I pulled into the parking lot below Whitehorse Ledge minutes before Bob pulled in. This was my first time coming back to climbing since an injury at the beginning of March followed by an on-going pandemic that generated stay at home orders and strong social pressure to not partake in riskier activities while the local medical centers braced for over-whelming traffic and struggled with sourcing enough PPE and ventilators if things got as bad as they might.
It had been a long and sometimes difficult two months. First, recovering from a painful injury that left me unable to do much more than walk slowly on flat ground. Second, once I felt like I might be able to turn a ski, deciding alpine Spring skiing would have to wait for 2021.
So it should go without saying I was excited to be tying in with one of my longest lifetime friends and climbing partners but it wasn’t without a little trepidation. My family had kept our circle very small and tight and a couple hours on a cliff with Bob was definitely a cautious step forward that I hoped would bring us more and more to normalcy as things evolve with the pandemic.
We had talked about how we would protect each other and manage not just our climbing risk but the risk of spreading a virus that has managed to bring the country to its knees with its ease of transmission combined with how many potential asymptomatic carriers could unknowingly start an outbreak.
When Bob got out of his truck we went without the typical firm handshake or bro hug while gearing up. My rope, his rack. We both used our own hand-sanitizer before shouldering our backpacks and hiking up to the cliff. We walked, almost without realizing it, about ten feet apart instead of shoulder to shoulder like we’d done for hundreds of days of climbing together.
I stacked the rope while Bob racked up slightly further away than normal. We decided Bob would lead the 9 pitch mellow slab route for a few reasons. He had been out climbing a few times already and was feeling pretty good. I didn’t know how I was feeling on rock post-injury and having such a long break from climbing. We also wanted to get back home to our families early and this route definitely climbs faster when not swapping leads. Perhaps I also thought this would mean less handling of gear… most of the pitches were run out slab climbing so I was only cleaning 4 or 5 pieces of protection per pitch, mostly just quick-draws.
We reminded each other that no gear should go into our mouths. This is a natural habit for climbers when cleaning and leading climbs and a habit we wanted to be conscious to avoid. At each anchor I clove-hitched myself in a bit longer than normal, finding it easy to keep about 6 feet between us. Instead of directly handing Bob his gear back I would long-reach over and clip it to his end of the rope. We both reminded each other not to touch our faces.
At the third anchor I donned my disposable face-mask I was carrying. While I might believe both Bob and I are not spreading this virus we can’t be 100% certain at this point, neither of us have been tested for antibodies and even if we had been the jury is still out on exactly what any of those results would truly mean in terms of both immunity and potential to spread. The main reason I wanted to don the mask was to put myself into my potential clients shoes if I end up going back to work this summer.
Current CDC guidelines recommend masks or face coverings if you can’t stay at least 6 feet away from people. I’ve sat through a number of great webinars hosted by the American Alpine Club, The Access Fund, and the American Mountain Guide Association about how climbers and guides should move forward during this pandemic. Both the company I guide for, Northeast Mountaineering, and most guide services I know who are starting to operate again, will be requiring some type of face covering when social distancing is not possible (essentially at belay’s, fitting harnesses, etc).
Two hours after starting up the face we reached the top. I laid what gear I had cleaned from the last pitch on the ground for Bob to collect and stepped back to coil our rope. After stuffing the rope in my backpack and changing out of my climbing shoes we both used our hand-sanitizer again and started our hike back to the parking lot. We then jumped in our separate cars and drove a few minutes to the lower viewing area of Cathedral Ledge for a post climb beer (we brought our own) and to watch two parties getting after it on the cliff, one party on the Beast Flake and one on Camber, two of the cliffs classic hard routes. No one was on any of the easier trade routes.
After some great catching up and the cold refreshment we made tentative plans to start climbing together again once a week. We expressed gratitude to each other for an awesome morning of climbing and then parted ways. No high fives, no fist bumps, no bro hugs. Just a smile and a wave. When I got home I left my climbing gear and rope in the trunk of the car, changed my clothes, and showered, before hugging my kids. I waited a couple days before collecting my gear from the trunk and putting it back into my gear room. It felt good to be climbing again, even though I was doing things a bit differently than before.
In 2008 having been on a few search and rescue missions for lost hikers I looked around for a quality navigation course and couldn’t find one I thought was comprehensive and effective, so I decided to create my own curriculum. I’ve since taught this course over 50 times for organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club, Tin Mountain Conservation, Eastern Mountain Sports Schools, Kennett High School Adult Education Series, Northeast Mountaineering, and for private high school outdoor programs like The Brooks School.
I’m excited to say I can now present the classroom portion of this course in an online live interactive format and I am announcing my first ever online Wilderness Navigation Course for Saturday, May 9th, from 9am-1pm EST. (NEW COURSE IS MAY 24th- invites have been sent to first 12 on waiting list)
So what will be covered in the course? Here’s a look at the curriculum:
Improvised (Survival) Navigation Techniques
Proper use of a Magnetic Compass
Reading Topographic Maps
Locating your position using terrain association
Locating your position using single-point resection
Location your position using triangulation
Navigating by altimeter
Navigating in a white-out
Creating accurate trip plans and estimating hiking time
A brief introduction to online mapping and smart phone app integration (this topic will be offered in detail in another online course soon!)
Course participants will also get a copy of the presentation for future reference and an invitation to connect to a private Facebook group to discuss any of the course content down the road as questions come up or information is forgotten.
For this first run I am limiting the class size to 10 students. (Class size increased to 12) If you are interested please read the next section carefully before registering!
Experience: You do not need to have any previous training or experience with navigation, reading maps, or using a compass. While this is an entry level course previous courses have shown me that even self described “experts” learn easier and better ways for performing some of these skills in this course.
Time Commitment: This course will run on Saturday May 9th from 9am-1pm EST. (New course is Sunday May 24th from 9am-1pm EST) You will need to be available during that time to fully participate.
Equipment: You will need a laptop or computer connected to the internet. While you could attend the course via a smartphone I think you will benefit from a full size screen. You will need a base plate style compass. I am a fan of these two models, the second one being my personal all time favorite compass and the one you will see me using throughout the course.
You will also need to be able to print three sheets of paper, two in color. There will be a single lesson worksheet and a color topographic PDF (both 8.5 x 11) emailed to you shortly after registering along with the invitation to the Zoom meeting. You will also receive instructions on how to print a local topographic map. Most of us have gotten familiar with Zoom over the last few weeks. If you haven’t attended a Zoom meeting yet do not worry, it is super easy and I’m happy to walk you through it 1 on 1 prior to the course so you are not stressed about that aspect!
Optional Equipment: A ruler or straight edge is handy but not required. A topographic map of your area can be helpful for a couple of the self-guided outdoor sessions.
There will be a couple self-guided outdoor sessions to keep us from sitting in a chair or staring at a computer screen for too long, so you will also need access to some “outside”… hopefully no one reading this is 20 levels down in a bunker right now.
How to Register/Tuition
If you meet all those requirements and would like to attend just fill out the short contact form below! I can answer any additional questions you might have and once I confirm I still have a spot available I will send a tuition ($50) request via PayPal or Venmo, your preference.
If I need to cancel the course for any reason at any time a full refund will be made. If you need to cancel earlier than two weeks prior to the course for any reason a full refund will be made. If you need to cancel within two weeks of the course a 50% refund will be made. If you need to cancel within one week of the course no refund will be made.
I am really excited about my foray into online instruction. I love teaching adults the variety of mountain skills I’ve acquired over two decades of guiding people in the mountains and this is a method I’ve wanted to try for years! I have other courses in the works, perhaps the most requested from a lot of my avalanche course students, is a course focused on online mapping and modern smartphone integration. While I love using tech responsibly in the mountains you must acquire and practice the fundamental navigation skills if you don’t want to find yourself in a spot because your tech failed!
So that’s it! Let me know if would like to sign up by filling out the short contact form below! Also please share this with your outdoorsy friends who might be interested!
EDIT: 5/25 WOW! I’m humbled that this course SOLD OUT in less then 24 hours! Fear not I will schedule another one very soon! If the demand is there I could even offer this on a weekly basis. If you are interested in this course please fill out the form below and I will add you to the list and notify you when the next course is scheduled! (second course invites have been sent to first 12 on waiting list, feel free to join the waiting list using the form below to receive notifications of openings and new courses)
See you in the mountains (when we are back to traveling),
Northeast Alpine Start
Disclaimer: No course online or in person can guarantee your safety. You are solely responsible for any outcome resulting in following information or advice in this post or in this course. I strongly discourage any non-essential travel outside of your home while we are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Please stay local while practicing these skills. Affiliate links help support this blog. Thank you.
With the current COVID-19 crisis we are trying to be prepared as possible for the foresee-able future. One aspect of self-reliance that might be over looked is being able to deal with small medical emergencies at home. Any trip to a hospital will likely put further strain on an already stressed medical system. To that end now is a good time to take inventory of your home medical supplies.
My Medic is a first aid supply company that has an amazing variety of medical supplies. It can be a bit overwhelming trying to decide what first aid kit you should start with so they have a handy “kit finder” that will help you narrow the selection. Our home kit is the basic “MyFAK” model. Then we have one Solo kit in each of our cars.
While having a properly stocked first aid kit is important knowing how to use what is in it is even more important.
The SOLO School located in Conway, NH offers some of the best wilderness medicine training anywhere. While they are closed until at least May 1st once they are back running courses consider enrolling in one of their programs (classes are offered all over the country). There are also a half-dozen or more free online first aid classes. While stuck at home you could brush up on skills through websites like FirstAidForFree and the Red Cross.
Accident prevention is high on our priority list right now and being able to deal with small injuries without visiting the hospital means we are more self-sufficient. I’d encourage every one to adjust their personal level of risk acceptance until we get through this crisis. Our family is limiting our exercise to short nature walks and bike riding around our neighborhood. Bike gloves and helmets are a must when riding. Make sure you are getting an hour of responsible outdoor time every day! We hope everyone stays safe and sane during these difficult days!
I find it hard to believe the avalanche course season is almost over! I’ve had a great time teaching courses for Northeast Mountaineering with an amazing group of co-instructors and despite a relatively inconsistent Mother Nature field conditions have been quite prime for our course objectives.
One of the seasonal components of the AIARE Framework is “Continue Your Education”. AIARE 1 students often realize quite early in the course that becoming safer back-country travelers is a lifelong process. There is no finish line when it comes to avalanche education. To that end I share with my students one of the ways I’ve continued to learn about a subject I’ve been studying and teaching for over 10 years is by subscribing to multiple podcasts related to avalanche education. Multiple students have asked for a list of what podcasts I listen to which was the motivation of this post. So without further delay here’s my current playlist with a quick recap of what to expect from each. If you like to play in the snow you should give a few of these a listen on the commute into work or your drive up to the mountains!
“The podcast that helps keep you on top of the snow instead of buried beneath it.” This one is at the top of my list and if you only pick one podcast to listen to this is the one I’d recommend most. So many great episodes I hesitate to call out just one but I will… The April 5th, 2019 episode “Low Danger” is a must listen.
“Creating a stronger community through sharing stories, knowledge, and news amongst people who have a curious fascination with avalanches.” What can I say this podcast is fantastic! The range of guests is great and I haven’t found a single interview to not be engaging and enlightening… add it to your library!
Sadly it seems Doug hasn’t been able to keep this project going but the first two seasons are here for us to learn from. Doug focuses mostly on the human element and some of the episodes that have stayed with my had to do with effective communication in the backcountry and how we see ourselves in our stories (impaired objectivity). Definitely worth listening to the 1.5 seasons that are there and hopefully Doug can return to this project soon!
Honorable mention goes to the American Alpine Club’s Sharp End Podcast by Ashley Saupe. While not 100% about avalanches I’ve been a long time reader of the AAC’s Accidents in North American Climbing, a fantastic education resource in its own right and worth the annual cost of membership in my opinion! In each episode Ashley interviews those involved in climbing (and sometimes avalanche) accidents in an effort to learn what we can from these stories.
Well that’s the list. Within these 4 podcasts there are hundreds of hours of quality content that is sure to make you a more informed and safer backcountry traveler. If you found this post helpful please leave a comment below and if I missed one of your favorite podcasts please let me know! It doesn’t have to be avalanche related but outdoor recreation and risk management should be a consideration!
Happy listening and see you in the mountains!
Northeast Alpine Start
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We all carry a first aid kit with us on our adventures right? For today’s Tech Tip I want to share what first aid kit I use and how I customize it with a few extra items. While you can go to a pharmacy and piece together your own kit I prefer to start with the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .7 Medical Kit as it’s a solid foundation to build upon. Here’s the details on the kit:
Designed for life in the bottom of the pack, zippered rip-stop silicon nylon outer bag has 2 inner DryFlex™ watertight pouches to ensure contents are kept clean and dry
Wound care items: 3 butterfly closure strips, 2 triple antibiotic ointments, 3 antiseptic wipes and 1 pair of nitrile gloves
Other equipment: splinter picker forceps, 3 safety pins and a 26 x 2 in. roll of duct tape
Silicone nylon pouch
8.5 x 6.5 x 2 inches
This is a great start for only 8 ounces! AMK markets this as ideal for 1-2 people for 1-4 day trips. While I do find the suggestion a bit arbitrary I feel this is a great size for a group leader or guide to start from. There is a .5 version that weighs less than 4 ounces that would be good for trail running, casual hiking, or just to keep in the glove box. A very minimalist .3 version is better than carrying nothing.
Now let’s get into what I add to this kit to make it a bit more capable of handling any situation. The first thing I add is a Petzl Zipka Headlamp. This 2.5 ounce headlamp has great light output and the retractable cord keeps it from getting tangled with other things in the kit. I consider this a bit of a “back-up” headlamp. If I know I’ll be out after dark I bring my Petzl Actik Core Headlamp and have the Zipka available to loan to someone who forgets their headlamp.
I then add a simple small knife that can be used for cutting bandages, duct tape, and clothing to make slings & swathes if need be. Occasionally it might even have to cut some summer sausage and hard cheese.
Then I add a fire starter, usually just a small Bic lighter but you can go for a fancy windproof one if you want!
Then I have a small travel size Advil bottle that I carry extra Antihistamines (Benadryl) and pain/fever reducers (Advil). I prefer to use this bottle and refill it from home when needed and save the prepackaged medications for when I forget to refill this container. Don’t forget to check the expiration dates on the prepackaged medications!
I also squeeze in a small notebook with a pencil. This is important for writing SOAP notes or sending detailed information with someone. On longer trips I carry a Rite in the Rain Notebook separate from my first aid kit.
With still room to spare I now add my two EpiPens. While I haven’t been tested for a bee allergy I feel it is a good idea for me to carry Epi after getting swarmed and stung by over a dozen yellow jackets last year. There’s also the fact that some one in my care may have a unexpected severe reaction when we are over an hour away from definitive care and having Epi in the party could be a life-saver. I also add a super light disposable CPR Face Shield.
Finally I add about 3 extra pairs of Nitrile gloves in addition to the one pair that comes with the kit. It has been my experience on multiple rescues that one pair of gloves is never enough in the mountains as they will definitely tear while dealing with a patient, and bystanders who might be able to help often don’t have their own gloves.
These additions bring my first aid kit up to one pound 5 ounces. Considering that if I grab my first aid kit I have 5 of the “Ten Essentials” I’m more than ok with that weight! I also carry either my SOL Escape Bivy (summer) or my more durable Ortovox Single Bivy (winter or while on rescues).
I’ve also taken to sliding a Saywer SAM Splint down into the back panel of my pack. While I can improvise splints from my wilderness medicine training a real SAM splint is really nice to have for quick ankle/wrist fractures or as an effective neck collar.
I feel the above set-up is quite adequate for the amount of time I spend in the mountains both guiding and recreating. For expedition leaders or large outing club type groups I’d suggest looking at the Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight/Watertight PRO Medical Kit. It’s quite all inclusive with a SAM Splint, EMT Shears, precision forceps, and more.
Undoubtedly carrying a first aid kit in the mountains is a very good idea. Accidents will happen. The longer your recreate in the mountains the more likely you, someone in your party, or someone you come across, will need a touch of first aid. Hopefully it’s something minor like a blister or small scrape. Unfortunately we can’t remove all risk from our outdoor hobbies and will are going to break some bones, or worse. There’s two things YOU can do to make these situations better.
#1 Carry the right gear
#2 Get some training
Wilderness First Aid courses are offered all over the country! Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities (SOLO) teaches Wildness First Aid (16 hours), Wilderness First Responder (72+ hours), and Wilderness EMT (170+ hours). If you have zero medical training, and wish to play in the mountains for decades to come, do yourself a huge solid and sign up for one of these courses! You’ll be more prepared to handle what comes your way!
I hope you found this helpful. If you did please let me know in the comments below. If you carry something different or I missed a key item please let me know! Just so you are aware the links above (except for SOLO) are affiliate links. That means if you click on them, and make a purchase, a small commission is earned. That really helps keep this blog going, so if you do make a purchase thanks! If not maybe just share this article with someone you think could benefit from it!
After a long snowy winter many climbers and hikers are chomping at the chance to get on some dry Spring rock and trail. Unfortunately right around this time many insects are chomping at the chance to chomp on us! Namely:
In this post I’d like to share some of my favorite strategies to keep the dreaded “bug season” from keeping you from enjoying what it is you do in the mountains! To combat these four little buggers we will use a four-pronged approach! First…
Step 1: The first line of defense should be clothing. Everyone knows long-sleeves and pants are preferable for bug protection but they seem so hot when the temperature and humidity is high right? Well some long-sleeve options actually feel cooler than going shirtless! Here’s my current favorite tops when dealing with an onslaught of bloodthirsty insects and warm temps!
I have a detailed review of this staple of my outdoor clothing kit here, but the gist of it is every New England climber (and possibly every climber/traveler everywhere) should own this piece. Solid UPF protection and bug protection in a super comfy hoodie. Win win win.
Step 2: I’ve used this stuff on my clothes from Peru to Okinawa to my home-state of New Hampshire with a season blatantly called “bug season” and I’m 100% convinced it is the most effective and safe option for true bug protection. You can Goggle all the research in the world on this product but I’ll just leave the highlights here:
It is for clothing/gear/shoes… not skin.
It dries in a few hours after treating and is then 100% safe to humans, no “leaching” into your sweaty skin
It lasts for weeks even with washing (I only treat my “bug season” outfit once a year each Spring)
While safe for almost all mammals it is not safe with cats for some reason. Do not spray your cat with this.
Pro-tip: treat your approach/hiking shoes and you will likely never find a tick crawling up your leg unless the grass you walk through is higher than your shoes. Treat your hiking pants and shirt and wade through fields of ticks with little worry. You can pick up a bottle cheap on Amazon here.
Step 3: Generally bug season in the US is from early April to early May but in the White Mountains it’s a usually a little later, and Spring we’ve had some prolonged late season cold and snow that has pushed it back a bit further than normal. I’ve only seen two ticks on my so far and haven’t seen my first mosquito yet, while southern NH is probably getting into the thick of it as I type this. Also biting things are most active an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. Climbing mid-day might help reduce bloody interactions.
Step 4: I have long carried a small 4 oz bottle of DEET as a last resort when all the above measures fall to protect from an onslaught of thirsty flying things. Both products are effective, but Picaridin is showing more appeal as it is definitely less toxic to both us and the plastics/nylon we come in contact with. Regardless of which you use, I recommend trying the first three steps on my list and carrying a small bottle of this as a “last resort”.
Protecting yourself from biting insects and the diseases they can carry should be more thought-out then just stepping out of the car and soaking yourself (and your kids) with an aerosol can of bug dope. Hopefully some of these tips can help keep you bite-free while you are out doing what you do!
(originally posted April 2018, updated March 2019)
With the arrival of April the Spring skiing (and falling) season has started in Tuckerman Ravine. After watching a couple tumble almost 500 feet down “The Lip” last year I thought some advice on fall prevention might be prudent.
The snow conditions in Tuckerman Ravine vary greatly this time of year from day to day and often hour to hour. The best type of snow for descending this time of year is referred to as “corn snow”. This is snow that has undergone multiple freeze thaw cycles and looks like little kernels of corn. Backcountry skiers jest that we are “harvesting corn” when the conditions are good. But corn snow is all about timing.
Try to ski too early in the season or the day and the corn hasn’t formed yet. Conditions that promote the formation of good corn snow are close or above freezing temperatures, strong solar radiation, and low winds. Try too ski to late in the day when the sun has dipped below the ridge will often find that the soft buttery edge-able forgiving corn has quickly transformed back into a frozen mess. Literally minutes can make a difference in how a run will ski.
So how do you hit it at the right time? First, you check the Higher Summits Forecast before you even leave Pinkham Notch. You’re hoping that the forecasted temps are at least in the mid to upper 20’s and that summit winds are under 50 mph. You also want to see “Mostly Sunny” or “In The Clear”. Overcast days are not for harvesting corn.
Next you should check the Current Summit Conditions. Specifically what you want from this page is the temperature “profile” that shows what the temperatures are at various elevations on the mountain, wind speeds, and sky condition. This page, along with the Higher Summits Forecast, are both bookmarked on my iPhone for quick daily reference.
Ideally temps in the Ravine will be at or above freezing, winds will be low, and the sky will be mostly clear. The lower charts help identify trends. In the above example the winds have died to almost nothing, temperatures are increasing, and barometric pressure has risen and is holding steady (indicating not a big change for the rest of the day). Visibility however is only 1/8 of a mile with some snow and freezing fog (shown under “weather”)… this means no corn today.
Finally, to determine when the slope you want to descend will lose the sun you have a few tools at your disposal. During trip planning you can use CalTopo’s “Sun Exposure” layer to see when certain aspects and runs will lose the sun. In this example you can see what areas still have sun at 2 PM today.
While actually out skiing you could also use an app like PeakFinder AR. An example of how I might use this app would be climbing up Right Gully and deciding to go ski in the East Snowfields for a bit before returning to descend Right Gully. Halfway up the gully, near the steepest pitch, I open up the PeakFinder app and find the path of the sun. Where it intersects the ridge the app will mark the exact time the sun will go below the ridge line (often an hour or more before true sunset). I know now what time I need to be through this spot if I still want soft snow!
Next up let’s look at…
Later in the season there will likely be established “boot ladders” where dozens, or hundreds, of other visitors will have kicked deep steps into the 40 to 50 degree slopes allowing people to ascend these slopes with little extra gear.
However, some of these items could really make a difference early in the season, or later in the day, and also could allow you to travel outside of the established boot ladder, which would make you less of a sitting duck if someone higher up looses their footing. First, the most important…
Most skiers these days wear helmets at ski resorts while ripping fast groomers and shredding pow in the glades but then many choose not to wear a helmet while skiing in Tuckerman Ravine (which has much more objective hazards than a controlled ski resort). Head injuries can occur from falls, collisions with other skiers, and occasionally falling ice and/or rocks. Most ski helmets though are too hot for a 50 degree sunny day in the ravine, so consider buying or borrowing a well ventilated climbing helmet. New this year the Petzl Meteor Helmet is the first UIAA and CE-certified ski touring helmet and would be my first pick (currently reviewing).
When the professional rangers of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center say that “long sliding falls” are a specific hazard today one would be wise to carry, and know how to use, a mountaineering axe to arrest or prevent a fall. This would be in hand during the ascent with your ski poles strapped to your pack (baskets up). While there are many models that will suit this purpose I am currently carrying the Black Diamond Raven Ultra Ice Axe which is incredibility light-weight (12 ounces) yet still has a steel head and pick. Lots of experienced skiers like the added flexibility of carrying a Black Diamond Whippet Pole (also available in a carbon model) instead of a full fledged mountaineering axe, and if snow conditions are soft enough this can be a great option.
While an established boot pack might feel secure leaving the boot back or taking the path less traveled may require some traction. Micro-spikes might be helpful on the lower angled hiking trail below Hermit Lake (Hojo’s) but won’t cut it in 40 degree terrain. For snowboard boots check out the Black Diamond Neve Strap Crampons. For those who count ounces and wear technical touring boots my current favorite is the feather-weight Petzl Leopard LLF Crampons.
Skiing (and falling) in Tuckerman Ravine is a time-honored tradition and rite-of-passage for many East Coast and beyond skiers. YouTube is full of videos of these falls. Some result in no injury, others result in “snow rash”, bruises, cuts, broken bones, a least one LifeFlight, and occasional fatalities. Hopefully the above advice can help prevent a few of these from happening this season. There is a lot of fun and sun to be had in the next few weeks in Tuckerman Ravine but let’s be sure we respect the hazards that exist in our wild places.
Even though we are into our fourth week of Spring, Winter is certainly holding on here in Mount Washington Valley where we received 4 inches of snow just yesterday! While I haven’t hung up the skis or ice tools yet (planning an alpine ski tour for this Thursday) I figured I better get my season recap out there because before we know it Spring will actually arrive and I’ve got a busy line-up of early season rock climbing objectives and gear reviews to work on!
This winter started off in epic fashion with over 50 inches of snow recorded on the summit of Mount Washington in October! This set us up for some great early ice season conditions and I kicked my season off on November 15th with the first of the season ascent of Standard Route at Frankenstein Cliffs.
After one more trip up Standard and a bit of a thrutch up an early season Dracula I found myself climbing the Black Dike three times in a month! All three times were memorable with the highlight being the third trip where I beat my own personal time on the route (90 minutes) and had the amazing opportunity of my friend Dave Dillon of Chase The Summit shooting the climb with his drone. I’ll cherish this footage forever Dave! Thank you!
November saw over 60 inches of snow on Mount Washington and in-hindsight I found myself wishing we had scheduled some early season avalanche courses, we definitely had the conditions to run a couple!
Our first avalanche course started on December 14th and our last one ended on March 31st. All in all Northeast Mountaineering had a record breaking 179 students take an AIARE course with me this winter! Taking my first avalanche course was such a pivotal moment in my life back in 2003 and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to help these participants get on a path of learning how to manage risk in our amazing snowy environments! I’m also grateful to have been able to work alongside Grant Price who was a fantastic co-facilitator and who I learned quite a bit from over the season. To all of my students this past winter, thank you!
There were two stand-out moments for me during the avalanche course season. The first was a complete failure in my own group management strategies that resulted in getting a student into a very uncomfortable and risky situation. I’d been teaching people how to look out for Human Factors and Heuristic Traps for over a decade and found myself anything but immune to their ability to cloud our judgement and steer us to make poor decisions. I shared some of this humbling tale in this post if you are interested in more details.
The second stand-out was triggering and getting carried in D2 size slab avalanche while guiding a back-country ski trip into Tuckerman Ravine. Despite fearing a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking I shared that experience in this post.
Reviews and Giveaways
Through-out the winter I got to review some really awesome gear including the new Petzl Nomics, the Arc’teryx FL-365 harness, and the BightGear Caldera Parka. I have a few more reviews almost finished that will post soon. The review section of the blog has definitely grown over the last two years! I’ve got quite a few giveaways planned for this summer and every footwear review will have a chance to wind some of that amazing Friendly Foot! Let me know in the comments if there is something you would like me to review and I’ll try to get my hands on it!
Granite Backcountry Alliance
My only regret is I didn’t get to explore more of the Granite Backcountry Alliances glade projects! I got two runs in at the locals favorite Maple Villa Glade and one super fun trip off the Baldface Knob… the stuff GBA is doing is nothing short of incredible for the New England BC ski community… if you haven’t checked them out and considered contributing or volunteering please do so!
Course Suggestions for Spring
Even though mid-April is approaching I still have an ice climbing course booked for this upcoming weekend, and a back-country ski course on April 16th. Based on the current Higher Summits Forecast and the amount of snow we have on the ground it’s shaping up to be an EPIC alpine ski season (knock on wood). It will likely be pretty late when the Mount Washington Auto Road is able to open but as soon as it does I will be getting my annual season pass again… if we are lucky we will have a couple weeks of being able to access alpine skiing via the road through May!
All that said here’s a couple courses I teach you might consider to add some skills to your kit before the summer rock climbing season goes full swing!
Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering: Whether objective based (Gulf of Slides, Great Gulf, Monroe Brook) or skills based (crampon & axe use, route planning, protecting/rappeling with a rope) or a mix of both there is still a lot of snow up there and it is great to get on it while we can still ski all the way back to the car! Reach out to me if you’d like to plan something!
Wilderness Navigation– This 8 hour course covers a lot more than just map & compass skills. I start with Improvised “Survival” Navigation, then work up to advanced compass & map skills, and introduce modern web-based tools, and still leave time for a 3-4 hour field session! Check with me on availability before booking at the above link!
Self-Rescue for Recreational Rock Climbers– Can you escape a belay? Ascend a loaded rope to aid an injured lead climber? Create a counter-balance rappel and bring that injured lead climber back to the ground? That’s what we will learn in a one-day self-rescue course. We can run this course rain or shine, and if you want to follow more than single pitch routes you should acquire these skills! Contact me first to check on my availability then we can get you booked through Northeast Mountaineering at this link.
Other plans include growing my Tech Tips page… what do you want to see? Leave a comment below and if it’s a skill I can demonstrate I will! I’m also working on a webinar to share CalTopo/Avenza (smartphone trip-planning and navigational tools). I will likely offer this as a 2-3 hour course a couple nights in May/June. If that’s something you’d be into make sure you are subscribed!
Special shout out to Northeast Mountaineering for juggling all the crazy logistics of running a small but super busy guide service and avalanche course provider. Considering the amount of business that came through that little ole’ Bunkhouse in Jackson, NH things went incredibly smooth with only the most minor of hiccups along the way. Huge thanks as well to Ortovox for having me on their athlete team for another year, I am so honored to represent a small part of this amazing company! And stoked for another year with DPS Skis! I put so many miles on my DPS Tour 1 Wailer 99’s, and this was my first season with the Phantom Glide treatment… I will write a full post about that experience and have some video to share as well! Stay tuned for that. Finally thank you to Revo for supporting me with the best sunglasses and snow goggles I have ever worn. I didn’t know how quality lenses performed until I partnered with this company and I’m stoked to represent them all over the mountain!
Well I guess that’s pretty much it. It ain’t over yet but man it has been an AMAZING winter! Go enjoy a little bit more of winter… bug season will be here soon enough!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
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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!
AIARE Avalanche Rescue is a one-day stand alone course that is intended to be retaken on a regular basis in order to keep abreast of best practices in rescue techniques and gear. New participants will learn the basics of companion rescue, while returning participants will expand their skill set with advanced topics and realistic scenario practice to help improve their skills.
Each participant will have the opportunity to receive professional coaching on their rescue skills, and will receive a rescue card acknowledging the completion date.
AIARE Avalanche Rescue is a prerequisite for the AIARE 2 and Pro 1 courses. AIARE recommends that all backcountry travelers keep their skills current by taking an Avalanche Rescue course and receiving a rescue card at least every other year.
Who Should Take this Course
The Avalanche Rescue Course is a one-day course aimed both at new and experienced recreational backcountry travelers and aspiring avalanche professionals.
Student Learning Outcomes
At the end of the Avalanche Rescue course the student should be able to:
Describe what to do if they or a member of their party is caught in an avalanche.
Identify and be able to use gear necessary for avalanche rescue.
Set up a realistic scenario in order to practice an avalanche rescue response.
Improve their response skills and times during and after the course with feedback from instructors and peers.
Develop a plan for continuing practice.
All students will have the opportunity to get feedback from an instructor on their rescue skills and timed practice in a realistic scenario.
Students who have previously taken an AIARE 1 or an Avalanche Rescue Course will find value in having a professional help them set up realistic scenarios, practice skills in a realistic setting, receive feedback from an instructor, keep up with current best practices, and have an opportunity to practice advanced rescue skills.
Students must be able to travel in the snow, and bring appropriate equipment for traveling on snow to class. There are no other prerequisites.
Length: 1 Day [8 Hours] Guide-to-Client: 2:12 Price: $150 per person includes one night lodging!*
*As space permits. Requires additional online reservation at The Bunkhouse.
We only have two dates on the calendar so they will likely fill up soon! Please contact me directly with any questions or help booking the date at email@example.com.