Swing leading or leading in blocks?(And Giveaway)

Swing leads or block lead?
Photo by Brent Doscher

For many breaking into the multi-pitch rock climbing world swing leading seems to still be the default method of moving the rope up a climb when the two climbing partners are of relatively similar experience. Indeed this was my go-to option for my first decade of multi-pitch experience. It was in 2006 that I picked up a copy of Craig Connally’s “The Mountaineering Handbook- Modern Tools and Techniques That Will Take You to the Top“, that I was first introduced to the idea of leading in blocks.

Over the years block leading has become my default method when recreationally climbing and I’d like to share some opinions on the matter to hopefully encourage you to try this method the next time you’re heading out on a 4+ pitch adventure. First to clarify if anyone reading this doesn’t already know, swing leading means after the leader has finished the first pitch and the follower arrives at the anchor the follower becomes the new leader and leads the next pitch, basically “leap-frogging” each other up the cliff. Block leading means the leader leads multiple pitches determined by various factors such as route length, physical and mental stamina, and proficiency at different types of climbing, before handing over the leader responsibilities to to the follower for the next “block”.

It has also been suggested to me that block leading is somehow “rushing” or not enjoying the climb. While it is convincingly faster than swing leading block leading feels more comfortable to me, for the reasons I will outline below.

Warmer

This one is quickly realized when one enters the realm of multi-pitch ice climbing. Without a doubt swinging leads on a multi-pitch ice climb can lead to very cold belayers. Consider this; you’ve just finished leading a Grade 3 pitch and you are warm and toasty while constructing your anchor and yelling “off belay”. You might even make the classic beginner mistake and decide not to dig out your belay jacket as you assume your partner will make short work of the last pitch. 20 minutes later your partner joins you at the anchor. You can feel the chill now, so while they re-rack and get ready for the next pitch you decide to dig out your belay parka before you start to feel even more chilled. They head up on the next lead and cautiously negotiate some tricky spots while you get a bit cooler. By the time they yell off belay you have been at this anchor for over 45 minutes waving your arms around to stay warm. Block leading = half as much time stuck at a belay anchor for both climbers!


Physically easier

While climbing efficiently on multi-pitch terrain the follower should be encouraged to climb like they are following, not leading. The security of a good belay from above should allow the follower to not second guess every move. Try to climb quickly and save the team some time. On moderate terrain or slab the second may even arrive at the anchor winded from moving so quickly. That’s ok, they get a break now. The leader has also had a chance to recover, and is fresher than the follower. This is even more apparent when the pitches are long. The difference on a 180 foot pitch is climbing 180 feet without a break or climbing 360 feet without a break. Night and day.


Mentally easier

Climbers often get into a focused “leader mind-state” once they get warmed up and staying in that role is easier for a few pitches than switching it every pitch. On an eight pitch route of similar pitch difficulty I’ll often flip a coin or give my partner the choice, first four or last four? If I’m leading first I can be on point for those first four pitches then enjoy the rest of the climb as my partner sends it to the top. If she takes the first four pitches I’m mentally primed to take over at the top of the fourth pitch.


Strategies

There are some ways to make block leading (and even swing leading) more efficient. Some tips:

  • If one member is better at a certain style of climbing than the other assign blocks accordingly
  • Use auto-locking belay devices like the Petzl Reverso 4 or Black Diamond ATC Guide, or brake-assisting devices like the Petzl GriGri2. While belaying the second the leader should also eat or drink if needed, study the route above, consult the guidebook (or Mountain Project), and be pretty ready to take off soon after the follower arrives.
  • Have the second clip the cleaned gear from the last pitch directly to the leader’s tie-in section of the rope while the leader quickly organizes the rope. They leader can then quickly re-rack once they have finished organizing the rope. It’s been suggested that swinging leads might be quicker since the second might have most that rack at this point but in reality re-racking should only take 30-45 seconds.
  • How the rope is best prepared for the next lead while block leading depends on the situation. If there is ample flat space on a belay ledge the best method is to just stack it on the ground and when the follower arrives perform a “pancake-flip”. This takes less than 5 seconds and with practice will not result in any tangles. If it is a hanging stance then lap coils over your tie-in should start off small, and progressively get bigger on each side. Once the follower is clipped into the anchor the lap coil can be “flipped” onto the follower’s attachment to the anchor and the smaller loops closer to the leader will be on top, greatly reducing any potential snags while they are leading.
  • When it is time to switch blocks the follower, who is about to become the new leader, need not clove into the anchor if they were belayed on an auto-locking belay device. They simply hand the original leader their belay device, wait until they have been put on belay, then take the original leader’s belay device and start leading the next pitch.

    Summary

    You don’t need to be trying to set any speed records to reap the benefits of block leading. You can still dangle your feet off the belay ledge and take selfies with your partner while enjoying a mid-climb wine & cheese spread when block leading. But if you have ambitions to climb big multi-pitch routes like the Armadillo and Moby Grape block leading can literally save you hours on-route and make the difference between reaching the car at sunset or two hours after dark. On smaller less committing routes it might just get you to happy hour in time. You should give it try!


    Giveaway!

    Click here to enter to win a brand new still in the package Black Diamond Big Air Pilot ATC Package valued at $64.95! You can find my review of this new device here. Contest ends September 30th!

    Black Diamond Big Air Pilot ATC Package
    Black Diamond Big Air Pilot ATC Package

 a Rafflecopter giveaway

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Trip Report- Parasol Gully, Dixville Notch State Park, 3-6-18

I’ve been seeing this climb pop up on my social media feeds a few times this season and have been looking for a chance to get up to Dixville Notch and check it out. Today was the day so last night while searching for a partner I connected with my friend AJ. He was planning on a solo romp in Huntington and mentioned Parasol felt like a far drive for “just a pitch or so of moderate ice”…

I layed on some pretty heavy partner guilt and convinced him to join me while also deciding to see how this route might compare “time-wise” to say a standard ascent of Pinnacle. With the guilt trip successful we drove by Pinkham Notch Visitor Center this morning and I hit “start” on my stop watch.

dixville map

The drive up Route 16 to Gorham goes quickly, and the stretch to Berlin is quick enough though I’m always cautious there of speed traps. Waze kept us on the truck route which feels a bit slow and “residential” but as soon as you leave Berlin proper the road opens up to fast-moving-scenic-cruising and a few good conversations later found us turning on to Route 26 in Errol, NH.

This stretch is classic scenic “North Woods” type NH and has ample passing lanes to get around any slow moving logging trucks. We soon found ourselves pulling into Dixville Notch State Park about when we would probably be passing Harvard Cabin if we were hiking up to Huntington Ravine. The geography in this notch is super impressive and reminiscent of Eldorado Canyon or somewhere more “western”.

Parasol Gully, Dixville Notch, New Hampshire
Parasol Gully, Dixville Notch, New Hampshire

The approach to the ice was only about 7 minutes but the thin icy snow cover required crampons pretty much right after leaving the roadway. In hindsight, and with current conditions, I’d just choose to rack up at the car and clip my belay jacket to the back of my harness.

Parasol Gully, Dixville Notch, New Hampshire
Parasol Gully, Dixville Notch, New Hampshire

I led the first pitch choosing to stay far left on the ice flow where the ice was classic soft “hero” ice.

Parasol Gully, Dixville Notch, New Hampshire
Leading the first pitch, photo by Mountain Life International

I ran it about 190 feet passing one v-thread to a second one just as AJ signaled I was almost out of rope (60m). A quick screw to equalize with the existing v-thread had AJ climbing and he soon passed me to lead the second pitch as I noted we would probably be reaching the base of Pinnacle at about this time.

Parasol Gully, Dixville Notch, New Hampshire
The Balsams grand hotel below…
Parasol Gully, Dixville Notch, New Hampshire
Two hours from passing Pinkham Notch has us starting the 2nd pitch
Parasol Gully, Dixville Notch, New Hampshire
AJ takes it to the top

AJ cruised the 120 or so feet to the top and we were soon coiling our ropes and heading over to a straightforward steep snow descent to climbers right of the route. Total descent took about 10-15 minutes and we were back at the car by 11:30.

Parasol Gully, Dixville Notch, New Hampshire
Fast steep snow descent located about 100 yards to climbers right of the route

Our car to car time was only about an hour and as we drove past Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on our way back home I noted it was 4 hours since we passed earlier…

While this climb is not truly “alpine” or above treeline it is in a remarkable setting! I get why it makes some lists as a “top ten NH ice climb”! Considering average hike time from Pinkham to roping up in Huntington is usually 2+ hours this is a good option for a day when you just want a good couple pitches of ice and not a lot of walking!

My gear recommendations in current “FAT” conditions:

Light ice rack (6-8 screws)

One 60m single rope <- my current favorite is the Sterling Fushion Nano IX

Even with the V-threads and fixed anchor at the top I think walking off would be a bit faster than rapping. Deeper snow might even allow for some good glissading. About half way down the descent gully look for a short side step out to a nice view point with a miniature “gendarme”!

While I feel a little guilty about pulling my friend off his more alpine objective I think we both felt the classic nature of the route justified the longer time in the car and we are both eager to explore this area more. As cool as the rock around there looks locals report that it is quite choss for the most part. It certainly looks quite different from most NH granite and I’d like to learn more about the geology in that area.

A short YouTube clip of the day:

 

If you are looking for a fun 2 pitch Grade 2+ route with a super short approach and easy descent that is unlikely to be crowded check this place out! Even if there are a couple cars in the small pullout this shouldn’t get to jammed with such a straightforward approach/descent. I’ll certainly be heading back there again!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Mid Winter Season Check-in

I hope you have all been having a great winter so far. For me the early season ice climbing was great with a couple Black Dike ascents getting it off to a good start.

ice climbing black dike cannon cliff
Early season ascent of The Black Dike, Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire- photo by Peter Brandon

Then we got 82 inches of snow in December followed by another foot the first week of January and it appeared we were about to enjoy an epic snow year. Then between January 11th-13th we received 3 inches of rain and lost over two feet of our snow-pack.

avalanche courses new hampshire
January 10th. Green is over 2 feet of snow
avalanche courses new hampshire
January 14th after 3 inches of rain

A highlight of this event was a massive wet slab avalanche that was larger than one recently retired Snow Ranger saw in his 10+ years of service there! Standing out on the debris with students two days after the slide one could not help but be impressed by the power of Mother Nature. It made regional news headlines and I saw quite a few people trek up to the floor of the ravine just to get a first hand look at it!

avalanche course tuckerman ravine mount washington
Students of an AIARE 1 course checkout the scale of the massive wet slab avalanche that occurred around 1/14/18- photo by Cait Bourgault

January failed to recover our snow-pack finishing the month with a total of only 29 inches (12 of which were washed away during that rain event). That is less snow in January in more than 10 years!

While it seemed a bit devastating the bright side was we started seeing ice form in strange places and ephemeral routes like Gandolf the Great and Hard Rane came in FAT!

Ice climbing Frankenstein Cliffs
Benny Allen follows me on a rarely fat Gandolf The Great- Photo by Ben Lieberman

All this ice was great for the 25th annual Ice Fest and despite a burly cold first day of the event folks seemed to have a great three days at the event.

Avalanche Courses

We’ve been having another great year for our avalanche courses with 6 AIARE 1 courses behind us, an Avalanche Rescue course, and an AIARE 2 course that just ended yesterday (with ski conditions that signaled ski season is definitely back!)

avalanche course tuckerman ravine mount washington
Making snow-pack observations during an AIARE 1 Course- photo by Alexandra Roberts

We only have one more AIARE 1 Course that isn’t sold out

NEW: March 3-5

One more Avalanche Rescue Course:

March 16

One more AIARE 2 Course:

March 17-19

Here’s some footage showing our last day of our AIARE 2 course which should get you stoked for the rest of the ski season!

 

If you do book any of these courses be sure to use “DavidNEM” in the promo/notes box to be entered into a drawing for a free guided adventure.

Gear Reviews

I have been testing a ton of great new gear this season from companies like Petzl, Sterling, Black Diamond, Kailas, Arcteryx, DPS, Dynafit, and many more. Expect to see a lot of new gear reviews posting in March and April as I find time to give these products honest and detailed reviews.

ice climbing Cathedral Ledge
Testing the Kailas Entheos II Ice Tools and clothing- photo by Peter Brandon

Looks like another nice dumping of snow (totals up to 14″) is coming Wednesday so I’m really looking forward to this weekends avalanche course! Hope you get out and enjoy the snow and thanks for reading!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Tech Tip- Alpine Draws vs Sport Draws for Ice Climbing

I recently conducted an informal survey on a climbing focused Facebook page to determine if what gear I perceive out on our frozen cliffs is an accurate representation of what people are actually carrying.


Ice Climbing Quickdraws
Ice Climbing Quickdraws Survey

I wasn’t too surprised to see the overwhelming majority was using alpine draws (two carabiners and a thin style Dyneema sling clipped in a fashion that allows it to be used short or extended to full length).

ice climbing quickdraws
Alpine Draws vs Sport Draws

In this short opinion post, I aim to convince the majority to re-think their winter “draw” set-up and hopefully gain a bit of efficiency in the process.

Most of us year-round climbers have converted over to these sleek “alpine draws” featured on the left side of the photo above for our traditional and alpine style rock climbing kit. Carrying “shoulder-length” nylon runners over our head with or without a carabiner pre-attached has largely fallen out of style in the last ten or more years (and for good reason IMO). So if you are an “alpine draw” user anyways why should you do anything different for ice climbing? I’d suggest you consider the following;

Drag

Rope drag is not as much of an issue when ice climbing for two reasons. First, rope running over ice/snow creates almost no friction unlike rock. Second, it is easy to arrange protection on a pure ice climb so that it runs almost straight from belay to belay. On most ice routes you almost never need to extend an alpine draw to mitigate friction. The average quick draw offers almost a foot of extension, giving you a 2 foot wide “corridor” of protection with zero increase in friction.

Convenience/Efficiency

Clipping the rope to the draw after clipping the screw is a place where I often see new ice leaders struggle. An alpine draw flops around and does not stay put making clips with gloves on more difficult. Clipping while ice climbing is much more similar to sport climbing where you want a quick fluid clip vs. moderate trad climbing where you could probably just use both hands if you needed to. Having a rigid rope-end carabiner on your ice quick-draws is ideal, and I prefer the larger gate ones like the Petzl Ange L on all my “ice draws”. Efficiency is also gained when the second cleans the screw, as like sport draws rack quicker and easier than alpine draws, especially if they have been “extended” due to perceived friction.

Summary

Just because your system is dialed for traditional rock climbing and alpine doesn’t mean the same system is optimized for waterfall ice climbing. There are definitely outliers when a few alpine draws would be a good idea (not straightforward ice climbing, mixed routes, traverses, etc). I typically carry 1 or 2 alpine draws on these routes and know where I will use them. The rest of my “draw” rack is 8 ultralight quick-draws set up like this:

Screw hanger end carabiner- Petzl Ange S Carabiner– the smaller Ange here is about the lightest most compact choice you can make for the screw hanger side of the quick-draw. Since it is the hanger side it does not need a large gate opening and the MonoFil Keylock wiregate system adds security and clears ice easily.

Petzl ice climbing quickdraws
Petzl Ange S Carabiner- manufacturer photo

“Dogbone”- Petzl 17 cm Finesse Sewn Sling– Super lightweight but the real advantage of this over other nylon sport quick-draws is the Dyneema won’t absorb water like nylon so you will experience less “frozen draws” when using these.

Petzl Finesse Sling
Petzl Finesse Sling- manufacturer photo

Rope end carabiner- Petzl Ange L Carabiner– The larger carabiner on the rope end facilitates both clipping with gloves on and those who climb on double ropes occasionally.

Petzl Ange L Carabiner
Petzl Ange L Carabiner- manufacturer photo

The above set up isn’t the cheapest quick-draw solution out there but I think it is the nicest. At retail this set up runs about $30.85 per quick-draw. You can definitely save some money but getting the pre-built Petzl Ange Finesse Quickdraws.

ice climbing quickdraws
Petzl Ange Finesse Quickdraw

These pre-built draws will save you about $5 per quick-draw, you just give up the larger rope end carabiner. If you climb with two ropes often it may be worth going for the larger rope end carabiners.


My current optimized draw-rack

Petzl Ange Finesse Quickdraws with Petzl Ange L Carabiners on rope end

2 “Alpine Draws” made with Petzl Ange S Carabiners and Mammut Dyneema Contact 8mm Slings

I also carry one cordelette and two “Mini-Quads” that can be used for slinging trees, building anchors, etc.

Ice Climbing Quickdraws
The author on Black Pudding Gully last season before he upgraded his rope end carabiners to all Petzl Ange L’s- photo by @cfphotography

I hope this short post gets you thinking about your “ice kit” a little. You really don’t need all those extendable alpine draws in a pure ice climbing setting. And you’ll definitely save some energy clipping ropes with a stiff sport-style quick-draw!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start


Recent Featured Content:

Best Gear Deals for Climbers

20 Holiday Gifts for the Mountain Lover


In other news!

I’m honored to have made this list of the “Top 30 Ice Climbing Blogs“!!!

Pretty blown away to be listed alongside bloggers/climbers like Will Gadd and Ong Strong!

 Affiliate links help support this blog at no cost to you!

And if you read this whole thing here’s a TBT cheese video I made 5 years ago when apparently I was still climbing with screamers…

Best Gear Deals for Climbers (Backcountry)

While I’m not super excited about how commercialized our holidays have become I do get stoked on seeing big discounts on gear that I own and love. I subscribe to quite a few gear companies emails and I’m combing them all for the best upcoming sales on specific items I have either reviewed or would love to own. I will also be specific on what the actual discount offered is! None of the “up to x percent off”… I hope you find this list more personal than your average marketing email, and if you have any questions about any of my suggested products please let me know in the comments!

Part 1- Backcountry.com

Their campaign 30% off Select Arc’teryx! Some of the specific items on my list:

30% off Arc’teryx ACRUX AR Mountaineering Boots! (use code ARC30 at checkout) My current favorite ice climbing boot with a very detailed review here!

Arc'teryx Arcux AR Mountaineering Boots
The author testing the Arc’teryx Acrux Mountaineering Boots- Photo by Brent Doscher

30% off Arc’teryx FL-365 Harness (use code ARC30 at checkout)

30% off Arc’teryx Acrux FL Approach Shoe

Their campaign “Up to 30% off Scarpa, LaSportiva, Petzl & Prana

My personal picks:

25% off LaSportiva Boulder X Approach Shoes– I reviewed these this Fall here!

25% off LaSportiva GS 2M Mountaineering Boots–  On my short wish list

25% off Scarpa Phantom 6000 Mountaineering Boot– I am currently reviewing these

Scarpa Phantom 6000 Boots
Author testing Scarpa Phantom 6000 Boots on Mount Washington- photo by Brent Doscher

25% off Scarpa Phantom Tech Mountaineering Boot– Lighter version I hope to review!

25% off Petzl GriGri+– This is the lowest price I’ve seen on this awesome device I reviewed here.

Petzl GriGri+ Review
Petzl GriGri+ photo by Alexandra Roberts

25% off Petzl Sitta Harness– This is my go-to harness and I reviewed it here.

25% off Petzl Actik Headlamp– My current everyday headlamp

25% off Petzl Sirocco Helmet– My favorite helmet of all time (thus far!) Review here.

Petzl Sirocco Helmet
Petzl Sirocco Helmet- photo by Matt Baldelli

25% off Petzl Nomic Ice Tools– Save $150 on a set of these!

33% off the new Black Diamond ATC Pilot Belay Device– I want one.

25% off Black Diamond HiLight Tent– I used this for two weeks in the Cascades this summer and it was perfect!

Black Diamond HiLight Tent, Mount Rainier
Black Diamond HiLight Tent, Mount Rainier

45% off Women’s Black Diamond First Light Hoody– I reviewed this great piece here!

30% off Men’s Black Diamond First Light Hoody– Bummer not same deal as women’s!

25% off Black Diamond Express Ice Screws– A standard in the category!

I will add more from Backcountry as I find deals but these are my current “top picks”. If you missed my “20 Holiday Gifts for the Mountain Lover” you can check it out here!

Have a great Holiday tomorrow and be sure to #optoutside on Black Friday! I will be standing by REI’s great initiative on Friday and am pledging to myself and family that I will be 100% “radio” silent (and outdoors). I will continue this with Part 2 and be sharing deals I find around Cyber Monday and Tech Tuesday so stay tuned and…

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Affiliate links support this blog at no additional cost to you!

ESAW re-cap and Ice Season has started!

The official start to winter may be over a month away but for many of us in the Northeast the proverbial snowball is rolling now! This past weekend is when I flip the switch from Fall rock climbing to thinking a lot about snow and ice starting with attending the 7th annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop (ESAW) this past weekend.


Friday

It started Friday evening with the kickoff party and social hour hosted by International Mountain Equipment and the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine. My son Alex was super helpful setting up our American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) info booth!

Eastern Snow Avalanche Workshop
Alex and his sister help set up our AIARE table at IME

Word among the climbers in the crowd was how the Black Dike saw its first ascent of the season today by the insatiable Zac St. Jules and team.

ice climbing black dike
Zac gets the first 2017/18 season ascent of the Black Dike with another party reportedly right behind them! Photo by Phil Schuld


Saturday

On Saturday over 150 attended this gathering of avalanche professionals, educators, and recreationalists to learn more about managing risk in our beloved mountain ranges. All of the speakers gave great presentations and I’ll link Jonathan Shefftz’s detailed write-up for The Avalanche Review as soon as it is out of draft! After a solid day of presentations we continued to chat all things snow while mingling with the dozen vendor booths that help support ESAW’s mission.

Eastern Snow Avalanche Workshop
Attendees mingle and learn about some of the best brands, organizations, and guide services in the industry!

While this was going on my Instagram feed showed me Fafnir, the Black Dike’s more burly neighbor went down to a couple of local climbers.

I also saw that Zac did not need a rest day after the Black Dike for he and three others including my friend Dave Dillon of Chase The Summit, bagged the first ascent of Pinnacle braving some really burly cold conditions during a 4 AM start! Both the Black Dike and Fafnir got subsequent ascents and I made plans to head up to Pinnacle early the next morning to attempt the second ascent of Pinnacle.


Sunday

Assuming the cat was out of the bag we met at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at 5:30 AM hoping to get a jump on other early season ice addicts. My friend Mike Leathum and Andrew Maver, both of IMCS, were all ready to hit the trail with Pinnacle as the objective but since we were a party of three we would probably not catch them since we were still in the gear organizing stage. We hit the trail by headlamp at about 5:45 and reached the base of Pinnacle right at 8 AM. Mike and Andrew had decided to head over to a tasty looking North Gully so we roped up and started up Pinnacle.

Ice Climbing Pinnacle Gully
The author starts up Pinnacle Gully- photo by @bennylieb

I lead in “parallel” and Benny² simul-ed with me a bit to reach the pin anchor. The ice was great and easily took 13 CM screws when needed.

Ice Climbing Pinnacle Gully
The “Benny’s” at the pin anchor
Ice Climbing Pinnacle Gully
The author at the largest open hole on the 2nd pitch. We did not wear hard-shells and were able to stay dry pretty easily

I ran the second pitch together with the third and was soon sticking somewhat frozen turf shots as I pulled out onto the top of the buttress. By 10:10 AM we were all on top enjoying some sun and grub. I watched some other climbers start up Yale Gully and would only discover while writing this post (thanks Facebook) that they were my friends Joe Cormier and Andrew Blease! I also noticed Mike and Andrew had finished North Gully and were likely already heading across the Alpine Gardens.

Ice Climbing Pinnacle Gully
Top of Pinnacle, Huntington Ravine

We packed up and headed up, over, and down Lion’s Head Summer Route but first took a look into Tuckerman Ravine. Left of Left Gully looked good and there was ice all over the Headwall. We saw some climbers heading into the floor of the Ravine that were likely our fellow Northeast Mountaineering Guide Matty Bowman and Mike Pelchat who would climb the aesthetic “Open Book”.

ice climbing Tuckerman Ravine
Mike Pelchat on the “Open Book”, the “best pitch of ice on the headwall”- photo by Matty Bowman

After posting this I saw over on NEIce that Standard Route went Sunday as well!

Other reports of climbing from over in Vermont and the Adirondacks also appeared on NEIce and with no real warm temps in the next 10 days I’d say we are off to an EXCELLENT start! No doubt Dracula and Willard will see ascents by next weekend (or sooner?). Shoestring Gully is likely to get done this week. It’s time folks! Get your gear together and get out there!!!

Related Posts:

Getting Ready for Ice Season

Ice Screw Comparison Review

Winter Gear Prep- Part 1

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Affiliate links help support this blog!

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!

Buy at REI              Buy on Amazon         Buy on Backcountry


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

Buy at REI                    Buy on Amazon         Buy on Backcountry


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.