Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Who's Your Guide?

I was out at the Trapps, the most popular cliff in the Gunks, the other day and I struck up a conversation about guiding with another climber. He wasn't from the area and he asked me whether it was hard to get a permit to guide in the Gunks. I replied that it was challenging, and that most guides here work for one of the local guide services that maintain a permit with the Mohonk Preserve. He asked me “what about guides who can't get a permit, shouldn't they be able to guide here too?” I replied to him that if you are well-trained and qualified for the job and have plenty of availability you will almost definitely get hired by one of the four main services or will be able to get an individual permit.

The individual with whom I was speaking was perfectly friendly but our interchange snuck under my skin. Conversations like this have a tendency to make me seethe with frustration. Many professional guides, especially ones that are AMGA-trained, have spent months of their own time preparing for professional coursework and exams. What makes so many people think any reasonably competent climber can be a guide simply because they know more than most beginner climbers?

Would you hire someone who's read books about medicine, but isn't an M.D., to work on your body? Would you hire a bum to do your taxes? How about web development and programming, is anyone who's used a computer capable of development and programming?

The answer to all of these questions is “no”. And the answer to the question “Can any climber just as easily be my guide?” should also be a resounding “no”. Why is it then that there are so many people in the United States that are willing to call themselves “climbing guides” or climbing instructors” even?

Less than thirty years ago there was no formal training and certification process for guides in the United States. All guides learned by “doing” or from a mentor. Some of these guides who remained in the industry longer than a few years ultimately developed good client care skills, strong “guide-style” ropework skills, good terrain assessment/management skills, and the ability to relate to clients of all ability levels. However, there are other guides still in the industry who have not developed those skills. This is, to a large degree, because guide training and certification is not compulsory, it's voluntary.

To this day guide training is not required and I routinely field the same questions, like the one above, over and over again. And, until it is I'll be sounding like a broken record.

It is my feeling that, at a bare minimum, guides should be have professional training specific to the terrain they're guiding in. If a guide is going to guide clients up multipitch rock climbs, even in a very benign place like the Gunks, they should have professional training that addresses a myriad of guiding skills including multipitch transitions, managing traverses, belay stance management, how to safely descend with multiple clients and high angle rope rescue skills. Alpine guiding requires even more training in a number of different disciplines (snow, ice, rock) and most east coast ice guides should address this appropriately by taking alpine guiding and ice instructor courses.

If you're thinking about becoming a guide, or are currently guiding without professional training the bottom line is this – guiding requires an additional skill set that recreational climbers don't gain just from climbing. More importantly, guides frequently take people with absolutely ZERO climbing experience into incredibly dangerous places, places those people couldn't go otherwise. Professional development is expensive, but client's lives are priceless to their friends and families.

On the other side - if you're looking to hire a guide, remember this too. It's hard to place a value on someone's life. Why would you choose to hire just anyone, or hire someone only because they're rates are less? Do your homework and be sure your guides are well-trained.

I'm hoping to write a series of upcoming posts addressing the state of the professional guiding industry. If you have feedback or would like to address the topic feel free to comment or let me know what you'd like to see.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How To Make Your Own Umbilical Tethers

Last winter I began using the Black Diamond umbilical ice tool tethers on longer routes, and while soloing moderate routes. I found peace of mind in not worrying about dropping my tools. The BD tethers really look slick, and they work well most of the time. However, during one season alone I had at least a half dozen instances where they inadvertently unclipped from my tools. On another occasion I watched a friend fall while leading and break his tethers - the webbing broke where it meets the swivel.

These incidents left me with a few questions about umbilical ice tool tethers. Were they worth using if they were going to unclip themselves at bad times? Was the swivel necessary, and are the edges of the swivel sharp enough to cut webbing? Could I make a tether setup that was similar but stronger, one that I could clip into anchors with occasionally during transitions at belays and rappels?

My friend Michael Wejchert's homemade tether setup had no swivel, used real webbing and attached to his tools with full strength wiregate carabiners. He likes his setup and has used it extensively for soloing around the Northeast.

I decided I would make my own pair this February. Since then I've used them quite a bit. They're strong, secure and hardly every tangle, even though there's no swivel. Here's a short narrative about how you can do this at home for about $20.

What you'll need

  • 12 feet of ½” tubular webbing
  • 12 feet of the thinnest elastic cord you can find
  • 2 lightweight miniature carabiners – Metolius FS Mini or Camp Nano carabiners work well.

How To Make Your Tethers

Make sure the ends of the tubular webbing are open. If you bought the webbing at a climbing shop they probably used a special cutting tool to melt the ends. Carefully slice the ends without cutting yourself, so that the webbing is a long, hollow tube.

Tie a small overhand knot in the end of the bungee cord. Slide this knotted end of the bungee cord inside the webbing. The first few feet will be easy. After that you'll have to “inchworm” the bungee through by sliding the webbing down the bungee periodically.

The barrel knot that will hold the carabiner in
place well

Once you've fished the bungee through the webbing go ahead and tie a barrel knot (half a double fisherman's) around one of your carabiners. This will hold the bungee in place as you begin to shorten the tethers to their proper length. The barrel knot is a good one to use because it will hold the carabiner in place and keep it from spinning or cross-loading.

BD tethers are 20" long

My tethers are 21" long

Begin to slide the webbing down onto the bungee cord. I used my older BD tethers as a template to get the proper length. You'll need to play around a bit here. The relaxed length of the BD tethers, from carabiner to swivel is about 19-20”, when stretched each strand is 45”. If I stretch my arms out, while holding one of the tether strands, it extends from one hand to the start of my other shoulder. I have ridiculously apelike arms, you could probably go a bit shorter.

After you've found the proper length you'll want to tie an overhand on a bight in the webbing/bungee approximately the size of a belay loop. This is where you'll attach the umbilicals to your harness. I chose not to tension this loop, keeping the webbing and bungee relaxed.

The non-elasticized attachment loop, where I girth hitch
to my harness

From the other side of the overhand bight knot you can tension the second strand and make sure it's the same length as your first strand. When I finished there was about 4-5 feet of bungee cord left over.

The nice thing about this little project is that the knots aren't permanent. Play around with the length of the tethers before you trim anything down or decide for certain that you like the configuration. Mine work great and the lack of a swivel has made no difference at all.
I look forward to testing them to get an actual strength rating sometime soon. I'll post that information when I get it.

Here are some other good links about homemade umbilical tethers:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My Lucky Day

There are days when I feel I have a good eye for photography. There are other days when I shoot lots of images that stink. Thursday was a lucky day I guess. I forgot my camera, which I intended to bring along but managed to catch a few good images with my phone. I've been using an Android app called Camera360. It's like a little turbocharger for my HTC Evo's 8 megapixel camera. Here is an image from the end of a fun day of climbing at Lost City in the Shawangunks.

Obviously, Camera360 bumps the contrast way up and heavily sharpens the image, but for an image taken with a mobile phone they look pretty good. Here's the link to Camera360.

Not For The Uninitiated - A Review of the Black Diamond Fusions

Winter's over. Time to start ogling gear for next ice season....

Earlier this year I reviewed the Black Diamond Fusion pick, as I have been using them with my Cobras all season long. My Nomics, which have lots of mileage on them but are still serviceable, were getting used less and less. This got me thinking. I became curious about the Black Diamond Fusion ice tool. Would it climb well? After lots of hemming and hawing I purchased a pair of the Fusion tools back in early February.

Before I start my review of these tools, it's worth mentioning that I look around a lot at gear reviews on the internet before buying and reviewing gear. Is there information publicly available about the specific item? Is it accurate? My own internet research has led me believe that most magazine gear reviews are favorable even if a product is only "ok" and that many guide services and sponsored climbers will review gear favorably as a friendly nod to their free gear source. I am not sponsored, I am rarely given free gear and I don't think I'll ever favorably review something I don't like. At the same time, reviewing something unfavorably is not a bridge I'm keen on burning.

I want to compare the Fusion to the Nomic, it's most obvious competitor, so that readers can make an informed decision about this tool.

First Impression

When I received the Fusion I was impressed. Like all the other BD tools, the Fusion is beautiful. It's clear from this, and their other newer tools that they value form as much as they value function. Petzl's tools, on the other hand, are not as pretty but are highly functional. Actually, this theme is prevalent throughout each company's products - some BD products look great but just don't work well, while most Petzl products won't win a beauty pageant but operate smoothly and last a long time.

The tool is shaped identically to the Nomic, has a great handle that doesn't require taping and feels like it will be really durable. This should come as no surprise considering the track record of most other durable BD tools. It feels heftier than the Nomic (it's an ounce or two heavier and this is noticeable in hand) and has a different balance. The tool is balanced with most of it's weight at the bend in the shaft. This means the dynamics of swinging this tool are going to be different than the dynamics of swinging the Nomic, which has most of it's weight in the solid aluminum head and  steel pick weight. More on this later.

The stock pick on the Fusion is, duh, the Fusion pick, which I know from experience is burly and durable. The head is easy to clip, the removable spike easily accepts umbilical tethers or full-size carabiners, and the head is easy to clip into an ice clipper. The overall design seems good.

Climbing Ice with the Fusion

If you're going to climb any substantial amount of hard ice with any BD tool, the logical pick choice is the Laser pick. It's thin, sharp and penetrates easily. I took my brand new Fusion tools with me on my February trip to Newfoundland. Using the Laser picks, I found that the Fusions climb ice well. The swing takes some getting used to. Unlike the Nomic, which is head heavy, the Fusion has a tendency to dive sideways upon impact with the ice. It felt weird at first, but many of the sideways placements where just as secure. Unconventional doesn't necessarily mean insecure.

The Fusions feel like many of the other BD tools. When placed well the in-hand feedback you receive is more like a dull thud than the tuning fork reverberation of the lighter Quark or Nomic. Once you get that secure dull thud, which frequently took me several swings in colder ice, the tools feel good, and using the upper grip isn't scary at all. In fact, once they were well placed I felt like the tool was more secure in the upper grip position than the Nomic. For better and worse, the Petzl-Charlet picks seem to release more easily and this always made me a bit hesitant when using the Nomic's upper grip while ice climbing. The flip side of the Fusion's secure feeling is that the tool was harder to clean on low angle ice or high-density ice. I frequently had to yank the tool so hard that I would destroy the placement entirely instead of leaving a hole for the next climber to draft in. Ultimately, this leaves me wondering about the integrity of the placements I was trusting in the first place.

On steep, funky and chandeliered ice the Fusions climb very well. The grip is easy to hang on to and the tool felt responsive even when the placement was less than ideal. In fact, blown out and wobbly placements are where the Fusion shines. It's stiff and responsive so hooking doesn't feel sketchy the way it can with many other ice tools.

With the Fusion picks, climbing ice is a little less straightforward. A friend, and devotee of the Nomic, tried the tools and commented "I always swing one too many times with this tool". There is a tendency to "explode" tool placements necessitating many more swings before one finds a good tool placement. This "digging" for placements can become exhausting. The Nomics, even with the "Rock" pick climb ice well and have almost no learning curve. You can give a beginner ice climber a Nomic and they'll find good ice placements. The Fusions, on the other hand, would probably confuse, exhaust and dismay a newbie.

Climbing rock with the Fusion

The pretty green hydroformed shaft is what makes the Fusion shine on mixed terrain. The tool, when paired with the Fusion pick is stiff and responsive on steep rock terrain. My first real mixed day with them included a flash attempt on Hydropower in the Black Chasm. I let go only 4 feet from the ice, in the midst of sustained M9- climbing. I doubt I would have climbed any better with my Nomics, which I've used for miles of mixed terrain. The Fusions edge well, match well, and don't flex as much as the Nomics when hooking and torquing. They are really good for technical rock mixed terrain.

During my second effort at Hydropower I worked my way through the rock and up to the ice. I was ferociously pumped and the high density ice was challenging to get good sticks in. Here, I felt, was the Achilles heel of the Fusion. If you're too pumped to use the tool effectively on ice it's not going to climb well. With the Fusions I kept destroying perfectly good ice placements. Fortunately, I was able to keep it together and get decent tool placements despite a bad pump and funky ice.

Bottom Line

The Fusion is a good tool for someone who has a quiver of tools and climbs a lot of rock terrain during the winter. It's a tool designed specifically for hard mixed climbing and steep, funky and low-density ice. Climbers looking for a radically curved all-around tool will be better off choosing the Nomic, which climbs all types of ice terrain well and will still climb mixed terrain admirably. Other good all-around choices include the Cobra and Grivel's Quantum Tech.

I'm going to continue using the Fusion into next season and will hopefully dial in it's swing even more. I like it's stiffness for mixed climbing but am unsure whether it's a logical replacement for the Nomic, which climbs most winter terrain admirably.

Here are two useful reviews of this tool for readers who are more interested:

Cold Thistle -

Cascade Climbers -

Friday, March 16, 2012


When I began climbing in the Catskills, during the winter of 2004(?), the first "hard" line I sought to climb was Purgatory(WI5-, M5) in the Devil's Kitchen. It's a beautiful thin ice line following corners and cracks for 90 feet at the right end of the cliff.

At that time Purgatory had bolts running bottom to top. The fifth bolt was awkward to reach and dangerous to clip; this was the crux of the climb. I have lead this route many times since then, remarking every time that Purgatory is "one of the best pitches in the Northeast". The Northeast has some of the best ice climbing in North America so you know I think Purgatory would make a North America's best list too. I'm partial to the Catskills though, so that's neither here nor there.

After I climbed Purgatory for the first time I learned that Joe Szot had boldly claimed the first ascent of the route, using traditional gear, many years before I began climbing in the Catskills. At the time of the first ascent, Purgatory was one of the northeast's hardest lines, and to this day it remains an impressive lead and a testament to Joe's skill and determination.

I had seen Joe's name all over the Adirondack ice guide but I didn't realize he'd kept an eye on the Catskills too. It turns out the ever prolific Joe Szot had scoured the Hudson Valley for ephemeral ice lines, and continued to visit long after his first ascent of Purgatory. Just a few years ago he came down to climb a rarely formed free-standing pillar with Rich Gottlieb in an undisclosed Shawangunk location.

Joe was a prolific and well-traveled climber. During my 15 years as a climber in New York state I never met him, probably because I'm pretty shy and intimidated by such accomplished climbers. Each spring and fall though, I would see him at the deli below the Gunks, or out climbing in the Trapps. His wiry frame and wild brown hair was easy to recognize from a long way off.

By now this is old news, but Joe died of a heart attack on March 14th, during one of his annual spring pilgrimages to the Gunks. He was climbing in the Gunks with his partner when he began feeling ill. Sadly, despite CPR and attempts to keep him alive, he could not be revived. This is a sad week for climbers in the Northeast.

The rest of us have so much to learn from this man and his life. Joe did not live his life as if it was a Purgatory. He was young - 51 years old, and he retired early so that he could live his dream. Joe climbed all over, welcomed friends to stay with him at the Bivy and made new friends all the time. There was always time for more climbing, another late night beer and more stories. We should all be so wise. The northeast has lost a true climbing legend and a friend to all. He will be greatly missed, even by those who didn't know him. RIP Joe.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Catskills Get Some Press

I crunched some numbers during the past few weeks. Throughout the past 7 seasons I've spent almost 200 days in the Catskills during winter seasons. It feels like I've spent about as much time yammering people's ear's off  about how great the climbing is. It seems people are starting to listen. Rock and Ice and Climbing are both running pieces about climbing in the Catskills this month. It's a funny coincidence that they both ended up running at the same time. The Climbing article, titled "Big Kat", is about the author's quest to climb Kaaterskill Falls.

The Rock & Ice piece was something Chris Beauchamp and I began to think about this past winter. Chris submitted the photos to Jeff Jackson near the end of last summer. He agreed to run an article if someone could put together a 2000-3000 word supplement for Chris's photos. I worked with Jeff Jackson on the article during the fall.

The result, in my opinion (and I'm biased here), is quite beautiful. Chris's pictures are nothing short of amazing, and capture the feeling of mixed climbing in the Catskills better than any photos I've seen before. His use of artificial lighting, something that's rare in climbing photography, makes each image unique.

The images have a depth to them that I really haven't seen in climbing imagery before. The image of Lucho Romero on Straight to Hell captures the feeling and the beauty of Catskill climbing in the cloves better than any other image.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Newfoundland Trip Report at Far North

Michael Wejchert put together an awesome trip report about our little Newfoundland adventure last month. It can be found at his blog Far North. Expect big things from this youngster.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The West Coast...

I'm not talking about California. I'm referring to the western coast of Newfoundland. I recently returned home from a 9-day trip there and this second visit confirmed a few thoughts from my first trip there in 2008. First, Newfoundland is a pain in the ass to get to. Second, it may be the best ice climbing venue in North America and it's undoubtedly a world class spot.

I guess my first thought explains why barely any climbers go there. Our trip to and from Newfoundland was full of strange weather delays that left us feeling pretting antsy about the whole affair. Nonetheless, the trip was spectacular and successful.

It's hard to make such a superlative comment as "the best ice climbing venue in North America", but the area surrounding Corner Brook and Gros Morne National Park is so heavily laden with ice that it's hard not to think this way. There are roadside crags and multipitch lines, several backcountry amphitheaters like Huntington's Ravine scattered throughout the region, wooded backcountry crags with lines of all difficulties, untold multipitch oceanside climbs and several fjords with challenging access that hold a lot of 300+ meter tall ice routes.  All of this is packed into a region the size of the White Mountains or the Adirondacks.

Gros Morne National Park

The best part is that there's no guidebook, and no plans for a guidebook anytime soon. A trip there is a trip full of "unknowns". Trips like this usually end up feeling wildly successful or utterly depressing, depending on one's outlook and the number of times you get shutdown looking for climbs you think exist. If you're looking to turn your brain off and use a guidebook, look elsewhere. If you're looking for an adventure that you'll cherish forever, by all means go, and make your trip a long one. There's a lot to do there.

I'm going to let Michael Wejchert, whom Alden took to calling "Junior", tell the story of our trip this time. At 25, Michael is approximately half Alden's age. He's one of a small cadre of young winter climbers living in the Northeastern U.S. He writes well and is motivated, so it's his turn to give us a trip report. When he posts it, it will most likely get posted at his blog Far North.

Here are some of my best photos from the trip. All of these were taken with a Panasonic Lumix ZS-5 using the Intelligent Auto mode. I use a really lightweight free photo editing program called Photoscape for some minimal post-image processing. Here's the link to the album