Improved Belay Check

A tragic rock climber fatality this past weekend at a crag in Vermont has motivated this post. The exact events leading up to the accident are still not public but what is clear is the young woman fell 90 feet while trying to descend, presumably while being lowered.

UPDATE 9/22/2017: An official summary of the accident has been posted from the VT Search & Rescue Coordinator, Vermont Dept. of Public Safety. I now include it here before my original post below:


Following is a summary of the incident.

Three climbers (#1, #2, #3) were finishing up their day top roping on Harvest Moon. Climber #1 was making the final ascent of the day. Both #2 and #3 believed that the plan was for #1 to ascend, clean the anchor, and rappel down. The actual wording of this conversation is not entirely clear. #2 remembers #1 saying she would “probably” rappel, but “might” be lowered. #3 only remembers the use of the term “rappel”.

Climber #1 finished the climb, called “off belay” and #2 removed  the belay and took their harness off believing that #1 would clean the anchor then rappel down.  About 5 minutes later #1 called “are you ready to lower?”. Both #2 and #3 shouted “no” back, and #2 rushed to put their harness back on. Less than a minute later Climber #1 was observed in an uncontrolled fall down the face which she did not survive. She was tied into her harness and the rope was threaded through the bolts at the top anchor, with the free end ending up just a few inches above the ground.

Further investigation discovered that climber #1 did not have a rappel device on her harness. It was later found to have been in a pile of gear at the base of the climb.

The most likely scenario is the climber #1 had intended to rappel after cleaning the anchor, but discovered that she had left her ATC behind.  The communication of this change to a different plan was not clear.  While it seems most likely that #1 did not clearly hear the “no” and “no- wait” shouts from #2 and #3 and leaned back expecting to be lowered, it cannot be ruled out that she slipped or tripped while waiting for the lower or perhaps tried to move closer to the edge to improve communication. There is simply no way to know for certain whether #1 was expecting to be lowered at the time of the accident, or unintentionally tripped or fell while waiting to be lowered.


It seems lowering/rappelling accidents are on the rise. The 2013 Accidents in North American Mountaineering publication looked at lowering accidents from the previous 10 years and determined 34% where due to belayer error and/or miscommunication. During 2016 we had 24 accidents caused by rappelling and lowering errors. Twice this past week I witnessed miscommunication between belayers and climbers at Rumney Rocks, NH that almost resulted in a climber being taken off belay when they were still climbing.

I believe our standard “belay check” that we perform before climbing could be improved in an effort to reduce a large amount of similar accidents.

Let’s start by taking a look at the standard belay check most climbers perform before climbing. The rope is stacked and the climber is ready to leave the ground, whether it be on lead or top-rope. The climber looks at the belayer and asks…

“On Belay?”

The belayer, before responding, checks to make sure the climber’s harness is on properly, looks closely at the climber’s tie-in knot to make sure it is tied correctly and in the proper place on the harness, then checks that the belay device is installed on the rope correctly, and that the belay system is closed (knot or tied-in to the other end of the rope). At this point the belayer signals with…

“Belay on!”

From this point on the climber is free to ascend whether leading or top-roping with the belayer providing critical security should the climber fall.

The American Alpine Club has produced a quality video demonstrating these steps as part of the “Universal Belay Standard”. I’ve embedded their video below to start at this belay check.


 

But every year climbers die or get seriously injured when the belay gets dis-mantled when the climber is at the top of the route.

Let’s look at how this has can occur and how we can might best mitigate the risk.


Misinterpretation

Likely the most common factor is misinterpretation of what is happening when the climber gets to the top of the climb and needs to break down the team’s personal gear before being lowered or rappelling off of fixed gear. Essentially the climber arrives at the anchor and signals to the belayer. The belayer interprets this signal to mean the climber no longer needs a belay, and dismantles the system. The climber, expecting to be lowered, leans back on the rope and soon finds themselves falling.


Miscommunication

When the climber arrives at the anchor they signal with a non-standard signal that could have multiple interpretations. I often teach students that “OK” is a dangerous word in climbing. It can mean so many things and undoubtedly has lead to belayers believing one thing while the climber meant something else. Does OK mean you are in-direct to the anchor? Does it mean you are hiking down? Setting up a rappel?


Solutions

First we need to add a final step to our belay check when climbing in a single-pitch environment. Essentially our belay check should look like this.

“On Belay?” – climber

“Belay on.” – belayer

“What are you going to do at the top?” – belayer

“I’m planning to have you lower me through the fixed gear”- climber

or

“I’m planning to go in direct, call off belay, and rig to rappel” – climber

or

“I’m going to come off belay toss the rope down and hike back down” – climber

This communication, referred to as an “action plan” by the AAC, prior to leaving the ground would certainly help prevent many of the close calls and likely some of the serious accidents that occur. It is much easier to communicate with your partner during the belay check then when you are 90 feet above them at the anchor.

Stick to standard commands. “On belay, take, tension, slack, lower, off belay”. At busy crags use names and space out the sylables to be clearly understood by your belayer.

“John….  Off……  Belay” -climber

As a belayer make sure the command you heard was from your partner.

“Jane… Was… That… You?”- belayer

“John…. Yes…. Off….. Belay” – climber

Rock Climbing Belay Check
A busy day at the crag requires solid communication between belayer and climber- photo by @alexandraroberts

When the option exists chose to be lowered over rappelling. Lowering is often faster than setting up a rappel and argue-ably safer as the climber never needs to come off belay. The belayer knows the belay must stay intact until the climber is back on the ground. The AAC does a great job of explaining this skill here and in this video:


Summary

Climbing IS dangerous. Even with all the high quality safety gear and available training and knowledge we will continue to see tragic loss of life to seemingly easily preventable accidents. But…

We can see a reduction in accidents if we continually challenge ourselves and the climbing community at large to make small improvements in our methodology. Make sharing your “action plan” part of every belay check!

References

Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 2013, pages 9-12

Accidents in North American Climbing, 2016, page 125

Mountain Project Accident Forum

Book Review Coming Soon!

Vertical Aid: Essential Wilderness Medicine for Climbers, Trekkers, and Mountaineers

Vertical Aid: Essential Wilderness Medicine for Climbers, Trekkers, and Mountaineers
Vertical Aid: Essential Wilderness Medicine for Climbers, Trekkers, and Mountaineers

Gear Review: Cassin X-Dream Ice Axe

The leaves are starting to turn high in our notches so I find myself starting to anticipate another great ice climbing season in the Northeast. Last season I had the opportunity to demo the CAMP/Cassin X-Dream Ice Axes and while I shared my positive impressions of them with dozens of climbing partners I never got around to a full detailed review. With the ice climbing season quickly approaching what better time than now?

Cassin X-Dream Ice Axe Review
The author on Black Pudding Gully, WI 4+, photo by Brent Doscher

If I had to describe these tools in one word it would easily be…

versatile

There is more custom-ability in this model then any other ice axe I have ever used! Let’s start with my favorite feature of the Cassin X-Dream’s!

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The Handle

By simply loosening one bolt you can pivot the handle into a “dry-tooling” setting appropriate for high level mixed climbing and competitions. This setting will align the handle/pick in a configuration quite similar to the Petzl Ergo Ice Axe. I don’t personally climb in competitions or send overhanging mixed sport routes in the winter so I only tested these in the “ice” setting which was the perfect angle for comfortable swings on steep grade 4 and grade 5 waterfall ice routes, and is quite similar to the alignment of the Petzl Nomic. If you’ve never demo’d a tool with a handle angled like this it’s hard to explain how much of a difference it makes on steep ice allowing your wrist to stay in a much more natural position and facilitating the relaxed grip that is so crucial on grade 4+ ice.

CAMP/CASSIN X-Dream Review
Ergonomic handle allows for relaxed grip in steep terrain- photo by Brent Doscher

Micro-adjustable trigger finger ledges can be adjusted in multiple ways. With a small phillips head screw driver you can swap the main trigger finger ledge from the included “X-finger small” with an “X-finger large, sold separately, $6”. My medium sized hands preferred the smaller less obtrusive setting.

For those with very small hands you can snap in the X-Rest handle height insert (sold separately, $8) which raises the height of the handle interior by about 3 mm.

The X-Trigger pommel (included) attaches to the shaft for an optional third ledge and can be slid up or down to your preferred spot. I liked mine just above the X-Grip 2 friction tape that is also included on the shaft.

Finally the entire handle can be swapped out with the recently released X-Dream Alpine Grip, a feature that greatly improves security when topping out an ice route and switching back to piolet canne.

Cassin X-Dream Ice Axe Review
Original X-Dream Grip (included) next to X-Dream Alpine Grip, sold separately $79.95 ea.

The Picks

There are three picks designed for the Cassin X-Dream Ice Axes and they come stock with the “Mixte” pick which I found worked as well as any ice pick I’ve used across the major manufacture brands. All three are T-rated which adds confidence when torquing or utilizing The Stein Pull. I plan on buying a set of the ice picks this season as I think the addition of the small hammer will add a nice touch of head weight and help this tool step even closer into the alpine environment (occasional testing of pitons, tool tapping to gently set a pick on thin ice, etc).

CAMP/CASSIN X-Dream Review
Author samples the sweets on Black Pudding Gully- photo by Brent Doscher

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UPDATE: Soon after posting this review CAMP USA let me know that they just released two more compatible accessories that further add to the versatility of this tool. A new “Total Dry” pick designed for over-hanging hooking and competition. This brings the pick options on this axe to four! Also, and more exciting in my opinion is the new available head weights. I will be trying these out with a new set of ice picks this winter!


The Shaft

Cassin combines a T-rated aluminum shaft with a chromoly steel head that passes both CE and UIAA certification. Total weight is 1 lb 5 oz, 610 grams and the swing feels very natural and balanced. I did not find any need to adapt my swing to these like I have with some comparable models from other companies. With the included X-Grip friction tape and “third ledge” pommel I’ve found no need to supplement the rest of the shaft with after market grip tape. During placement the shaft dampens nicely without noticeable vibration and provides reliable feedback with each stick.

CAMP/CASSIN X-Dream Review
Balanced natural swings- photo by Brent Doscher

Summary

With a high degree of customization and optimization for steep ice, mixed routes, and competition climbing this Italian made ice axe should become a common sight on the steep ice drips around the world. If you lead or follow grade 4 and up waterfall ice you should try to demo a pair of these! While outfitting them with the new X-Dream Alpine Grip puts them in the running for the most expensive set of tools when it comes to waterfall ice axes sometimes you get what you pay for.

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CAMP/CASSIN X-Dream Review
Author on Drool of the Beast, Grade 5- photo by Brent Doscher

Thanks for reading! See you in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start

This product was provided for the purpose of review. All opinions are that of the author. Affiliate links support this blog.

Gear Review- Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants

I’ve been wearing the Black Diamond Alpine Softshell pants almost daily for the last 5 months and have been really happy with their performance. A true three season pant I’ve worn them on sunny low 70’s days rock climbing on Whitehorse Ledge, blustery Mount Washington ascents (including my two hour car to car of Pinnacle), late season ice climbing, and summer alpine climbing in the Cascades. These were the only pant I wore for successful summits of Mount Shuksan, Forbidden Peak, and Mount Rainier. All told they have seen over 200 miles of hiking and 30,000 feet of climbing and still look and perform great! Let’s take a look at why these are suitable for such a wide variety of adventures!

Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants Review
Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants Review

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Comfort- Temperature Range

Probably the best feature of these pants is how they have a very large range of temperature comfort. This is primarily achieved by Black Diamond’s proprietary four-way stretch fabric (88% nylon, 12% elastane) with a DWR finish. The material is soft enough on the inside that it feels great on bare legs and so breath-able that I could wear them on high humidity warm days during bug season without any discomfort. I actually found myself not climbing in shorts this season because I liked the added protection of a full pant like this pretty much every time I headed into the woods. Despite being so comfortable in warm and humid conditions the DWR treatment and weight of the material offered enough protection for them to be perfect in blustery alpine climbing conditions. I wore them exclusively for all three summits mentioned above and they were perfect even for our 1 AM below freezing alpine starts. A lightweight or mid-weight long underwear pant can easily expand the cold weather capabilities of these though I would pack a hard-shell to zip on over them in extreme cold/windchill/wet conditions.

Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants Review
Author wearing the pants at 11,000 feet on the Ingraham Glacier during crevasse rescue practice- photo by Alexandra Roberts

Comfort- Sizing/Fit

The second best feature of these pants is how well they fit. For reference I am 5′ 9″, 180 pounds, with a 34 inch waist and 32 inch inseam. I went with a size medium and they fit me quite well. They may be an inch long in the inseam but that is only noticeable if I am wearing flip-flops. Once I have trail shoes or boots on they do not feel too long at all and the stretchy material makes rolling them up around the calves for rock climbing super easy. The stretchy material also stays in place around the calf while I am climbing while other pants sometimes un-roll on me mid-pitch if I don’t fuss with a good “tight-roll”. There is also a hem-cord at the ankles that can help keep them tight around your boot or calf with just one pull.

Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants Review
Sizing Info from Black Diamond

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Protection

These offer protection in quite a few ways. They are light enough to serve as bug/poison ivy/pricker protection in warm weather. They are durable enough to protect bare legs from rock abrasion while scrambling and climbing. They are virtually wind proof to guard from wind-chill (though I would add a hard-shell pant to my pack if looking at a wind chill advisory). They are water-resistant enough thanks to the DWR coating to deal with light precipitation and when they do get wet they are super quick drying. If glissading on Spring snow is on the agenda I would also add a hard-shell to the kit.

Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants Review
My everyday work pant- photo by Alexandra Roberts

Features

I really like the integrated adjustable web belt and have not had any need to wear an additional belt but low profile belt loops are included anyways. The pant fits great underneath the two harnesses I used with it, the Petzl Sitta (reviewed here) and the Petzl Altitude (review coming). Two zippered hand pockets are perfectly positioned and a zippered right thigh pocket is large enough for my iPhone 6s Plus in its Hitcase Shield waterproof case <- great iPhone case by the way! There is also a zippered right rear pocket to round out the features of this pant.

Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants Review
Summit of Mount Rainier, July 27th, 2017- photo by @cfphotography
Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants Review
The author on some late season ice last March begins testing the Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants- photo by @cfphotography

Summary

While I wore these for almost 5 months it was the two weeks that I lived in them in the Cascades that really won me over. Light enough to sleep in yet rugged enough to handle thousands of feet of alpine scrambling. I will likely be wearing these regularly for the rest of the New England Fall climbing season and they will probably go out on some fair weather ice climbing days this winter, though I have a couple heavier soft-shell pants that need to be reviewed this season as well. If you are in need of a versatile climbing pant backed by a great company this model deserves a very close look!

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Disclaimer: This product was provided to the reviewer for purpose of review and all opinions expressed are genuine. All product links above are affiliate links. Using those links to make a purchase supports Northeast Alpine Start at no additional cost to you.

Part 3: Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier

Part 3 of this three part Cascade climbing series will cover climbing the Disappointment Cleaver Route on Mount Rainier.

Part 3: The Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Looking down towards our camp at the Ingraham Flats from above “the Cleaver” photo by Alexandra Roberts Photography

Part 1: Fisher Chimney’s, Mount Shuksan

Part 2: The West Ridge, Forbidden Peak

Part 3: Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier


Getting There/Lodging

To finish off our hat trick of Cascade climbs we left the northern Cascades and returned to Seattle to pick up some friends before heading to Ashford, WA, the gateway to Mount Rainier National Park. The drive to Ashford from Seattle takes just under two hours. Most of our group had reserved cabins at the Stone Creek Lodge just minutes from the park entrance. My climbing partner and I had space reserved at the Cougar Rock Campground about 20 minutes within the park boundary.

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Overview map of Ashford, park entrance, Paradise and lodging

Weather

We went for the second half of July and were lucky to nail a stretch of excellent weather. June, July, and August can all offer great summer alpine climbing conditions with June being a bit colder and wetter and August opening up a bit more crevasses on the glaciers. For mountain specific weather forecasts on Mount Rainier go here:

Mountain Weather Forecast- Mount Rainier


Day 1: Paradise to Moon Rocks

After a very hearty breakfast at the highly recommended Copper Creek Restaurant we made the scenic drive up to Paradise, the launch pad of adventures on the south side of Mount Rainier. Paradise is a very busy hub of mountain recreation with apparently thousands of visitors a day. We had picked up our permit the day before so we got right on the trail and started our ascent. While I forgot to run my GPS app or watch this day I’ve created a GPX file on CalTopo of the most common route and used the GuidePace App to calculate average times for each leg.

First Leg

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
First leg from Paradise to Pebble Creek Trail via Skyline Trail

Distance 1.55 miles, elevation (+1300), time estimate 1 hour 37 minutes

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Looking back towards Alta Vista and Paradise

Be warned this first section of “trail” is quite congested with day visitors from all over the world. The trail is actually paved for the first mile and a heavy ranger presence tries as best as possible to keep visitors from trampling the beautiful alpine meadows here. Once you reach the Pebble Creek trail the crowd will thin a little…

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Peter just before reaching the Pebble Creek Trail

Second leg

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Second leg from Pebble Creek Trail to the creek (last flowing water)

Distance .55 miles, elevation (+530), time estimate 38 minutes

Third leg

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Third leg, Pebble Creek to Moon Rocks camp

Distance 1.28 miles, elevation (+1680), time estimate 1 hour 48 minutes

Shortly after gaining the Pebble Creek Trail you’ll come to the actual creek which was a reliable source of water for us to top off our bottles. Right after crossing the creek you start the long slog up the Muir Snowfield. This leg can drag on a little but eventually we reached our camp. After digging some level tent platforms at about 8800 feet we kicked back and soaked in a gorgeous sunset.

Climbing Muir Snowfield, Mount Rainier
Climbing Muir Snowfield, Mount Rainier with Mount Adams in the distance
Climbing Muir Snowfield, Mount Rainier
The Northeast Mountaineering team arrives at camp
Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Setting up camp below Anvil Rock at 8,800 feet on the Muir Snowfield- photo by Alexandra Roberts Photography
Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Soaking in the last of the days sun

Day 2: Moon Rocks to Ingraham Flats

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
The sun rises on our second day on the mountain- photo by Cait Bourgault Photography
Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Moon Rocks to Ingraham Flats

We broke camp mid-morning and started our climb up to Ingraham Flats. The day before I had found a trickle of running water in rocks a few hundred feet above our site and I was happy to see it was still running enough in the morning to top off our bottles, greatly reducing the amount of fuel/snow melting we would need. We reached Camp Muir in just over an hour. We relaxed for a bit before roping up to cross the Cowlitz Glacier.

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Roping up at Camp Muir- photo by Alexandra Roberts Photography

Crossing the upper Cowlitz Glacier was straightforward and we were soon scrambling up the ridge that separates the Cowlitz from the Ingraham glacier.

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Looking back towards Camp Muir, Cowlitz Glacier
Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Reaching Ingraham Flats. “The Cleaver” for which the route is named is the rocky ridge to the right

Total climbing time to Ingraham was about 3 hours from our camp at Moon Rocks so we had plenty of time to level sites and dig a privy before settling in.


Day 3- Acclimatization and Crevasse Rescue Practice

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Sunrise over Little Tahoma Peak- photo by Alexandra Roberts Photography

Our third day on the peak was set aside for acclimatizing and a little crevasse rescue practice. Late in the morning we made our way down to the giant crevasses just below our camp and set to building snow anchors and lowering each other into the crevasse. This would certainly be a highlight for many on the trip!

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Setting anchors for crevasse rescue practice- photo by Alexandra Roberts Photography
Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
My climbing partner Peter climbs out of crevasse- photo by @cfphotography

Later that afternoon before turning in we got to watch a pretty spectacular natural rockfall from Gilbratar Rock!

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Natural rockfall on Gilbratar Rock funnels towards “Cadaver Gap”- photo by Alexandra Roberts Photography

After hydrating and eating as much as I could we turned in well before sunset as our summit day start time was 2300 (11 PM)!  Everyone was feeling pretty strong after a full rest day at 11,000 feet but we knew the following day would be a long one!


Day 4: Summit and Out!

We rallied at 11 PM and quickly got on the trail by 11:30 PM. A couple of groups had passed through on their summit attempts from Camp Muir and I was eager to not get behind more parties.

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Our summit route

We made good time up the cleaver and entered the mythical looking sastrugi above the ridge.

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Mystical looking snow formations- photo by Cait Bourgault Photography

The route the rangers and guides had selected greatly reduced exposure to objective hazards but required dropping 400 feet of elevation after getting above the Cleaver and then far to the north eventually joining up with the Emmon’s Glacier route before turning and gaining the summit crater on the far north side. Despite the extra mileage and elevation we managed to pass the few parties that had gotten out ahead of us. We were the first group on the mountain to summit about 15 minutes before sunrise, about 6 hours after leaving our high camp!

Climbing Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier
Reaching the summit crater of Mount Rainier just before sunrise- photo by Cait Bourgault Photography
Climbing Mount Rainier
An amazing group of people to share this adventure with!- photo by @cfphotography
Climbing Mount Rainier
Sunrise from the summit crater Rainier- photo by Cait Bourgault Photography

One of the best things about summiting a peak in the dark is the views on the descent are all unseen and we were treated to stunning clear skies and under-cast for days!

Climbing Mount Rainier
Descending back to Ingraham Flats- photo by @cfphotography

After climbing back down the Cleaver we arrived at Ingraham Flats exactly 9.5 hours from the start of our climb, about 9 AM. We broke down camp and rested for a bit before descending to Muir Camp and all the way out to Paradise.

Summary

Rainier has been on my bucket list for a very long time. I’ve helped east coast climbers prep for this mountain for over a decade and it was great to finally experience this peak with such great people and in such great conditions. I hope this trip report and guide might help you plan a trip to this incredible place someday!

More info coming!

I will be uploading GPX files and some video of our climb in the very near future!

Gear List

If you are interested in the exact gear I used on this trip you can find a complete and comprehensive gear list here!

Information on Guided Trips: www.nemmountaineering.com. Click on “Mountaineering” to see all Cascade Climbing Trips.

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Part 2: The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak

Part 2 of this three part Cascade climbing series will cover The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak.

Part 2: The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak

West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak with Moraine Lake far below

Part 1: Fisher Chimney’s, Mount Shuksan

Part 2: The West Ridge, Forbidden Peak

Part 3: Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier

After our successful summit of Mount Shuksan via the Fisher Chimney’s we took a rest day and camped at Douglas Fir Campground. The next day we drove to the ranger station in Marblemount to collect our back-country permit and then took the scenic Cascade River Road to the trail-head.


The Route

The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak is one of the “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America” and is considered Grade II, YDS 5.6. After a half day approach into Boston Basin the route climbs a perennial snow field before ascending a moderate gully to one of the most spectacular ridge climbs you can imagine. Massive exposure with relatively good rock quality and a stunning summit make it easy to see why this route made the aforementioned list!


Registration Details (from NPS.gov)

WILDERNESS INFORMATION CENTER

Wilderness Information Center
Click here for current hours

Phone: 360-854-7245
Location:
 7280 Ranger Station Rd., Marblemount, WA 98267. Drive SR 20 toward Marblemount. Turn onto Ranger Station Road, which leaves SR 20 at milepost 105.3, just west of Marblemount, and drive 0.7 miles to the end of the road and the ranger station.
Exhibits: Exhibits about wilderness and backcountry travel. Relief map. Sales of books, maps, and other items related to wilderness, hiking, and climbing.


Available Facilities:
 This center is the main backcountry permit office for North Cascades National Park and the adjacent Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. Information desk. Sales area with books, maps, videos, and other items related to the national park and adjacent national forests. Backcountry permits are required year-round and are available at an outdoor self-issue station when the station is closed during the winter season.


Getting There

Marblemount, WA is just under two hours from Seattle. After obtaining your permit from the ranger station it’s about a twenty five minute drive to the unmarked trail-head.

Forbidden Peak Map
I’ve highlighted the ranger station and the objective

Weather

We went for the second half of July and were lucky to nail a 12 day stretch of excellent weather. June, July, and August can all offer great summer alpine climbing conditions with June being a bit colder and wetter and August opening up a bit more crevasses on the glaciers. For mountain specific weather forecasts on Forbidden Peak go here:

Mountain Weather Forecast- Forbidden Peak


Day 1 GPS Details

Approach to Boston Basin
You can download this GPS track here!

The approach trail climbs about 3,300 feet in 3.75 miles and took us exactly three hours. We found some level tent sites at the “upper bivy” right at the toe of the snowfield that provided plenty of running water. A few brief showers came through and we were treated to some excellent “god rays” as the sun set and we turned in for an alpine start.

The Upper Bivy in Boston Basin, Forbidden Peak
The Upper Bivy in Boston Basin, Forbidden Peak

The next day we started out at about 4 AM.

Alpine start, Boston Basin, Forbidden Peak
Alpine start, Boston Basin, Forbidden Peak

Day 2 GPS Details

West Ridge Forbidden Peak Ascent
Download this GPX file here
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Heading to “the Heartstone”, a good landmark feature, the steeper snow climbing begins on the left side of this feature a couple hundred feet above us. Photo from @mattbaldeli

Easy climbing up through the snowfield brought us to the start of the gully that would allow access to the ridge. The “Heartstone” is a rock buttress directly above us in the photo that serves as a good landmark for finding the snow gully that is hidden from view. The route climbed up thinning snow just to the left of this feature. In the gully proper the snow climbing was straight forward until we hit a glide crack that required a big balance step to surmount. The snow ended about 200 feet from the ridge so we pitched out a few short 3rd-4th class pitches. This stretch was the only place on the ascent that had a decent amount of loose rock so care was needed.

We stashed our mountaineering boots, crampons, and ice axes and switched into approach shoes for the rest of the climb in the small col on the ridge. The exposure begins almost immediately with a airy step over a gap in the ridge with a chock-stone that perfectly frames the lower snow gully you just climbed up. You can see this spot clearly in the video I will link further below.

The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Working our way along this classic alpine ridge

The climbing was enjoyable, the rock felt solid, the views were un-believe-able… For speed we mixed up our techniques between simul-climbing and short-pitching with only about 20 meters of rope between us. This made for easy communication and simplified rope management.

The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
The author at the 5.6 crux
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Two parties behind us on the ridge, photo by Matty Bowman
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Close to summit selfies?
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Summit! The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak

We made the summit in 7.5 hours after leaving our camp in Boston Basin having climbed 3.9 miles and over 2,500 feet in elevation. The small pointed summit of Forbidden is one of the most amazing places I have ever stood in the mountains. The terrain is so dramatic as you look back along the ridge you just traversed and see the thousand feet of air on each side.

West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Looking back along the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak from the summit with Moraine Lake far below
West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
West Ridge of Forbidden Peak- photo by Matt Baldelli Photography
West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
The author descending from summit- photo by Matt Baldelli Photography

Descent

After refueling we reversed direction and returned to the col to collect our snow gear. We then scrambled down to skiers right of the snow gully we had ascended and located the first rappel anchor in “Cat Scratch Gully”, an alternate 4th class ascent route to the snow gully. Five 30m rappels brought us to back to the snowfield where we enjoyed some decent boot glissading in the warming snow all the way back down to our camp.

We packed up camp and hiked back out to the trailhead in just under 2 hours.

Summary

I’ve had some time to reflect on this climb and I can say with certainty it will be one of the most memorable climbs of my life. I feel so fortunate to have not only had the opportunity to climb it but to do so with such great partners and friends and perfect weather and route conditions. I hope this trip report and guide might help you plan a trip to this incredible place someday!

Gear List

If you are interested in the gear I used on this trip you can find a complete and comprehensive gear list here!

Videos

Here’s a four minute video I made of our climb, enjoy!

 

My friend and professional video producer created this amazing short film of our climb! Check it out!

Forbidden Peak from Jon Mercer on Vimeo.


Information on Guided Trips: www.nemmountaineering.com. Click on “Mountaineering” to see all Cascade Climbing Trips.

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Whitehorse and Cathedral Ledge Rock Climbing

Yesterday I had the pleasure of introducing David and his daughter Nicole to rock climbing in Echo Lake State Park. We started our morning over at the sweeping granite slabs of Whitehorse Ledge. After some ground school we climbed 4 pitches to Lunch Ledge then rappelled back to the deck. After a scenic lunch a top Cathedral we rappelled the Barber Wall and climbed Upper Refuse to round out our day.

It was great meeting you both and I hope to see you back this winter for that Washington climb!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



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Cascades Climbing Trip Gear List

Those who know me know I can be a little obsessive about gear. I enjoy making detailed gear lists for trips sometimes weighing everything down to the ounce. I shared my first gear list for ski touring in Iceland this past April and most recently in a trip report for climbing Mount Shuksan in the Cascades. Since I have two more trip reports for the Cascades coming soon I’ve decided to give the gear list its own post that can be easily linked too without taking up so much space in the trip report.

Packing for Cascades Climbing Trip
Packing for Cascades Climbing Trip

Having over 20 years in outdoor retail I love chatting about gear so if you have any questions about any of my recommendations, or suggestions for better products, please comment below!


Cascades Gear List


Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack

Hyperlight Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack

At just over 2 pounds this pack has enough space for 3-4 day alpine endeavor’s, rides comfortably, and is made of materials that will last for over a decade of adventure! Also made in Maine!

Buy from Hyperlite Mountain Gear


Black Diamond HiLight Tent

Black Diamond HiLite Tent

A super lightweight and pack-able 2 person single wall tent. I spent 12 nights in this from car camping between climbs to dug in at 11,000 feet at Ingraham Flats on Rainier and the tent performed perfectly through-out!

Buy on Backcountry       Buy on Amazon


Western Mountaineering TerraLite 25 Degree Sleeping Bag

Western Mountaineering TerraLite 25 Degree Sleeping Bag

This was the best gear purchase I’ve made in over a decade. I have a few sleeping bags from a great heritage -30 EMS down bag to a fairly light 35 degree synthetic sleeping bag but I decided to upgrade for this trip and I could not have been happier for my first Western Mountaineering sleeping bag! I’ll go into greater detail in a review later but for now I’ll just say I slept GREAT in this compressible lightweight sleeping bag!

Buy on Backcountry          Buy on Amazon


Sea to Summit Reactor Thermolite Sleeping Bag Liner

Sea to Summit Reactor Thermolite Sleeping Bag Liner

This goes with me everywhere. It’s super comfy on airplanes as a blanket and in hostels around the world. I also like that it keeps my expensive down sleeping bag clean (extending its life) even after weeks of griming sleeping!

Buy on Backcountry         Buy on Amazon


Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Mattress

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Mattress

I upgraded from my older, heavier, bulkier Therm-a-Rest Prolite sleeping pad with this in “short” and doubled it up with the closed cell foam pad listed below. It was a great combo for both warmth and comfort!

Buy on Backcountry      Buy on Amazon


Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite Mattress

Therm-a-Rest RidgeREst SOLite Mattress

Affordable added warmth and comfort, I used a full length model to pair with the short model mentioned above for a very comfortable and adaptable combo.

Buy on Backcountry         Buy on Amazon


MSR WindBoiler 1.0 L Stove System

MSR WindBoiler 1.0 L Stove System

This stove was amazing on this trip! Super fast and efficient for melting snow I could easily budget just 2 ounces of fuel per person per day assuming we had water sources at Lake Ann and below Winnie’s Slide bivy site.

Buy on Amazon       Buy on Backcountry


Food

For dinner and breakfast I went with Mountain House meals. The egg scrambles were one of my favorite. For a dinner appetizer I carried a Lipton noodle soup packet and combined it with a Miso soup packet, great for replacing lost sodium and electrolytes! The Mountain House Pad Thai and Chicken Fajita Bowl both tasted great!


Sea To Summit Delta Spork With Knife

Sea to Summit Delta Spork

Simple lightweight option to make meal time easy!

Buy on Backcountry        Buy on Amazon


Arcteryx Acrux Mountaineering Boots

Arc'teryx Acrux AR Mountaineering Boots

My mountaineering boots of choice, full review of them here. While I LOVE these boots for my cold New England ice climbing and mountaineering adventures they turned out to be a little too warm for Shuksan and Forbidden (but perfect for Rainier, more on that later). My co-guide Jordan who has been having a banner season in the Cascades was rocking the Salomon S-Lab X Alpine Carbon 2 GTX Boots… these things look AWESOME! Basically comfy enough for long warmish approaches, crampon compatible, and climb rock really well… I will be getting a pair of these before my next summer Cascade adventure!

Buy Acrux AR Mountaineering Boots on Backcountry       Buy on Amazon

Buy Salomon S-Lab X Alpine Carbon 2 GTX Boots on Backcountry      Buy on Amazon


Petzl Vasak Leverlock Crampons

Petzl Vasak Crampons

Make sure you select the Leverlock or FL option! Great all around mountaineering crampon in my book! I have led grade 5 ice in them and walked hundreds of miles in them from Washington to Katahdin over the last decade and they are still going strong! I do plan to shave a little weight for these longer glaciated non-water ice routes by picking up a pair of Petzl Leopard Crampons soon!

Buy Petzl Vasak Crampons on Backcountry          On Amazon

Buy Petzl Leopard on Backcountry        On Amazon


Leki Micro Vario Carbon Trekking Poles

Leki Micro Vario Carbon Trekking Poles

The lightest most compatible trekking poles I have ever seen! I’ve been loving these! I’ve used them all over the White Mountains including a 2 hour car-to-car ascent of the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle! You can see them during one attempt in this video.

Buy on Backcountry        Buy on Amazon


Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice Axe

Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice Axe

This has been my mountaineering axe for almost 15 years and is the right balance of weight and durability.

Buy on Backcounty       Buy on Amazon


Petzl Sirocco Helmet

Petzl Sirocco Helmet

Finally got the latest version of this iconic helmet and went into a ton of detail in a long form review last month here!

Buy on Backcountry       Buy on Amazon


Petzl Sitta Harness

Petzl Sitta Harness

I brought this harness for the more technical climbing on Shuksan and Forbidden and my full review of it is here.

Buy on Backcountry       Buy on Amazon


Petzl Altitude Harness

Petzl Altitude Harness

I brought this harness for the less technical Disappointment Cleaver route on Mount Rainier. Super lightweight, pack-able, and able to put on while wearing skis. It is everything I want in a mountaineering harness. Detailed review coming soon.

Buy on Backcountry       Buy on Amazon


Petzl CORDEX Lightweight Belay Gloves

Petzl CORDEX Lightweight Belay Gloves

If ropes are involved these come with me. They were perfect for the warmer daytime glacier temps and offer great protection for rappelling, short-roping, etc.

Buy on Backcountry      Buy on Amazon


Sterling Evolution Duetto Dry Rope, 30m 8.4mm

Sterling Rope Evolution Duetto Dry Rope

A solid choice for glacier and ski mountaineering trips.

Buy on Backcountry      Buy on Amazon


MSR Snow Picket 60 cm

MSR Snow Picket

Two per rope team is ideal! I also pre-rigged this with a double length Dyneema sling and Petzl Ange S carabiner.

Buy on Amazon


AMK .7 First Aid Kit

AMK .7 First Aid Kit

I customize mine a little but this is a great base kit at the price!

Buy on Backountry      Buy on Amazon


Suunto MC-2 Compass

Suunto MC-2 Compass

My favorite and trusted compass/clinometer for the last two decades!

Buy on Amazon


Nalgene Tritan 32 oz water bottle

Nalgene Tritan 32oz Wide Mouth Bottle

A staple of every outdoor adventure, I carry two of these for my hydration needs!

Buy on Backcountry    Buy on Amazon


SOL Emergency Bivy Sack

SOL Emergency Bivy Sack

Super affordable and weighs less than 4 ounces means there is never a reason not to bring this!

Buy on Amazon


Revo Cusp S Sunglasses

I have the Solar Orange lens on this pair for lower light conditions

Buy on Amazon


SPOT Satelite GPS Messenger

SPOT 3 Satelitte GPS Messenger

Cell phone service is very spotty on Mount Shuksan. I was able to find a bar or two of service (Verizon) at Lake Ann (southwest side) and send and receive a few text messages. We had no service at the bivy site at the top of Fisher Chimney’s however I was able to FaceTime my wife from the summit! For the times with no service the SPOT GPS Messenger easily allowed me to send “check-in” messages home and in my opinion is an important piece of rescue gear should an incident occur.

Buy on Amazon


Petzl Actik Headlamp

Petzl Actik Core Headlamp

I recently upgraded from my older Petzl Myo model and this new model is awesome! Up to 260 hours of burn time and able to through light 90 meters! If you’re due for a headlamp upgrade I highly suggest you check out this model!

Buy on Amazon


Petzl Zipka Headlamp

Petzl Zipka Headlamp

I always carry a spare headlamp on multi-day adventures and this is my choice back-up model. It’s small enough to fit in my first aid kit but still bright enough to function as a real headlamp.

Buy on Backcountry       Buy on Amazon


Quality Survival Lighter

UST Floating Lighter

Fire-starter is on every gear list, and this one is a good value!

Buy on Amazon


Garmin Fenix 3 HR GPS watch

Garmin Fenix 3 HR Watch

My current favorite GPS navigation capable smart-watch with optical heart-rate! This is the watch I used to create the GPS tracks linked in the trip report. It also allows one-button waypoint saving and the built in barometer/altimeter was a nice plus to our navigation plans.

Buy on Amazon


GoPro Hero 5 Session

GoPro Hero5 Session

A great little HD cam with advanced features beyond this post. You can see some of the footage about a minute into my Forbidden Peak video!

Buy on Backcountry      Buy on Amazon


Anker PowerCore 10000 Charger for iPhone, GoPro, etc

Anker PowerCore 10000

This thing was great! About the size of a deck of cards it packs 10,000mAh which easily provided 4 full re-charges for my iPhone 6s and still have 50% juice left!

Buy on Amazon

Clothing


Black Diamond Alpine Start Hooded Jacket

Black Diamond Alpine Start Hooded Jacket

I absolutely love this piece and went into great detail about it in an in-depth review here.

Buy on Backcountry       Buy on Amazon


Black Diamond Alpine Pant

Black Diamond Alpine Pants

I’ve been wearing these back east for most of my Spring/Summer climbing season with multiple trips in Huntington Ravine and through-out the White Mountains so I felt confident taking them as my main climbing pant to the Cascades. Having essentially lived in them for two weeks of non-stop climbing I can whole heartedly endorse the comfort and performance of these soft-shell pants!

Buy on Backcountry     Buy on Amazon


Patagonia Technical Sunshade Hooded Shirt

Patagonia Technical Sunshade Hooded Shirt

This is in my opinion the most critical piece of glacier clothing you can own. I reviewed it in detail here but on a shade-less blazing glacier this one garment offers more protection and comfort than any other article of clothing I own. I’ve said it before and I will keep saying it… EVERY climber should own one of these! I do have a small cult following of “sunshade hoodies” who have “seen the light” or better yet “appreciate the shade” that these things bring… just get one and thank me later ok?

Buy on Backcountry


 Clothing to be linked soon:

Arcteryx Mid-weight Synthetic Insulated Hoody

Patagonia Fitz Roy Belay Parka

EMS Powerstretch Climb Hoodie

EMS Powerstretch Long Underwear Pants

One synthetic T-shirt

One Ortovox Rock & Roll Boxers

One pair midweight socks

One pair heavyweight socks

One pair lightweight glove liners

One pair midweight Outdoor Research Project Gloves

Outdoor research sun ball cap

iPhone 6s+ with headphones & charger


Crevasse Rescue Kit- Petzl Micro Traxion, SL OK, Tibloc, Sm’D, Oscilla
Personal Climbing Gear- Kong GiGi with Black Diamond Magnetron and Gridlock, Magnetron and Petzl Reverso 4, Cordelette with Petzl Ange S, 2 prussiks, knife, Petzl Cordex Belay Gloves on Petzl Ange S, Petzl Attache anchor biner
Group climbing gear- Alpine Rack and Draws
Group climbing gear- Sterling Nano IX 60m rope
Group climbing gear- Sterling Nano IX 28m rope

Thanks for reading! Got a question or comment? Please comment below and stay tuned for next week’s trip report of The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak!

Part 1: Fisher Chimney’s, Mount Shuksan

Part 2: The West Ridge, Forbidden Peak

Part 3: Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier

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