Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why You Should Be Careful Ice Climbing After Rain and Warm Temperatures

I went to Poke O Moonshine on Wednesday with Silas Rossi. He'd never been there before, for rock climbing or ice climbing. We figured that we'd get at least a little climbing in despite the less than stellar forecast. As is often the case, the weather forecasters were a bit off, and it rained all night. Instead of snow there was rain, and when we arrived the cliff was running with water. Positive Thinking and the Waterfall wall, which were both in nice early season condition the day before, were decidedly "out". We checked out Neurosis, which was also on it's way "out" but is less steep, so the prospect of it falling off in one piece is much lower.

After bailing from a bolt near the top of the first pitch of Neurosis we returned to our car. While we were over at Neurosis a portion of the Waterfall wall fell off. It was easy to see the missing piece of ice.

Can you see the missing ice? Can you see the continuous fracture snaking it's way across the top? How about the two climbers at the base?

We spotted a party of two toproping the Waterfall, left of where the ice had calved off. We were amazed they were still climbing, as another substantial portion fell off while we were changing into our street clothes. As one of the climbers rappelled, we spotted a continuous fracture in the ice along the top of the Waterfall wall. We stared a bit longer then jumped in the car, heading to the Baxter Mountain Tavern for a late lunch. Just as we were leaving we spotted the party toproping the ice only feet left of the wall that had just fallen. I hope those climbers are ok.

Well, what's the takeaway? Is it that those particular climbers were foolish to be there? Maybe; I know I would not have been there. Is it that all ice climbing is unsafe when the weather is above freezing? That answer is not so simple. Most likely the right answer is going to be based on the specific weather conditions for that day. Like traveling through avalanche terrain when the risk of a slide is not uniformly "low", making decisions about safe ice climbing conditions takes good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience - you have to understand how ice behaves throughout a range of weather conditions if you're going to push your luck.

I felt like I was pushing my luck getting on Neurosis, a climb I've done before that is 2-3 ice grades below my lead limit. I think Silas did too, but we felt pressure to make the day happen because we'd driven a long way. Fortunately, both of us have a lot of winter climbing experience, and understand how ice behaves. Slab ice occasionally collapses. Often it just sits there though, getting compressed toward the ground until it gets so warm that the slab can no longer support itself. Steep ice, especially at places like the Waterfall, where the rock is free of features, supports itself. You cannot climb ice that supports itself in above-freezing weather for very long; this is asking for trouble.

The truth is, we've all been there. We ignore the forecast because it's our day off, or our client's day off if we're a guide. We drive a long way to climb, so we feel pressured to climb even though conditions are not optimal. Maybe we push the day longer than we should after it's been really warm (2 o'clock has always felt like the magic quitting time on warm days). It's never one thing that causes an accident, and myopia is often to blame.

As I've gained experience this decision has gotten easier. Most days, when conditions are like this I throw in the towel. I'll end up drinking coffee or beer somewhere with my climbing partner. Climbing always has and always will be a social activity for me, and the partner is more important than the climb. I've rescheduled guided days, only to watch my client go out with another guide and get hit by ice and take an axe to the face.

I know it's hard to throw in the towel on warm days, but erring on the conservative side is the right thing to do. You only get one chance to screw up that big, and nobody wants that to happen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Red Rocks Long Weekends in November

Mountain Skills Climbing Guides (a guide service I work for in the Shawangunks) was awarded a Red Rocks permit for 2014. Doug Ferguson, the owner and manager has set the dates of the ten day permit for November 14-23. I was hoping to go for a long weekend or two.

Red Rocks is an amazing place to climb. It's a stone's throw from Las Vegas, and there's a lifetime worth of climbing there. The climbing style can vary dramatically, from sandstone splitter cracks to beautiful face climbing on solid brown varnished rock. Red Rocks also has a substantial collection of high quality long, moderate rock climbs ranging from 400-1600 feet in length.

There are many direct flights there from major northeastern airport, meaning a long weekend trip is very manageable. Car rentals and lodging are also pretty simple to set up because Vegas is popular tourist destination.

Please contact me if you're interested in a guided trip there with Mountain Skills, 802-779-7139, The base rate for 1 person for a full day will vary but most likely will be $400/day regardless of the objective. 2-people is a sweet spot, as the rate will likely only be $100/day more.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Letting Go

I haven't written much in a while. I wish I felt okay using some lame excuse like "I don't have enough free time". That would be completely untrue though. Finding the time to write is almost always possible, it just takes a little more effort when I'm busy. Truthfully, this year has been one big storm of events that have made it challenging for me to write posts I feel good about publishing. It isn't one particular thing that's stymied me writing. Rather, it's a confluence of events and emotions that have changed the way I feel about climbing and more generally about life. Explaining how this has affected my writing still feels impossible. I'm going to give it a whack though; maybe my thoughts will resonate with a few people out there.

Last fall I spent a handful of weekends climbing with friends. I didn't have a ton of guiding work, and as a result I was able to go climbing with some of my favorite partners (the ones that aren't guides - guides always seem to work on weekends). I quickly realized how much I missed these experiences. Weekends are a special time for climbers - something non-climbing friends will attest to - because the only thing you're going to do if the weather is good is go climbing. It's a ritual that includes more than just climbing. There's socializing with close friends that you might not see all the time, sharing other's ropes at the crag, and there's almost always dinner and beers somewhere afterward. I almost always visited crags that I enjoyed, and afterward I didn't have to escape out the back door of the shop or leave the parking area immediately to avoid socializing with acquaintances about climbing. This, I thought, is how weekend warriors, who don't climb for a living, view climbing. They devour every moment and they're still psyched for their next day at the crag.

In a way, I felt like I had reclaimed climbing for myself. I didn't want to share it with anyone, I just wanted to experience it and move on. The whole experience was very existential, as much of climbing tends to be. We all love climbing at least partially because it helps us escape, divert our focus from reality, and live moment to moment in a very simple existence that's occurring inside the tiny sphere around us.

These experiences, along with a few others, caused me to question my vocational decisions. Was being financially hamstrung for the rest of my life worth it? $30,000/year with no health insurance and no retirement savings was starting to feel like a dumb decision. Among friends I began voicing my thoughts about a career change. Nearly everyone I spoke with was overwhelmingly supportive. After a bit of looking around, and a lot of internet research I decided on nursing or physician assistant programs. I am now taking prerequisite classes at a local college so that I can apply to accelerated nursing programs this winter. The door is still open for PA programs too. These classes have occupied a lot of my time. There is, however, still plenty of time to do other things (like write).

I was diagnosed with a common heart arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation last winter (2% or less of people my age have it). It was Christmas night actually, and I spent it in the emergency room. My heart rate had been irregular and over 100 beats/minute for more than a day. It would remain that way for more than three days before I converted back to sinus rhythm. I wish that had been my only episode of atrial fibrillation.

Throughout April I began having episodes every two weeks. They would last about 30 hours before my heart would convert back to sinus rhythm on it's own. In May it happened weekly. In June it was happening twice each week. Hard lead climbing was one of the main triggers. There's something about the combination of physical stress of hard climbing and the psychological stress of leading that was triggering my afib. Over the past months I'd quit drinking caffeine and alcohol, and reduced my exercise load drastically. Nothing seemed to help. Climbing was one of the main triggers of my heart arrhythmia. It seemed likely that I wouldn't be able to climb as hard as I wanted, or train hard for running ever again. I was crushed.

After an echocardiogram, a stress test, and numerous visits to the cardiology office in town I was prescribed flecainide and metoprolol. One drug would keep my heart out of afib, while the other blocked my cardiac tissue from absorbing catecholamines, thereby inhibiting an elevated heart rate. Both drugs suppress one's cardiac output. Flecainide has serious, exercise inducible side effects, and must be taken with metoprolol so that the heart rate is always suppressed. In layman's terms, I wouldn't be able to exercise as hard even if I wanted to. If I did manage to blast through the wall created by metoprolol I might be unlucky enough to induce another type arrhythmia that's even less desirable than afib and would most definitely require an ER visit.

I didn't quite know what to do with myself. I'd had a hard time admitting to myself that guiding wasn't a viable way for me to make a living. I was having an even harder time dealing with the fact that I might not climb the way I wanted. Not being able to run, something that I rely on for a daily escape, would absolutely kill me, or so I thought.

Ultimately, dwelling on these things was useless. After a while I just stopped giving a shit. I didn't care about the heart condition that came and went as it pleased and was caused by my family's genetics, or about being an amazing climber, or about making my living as an outdoor professional and athlete in an industry where that's only possible for a small set of individuals willing to sacrifice their personal lives in order to be successful.

I let go. It felt really good.

Defining myself as a "climber", or a "runner", or anything else for that matter, had been really limiting, but I hadn't seen that. I'm a person, like all the rest. I happen to enjoy climbing and a whole slew of other outdoor activities. They don't define me though, they just help me be who I am.

I decided to hold off on the flecainide and metoprolol until I can see a doctor in Boston. The afib continued to happen into early July, and I continued to exercise moderately. That's when I made a wonderful connection. 8-10 minutes of moderate exercise during an afib episode was enough to convert my heart back to it's normal (sinus) rhythm. Without drugs I have been almost 100% successful at managing my atrial fibrillation. I had been stressed about afib, and learning that I could manage it quite easily, without drugs, reduced some of the stress I'd been experiencing. In the past two months I've had one short episode that I converted easily with a short jaunt up the stairmaster in the Gunks.

Climbing is still a priority for me, but there's less value attached to grades, projects and big objectives. If I have a good partner I'll enjoy our time together regardless of the climbs. I've continued to run a few days a week too and my very deep fitness base has allowed me to push things a little bit recently. My interest in cycling has been renewed too. A friend encouraged me to join him for a few rides this spring and this helped rekindle my love for riding.

Coming full circle, it's hard to identify a specific event that's made writing harder for me. I've been busy doing other things and changing directions. I guess I don't want to feel like I have to share every climbing experience, like my living depends on it. I think it's good to step away every once in a while. I know, for me, that it helps me come at things from a different angle, with a new perspective.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Shootin' Blanks in the North Cascades

Frequently, weather is the difference between a wildly successful trip, and one where you don't do much of anything at all. I just returned from two weeks in the North Cascades. The first week, with Mark and Dan, was a great success while the second week climbing with an old friend was tarnished by inconsistent rain that made committing to alpine objectives difficult and left us feeling a bit dejected. Nonetheless, the Cascades are a wild and beautiful place to spend some time. Here are my better images from the trip.

En route to the Fisher Chimneys

Mark, Dan and me.

South Arete, SEWS. Wildfire smoke in background

Exposed, mellow climbing on the South Arete

The White Camel

Mark on Springboard

Week 2's activities

Prime Rib on the Goat Wall was a good "bad" weather

Lawrence means business

Early Winters Creek

MF Overhang, Castle Rock

West Face, Colchuck Balanced Rock - Pitch 2, just before I accidentally
launched a small frisbee of rock onto Lawrence. The rock in the Cascades is loose!

Friday, May 30, 2014

AMGA SPI Assessment, June 14-15, 2014

Bigfoot Mountain Guides is looking for one more participant for an AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Assessment being held in western Massachusetts on June 14-15, 2014. If you're interested in participating give us a call - 413-570-3223, or send an email -

We are also looking for a few volunteers for day 2 of the assessment. If you are new to climbing and want to try climbing outside, day 2 is essentially a free day of outdoor climbing instruction for 2-4 people. We look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mt. Washington in the Spring

I am an okay skier. I can ski in most backcountry areas in the northeast, but I don't make the tougher terrain look pretty. Still though, it's a pleasure to spend a day outside in the spring on skis. There's none of the stress found in ice climbing, and when you're done you can be back at your car in a few minutes. As long as it isn't dark it's not too late in the day.

I had a fun day out two weeks ago with a few north country brethren, Michael Wejchert and Bayard Russell. A few years ago I skied with Bayard and he was just learning too. He's a much better skier now, and fun to try and keep up with. Michael's just learning, but I anticipate he'll be a ringer in some time in the not so distant future. Here are a few pictures from the day.

Hangin' with the B'ys

Last year Alden Pellett and I began toying with the idea of checking out new spots to climb ice in western Newfoundland. Over three trips we'd climbed 8 of the classic routes in Ten Mile Pond, one of North America's finest ice climbing cliffs, and were interested in what other options existed. We found a few things in the process, but realized that access to most other areas is not simple the way it is at Ten Mile Pond.

Bayard Russell on a roadside stop at Cox's Cove

This year, Chris Beauchamp, Bayard Russell and I ran with this idea. Exploration was a top priority for us. The result? Well, a trip with very little climbing but one that was an incredibly rich cultural experience. I'm sure Bayard will write about his experience, and Chris will share some photos when he has the chance too. Here's my story.

About a month prior to this year's trip, my regular Newfoundland ice climbing partner, Alden Pellett, called to let me know he couldn't make it this year - something had come up. He is such a great partner to have when the going is tough - he makes good decisions and isn't afraid to lead when the climbing is scary. I was upset, but not as upset about it as he was I think. Chris Beauchamp had already agreed to go this year. He was in the second he saw last year's photos. We wanted a third person though, so Chris could take pictures when the opportunity presented itself.

I scrambled to find a solid third on such short notice, contacting many of the northeastern folks I thought might be interested in the trip. After only a few emails, Bayard Russell agreed to go. Wow. That was easy. I've known Bayard for seven or eight years now, but only climbed with him a handful of times. Our first outing together was the Steck-Salathe on Sentinel Rock in Yosemite. We were back in camp drinking beer by mid-afternoon. Like me, Bayard is driven by an intrinsic interest in east coast climbing, and the allure of adventure climbing in the northeastern U.S. and Canada.

Somebody switched on the autopilot. Everyone prepared on their own. Chris found some used snow tires and had them mounted so we could take his vehicle. Bayard did a lot of food shopping ahead of time, to keep us well supplied on our trip. I struggled, trying to carve out time for packing and some climbing between my three science classes, homework, and guiding.

Chris, Bayard and I left Bayard's house at 5:30 a.m. It's fun traveling with 3 people. The driving is easier and the conversation is always more diverse. At 9:30 a.m. we stopped for gas in Bangor. Bayard walked out of the Irving gas station with two hot dogs and a bottle of Gatorade. Only 20 more hours of roadside junk food and we could go ice climbing in Newfoundland. At noon, in Calais, ME we stopped at the supermarket for more cheap U.S. beer. Outside we bought giant spicy foot long sausages from a crass-talking guy in a barfwagon named "Grampie Bill's". I have a penchant for junk food. It seems I'd found two good road trip partners because they were making me feel like a health nut.

Our drive across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia was easy. I've driven across these two provinces 8 times now. Good weather for the entire drive is rare. The ferry was on schedule too. Things felt way too easy. After a huge fried food feast at a Chinese restaurant (nothing like a strong finish to a stellar day of healthy eating) near the ferry terminal we retired to our berth and slept our way across the Cabot Strait.

The MV Blue Puttees, our ferry, crept silently through sea ice. The ocean was frozen - giant tiles of artic sea ice had floated down past Labrador and Newfoundland. For ice climbers in Newfoundland, this is always a good sign. Sea ice stabilizes the weather, making things cold and calm. The big ponds, like Western Brook, only freeze when the sea ice stretches all the way down the coast, across the Strait of Belle Isle and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

All the way up the west coast we were greeted by a completely white, frozen ocean. For someone who's never experienced this, it's utterly bizarre. The ocean doesn't freeze in New England, and yet it was completely frozen here. I'm sure it was thick enough to walk on too, but you couldn't pay me enough to do that.

Day 3 began in a bar. At 11:00 a.m. What a strange way to start our day. Half an hour later, we'd made some new friends and had a plan. Our new friends, Terry and Bevin would show us the way in to the end of the pond. There, we'd camp and try to climb a few big routes in a seldom-visited area of Gros Morne National Park.

The completely amazing events that ensued are straight out of a Newfoundland hospitality advertisement. Bevin and Terry loaned us two snowmobiles, and a sled to haul our gear. They let us stay with them and their friends at Bevin's uncle's cabin. They fed us moose meat, moose sausage, stew and shared stories about life in Newfoundland. They rung our clocks at darts. No joke, Newfies are seriously good at darts, especially at 2 a.m. after many beers. In the morning they showed us the trail we needed to follow. The snowmobiles were ours to use until we were ready to leave.

This unbridled display of hospitality is part of what makes Newfoundland such a special place. Nobody in Massachusetts would loan out their snowmobile to some dude who's never even driven one before, especially if they didn't know that person. They definitely wouldn't open theirs doors to you and leave you a duffel bag full of moose meat to eat while they're away. And they wouldn't invite you in for beers after your trip is over either. The next time you meet a person from Newfoundland, offer them a place to stay, a hot meal and good company. It's the right thing to do, and it's likely they will gladly repay you in kind when you visit their home.

We managed to climb a big new route, a 300-meter WI 5 at the back of a big basin. We saw many other spectacular looking unclimbed lines too. It was mind blowing really -  very remote, insanely rugged, really cold, and constantly windy. Looking back though, the climb seems like such a small, almost insignificant part of our experience.

After a rest day we climbed in Ten Mile Pond too. The access there is easy. As it turns out, it was a dry year in Newfoundland and many of the climbs were lean. The Cholesterol Wall had very little ice on it. Even during a lean year, the climbing in Ten Mile Pond is like candy - it's easy to access and so good.

With two back-to-back nor'easters coming up the coast we decided to leave early. We caught the only ferry off the island for four days. Back on the mainland, we booked across Nova Scotia hoping to avoid most of the bad weather. In New Brunswick the maelstrom arrived. Unplowed roads with 3-foot deep drifts along the roadside made exiting the highway difficult. Whiteout wind gusts with extreme blowing snow made it impossible to see. It was the worst weather I've ever driven through. We made the decision to stop and sleep a moment too late.

The blowing snow was so thick we couldn't see the hood of the car. Before we knew it we were floating through a cushion of soft snow on the side of the highway. It was 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. There was no traffic on the road. After a long session of digging and pushing in gnarly wind and blowing wet snow two passersby helped us push Chris's vehicle back on the road. At 6 a.m. we finally crashed in a shady motel on the outskirts of St. John.

By noon Sunday we were back on the road, fueling the long ride across Maine with donuts from Tim Hortons, more hot dogs from the same Irving in Brewer Maine, and burgers from Wendy's. Things have a way of coming full circle.

This trip, my fourth, to Newfoundland involved the smallest amount of climbing thus far. At the same time it was perhaps the most rewarding. Getting to know local Newfies, who love where they come from and strongly identify with the landscape around them, was very inspiring. It makes me want to return, not just for the ice climbing, but for the people, fishing, hunting, and hiking that abounds in that region of the province.

Ice climbing in Newfoundland is a lesson in patience. So much of the time is spent getting there and coming home. The weather never cooperates for the whole drive. While you're there, the approaches are long, and the logistics can be challenging, especially if you don't own a snowmobile. Even if you do own a snowmobile, traveling across frozen tidal lakes, giant deep ponds and near unfrozen high volume creeks is sketchy, and it's nice to have a local's knowledge of the place when approaching these spots. Despite these challenges it's still my favorite place to climb ice, and a place full of many future winter adventures.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Farley Ice

This winter was cold. Cold is good for ice formation at south-facing climbing areas like Farley. September will mark the start of my fourth year in the Pioneer Valley, so it was about time that I check out the ice at one of our local crags.

There isn't a ton of ice at Farley, but nearly every route has a bit of engaging climbing. Over the course of three days this season I climbed several lines there. I'm excited for the next cold winter so I can explore there more.

Here are some photos from this winter. It's only taken me a month and a half to post them.

Andy Neuman climbing an awesome M6+ pitch on the left side of the main

The iced up gully right of the Green Mile is a good WI4

Andy found this gem on the right end of the lower tier.
We did an M5 rock second pitch too.

Dolci, in the chimney at the start of a route left of
 Barn Door Crack

Dolci following Brown Spot (name?) on the upper tier

Screaming and Kicking Until the End

This winter has been the gift that keeps on giving. I was out a few days ago in the Catskills and was pleasantly surprised to find that the rain early last week did very little to damage the ice. There's still a ton of ice to climb there, and many of the ravines are really fat.

If you're still climbing ice this season definitely use caution on steeper sections of climbing. While climbing Buttermilk Falls the other day I experienced stress cracking on every single pitch. The constant freeze-thaw cycle, without the addition of new moisture, has left many climbs with dry, brittle ice. Steep, unsupported pillars or free-hangers are probably out of the question. Otherwise, being able to enjoy winter this late in the season is amazing.

Here are a few recent photos of days out in the Catskills.

Alan Kline on Purgatory, 3/10/14

Slavo on the final pitch of Buttermilk Falls, 3/16/14

Monday, March 3, 2014

Broken Black Diamond Stainless Crampons

This isn't a new issue, or a surprise for folks that have kept up with the stainless Black Diamond crampon discussion. Two different friends have sent me pictures over the past two weeks. Each of them was using different BD crampons, but both of them had broken crampon forefoot pieces. Another friend broke a center bar after only two days of use. He's been using the old chromoly center bars ever since.

If you are using BD crampons make sure you are checking high stress areas for small fractures. You might be able to catch the break before it becomes a failure while you are leading.

It's pretty clear that BD's design or construction is flawed. I've hung on to an old pair of Sabretooths, and they are far more durable than any of the new BD stainless crampons I have. They also fit my big feet better than the newer, smaller crampons (actually, if anyone has old Sabretooths in good shape I'd be willing to buy them!).

The BD stainless crampons are really nice, but the "stainless" spiel seems like marketing hype. I've had a few pairs now, and they seem much less durable than chromoly crampons. Between shorter frontpoints, a smaller footprint under foot, and the use of stainless BD must be saving a bundle of money in materials. I would like to see them go back to chromoly personally.

Googling "broken black diamond stainless crampons" yields a pretty large amount of information about broken crampons. It's worth a look if you have the time. Climb safe out there, and remember, gear doesn't last forever. Check your kit routinely.

Rick Kraft's Stingers. 1 yr old, Rick is a big guy, this
is to be expected.

Erik Eisele's Sabretooths. A few seasons old. Erik is
a smaller guy, who's light on his feet - not the person
you'd expect to break gear.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Sense of Place

Platte Clove, one of the places where I've ice climbed the most, will always remain special. This rugged, unique ravine has more ice in it during a good winter than most other places around the northeast. In fact, it's a little bit like the Shawangunks to the south. The route concentration is high and many of the climbs are very good.

Huge hemlock trees, on slopes so steep loggers couldn't access them, adorn the walls of Platte Clove. Normally, hemlocks are part of the undergrowth. They prefer the shade and cooler temperatures than most other trees found in the Catskill forests. In Platte Clove many of the Hemlocks, especially on the north-facing slopes, have trunks that are 2-4' in diameter.  I stop frequently to admire them.

They mottle the sunlight, and create a wooded, almost mystical climbing experience - something that's rare here, where our forests are composed largely of deciduous trees. In the Devil's Kitchen and near Bridalveil Falls this makes the light very yellow in the afternoon. At the Dark Side and in the Black Chasm the trees make it feel almost like it's dark outside, even on a bright day

Every time I traverse the north-facing slope on my way to the Dark Side, or pass the old stone quarry on the way to the Chasm, or stop next to the old stone bridge to put my crampons on before entering the Kitchen I'm reminded that Platte Clove is one of my favorite places.

The climbing there is good too. Over the past decade or so I've climbed in the clove a lot yet the place still yields new lines, and cliffs keep getting discovered (perhaps re-discovered). Over the long weekend I spent four days in the Catskills. Three of them were in Platte Clove and I had an incredible time climbing with good friends. After many years it amazes me that I can go to a place I've been to hundreds of times before and climb new climbs. Many of the established climbs are very fine too.

There comes a time in every person's life when the invincibility of youth is replaced by a sense of realism. Some folks have this reality forced upon them early. Others, not so much. My bout of paroxysmal a-fib (I chronicled this in my last post) reminded me not to take for granted my mobility and the ability to scramble, explore and climb in wild places. At some point this ability is taken from all of us and I want to enjoy every visit to special places like Platte Clove.