September 11, 2016

How Do Your Slings Look?

Getting the most life out of your climbing gear is not only a smart financial decision, but it's also good for the environment. The materials our stuff is made of (various metals and petroleum products) have a high environmental cost. That being said, pushing our equipment beyond what it was designed for is kinda dumb.

It's not the end of the world for clothing or camping gear, but taking the equipment we use to protect us in the event of a fall out of it's intended application (or beyond it's intended lifespan) can have serious consequences. When climbers (myself included) look at a worn out piece of gear and say, "oh, it's fine" that's a great example of poor decision making. That decision is usually not based on any actual scientific data. Instead it's most often based on some combination of laziness, a short sighted need for that piece of equipment, and frugality.

What brings all this to mind is a study I recently came across from The German Alpine Club. Every time we go climbing (unless it's bouldering) we're using slings (runners, quickdraws, etc) of some kind. They don't last forever. This study took a look at the strength of sling material as it ages, and if there is any correlation between a haggard appearance and a loss of strength. Pretty interesting reading.

I am not a scientist and have no science background. I'm pretty sure that for something to become accepted science it takes more than one study. That being said, the above paper presents information that is waaaay more fact based than guessing and hoping for the best. If you're interested in a bit more reading on sling material selection and use (or just have some time to kill at work) check out this article from Rock And Ice magazine and this video and article from DMM. Both look at appropriate applications for plain nylon and dyneema slings and quickdraws. There are more links at the bottom of the DMM article if you really want to fall down the rabbit hole.

July 30, 2016

Third Pillar Of Dana - Leave No Trace on the approach

The Third Pillar of Dana has one of the better approaches in the Sierra. It's easy to follow, fairly direct, and really pretty. 

This climbers path travels around Tioga Lake and winds through the woods before following a creek up into Glacier Canyon. Eventually it wanders through a lovely alpine meadow dotted with granite boulders and disappears a few minutes before climbers reach the top of the route. In the summer wildflowers add all sorts of color to the whole thing. 

In many places this path is an aesthetically pleasing single track. However, around 10,500 feet (I'm guessing at this altitude from memory and the map, not a gps waypoint), the path passes through several marshy areas and in a few places is starting to become wide and messy.

"Travel and camp on durable surfaces" is a basic Leave No Trace principle. In the case of the Third Pillar approach this should be fairly easy; just walk right in the middle of the path. The human impact is already there, and this durable surface (bare ground) can take the abuse. 

What's going wrong in this area around 10,500 feet is that us climbers are not walking in the middle of the trail. When we get to these marshy sections we skirt around the edges, killing the plants there and slowly widening the way. Why are we doing this? It's wet and muddy there. 

What should be a narrow path....
That's right, I'm calling out my fellow climbers for being afraid to get their shoes a little wet or muddy. It seems odd that a group of humans that will live in their cars for months on end, forgo showers, and purposely put themselves in physically and mentally challenging situations are unwilling to get their approach shoes dirty, but that's the explanation for the unnecessary impact. We might feel badass when we're romping up the last pitch of The Third Pillar, but we can't manage to do the right thing when faced with a few feet of muddy trail. Not so tough after all. 

If a call out won't work, how about the reality of the situation? I've been lucky enough to climb The Third Pillar of Dana twice so far this summer, once while guiding and once with my wife. I wore a different pair approach shoes each time and each time I tried walking directly through the muddy sections of the path. I took the photos below just after. Not so bad, right? The mud barely made it past the rands. 

"But what if my approach shoes have mesh on them and some of that muddy water makes its way in" you ask. This is a mountain range known for its fair weather. If you walk right through the mud and your feet get a little wet and dirty, fear not gentle reader, they'll dry out in the warm California sunshine and light winds that you'll get over the rest of your day of climbing. 

June 11, 2016

La Sportiva G2SM Review

I just finished up my season in the Alaska Range. This year that involved a personal climbing trip to the Ruth Gorge and a trip guiding folks up The West Buttress of Denali. All in all the G2SM's were on my feet for over 30 days.

The last few years I've been training more, and in a more structured way, than ever before. Mainly this is because I've been pursuing what are for me alpine climbs of increasing difficulty. No small motivation comes from the fact that my partners in these endeavors (who are quite fit to start with) are themselves training more and I need to keep up if I'm to hold up my end of the partnership bargain.

It seems to me that the complement to training hard is having the right equipment. Having the correct kit is a very easy way to multiply all those box steps and ice tool hangs. It always amazes me that climbers who obsess over reps and training cycles and diet are reluctant to upgrade their kit. Having the latest and greatest in gear won't help if you're out of shape or can't make the moves, but lightening your load makes you instantly stronger/faster/whatever and is a lot easier than doing push-ups. Arguably the most energy efficient place to shave pounds is from whatever is attached to your feet and legs: skis, ski bindings, crampons, and of course, boots.

The La Sportiva G2SM's in action on the "Thin Man's Squeeze" section of the Southwest Ridge of Peak 11,300. Photo by Andrew Yasso.
With that in mind I was interested when La Sportiva came out with the G2SM. I had been using the Spantiks for several years, originally in The Alaska Range, but also on particularly cold days or multiple night trips in the Canadian Rockies and here in the Sierra. The Spantiks are warm and provide an amazing amount of calf support for long frontpointing sessions. I'm not particularly impressed with their weight or bulk. They're about as heavy as my old Koflach Vertecal's and just as bulky. The other big problem I have with them is "side to side" ankle articulation. All that calf support for steeper ice makes any sort of french technique a pain and often encourages me to frontpoint on terrain where I could be using a more efficient technique.

For these reasons I was psyched to take the G2SM's out of the box. I wear both boots in size 43 and the pair of G2SM's are 19oz (538g) lighter than the pair of Spantiks (they come without insoles and I ended up adding a pair that weigh 2oz (56g)). They're less bulky. The sole length is about 1/4" (0.6cm) shorter and the boot is about 1/2" (1.2cm) less in circumference around the ball of my foot. They also delivered on the hope of ankle articulation. They're still not a pair of 3/4 shank summer boots, but the side to side ankle movement is about as good as you could expect from a double boot. All of this make the boot feel more nimble on technical terrain and more comfortable on sustained moderate terrain.

One of the first things other climbers mention about these boots is the Boa lacing system. Though the Boa system has been around the ski and snowboard world for a while I have never used it. A few folks I talked to had some problems with the system a few years ago. I had no problems withe the Boa system, despite the fact that I cranked it down pretty tight a few times. It was nice to be able to use the lacing system to dial in the tension a few clicks at a time. The Boa knob is also easy to operate with big gloves on.

Big pull loops on the shell and liner are a nice touch for cold mornings.
The big pull loops on the liner and shell of the boot make it easy to get on and off. I had an easier time getting the liners into the boot when they were already on my feet. The top of the gaiter has a drawcord built into it that's really easy to tighten but difficult to loosen. With softshell pants pulled down over the boot there was pretty much no way snow was going to get in, and the top of the gaiter formed a reasonably snug seal on my skinny calves, so I didn't worry about the drawcord too much.

La Sportiva footwear tends to fit my low-volume feet fairly well. I wear the same size - 43 - in Muiras, TC Pros, running shoes, lots of approach shoes and a number of mountain boots. A little bit of fitting help from Mammoth Mountaineering tuned them in just right.

May 15, 2016

Social Media and Sponsored Athletes

Though I started climbing and guiding in the Sierra in 2009, it took another year for me to begin sampling our famous couloirs. In the fall of 2010 I saw the Reel Rock Film Tour and was really delighted with the movie The Swiss Machine. One of the final scenes features aerial footage of Ueli Steck motoring up one of the last sections of the North Face of The Eiger while the song "Welcome Home Son" plays. It's cool cinematography paired really well with music for an inspiring movie moment.

I downloaded the song. Less than a week later I climbed the North Couloir of North Peak. I had never climbed the route before and there was a chance I might be guiding it in the near future. I'm not proud to admit it, but during the more fun bits of climbing on the route I had the song on repeat on my iPod. In the moment I was Ueli, moving freely and efficiently.

Recently, a friend called my attention to an article on Outside Online entitled, "Is Social Media Screwing Over Explorers?" The article talks about the fact that some outdoor brands are dropping their sponsored athletes for less skilled but more social-media-savvy representatives who "tell stories that resonate with the average user". It makes a lot of sense, if the point of sponsoring people is to spread the word about the brand and it's products, to throw money and product at the story tellers who will do that best.

I hope we don't stop getting stories from top climbers and skiers. I love reading these stories and think that there will always be a place for them. Stories of pedestrian "adventure" just don't inspire me in the same way. Think about your favorite adventure tale, it's probably not about something that you or I could do right now.

Leading athletes are pushing the limits of our pursuits. Though the story tellers produce content that I enjoy consuming, they are not moving our "sports" forward. I want top athletes to have support from companies I patronize so that they can continue to do what they do. What they do benefits me.

Epics from athletes at the top of their game inspire me to work harder when I'm training and show me what's possible when I'm on the climb. In a way reading stories, seeing photos, and viewing video of these top practitioners helps make us all better. You can't see it in the Swiss Machine, but when Ueli is charging up those slopes he's dragging all of us behind him.

April 10, 2016

Blue Diamond Ridge

Less than a week ago I got home from Red Rocks. I always make a trip there at this time of year for the Red Rock Rendezvous, and I try to incorporate some other guiding work and some personal climbing too.

This year Jess and I went down for a few days of climbing to kick off my trip. Amongst other routes, we climbed Burlesque in Icebox Canyon. I have rapped down this four pitch route on every time I've guided Frigid Air Buttress, as it's part of the standard descent. The massive flake on pitch three has been something I've wanted to climb ever since I first rapped past it.

It was a rather windy Saturday when we left the truck, but the winds abated as we got into the amphitheater below the route, and we didn't have to worry about the crowds on an old fashioned route known for it's wide climbing. The route itself was a fun adventure. Pitch two featured some fun crack climbing on great varnish, and the flake didn't disappoint. It starts as an offwidth and widens to a comfy squeeze chimney. The belay has great views down into the chimney. All in all a good route for any crack climbing aficionado or connoisseur of Red Rocks trad.

Then Jess took off and I had a fun week of guiding that included The Rendezvous. It was while driving to the event one morning a number of years ago that I first noticed the Blue Diamond Ridge. Morning light accentuates this line on Mount Wilson; as the sun makes its way across the sky it blends in with the Basin Wall behind. There's not a ton of beta out there on this route but everyone I spoke to talked about the Equalizer pitch, a notorious 5.9 lead where the only pro is two cams that are equalized part way up.

This event always brings a lot of my colleagues to the area, and every year that route comes up in conversation. It always goes something like, "Hey I'm looking for a partner for Blue Diamond Ridge...but you've got to lead the Equalizer pitch". I may have even been guilty of uttering those words myself. Over the years I've learned that some legendary pitches aren't all they're cracked up to be and I started wondering if the Equalizer was really that bad. This year I talked to my colleague Chad about the route and when I asked him if he was interested, I made sure to mention that I would be happy to lead the Equalizer. He was interested, and also was interested in leading the famous pitch. We decided that we would take the route as it came and whoever happened to be in front would take that lead.

Almost done with the approach.
A couple of days after the event we found ourselves walking away from my truck by headlamp. Pretty soon we were on an old dirt road that cuts across the desert directly toward the gully that leads to the base of the route. The dirt road peters out before it reaches Mount Wilson and after some cross country travel we picked up cairns that led us into the gully. Some fifth class climbing had us tightening our approach shoe laces and chalking up. The gully passes by a nice looking crag with varnished cracks that forms the proper toe of the ridge. This remote zone probably deserves a visit of it's own, if the climbing is half as good as it looks. After some ogling we followed the gully into the bowl between the ridge and The Basin Wall and then angled over onto the ridge where we took a long snack break at a big cairn.

I found some beta written by the first ascensionist at rockclimbing.com. He mentioned a "40' splitter crack" marking the start of the route. Above us was 4th and low 5th class climbing with no splitter in sight. We put on rock shoes and got out the rack, but left the rope coiled and resumed scrambling. We spent the next couple hundred feet climbing easy terrain on the left side of the ridge, but looking for straightforward spots that would put us back on the crest. Before long we found ourselves at the base of an excellent handcrack in a corner just left of the ridge crest. Whether on route or not, there was no way we weren't going to climb this thing! So we roped up and sent it.
Chad on a fun tight-hands crack part way up the ridge.
From here the route unfolded fairly smoothly. Some of it was easy ropeless scrambling. We did some simul-climbing. We made a number of shorter pitches with the follower wearing half the rope as tied-off coils. There were some terrain belays. We also made a handful of longer pitches with anchors and everything. Maybe halfway up passed through a cool tunnel to the left side of the ridge and got a good view of the upper part of the ridge. We saw something that looked like maybe it could be the mythical Equalizer. Chad led a short pitch of offwidth in good varnish to return us to the crest and then I took over. A few easy leads found us bypassing the only real tower on the route and then stowing the rope for some fun low 5th class climbing.

Getting fired up just before the tower.
Above this I found myself standing at the base of what we were pretty sure was the Equalizer pitch with the rack clipped to my harness. Chad put me on belay and I cast off. The reputation of this pitch was in my head at first, but after a few moves I just focused on the climbing....which was very good. It was frictiony face climbing on the best white rock I've ever climbed on in Red Rock. Aside from the two equalized #1 Camalots, I also placed a small C3 and a tricam. If we had carried more small C3's and small tricams I may have been able to get more gear. The movement was enjoyable and never desperate. Chad's offwidth felt a bit harder. Partway up Chad expressed some envy that I ended up with the pitch and I promised him that he could lead the money pitch(es) next time we climbed together.

Chad nearing the end of the Equalizer.
The Equalizer ends on a big flat step where we again coiled the rope for the last few hundred feet of scrambling. And then we were on top, putting the gear away, reapplying sunscreen, and happily changing out of our sweaty rock shoes. Good descent beta from rockclimbing.com had us back in First Creek Canyon faster than the standard walk back to the limestone, so we decided that a quick lap on Black Magic was in order on the way out.

Blue Diamond Ridge is a great route, but it's not typical Red Rocks fare. It feels a lot more like an alpine rock climb than say, Resolution Arete (also on Mount Wilson). The route felt fairly casual to Chad and I because we're both very comfortable climbing on 5.9 terrain and both have a lot of alpine climbing experience. We have a lot of experience routefinding on 3rd to low 5th class terrain and managing loose rock, which abounds on the route, particularly in the easier sections. Parties with appropriate skill and experience will find this is a really fun and rewarding route and shouldn't be intimidated by its reputation.