie and the Alpinelite 30 are reasonably priced and highly functional fast-and-light pack choices. And on to my review....

The Alpinelite 30, a nice looking simple bag, is sized similarly to the CCW Ozone (true to size at about 30L) and comes in two different torso lengths. I bought the longer length and it fits my 6'1" body perfectly. The torso length is about 19.5", which is about 1-2" longer than the stock Ozone. The pack is constructed of lightweight 210d dyneema/nylon ripstop fabric. The bottom is 420d nylon for added durability. As a reference, my ripstop Ozone is constructed entirely of 500d spectra grid fabric that feels much more burly. The lid on the Alpinelite 30 is fixed and the pack (without backpad) can stuff into it's own lid for easy packing during a longer trip where a small summit pack will be needed.

The lid attachment is a weak spot

On day 1, as a I unboxed the pack a few of the Alpinelite's weaknesses quickly became apparent. Where the lid attaches to the body is an obvious weak spot. If you repeatedly grab the pack by the lid eventually the stitching will fail. After a while this happened on my old BD Sphynx pack too. The other obvious weakness to this pack results from it's lack of any real frame. It comes with a single sheet of 10mm foam that can be removed to use as part of a bivy pad. With just a single piece of foam as a backpad the pack flops around and is very challenging to pack well.

After a bit of tinkering I managed to come up with a method for stiffening this pack. I added a folded piece of 5mm Evazote (you can get this from MEC too, and its the same piece of foam I use in my Genie) sized similarly to the original backpad. I also bought a piece of corrugated plastic and cut it to the size of the backpad. After a bit of fidgeting and folding I was able to fit it inside the sleeve correctly. Now, with 20mm of padding and a full length plastic framesheet this pack has become my daily use pack.

Additional foam helped stiffen and pad the back
of the pack

The pack has just enough of the right features, and nothing additional to clutter it up. The lid is small, but will hold essentials like a first aid kit, headlamp, knife, tape, and some energy bars. It's actually reversible and if you're so inclined the Alpinelite 30 can stuff into it's own lid for use as a summit pack on longer trips. The small uretek zipper does feel a bit flimsy and I can see a repair being necessary somewhere on the horizon. The lid lacks the elastic underside of the Ozone, part of what helps the Ozone pack well and hold a lot. The lid on the Alpinelite 30 doesn't sit as well when the pack is fully loaded. The lid is not removable, but tucks inside the bag easily when you're not carrying a full load.

The body is a simple and well shaped tube, which like the Ozone, is made of a single piece of fabric. There are no seams to blow out along the sides of the pack. When the pack is full it will just about rest upright. Like most narrow alpine climbing packs, it wants to tip over when loaded.

Compression strap attach at the edges

On the outside several key features make this bag attractive. Two ax loops at the bottom, plus attachment points above allow one to carry two axes, or a shovel handle easily. The ax loops adjust in size, so one could probably carry four tools on the outside if necessary (not that uncommon for me during a normal craggging day - sometimes I bring a set of conventional tools and a pair of leashless tools too). The Alpinelite 30 also has compression straps that are removable. A series of D-rings along the backpad allow full circumference straps to be attached. You can then carry skis, a shovel, sleeping pad or crampons externally. The option to remove the compression straps is awesome, and it seems like a concept all pack makers should embrace. I don't use them 90% of the time and my guess is that most other folks don't either.

A simple strap system still carries well once
 a plastic framesheet is added

The strap system on this bag is simple. Like many other lightweight alpine packs, the Alpinelite 30 doesn't have a padded waistbelt.  A single piece of 1.5" webbing wraps around your waist. The sternum strap is both adjustable and removable, another nice touch. The shoulder straps feel thin but carrying heavier loads with it hasn't been a problem so far.

The Alpinelite 30 seems like a suitable pack to use across all climbing disciplines. It carries a full day or rock or ice gear easily, can carry skis, and could easily make the transition to light alpine overnights. The slightly empty pack will climb well. A single chimney might trash it, but otherwise this is a really versatile pack.

I've been using this pack for several weeks now and I'm very happy with it. All in all, it's a nice pack. It holds more than my 18" torso (stock) Ozone, but less than my custom alpine Ozone. However, with a shorter spindrift collar it's much easier to manage the constant repacking at a crag than my alpine Ozone. It feels durable enough to stand up to everyday use, but I know it's not going to last nearly as long as one of the CCW packs. For $39 who's complaining anyways?