Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gear Review: Mammut Rime Pro Jacket

I'm very particular about my climbing gear. Some gear just gets ignored. I'm not talking about stuff that's been stuck in my closet forever. I'm talking about pieces of clothing or gear that work so well, and integrate so seamlessly into your kit, that you forget they're there. This is the mark of a good piece of gear - you have no complaints and the garment gets worn everyday. Some pieces even do year-round rotations in my pack.

The Mammut Rime Pro hoody is one such piece. It's a medium weight synthetic belay jacket that works well as a year-round belay jacket. In the interest of full disclosure, Mammut gave me this piece to take with me on my 2013 Newfoundland trip. If you want to read about that trip, or see photos there are two good links here and here.

The Rime Pro is delightfully simple, like many other Mammut garments, which is good. I like simple. Bells and whistles only add clutter, extra weight, and extra things to break. I'll spare the technical details, you can look them up on the Mammut site. The Rime Pro has two handwarmer pockets, one chest pocket, and two really nice stretchy water bottle/climbing skin pockets inside. There are small velcro wrist cuff adjustments and a simple adjustable hood.

I used the Rime Pro as my belay jacket for all of February and March during the 2013 ice season. It's a perfect "moderate" weather belay jacket, which I felt comfortable wearing on days when it was warmer than 15-20 degrees. On colder days, I found myself wearing the Rime Pro all day as my outer layer, over my softshell and tucked underneath my harness, and adding a baggy down belay jacket for those really long belays.

The medium weight Rime Pro next to my custom CCW Ozone

Cut with a slim fit, the Rime Pro isn't your average belay jacket. It's just roomy enough to stay warm, and slim enough that I feel comfortable leading hard pitches in cold weather. A few of the other belay jackets I've owned made me feel so fat I couldn't see me feet (ahem, DAS Parka). They were warm, but doing any sort of climbing in them was challenging. The Rime Pro walks that fine line really well - it's warm but you still feel agile wearing it.

I've worn it during cold weather (5 degrees Fahrenheit) in conjunction with another puffy, and during a full day of 35 degree soaking rain. The Ajungilak insulation, which feels similar to Primaloft, packs easily and stays warm even when it's soaked.

The only drawback? Well, Mammut put a finicky zipper on this jacket. Actually, it's the same zipper that other companies, like OR, have been using too. The lightweight two-way zipper feels durable but is hard to get started.

At $219, the Rime Pro Jacket is a great deal, and will serve the budget minded minimalist (like me) well. It will do year-round belay duty equally well on rock, on ice, or in the alpine.

Friday, March 15, 2013

WMCC Silent Auction, March 24th, 2013

The Western Massachusetts Climber's Coalition is having their annual Silent Auction at Cafe Esselon in Hadley on March 24th. Bigfoot Mountain Guides will be donating two days of private instruction (2 gift certificates worth $275 credit or 2 x 1 day of private instruction for one person).

In many ways, the WMCC is a model climber access organization. They've demonstrated that local access organizations can successfully purchase and manage land, and maintain working local relationships with other landowner and organizations. They've increased access to some very fine western Massachusetts climbing areas. If you're in the area, stop by Cafe Esselon on March 24th from 7-9 p.m. to bid on good stuff and help out the WMCC.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Matters of Perspective

We are tiny. Generally speaking, we're pretty insignificant little beings on a giant planet in a boundless and unfathomable space. This planet, our universe, these things don't pass judgments. There aren't "good" planet days, or "really bad" universe days. From hour to hour, year to year, and eon to eon things look pretty much the same.

We live our lives in a mere flicker of an instant. From an existential standpoint, the only thing that truly makes our lives good or bad is our perspective. It's true, our perspective can be influenced by so many different things. It can even change from day to day or by the hour depending on our interactions, our habits, or our history.

Last Saturday I spent the day climbing with an old friend who's perspective, no matter how tough things have been for him, always seems positive. Dave has had lots of hurdles during his relatively short life and despite these he always seems upbeat. Over the last eight years I've climbed with him a half dozen or so days. Each day has been full of engaging climbing and discussion of life's ups and downs. The day usually ends, not with our last climb together, but over a beer at a local bar. For us, right away, the connection was about more than just climbing. I can't put my finger on why. It just is.

Dave is one of the reasons why my job is amazing. The perspective is nearly always good when you get to spend lots of time outdoors with great people. Thanks for the reminder Dave. I look forward to our next day together.

Dave topping out on the lower tier, Dark Side

One of the awesome moderate chimney systems at the
Dark Side

It was a warm day, with wet ice

Subtraction Gully, a classic Dark Side ice route

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Men At Work

The development of new, hard mixed lines seems to happen over time. You can't always look at a line and say "this is going to go today, no question about it". At first the climbing seems impossible. After a few tries though, holds begin to appear and crux sequences become muscle memory. Sometimes, at first, the climbing feels so scary that it's hard to climb, even on a toprope. In the Catskills, everything feels loose even when it's solid. After several good attempts, however, the line often progresses from "impossible" to very doable yet challenging. I like doable yet challenging.

Chris Beachamp works the crux on Loosifer

Two winters ago Lucho Romero tried many of the newer mixed lines in the upper Hell Hole and enjoyed them. All the while though, he stared at the cliff directly across the narrow gorge. This shadier, steeper  loose-looking cliff had more or less been ignored. There is one outstanding established route on it's left end, and that's it. This route, Gomorrah, is one of the Catskills' true ice testpieces. Although short, the face is gently overhanging the entire way. A thin strip of ice, at most 4 inches thick, occasionally forms on this face (I've done it twice in 8 years, one time taking a heart-stopping whipper when a tool placement blew near the thicker ice at the top). Sodom & Gomorrah, the direct start to the line, has the kind of climbing where if you blow one tool placement in the 1" thick ice at the bottom you might be out of luck. Dare I say this short route is WI6-? No one else talks about the grade but that seems right to me. Bob Otten lead it on gear back in the day (badass). Kevin Delaney retrobolted it and Purgatory without permission. This made bolting things, umm, a wee bit awkward for a long time to come. I digress. Suffice to say this route is really hard, and it's on the least steep part of the cliff.

Lucho swore there were more lines on this overlooked little cliff. The rock looked so soft, loose and scary that I ignored him. Last week though, I started paying attention. He'd tried a route there on toprope several times this season, was convinced it was really good and also felt that it could go for the right individuals. An impossibly hard horizontal roof crux led to overhanging flakes and then an icy corner. During their first effort earlier this winter, four strong climbers all fell off at the roof crux repeatedly before giving up. Lack of a good directional above meant they would take terrifying falls on toprope when they let go. During another session Lucho worked out a less direct start, which kept the climbing in the M8 range.

Pete on the overhanging wall

Last Tuesday I met Chris Beauchamp and Pete Guyre at Platte Clove. We immediately headed for Lucho's line. The night before he'd given us the go-ahead to try his project. Chris lowered down and found pieces of gear that worked as directionals. He found a good piece to protect the crux swing too, which would make working the crux easier. In conjunction with a back belay from the ground we were able to work the crux.

We set to work trying the line. After a couple of efforts the direct, roof crux felt hard but doable. The remainder of the climb, up hollow sounding sharp-edged flakes was more about pump management than hard cruxes.

By this point it was mid-afternoon. We were tired, and the ice at the top was cooking in full 40-degree sun. All of us agreed to return in the morning, when the ice was frozen in place, to give this wild, loose-feeling line a redpoint effort.

The following morning, with tender biceps and sore hamstrings all around, we hiked down the hill. After a not-so-warm warmup on Chris' new mixed moderate The Road of Good Intention, M6-, we began our effort in earnest.

Keeping our order from the previous day, I set off first. I climbed quickly through the crux, avoiding unnecessary moves. As I was reaching for the only rest stance on the route one of my tools skated off a sloped hold overhead. The other one held; I was still on. I caught my breath at the rest and charged into the overhanging barehanded juggy flakes. As I reached the icy corner my legs were trembling. I scummed my left hip in the corner and breathed a sigh of relief. A few minutes later I clipped the anchors, elated about not having to put forth that same effort again.

By the end of the day, after several impressive attempts, Pete styled the route to the ice. His last redpoint attempt came to a heartbreaking end as the rotten ice broke beneath both of his tools simultaneously.

Pete Guyre using body tension to stay in place

On Sunday, both Chris and Pete also redpointed the line. Despite looking loose, the route has fantastic climbing. The M9-(?) crux is followed by overhanging rock climbing on big flakes and finishes with an M7/8 crux to gain the icy corner above. It's a sprint to the finish with some very hard moves on small holds at the start. We've decided to stick with the "Hell" theme and want to call this one Loosifer. This route is probably the hardest mixed line in the Catskills right now (where Hydropower is sustained, this route has a punchy, hard crux), and with such fun climbing it might be my favorite line in the Hell Hole.

Here is the link to the full album of images from the day.

Thanks to Chris Beauchamp for the images. He shot most of them with my camera, as it was the only day I've ever seen him without his camera gear.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why You Should Use The Upper Grip On Your Ice Tools Carefully

If you have traditional style ice tools (Viper, Cobra, Quark, X-All Mountain) and use the upper grip, or grab the upper portion of the shaft of the tool frequently while ice climbing read on - you might want to rethink your ice climbing technique and the habits you've developed as a climber.

Several years ago, when I was still using the old style Quarks I attempted to match my hands on an ice route called Gomorrah in the Catskills. I was really pumped and not climbing in control. After matching I kept my one hand high so that I could loop the rope over the pommel (pinky rest) of the tool to have my belayer take tension. As I was pulling up rope to wrap it over the tool, the tool blew and I went for a long ride (extra long because I pulled up extra rope). I stopped upside down near the ground. I was bruised but otherwise fine.

That long, near-groundfall taught me that I shouldn't really be trying to match much with my traditional ice tools. On that occasion I had a pretty decent tool placement, but the subtle shift in grip position caused the tool to lever out of it's placement.

Recently, I've watched a lot of beginner ice climbers using their traditional, more straight-shafted tools in an unconventional manner while climbing ice. I've seen people liberally using the upper grip on the shaft, grabbing the top of the tool to pull down, pulling on the shaft just below the head and looping the rope through the pinky rest while placing screws.

Seeing these things makes me cringe; I've learned the hard way that grabbing your conventional ice tools above the grip can cause them to pull out. If you're leading this could result in a leader fall - not a good practice on ice.

I think many beginners see other, more experienced climbers matching using radically curved mixed climbing tools and think "this must be how everyone switches hands, even when your're using a straighter tool". I usually try to break clients of this habit if I see it. It's not a huge deal when you're a beginner and you only toprope, but if you carry habits like this over to a lead environment you're setting yourself up for a lead fall.

At the same time, I don't see any of my more experienced friends doing these things. These climbers predominantly use the lower grip of their tools while ice climbing, and carefully grab the upper grip while mixed climbing or for an occasional match on ice. Additionally, they're all using dual-grip tools like the Nomic or Fusion, which are balanced for matching using the upper grip.

Unless you're using a dual-grip style tool, grabbing the shaft anywhere other than the bottom main grip is a risky proposition. The straighter traditional-style tools are not balanced for multiple hand positions. As you grab higher on the shaft your direction of pull on the pick changes from down (good) to out (very bad). Yes, it's true that nearly all modern ice tools, even the straighter ones, come with a small upper grip. However, knowing when it's appropriate to use it, and how you use it is very important.

First, lets clarify what a solid tool placement is, and then we'll look at safe ways to use our straighter tools if we're going to use anything other than the bottom grip.

A Solid Tool Placement

As climbers, especially as ice climbers, we act like scientists. We make observations about our ice tool placements, gather evidence about the quality of the placement, and then determine whether it's solid or not. We do this using our senses. We look for fractured ice around the tool and look to see that the pick is buried in the ice. We listen for cracking of ice near our tools, and we feel if the tool is solid or if the ice breaks underneath the tool. We might even tug on the tool a bit to see what happens. We then make assumptions about the quality of the tool placement based on the evidence we have.

Only after we've determined that our ice tool placement is solid will we commit to it. I rarely, if ever, commit to a tool placement that's lousy while climbing ice. The only time I'll commit to a lousy placement is on a mixed route with decent gear nearby and no other options. Otherwise, the tool should be solid.

So, what is solid? Solid is a tool that you could hang your whole body from. Solid is a tool that doesn't wobble. Solid is a tool with little if any fractured ice around it. Solid is a deep hook. Solid is a pick buried several teeth to several inches deep. Here's a quote from Will Gadd's blog about solid tool placements: "I rotate my hand slightly toward the outside to get it into a “swing” orientation, swing away until I’ve got something bomber (no pecking like a chicken, we’re ice climbing here, make it SOLID unless it’s a hook deep enough to hold a 500 pound tuna)"

The Match

Once I have a solid tool placement I'll begin to move my body upward using that tool placement. Ice tools are meant to be pulled straight down. All tools, regardless of whether or not they have an upper grip, are going to be more stable when using the lower grip. By holding the grip correctly at the bottom of the tool you ensure that the pick remains seated in the ice correctly. I always try to pull on the tool in the correct direction to keep the pick in it's original position. If the tool is above me then the direction of pull will be straight down. If the tool is placed on a horizontal ledge, then the direction of pull might be straight out. I'm very careful not to lever the pick out.

Certain "dual grip" tools, like the Petzl Nomic and the BD Fusion, have two grips. The upper grip is nearly in line with the lower grip, making the upper grip feel pretty stable. The pick remains seated correctly most of the time, regardless of whether the upper or lower grip is used.

However, with more traditional style tools (like the Quark, Cobra, Viper or Cassin X-All Mountain) the upper grip should be used very cautiously. These tools are not balanced for matching, and using the upper grip changes the balance of the tool. You are no longer pulling down, you're pulling in an outward direction. If the tool is not absolutely buried it could pop out.

Once you have a bomber, buried traditional style tool you can attempt to match hands gently and as low on the shaft as possible. I roll my index and middle fingers of my lower hand out of the way (while holding on tightly with my pinky finger and ring finger) to make room for my upper hand. This way, I can grab the upper grip as low as possible. I can now remove my lower hand and gently slide the matched upper hand down to the bottom of the tool. All the while I am deliberately applying constant pressure to the tool so that it doesn't move at all.

This "straight-tool" match is something that takes a steady hand, good balance, and plenty of control. It's harder to match when you have to carefully move one hand out of the way than when you have two balanced grip positions like you do on Nomics or Fusions.

Now that we know how to carefully match and switch hands using our Cobras, Quark, X-All Mountains, etc. when do we use this technique? The simple answer - not that often. It's easy enough, while climbing pure ice, to find another tool placement overhead and avoid ever having to choke up on the ice tool shaft at all. Matching like this is useful when traversing on semi-steep terrain, and when you get forced into features like a groove or runnel where it's easier to swing from one side but not the other. So, if you can avoid the match in favor of a higher "solid" tool placement, do it.

The Takeaway

Climbing is all about developing good habits and avoiding the bad ones. The sooner one learns that ice tools placements on ice need to be very solid, the best place to hold on is at the bottom, and that matching tools requires subtlety, balance and practice the better off they'll be as a climber. Practice, on a toprope, for a long time before leading is a good way to go, and will ensure that you've learned to climb ice well before leading your first ice pitches.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Some Wet Cragging and Circle W

As this year's ice season is reaching it's twilight I've been trying to squeeze more climbing days in. It always feels like there's pressure to send projects at the end of the season - in a few more weeks they'll have to wait another year and it's nice to cross them off the list before then.

I spent the last two days in the Devil's Kitchen (the Chasm!?). We had fun despite the fact that we were soaked by rain and wet snow. It was neat watching Dustin Portzline, a younger Mountain Skills climbing guide and New Paltz local step out of his comfort zone a little. He's realized this season that he's capable of leading harder routes. This week alone he led Dan and The Devil, Mephisto Waltz and the Advocate. I fully expect to see him cranking out really hard lines throughout the northeast a few seasons from now. Additionally, I managed to send Hydropower, a route I tried a couple of times over the last two seasons (established by Matt McCormick in 2010). Thanks to Chris Beauchamp and Dustin for belaying me while I worked out the continuously hard moves on small (1-2 tooth) insecure edges and with awkward feet.

Dustin Portzline steppin' out on "The Advocate"

Another highlight of the two days was my first visit to Circle W General Store in Palenville. It's a new favorite and a great place to meet partners if you're headed to the Catskills. They have good coffee, great sandwiches on outstanding bread, and incredible cookies. It's the kind of place that Palenville has been lacking for a while and is definitely worth checking out if you haven't already.

Let's keep our fingers crossed for a few more days of winter out there!