Gear Talk: Radios in the Backcountry

using radios for Backcountry Skiing and Mountaineering
Matt Jones checks in using the BCA Link Radio before dropping in, Jones Pass, Colorado- photo by Bianca Germain

Over the last few years I’ve realized how important being able to quickly and clearly communicate with my partners in the mountains is. So much so that I’ve added a pair of hand-held radios to my “essentials” list. I started using BCA Link Radios while working on Mount Washington to stay in touch with other guides who worked for the same outfitter I did. After missing this reliable way to communicate on a recreational ski tour I started taking them with me on every ski trip. I also find them well suited to alpine and ice climbing gullies with long technical pitches that end at anchors out of sight (Pinnacle Gully and Black Dike are perfect examples).

The ease of being able to clearly communicate without yelling over the roar of the wind or interpret “rope tugs” adds greatly to your risk management strategies. Other benefits include being able to monitor National Weather Service current conditions and forecasts for your regions, summon outside help outside of cell phone coverage, and even tune into local FM stations on some models. I’ll share a few models worth looking at if you need to pick up a set of radios to improve your capabilities in the mountains.


Backcountry Access BC Link

BCA Link Radio

We had a fleet of these at the guide service I first worked with. They are simple to use, rugged, and convenient. The “Smart Mic” allows you to access all the controls you need without having to take the radio out of your pack. Equipped with 22 FRS and GMRS channels and 121 sub-channels it is compatible with all standard FRS/GMRS radios.

  • Group Communication System with Smart Mic and base unit
  • Water- and dust-resistant to IP56 standards
  • Compatible with all standard FRS/GMRS radios
  • 2.5-mile line-of-sight range ensures adequate coverage
  • 140 hour maximum battery life keeps unit running all day (3.7 Volt Lithium Ion)
  • Temperature operating range between -4F to 158F
  • Smart Mic is compatible with 3.5mm TS or TRS earphone plug
  • Battery charger included

Pros: Super user friendly to first time radio owners. No licenses needed to operate. Rugged and Water Resistant (IP56). Convenient Smart Mic. Can program local NWS channel for weather updates. Integrates well with BCA line of Airbags and Stash backpacks. Removable battery means you can bring extra batteries on a trip.

Cons: A little pricey but discounted now that there is a new version out! Can not program channels that would require a license to use outside of emergencies.


Backcountry Access BC Link 2.0

BCA Link 2.0 Radio

The new version boosts some significant improvements over the time tested original. More power means greater range, with the 2.0 offering up to 6 miles (line of sight), more than double the range of the original. A stronger battery (2300mAh lithium ion) also gives you more time between recharging (400 hours vs 140 hours in the original). A redesigned Smart Mic claims to better shed snow when you’re riding in face shot territory.

  • Two-way radio built for backcountry touring
  • Smart Mic offers glove-friendly handling
  • Rechargeable battery offers 400 hours of standby power
  • Recommended line-of-sight usable range of 6 miles; max of approximately 40-miles

Pros: Super user friendly to first time radio owners. No licenses needed to operate. Rugged and Water Resistant (IP56). Convenient Smart Mic. Can program local NWS channel for weather updates. Integrates well with BCA line of Airbags and Stash backpacks.

Cons: Pretty expensive, but this is a high-end choice in the realm of FRS/GRMS radios. Can not program channels that would require a license to use outside of emergencies. Battery is no longer removable so you can’t bring extra batteries (but you can charge with a standard charger or USB)


BaoFeng BF-F8HP

radios for backcountry skiing

The last few years I’ve been using the BaoFeng BF-F8HP and have been quite happy with them. With up to 8 watts of output they have great range. They can be programmed for FRS/GRMS. They can also be programmed to monitor and broadcast on licensed channels so care must be given you do not break FCC rules. You can listen to FM radio while the radio still monitors the channel your group is using, so if a communication is received the radio automatically mutes the FM radio station you were rocking out to while skinning up that non-consequential slope. You can also monitor National Weather Service regional weather.

Pros: Affordable. Dual band (monitor two channels at same time). Listen to local FM radio while hanging around camp or moving through no risk terrain. Can program local State and Federal frequencies to be used in case of emergency*

Cons: Not as water/weather resistant as the BCA Link Radios. I’ve ruined two in accidental immersion incidents (waterfall rappelling). In heavy rain I would want to keep this in the pack, maybe in a dry sack. “Boom mic” is not included and not as glove-friendly as BC Link Radios. I keep this radio out on my shoulder strap. Care must be given that you do not broadcast on frequencies that require licensing. If you need a fleet of them it’s good to have someone with a data cable and the PC software “Chirp” to program them.


What is legal?

Navigating what frequencies don’t require a license can be tricky. The BC Link Radios are quite powerful FRS/GRMS radios that keep it simple. The BaoFeng can land you a $15,000 fine if you are caught using licensed channels. Because of this I’ve decided to pursue an Technician license. An even easier to get license is the “Amateur” license and would probably make these issues even clearer.

You are allowed to monitor (listen) to channels that require a license to transmit on. You are also allowed to transmit on these channels without a license in the case of a real emergency. From the FCC:

Part 97.403: Safety of life and protection of property.

No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radio communication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.

All that said I’m looking forward to pursing a license so I can better answer these questions.


Summary

While some of the details of licensing can be unclear (without proper education) one thing that is clear is that handheld radios like these help us travel more safely and efficiently in the mountains. Here is an example of a conversation that could not happen with out radios from the top of a backcountry ski run:

“Dropping in 3” – alerts group I’m starting the first pitch of my ski run.

“Clear”- let’s group know next person can follow, I’ve stopped at a safer spot.

Even outside of avalanche terrain radios can assist with conveying hazards as they are discovered.

“Stay hard right at first corner to avoid a water bar”

In an alpine climbing scenario easily talking with your belayer when 50 meters apart and out of sight is comforting. None of the “Did he say off belay or OK?”. Was that three tugs or does she just need more slack?

Having both NWS weather updates and FM stations (BaoFeng) on long trips can help keep you informed and improve morale if stuck in your tent for an extra day waiting for good weather.

All of these reasons are why radios have become a part of my “essentials” every time I go into the mountains. Once you start using them you’ll wonder why you haven’t been using them all along!

Disclaimer: I do not have any level of radio license and information provided above may be incorrect. I will update this post after I have acquired a license but would love any comments from current licensed operators below and will make suggested edits where appropriate!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Gear Review: Arc’teryx Acto FL Jacket

Arc'teryx Acto FL Jacket Review
Arc’teryx Acto FL Jacket Review- photo by Alexandra Roberts

Over the last three months I’ve been testing the Arc’Teryx Acto FL Jacket and the results are in. Simple and efficient design makes this a great piece as an approach soft-shell for both ice climbing and back-country skiing.

How I Tested

Starting in November I wore this jacket on multiple early season ice climbs including the season’s first ascent of Standard Route at Frankenstein Cliffs. I wore it during one of three trips up the Black Dike at Cannon Cliff and on a half dozen ski tours on Mount Washington including one summit day where temps where in the lower teens and winds were 45-65 mph. I’ll go over the details in the order I feel they are most pronounced.

Breath-ability

Arc'teryx Acto FL Jacket Review
Close up of the fleece “backer” that gives this soft-shell a broad range of comfort and excellent breath-ability

The most noticeable feature of this jacket is how well it breathes. The highly air-permeable Aerius™ fabric is no joke. It is difficult to overcome this jacket’s breath-ability even when you are crushing your uphill approach at Munter Rate 6. This level of breath-ability is really important as this “minimalist” piece does not have any side zips for ventilation. It does not need them.

Water-Resistance

As is common with soft-shell style jackets this piece is not water-proof, but has a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) finish. I found this to be adequate on the early and very drippy first ascent of Standard this past Fall. The second pitch had a steady light shower thing going on and I made it to the end of the pitch with only a little bit of “wet out”. If freezing rain or rain is in the forecast I’d reach for one of my hard-shells, but for cold & active this has just enough water/snow resistance for me.

Arc'teryx Acto FL Jacket Review
First ascent of a drippy Standard Route for the 2018/19 ice season- photo by Alexandra Roberts

Durability/Abrasion Resistance

While it is always hard to comment on this after only 2.5 months of testing I can attest that I scummed my way up the chimney section on the Black Dike and bushwhacked though some dense pine trees in Gulf of Slides and on Mount Willard and have yet to put anything on this jacket that shows it has been on some adventures, so I’m going with yes, it is durable and abrasion resistant!

Hemlock™

I’ll admit I did not read any of the manufacturer’s description before starting my testing. I like to have no preconceptions when I start the review process. So it took me a moment to figure out why sections of the bottom hem felt like they had a four 4 inch long cylindrical foam/gel-like straws sewn into it. This was something I hadn’t seen before it and I think it’s quite an excellent idea. This feature is designed to prevent the jacket from coming un-tucked from your climbing harness when making repeated over the head arm-stretches (ice climbing). It is an elegant and effective design choice and one I think will appear on many technical soft-shells that are specific to wearing under a harness.

Pockets

In keeping with the fast & light minimalist design the jacket only sports two high “cross over” hand/chest pockets. The few times I wore this jacket casually I missed hand pockets but that’s not a fair dig as this is not a jacket designed for casual wear, it’s designed for sending it in the mountains at a quick clip!

Hood

Arc'teryx Acto FL Jacket Review
Arc’teryx Acto FL Jacket Hood

Arc’teryx did make a clever design choice with the hood changing the material here to lightweight Tyono™ 30 nylon StormHood™. This material is less breath-able than the main material used in the jacket but much more wind-resistant. The informal “try to blow through the fabric” test makes it seem twice as wind-resistant than the main material. The hood fits perfect without a helmet on, which leads me to one of my only negative marks on the jacket. The hood is really a tad snug when worn over a helmet. If you have a low profile helmet like the Petzl Sirocco or Black Diamond Meteor III it would probably work, especially if you are a small or medium sized helmet vs my XL sized melon. I do like the stiffened visor when wearing it without a helmet though!

Arc'teryx Acto FL Jacket Review
A bit snug while wearing a helmet

Sizing/Fit

Following the Arc’teryx size chart I went with a size large based on my 42 inch chest. Other than the hood being snug when wearing a helmet the arm and waist cut felt great. I would layer my Merino wool t-shirt and a light fleece or wool hoody under the jacket. I could easily put my big puffy belay jacket over this when needed. I especially liked the snug elastic wrist cuffs that kept both spin drift and occasional drips running down my arms.

Weight/Pack-ability

Arc’Teryx listed this at 440 g / 15.5 oz. My home scale on my size large weighed in at 490 g / 17 oz. This puts the jacket towards the heavier side of “minimalist” jackets but I’m not sure that could be helped given the base fabric used. I’d take the a few extra ounces for the amount of comfort-range this piece affords. While the jacket isn’t super pack-able I haven’t really had a reason to not be wearing it during day missions.

Arc'teryx Acto FL Jacket Review
Arc’teryx Acto FL Jacket Review- photo by Alexandra Roberts

Summary

Arc’teryx designed this jacket as a minimalist piece for fast & light missions alpine missions and while not the end-all-perfect piece the Arc’Teryx Acto FL Jacket comes darn close to perfection. While I would like to see the hood enlarged a little bit there’s really not much I would change given the end-goal. If you are in the market for a super-breathable rugged soft-shell give this one a look!

A media sample was provided for purpose of review. Affiliate links help support the content created here. Thank you!

Route Guide: Climbing The Black Dike

Ice Climbing the Black Dike

Twelve hundred feet above Interstate 93 in dramatic Franconia Notch State Park lies the beginning of a 600 foot alpine ice climb that should be on every ice climbers wish list. Every time I have climbed this route I have thought of the young John Bouchard who grabbed the first ascent in an epic fashion that you should definitely read about in both An Ice Climber’s Guide to Northern New England and Yankee Rock & Ice (both available at International Mountain Equipment in North Conway).

Having successfully climbed it about a dozen times now (and bailed for various reasons at other times) I thought I would share some beta that might help you plan your ascent. I will be going into “more than guidebook” level detail so if you are one who prefers not to have any spoilers you might skip the sections below on Gear and Pitch Suggestions. If you’re the type that likes to scour internet forums for every slice of beta you can find maybe you’ll find something useful below!

Disclaimer: I am not an AMGA certified Alpine Guide nor have I taken the AMGA Ice Instructors Course. All the information below is liable to be incorrect. Using any of the below information is at your own risk. There are no guarantees that any of it is correct. Ice climbing is dangerous and death is possible. You are solely responsible for your safety. Seek qualified instruction.

Timing Beta

“Is it in yet?” is a common phrase heard in late Fall within the local ice climbing community. Without a doubt by mid-October climbers are peaking at NEIce.com and NEClimbs.com in anticipation of the first ascent of the season being reported. I’m not sure when the official “earliest” ascent has occurred but I do recall quite a few in mid-late October. These are usually done by some of the best climbers of the region and conditions can be so fickle that the route might be “gone” the very next day.

ice climbing Black Dike
From the top of pitch 2 pin anchor, October 20th, 2015, From NEIce.com, Photo by Majka Burhardt.

16 days after this ascent I was climbing the Whitney-Gilman Ridge (adjacent route) in a t-shirt and there wasn’t any trace of ice left in the adjacent gully! For the route to reach more consensual “in” conditions we usually need to wait until mid-November. So far for the 2018/2019 season the route had been in fantastic shape and I’ve climbed it on 12/7, 12/9, and 12/20. All three times I was able to skip the rock traverse, something I had never done in previous years (details below on this variation).

Another aspect of “Timing” is choosing a start time. There is no denying it, this is a sought after route and there are a lot of ice climbers with this on their to-do list. It is also a terrible route to decide to climb below another party. The last pitch often has surprisingly brittle ice even when the rest of the route seems pretty solid. Despite using the most amount of caution I’ve had to let some microwave sized chunks of ice go from the third pitch. The first and second two pitches offer virtually no safe space to protect yourself from ice above. If you choose to climb under another party you are taking a real risk… one I don’t feel is warranted.

So what can you do? Three tactics…

Start early. I mean really early. The approach takes 45-55 minutes… so plan to do that by headlamp. Arriving at the first pitch at first light is a great way to improve your odds of getting on route first. It’s also nice to be back at the car by noon!

Wait. Ok, another party beat you to the route. Size them up. Only a party of two? Local? Climbed it before? Well in good conditions strong parties can top this three pitch route out in 90 minutes… Got a warm belay jacket? Stack your rope and ask them to holler when off route so you know you can start climbing. Two or more parties ahead of you or too cold/windy to hang around… time to head over to Crawford Notch or Evans Notch for option 2.

Start late. As the days get longer later starts might be a good choice. Show up at noon and see a party finishing the last pitch? Perfect timing, you can probably make it back to the car before dark! Keep in mind later starts and approaching darkness add some risk should something unforeseen happen. Carry enough stuff to survive a night in these conditions just in case.

Weather Beta

Franconia Notch has earned a reputation for harsh weather when the rest of the state can seem quite comfortable. It’s common to drive up on clear calm conditions and pull into the parking lot to find gale force winds and frigid temps. The notch really does generate some of its own weather. To get a sense of what your day might be like start with the Higher Summits Forecast for a regional outlook then look closer at Cannon Mountain on Mountain-Forecast.com.

Gear Beta

Protection: In fat conditions (December 2018) the route can be well protected with just ice screws. I usually carry one 22 cm that I use for the first ice anchor and for v-threads if bailing, eight 13 cm screws, and two 10 cm screws. A couple mid-sized cams can make protecting the last few moves before gaining the snowy exit ramp convenient. In leaner conditions you might benefit from also carrying a small rack of nuts and perhaps a few pins.

Rope: The climb is most often done in three rope stretching 60 meter pitches, so in a party of two I prefer to climb it with a single skinny single rated rope like my Sterling Fusion Nano IX DryXP Climbing Rope.  If you have to bail having only one rope does make that a bit trickier. From the top of the first pitch I have bailed with a single 60 by making a v-thread mid-pitch and doing a second rappel. From the pin anchor at the top of the second pitch you would need to v-thread 3 times to reach the ground. If you climb with 60 meter twins/doubles you would only need one rap from the top of the first pitch, or two from the pin anchor at the top of the second pitch (last rap would be from a v-thread). While a 70 meter might make the pitches seem a bit less “stretched” I don’t think carrying an extra 30 feet of rope up the route makes sense, but 70’s are gaining popularity and if that is what you have you’d still need to v-thread off if you only have one. Parties of three would be best served with two skinny (9mm or less) 60 meter single ropes.

Clothing: Cannon can be burly when it comes to weather. It is not a cragging day and the warmth of the car is far away. My clothing system for a Cannon day looks something like; mid-weight wool base layers, soft-shell pants and jacket, light synthetic insulated hooded puffy, large down insulated hooded parka. You can see a lot of my favorite specific models over on my gear review page along with my “essentials” picks here. There are lots of packs suitable for this style of climb and I am partial to my Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack for these types of missions that I reviewed here.

Communication: This is a great route to use a pair of FRS radios on. Almost every pitch is full length and it is difficult to communicate from both the top of pitch two and pitch three. I’ve started using radios on almost all alpine multi-pitch routes and don’t see me going back to losing my voice yelling “off belay” anytime soon.

Getting There

The climb is located in Franconia Notch State Park off of NH Interstate 93 (US Route 3). Coming from the south (Boston) the drive is about 2 hours in good conditions. From North Conway it takes about an hour to drive over the Kancamagus Highway. From Montreal it’s about 3 hours. My locals tip is to set your GPS to the Dunkin Donuts in Lincoln, NH, 44 Main St, Lincoln, NH 03251. They open at 5 AM and it’s a convenient place to stop for a high calorie breakfast sandwich and last-minute bathrooms. I also like to “boot up” here so when I get to the cold and snowy parking lot and can just toss on my pack and start walking. Arriving with boots on ready to start walking has put me ahead of other climbing parties on this route and in Crawford and Pinkham Notch so many times I can’t recommend it enough.

If you are going for a later start White Mountain Bagel opens at 6:30 am and for the truly casual start and best breakfast in Lincoln you can get in the door of Flapjacks at 7:00 am.

Approach Beta

Traditionally climbers would park at the “climber’s lot”, a small lot that is the first pull off after heading south from the Cannon Mt. Tram Exit (you reverse direction here if coming from the south). There is a small register box that is rarely used or checked in the winter and half the times I stop there are no forms or pencils to list your intended climb anyways. I do not park here, but I do pull through so I can get a quick look at how many cars are there. In the winter 95% of the cars parked here are probably gunning for the Black Dike, and if there are more than two cars I’m probably heading somewhere else. The most recent visit I saw two cars but both climbers were still inside them putting boots on so I pulled back onto the highway and headed to my preferred parking spot, Lafayette Place Campground, the next exit south. You can use Google Maps or Waze to get you to the Campground.

ice climbing black dike

Approaching from the Lafayette Place Campground

Here there is plenty of parking when arriving early (5-7 am). I park right next to the bike path and head north on that path to the approach trail. This option is slightly longer than hiking from the climber’s lot, and slightly uphill, but has one big advantage. In half a mile it passes the descent trail. If you park at the climber’s lot you must then hike .65 miles uphill climbing back up 120 feet of elevation in the process. I prefer to walk .6 miles back downhill to the car at the end of the day.

Which ever approach you choose you might benefit from Microspikes. So far this year trail conditions have been so good they have not been needed, but that can change almost daily and Microspikes are way more comfortable on approaches and descents then having to stop and don your full on ice climbing crampons. Nailing the approach trail from the bike path can be tricky, and many have mistakenly taken one of the other approach trails that lead to other parts of the cliff (or the descent trail), and loss valuable time while heading to this climb. I once met a party who spent almost two hours approaching because they somehow took the northern Lakeview Approach trail and then had to traverse the bottom of the whole cliff.

It is just shy of a mile from the Lafayette Place Campground parking lot and about .4 miles from the climbers lot. At a brisk pace from the south it’s about 20 minutes, and you will pass the descent trail about half way there (don’t mistake that for the ascent trail!). For those with GPS capabilities it’s at 19T 0285700E, 4892603N WGS84, 1,913 elevation.

Once you break out of the woods and into the talus you still have 700 feet of elevation to gain. Some cairns mark a path but there is usually a packed out path you can follow that might be more efficient than the summer climbers path. Linking filled in snow fields can really make the footing easier while ascending to the route, with the obvious Whitney Gilman Ridge being the feature you should be working towards.

When you reach the base of the Whitney-Gilman Ridge you might opt to don harnesses, helmets, and crampons. The next 200 feet of snow climbing can sometimes be quite firm and the security of crampons and one ice axe can be prudent. In some snow conditions it might even be prudent to rope up and pitch this last part out. I have an old friend who took an unexpected ride down this approach pitch in an avalanche a decade ago and his partner suffered some serious injuries. It’s steep enough to avalanche so due diligence is a good idea.

There is often a “platform” stomped out about 50 feet below the start of the water ice from where most parties start to 5th class belay. Beyond that the snow slope steepens a little.

Leading Strategies

While not exactly part of a “route guide” I am going to interject some opinion on how a team tackles this route. While this next statement can open up a huge can of worms I’m going to simply say the best option is for the strongest partner to lead the whole route. Swapping leads is fun and all but in ice climbing it means one person will not be moving for quite a long time. During the swap the new leader hasn’t had the rest that the first leader has had… This topic is more complex and could go on for pages so I’m simply going to suggest that if you and your partner are of equal ability you just rock, paper, scissors for the lead role and have at it. Of course if during the climb the leader gets worked and wants to hand over the sharp end so be it, but if you are both climbing well the whole party will move faster and stay warmer if you do this route in one 3 pitch “block”.

Pitch Breakdowns and Variations

Black Dike Photo Topo Ice Climbing
Photo topo of the route. Photo and Legend by Dave Dillon of Chase the Summit, Lines and Dots by me.

Pitch 1: Traditionally the first pitch is the easiest pitch. You start with 50 feet of snow climbing and gain the water ice. You place a screw or two and move a bit right. You place a few more screws and pick a spot to belay down and right of the infamous “rock traverse”. Most climbers probably place 5-6 screws on this pitch. The ice anchor built is usually a 2-screw anchor down and right of the traverse. It’s a good idea not to really stretch the rope and anchor right below the traverse so that the next lead can get some rope and a good screw in the system before they start the rock traverse. I’d say about 15 feet below the rock traverse is a great spot to post up.

Ice climbing the Black Dike
Belaying my partner up to the top of the first pitch direct variation- photo by Chase The Summit

Pitch 1 Variation: In good conditions (like December 2018) the ice on the second pitch may be thick enough to offer full strength screws allowing one to avoid the rock traverse and take a more direct (left) line. If this is the plan leaders can stay a bit left on the first pitch and create an ice anchor a little lower than the traditional anchor spot just before the steeper ice. This spot is a little more exposed to falling ice from the 2nd pitch so a good strategy is for the belayer to clove in with a bit of a long length of rope to allow for some ice dodging mobility. About a ten foot length worked well on my last two climbs and also allows for a bit more rope in the system when pulling a moderate but sometimes awkward first couple moves off the anchor.

Pitch 2 (rock traverse): There’s a lot of hype about this rock traverse… the thing is it’s actually quite chill. While the guidebooks says (5.6) it’s often much easier, just awkward and somewhat exposed. The real crux is finding the feet when the ledges have fresh snow on them. That and not hosing yourself with rope drag. In good conditions you can leave the 1st pitch anchor, climb up 15 or so feet, place a good screw with an extended alpine draws, and start moving left along the traverse. Only a step or two will let you reach some fixed tat that protects the traverse, then you need to get established on the steeper ice that becomes the routes first technical crux. It’s really not that bad, but can be awkward. As soon as you get established on the steeper ice the desire to place a screw can be strong. If the sticks are good try to get a few moves up. This will save you a lot of rope drag that you might notice at the end of this full length pitch. Where the steeper ice recedes is IMO the technical crux of the route… it is often fractured and brittle here. A few deep breaths and another good screw should see you into some lower angle terrain.

ice climbing the Black Dike
Starting the steeper crux on the second pitch, the rock traverse is to my right- photo by Chase The Summit

Most of the rest of the second pitch is enjoyable for a climber comfortable with Grade 4 ice. I choose to run it out a bit here to conserve screws. The second route crux appears near some often parasol type ice when you need to move into a bit of a chimney spot and the feet feel awkward. I get a good screw here then pull through by looking at the left wall for stemming options constantly. One or two more screws will see you staring at the pin anchor and the end of the Grade 4 style ice climbing.

Pitch 2 (left direct): When in good shape one can choose to stay left on the first pitch and gain the runnel directly negating the need for the rock traverse. In some ways this feels easier as line is more direct and you can easily get established on the steeper bit. In thin conditions this can be quite bold as it might not take 10 cm screws and there isn’t anything for rock gear here. So thin conditions, do the rock traverse… thick conditions, check this option out. After 30 feet or so of climbing you will see the rock traverse on your right just before the first steeper crux mentioned above.

ice climbing the Black Dike
About 50 feet from the pitch 2 pin anchor there is one more awkward move a few feet above me here- photo by Chase The Summit

Pitch 2 Anchor: As of December 2018 there is a 3 pin anchor equalized with some cord at the top of the second pitch with two steel cold shuts on it. The easiest option is to use a large shaped locking carabiner through the two cold shots as a “master carabiner”, then anchor and belay as norm. There are also plenty of options here for an ice anchor, and if you stop 20 feet lower you can watch/coach your partner through the crux.

Pitch 3: The last pitch starts off really mellow on often wet plastic ice before gaining some drier steeper bits. The line is usually pretty clear, but care should be taken as it isn’t over yet. The ice on pitch three can go from plastic here to dinner-plate-central here in only a few feet. Keep that game face on. The regular route stays left and as the water ice diminishes there’s some decent rock gear placements on the right just before you reach the snow-ramp-exit. You can get short screws here but cams are much faster if you have them. Once you reach the snow you can start getting turf shots but stay focused. An experienced climber fell from here two years ago and ended up with a broken femur and involved rescue. About 20 feet from the top I throw a sling around a small tree on the right to protect my last few moves to the top.

Pitch 3 right hand finish: Last year I did the right hand finish a few times and found it pretty fun. It’s a bit more awkward and ends a little prematurely but in certain conditions it might be a better exit.

Descent Info

The descent trail is pretty easy to pickup and follow though it is steep at times. I’ve had to wear crampons for the whole descent on some years, Microspikes other times, and at-least once been able to butt-glissade the majority of the descent in record time. My advice, make sure your shit is secure! Over the years I’ve seen quite a few “lost ice axe/screws” posts online from people glissading down the descent trail. Secure one axe, and keep one out if the glissading is good. Do not glissade with crampons on! Pack your harness and screws for the hike out. Once you reach the bike trail bang a right and head to the car (or a left and walk uphill if you choose the climber lot).

Apres Climb

Time to refuel and rejoice as you just knocked off one of the most historic and well-known ice climbs in the East! A few of our favorite post climb spots in Lincoln, NH:

Black Mountain Burger Co.– Excellent gourmet burgers and hand cut fries, high-end craft beers and cocktails.

Woodstock Inn Station & Brewery– Large place with usually plenty of room at the bar, good beers and extensive menu. Make it in time for Happy Hour (3-5 pm) and enjoy half price apps and $3.50 pints on most of their beers!

Guided Trips (Am I ready?)

If this is a trip you’d prefer to do with a guide feel free to reach out to me. It is a serious undertaking so a shakedown cragging day may be suggested before we set our sights on this route. Climbers should be very comfortable following Grade 4+ ice before attempting to follow this route. A suggested progression to determine if you will enjoy the climb…

A season of top-rope ice experience.

Successfully following efficiently a full length climb of Mount Willard (Hitchcock or Left Hand Monkey Wrench to Cleft).

Comfortably following Standard to Penguin and Dracula (Frankenstein Cliffs) in one day.

Comfortable following Pinnacle Gully in Huntington Ravine.

This is just a broad suggestion of local objectives that would help determine when you might be ready for the Black Dike. Every climber learns at their own pace and a route like the Black Dike is worth waiting for a decent weather window, conditions, level of fitness, and technique.

Summary

I hope this article helps you plan your ascent of this New England classic someday! Even after 15 years of climbing this route I am blown away that we have such a thing in the East. Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or if you have some tips you’d like to share. I’ll leave you with some stunning video my friend Dave captured of my last ascent of the route in late December 2018. If your internet connection can handle it be sure to watch in full screen and 4K resolution! Enjoy!



Gear Review: Outdoor Research Alpine Down Hooded Jacket

Outdoor Research Alpine Down Hooded Jacket Review


The Outdoor Research Alpine Down Hooded Jacket is an excellent choice for a goose down belay jacket at an competitive price. I’ll go into some details in a moment but I must say I had a little bit of reverse sticker shock having spent a dozen days testing this jacket before sitting down to write about and discover that it retails for $349.95. Ethically sourced 800 fill goose down with high performance shell fabrics and mapping? Backed by Outdoor Research’s amazing Infinite Guarantee? How did they pull this off? Let’s get into the details and find out if this is a piece for your winter adventure kit!


Manufacturer Description

Your new trusty 6000 meter puffy, The Alpine Down Hooded Jacket is loaded with the durability, weather resistance, and warmth to withstand high altitude’s howling wind and biting cold, yet still stows away snugly by packing into its own left-hand pocket. Pertex® Quantum Pro provides beefy durability on the shoulders, sleeves, and hood, while the lighter-weight body traps the insulating powers from 800-fill responsibly sourced down in a baffled construction that eliminates the cold spots notorious to fully-quilted jackets. Brimming with feature-packed details like Dynamic Reach™ Underarm Panels, elastic drawcord hem and cuffs, pocket placements that don’t interfere with your harness, and a helmet-compatible halo hood, the Alpine Down doesn’t compromise on functionality, or exceptional warmth.


How I Tested

I started testing this jacket during the snowiest and coldest October in twenty years on Mount Washington and throughout the White Mountains. I used it on multiple early season ice climbs at Frankenstein Cliffs and two trips up the iconic Black Dike on Cannon Cliff in November. I also used it while teaching a mid-December avalanche course in Gulf of Slides on Mount Washington. All in all I put about 12 solid days behind forming my opinions on the jacket.

Outdoor Research Alpine Down Hooded Jacket Review
4,600 feet in Gulf of Slides, Mount Washington

How it Performed

Warmth– At this price point I have tested few jackets that felt as warm as this piece does. Outdoor Research stuffed this piece with 182 grams (6.42 ounces) of 800 fill power goose down with a baffled construction to eliminate cold spots. While not quite as toasty as my Patagonia Fitz Roy Parka this jacket comes in about $100 cheaper!

Water Resistance– The main torso shell material is Pertex Quantum Y shell treated with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish which gives decent water resistance. Slightly more durable Pertex Quantum Pro makes up the sleeves and hood. I only encountered frozen precipitation during my testing and if liquid precipitation is in the forecast I usually reach for my heavier bombproof synthetic belay jacket, the Outdoor Research Perch Belay Jacket.

Outdoor Research Alpine Down Hooded Jacket Review
Rapping off Dracula, Frankenstein Cliffs, Crawford Notch

Wind Resistance– I summited Mount Washington in 50-65 mph winds and felt this piece is pretty much wind-proof. Any jacket of this construction would typically be considered windproof so no big surprise there.

Breath-ability– Another high mark this piece breathes excellently due to it being a down jacket with high end shell construction. No issues at all with breath-ability.

Weight/Pack-ability– My home scale weighed this piece about three ounces heavier than the claimed weight (19oz / 538g Avg weight for size L). My size large weighed in at 22oz / 634g. The left front hand pocket zipper is reversible so that you may stuff this into it’s own pocket. It fits the inside-out pocket with out to much fuss and the resulting pack size is about 12 inches by 5 inch football shaped “pillow”.

Outdoor Research Alpine Down Hooded Jacket Review
About 22 ounces on the home scale

Sizing/Fit– I found this to fit true to size with a large easily fitting over my active climbing layers at the belay with some room to spare. The “halo” hood easily fit over my climbing helmet and has a three part draw-cord system to help it stay in place so you can keep that important peripheral vision! While the hand pockets are positioned a bit high to “not interfere” with a harness I’ve never tucked in this style of jacket into my harness before so I feel that is a moot point. This goes over “everything”. Stick to the size chart when ordering.

Minutia– Two nice big stretchy internal pockets provide a good spot for drying my technical ice climbing gloves or holding a water-bottle. There’s an internal zipper “media pocket” with port but I tend to keep my iPhone in a closer to skin layer anyways so I didn’t really use this. Tricot brushed fleecy collar is super comfy when zipped up in my cocoon. Articulated underarm panels allow full overhead reaches without lifting the bottom of the jacket to high. Bottom up zipper is nice for easier access to belay device.


Outdoor Research Alpine Down Hooded Jacket Review
Warm and cozy while hanging out in a mid-rap ice cave

Summary

In the field of 800 fill hooded down belay jackets the Outdoor Research Alpine Down Hooded Jacket is a strong contender. Enough down was used to make this feel like the warm puffy a true belay jacket should. The quality of the shell fabrics and mapped construction are impressive given the price range was kept to the below $400 level. Using some hydrophobic down would really have made this a stand-out but I could see that increasing the manufacturing cost to the next level so… at the price I have yet to see a full down belay jacket of this quality that is also backed by one of the greatest warranties in the industry. For true cold New England or high altitude conditions it would be hard to go wrong with this piece.

Buy on Backcountry

Buy on Moosejaw

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



A media sample was provided for review. Affiliate links support this blog.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course 12/14/18 – 12/16/18

The first avalanche course of the season with Northeast Mountaineering wrapped up yesterday late afternoon after 3 solid days of mixed classroom and field sessions. We have an awesome new classroom venue just minutes from The Bunkhouse and we were stoked to have so much snow on the ground for the first course of our season.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Great new classroom space only minutes from the Bunkhouse

After a morning of classroom on Friday we spent the afternoon outside learning and practicing avalanche rescue skills. On Saturday we spent a little time learning how to PLAN a tour in avalanche terrain before heading up to Hermit Lake on Mount Washington for some practice monitoring conditions along our tour.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Learning about layered snow packs in one of the most beautiful places in the White Mountains

On Sunday we started with a student led trip planning session at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Teamwork makes the dream work!

We then skinned up the Gulf of Slides Ski Trail.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Main Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Approaching the Lower Snowfields in Gulf of Slides
AIARE Avalanche Course
Working our way up through the Lower Snowfields before traversing back into the Main Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Great weather for our full tour day!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Combining modern tech with old school navigation
AIARE Avalanche Course
Found some thin and stubborn pencil hard wind slab on this 37 degree slope at 4,500 feet to lookers left of the Main Gully. You can also see the December 3rd Melt-Freeze crust about 50 cm down here.
AIARE Avalanche Course
Pit location details, courtesy of Theodolite App
AIARE Avalanche Course
Edge-able, ski-able, but we are glad to see more snow in the forecast!

Summary

All in all it was a fantastic start to the avalanche course season with Northeast Mountaineering. The new curriculum rolled out pretty smoothly and I am digging the new “AIARE Framework” that creates a slightly smoother “flow” of decision making then the classic “Decision Making Framework” some of you may be familiar with. The new organization of the Avalanche and Observation Reference Tool is pretty sweet, and I really like the new 2-3 hour pre-course online learning component! If you have been waiting to take an avalanche course I’d say you should wait no longer! Most providers in the area are seeing courses sell out quite regularly! You can see what dates we have left here!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



Avalanche Rescue Course

This past weekend I lead the first avalanche course of the season for Northeast Mountaineering, the relatively new AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course. This one day course is a excellent part of the new AIARE curriculum.

Ortovox Avalanche Beacons
Ortovox Avalanche Beacons- photo by @photocait

Course Description

AIARE Avalanche Rescue is a one-day stand alone course that is intended to be retaken on a regular basis in order to keep abreast of best practices in rescue techniques and gear. New participants will learn the basics of companion rescue, while returning participants will expand their skill set with advanced topics and realistic scenario practice to help improve their skills.

Each participant will have the opportunity to receive professional coaching on their rescue skills, and will receive a rescue card acknowledging the completion date.

AIARE Avalanche Rescue is a prerequisite for the AIARE 2 and Pro 1 courses. AIARE recommends that all backcountry travelers keep their skills current by taking an Avalanche Rescue course and receiving a rescue card at least every other year.

Who Should Take this Course

The Avalanche Rescue Course is a one-day course aimed both at new and experienced recreational backcountry travelers and aspiring avalanche professionals.

Student Learning Outcomes

At the end of the Avalanche Rescue course the student should be able to:

  • Describe what to do if they or a member of their party is caught in an avalanche.
  • Identify and be able to use gear necessary for avalanche rescue.
  • Set up a realistic scenario in order to practice an avalanche rescue response.
  • Improve their response skills and times during and after the course with feedback from instructors and peers.
  • Develop a plan for continuing practice.

All students will have the opportunity to get feedback from an instructor on their rescue skills and timed practice in a realistic scenario.

Students who have previously taken an AIARE 1 or an Avalanche Rescue Course will find value in having a professional help them set up realistic scenarios, practice skills in a realistic setting, receive feedback from an instructor, keep up with current best practices, and have an opportunity to practice advanced rescue skills.

Prerequisites

Students must be able to travel in the snow, and bring appropriate equipment for traveling on snow to class. There are no other prerequisites.

COURSE DETAILS

Length: 1 Day [8 Hours]
Guide-to-Client: 2:12
Price: $150 per person includes one night lodging!*

*As space permits. Requires additional online reservation at The Bunkhouse.

2018-2019 DATES

January 18
March 21

We only have two dates on the calendar so they will likely fill up soon! Please contact me directly with any questions or help booking the date at nealpinestart@gmail.com.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



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Gear Review: ENTHEOS II Ice Axes

ENTHEOS II Ice Axes Review
ENTHEOS II Ice Axes Review- photo by Peter Brandon

Last winter I got to demo the space age looking Kailas Entheos II Ice Axes. Without a doubt these tools turn heads as this is a somewhat lesser known company just starting to break into the US market. Before I share my opinions on them and how they were tested I’ll share the manufacturer description and specifications:


WINNER OF GERMANY ISPO AWARD 2014

WINNER OF ASIA OUTDOOR INDUSTRY AWARD 2011 

WINNER OF OUTSIDE GEAR OF THE YEAR ,OUTDOOR CHINA 2012 

ENTHEOS II Ice Axes Review

“ENTHEOS”  is the unique  hybrid climbing technique ice axe in the world that using the CNC unibody fabrication . It takes its original performance to a higher level and we are proud to present our new product of unmatched quality, handling experience, and stability. It copes perfectly with steep, demanding terrains characterized by freezing ice surface and ice rocks. It is your best choice for overcoming climbing difficulties.

Pick:
• Made of  super high intensity and tenacity special  steel .
• Integrated head structure allows a hammer head to be fixed to place rock pitons.
• All-terrain pick design made the tool sharp enough to pierce through hard ice. The toothed pick can hold onto ice surface with ease while the sharp end
on the axe head can be applied in pulling-back technology.
• There are removable extra weights attached on the axe head designed to provide extra power when striking into ice. Once they are removed,
the axe will be more handy and portable. (Stainless steel, 55g)

Handle:
• CNC technology ensures high intensity and light weight.
• Ergonomicallly designed handle bar, excellent shock absorber.
• The shaft of our axe supplies a user with different ways to handle it and avoids unnecessary movement of axe between changes of hands.
It can be used in distinct terrains, bringing incomparable climbing efficiency.

Shaft:
• CNC technology makes accurate cutting possible, contributing to the delicate structure of this gear and excellent distribution of gravity center.
• Hollow shaft can absorb the rebound force when the user applies the axe on the ice surface, achieving smooth and clean entries into the ice.
• Made of 7075-T651 high intensity aluminum.

[Tech Specs]
Patent Number: 201130233088.9
Type: Type 2
Size: 48cm
Weight: 580g


How we tested

ENTHEOS II Ice Axes Review
Leading some grade 3 ice at Cathedral Ledge with the ENTHEOS II Ice Axes- photo by Peter Brandon

I climbed with these for 2-3 months leading and following on waterfall ice routes between Grade 3 and 5- in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In total they saw about 20 pitches of ice.


Kailas ENTHEOS II Ice Axes next to new Petzl Nomics

At first glance they do look similar to the new Petzl Nomics but with a few distinct differences. Most noticeable they are about 2.5 cm (1 inch) shorter than the Nomics. Not a big deviation but I did notice it before I took the time to measure the tools. This slight reduction in overall length is due to a slightly more aggressive bend in the Entheos. The other big difference is the entire shaft is a single piece of high-strength aluminum which gives these tools quite the futuristic and eye-catching look.

Kailas ENTHEOS II Ice Axes next to new Petzl Nomics

My home scale puts the Entheos II at 6 grams under the new Petzl Nomics. The handle is essentially the same width, likely will be most comfortable for medium-smaller hands. The shaft is slightly thinner than the new Nomics. The pic comes with removable head  weights.

ENTHEOS II Ice Axes Review

Performance

ENTHEOS II Ice Axes Review
ENTHEOS II Ice Axes Review, photo by Peter Brandon

The Entheos swing quite well. They are balanced and designed well for steep ice. The slightly shorter profile suggests these should stick to hard steep ice or mixed climbing. They are not a tool for someone who spends the majority of their time on sub-Grade 4 ice and likely excel best at overhanging mixed climbing. The stock pick cleaned from placements easily. The small handle was a comfy grip for my medium sized hands. I didn’t take them out on super cold days but I imagine a pure aluminum shaft will feel colder on arctic days when climbing with thinner style gloves.

Summary

The Kailas Entheos II Ice Axes are a somewhat exotic option in the technical steep ice & mixed tool market. They are undoubtedly built to survive a lifetime of love (and abuse) in the mountains. If you can get by the sticker shock (or grab them when the Verticall Store has them discounted) you will probably be quite pleased.

Disclaimer: This media sample was provided for purpose of review and has been returned to the manufacturer. All opinions expressed above are my own.

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