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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?
If I had to describe these tools in one word it would easily be…
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!
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
Last week marked the official start of the Northeast ice climbing season with ascents of both of the usual suspects, the iconic Black Dike on Cannon Cliff and Pinnacle Gully in Huntington Ravine, Mount Washington. The Black Dike fell to Adam Bidwell and partner and from what I’ve heard a second party was right behind them. My fingers are crossed that the route comes in as good as it did last season when I was able to enjoy 3 early season ascents and am grateful my friend Dave Dillon of Chase The Summit was able to capture one of those climbs with his drone! Check out the footage and my “route guide” below!
Friend and fellow Northeast Mountaineering Guide Matty Bowman showed what early season dedication is all about by hiking up to Huntington Ravine 4 times in one week, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday before finally getting to send Pinnacle with Zach Coburn and Joshua Klockers on Friday, likely the first ascent of the season (though there were some tracks heading up to the route so who knows!)
What’s cool about this kind of motivation is he took condition photos on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, so we can really watch the climb turn from “total shower” to do-able early season ice climbing…
Something that is interesting to me is comparing the actual ice growth and “climb-ability” to what conditions the Mount Washington Observatory as reporting. The “F6” is a data sheet that can help spot trends that might indicate a hike might be worth it for those who are keen on seeking out early season ice.
Reports came in of parties climbing Hillman’s Highway (pretty low angle scramble with some patches of ice), and Mike Pelchat posted a short video of someone grabbing a lead on a steep pillar of typical early season Tuckerman Ravine ice.
While I got the first seasonal ascent of Standard Route at Frankenstein last year I doubt I’ll get it this year as we just brought home a puppy and my free time is dedicated to potty training this puppy… but maybe? My bet is Standard is climbed by the end of this week, though it won’t be “in” for a couple more weeks.
So what are your goals for this season? For me I just want to find time to review some of the new gear I’ve got to demo. I’m most stoked about the new Cassin/Camp Tech Crampons, some Mammut boots, harness, and incredibly awesome looking belay jacket, and a handful of the best ice climbing ropes out there… so stay tuned for a heavy gear review season while juggling a full avalanche course schedule!
This summer I received the Black Diamond Rock Blitz 15 backpack to review and I’ve since logged about 25 days of multi-pitch rock climbing and guiding and a half dozen hikes with it. Weighing less than a pound but able to carry my full summer guiding kit I found this to be a great multi-pitch climbing pack and only have a couple small tweaks I’d love to see Black Diamond make.
UPDATE: Contest over! Congrats to Chris B. and Forrest for identifying the climbs!
Let’s start with the manufacturer description:
A worthy addition to any multi-pitch kit, the Rock Blitz 15 is designed to move with you pitch after pitch, carrying all the essentials to the summit. Featuring our signature Blitz-style main opening and a side zip pocket for quick on-route access to a phone, topo, or camera, this pack also has a stripped-down profile for moving fast on big lines. The top closure strap doubles as a rope carry once you summit, and external H2O hose routing gives you the option of staying hydrated on the send. The pack’s EVA padded shoulder straps and back panel make for all-day comfort, while the sternum strap and waist belt are fully removable to save weight on fast and light pushes.
Blitz-style main opening for ease of access while on route
External side zip pocket for quick access to guide book / phone / camera
Stripped down pack silhouette for moving fast on multi-pitch missions
Top strap also doubles as rope carry
External H2O hose routing
EVA Padded shoulder straps and back panel
Height adjustable waist belt for better fit above a climbing harness
Fully removable sternum strap and waist belt to shave weight when necessary
Volume : 15 L (915.4 cu in)
Average Stock Weight : 403 g (14.2 oz)
Materials : 840 D Nylon
The Black Diamond Rock Blitz 15 only comes in one size. Like most climbing packs designed to be worn while leading multiple-pitch rock it rides high on my 5’9″ build, 16 inch torso. The thin waist belt easily rides above my harness and helps secure the pack from swinging around when moving over terrain. The contoured EVA foam shoulder straps easily distribute the weight of a full kit. My only wish is the sternum strap used a more traditional slide adjust system vs the girth-hitched attachment points it currently uses and that the sternum strap buckle had the built in whistle that most climbing packs use these days.
For a simple pack there is some definite stand out features that made me really enjoy this pack. First off is the 15 liter volume. With careful packing I could fit a full guiding kit in here. For reference this is what I fit inside the pack:
This much gear was a snug fit and I’d either carry or just wear my Black Diamond Vapor helmet to the wall. The 840 denier ballistic nylon held up great to a full season of guiding. While I never hauled the bag up a pitch I did wear it through multiple squeeze chimney’s and the pack still looks quite new. The external side zip pocket is advertised to carry your phone, guidebook, or topo. I actually fit my first aid kit and my phone in it for easy access!
Here’s a quick look at the pack after finishing a day of climbing at Cathedral Ledge.
Black Diamond also produced a sweet little video showcasing this pack and a couple other products. I especially liked how they used the “guidebook/phone” pocket… skip to 1:58 to see the 11th “essential”…
This is a great little rugged multi-pitch backpack! Not a lot of thrills but simple and effective for what it was designed for! While it’s main end-use is multi-pitch trad climbing I found it great for quick trail hikes around the White Mountains and along the Maine seacoast. It was also quite useful on a family vacation when were walking around multiple seacoast towns. If you’re in the market for such a pack take a good look at this one!
For those who want a little extra room (and the option to carry ice axes) Black Diamond makes a 20 liter and 28 liter version!
Could you figure out what climbs the two “anchor” pics were? The first who answers either one correctly win a Black Diamond Pearbiner Screwgate Locking Carabiner. If the first person gets both right first they win both carabiners! Bonus cool points if you can also name what pitch I was on!
UPDATE: Contest over! Congrats to Chris B. and Forrest for identifying the climbs!
See you in the mountains!
Northeast Alpine Start
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I’m up early but it looks like my guiding day might get rained out so I decided to scour the web for some of the better deals on outdoor gear and clothing as most companies end their Labor Day sales today. Below is a curated list of what is not only on sale but something I have personally owned and tested or is on my wish list!
REI is running some sweet deals like 20% off Thule and Yakima racks and roof boxes! 25-30% off most REI, Big Agnes, and Nemo tents and sleeping pads! They also made it easy to find the items that are actually 50% off by grouping them under their “Peak Deals“. Expect limited quantity and sizes in there!
Eastern Mountain Sports is going big with quite a bit of inventory 70% off! 20% off all Black Diamond, 20% off La Sportiva Footwear, and a current coupon for an extra 20% off a full or sale priced item! COUPON CODE: “LABORDAY19“. There is a fairly long list of excluded brands though… you can see the list here. Finally they have summer clearance items listed at 70% here!
Patagonia is running some great web specials like 40% off the Micro Puff and Nano Puff jackets and hoodies visible here.
Just about every retailer is running sales today and since it looks like a wash-out here in the Northeast I think I’ll spend some time today organizing my gear closet and seeing if I’m all set for the rapidly approaching Fall!
Coming soon… I’ve got reviews in the works for the new Wild Country Revo Belay Device. The “Take20Summer” coupon code does work on this item by the way! I also finally got my hands on both the Mammut Smart 2.0 and the Mammut Alpine Smart and testing has begun! Expecting to have reviews on all of these done in time for Rocktober!
Climbing trip to Camden ME in two weeks! I’ve been to Camden twice for some family camping but this trip it’s just me and my buddy Bob heading out to sample the climbing there. Have you been? Must do routes? Let me know in the comments below!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
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“What belay device is that?” was the question that popped up from my friend @sammyspindel on a short Instagram story clip of my anchor while belaying a client up the last pitch of Upper Refuse on Cathedral Ledge a few days ago. The question generated some great back and forth conversation and ultimately provided the motivation for this post, so thank you for the question Sammy!
What belay device I use is largely determined on what type of climbing I am doing. In this post I’m going to explain the advantages, disadvantages, and helpful strategies of some of the most popular options out there. I will attempt to break it down based on type and style of climbing (gym, sport, trad, alpine, ice, top-rope, multi-pitch, party of 2, party of 3). My hope is you’re able to make some informed choices over what belay device(s) you decide to use. I’ll try to work through these options from simplest to most complex.
Here we go…
The Munter Hitch
Every climber should learn how to use a Munter Hitch. This incredible hitch has served climbers well for over a hundred years. This skill can save the day when your partner drops their shiny new flavor of the day belay device off the top of the 3rd pitch of a 7 pitch climb or when your ropes are two icy from a dripping ice pillar in below freezing temps and you can’t get them bent through your tube-style device. All you need is a pear shaped locking carabiner. I prefer the Petzl Attache or Petzl William Locking Screwgate. Avoid auto-locking carabiners to facilitate tying the hitch onto the carabiner, something I demonstrate in this first video. The second video shows how this can be converted into an auto-locking Munter!
Practice this skill at home. Practice while watching the news. Learn to tie it with your eyes closed. Learn to tie it with one hand. Learn to tie it onto the belay carabiner on the anchor with one hand. Advanced users/aspiring guides: Learn to tie it on to a carabiner so it is already in the “belay” orientation. Learn to it on a carabiner so it is already in the “lower” orientation. Then learn to tie it in both those orientations when the carabiner is on your belay loop (I still struggle with mastering this last step as looking down at the carabiner turns my head upside down).
Some key points about the Munter Hitch…. IT DOES NOT “TWIST” THE ROPE! Improper use of the hitch will introduce serious “twists” and kinks into your rope. The solution? Always keep the brake strand parallel with the load strand. In that orientation you can watch the way the rope moves through the hitch without creating twists. If you hold the brake strand anywhere but parallel you will introduce twists. This is quite un-intuitive when using this hitch to rappel as our muscle memory wants us to pull back or down with the brake hand while rappelling. The proper hand position (and maximum braking power) is obtained by holding the brake strand straight up and parallel with the loaded rope. I know, crazy right? Moving on…
Standard Tube-Style Belay Devices
Almost every climber everywhere has owned and used a classic “tube-style” belay device. It’s as standard as needing a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. There are more options in this category then ever before. While there are subtle differences in weight and design they all function relatively the same. While a summer camp or outdoor club might opt for the cheapest option I’d suggest for the majority of recreational climbers to go for one of the most popular models in use that includes a “higher friction” side to assist with braking and rappelling. The two models I see the most of are the Black Diamond ATC-XP and the Petzl Verso.
Some notes on this style device. I no longer carry one opting instead for the more versatile models that can be used in “plaquette” mode (more on that in a minute). That said for top-rope and lead, single pitch, gym, sport, and trad climbing there is nothing inherently “wrong” about choosing one of these simple devices.
Tube Style Devices with “Plaquette” Mode
For little additional cost and weight you can carry a tube style belay device that can also serve in “plaquette” mode. This is ideal for lead climbers who wish to belay their partner directly off the anchor after leading a pitch. This European style of belaying has become much more prevalent in American climbing in the last few decades for good reason. At its core it is more comfortable for the belayer and much simpler should the second climber need assistance to pass a crux. The time tested choices here are the Black Diamond ATC Guide and the Petzl Reverso 4. Newer options that are gaining solid following’s are the DMM Pivot which makes direct lowered off the anchor while in “guide mode” easier and the Black Diamond ATC Alpine Guide that is optimized for working with skinny twin ropes.
Single Strand Brake Assisting Devices
This category covers devices like the Petzl GriGri, Petzl GriGri+, Black Diamond Pilot, and the new to the scene Wild Country Revo. While noticeably heavier (and pricier, except for the BD Pilot) than simpler tube style device than these devices have more applications then I think most people realize. Devices like the Petzl GriGri are just at home in the climbing gym as they are on large sandstone big walls (especially given the additional durability of the GriGri+). Some climbers may avoid using one of these devices due to needing to carry a second belay device for rappelling. Well, two things… first you can rappel with these (blocked-rappel options), but more importantly and something I will get into towards the end, what’s wrong with carrying two devices? It opens up a lot of options and solutions to potential climbing issues!
You can see my full review of the Petzl Grigri+ HERE!
You can see my full review of the Black Diamond ATC Pilot HERE!
Now we get to the device that sparked this whole post. My Kong Gi-Gi. This device’s most notable quality is that when used in plaquette mode it takes the least amount of force to belay two single rated ropes at the same time. I’ve found no device that comes close to the ease of belaying two single ropes when climbing with two seconds and using “parallel” technique, a common guiding tactic to belay two seconds at the same time.
While belaying directly off the anchor shouldn’t seem tiring I’ve known many guides who developed elbow tendinitis from the repetition of pulling two ropes through plaquettes up thousands of feet of moderate climbing over a decade or so of guiding. It can serve as a rappel device if needed, though that requires an extra locking carabiner and is a relatively low-friction rappel device (third hand back-up strongly recommended).
So what should you carry?
I guess it makes sense to break this down by end-use… there are so many tools available to us these days but here’s my take on optimizing your belay device load out:
If you’re really not sure you even like climbing but want your own belay device you can keep it simple an pick up a simple tube style belay device like the Black Diamond ATC-XP or Petzl Verso. I think the higher friction side is worth the extra cost. If you are addicted to climbing you might as well invest in a single strand brake-assisting device like the Black Diamond Pilot, Petzl GriGri, or Wild Country Revo.
If you’re going more than one pitch off the deck a plaquette device like the Black Diamond ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso 4 is an easy pick. I’ve started carrying my Petzl GriGri on multi-pitch trad routes for a multitude of reasons since it greatly simplifies rope ascension in a rescue scenario but also works great for hauling bags on big wall. “Lifer’s” with big wall aspirations should seriously consider the added durability of the Petzl GriGri+.
Here I’d go with the standard plaquette device like the Black Diamond ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso 4 and the knowledge of the Munter Hitch mentioned at the beginning to help deal with icy ropes. I leave single strand brake-assisting devices home when ice climbing as they tend to not work as well on ice ropes and weight is a premium. If you climb on really skinny floss like 7.7mm twin ropes you should look at the new Black Diamond ATC Alpine Guide!
Climbing in a party of 3 (Guiding-Style)
Parties of three typically climb in either “Caterpillar” or “Parallel” style. Basically “Caterpillar” is the leader climbs, then belays the first second, after the second arrives with the 2nd rope belays the 3rd climber. It’s slower but a better choice for harder routes and newer climbers as the other option “Parallel” means the leader takes both ropes and belays both seconds simultaneously. A lot of issues can crop up to make this a mini-epic. However for skilled leaders and guides this is often a method that can see a three person party move as fast as a two person party.
As I mentioned earlier carrying two belay devices can make sense in a lot of situations. These are the combos I find myself using most as a climbing guide:
At the end of the day there are an amazing array of belay devices to chose from. The above suggestions are just my personal experience with what has worked well for me. When I started this post I thought I would cover every device out there but there are just way to many options! Hopefully the suggestions and comments I’ve made help you pick a system that works for you! Let me know in the comments if I left out your favorite belay device or if you found any of this useful and…
See you in the mountains!
Northeast Alpine Start
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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. 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 reports located at these links:
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
The new Reactik+ is awesome! Up to 15 hours of burn time from an easy to recharge via USB battery with 300 lumens and able to throw light 360 feet! If you’re due for a headlamp upgrade I highly suggest you check out this model!
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. (Updated this to the newest model which is high on my wish list!)
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! (updated 2019 link to the amazing new GoPro 7 for the great onboard stabilization! <- currently reviewing)
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!
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?
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!
I’ve been a huge fan of Arc’teryx for quite a few years now and Backcountry is running an awesome sale on all Arc’teryx including footwear and gear! Below you’ll find my top ten picks from the sale, some of which I have linked to my in-depth reviews.