Wednesday, May 30, 2012


If you're a rock climber Yosemite Valley needs no introduction. There's not a lot I can say about the place that hasn't already been said by others. Each trip I've taken there has been spectacular and different. In a way, it's possible to track one's progress as a climber by the routes they climb during their trips to the valley. For me, early trips involved cragging and shorter multipitch routes. I gained knowledge of the rock, the formations, and the routes I wanted to climb on later trips. Later trips have involved day ascents of bigger features and a few multi-day big walls.

My last trip there, six years ago, was an amazing five week odyssey with my very close friend Lawrence Haas. We climbed routes on many of the major formations, including the Salathe Wall on El Capitan, the West Face of Leaning Tower, Steck-Salathe on the Sentinel, North Buttress of Middle Cathedral, South Face of Washington Column, and did many days of cragging. It's hard to beat a trip like this – there's plenty of time to get used to the variable friction of valley granite and gain the burly strength requisite for many of the sustained cruxes.

Six years is a long time, and I was due for another pilgrimage to the Valley. Last winter, another one of my long-time climbing partners, Erik Eisele, approached me about going to the Valley in May. I said yes before contemplating dates, asking my employer for time off or seeing if my partner minded keeping an eye on our dog by herself. I guess this was irresponsible of me, but who wants to pass up a trip to Yosemite with a great climbing partner?

Erik and I planned a short trip - ten days with travel time. When you figure in travel, scouting objectives, and planning this doesn't leave too much time for climbing and resting or any room for errors on big routes. One large low pressure system or any small setback can shut the entire trip down.

A climber jugs fixed lines to the base of the Stovelegs

As the trip approached we worked out the travel and gear arrangements via email and phone. Flying from Manchester, which is centrally located between us, ensured that we'd both make or miss flights together. Neither of us would be stranded while the other one waited for their partner to arrive.

All our travel plans managed to work out exactly as planned, and on May 18 we arrived in Yosemite around noon. By 3 p.m.we were on the low-angle initial pitches of the Nose (of El Capitan), struggling with strong winds and slabby, strenuous hauling. By 7 p.m. we were rappelling down fixed lines, away from our haul bag anchored at Sickle Ledge, to spend a quiet night on the ground.

Erik climbing low on the Nose

Pizza at Curry Village satiated our hunger. Malted hops and barley relieved any social anxieties I'd developed ages ago. Erik doesn't worry about those same social anxieties. He's a high-speed, sarcastic and edgy northeastern journalist who prefers evenings without alcohol and mornings without caffeine. We retired for an early night with friends in Y.O.S.A.R. camp, anticipating an early start the following morning.

The predawn hours came too soon for us and before long we were jugging fixed lines to Sickle Ledge, climbing stout valley crack pitches and struggling with a haul bag through fourth and easy fifth class terrain. The Stovelegs, which comprise only an eighth of the Nose route on El Cap, occupied much of our day. Several pendulums, poor belay stances, and low angle hauling with full haulbags make the Stovelegs one of the most challenging sections for big wall climbers.

It's here that Erik and I began to see the challenge of the Nose as a wall, and the merits of the Nose as a single day ascent. The Stovelegs, which are mostly 5.8-5.9 handcracks, are as good as crack pitches get. However, rope drag and a heavy haul line change one's perspective of stuffer 5.9 handcracks. During a single push ascent, without a haulbag, it's possible to traverse for an entire pitch, all the way to the base of the best Stoveleg crack. From there one can practically climb to Dolt Tower in two spectacular 5.9 pitches.

Beyond the Stovelegs lie Dolt Tower and El Cap Tower. The latter was our bivy site, and is easily the single best bivy spot on the Nose. As Erik and I munched on salami and cream cheese tortillas, our supper for the evening, a party blazed past us. They'd started the Nose at 6 p.m., and by 9 p.m. were next to us atop pitch 15. Salami and cheese could wait. I wanted to see what these boys were doing to climb so quickly.

Erik cleaning the spectacular Great Roof pitch

The leader of this other party was using a technique called "shortfixing", where he pulls up and fixes the rope where it becomes taught to his partner, only to begin climbing again immediately. The second can then ascend the rope below while the leader climbs above. The night before we'd learned about the key to climbing walls fast - the P.D.L. (Pakistani Death Loop). These guys gave us a great example of how a party can climb fast and take big risks using the PDL. The leader was soloing everything up to 5.9 with a 100' loop of slack piled on the ledge below. An hour later they were gone, through the King Swing an on toward the Great Roof. We found out from another party that they'd already climbed the Salathe Wall earlier in the day. Mutants.

Rarely have eight pitches consumed me the way day two of our wall ascent did. The climbing from El Cap Tower to Camp Five, past the Boot Flake, through the King Swing, around the Great Roof and past the spectacular Pancake Flake was engaging and challenging. Before long it was dark, yet we still hadn't reached a bivy site. I groped and slapped my way to the sloping ledges of Camp Five just after sunset and hauled until the bags popped over the left end of the ledge.

Honestly, I was hot and tired. I kept wondering why we'd bothered hauling this crappy PVC-fabric pig of a haulbag, full of food and water, up an amazingly beautiful sea of stone. Camp Five, according to Supertopo, was a good bivy for four, yet all I saw were sloping ledges that would uncomfortably sleep a single individual. Ahwahnee Ledge (flat and square, halfway up the Leaning Tower), Dinner Ledge (an enormous terrace you can actually unrope on one third of the way up Washington Column), and the Alcove beside El Cap Spire (a flat bivy for 4-6 on the Salathe) are "good bivies". Camp IV, V and VI on the Nose are crappy. sloped, or small ledges. No amount of fatigue was going to make them look better for me and that's saying a lot because I was exhausted.

Jugging the Changing Corners pitch

Day 3 dawned clear and, once again, came too quickly. I'd been sliding toward the edge of the small sloping ledge all night long, and felt like I'd only received and hour or two of solid sleep. With swollen fingers and sore bodies we packed our bag and began aid climbing once again. A pitch later we were at the Changing Corners, and four more pitches found us one ropelength below the top, stuck behind a party we'd been catching up with throughout our climb.

Erik sped through the final bolt ladder to the summit cone, and hauled the bags while I jugged. After a short repacking and snack session we were off toward the East Ledges descent route. The East Ledges are the fastest way off of El Capitan, and without a haulbag they're casual. You can practically run to the three fixed rappels and then run down the buffed dirt trail below. Toss a haulbag on your back and things look a bit different though. The pig threatens to tip you over, snags every tree branch overhead, and acts like a stiff during rappels. My quadriceps were screaming and I was soaked in sweat for the duration of the entire descent.

2 Days of Rest and the West Face

I've heard it said that the best athletes are like animals - completely at rest until they need to move. They've even found that animals, and many of the best sprinters, are able to relax between their strides during a sprint. This became a theme for our trip. If we weren't on the go we did absolutely nothing. This idea of doing big days, followed by pronounced rest sessions feels challenging for me. I'm a bit of a busybody, but the rest felt good and was much needed.

Two days later we left camp in the darkness, headed for the West Face of El Capitan. The West Face, an 18-pitch line up the far left side of El Cap, is reported to be the best route on the left side of the wall. It's also a moderate free climb which goes all free at 5.11c and can go as easily as 5.10c A1.

Erik on pitch one of the West Face of El Capitan

The hardest pitches on the West Face are low on the route, and before long we were way off the ground with all the crux 5.11 pitches below us. I'm not going to lie, the abnormally slick, featured yet crack-free stone found in certain places on this route terrified me. The entire mid-section, where the route traverses down for an entire pitch of the climb, left me wondering why I choose to climb long routes at all.

Two pitches later I was happy as a clam stuffing my mitts into classic fist and hand cracks. Go figure. After a snack, a pitch of 5.10d and the most sandbagged 5.7 pitch either of us had ever climbed we flopped onto a very sunny Thanksgiving Ledge. Thanksgiving Ledge bisects the entire west side of El Capitan, and generally marks the end of challenging climbing on all the routes it crosses. From here 600-800 feet of 4th-5th class simulclimbing leads almost straight to the summit of El Capitan.

One more lap on the East Ledges, thankfully without haulbags, and we'd be eating pizza in Curry Village once more. At the rappels we passed two parties with haulbags, and within minutes we were back on the road. I couldn't help but think that single push big-wall efforts, even if they take more than 24-hours, might be more efficient than hauling a giant pig up with you.

The following day rain and snow blanketed the valley. We had timed our final rest day perfectly. A visit to the Jailhouse, a spectacular sport climbing area in Sonora County, completed our trip and left us wanting more time for climbing.

It's been four days now since I've returned home. My normal daily routine has resumed and it feels almost like I never left.. A friend pointed out that it might be interesting to look at my trip in the context of "flow", a mental state that occurs during periods of intense focus. The more I look back at the experience, the more it feels foreign and out of body. It's almost as if the burning, singular focus necessary for climbing big objectives is so great that very little processing can take place during the activity.

One thing is for certain though. Climbing big walls in a day is doable, even for "mortal" climbers, and might be preferable to the classic wall style where one hauls a bag of camping gear, food and water with them. My next trip to the valley will most likely involve day ascents of wall routes like the Nose, Lurking Fear, and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why Climbers Need Stronger Technical Skills

Two weekends ago, while working with a group at Peterskill, I took a look around at the top of the cliff. More specifically, I was interested in the anchors people were building and using for toproping. Peterskill has become a popular spot for toproping and many recreational and guided groups enjoy the pretty wooded setting and classic Gunks climbing this spot offers.

Toprope anchors need to be strong. Strong anchors are built from unquestionably good components. Usually there are two or more components, and if the anchor is a gear anchor it's customary to use three or more pieces of gear. Two piece gear anchors can be acceptable but generally lack the strength of a three-piece anchor. Then, these strong components are attached to each other in a manner that allows the load to be shared among all components.

Anchors built for a group (more than a party of two that will each take one lap) also need to be durable. We call the repeated loading and unloading seen in a group toprope environment “cyclic loading”. This cyclic loading causes all the materials in our safety system to stretch. As the material, which is generally out of sight to the climbers on the ground, stretches and rubs over an edge repeatedly it can become abraded. In extreme examples anchor materials or climbing ropes have been almost entirely cut or abraded as they rub over edges during the course of a single climbing session. Using durable materials (static rope or 1” webbing are the standard) and wisely choosing anchor locations will prevent material wear.

It's nice to also have redundancy in our anchors. Multiple components are attached to a masterpoint isolated by a knot with multiple loops. Two carabiners are attached to the masterpoint, and the climbing rope runs through these carabiners. Hopefully this loop is over the edge so that the rope runs freely and with a minimal amount of friction caused by the edge at the top of the cliff.

Strong, durable and redundant anchors can also be neat and easy to inspect. Just because there are multiple components doesn't mean we can't quickly look over an anchor and say “this one looks good”. If you're incorporating all of these concepts into your anchor there's a good chance your anchor is safe for climbing.

If you can't quickly look at your climbing anchor and determine that your anchor contains all of the things I've laid out above it might be time to practice building good, solid climbing anchors.

On this particular day at Peterskill, the majority of the anchors I looked at were unsatisfactory. Two separate recreational groups were climbing in the area, and they built three anchors at the top of the cliff. A guide from our group helped one of the recreational groups rework one of their anchors. This anchor looked fine. The other two were “strong enough”. Strong enough and unquestionably strong are very different things in my mind. I save “strong enough” for alpine belays in the mountains, where I might consider the risk of a fall to be quite minimal. Toprope anchors need to be unquestionably strong and durable, and there's no doubt these anchors could have been better.

So, let's have a look at these anchors and determine what's good and bad about them.

Anchor #1

The Good

  • 3 components
  • 1 component is a solid tree (attached to rope and out of sight in image)

 The Bad - The numbers on the image above correspond to the numbered list below.

  1. The purple cam is in a shallow flared placement and is not tightly cammed. A quick visual inspection of fracture lines and a tap on the block below the cam reveals that this block is detached.
    Given the equalization configuration this poor piece receives about 50% of the load.

  2. A dyneema-nylon girth hitch is not ideal. This is actually a strop bend, but is similar to a girth hitch. Inline load tests have demonstrated that the thinner dyneema will sever the nylon at relatively low loads. A single cordalette or static rope would be better than the chain of different materials used in this anchor

  3. The masterpoint is not redundant. Adding an additional sling and an additional carabiner at the masterpoint would create redundancy. Considering you can't see this anchor from below and that it rubs over the edge this setup would have me feeling edgy.

  4. This anchor is a mess. It will be hard to evaluate it for wear/integrity throughout the day.
The Bottom Line for Anchor #1:

This anchor makes me nervous. Fully half the load rests on one bad piece of gear placed in a loose block. Thankfully, rock quality in the Gunks is very good. The lack of redundancy in an anchor that's going to be loaded over an edge all day long is a serious issue here too. Additionally, the anchor is a messy conglomeration of materials that makes evaluation impossible.

Were I to build an anchor here I would probably choose cracks further away from the edge, incorporate the tree and use 9-11mm static rope to tie everything together.

Anchor #2

The Good

This anchor is strong. Both bolts, which are new, stainless and properly placed are about 25 kN strong.

The Bad

The lack of slings extending this anchor are going to increase the load on the bolts and place undue wear on the rope. Climbing ropes run smoothly, and kink-free, when they run in a planar motion perpendicular to the plane of the carabiner. When we use slings to bring the attachment points on this anchor together the rope is going to run smoothly.

In this example the rope runs through each anchor carabiner at an extreme angle. This can cause severe kinking, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find this group was dealing with a messy rope on the ground by the end of the day.

The Bottom Line for Anchor #2:

This anchor is plenty strong but needs slings or a cordalette so that the two attachment carabiners are side by side. This setup, while strong enough, demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about how we build climbing anchors outdoors.


When the majority of anchors I view in any given location are unsatisfactory I worry about climber safety. It's common for groups to "share" ropes which exposes even more people to these less than satisfactory anchors.

As I stated in my earlier "Saturday Night Live" post I think the number of anchor/gear failure accidents are going to increase over the coming seasons. The best way to combat this is by learning how to build good anchors.

If you recognize these anchors as your own contact me. I'll be glad to give you a free lesson on gear placement and good anchor building techniques.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Saturday Night Live

People have a tendency to make very matter-of-fact statements about things that aren't entirely true. It's easy to act like an expert, making "true" statements", in front of a crowd and much harder to admit in front of that same crowd when you don't know something. My partner has helped me with this. She's more inclined to respect me for saying "I think it might be this, but I'm really not certain" than for bullsh*tting her and acting like I know what I'm talking about.

We can't all be experts at everything. That's fine. Actually, it's better than fine. I'd rather be an expert in one or two things than dabble in lots of things. Dabbling in climbing is tough. Climbing in any shape or form is serious business. You could die climbing.

Being a safe climber is all about making good decisions. If you're going to make good decisions you need to have a base of experiences that help influence you to make those good decisions. Experience doesn't magically appear overnight. You gain it by doing, from other's teachings (hopefully they're knowledgable and honest about their own base of experience), by reading, and by applying the things you've read and been shown.

The first step in this process is admitting that there are things you don't know and aren't good at yet. Then, through learning and practice it's usually possible to get reasonably good at most things. As climbers we need to be reasonably good at doing things that keep us safe.

This season in the Gunks there's been one really staggering accident that resulted in a sad and unnecessary fatality and a slew of others that have resulted in severe head or body trauma. If you listen from the cliff it's possible to hear sirens coming up the hill and around the hairpin turn nearly every weekend. Many of those sirens stop at the carriage road below the cliffs.

There will always be objective hazards while climbing. In the mountains objective hazards can pose a real threat to one's wellbeing. At a cliff like the Trapps we see very few objective hazards and many subjective risks. People unknowingly expose themselves to unnecessary subjective risks and cause entirely preventable accidents.

Rock climbing is changing. I've been watching it happen. At times, as a guide I feel I've even contributed to those changes. As a "sport" rock climbing has blossomed in popularity. People no longer travel in pairs, as partners, to a crag to climb for the day. They travel in throngs, coming straight from climbing gyms to the outdoors. They no longer mentor with one individual for several seasons, learning the many subtleties of a dangerous yet rewarding craft like climbing.They storm the crags, new gear and group in tow and recreate the gym outside. The measured approach, where one goes slowly and carefully applies their skills, is rapidly disappearing.

The trouble is, one person from a gym who "knows" how to lead or build anchors can expose an entire group of new climbers to the sport. All the while, that person in the "know" and the rest of these green climbers never realize they're climbing on bogus anchor setups that aren't ideal.

My friend and fellow climbing guide, Joe Vitti, has been thinking a lot about the climbing accidents that have occurred in the Gunks over the past several seasons. The recent anchor failure and subsequent fatality, which seems to have been preventable, has shaken him. It should bother all of us.

After looking at the accidents he's determined (I agree with his determination) that accidents are not occurring as a result of total beginner climbers being complete idiots. They're occurring among intermediate/experienced climbers who are capable of climbing and manage to navigate the cliffs, but are incapable of seeing the bigger, very dangerous picture in which they operate.

Rappelling or lowering off the end of the rope is easily preventable. It's possible to make simple and redundant anchors, ones that won't fail, aren't confusing and can easily be determined to be safe. Leaders can be better at self-assessing what climbs they should decide to lead, thus preventing upside down, skull fracturing falls. It's possible to place gear that doesn't zipper out below when you take a lead fall.

These accidents scare the crap out of me. However, I'm not an optimist. I'm a pragmatist and my sensibility tells me that this isn't the end of more accidents - it's the beginning. As climbing gyms become more popular and more people want to try outdoor climbing the "experience" denominator decreases. There's more people out there that know less, and I'm not sure they realize that one small mistake is all it takes to get seriously injured or killed.

The first step to preventing these accidents is letting go of our egos. We need to admit what we know and what we don't know. If I screw up my marinara recipe it's not a big deal. If I screw up my climbing anchor someone could die. If you don't really feel like you know what you're doing, ask for help. Nobody will criticize you for that. As a guide and instructor I applaud people for that. Many other guides do too.

Starting this season some of the local Gunks guides are going to be offering free, informal clinics on Saturday nights. These clinics are geared towards climbers who want to improve their anchoring, belaying and ropework skills. Joe Vitti is working out the fine details still. As details and a schedule become available I'll post them on this site. Joe will do the same on and

In the meantime, be nice, but say something if you feel like the anchor or belay setup you see someone using looks whacky. It doesn't have to be an insult and it could be phrased as more of a question. Find out why they're doing what they're doing and help them get on the right track.

Here's the link to the flyer that will be posted around the Gunks -Free clinic-1. Spread the word.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Breaking Through

Gaining fitness is like walking an uneven ridge line. One side feels safe but staying away from the edge isn't that exciting. The other side is precipitous and dangerous, but the rewards for staying near the edge are immense. The views and sensations one has at the edge make everything worthwhile.

Just over eight weeks ago I began training again. I wrote about my experiences then in a post called "Fitness is Hard to Find". Since then I've been running and climbing every week. Some weeks have felt hard. Prior to a climbing trip to the Red River Gorge, and during the trip, I didn't run for a full 11-12 days. The rest was much needed and hard-earned.

Since returning from the Red I've built climbing endurance, and developed much needed callouses on my hands while increasing my aerobic fitness significantly. 3+ hours of running plus 3 climbing sessions a week have knocked me down and built me back up again.This week I'll have run 5 sessions plus put in three good climbing sessions - two in the gym and a day outdoors. Tack a couple days of guiding on top and the week feels pretty full.

My partner came home from a pickup soccer game the other day and said "running is hard" and my reply was "yes, running is hard". However, if you can't swallow the idea that training is going to be devastatingly hard you might want to reconsider your goals.

It occurred to me after this discussion with my partner the other evening that I should write a little bit about training and pain. I'm not talking about joint pain or injury. That kind of pain is a sure sign that you should stop doing whatever you're doing and rest. I'm talking about the temporary pain associated with training. Training is hard.

As a youth I was able to learn about enduring this type of pain, and how it can make you tougher. My high school track coach used to say you gain "mental toughness through physical pain" and he wasn't kidding. We'd run each other into the ground. As a high school runner I ran races of all different distances, and some of them were so hard you would practically go blind by the end of the race. Run a 400-meter race the right way and extreme oxygen debt causes you're vision to close down to blackness by the end. An 800 is almost as bad, and longer. The longer distances are more measured but you're left thinking "I have how many laps left? Can I sustain this?" I feel fortunate to have this type of pain as a benchmark for all my future training. There's no question, I'll never run as fast as I did in high school and college, but I can still train hard, know what to expect and anticipate how I'm going to feel.

Breaking through on the other side of hard training is what it's all about though. Once you're fit there are days where you just go; it's like there's a rope pulling you effortlessly along. You're lungs feel like they've deepened, and the effort needed to approach climbs becomes less. Even the climbing starts to feel easier.

I'm headed to Yosemite in less than a week and I'm thinking "devastatingly hard" is okay as long as I can climb the things I want to when I'm there. Remember to add rest to the equation if you're feeling tired, but be prepared because training isn't supposed to be easy.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Alpine Kit Essentials

It took me several years to slim my summer alpine climbing kit down to a reasonable size. In a way, I suppose the winnowing away of excess paralleled my experience as a climber. As I learned more and gained confidence I needed less. Don't cut your spoon or drill holes in your toothbrush to save weight just yet.

The "less is more" concept applies better to alpine climbing than any other climbing discipline. It still applies while rock climbing and skiing though, and I always have a chuckle when I see items strapped outside of people's already overstuffed cragging packs. You have to love (perhaps with an eye-roll) seeing people pull hammocks, crazy creek chairs and the like out of their bags at the cliff.

It seems like most of the summer alpine trips I do are from two to four days in length and involve either semi-technical or technical climbing. Certain trips involve making a base camp and then approaching the objective from the base camp, others involve full carryovers with your entire kit. Either way, the bulk and weight of the items you pack will affect the size of your alpine kit.

Bulk is public enemy #1. On cutting edge alpine routes, both bulk and weight are serious issues to contend with. Most of us aren't climbing cutting edge routes though, so we can start by reducing the bulk of our kit. As an example, it's easier to pack an entire stick of pepperoni than a large bag of potato chips. They both have a similar amount of calories. The pepperoni might even be heavier, but it's going to fit in your pack more easily.

By reducing bulk you'll also reduce the weight of your kit. Remember, a well-packed bag, even if it's heavy, is going to carry better than some frumpy towering monstrosity that catches every single branch on the approach. Items strapped outside are going to snag, fall off and get wet too.

For most trips, you should be able to pack everything into a bag that's 40-liters or smaller. Through careful packing, and forceful stuffing (no empty space inside) everything should fit. I'm going to list my alpine kit essentials below. Obviously, an objective that requires more gear (challenging rock routes) might require a bigger pack for the approach and a smaller pack on route. For the most part though, the gear below works very well.

Pack, Sleeping System, Stove, Personal Items

  • Cold Cold World Ozone with longer torso and floating lid. 35-40 liters in size. This simple pack has a bivy pad, removable lid and external tool attachments. No frills, no extra fabric or seams, and total functionality.The waist belt rides on my hips instead of above my harness line along my lower back.
  • Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32 - Only a little bigger than a one-liter water bottle and very warm. This well constructed sleeping bag is a great way to save space in your pack. Down loses its loft easily, but you're not going to freeze in most conditions, even with a damp bag.
  • Big Agnes Air Core -  Smaller than a one-liter water bottle. After a year of using this pad (about 60-70 nights last year) it's finally sprung a small leak. Of all the lightweight pads, this one is the cheapest. It's hard to justify the price of a NeoAir when it could puncture at any moment. The Air Core pad is comfortable too - I sleep better on it than on a Ridgerest or Thermarest.
  • Black Diamond Firstlight - Small, lightweight and weather resistant. If you're going out for a few days this tent will likely do the trick. You're going to get we if it really rains, but then again you're probably going home if it's raining anyways. Split between two people this is comparable to two bivy sacks and much more comfortable.
  • Jetboil - I've had good luck with the Jetboil, and use a homemade hose clamp-style hanging kit carefully inside a well-ventilated tent. One small fuel canister is generally adequate for one person for several days, and fits inside the stove. For more than one person I'll bring the 220 gram canister. I like the Jetboil and MSR fuel. Snowpeak and Primus canisters don't seem to work as well. The MSR Reactor is better in cold weather, and both the Reactor and the Jetboil are going to be more efficient than a little Snowpeak stove or MSR Pocket Rocket.
  • Platypus with top cut off - If you take an old Platypus water container and trim the top off you'll have a 1.5-2 liter folding pack bowl that you can eat and drink out of and takes up very little space. Rehydrate dry soups in it by folding and clipping it closed using a carabiner. Don't forget a long-handled spoon.
  • MSR Dromedary Bag - A 4-liter dromedary bag allows you to make less trips to your water source and carry more water just in case you camp away from water sources. When it's empty it takes up very little space. The small threaded caps on the dromedary wear out and leak, so you'll want to drink out of the tiny flip-open spout or the big opening. Bring a one-liter bottle too just in case the drom bursts or for use with hot liquids, and as a pee bottle if you need one (yes, I'll occasionally use my water bottle as a pee bottle).
  • Black Diamond Z-pole - One pole is nice to have for approaches and for crossing gentle snow slopes. BD's new Z poles are awesome - light, packable and relatively sturdy. It will fit inside my pack when I'm not using it.
  • Black Diamond Couloir Harness - Obviously, if you're doing a technical route with a technical descent you'll need a beefier harness. For most routes though, a lightweight mountaineering harness is adequate and no larger than a tennis ball.
  • 40-meter 9 mm single rope (and 5mm pull cord) (both not pictured)- You can save some weight and still make a few long rappels using a 40-meter rope and a 40-meter 5mm pull cord. Most alpine rock and ice features are shorter than 40-meters, meaning a longer rope isn't always necessary. Be careful though, if you're going to bring a short rope you need to know you can make things work.
  • Black Diamond Venom, 50 cm - I like the Venom, and use the shortest length possible. It fits inside my bag if there's space, and works reasonably well for most things. The old-style sliding Grivel pinky rest can be retrofitted if you countersink a screw at the bottom of the tool.
  • Black Diamond Sabretooth/Serac Crampon - I've used lighter crampons than these, but find that the smaller bottom points associated with lightweight crampons don't bite into mushy snow the way a full-size crampon does. Be careful fitting newmatic style crampons to softer mountain boots like the Trango S or Scarpa Charmoz. There's the tendency for the crampons to pop off during harder frontpointing with soft boots.
  • Android or Iphone - I'm a complete Android geek. If a route requires very little real navigation I might opt to leave my GPS at home, knowing that my phone has Kindle, music, camera, and backcountry navigation software installed. I bring 3 extra batteries and keep it off or in airplane mode most of the time.
  • Old Harness Bags - I keep food and all other smaller items in old harness bags, many of which have mesh so you can see items inside the bag. The Sea-To-Summit roll top waterproof bags are useful too.
  • Sunblock, TP, etc - Don't bring a full tube or roll of anything. I put my sunblock in a small, 1-2-ounce tube or nalgene container. I use a folding toothbrush and keep a travel size toothpaste tube on hand. I bring toilet paper and Wet Ones too, but make sure not to bring large amounts of these items.

A 5mm Evazote sleeping pad can make the Air Core pad a good
 option on snow


Like gear, clothing you choose for any trip is going to depend on the forecast and weather conditions for that location. Not surprisingly, the things I wear on a daily basis while guiding rock, also become integral garments in my 3-season alpine kit.

  • Patagonia Simple Guide Pant - I'm 6'1", 190, 32 waist, and I wear a medium, if that helps others when buying these pants. The simplest, most durable soft shell pants I've found, the Simple Guide pant is my go-to pant for everything from rock routes to mixed climbing and skiing.
  • Icebreaker 150 weight T-shirt - lightweight and it doesn't stink. Heavier wool layers seem to stay wet a long time, but this thin layer works well.
  • Patagonia Capilene Boxers - Cold, wet, cotton underwear might not stink but it can make you cold.
  • Outdoor Research Radiant Hybrid Hoody - Any slim fitting hoody (like the R1 also) is one of the most useful garments I own.
  • Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody - A nice soft shell layering piece. Great for everything but heavy rain.
  • Wild Things EP Jacket - Not sure they make this anymore, Patagonia's Nano Puff is similar. Mid-weight hooded synthetic insulation is good for keeping you warm when it's wet.
  • Outdoor Research Paladin Jacket or Axiom Jacket - A full-weather hard shell will keep you dry. Both of these work well and are simple.
  • Outdoor Research Paladin Pant - A hard shell pant that won't totally shred when you nick it with your crampons.
  • Buff - sun and wind protection for your head and neck.


Again, low bulk food is good. Breakfast is usually Starbucks Via, granola with powdered milk (mixed ahead of time), or Pop Tarts (I know, healthy!) plus some cheese. For lunch/snacking I like tortillas (they're flat to pack easily) with peanut butter (the sugary kind, which I squeeze into a heavy duty ziplock), foil packets of tuna with mayonnaise, mustard and relish packets, Gu, dark chocolate (a bar a day, dark chocolate has a higher melting point), gummy bears, blocks of parmesan cheese (less oily than warm cheddar), and hard salami. Dinner might be a freeze dried meal or instant soup plus a second course of cheese with instant mashed potatoes. Nearly all of your food for 2-3 days should fit into one harness-size sack (like the ones that come with BD or Petzl harnesses). Don't go into the supermarket hungry and you'll be better off. Over the course of two to four days you're not going to starve if you're a bit short on food.

Additions? Subtractions? Comment below if you like.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Big Changes

I'm in my eighth year of professional guiding. Up until now I've always worked as an employee for a guide service. However, there seems to come a time in every guide service employee's life when they feel like they know the "ins" and "outs" of the industry well enough to work on their own. I've reached that place this month, and looking back I can't help but think that my departure to "independent-guide" status was long overdue.

Over the coming weeks and months Bigfoot Mountain Guides will begin to have more information about my own instructional and guiding offerings. It might not become a guide service site though. I'm excited about maintaining Bigfoot as a blog and information resource for climbers on the internet. It's hard to find good information when there's so much crap out there.

Hopefully this will give me more time to develop a side project of mine, too. After beginning work on it last fall, it's fallen by the wayside, but hopefully not headed towards that eternal unfinished website graveyard.

If you're looking for an experienced, brainy guide on the east coast of the United States anytime soon, well I just might be your guy.