Saturday, November 16, 2013

Old Friends and Celebrations

My partner is quick to point out that the act of climbing is a celebration. I hadn't thought of it that way, but I don't disagree. As I write this, according to World Bank, nearly 20% of the world's population is without good access to electricity and 35% is without adequate sanitation. So, for the rest of us that can find the time to sleep in a heated space, take hot showers, eat the things we like, and peruse our favorite websites, yes, the act of climbing is truly a celebration of a wonderful existence.

Over the years, I've climbed the Black Dike on Cannon Cliff many times. At first, when I was newer to climbing, it felt challenging. On the second pitch crux, the hooks didn't seem secure and the climbing felt boxy and awkward. As an objective, it never felt impossible but it was always challenging. Protection also felt like a real issue, and the fall potential felt huge.

By now I've climbed the dike many times. It seems like I only climb it during the early season, as a way to usher in the new ice season. I climbed it again this season -  last week, during a short cold snap. I lost my hands to the cold while wallowing through deep snow on the first pitch. After that it felt like pure celebration, and I was reminded why I love winter climbing so much. Positive hooks abound on the second pitch and pitch 3 has secure and mellow ice climbing.

My partners for the day were Dustin Portzline and Pete Guyre, two local Gunks guides that are eager to learn more about winter climbing. For them it was a first, and an introduction to Northern New England climbing - snowy weather and strong winds routinely make conditions more challenging than they might be if the weather was perfect.

Pete and Dustin led, and they did a great job. I was able to follow pitches and celebrate life, movement and friendship. Thanks Pete and Dustin for an awesome day! Here are a few photos from the day:

Dustin Portzline at the crux.

Matt Ritter and Erik Thatcher on the
 Cannonade buttress

Pete leads. It was a cold day for early

Friday, November 8, 2013

Photos From August 2013 in the North Cascades

I never posted a trip report from my trips in the North Cascades this summer. After a month of being away from home I guess this is something I neglected in favor of more pressing tasks close to home.

Fischer Chimneys, Mt. Shuksan, Aug 4-5

This is an awesome and classic route. A fast party could do the route in a really long day. There is an amazing campsite on a rock rib between the Upper Curtis Glacier and the White Salmon Glacier. This spectacular camp makes it worth carrying your camping kit to the top of the chimneys. We climbed the NE ridge of the summit pyramid which adds some nice rock climbing and allows you to tour the entire upper mountain, instead of doing an out-and-back summit trip.

Prime Rib of Goat, Beckey Route on Liberty Bell, and Sulphide Glacier, Aug 12-15

Mazama has great weather and really good access to climbing. Over the past few seasons I've begun spending more time there. People love the pleasant weather, the quaint high desert towns and the amazing variety of alpine and rock objectives within an hour's drive of Mazama. We climbed Prime Rib of Goat on The Goat Wall, a 1000' tall crag just outside Mazama first. We also climbed the Beckey Route, on the Liberty Bell, and attempted the Sulphide Glacier on Mt. Shuksan. There we were thwarted by wet weather.

Thanks to North Cascades Mountain Guides for allowing me to guest guide again there this summer, and to Bryan, Mark and Paul for making the trip happen!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Revisiting and Evaluating Goals - Success or Failure May Be All About Perspective

Earlier this year I set a few goals for myself. Here's the post where I discussed the four goals I wanted to accomplish. I hoped to cut a few pounds, perform well in a trail race, run a fast mile on the track, and truly crack 5.12 on lead. With two months left in this calendar year it seems like a good time to revisit my original goals and begin evaluating whether or not I was successful.

During most normal winters I weigh about 190lbs. This spring I decided to see if I could cut back to 175lbs. I figured this would help with my running. It would also allow my partner to more easily catch my lead falls. She's about 115-120lbs and the large weight difference is hard for her to manage if I take more than a short lead fall. Initially, losing weight was not easy. During the first few days my body went through a few physical adjustments that left me feeling really hungry. I was careful about what I ate and drank and I continued to train hard for running. I didn't climb at all for most of the summer. At first I didn't really lose any weight. By the middle of the summer though, I was 176lbs each morning. When I returned from the Bugaboos in early September I was still 176. Right now I'm about 182.

I finished 11th in the Pfalz Point Trail Challenge. I was hoping for a top 5 (or top 10 finish) so I was a bit disappointed with my results. Additionally, my overall time (about 7:00/mile) was a bit slower than I'd hoped.  Looking back at the training cycle I realized a few things I should have done differently. Taking the month of August off from training to guide in the Cascades and climb in the Bugaboos was really disruptive to my training schedule. It broke things up so much, and when I resumed my speedwork workouts I was left with pretty severe tightness in my upper hamstrings.

Since September 22nd, the day of the Pfalz Point race, I've run maybe ten times. My body has recovered, and the occasional run feels much better than running 5 days each week. I no longer have as much chronic pain and tightness in the upper hamstring/piriformis and my legs muscles aren't excessively tight nor tired. I've taken advantage of the break from endurance exercise to climb more frequently. I weigh less than I did during previous rock seasons. This, in conjunction with a focus on very deliberate footwork, has helped me to climb a few more challenging climbs. Over the past two weeks, I've successfully climbed 5 routes in the 5.12a or 5.12b range.

How about a 5:00 mile attempt? It hasn't happened yet, and I don't think it will happen this year. I've been dealing with hamstring tendinitis for months now, and speedwork is undoubtedly the culprit. No goal is worth it if it means I create even greater chronic pain for my body.

Looking back, I see that setting arbitrary numerical goals for myself was both helpful and harmful. I never reached 175 lbs., but I did lose 14 pounds for the running season. Finishing 11th in the Pfalz Point Challenge, with a slower than anticipated time was a bit of a letdown. However, it's the first long trail race I've ever run, I took a month off from training only one month before the race, and had an overly long training cycle. I think by most measures, finishing strong and avoiding injury during 6 months of training should also be counted as a success. I'm climbing harder than I ever have before, and I'm happy about this too. Next rock season I'll have a whole new, more challenging set of projects.

Mostly though, I've realized that success comes not from achieving my goals, but from pursuing them. I love movement. Each trail run, no matter how straightforward or rugged, was an excuse to spend time in the woods, living in the moment and focused on the terrain directly in front of my feet. I don't actually care that much about the grades of climbs either; I love climbing for the exactness of the movement, the singular focus, the total body coordination, the problem solving requirements, and because it brings me closer to the people with whom I've chosen to spend my precious free time. These things and others like them, not random arbitrary numbers, are the reasons we set goals for ourselves.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

How to Manage Human Waste at Crowded Cliffs

My dog ate human feces at Farley last Saturday. Twice. My friend Rick's dog ate some too. One might argue that the easiest solution to this problem is to leave one's dog at home. This could be a good way to prevent our dogs from eating human feces, but it doesn't address the real issue. As our crags become more crowded there are more individuals who don't dispose of their human waste responsibly (lame!).

The first mound of feces the dogs ate last Saturday was five feet away from the base of the cliff. It wasn't buried, and the toilet paper was left on top of the stinky pile. The second was left, unburied, in the middle of the approach trail.

Two winters ago a climbing partner of mine set his pack in a pile of crap at the base of an ice route in Chapel Pond Canyon in the Adirondacks. A few seasons before that I got shit on my knee while climbing an ice route in the Catskills. Somebody took a dump in the drainage above the route and it washed down the climb during a mid-winter thaw. For the rest of the day, every time I stepped up on my left leg I smelled someone else's dookie. Nice.

Disposing of human waste improperly is irresponsible. There's a reason we have septic and sewer systems where we live and work - feces transmit disease and pollute the water supply. Additionally, sitting down in or setting your pack on top of a stinky pile of poo can absolutely ruin a perfectly good day of climbing.

How do we manage our human waste at busy crags? Here's a short list of things we can do to make sure other people don't have a crappy day at the crag:

  1. Adjust your routine. If you're the type of person who always has to go just before climbing, try going to the bathroom ahead of time. Many crags have a toilet at the trailhead.
  2. Walk back to the toilet. How hard is it to walk ten minutes? When is a toilet too far away? I'll gladly walk (or run) 5-10 minutes if it means I can use the toilet in the Trapps or at Farley. On a busy day it's pretty hard to find a private spot to go anyways.
  3. Discuss Leave No Trace ethics with your group. I don't go through all the LNT principles with every group of climbers I'm out with, but I do make sure that people are using common sense and know where to go to the bathroom at the crag.
  4. Role model responsible human waste disposal in front of new climbers. Make sure everyone knows what to do when #2 happens. The pile of crap we found five feet away from the cliff was clearly not left by an experienced climber. No climber in their right mind would leave a steamy dookie at the base of a popular climbing area. However, people new to climbing, or unfamiliar with LNT (Leave No Trace) principles, just want a private place to go and don't think about where climbs start.
  5. Carry a shit kit. I always carry a kit with me. My kit includes toilet paper, Wet Ones, plastic bags, and a Wag Bag or Restop. This way, if I have to go, I can manage it effectively.
    My kit includes WAG bags, TP, Wet Ones, and plastic bags
  6. If you're at a remote, seldom visited crag bury your feces well. If you're going to leave your feces, make sure you dig a sufficiently deep hole (a nut tool can be used as a pick to loosen firm soil), go in the hole and then cover it well. Don't be lazy. Pack out your T.P. (using plastic bags from your kit).
  7. If you're at a busy crag with no toilet nearby, use a WAG bag or Restop to pack out your feces.  That nice dark recess, cave or corner is probably the start to an awesome V10 or 5.12. Don't go there. It's true, poo stinks. If it's yours, it's your responsibility. Nobody likes to carry their waste out, but it's the best solution. WAG bags, which come with toilet paper and an antisceptic wipe, are $3 each and work really well. They still stink a bit, but it's nice to know your not leaving anything behind. I'll gladly give mine away to anyone at the crag if they actually need to use it (if there's no toilet reasonably close by)
Share this post with your friends. The more people read this and choose to act responsibly the cleaner our crags will be.  

Friday, October 11, 2013

On Borrowed Time at Moss Cliff

Life has a funny way of creeping up on you. All through my twenties I traveled a lot. I moved to a new place every year or so, making sure to explore climbing opportunities in each spot. My thirties rolled in and I became a bit more serious about work. I participated in more professional development and cultivated a few professional relationships as a guide that provided cool opportunities.

Now, nearing 35, I'm no longer willing to accept the uncertainties that a career of guiding provides. There are a few "knowns" and many "unknowns" about this particular career path. I'm going to try and outline many of these details in a future post, so that younger guides, or people interested in the trade can have a pragmatic perspective when they enter the world of "professional" guiding.

Suffice to say, I no longer want a life with so many unknowns. I want health insurance, and some extra savings to pay for life's medical "unknowns." A visit with a dentist would be nice too. Retirement savings, I want that too. Hell, I'd like to be able to give more of my earnings to people and organizations who need it more than me.

All of those things can be pretty hard to come by when you work in the guiding industry. Basically you either travel a lot as an independent guide (and hope your relationships at home remain strong) or you try to own your own business and make money off of other guides that work for you. Either way it's a struggle to make ends meet. I'm not really into either of those things, so it's time to look elsewhere for work.

At the moment I'm exploring other career options. Obviously, I'll continue to guide - I am a climbing guide and have been one for the last ten years. As time passes I'll likely be more selective about the guiding and instruction I choose to take on.

While feelings of insecurity have partly spurred this decision, climbing has helped me make the choice also. The days, weekends, and trips I've been able to sneak in with my favorite climbing partners have illuminated my unwavering love for climbing. These intense personal experiences continue to shape and direct my life. Climbing has been the most positive shaping force in my adult life, and I don't want my struggle making ends meet (as a guide it has been constant) to soil my love for climbing.

This week I had one of those days that helped remind me why I love climbing. After 17 years as a climber I finally visited Moss Cliff with a friend Donald, from Ohio who was in the area for a wedding. We enjoyed one of the finest days of Fall climbing I can remember. Moss Cliff, for those who haven't visited, has some of the most beautiful crack climbing in the Adirondacks. The rock there is very high quality, and seems better than the anorthosite at many other High Peaks Crags.

The day was full of stuffer cracks, rebel yells, smiles, and a few muscle cramps by the end of the day. This is what it's all about. Here are a few photos from the day:

The Google+ album can be viewed here:

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Peterskill Rappelling Photo

A few weekends ago I snapped this photo with my phone. Kind of a cool perspective of the Terror Dome at Peterskill, with some strange clouds in the background.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What Does It Take To Become A Competent Trad Leader?

This year, more than ever before, I've been working with lots of climbers that want to be self-sufficient. They have learned to climb indoors and want the ability to climb outdoors on their own. The climbers I've trained,
both in the Gunks and in western Massachusetts, have varied from nearly new gym climbers wanting to learn how to toprope outside to experienced outdoor climbers looking to become solid traditional leaders. I've cautiously given some folks the go-ahead to climb on their own, while others I would confidently swing leads with at most crags. I often wonder how this will affect our business as guides, as many of these climbers will not become regular guests. Mostly, however, I'm glad that people want to learn how to do things in the safest possible manner.

Recently, I've had the big realization that climbing, as many long-time climbers know it, is really changing. I think much of this has to do with the way many new climbers are introduced to climbing (in climbing gyms) and with how movement skills can quickly surpass one's ability to make good decisions while outdoor climbing (climbing is now viewed as a "sport"). How to manage these changes is the topic for another discussion (coming soon).

Working with so many new climbers who are eager to learn has helped shape my thoughts about how much experience one should have before they begin leading. So, what should one do in preparation for becoming a traditional leader? Below are a few things you can do to make the transition from gym climbing or toproping to leading trad routes as smooth and safe as possible.

What should I do to start becoming a traditional leader?

You should probably start by toproping at traditionally protected toprope crags (you build your own natural and gear anchors to toprope with) before you lead. This season I've had one or two individuals interested in trad leading who've never climbed outside before. This is highly unrealistic and I generally try to steer the objectives for the day(s) towards toproping in situations like this. You need to learn about a lot - things like foot placement, different climbing materials and their respective behavioral properties, rock quality and route finding. Getting a feel for different crags will help you understand risk management, what the objective and subjective hazards are at each place and how to operate safely in a variety of environments. Climbing different types of rock will help you improve your movement skills.

Climb outdoors a lot before starting to lead

Understanding gear placements, as a result of following
other leaders, is an important step toward becoming
a leader
How many days should one climb before considering leading? This is a hard question to answer. It would be challenging, and potentially hypocritical of me to give a concrete figure. Many folks I know began leading almost right away. They were also young, had a high aptitude for the sport, and had relatively low perception of risk (thanks to testosterone and a lack of frontal brain lobe development). This isn't the route I'd suggest. The most successful new leaders I've worked with have already climbed outdoors a lot - they have somewhere in the vicinity of 50-75 days of outdoor trad climbing experience. Think about that number. That's a full year of being a weekend warrior climbing 25-35 weekends, or it's a bunch of weekends plus a few climbing trips. If that seems like a lot, that's because it is, but that's also what it's going to take to be successful. Most new leaders that find success are committed to the sport and find themselves outside climbing at least 2-4 times a month and also get to a gym during the week to maintain their movement skills.

Find Good Partners

It's hard to find people to climb with outdoors. What do I do? It is hard to find good outdoor partners. This is reality. After 18 years of climbing I have only a handful of partners I'd trust in any situation. This is one of the biggest challenges as a climber.

Honestly, the process of meeting trustworthy partners slows your progress and that's OK. It will allow you to process and digest what you're learning, meet new people and become part of a great community. When you do meet partners you trust they'll mentor you and you'll begin to learn a lot and grow as a climber. Mentorship is probably the single most valuable way to make gains as a trad climber. Find a mentor and learn. Don't forget to become a mentor and give back when you're able.

Carry A Lot of the Right Gear

When you first start out buying all the gear seems daunting and costly. Many people do it one piece at a time. This is fine, but don't skimp on gear. Do some research and spend the extra cash (a few really experienced climbers have scoffed at me for telling people to buy top of the line gear) and you won't be disappointed.

As a new leader you need more gear, not less. The east coast standard, a single rack of cams and nuts, only works when you are comfortable on the terrain you're leading. It's probably better to have a double rack of cams, especially the most popular sizes. It's also useful to have a lot of long runners, not quickdraws. Quickdraws work very well once you can manage rope drag, but it's easy to absolutely hose yourself if you're not careful.

As a new leader, a 70-meter rope is useless. Focus on short pitches that allow you to place lots of gear and communicate easily with your partner. Save long pitches for later on, once you're comfortable on the terrain you're leading.

Do Your Homework

How do I get to the climbs? How do I get down? Are there any belay/pitch-length strategies? Any special crux gear? 

There's nothing I dislike more than a beta spraydown at the cliff. I can't stand it when people shout information at me or others at the crag. Beforehand though, I do as much research as possible. Check the internet and ask locals/friends about the routes you want to do. There are multiple guidebooks available for many crags in the East. There's information all over the internet, and there are even pretty good apps, like Mountain Project, available for smartphones.

Seek Qualified Instruction

Last, but not least, consider hiring a professionally trained guide to help you. Hiring a guide can help you learn more quickly. Look for AMGA trained, certified guides, and have them guide you for a few days of outdoor instruction to set you on the right path. 

Ryan Stefiuk is an AMGA Certified Rock Guide living in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is the only AMGA Certified Rock Guide offering guiding and instruction in Massachusetts.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Android App Review - My Tracks

Apple might be the king of friendly user interfaces. Most people I know that don't want to think about their technology get an Iphone. However, if what you're after is access to raw data, to unadulterated information, Google will be your best friend. Personally, I'm a data geek and I'm comfortable using a slightly more complicated, less "pretty" user interface.

As a runner, the "exercise app" concept seems compelling. Being able to track pace, progress, heart rate, grade and elevation gain/loss is nice. Being able to do it on trail runs with your phone, which you might carry as a camera and as an emergency communication method is useful. I keep my phone in a stretchy case on my left arm during efforts less than a few hours, and in my BD Magnum on my back during longer efforts.

With all of the other exercise apps out there, why did I choose Google My Tracks? There are a lot of reasons, which I'm going to outline below:
  • The app is simple, and will record your movement regardless of your activity
  • All of the crap from many of the other exercise apps is not included - there's no additional account setup, no Facebook sharing option, no advertising, no inaccurate calorie counter and no link to my music (like I don't know where that is on my phone??)
  • You can autosave your workouts to Google Drive
  • Your tracks can be exported as KML, GPX or CSV files
  • It runs in the background, and can be used in airplane mode to conserve battery life - the battery life is very good when used this way.
  • It works well with other activities besides running.
I've only been using My Tracks for trail runs, especially the kind that gain and lose a lot of elevation. It's helpful here because it seems to give me an idea of pace (usually pretty slow when the terrain is rugged). I'm looking forward to using is on an upcoming run/climb/run/bike effort in NH in the upcoming weeks.

The map tab, set to show mile splits
The charts tab, which graphs elevation
gain/loss and speed on the same graph

The stats tab, showing a lot of useful

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Previewing the Pfalz Point Trail Challenge Course

Yesterday I previewed the Pfalz Point Challenge course. I've been training for this race for most of the summer, and it was fun to finally run the course. I didn't bring an official map though, and I pretty quickly found myself lost halfway through, in the loops around Guyot Hill.

I'm looking forward to the race next Sunday. Miles 3 and 7, which have significant uphills on singletrack, will likely be the most challenging sections. Mile 3 is particularly challenging, as there's a whole lot of race still left to run. Mile 7 is followed by nearly 2 miles of downhill on carriage roads, so it seems like less of an issue.

Over the past few months I've begun carrying my phone with during my longer trail runs. The Google app My Tracks is one of my new favorites. I'll be reviewing it in an upcoming post. Here are a few screenshots from the day, which provide good details about the course profile.

You can see where I got lost at
the bottom of the image

My Tracks may not be pretty
but it provides good graphs and

Friday, September 13, 2013

Bugaboos - Day 11 - East Face of Bugaboo Spire, Down and Out

Wake up comes way too soon. Lawrence motivates us though. I'm glad to have his partnership during times like these. It's chilly out, and the sky is clear. The forescast is calling for 36 hours of clear weather. We've been eyeing the Cooper-Gran route on the East Face of Bugaboo Spire, a beautiful looking shallow corner system which climbs one of the biggest faces you can see from camp. Just after daylight we roll out of camp.

We scrap around on the slope below the face. It's icy yet we resist the urge to put our crampons on. By the time we reach the face it becomes apparent that we would have saved time by putting our crampons on right away. I needed to chop steps up the last 30 feet of snow.

I take the first lead and find a big right facing corner system which will take us to a large traverse ledge. From there we traverse two ropelengths along an ever-narrowing ledge. I build an anchor in semi-loose, but attached, blocks and bring Lawrence in to the anchor.

Up until now, we've been climbing 3-star routes with deep cracks, solid rough rock, and very featured granite. After a few pitches and a sandy, loose ledge traverse the East Face of Bugaboo could not feel more different.

I start up pitch two. It's wet in the corner. Protection, even when it's good, is quite shallow and much of it is flared. Nothing on the narrow right wall of the corner system feels well-attached. The left wall is very polished. All of a sudden it feels like we're climbing slippery Yosemite granite, but with lower rock quality.

I scrap through the first pitch and find an old anchor with slings on it. Others before us have felt what we're feeling right now - this climbing is more "adventurous" than expected. Lawrence climbs to me and I begin leading again. The next pitch clearly involves a deep 5.10 chimney (something the guidebook doesn't mention).

Halfway up, where I need to enter the chimney, the pitch is soaking wet, loose, and green. I hesitate. Unsure of what to do, I sling a chockstone, equalize it to an old, rusty, half-driven knifeblade and lower back to the belay.  

The second pitch - not much of the chunky rock on the right side of the
 corner is well-attached.

We back the pin anchor up with a nut and rappel. The East Face of Bugaboo Spire will have to wait for another trip. Somehow, the dynamic of our trip has changed and neither of us wants to commit to this "unknown" route on this large face. As we're retreating we notice a thin haze of clouds already building again in the sky overhead.


We retrace our steps and are back in camp a few hours later. With only one real day left in our trip, and more bad weather approaching, we pack our stuff and begin the hike down.

Back at the car we organize our things and enjoy a few beers we'd been saving for the end of the trip. We're going to sleep at the trailhead tonight and begin the 12-hour drive back to Bozeman in the morning. As darkness falls it begins to rain - the forecast was wrong about when the next rain would arrive. It rains harder than it did during our entire stay at Applebee Dome. I sit in the center of my tent, watching the water drip from the interior walls of my leaky Firstlight, and look forward to our drive the next morning. I'm thankful we're headed home, and sick of cold rain and leaky single wall bivy tents.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Here is a photosphere (a new feature on many stock Android phones running 4.2 or higher) from the summit of the Liberty Bell in Washington Pass. I had to dig around for the embed code and am eager to get my other photospheres posted. Google has temporarily removed the code, so I guess we're going to wait a bit, as they'll presumably be improving the viewer which allows you to view full 360-degree spherical panoramas.

Are Your Kids Safe at Rock Climbing Summer Camp?

Valley Vertical Adventures doesn't run a youth summer climbing camp. We feel that offering a rewarding summer camping experience has too many logistical challenges. There are so many things that need to get arranged and organized. It would require one person's full time efforts for the remainder of the year in order to organize high quality week-long or multi-week programs at a remote location.

About 10 years ago I was a BSA trip leader who took small groups of students to Rumney. A few times a summer we would take 6-8 campers and 2 instructors there for 5 weekdays at a time. We were one of the only group programs there most of the time.

Since then rock climbing has exploded in popularity. Kids learn to climb in gyms and many kids want to climb outdoors. Summer camp seems like a logical way to get kids outside for a week or more of climbing. Climbing camps have sprung up to fill this "camping" niche.

When it comes to climbing, these climbing camps are very similar to guide services. They need to manage risk effectively while providing a rewarding climbing experience. From a professional perspective this means they need to have the proper liability insurance, the correct land use permits must be acquired, instructors must be trained to industry standards, and the utmost attention needs to be paid to safety.

Children, who are frequently unfamiliar with or unaware of the risks associated with outdoor climbing,  seem unable to make good decisions when it comes to safety. The "obvious" dangers don't seem so obvious. Therefore, instructor role modeling is incredibly important for impressionable youth. Choosing the right climbs, wearing a helmet and keeping crag appropriate closed-toe shoes on at all times are all things that should be role modeled by skilled, highly-trained responsible instructors.

Toss in other complications, like vehicle transport of campers, which requires additional liabilty insurance and drivers trained to operate a 15-passenger van or bus, swimming during rest days or during hot weather, and food preparation, which should really be handled by a trained cook-staff in a sanitary space like a dining hall and you've got a pretty complex picture. Really, only large institutions or companies with these resources at their command and extensive insurance coverage can offer a big summer climbing programs.

This summmer I spent a week climbing at Rumney, a rock climbing area in White Mountain National Forest. During my week there I feel like I saw the entire spectrum of climbing camps. I witnessed really good instruction and good risk management behavior and I witnessed appalling displays of unprofessionalism that really upset and scared me.

The White Mountain School was running a camp in NH that week. They are one of the only AMGA accredited high school programs. They use mature, highly-trained adult instructors who are professional climbers, guides or educators. They make sure students wear helmets at all times, maintain ratios at or below the industry standard of 6:1 and seem to manage risk very carefully. This seems like a very good program.
On the other end of the spectrum were programs like International Rock Climbing School, a Boston Rock Gym affiliated program. During my week there we bumped into three of their groups. I didn't see a single adult (someone who looked over 21) closely managing their large groups, I watched shirtless "instructors", barely old enough to shave, climb routes in flip flops in the rain, children rarely wore helmets, and they brought 16 or more people to the most popular crags and basically made a junk show of the base of the crag.

If you're a parent who's thinking of sending your child to a rock climbing summer program you owe it to yourself and your child to do a little research. Not every program is the same. In fact, some of the oldest and most well-known programs seem like the scariest operations. As a climbing "risk manager" by trade, I'm terrified and dismayed by some of the things I see out there.

You probably shouldn't choose a camp solely based on the fact that well-known climbers are involved in the operation. It might be better to ask about insurance, land use permits, and the competency and leadership experience of the instructors. Remember, the best climbers aren't always the safest operators or the best teachers.

I've compiled a list below that may help parents of prospective rock climbing "campers" weed out the sketchy programs so that you can feel good about where your child goes climbing next summer.


Insurance protects the camp/guide service, but also offers protection for participants if an accident occurs. It can help defray medical costs should a severe accident occur. The professional standard, and the requirement from many land managers, is for a climbing program to carry a minimum of $1,000,000 coverage. Insurance doesn't work unless the company is following all rules/regulations/requirements. Even non-profits should have insurance and are frequently required to have permits. Here are the things to ask about:
  • Liability Insurance for Rock Climbing - Don't be afraid to ask for a certificate of insurance if you feel it's necessary. Most outfits will gladly provide you with proof of coverage
  • Vehicle/transportation insurance coverage - Any time you transport paying customers you're acting as a taxi/shuttle service. This type of insurance coverage is nice to have if you're transporting kids in a 15-passenger van. All drivers need to be covered.
  • Permits for places you'll be going climbing - Ask to see permits from land managers if necessary. Liability insurance won't be valid unless they're allowed to have commerical operations there. Also ask if commercial climbing is allowed at these spots.
  • Helmets should be worn at all times - Helmet waivers probably won't work for people under age 18. Besides, kids probably shouldn't be allowed to make the decision whether or not to wear helmets.
  • Other - How old is the gear they'll be using? How frequently is it inspected? When are ropes used? Is bouldering (unroped) climbing allowed by insurance?


Camps generally do similar day-to-day climbing programming as guide services. Therefore, all instructors should have the proper training. Bigger outfits should also have AMGA accreditation.
  • Lead instructors should be 21, assistant instructors should be at least 18 - Many insurance companies have a minimum age requirement.
  • Instructors should have CPR, WFA or WFR medical training, and ideally have AMGA SPI certification or better.
  • Instructor:Participant ratios should be low - 6:1 is the max 3:1 is closer to the appropriate size for high-quality instruction and guidance.

Other Items

There are many other issues that need to be covered.
  • Food Preparation - Is the food being prepared in a kitchen? Are dietary restrictions and requirements being met? If they're not being prepared in a dining hall or kitchen where are they being prepared and who's doing the cooking?
  • Swimming - If kids are swimming is there a lifeguard nearby? Are adults paying close attention and making sure kids are supervised
  • Medical - Who administers medications each day? Do they have medical training? Is there a doctor or nurse present, or someone who's a medical adviser for the organization. 
While this is by no means a comprehensive list, it should help you distinguish between programs.

Ryan Stefiuk is a professional climbing guide based in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is the only AMGA Certified Rock Guide offering programs in Massachusetts.

Bugaboos - Day 10 - Sunshine Crack

We have 3 days left. It's still rainy and wet. We eat extra oatmeal packets during breakfast. It's the only extra food available. I mill about and chat with a few other climbers. In the process I score several packages of ramen noodles and a bag of mint teabags.

Before long I have 2 packets of noodles in my belly. It's nice to eat some extra food and feel warm despite the cold temperatures. Again today my hands and toes have been chilled all day.
Clearing weather!

Finally, not a sucker hole

Around 3 p.m. we depart camp. The clouds have slowly broken, and it hasn't rained in a few hours. Halfway up the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col we sketch our way across hard snow to the base of Sunshine Crack. We haven't done much in the past few days, and I feel bloated from all the salty soup I've eaten today. Climbing feels awkward.

Pitch 2 of Sunshine Crack. Soaking wet at the crux.

The sun comes out. Some sections of the climb (like the pitch 2 OW, which I lead by walking a borrowed 5" cam alongside me as a I climb) are still quite wet, but the climbing is very enjoyable. Around sunset we begin to rappel from the top of pitch 7, just above the crux. The pitches are short, and we're down on the ledge in 3 rappels.

We're back in camp eating by 10 p.m. Camp is quiet, and there are only 8-10 tents left at Applebee. The sky is clear, the air is warm, and we're getting going again in a few hours.

Amazing splitters

Our first sunshine since Beckey-Chouinard

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bugaboos - Day 9, Cold and Hungry

The old forecast, hanging on the kiosk, predicted today would be the day the skies clear. The new forecast, just now hanging up, says otherwise and is indeed correct. It's rainy and windy out, and we're very much confined to our tents. Next time I come here I will go down when the forecast predicts bad weather.

Sitting for a whole day isn't that easy. After a while you get cold. It's comforting to be able to eat rich foods and have hot drinks all day long. We have limited amounts of tea and few extra snacks. Eating out of boredom is out of the question. Next time I will bring more indulgent foods - chocolate, Nutella, hot cocoa.

I obsessively sort food in my tent. Anything that's extra is starting to get eaten. After dinner we begin to eat extra instant oatmeal packets. I don't really like instant oatmeal. We're eating it like it's fine dessert.