I find it hard to believe the avalanche course season is almost over! I’ve had a great time teaching courses for Northeast Mountaineering with an amazing group of co-instructors and despite a relatively inconsistent Mother Nature field conditions have been quite prime for our course objectives.
One of the seasonal components of the AIARE Framework is “Continue Your Education”. AIARE 1 students often realize quite early in the course that becoming safer back-country travelers is a lifelong process. There is no finish line when it comes to avalanche education. To that end I share with my students one of the ways I’ve continued to learn about a subject I’ve been studying and teaching for over 10 years is by subscribing to multiple podcasts related to avalanche education. Multiple students have asked for a list of what podcasts I listen to which was the motivation of this post. So without further delay here’s my current playlist with a quick recap of what to expect from each. If you like to play in the snow you should give a few of these a listen on the commute into work or your drive up to the mountains!
“The podcast that helps keep you on top of the snow instead of buried beneath it.” This one is at the top of my list and if you only pick one podcast to listen to this is the one I’d recommend most. So many great episodes I hesitate to call out just one but I will… The April 5th, 2019 episode “Low Danger” is a must listen.
“Creating a stronger community through sharing stories, knowledge, and news amongst people who have a curious fascination with avalanches.” What can I say this podcast is fantastic! The range of guests is great and I haven’t found a single interview to not be engaging and enlightening… add it to your library!
Sadly it seems Doug hasn’t been able to keep this project going but the first two seasons are here for us to learn from. Doug focuses mostly on the human element and some of the episodes that have stayed with my had to do with effective communication in the backcountry and how we see ourselves in our stories (impaired objectivity). Definitely worth listening to the 1.5 seasons that are there and hopefully Doug can return to this project soon!
Honorable mention goes to the American Alpine Club’s Sharp End Podcast by Ashley Saupe. While not 100% about avalanches I’ve been a long time reader of the AAC’s Accidents in North American Climbing, a fantastic education resource in its own right and worth the annual cost of membership in my opinion! In each episode Ashley interviews those involved in climbing (and sometimes avalanche) accidents in an effort to learn what we can from these stories.
Well that’s the list. Within these 4 podcasts there are hundreds of hours of quality content that is sure to make you a more informed and safer backcountry traveler. If you found this post helpful please leave a comment below and if I missed one of your favorite podcasts please let me know! It doesn’t have to be avalanche related but outdoor recreation and risk management should be a consideration!
Happy listening and see you in the mountains!
Northeast Alpine Start
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Christmas might have come a little early for me this year when about a month ago a package arrived with the all new Hyperlite Mountain Gear Prism Alpine Climbing Kit. It’s no secret I’m a fan of HMG products after reviewing the HMG 3400 Ice Pack back in February 2016. You can find that review here. After three years of hard use I’m happy to report that pack is still 100% service-able and I still use it for hauling heavy loads while running waterfall rappelling trips (think 500+ feet of wet static ropes).
The HMG line of Ice Packs is pretty well known by northeastern climbers by now. I’d wager over a third of the packs I’ve seen so far this season have been HMG ice packs. Just two days ago on Mount Willard another climber remarked that 3/4 of us in the area actually had the new Prism Pack, and the 4th had an HMG Ice Pack… so word is already out these packs are awesome!
I’ll explain what sets the Prism apart from the Ice Pack’s, as there are some definite design changes you may or not be looking for. At the end of the day though, the Prism pack, and basically the whole Prism “Kit” is incredibly well designed and should earn some “Gear of the Year” awards from major outdoor gear publications. Alright let’s get into the details!
Charge headlong into the spectrum of winter’s white light with the pack built for alpine adventure. The Prism beckons ice climbers, mountaineers, alpinists, and backcountry skiers to think big and go deep. Designed to meet at the intersection of speed, weight, security, and comfort, this top-loading pack features an extendable drawstring closure and an adjustable, removable low-profile lid. The hip belt provides two gear racks and two ice clipper slots, but is removable when not required for the task at hand, or when wearing a climbing harness. Highly adjustable compression straps secure crucial equipment while keeping the pack close to the body for free and unrestricted movement.
Climbers can store a rope under the lid, glacier adventurers can store their wands in the side pockets, and backcountry skiers can depend on the A-frame carry when they’re on foot marching up the steep stuff. Alpinists of all types can round out the pack with the Prism Crampon Bag and Prism Ice Screw Case for an even more dialed setup. However you move when the cold comes calling, the Prism brings your pursuits into focus.
1.82 lbs | 29.1 oz | 827g Weight does not include hip belt and may vary slightly by torso size.
Main pack body is built with Dyneema® Composite Fabrics DCH150
Side panels, bottom, and lumbar are 375-Denier DCHW for the ultimate abrasion protection from the environment, ski edges, and sharp tools
Removable, Hardline with Dyneema® hip belt with 1/8” closed cell rigid foam and 1/4” closed cell foam padding and spacer mesh features (2) gear loops, (2) ice clipper slots, and an offset buckle to reduce tie-in clutter
Extendable collar and floating lid allow for pack expansion
Diamond pocket locks tool heads in place without additional buckles
Reflective bungees with quick-release pull tabs secure axe handles
External crampon pouch with easy-cinch closure keep crampons secure and within reach during the approach
Multi-purpose compression straps allow you to draw in your pack or attach additional items like snowboards and sleeping pads
Top overload strap secures gear stored under the lid and brings the load closer to your center of gravity
Exterior daisy chains provide multiple lashing points for other gear
Axe loop for non-technical mountaineering axes
Low profile side sleeve pockets with drainage holes hold mountaineering wands/pickets, or trekking/tent pole tips
Hardline with Dyneema® shoulder strap construction with 3/8” closed cell foam and spacer mesh
Adjustable sternum strap with self-tensioning elastic and whistle
One removable, contoured aluminum stay, and an integrated 1/4″ foam back panel pad and plastic stiffener provide shoulder and spine support for a comfortable and secure carry
Proprietary seam sealing on all side seams and behind all sewn-on pack features
Bar tacked reinforcements on all stress points provide enhanced strength and durability
Made in Biddeford, Maine, USA
REMOVABLE LID FEATURES
Adjustable and removable lid means you can overstuff your pack using the extendable drawstring collar and still have weather protection, or remove it completely to save weight on clear days
Waterproof, zippered pocket on the lid provides convenient storage for snacks, gloves, phone, map, or anything you want within easy reach
Elastic sides provide a snug fit to keep weather out, while helping secure a rope underneath
Lightweight, aluminum G-hooks attach the lid securely to daisy chains in the front and rear and are easy to use with gloves on
Now for some opinions!
The HMG Prism is 40 liters (2400 cubic inches), and the removable top lid adds another 3 liters (214 cubic inches). I find this to be the perfect day-size for technical ice climbing and mountaineering. I can easily fit my entire guiding kit including bivy sack and ultralight sleeping bag without any hassle. Lashing a rope under the top lid is super secure thanks to the top buckle, the lid itself, and the 4 compression straps that all have quick release buckles.
The 1/4″ foam back panel is given some rigidity with a single removable aluminum stay and plastic stiffener. I left the aluminum stay in place as the contoured shape of the back panel fit my back like it was custom made to my own specifications. While the waist belt is removable I chose to keep it attached to the back. On approaches it helps stabilize heavier loads and after racking up and starting the lead I’ll clip the hip belt behind the pack. This pack rides incredibly well. I did try removing the top pocket and stuffing it in the bag but discovered for some reason the frame would hit my helmet when I looked up on a steeper ice climb. The top pocket when in use actually can make the top of the pack have a lower profile and prevent any helmet contact.
This pack is loaded with some solid features, first of all is the welcome addition of a top pocket. Many of us have gotten use to the simple roll-top designs of the HMG Ice Packs and have learned to live without a top-pocket. Now that I have a top-pocket again I realize it is really helpful for storing snacks, maps, my cell phone, etc. Bonus this top pocket is totally waterproof, so if you have anything that must stay dry while climbing that drippy waterfall you basically have a built in dry pouch.
The second most noticeable feature while comparing to the HMG Ice Packs is the addition of a sewn external crampon pouch. This is definitely faster and more secure than the bungee attachments on other models. In fact while descending the Mount Willard trail two days ago my client who had secured his crampons with the bungee on an older model pack discovered the risk when halfway down the trail I heard an odd jingle sound and stopped to see if his crampons were still on his pack. They were not… luckily they were just 10 feet back up the trail having slipped out there bungee attachment.
I chose to pack my crampons inside the pack in the slick new Prism Crampon Case (more on that later) when I head out for the day but at the end of the day when I’m de-racking and dumping gear into the pack for the hike back to the car I might opt to just drop my iced up wet crampons into the external pocket.
The next thing I noticed about the pack was the ice axe attachments. This was definitely a new design as there were no buckles for securing the head of the ice axes. Instead HMG designed a “diamond pocket” pouch that the head of the tools simply rest in while the handles are secured with the typical bungee/cord-lock girth-hitch method. I was slightly concerned this might not be secure enough to keep from losing a tool while glissading but have found it to work really well. I tested with both the Petzl Nomics and the CAMP Cassin X-Dreams and the system really holds the tools in place during all manner of descents. For added security I like to capture the upper grip rest of whatever leash-less tool with the girt-hitch bungee attachment.
Another strong feature of this new pack is it’s ability to adapt. The fancy ice axe pouch works for technical tools, but what about a standard mountaineering axe? A single traditional ice axe loop is just below the pouch so you’re covered there! Ski mission? Quick release side compression straps allow for a solid A-frame carry. Glacier travel, or flagging a route in white out conditions on Mount Washington? At the bottom of both sides of the pack are sewn pouches so you could secure route wands, tent poles, trekking poles, camera trips-pods, etc.
HMG designed two accessories to flush out the awesomeness of this kit. The Prism Crampon Bag and the Prism Ice Screw Case. Good ice screw cases can be hard to come by and my old Outdoor Research one was nearing the end of its life. This one is designed to fit perfectly at the bottom of the pack which helps with efficient packing. I also like to keep my two Allen wrenches for field tightening of lose ice axe bolts and a few heavy-duty zip-ties in the small zippered pocket. The Crampon Bag has the right balance of padding and and light weight and since my current two crampons (Petzl Dart and CAMP Alpinist Tech) are SUPER sharp I’m enjoying not worrying about punching holes in some of the super nice puffy belay jackets I’m testing this winter. It’s also sized perfectly to slide down into the external crampon pouch if internal space is at a premium.
I’m also happy to report HMG is making this pack in 4 different sizes! Everyone should be able to find the perfect size! With Small, Medium, Large, and Tall being offered everyone should be able to find the perfect size. I went with a size medium as I have a 19 inch torso, and while the official recommendation was to go for a large I prefer the waist belt ride a little high on me incase I was to secure it while wearing a harness. Bottom line though stick to the size chart on the website and you should be good to go!
Right now there is a small discount available through HMG. The first option is to buy the whole kit. Full retail for the three items would be $525 if bought separately. Buying the kit at $475 saves you $50, then you can use promo code “PRISM” for another $25 off, bringing the final price down to $450 for the entire kit. That promotion runs through 12/15, so you have a little time to think about it! Of course if you already have a crampon bag and ice screw case you could just score the pack for $395!
You can buy this pack directly from the manufacturer here!
I said at the beginning I’m partial to HMG packs… they make amazing stuff. I have yet to go visit their manufacturing plant in Biddeford, ME but that is high on my bucket list. It’s awesome knowing these world class packs are made right across state-lines in Maine! If you haven’t purchased a HMG (or any “Dyneema Composite Fabric” pack) yet you might be in for a little bit of sticker shock when you compare them to packs made from regular ole’ nylon and Cordura. Before you balk at the cost be clear these materials are waterproof and stronger than steel. The abrasion resistance is quite impressive, they are are very UV resistant, and insanely light weight! These packs can easily handle a decade of hard use, and a weekend warrior might get a full career of climbing out of one of these packs. Just saying, sometimes you do get what you pay for!
A media sample was provided for purpose of review. All opinions are that of the author. Affiliate links above support the content created at Northeast Alpine Start.
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!
We all carry a first aid kit with us on our adventures right? For today’s Tech Tip I want to share what first aid kit I use and how I customize it with a few extra items. While you can go to a pharmacy and piece together your own kit I prefer to start with the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .7 Medical Kit as it’s a solid foundation to build upon. Here’s the details on the kit:
Designed for life in the bottom of the pack, zippered rip-stop silicon nylon outer bag has 2 inner DryFlex™ watertight pouches to ensure contents are kept clean and dry
Wound care items: 3 butterfly closure strips, 2 triple antibiotic ointments, 3 antiseptic wipes and 1 pair of nitrile gloves
Other equipment: splinter picker forceps, 3 safety pins and a 26 x 2 in. roll of duct tape
Silicone nylon pouch
8.5 x 6.5 x 2 inches
This is a great start for only 8 ounces! AMK markets this as ideal for 1-2 people for 1-4 day trips. While I do find the suggestion a bit arbitrary I feel this is a great size for a group leader or guide to start from. There is a .5 version that weighs less than 4 ounces that would be good for trail running, casual hiking, or just to keep in the glove box. A very minimalist .3 version is better than carrying nothing.
Now let’s get into what I add to this kit to make it a bit more capable of handling any situation. The first thing I add is a Petzl Zipka Headlamp. This 2.5 ounce headlamp has great light output and the retractable cord keeps it from getting tangled with other things in the kit. I consider this a bit of a “back-up” headlamp. If I know I’ll be out after dark I bring my Petzl Actik Core Headlamp and have the Zipka available to loan to someone who forgets their headlamp.
I then add a simple small knife that can be used for cutting bandages, duct tape, and clothing to make slings & swathes if need be. Occasionally it might even have to cut some summer sausage and hard cheese.
Then I add a fire starter, usually just a small Bic lighter but you can go for a fancy windproof one if you want!
Then I have a small travel size Advil bottle that I carry extra Antihistamines (Benadryl) and pain/fever reducers (Advil). I prefer to use this bottle and refill it from home when needed and save the prepackaged medications for when I forget to refill this container. Don’t forget to check the expiration dates on the prepackaged medications!
I also squeeze in a small notebook with a pencil. This is important for writing SOAP notes or sending detailed information with someone. On longer trips I carry a Rite in the Rain Notebook separate from my first aid kit.
With still room to spare I now add my two EpiPens. While I haven’t been tested for a bee allergy I feel it is a good idea for me to carry Epi after getting swarmed and stung by over a dozen yellow jackets last year. There’s also the fact that some one in my care may have a unexpected severe reaction when we are over an hour away from definitive care and having Epi in the party could be a life-saver. I also add a super light disposable CPR Face Shield.
Finally I add about 3 extra pairs of Nitrile gloves in addition to the one pair that comes with the kit. It has been my experience on multiple rescues that one pair of gloves is never enough in the mountains as they will definitely tear while dealing with a patient, and bystanders who might be able to help often don’t have their own gloves.
These additions bring my first aid kit up to one pound 5 ounces. Considering that if I grab my first aid kit I have 5 of the “Ten Essentials” I’m more than ok with that weight! I also carry either my SOL Escape Bivy (summer) or my more durable Ortovox Single Bivy (winter or while on rescues).
I’ve also taken to sliding a Saywer SAM Splint down into the back panel of my pack. While I can improvise splints from my wilderness medicine training a real SAM splint is really nice to have for quick ankle/wrist fractures or as an effective neck collar.
I feel the above set-up is quite adequate for the amount of time I spend in the mountains both guiding and recreating. For expedition leaders or large outing club type groups I’d suggest looking at the Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight/Watertight PRO Medical Kit. It’s quite all inclusive with a SAM Splint, EMT Shears, precision forceps, and more.
Undoubtedly carrying a first aid kit in the mountains is a very good idea. Accidents will happen. The longer your recreate in the mountains the more likely you, someone in your party, or someone you come across, will need a touch of first aid. Hopefully it’s something minor like a blister or small scrape. Unfortunately we can’t remove all risk from our outdoor hobbies and will are going to break some bones, or worse. There’s two things YOU can do to make these situations better.
#1 Carry the right gear
#2 Get some training
Wilderness First Aid courses are offered all over the country! Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities (SOLO) teaches Wildness First Aid (16 hours), Wilderness First Responder (72+ hours), and Wilderness EMT (170+ hours). If you have zero medical training, and wish to play in the mountains for decades to come, do yourself a huge solid and sign up for one of these courses! You’ll be more prepared to handle what comes your way!
I hope you found this helpful. If you did please let me know in the comments below. If you carry something different or I missed a key item please let me know! Just so you are aware the links above (except for SOLO) are affiliate links. That means if you click on them, and make a purchase, a small commission is earned. That really helps keep this blog going, so if you do make a purchase thanks! If not maybe just share this article with someone you think could benefit from it!
I’m up early but it looks like my guiding day might get rained out so I decided to scour the web for some of the better deals on outdoor gear and clothing as most companies end their Labor Day sales today. Below is a curated list of what is not only on sale but something I have personally owned and tested or is on my wish list!
REI is running some sweet deals like 20% off Thule and Yakima racks and roof boxes! 25-30% off most REI, Big Agnes, and Nemo tents and sleeping pads! They also made it easy to find the items that are actually 50% off by grouping them under their “Peak Deals“. Expect limited quantity and sizes in there!
Eastern Mountain Sports is going big with quite a bit of inventory 70% off! 20% off all Black Diamond, 20% off La Sportiva Footwear, and a current coupon for an extra 20% off a full or sale priced item! COUPON CODE: “LABORDAY19“. There is a fairly long list of excluded brands though… you can see the list here. Finally they have summer clearance items listed at 70% here!
Patagonia is running some great web specials like 40% off the Micro Puff and Nano Puff jackets and hoodies visible here.
Just about every retailer is running sales today and since it looks like a wash-out here in the Northeast I think I’ll spend some time today organizing my gear closet and seeing if I’m all set for the rapidly approaching Fall!
Coming soon… I’ve got reviews in the works for the new Wild Country Revo Belay Device. The “Take20Summer” coupon code does work on this item by the way! I also finally got my hands on both the Mammut Smart 2.0 and the Mammut Alpine Smart and testing has begun! Expecting to have reviews on all of these done in time for Rocktober!
Climbing trip to Camden ME in two weeks! I’ve been to Camden twice for some family camping but this trip it’s just me and my buddy Bob heading out to sample the climbing there. Have you been? Must do routes? Let me know in the comments below!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
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“What belay device is that?” was the question that popped up from my friend @sammyspindel on a short Instagram story clip of my anchor while belaying a client up the last pitch of Upper Refuse on Cathedral Ledge a few days ago. The question generated some great back and forth conversation and ultimately provided the motivation for this post, so thank you for the question Sammy!
What belay device I use is largely determined on what type of climbing I am doing. In this post I’m going to explain the advantages, disadvantages, and helpful strategies of some of the most popular options out there. I will attempt to break it down based on type and style of climbing (gym, sport, trad, alpine, ice, top-rope, multi-pitch, party of 2, party of 3). My hope is you’re able to make some informed choices over what belay device(s) you decide to use. I’ll try to work through these options from simplest to most complex.
Here we go…
The Munter Hitch
Every climber should learn how to use a Munter Hitch. This incredible hitch has served climbers well for over a hundred years. This skill can save the day when your partner drops their shiny new flavor of the day belay device off the top of the 3rd pitch of a 7 pitch climb or when your ropes are two icy from a dripping ice pillar in below freezing temps and you can’t get them bent through your tube-style device. All you need is a pear shaped locking carabiner. I prefer the Petzl Attache or Petzl William Locking Screwgate. Avoid auto-locking carabiners to facilitate tying the hitch onto the carabiner, something I demonstrate in this first video. The second video shows how this can be converted into an auto-locking Munter!
Practice this skill at home. Practice while watching the news. Learn to tie it with your eyes closed. Learn to tie it with one hand. Learn to tie it onto the belay carabiner on the anchor with one hand. Advanced users/aspiring guides: Learn to tie it on to a carabiner so it is already in the “belay” orientation. Learn to it on a carabiner so it is already in the “lower” orientation. Then learn to tie it in both those orientations when the carabiner is on your belay loop (I still struggle with mastering this last step as looking down at the carabiner turns my head upside down).
Some key points about the Munter Hitch…. IT DOES NOT “TWIST” THE ROPE! Improper use of the hitch will introduce serious “twists” and kinks into your rope. The solution? Always keep the brake strand parallel with the load strand. In that orientation you can watch the way the rope moves through the hitch without creating twists. If you hold the brake strand anywhere but parallel you will introduce twists. This is quite un-intuitive when using this hitch to rappel as our muscle memory wants us to pull back or down with the brake hand while rappelling. The proper hand position (and maximum braking power) is obtained by holding the brake strand straight up and parallel with the loaded rope. I know, crazy right? Moving on…
Standard Tube-Style Belay Devices
Almost every climber everywhere has owned and used a classic “tube-style” belay device. It’s as standard as needing a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. There are more options in this category then ever before. While there are subtle differences in weight and design they all function relatively the same. While a summer camp or outdoor club might opt for the cheapest option I’d suggest for the majority of recreational climbers to go for one of the most popular models in use that includes a “higher friction” side to assist with braking and rappelling. The two models I see the most of are the Black Diamond ATC-XP and the Petzl Verso.
Some notes on this style device. I no longer carry one opting instead for the more versatile models that can be used in “plaquette” mode (more on that in a minute). That said for top-rope and lead, single pitch, gym, sport, and trad climbing there is nothing inherently “wrong” about choosing one of these simple devices.
Tube Style Devices with “Plaquette” Mode
For little additional cost and weight you can carry a tube style belay device that can also serve in “plaquette” mode. This is ideal for lead climbers who wish to belay their partner directly off the anchor after leading a pitch. This European style of belaying has become much more prevalent in American climbing in the last few decades for good reason. At its core it is more comfortable for the belayer and much simpler should the second climber need assistance to pass a crux. The time tested choices here are the Black Diamond ATC Guide and the Petzl Reverso 4. Newer options that are gaining solid following’s are the DMM Pivot which makes direct lowered off the anchor while in “guide mode” easier and the Black Diamond ATC Alpine Guide that is optimized for working with skinny twin ropes.
Single Strand Brake Assisting Devices
This category covers devices like the Petzl GriGri, Petzl GriGri+, Black Diamond Pilot, and the new to the scene Wild Country Revo. While noticeably heavier (and pricier, except for the BD Pilot) than simpler tube style device than these devices have more applications then I think most people realize. Devices like the Petzl GriGri are just at home in the climbing gym as they are on large sandstone big walls (especially given the additional durability of the GriGri+). Some climbers may avoid using one of these devices due to needing to carry a second belay device for rappelling. Well, two things… first you can rappel with these (blocked-rappel options), but more importantly and something I will get into towards the end, what’s wrong with carrying two devices? It opens up a lot of options and solutions to potential climbing issues!
You can see my full review of the Petzl Grigri+ HERE!
You can see my full review of the Black Diamond ATC Pilot HERE!
Now we get to the device that sparked this whole post. My Kong Gi-Gi. This device’s most notable quality is that when used in plaquette mode it takes the least amount of force to belay two single rated ropes at the same time. I’ve found no device that comes close to the ease of belaying two single ropes when climbing with two seconds and using “parallel” technique, a common guiding tactic to belay two seconds at the same time.
While belaying directly off the anchor shouldn’t seem tiring I’ve known many guides who developed elbow tendinitis from the repetition of pulling two ropes through plaquettes up thousands of feet of moderate climbing over a decade or so of guiding. It can serve as a rappel device if needed, though that requires an extra locking carabiner and is a relatively low-friction rappel device (third hand back-up strongly recommended).
So what should you carry?
I guess it makes sense to break this down by end-use… there are so many tools available to us these days but here’s my take on optimizing your belay device load out:
If you’re really not sure you even like climbing but want your own belay device you can keep it simple an pick up a simple tube style belay device like the Black Diamond ATC-XP or Petzl Verso. I think the higher friction side is worth the extra cost. If you are addicted to climbing you might as well invest in a single strand brake-assisting device like the Black Diamond Pilot, Petzl GriGri, or Wild Country Revo.
If you’re going more than one pitch off the deck a plaquette device like the Black Diamond ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso 4 is an easy pick. I’ve started carrying my Petzl GriGri on multi-pitch trad routes for a multitude of reasons since it greatly simplifies rope ascension in a rescue scenario but also works great for hauling bags on big wall. “Lifer’s” with big wall aspirations should seriously consider the added durability of the Petzl GriGri+.
Here I’d go with the standard plaquette device like the Black Diamond ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso 4 and the knowledge of the Munter Hitch mentioned at the beginning to help deal with icy ropes. I leave single strand brake-assisting devices home when ice climbing as they tend to not work as well on ice ropes and weight is a premium. If you climb on really skinny floss like 7.7mm twin ropes you should look at the new Black Diamond ATC Alpine Guide!
Climbing in a party of 3 (Guiding-Style)
Parties of three typically climb in either “Caterpillar” or “Parallel” style. Basically “Caterpillar” is the leader climbs, then belays the first second, after the second arrives with the 2nd rope belays the 3rd climber. It’s slower but a better choice for harder routes and newer climbers as the other option “Parallel” means the leader takes both ropes and belays both seconds simultaneously. A lot of issues can crop up to make this a mini-epic. However for skilled leaders and guides this is often a method that can see a three person party move as fast as a two person party.
As I mentioned earlier carrying two belay devices can make sense in a lot of situations. These are the combos I find myself using most as a climbing guide:
At the end of the day there are an amazing array of belay devices to chose from. The above suggestions are just my personal experience with what has worked well for me. When I started this post I thought I would cover every device out there but there are just way to many options! Hopefully the suggestions and comments I’ve made help you pick a system that works for you! Let me know in the comments if I left out your favorite belay device or if you found any of this useful and…
See you in the mountains!
Northeast Alpine Start
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Yesterday felt like a perfect storm of conditions that ultimately led to multiple skier triggered avalanches including two from my party and one fatality on Mount Washington. While it might seem odd to write about this experience so soon after it happened, I do so before memory forgets small details in the decision making of the day. It is my intention that sharing our day helps others understand some of the complexity and uncertainty when recreating in avalanche terrain, especially under a “Moderate” Danger Rating.
Let’s start with the avalanche bulletin from the Mount Washington Avalanche Center for the day:
April 11th, 2019 7:45 AM
Ben Mirkin and I pull into the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead at the same time and find Benny Allen already waiting for us with ski boots on. The sky is “bluebird”, no wind, a couple inches of fresh snow sparkles bright in the morning sun. We greet each other warmly and conduct a departure check. All three of us have been back-country skiing for a combined total of 42 years. All three of us are climbing guides. All three of us our avalanche instructors, two certified level 3’s and one recently certified Pro 1. The thought occurs to me that many accidents happen to those who are experienced and possess a high level of technical proficiency.
The day prior to getting together we had made a complete tour plan with options A and B, with a safer option being Oakes – Main. Proper repair and rescue gear was carried and all carried radios. This was my Caltopo tour plan:
Our actual GPS track this day:
We break trail for 26 minutes and reach the junction of the Ammonoosuc Link Trail and continue up to Gem Pool in just under an hour. Benny and Ben transition to crampons and strap skis to their packs while I put on ski crampons and continue up the steeper grades. We reconnect above the steeps as we reach tree line and work our way to the AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut in 2 hours 12 minutes from the car. At that point we do a weather observation and find it to be -10 degrees Celsius. It’s about 10:15 and winds on the ridge are a bit higher than expected.
After a re-fuel break we set a course for Mount Monroe. Winds that were out of the Northwest shift to the North and are steady at 50 mph on the summit of nearby Mount Washington. Wind chills are around -15f. We confer in the lee just below the summit of Monroe. Our first objective was a steep couloir that drops off the ridge near Mount Franklin.
While we could not see it from our current perch after consulting the map I felt we could transition and make it over to the top of the gully in less than 15 minutes. We de-skinned then dropped about 100 feet until we were around the shoulder that allowed us to get eyes on our proposed objective. During that short descent we attempted to test the wind slabs with no results. Franklin looked loaded, steep, and fun. We agreed to go check it out and be willing to reverse our route if we didn’t like what we saw.
Traversing the ridge was windier than expected. We made it to the top of the proposed run and I started to get nervous. It was full of new wind effected snow. It looked steep. Light loading was still occurring. It was cold and uncomfortable and I felt like we might rush our decision. I could see my partners were a bit excited to grab this line. Acceptance was felt. I tried to picture the size of the avalanche we could trigger in this defined avalanche path. A choke mid-path just below a convexity would make this happen fast if we triggered this path. I pictured someone somersaulting through the choke-point. I even had a thought that an injured skier at the bottom of this run would need a helicopter, and that below ridge winds were light enough to get one.
We had a rope with us, and the idea of a belayed slope cut was briefly mentioned. I spoke up and exercised my veto, and it was instantly respected. We transitioned back to skins and made our way back over to Monroe with plans on skiing a more south facing aspect into the same Franklin Brook Drainage.
Winds started to drop as we reached another transition. We dropped the top 300 feet of the proposed run and found very firm conditions. No new snow had stuck to this aspect. The skiing was not good, and I suggested we cut our losses and head back up and over to get into Oakes Gulf, our conservative “Plan C”. I had skied a nice line in Oakes 5 days ago in a total white-out. The snow conditions were nice and I felt that aspect would hold the softest snow we would find on this side of the range. I was right and we dropped relatively low angle terrain from 5050 feet down to 4480 feet finding many decent turns along the way.
As I reached Ben at the bottom of this pitch he relayed he just watched a size-able skier triggered avalanche just northeast of us, basically down the Dry River main drainage. We scanned the area and saw the skier exiting from near the bottom of the path that we estimated ran about 470 feet. I would later confirm from a closer witness this was a solo skier who was able to escape after triggering the slab and that the solo skier then regained the ridge and descended Hillman’s Highway.
Here near the bottom of our run Ben suggested we transition and head back up and over to our exit route, Monroe Brook. I felt there were a few more good turns below us that could be managed. Benny wanted to finish the run. A 500 foot tight shot through a treed area was discussed. Ben gave it two ski cuts at the top and propagated a small slab 10 feet above him, about 15 feet wide and he was able to reach his targeted safer spot while we watched the small slide clear out the snow below. Now that the small slab was flushed out both Ben’s discussed descending the small path, but ultimately decided not to. I wasn’t keen on making steeper turns in the tight feature and voiced I would pop over to skier’s right into some wider and lower angle terrain and assumed we would meet up towards the bottom where the two features almost reconnect.
As I moved over to the right, I scoped the area I had descended 5 days ago. Things looked good, I checked above me. The terrain steepened about 200 feet above me with a thin cliff band stretching about 450 across the slope. The slope I was about to drop onto was under 20 degrees. I decided to enter.
I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t feel a collapse. I did look up and see the entire slope above me was failing. I had a little momentum bringing me more into the path of what was about to hit me and pointed my skis towards a spot just below a decent sized tree 5 feet ahead and hooked my right arm around it. I had about 4 seconds from when I saw the slide to when it hit. In that time I keyed the mic on my radio and said “Avalanche… coming down right on top of me”. I then locked my left arm around the tree and dug in.
The debris hit the tree and me with some force. It felt like a surprise rogue wave while playing in the ocean, or trying to cross fast moving waist deep water. It pushed on me for about 5 seconds. Debris hitting the tree broke up and threw a little snow in the air giving me a moment of thinking I would be buried. The debris around me stopped moving and I watched a lot of snow travel down the path into the woods below. Another debris pile accumulated on the far side on another lower angle bench like the one I was on. I was buried to my waist but hadn’t budged from where I dug in. The debris set up like concrete. Benny and Ben where quickly coming into view having heard my radio call.
“I’m not hurt, but I’m buried to my waist. I’m going to need help getting dug out”.
Ben quickly scanned above me and determined there was little risk of another slide and both of them skied over to me and started digging. It took about 5 minutes to free me as my skis were still on. It took Ben A. saying “remote trigger” for it to really click. My first thought when I saw the slope fail was it was either a natural avalanche, which makes no sense given the conditions and avalanche bulletin for the day, or another skier above had triggered the slope (there was no one else in our immediate area).
I had remotely triggered this avalanche from low angle terrain 200 feet below the crown line… the flanks however were quite long with the looker’s right hand flank extending to a point about 50 feet above me. This was a big slab. Using Caltopo, my GPS tracks, and what we saw after the avalanche I estimate the slide ran about 750 feet while descending about 385. The crown line was estimated to be 460 feet across, and up to a meter deep at it’s thickest, with most of it being between 15 and 30 cm. Slope angle at the crown was estimated to be 38-40 degrees.
We transitioned back to skinning and made a plan to exit close to our descent track and well spaced out. We gained the ridge and made our way over to our exit route, Monroe Brook. Once in the upper gully we found a few inches of unconsolidated powder on a firm crust and made some enjoyable but sometimes variable turns down the run short pitching at first then leap-frogging our way down to the exit. Soon after getting back into the trees we heard a helicopter overhead traveling west to east. Given the conditions of the day we suspected this was from an avalanche involvement and hoped for the best. We had a lot of friends all over the mountain today.
Back at the parking lot we started debriefing.
So what happened?
As I mentioned at the start of this my radar was up based on our group make-up.
Experienced, Proficient, Fit, Educated
For a three person team I couldn’t ask for better ski partners. I also think three person teams are ideal when going after the type of objectives we had on our agenda this day.
We made some good calls. We agreed that if we had skied the Franklin gully it was “likely” we would have triggered it. There may be slight disagreement on how “escape-able” this path would be if it did go. There was talk of a belayed ski cut being the wrong choice considering we felt it was “likely” to slide and would leave behind a firm no fall type bed surface. The fact I thought about a helicopter being possible at the bottom of the run was clear evidence we needed to scale back, and we did.
From that point on we avoided defined avalanche paths. We kept the angle pretty low. We committed to option B, and recognized the snow was not worth the effort, and switched to option C.
We ruled out Double Barrel as it has a very similar aspect/elevation/angle to the Franklin run that we had already turned our backs on. Our final option was in between the aspect that was a southeast aspect so we were actively avoiding the most likely east aspects. While we witnessed a size-able skier triggered slide on a nearby south aspect I believe we felt this relatively lower angle southeast aspect could be managed.
What would I do differently?
When Ben suggested we transition and head out I could have jumped on board there. I was enticed to get a few more turns in despite my evening commitments keeping me on the tighter timeline. While I didn’t want to ski the tight ski shot on a firm bed surface I could have posted up and let the Benny and Ben get their steeper turns in. I traversed about 100 feet to the right to access open lower angled terrain and dropped just out of sight of my partners before triggering the slope above me.
I don’t think I could have escaped given the terrain even through I was only on the edge of the path that ran. If I had gone past this tree without noticing the slide I would have been carried down the slope a couple hundred feet unless I hit a tree. We did not take the time to descend to the debris but without any doubt it was enough to completely bury someone. The lower angle bench I was on kept things less violent than being in the middle of the path would have been.
“This could have easily happened to any of us” says Ben.
“If you travel enough in avalanche terrain you are going to find avalanches” says Benny.
While I appreciate the affirmations I find it difficult to accept I made this mistake. Yes this could have happened to anyone. Hind-sight is a wonderful thing to hammer on from an armchair. Any time there is an incident, big or small, we need to learn from it. Some of my bullet points of lessons learned:
You can remotely trigger a wind slab. I’ve known this is possible, but our avalanche problems and incidents in the east are almost always triggered from on the slab itself.
You need to stay in visual contact. We had eyes on each other the entire day and broke that safe travel practice right at the end of our run.
Radios are king. While they might have heard me if I yelled “avalanche” being able to convey what was happening clearly and quickly, then check back in after the avalanche and know they got the message was so reassuring.
Travel with people you trust and have your back. I couldn’t have asked for two better ski partners to tour with this day!
Bringing this whole experience into a whole other light is learning on the drive home that a solo skier less than two miles away was buried and injured in an avalanche. Reports then came in that stated that the victim died on scene after vigorous CPR attempts were made to revive him (he was estimated to be buried over an hour).
Benny was worried it was a friend of his who hadn’t checked in yet and was suspected of touring in the area of the incident. Then, after 10 PM, I receive a text from Benny. With a heavy heart we learned the victim was indeed his friend. I’ll leave any other details or speculation until after the Mount Washington Avalanche Center releases their press release and accident report.
I’m going to finish this long narrative with a personal thank you to everyone who has reached out to me with words of encouragement and support. News travels incredibly fast these days and our back-country ski community is pretty small and close-knit. We are all connected with only a degree or three of separation.
I also share this personal story as timely as possible as we move into a busy couple of weeks on Mount Washington that historically are “stable” by Mount Washington standards. This winter has been extraordinary in snowfall amounts and late season cold temperatures. The general Spring skiing crowd needs to be aware that this is not a typical April on Washington by any means. Heads on a swivel, read the avalanche bulletin, don’t travel solo in high consequence terrain with out a clear understanding of what the outcome may be.
My thoughts and prayers are with the victims family and his friends, especially my close friend, ski partner, and fellow avalanche educator, Benny, who lost a touring partner and friend on a day when despite the instabilities and risk we were all out doing what we loved. RIP Nicholas Benedix.