The new Petzl Nomic has been refined in a way that makes it one of the most versatile ice axes available. I had only climbed a dozen or so days on the older version of the Nomic preferring the greater flexibility of the Petzl Quarks for my first ten years of ice climbing but the thoughtful changes in design have changed that and I’ve reached for the new Petzl Nomics more than any other tool this winter. Before I get into the details let’s look at how we tested them.
The east coast ice climbing season started early this year and I started climbing on these in November at Frankenstein Cliffs. My first test runs were up Standard Route and Dracula. I loaned them to some friends to solicit their opinions and they took a multi-sport trip up the alpine classic Pinnacle Gully. By December I had them back in my hands for no less than three trips up an excellent early season Black Dike. A few more days of guiding ice on Mount Willard and Cathedral Ledge and I’m finally ready to share my review!
Want to see them in action? Check out this amazing footage capture by my friend Dave Dillon!
Also some more amateur GoPro footage of some testing produced myself:
The first thing that stands out to me with these tools is how incredibly well balanced they are. The addition of removable tapered pick weights, a “hydro-formed” shaft, and adjustable handles all work together to help this tool swing with amazing precision and efficiency. I chose to leave the pick weights on as I primarily climb pure ice routes and the added head weight assists with placement allowing me to save energy while swinging the tool and getting more one-swing-sticks. The taper of the weights is also designed to facilitate dry tooling in cracks.
While it might seem odd to describe an ice tool as “comfortable” it is an accurate description on these tools. By using a three size adjustable lower handle and over-molded and bi-material upper handle these tools can be adjusted to fit anyone’s hands. I found the medium setting on the lower handle to be perfect for my medium sized hands. An allen wrench is required for adjusting the GRIPREST handle.
The upper handle is rubberized so there is no need to add grip tape to the tools to increase security when switching hands or “choking up” on a placement. I also found the tools swing with great precision and security when held like this:
The shape of the hydro-formed shaft makes holding these anywhere along the shaft or “high-dagger” position comfortable.
There is a lot of customization possible with these tools! For starters you can choose from four different picks!
The tools come with the PUR’ICE picks. They taper to 3mm and offer excellent penetration and easy removal in most placements. The top is serrated to offer some stability when holding the tool upside down through I did not find this to be an issue as these tools now have a real spike on the bottom to allow proper piolet canne when topping out a climb. They can suffer if you misfire and find some early season rock to impact as I did manage to bend a pick on the Black Dike when I unintentionally struck some rock. I swung by International Mountain Equipment and replaced the bent pick with the ICE pick which I was happy to be able to compare! The ICE pick tapers from 4mm to 3.3mm at the tip and carries a CE UIAA Technical Rating (the PUR’ICE pick does not meet the Technical Rating standards). I’ve since climbed a dozen routes with both picks and have not noticed much of a difference in ease of placement and cleaning so I’ll likely replace the PUR’ICE pick with the more durable ICE pick once it is time for a new pick. For those who will do some steep dry-tooling with these tools you can pick from both the DRY and the PUR’DRY picks.
The removable MARTEAU modular hammer is included with the tools. This can be stripped off (along with the pick weights) to minimize weight for dry-tooling or left in place so you can test and reset pitons. You can also chose to replace it with the PANNE if you want an adze on a tool. Finally the serrated stainless steel spike on the bottom of the GRIPREST handle has a connection point that is compatible with the V-LINK tether system.
All of this adds up to one of the best choices for a technical climbing tool on the market! While you will notice how nice they feel in hand at your local gear shop you truly will be impressed the first time you take these out on real ice. These are a perfect choice for the ice climber who only occasionally (or never) climbs hard mixed routes. They excel on WI3+ routes. I would still reach for the Petzl Quarks for WI2 or more alpine type objectives but for ice cragging at Frankenstein, Ouray, or any WI4 and up these are the bees knees. I hope you get a chance to climb with them!
I have triggered a lot of small avalanches over the 10 years I’ve been an avalanche educator. They have all been intentional, small, and inconsequential. Yesterday morning I triggered one that bordered on the line of consequential as it carried me about 20 feet down slope towards some uninviting looking trees. It was a fairly small avalanche with a crown that was estimated to be about 25 meters across the slope and 30 centimeters deep at its apex. I was high on the slab when it failed and able to self arrest with my ski poles in the bed surface quite quickly. While there were no injuries there is certainly something to learn from the experience so I’ll present the following account with that desire in mind.
Earlier this season a new client hired me for a Backcountry Ski Skills Course. After getting a resume of ski descents and experience from him we conducted a skills course into the bottom of Hillman’s Highway and had a very successful day. A few weeks later he was back to take a 3-Day AIARE Avalanche Course and toured with me in the Gulf of Slides. Having vetted his ski ability and fitness we made a plan to ski from the summit of Mount Washington.
Mother Nature however decided our plan to travel above tree-line on our day together would be unrealistic.
After conveying that the summit was out for our day together he let me know he was still stoked to see how far we could go so we made a plan to head into Tuckerman Ravine and see if we could ski some of one of the renowned gullies located within.
Low density snow yesterday has been affected by NW wind overnight which has produced relatively small new slabs that are possible to human trigger.
I had experienced this low density snow the day before during a tour in the Gulf of Slides on the last day of teaching an AIARE 1 Avalanche Course with Northeast Mountaineering. Some footage from that tour…
The next day we made excellent time up the Tuckerman Ravine trail reaching Hermit Lake in one hour and 15 minutes. Fausto is a fitness coach so it was easy for us to both stay warm in with the current conditions:
After a quick re-fuel stop we made out way up the Little Headwall and observed some signs of instability on the slopes just above.
Here the winds were full value and we tucked our heads down and pushed on to Connection Cache. We moved off the trail to the right to find a brief reprieve from the wind and don face masks and goggles before deciding to push a little further into the ravine. The winds were a little less brutal as we set a skin track up to the right of the Lobster Claw run out. We had observed enough active wind loading to rule out entering any of the major avalanche paths and a few hundred feet up the far right side of the ravine we decided it was time to transition and head back down.
We dropped on some stiff wind board low angle terrain and I brought us down into the Cutler drainage then out to skier’s right aiming for the high exit that would connect us down to the far side of the Lower Snowfields. Here we traversed across a small steep slope one at a time before getting to the top of the chute that leads down to the flats then connects back out to the Cutler.
The snow was a little punchy here but we could make a few good jump turns down about 50 feet. I posted up under a little tree island and had Fausto stop just above the island. A slightly lower angle open slope to skiers right looked like it would offer a few more turns before heading back into the drainage but it looked size-able enough to warrant caution. I told Fausto to stay put while I traversed over and onto this slope trying to stay high with the intention of ski cutting it and posting up on the far side.
About halfway across the slope I saw it fail around me. There was no noticeable collapse or whumph but the cracks I saw everywhere in sight made it clear what was happening. I yelled “avalanche” as I started moving down hill and noted the crown was only 10 feet above me. I dug my ski poles into the bed surface and the little amount of debris that I was riding on continued downhill… I came to a stop about 20 feet below where I had triggered it. For a few seconds I watched the debris go down slope for about 100 feet through some small trees that I was glad I wasn’t meeting soon.
Looking back uphill I could see Fausto was still in the spot I told him to stay and I instructed him to traverse over to me as there was no significant hang-fire left and I wanted him to join me on the bed surface. I shot some video and measured the slope angle, aspect, elevation, and position with the convenient Theodolite app. We then made our way down to the bottom of the run out for a couple more pics of the slide.
So what happened?
The 13 cm of super low density (3.7%) snow that fell during an almost windless day on February 18th got introduced to severe winds over the evening hours and into the morning. As mentioned in the bulletin today “winds often allows us to exceed the 1:3-5 ratio of new snow to wind slab”. This new slab felt like it was probably 1-Finger to Pencil on the Hand Hardness Scale. I estimated the crown to be about 30cm deep at its apex. This small test slope is directly lee to the west winds that were howling all night and observed while we were in the area. In the video you can see active loading occurring directly following the avalanche.
While this was my first “unintentional” triggered avalanche I don’t feel that I was completely caught off guard. Signs of instability along with expert opinion in the form of the avalanche bulletin guided our terrain choices and we stayed under 30 degrees and outside of major avalanche paths for good reason. We moved one at a time across suspect slopes and stopped where we could watch each other. I went onto the slope that failed half expecting to perhaps trigger a small slab and assumed I would be able to stay above it. I ended up taking a short some-what controlled ride 20 feet downslope while Fausto watched from a good vantage.
With the benefit of hind-sight a more conservative choice would have been to descend skier’s left of the Little Headwall, basically down our skin track where we had already accessed slope stability. Assessing “top down” terrain is obviously harder to do. In speaking with one of the snow rangers my terrain choice was somewhat validated as a reasonable choice given the conditions. Still, I’ll be thinking about this day for quite awhile. Unintentional but somewhat expected is a strange way to think about triggering an avalanche, but that’s where I’m at right now.
I hope sharing these details and thought processes with the community is beneficial. It doesn’t happen with out acute knowledge that my choices can be judged with different levels of objectivity. As an avalanche educator though I strongly believe we should learn from every single avalanche involvement and being able to share your experience in a clear and transparent fashion can only benefit the greater avalanche community.
I’m fortunate to be able to review about a half-dozen of the industry’s best belay jackets each winter. Chances are from December to April I’m spending 5-6 days a week climbing frozen waterfalls or teaching avalanche courses up on notoriously cold Mount Washington. This gives me a lot of field time to put these jackets through the ringer and form some opinions which I am happy to share with you to help you navigate the myriad of choices out there!
Some impressive numbers from BightGear that speak to this process:
WEAR TESTING BY THE NUMBERS
2016 – Over 1.2 Million vertical feet of wear testing by our guide team of primary fabrics used in 76 sample prototypes to build 19 different styles.
2017 – Reached over 48 million vertical feet of wear testing and use of 143 prototypes by our team of 60+ guides, and thousands of RMI climbers on Mt. Rainier.
2018 – On target to reach over 100 million vertical feet of testing with the launch of the Bight Test program on mountains and outdoor playgrounds around the world.
Pretty cool right? Having learned all this I was more than happy to receive the BightGear Caldera Down Parka for a demo. After a month of testing in a variety of conditions I feel I can fairly share my opinion on this piece. In the realm of down insulated belay parkas the Caldera easily competes with the best in class options out there! Let’s start with the most noticeable then finish with the minutiae.
How Warm Is It?
BightGear stuffed this parka with over 6 ounces of 850 fill power HyperDRY™ Goose Down. That’s a lot of high loft quality down, and the result is a parka that feels like a nice sleeping bag for your torso. By using more I-beam baffles in the construction of the parka (vs sewn through) BightGear completely eliminates cold-spots. The arms and hood feel just as lofty as the torso which I prefer in this “over all” type parka. I’ve worn this over my other layers down to -16 Fahrenheit while demoing snow pits at 4,400 feet on Mount Washington. Even after an hour of standing relatively still while teaching the basics of snow-pack evaluation I was kept toasty.
How Dry Is It?
The BightGear Caldera uses a silky 20D nylon rip-stop with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish. Most of the days I tested the parka were in temperatures well below those where I would encounter any liquid precipitation. I did expose it to a rather drippy ice climb a couple weeks ago and noticed water beads off as expected with a DWR finish. I also wore it over a soaked soft-shell jacket following a deluge of an ice climb and it dried me out quite quickly without feeling like it absorbed to much of the moisture. I’ve become a huge fan of the DWR treated down used in this parka as I believe regular down would quickly become a wet lump of non-insulating feathers under similar conditions.
How Light and Pack-able Is It?
BightGear lists the weight of a size large at 646 grams (22.8 ounces). My home scale weighed my large in at 640 grams (22.6 ounces). This is within an ounce of other similar style/priced options. It easily stuffs into my Hyperlight Mountain Gear waterproof stuff sack and if packing space is at a real premium I can use my extra small compression stuff sack to get this down to the size of a 32 ounce water bottle!
BightGear included a lot design choices to further make the Caldera one of the best down parkas I’ve ever tested. The hood fits perfectly over my climbing helmet and is well stuffed with down making it a comfortable place to retreat in the harshest conditions. The brushed tricot lining on the inside collar is super cozy when in “full turtle” mode. This same lining is in the well positioned hand warming front pockets. Articulated elbows make this jacket fit great over my other layers and the PowerStretch cuffs seal out cold and snow while playing in deep snow. There are also two stretchy inside stash pockets that can hold gloves or a water bottle.
It is clear that the BightGear Caldera Parka was designed by working mountain guides. It has everything you want in a big down “puffy” and nothing you don’t want. Of all the down parkas I have tested this one stands out as a top-pick for many reasons, not the least of which is the “half-sleeping bag” type feeling you get when you slip this on over your other layers. If you are looking to upgrade your belay jacket this one would be an excellent choice!
Exclusive 30% Off Discount!
I am super excited to be able to offer my readers a 30% off discount on ANY thing from BightGear’s Website! While I can not post the code publicly here all you need to do is shoot me a DM through Instagram, a PM through Facebook, or go old school and shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! This discount is only good until April 1st, 2019 so don’t delay!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
A media sample was provided for purpose of review.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the two young men, their families, and friends who have suffered this tragic loss.
Friday’s rescue course brought 10 students from first year back-country travelers to seasoned vets who teach avalanche awareness classes for the Appalachian Mountain Club. We spent a couple hours in the morning going over rescue gear and methodology before moving to a field location for hands on realistic practice. Towards the end of the day I was partially buried a meter down in the snow while my friend and SOLO Instructor Sue addressed patient considerations, treatment, and evacuation. I thank former USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane for showing me the effectiveness of having students try to pull an unconscious 180 pound person out of a burial position.
We ended the course just as the edges of an incoming Nor’easter brought some snow fall and by Saturday morning it was coming down steady!
Saturday was the start of a three day AIARE Avalanche 1 Course and with my co-instructor Grant Price we had a full course of 12 students, all ski tourers with various levels of experience, but all eager to learn. After a productive morning of classroom and an afternoon of rescue practice I headed north to the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to present a Know Before You Go presentation. This one-hour program is designed for a broad audience to introduce the 5 steps of avoiding getting caught in an avalanche.
Get the Gear
Get the Training
Get the Forecast
Get the Picture
Get out of Harm’s Way
In attendance were various guests, visitors, AMC trip leaders, and an AMC avalanche awareness class. After the presentation Q&A took us pretty late into the night.
Driving home around 10 pm I got to see some of the heaviest rates of snowfall before waking early Sunday to get Day 2 of the avalanche course going. We spent a little time inside talking about Human Factors and Heuristic Traps, some of which I had quite recently let get the better of my own decision making, before jumping into some sweet online tools and creating a tour plan for the rest of the day.
As soon as we hit the trail we started spotting obvious clues of unstable Storm Slab. Just as we were crossing the first Cutler River bridge we saw this… can you spot the two clues to unstable snow?
There are two natural “baby” slab avalanches in this picture. One is just left of the rock in the center and harder to see. The one on the right is easy to see. This is evidence of this fluffy “fist” density storm snow has gained cohesion and is sitting on a reactive weak layer… in other words it has formed into a “slab”. We found multiple spots along side the trail where “hand shears” would fail during isolation and informal ski cutting would produce noticeable results, on of the best just off the trail while crossing a small creek and captured by this students video:
We continued up to Hermit Lake and took a few minutes to poke in the snow near the Volunteer Ski Patrol Cabin. As we were close to our established turn around time we soon found ourselves enjoying some nice if not a bit bumpy turns down the Sherburne ski trail.
I’d later find out my friend and fellow avalanche educator Ben Allen was out in Bill Hill Glades in Gorham kicking off small slabs there. I could just picture his smile and giggle as he poked around in the snow triggering small inconsequential avalanches. If you didn’t know that is one of the favorite things for an avalanche educator to do! Well, that and shred super stable POW of course…
On Monday, the final day of our avalanche course, our students started trip planning at the NEM Bunkhouse at 8 AM. The Mount Washington Avalanche Center was forecasting HIGH danger for the day. In addition the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast was predicting ambient air temperatures to plummet to the negative teens with wind chills in the -50 to -70 range. A conservative tour was needed, and the group selected a tour up the Cog Railway with a high point of Jacob’s Ladder and possibly a side trip over to the top of a new slide path.
We hit the trail close to 10 AM with a parking lot temperature of -9 Fahrenheit but surprisingly very low winds. The skin up to Waumbek tank took us just over an hour.
During a break the group decided they would like to visit the top of the new slide path so we made our way up a few more hundred feet before contouring and bushwhacking over to the slide path.
Here I could feel the Human Factors tugging hard. The snow looked great. No tracks in it! We hadn’t really seen any signs of unstable snow like we had the day before. No cracking or whumping. It wasn’t as windy as we thought it would be. We had time to ski it. It was cold but climbing back up it would really warm us up.
I thought back to last weeks course when I had let Human Factors have a serious negative effect on my decision making. It was bluebird… no wind… perfect day to gain the ridge and complete a full “tour” on the last day of an avalanche class. The snow down here looked good… it must be good over there? Right? A student was apprehensive of her ability. Basically first time in the back country… My impaired objectivity reared its ugly head. “You can do it” I reassure without any evidence that she could. “We can side slip down until you feel comfortable making turns” I wrongly assumed. “It’s not that steep”… sure, for me, but what about her?
Listen to Every Voice, Respect Every Veto. These are tenants in good back-country partners.
Blue Sky Syndrome, Powder Fever, Over Confidence, and even some Kodak Courage had all crept into my consciousness. I failed to practice what I preach. I was not being objective. We made it down to the trail head just before dark. It took a few days and a formal debrief to really look back on that day for what it was. While I could call it a complete failure I’m looking at it as an ice cold head dunk of a wake-up call. 10 years of teaching these skills and I can still mess up. We all can. It’s how we move forward after making a mistake that counts.
Back to the top of Phillip, we turn our backs on what might be a killer powder run and head back to the Cog. We enjoy great low angle riding in calf deep powder back to the parking lot. We’ve returned way ahead of our turn around time as we listened to each other when we admitted we were pretty cold. No one got frostbite. The ski down had warmed us up enough for a quick round of Compression Tests and an Extended Column Test on a nearby slope.
We headed into the warmth of the AMC Thayer Hall for a tour debrief and to close the course. I handed out feedback forms that had been missing since the new curriculum rolled out.
What did you get out of this course?
How could the course be improved?
Where did you feel most at risk or in danger?
How can the instructors improve?
At the end of the day I read through all 12 forms. Small changes can be made based on these suggestions. Small changes lead to better learning environments for students and growth for the instructors.
I’m grateful for every comment and nudge from every student, fellow instructor, or guide I’ve ever gotten. Keep them coming.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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 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!
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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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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!