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!
“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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This winter I was able to extensively test the Arc’teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness while ice climbing and guiding all over the White Mountains. My first experience with an Arc’teryx harness was mostly positive… there is a lot to like about the FL-365. Designed to be used year-round (365) for sport, trad, alpine, mixed, and ice climbing is this really a “quiver-of-one” option? It’s quite possible, but before we break it down let’s look at how it was tested.
Starting with the first 2018/19 season ascent of Standard Route at Frankenstein back in November I then climbed about 25 days all over the White Mountains including three trips up the iconic Black Dike in December and multiple alpine gullies in Huntington Ravine. Much of this testing was conducted while guiding and carrying a full ice rack, some rock gear, and a typical load-out for leading multi-pitch routes in a party of three. Let’s start our review with the most noticeable features and work our way down to minutia.
The most defining feature of this harness is the level of comfort it achieves while staying far under the weight of heavily padded “big-wall” style harnesses. Arc’teryx accomplishes this by using a patented “Warp Strength Technology™” construction. Essentially load bearing fibers are woven through a thin wide waist-belt and leg loops and offer excellent true load distribution. This waist belt measures 4 1/4 inches wide at its widest in the back, and the leg loops measure 3 inches wide across the back of the thigh. These measurements, on average, are about 30% wider than comparable harnesses in the category and are noticeable with just a casual look. It’s impressive this added coverage doesn’t add a lot of weight, though it definitely effects the packability (more on that later).
The leg loops, while not having buckles, are arguably “adjustable” in that Arc’teryx uses a stretchy elastic leg-loop that has about 3 inches of comfortable travel. This is my preferred style of leg-loop as I’m not a fan of non-stretchy adjustable buckle leg loops. Semi-hanging belays and steep rappelling revealed that this design strategy is more than marketing hype, it really is the most comfortable harness I’ve hung in. If you’d like to see more about this construction check out this video from Arc’teryx!
The Arc’teryx FL-365 Harness has more racking real estate than any other harness I’ve tested in this category. Each of the four main gear loops offer over 4 inches of racking space. The rubberized gear loop “stiffeners” are remove-able if you want to save a few ounces but I decided to set this harness up more for ice cragging than super-light alpinism. I also didn’t find removing them super intuitive and I could see how they would be tricky to get back on after removing. As it stands the design helps racked gear slide forward and the “stiffeners” make re-racking with gloves on quite convenient, definitely easier than lighter/softer gear loop styles.
A fifth soft gear loop is bar-tacked along the back of the harness. I found this a convenient place to clip my belay jacket, gloves, or a tag line. It’s important to note that all 5 of the gear loops are marked with “0kN” essentially being “not-rated”. The bar-tacking appears to be more than substantial for the heaviest of racks but the only “rated” part of the harness is the tie-in points and the belay loop.
Ice Clippers/Screw-Tool Holders
The Arc’teryx FL-365 Harness can accommodate 4 “ice clippers” for racking ice screws and securing your ice axes. I chose to only employ three of them, two on the right, and one on the left, as is my preference with my typical ice climbing load out. In sticking with the more ice cragging function I was using this harness for I opted to use two of the DMM Vaults on the left/right rear attachment points and a lighter Black Diamond Ice Clipper at the front/right attachment point. With this set-up I could easily carry my 8 13cm “running pro” screws on my right (dominant hand) side and my 22cm V-thread/anchor screw and stubbies on my left rear DMM Vault.
I requested a medium to review and quickly discovered Arc’teryx sizing is a little on the tight side. Based on the size chart I should have fit into a medium:
I am a 34 inch waist with a 23.5 inch thigh… which falls into a medium on the above size chart, and while I was able to get the three inches of tail past the buckle I could tell right away a large would fit me better. For reference I’m 180 lbs, 5’9″, with a 42 inch chest. This was over mid-weight long underwear and a soft-shell pant. Arc’teryx was kind enough to send out a large for me to review and is allowing me to raffle off the un-used medium to my readers! Details below!
My size large weighs in at 365 grams (12.9 ounces). This is a couple ounces heavier than my other favorite ice climbing harnesses but I can see how those ounces buy some additional comfort. By adding the super secure and unbreakable DMM Vault clippers I’ve definitely taken on some additional weight. My home scale puts the harness with the clippers I have mentioned at 572 grams (20 ounces). The DMM Vaults also reduce the ability to pack the harness up tightly. For that reason I went all out and setting this up as an ultimate cragging/shorter approaches type rig. With all the clippers removed this harness does fold up quite efficiently and can be packed in small alpine packs without taking up to much space.
Arc’teryx has done well trying to make the perfect “quiver-of-one” style harness. If you partake in all the various disciplines of climbing this really could be a great choice for you. The reality is no one design will ever be the best for each facet of climbing with sacrifices to be made to achieve the best attributes for the intended design.
It may be helpful in the case of the Arc’teryx to rate the harness on a 1-10 scale based on end use. To that end I submit the following opinions:
Gym 5/10 <- Super comfy but a bit overkill for this use, route-setters might like this level comfort while setting routes.
Sport 8/10 <- Working projects, scrubbing new routes, carrying 20 draws for full pitch routes, all good uses of this style of harness
Trad Cragging 9/10 <- Excellent choice for routes that require big racks or hanging belays
Aid Climbing 9/10 <- Again, excellent choice for larger racks and hanging in space
Alpine 7/10 <- A bit heavy and bulky for long approaches where pack space is at a premium
Ice Cragging 9/10 <- If the approach isn’t that long there are not many other harnesses that can compete here
Ski Mountaineering 4/10 <- Too much harness for this pursuit!
In conclusion the Arc’teryx FL-365 is the most comfortable harness I’ve tested with the greatest amount of convenient racking space. It excels when approaches are on the shorter side of things and you have a ton of gear to carry once you have dropped packs and racked up. There are lighter more pack-able options out there but they all sacrifice a bit of comfort to achieve those real ultra-light gram-counts… if you are looking for a harness that can do it all quite well than this would be a great model to try on!
As mentioned I have an un-used size medium up for grabs! There are multiple ways to enter, just click the Rafflecopter link below to start earning entries into the give-away! Unfortunately this is only for a size medium and it can not be exchanged with Arc’teryx or any Arc’teryx dealer for a different size. Prize is as-is non-returnable anywhere, so please if it doesn’t fit you perfect gift it to someone it does fit!
Contest ends April 30th at 9 PM EST!Winner will be contacted by email and announced here within 48 hours of the contest ending!
Disclaimer: A media sample was provided for purpose of review and that did not effect my opinion on the model in any way. Affiliate links above help support the content created here at Northeast Alpine Start.
The new Petzl Nomic has been refined in a way that makes it one of the most versatile ice axes available. I had only climbed a dozen or so days on the older version of the Nomic preferring the greater flexibility of the Petzl Quarks for my first ten years of ice climbing but the thoughtful changes in design have changed that and I’ve reached for the new Petzl Nomics more than any other tool this winter. Before I get into the details let’s look at how we tested them.
The east coast ice climbing season started early this year and I started climbing on these in November at Frankenstein Cliffs. My first test runs were up Standard Route and Dracula. I loaned them to some friends to solicit their opinions and they took a multi-sport trip up the alpine classic Pinnacle Gully. By December I had them back in my hands for no less than three trips up an excellent early season Black Dike. A few more days of guiding ice on Mount Willard and Cathedral Ledge and I’m finally ready to share my review!
Want to see them in action? Check out this amazing footage capture by my friend Dave Dillon!
Also some more amateur GoPro footage of some testing produced myself:
The first thing that stands out to me with these tools is how incredibly well balanced they are. The addition of removable tapered pick weights, a “hydro-formed” shaft, and adjustable handles all work together to help this tool swing with amazing precision and efficiency. I chose to leave the pick weights on as I primarily climb pure ice routes and the added head weight assists with placement allowing me to save energy while swinging the tool and getting more one-swing-sticks. The taper of the weights is also designed to facilitate dry tooling in cracks.
While it might seem odd to describe an ice tool as “comfortable” it is an accurate description on these tools. By using a three size adjustable lower handle and over-molded and bi-material upper handle these tools can be adjusted to fit anyone’s hands. I found the medium setting on the lower handle to be perfect for my medium sized hands. An allen wrench is required for adjusting the GRIPREST handle.
The upper handle is rubberized so there is no need to add grip tape to the tools to increase security when switching hands or “choking up” on a placement. I also found the tools swing with great precision and security when held like this:
The shape of the hydro-formed shaft makes holding these anywhere along the shaft or “high-dagger” position comfortable.
There is a lot of customization possible with these tools! For starters you can choose from four different picks!
The tools come with the PUR’ICE picks. They taper to 3mm and offer excellent penetration and easy removal in most placements. The top is serrated to offer some stability when holding the tool upside down through I did not find this to be an issue as these tools now have a real spike on the bottom to allow proper piolet canne when topping out a climb. They can suffer if you misfire and find some early season rock to impact as I did manage to bend a pick on the Black Dike when I unintentionally struck some rock. I swung by International Mountain Equipment and replaced the bent pick with the ICE pick which I was happy to be able to compare! The ICE pick tapers from 4mm to 3.3mm at the tip and carries a CE UIAA Technical Rating (the PUR’ICE pick does not meet the Technical Rating standards). I’ve since climbed a dozen routes with both picks and have not noticed much of a difference in ease of placement and cleaning so I’ll likely replace the PUR’ICE pick with the more durable ICE pick once it is time for a new pick. For those who will do some steep dry-tooling with these tools you can pick from both the DRY and the PUR’DRY picks.
The removable MARTEAU modular hammer is included with the tools. This can be stripped off (along with the pick weights) to minimize weight for dry-tooling or left in place so you can test and reset pitons. You can also chose to replace it with the PANNE if you want an adze on a tool. Finally the serrated stainless steel spike on the bottom of the GRIPREST handle has a connection point that is compatible with the V-LINK tether system.
All of this adds up to one of the best choices for a technical climbing tool on the market! While you will notice how nice they feel in hand at your local gear shop you truly will be impressed the first time you take these out on real ice. These are a perfect choice for the ice climber who only occasionally (or never) climbs hard mixed routes. They excel on WI3+ routes. I would still reach for the Petzl Quarks for WI2 or more alpine type objectives but for ice cragging at Frankenstein, Ouray, or any WI4 and up these are the bees knees. I hope you get a chance to climb with them!
I’m fortunate to be able to review about a half-dozen of the industry’s best belay jackets each winter. Chances are from December to April I’m spending 5-6 days a week climbing frozen waterfalls or teaching avalanche courses up on notoriously cold Mount Washington. This gives me a lot of field time to put these jackets through the ringer and form some opinions which I am happy to share with you to help you navigate the myriad of choices out there!
Some impressive numbers from BightGear that speak to this process:
WEAR TESTING BY THE NUMBERS
2016 – Over 1.2 Million vertical feet of wear testing by our guide team of primary fabrics used in 76 sample prototypes to build 19 different styles.
2017 – Reached over 48 million vertical feet of wear testing and use of 143 prototypes by our team of 60+ guides, and thousands of RMI climbers on Mt. Rainier.
2018 – On target to reach over 100 million vertical feet of testing with the launch of the Bight Test program on mountains and outdoor playgrounds around the world.
Pretty cool right? Having learned all this I was more than happy to receive the BightGear Caldera Down Parka for a demo. After a month of testing in a variety of conditions I feel I can fairly share my opinion on this piece. In the realm of down insulated belay parkas the Caldera easily competes with the best in class options out there! Let’s start with the most noticeable then finish with the minutiae.
How Warm Is It?
BightGear stuffed this parka with over 6 ounces of 850 fill power HyperDRY™ Goose Down. That’s a lot of high loft quality down, and the result is a parka that feels like a nice sleeping bag for your torso. By using more I-beam baffles in the construction of the parka (vs sewn through) BightGear completely eliminates cold-spots. The arms and hood feel just as lofty as the torso which I prefer in this “over all” type parka. I’ve worn this over my other layers down to -16 Fahrenheit while demoing snow pits at 4,400 feet on Mount Washington. Even after an hour of standing relatively still while teaching the basics of snow-pack evaluation I was kept toasty.
How Dry Is It?
The BightGear Caldera uses a silky 20D nylon rip-stop with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish. Most of the days I tested the parka were in temperatures well below those where I would encounter any liquid precipitation. I did expose it to a rather drippy ice climb a couple weeks ago and noticed water beads off as expected with a DWR finish. I also wore it over a soaked soft-shell jacket following a deluge of an ice climb and it dried me out quite quickly without feeling like it absorbed to much of the moisture. I’ve become a huge fan of the DWR treated down used in this parka as I believe regular down would quickly become a wet lump of non-insulating feathers under similar conditions.
How Light and Pack-able Is It?
BightGear lists the weight of a size large at 646 grams (22.8 ounces). My home scale weighed my large in at 640 grams (22.6 ounces). This is within an ounce of other similar style/priced options. It easily stuffs into my Hyperlight Mountain Gear waterproof stuff sack and if packing space is at a real premium I can use my extra small compression stuff sack to get this down to the size of a 32 ounce water bottle!
BightGear included a lot design choices to further make the Caldera one of the best down parkas I’ve ever tested. The hood fits perfectly over my climbing helmet and is well stuffed with down making it a comfortable place to retreat in the harshest conditions. The brushed tricot lining on the inside collar is super cozy when in “full turtle” mode. This same lining is in the well positioned hand warming front pockets. Articulated elbows make this jacket fit great over my other layers and the PowerStretch cuffs seal out cold and snow while playing in deep snow. There are also two stretchy inside stash pockets that can hold gloves or a water bottle.
It is clear that the BightGear Caldera Parka was designed by working mountain guides. It has everything you want in a big down “puffy” and nothing you don’t want. Of all the down parkas I have tested this one stands out as a top-pick for many reasons, not the least of which is the “half-sleeping bag” type feeling you get when you slip this on over your other layers. If you are looking to upgrade your belay jacket this one would be an excellent choice!
Exclusive 30% Off Discount!
I am super excited to be able to offer my readers a 30% off discount on ANY thing from BightGear’s Website! While I can not post the code publicly here all you need to do is shoot me a DM through Instagram, a PM through Facebook, or go old school and shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! This discount is only good until April 1st, 2019 so don’t delay!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
A media sample was provided for purpose of review.
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!
Last winter I got to demo the space age looking Kailas Entheos II Ice Axes. Without a doubt these tools turn heads as this is a somewhat lesser known company just starting to break into the US market. Before I share my opinions on them and how they were tested I’ll share the manufacturer description and specifications:
WINNER OF GERMANY ISPO AWARD 2014
WINNER OF ASIA OUTDOOR INDUSTRY AWARD 2011
WINNER OF OUTSIDE GEAR OF THE YEAR ,OUTDOOR CHINA 2012
“ENTHEOS” is the unique hybrid climbing technique ice axe in the world that using the CNC unibody fabrication . It takes its original performance to a higher level and we are proud to present our new product of unmatched quality, handling experience, and stability. It copes perfectly with steep, demanding terrains characterized by freezing ice surface and ice rocks. It is your best choice for overcoming climbing difficulties.
• Made of super high intensity and tenacity special steel .
• Integrated head structure allows a hammer head to be fixed to place rock pitons.
• All-terrain pick design made the tool sharp enough to pierce through hard ice. The toothed pick can hold onto ice surface with ease while the sharp end
on the axe head can be applied in pulling-back technology.
• There are removable extra weights attached on the axe head designed to provide extra power when striking into ice. Once they are removed,
the axe will be more handy and portable. (Stainless steel, 55g)
• CNC technology ensures high intensity and light weight.
• Ergonomicallly designed handle bar, excellent shock absorber.
• The shaft of our axe supplies a user with different ways to handle it and avoids unnecessary movement of axe between changes of hands.
It can be used in distinct terrains, bringing incomparable climbing efficiency.
• CNC technology makes accurate cutting possible, contributing to the delicate structure of this gear and excellent distribution of gravity center.
• Hollow shaft can absorb the rebound force when the user applies the axe on the ice surface, achieving smooth and clean entries into the ice.
• Made of 7075-T651 high intensity aluminum.
I climbed with these for 2-3 months leading and following on waterfall ice routes between Grade 3 and 5- in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In total they saw about 20 pitches of ice.
At first glance they do look similar to the new Petzl Nomics but with a few distinct differences. Most noticeable they are about 2.5 cm (1 inch) shorter than the Nomics. Not a big deviation but I did notice it before I took the time to measure the tools. This slight reduction in overall length is due to a slightly more aggressive bend in the Entheos. The other big difference is the entire shaft is a single piece of high-strength aluminum which gives these tools quite the futuristic and eye-catching look.
My home scale puts the Entheos II at 6 grams under the new Petzl Nomics. The handle is essentially the same width, likely will be most comfortable for medium-smaller hands. The shaft is slightly thinner than the new Nomics. The pic comes with removable head weights.
The Entheos swing quite well. They are balanced and designed well for steep ice. The slightly shorter profile suggests these should stick to hard steep ice or mixed climbing. They are not a tool for someone who spends the majority of their time on sub-Grade 4 ice and likely excel best at overhanging mixed climbing. The stock pick cleaned from placements easily. The small handle was a comfy grip for my medium sized hands. I didn’t take them out on super cold days but I imagine a pure aluminum shaft will feel colder on arctic days when climbing with thinner style gloves.
The Kailas Entheos II Ice Axes are a somewhat exotic option in the technical steep ice & mixed tool market. They are undoubtedly built to survive a lifetime of love (and abuse) in the mountains. If you can get by the sticker shock (or grab them when the Verticall Store has them discounted) you will probably be quite pleased.
Disclaimer: This media sample was provided for purpose of review and has been returned to the manufacturer. All opinions expressed above are my own.
Got my first swings in of the season today up in Crawford Notch and by all accounts it was damn good swinging for mid-November! Things are coming along great and we got more cold temps and up to 11 inches of snow coming to the higher summits in the next 24 hours! All pics courtesy of Alexandra Roberts.
Elephant Head Gully is forming fast but what about that new fence huh? Hoping Mother Nature overcomes that obstacle as it will be a shame to lose such a great roadside quickie. The little gully to the right though might see more traffic now that it is not concealed by trees though!
The Flume & Silver Cascade have lots of mushroom ice and flowing water… might be tricky trying to stay dry in there… and the new snow coming will likely conceal less than solid parts of those brooks. Use caution!
Cinema Gully and the numbered gullies are forming fast for this early… and evidence of avalanches on Cinema was easily seen from the road. We had quite a few climbers triggered avalanches in Hitchcock Gully early season last year… heads up!
Cleft looked do-able.
Willey’s Slide looked thin but forming.
Over at Frankenstein things are looking pretty good. The south face routes are coming along great (but they never last do they).
Smear was the best looking thing in the Amphitheater… but everything in there will need some more time. My partner noticed Angel Cakes was looking like it was almost touching down! Might have to walk up there in a few weeks!
Assuming climbable ice in the Lost in the Woods area…
Standard Route was our objective and it served up some great plastic wet early season swinging! Consider a hard shell! We took the center line, stopped in the cave and chopped out the pin anchor under a few inches of ice, the two more pitches to the top. 13 cm screws didn’t bottom out the whole way. It’s wet though… still lots of running water (that’s a good thing).
Dracula looked a bit chandelier down low and the top out looked a bit sketch to me as we walked above… expect un-bonded ice and non-frozen turf shots on that puppy for another week or so. No thanks, I’ll wait. Welcome to the Machine forming nice for this time of year!
Hanging Gardens is off to a nice start but nothing touching down yet, and the practice slab next to it is looking do-able but thin.
Well that’s it! My ice season has started a couple weeks after my ski season this year… I don’t remember the last time I had more ski days in then ice days in November! Fingers crossed but I think this winter will be banger!
Here’s a quick video hash I threw together to share some stoke!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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