As usual New Year’s Eve has snuck up on me with uncanny stealth. My general lack of calendar awareness certainly helped with my last minute realization that another year has gone by. What hasn’t gone unnoticed is how amazing this year was and I’d like to share some of that here.
Without a doubt the biggest change of the year was leaving Eastern Mountain Sports after 24 years of service. Anyone close to me knows that this decision at the end of 2016 was one of the toughest I’ve ever had to make. Leaving a big corporation to work for a small, relatively young, guide service felt risky and uncertain. However within weeks of working for Northeast Mountaineering I discovered that the owners, Corey and Brett, had created a culture that celebrated mountain life, guiding, stewardship and social responsibility. It was the perfect place for me to land after a seemingly major career move.
Every guide and ambassador I would meet and get to know over my first year working for NEM seemed to share the best possible qualities you’d want in a co-worker, climbing partner, or friend. The encouragement, support, and positive stoke at just about every turn has made this past year as memorable as it is.
Despite being the first year that Northeast Mountaineering had an in-house avalanche course program we hit close to 100% capacity in the 9 courses we ran. A great snow year allowed us to do a ton of actual ski touring. Along with my excellent co-instructor Benny we had classes tour full length routes in Huntington and Tuckerman Ravines, Gulf of Slides, Ammonoosuc Ravine, and Monroe Brook. Personal highlights of the season were investigating the extent of the historic Gulf of Slides avalanche, seeing my first legit Rutschblock 2 result, and meeting the awe-inspiring Vern Tejas who observed and contributed to one of our mid-winter courses.
2017 was a solid year for my personal ice climbing. I was able to climb more Grade 4 and Grade 5 routes then I’ve been able to get on in the last few years, partially due to fatherhood and a really busy avalanche course schedule. By the end of the season I felt I was climbing as well as I was pre-parenthood, and that accomplishment felt pretty darn good. I have a few lofty goals for 2018 and can’t wait to get after them (in-between teaching avalanche courses every weekend and family life!)
Skiing in Iceland
In April my first international trip in about a decade brought me to the beautiful country of Iceland where I spent just over a week touring and experiencing this amazing place with one of the best groups of people I could ever hope to spend time with. Visiting this country re-kindled my desire to travel after feeling somewhat sedated after experiencing so much of the world in my early twenties and I am really looking forward to repeated trips back there starting with teaching an avalanche course there this March!
Cannon, Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle speed climb, Rumney, and a half dozen “Wednesday Sendsday’s” have re-ignited my passion for rock climbing that has always been there since I first tied into a rope in 1994, but getting to see others close to me fall in love with this sport on an almost weekly basis has fueled my desire to train and challenge myself to higher levels of performance above what my typical guiding requirements demanded.
In July I was able to fulfill a climbing trip dream I’ve had for over ten years by guiding on Mount Shuksan and Forbidden Peak and climbing Rainer with a friend and intern guide, Peter Brandon. This trip is something I’ve been training clients for for so many years and to get to spend time in this terrain with so many cool people was pretty much the greatest opportunity I have had second to becoming a father in the last 20 years. Seriously mind-blowing conditions, weather, and climbing made this a life time memory for me.
I am super excited to join DPS Skis, Ortovox, and Revo for a second year of ambassadorship. I still wonder how I was lucky enough to hook up with these amazing brands. I can go into product details in reviews and debate minutia fabric issues until the end of the internet but without any shame I can say these three companies “get it”. They make stuff that people like me want. Cutting edge ski design, forward thinking avalanche safety gear, virtually unmatched clothing design, and best eye wear, sunglasses and goggles, I have ever experienced. If you want top-notch gear, have a look!
It’s been a fantastic year to blog and share these adventures along with reviewing gear for some of the best companies out there. I love sharing my experiences and opinions and really want to focus on more travel guides, in-depth gear reviews, and how-to skill videos this upcoming year. If there is one thing I’m certain about it’s I love sharing my passion with everyone that shares these feelings in the mountains. Spending time in these places with good people is so vital to our sanity, and blogging gives me a slight escape when I’m not able to just head out the door on my next mountain adventure.
I’ve met quite a few readers in person over the past year. I’m so grateful for those of you who visit here, ask questions, post comments, click “like”, share, or even just mention briefly at the coffee shop you are happy with the boots you bought from my review. Keeping this blog going is a fantastic mix of fun, stress, guilt, reward, doubt, and confirmation.
I wish you all a fantastic 2018 and hope you have some amazing mountain adventures this year. I want to thank my family, especially my wife, for helping me experience my own adventures while still raising a family.
I hope to see you all out in the mountains soon shredding, sending, and tapping on shovels (and possibly tossing back a post epic pint at The Moat).
Last week I caught a program on NHPR’s Exchange centered on this high profile 2015 White Mountain climber fatality. My connection to this story started with a Mountain Rescue Service call-out on the late afternoon of February 15th, 2015 when I was driving home from teaching an AIARE Avalanche Course. My commitments to the on-going course would prevent me from responding to the call-out but I would follow the rescue attempt carefully over the next 48 hours and shortly after post this blog post about the outcome and my initial thoughts.
I received the book from Amazon this past Monday and by Thursday I had carved out enough time to read it cover to cover. I want to dive into a bit more detail about this take on the well publicized story rather than just say this is a “must read”.
The author, Ty Gagne, points out this particular rescue attempt gathered a lot of media attention for multiple reasons. First there was the real-time media engagement of an active search and rescue attempt occurring during a well forecasted “perfect storm.” Second was the victim seemed to not fit the typical “flat-lander” stereo-type that causes some in the north country to quickly cast blame on those who end up floundering a bit in the mountains. She was equipped with high end gear and clothing and multiple electronic safety devices… so what went wrong?
In an eloquent and respectful way Ty manages to walk us through Kate’s back-ground, planning, and finally execution of what would be Kate’s last mountain adventure. Having summited a few of the tallest peaks in the world many perceived she had a lot of experience, however through careful retrospection it becomes clear that her previous mountain achievements were mostly guided ventures, allowing someone with more experience and local knowledge to make critical go/no go decisions. For all intents and purposes it appears this was her first non-guided high risk adventure…yet as Ty documents she was quite meticulous about her planning.
Much of this book however was not actually about Kate but about those who work tirelessly on search and rescue. Some are paid state employees while most are volunteers from all walks of life. Ty is able to describe multiple timelines from these heroes and their own struggles while Kate’s epic unfolds in a clear and engaging manner from start to sad finish. This re-telling from multiple perspectives is well done but he goes beyond simply just saying what happened when and to whom…
Throughout the book Ty instructs the reader on the incredibly complex topic of “risk management”. This should be easy for Ty as his career is in corporate risk management, but the way he converts high risk corporate strategy to what we do in the mountains is quite amicable. He draws upon lessons from multiple walks of life from high stakes corporate decisions to the most current recreational avalanche safety and mitigation theory. The reader is left with no choice but to think more intentionally about how they manage their own risk whether planning a solo hike in the White Mountains or a day cragging with friends, we are all left with the reminder that nature is indifferent in her response to our often very personal decisions.
Ty has done an excellent job researching and presenting this tragic event in a very respectful yet honest manner. For those who have read and enjoyed the acclaimed “Not Without Peril” this is another “must read” for your library. We can all learn something from Kate’s story and Ty’s re-telling of it is a powerful and fitting tribute to her final mountain adventure.
A tragic rock climber fatality this past weekend at a crag in Vermont has motivated this post. The exact events leading up to the accident are still not public but what is clear is the young woman fell 90 feet while trying to descend, presumably while being lowered.
UPDATE 9/22/2017: An official summary of the accident has been posted from the VT Search & Rescue Coordinator, Vermont Dept. of Public Safety. I now include it here before my original post below:
Following is a summary of the incident.
Three climbers (#1, #2, #3) were finishing up their day top roping on Harvest Moon. Climber #1 was making the final ascent of the day. Both #2 and #3 believed that the plan was for #1 to ascend, clean the anchor, and rappel down. The actual wording of this conversation is not entirely clear. #2 remembers #1 saying she would “probably” rappel, but “might” be lowered. #3 only remembers the use of the term “rappel”.
Climber #1 finished the climb, called “off belay” and #2 removed the belay and took their harness off believing that #1 would clean the anchor then rappel down. About 5 minutes later #1 called “are you ready to lower?”. Both #2 and #3 shouted “no” back, and #2 rushed to put their harness back on. Less than a minute later Climber #1 was observed in an uncontrolled fall down the face which she did not survive. She was tied into her harness and the rope was threaded through the bolts at the top anchor, with the free end ending up just a few inches above the ground.
Further investigation discovered that climber #1 did not have a rappel device on her harness. It was later found to have been in a pile of gear at the base of the climb.
The most likely scenario is the climber #1 had intended to rappel after cleaning the anchor, but discovered that she had left her ATC behind. The communication of this change to a different plan was not clear. While it seems most likely that #1 did not clearly hear the “no” and “no- wait” shouts from #2 and #3 and leaned back expecting to be lowered, it cannot be ruled out that she slipped or tripped while waiting for the lower or perhaps tried to move closer to the edge to improve communication. There is simply no way to know for certain whether #1 was expecting to be lowered at the time of the accident, or unintentionally tripped or fell while waiting to be lowered.
It seems lowering/rappelling accidents are on the rise. The 2013 Accidents in NorthAmerican Mountaineering publication looked at lowering accidents from the previous 10 years and determined 34% where due to belayer error and/or miscommunication. During 2016 we had 24 accidents caused by rappelling and lowering errors. Twice this past week I witnessed miscommunication between belayers and climbers at Rumney Rocks, NH that almost resulted in a climber being taken off belay when they were still climbing.
I believe our standard “belay check” that we perform before climbing could be improved in an effort to reduce a large amount of similar accidents.
Let’s start by taking a look at the standard belay check most climbers perform before climbing. The rope is stacked and the climber is ready to leave the ground, whether it be on lead or top-rope. The climber looks at the belayer and asks…
The belayer, before responding, checks to make sure the climber’s harness is on properly, looks closely at the climber’s tie-in knot to make sure it is tied correctly and in the proper place on the harness, then checks that the belay device is installed on the rope correctly, and that the belay system is closed (knot or tied-in to the other end of the rope). At this point the belayer signals with…
From this point on the climber is free to ascend whether leading or top-roping with the belayer providing critical security should the climber fall.
The American Alpine Club has produced a quality video demonstrating these steps as part of the “Universal Belay Standard”. I’ve embedded their video below to start at this belay check.
But every year climbers die or get seriously injured when the belay gets dis-mantled when the climber is at the top of the route.
Let’s look at how this has can occur and how we can might best mitigate the risk.
Likely the most common factor is misinterpretation of what is happening when the climber gets to the top of the climb and needs to break down the team’s personal gear before being lowered or rappelling off of fixed gear. Essentially the climber arrives at the anchor and signals to the belayer. The belayer interprets this signal to mean the climber no longer needs a belay, and dismantles the system. The climber, expecting to be lowered, leans back on the rope and soon finds themselves falling.
When the climber arrives at the anchor they signal with a non-standard signal that could have multiple interpretations. I often teach students that “OK” is a dangerous word in climbing. It can mean so many things and undoubtedly has lead to belayers believing one thing while the climber meant something else. Does OK mean you are in-direct to the anchor? Does it mean you are hiking down? Setting up a rappel?
First we need to add a final step to our belay check when climbing in a single-pitch environment. Essentially our belay check should look like this.
“On Belay?” – climber
“Belay on.” – belayer
“What are you going to do at the top?” – belayer
“I’m planning to have you lower me through the fixed gear”- climber
“I’m planning to go in direct, call off belay, and rig to rappel” – climber
“I’m going to come off belay toss the rope down and hike back down” – climber
This communication, referred to as an “action plan” by the AAC, prior to leaving the ground would certainly help prevent many of the close calls and likely some of the serious accidents that occur. It is much easier to communicate with your partner during the belay check then when you are 90 feet above them at the anchor.
Stick to standard commands. “On belay, take, tension, slack, lower, off belay”. At busy crags use names and space out the sylables to be clearly understood by your belayer.
“John…. Off…… Belay” -climber
As a belayer make sure the command you heard was from your partner.
“Jane… Was… That… You?”- belayer
“John…. Yes…. Off….. Belay” – climber
When the option exists chose to be lowered over rappelling. Lowering is often faster than setting up a rappel and argue-ably safer as the climber never needs to come off belay. The belayer knows the belay must stay intact until the climber is back on the ground. The AAC does a great job of explaining this skill here and in this video:
Climbing IS dangerous. Even with all the high quality safety gear and available training and knowledge we will continue to see tragic loss of life to seemingly easily preventable accidents. But…
We can see a reduction in accidents if we continually challenge ourselves and the climbing community at large to make small improvements in our methodology. Make sharing your “action plan” part of every belay check!
Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 2013, pages 9-12
Accidents in North American Climbing, 2016, page 125
While it has been a little quiet here since the winter guiding season wound down I’ve been quite busy on numerous projects that you might be interested in. The first of which is researching and writing an article for an adventure magazine launching this summer, Wild Northeast.
The hook of this piece is highlighting some of the outstanding but less visited slab climbing destinations in the White Mountains.
Researching these destinations often times requires a bit of bushwhacking, which synchronizes well with another assignment I am working on, reviewing the latest hand-held and watch based GPS devices for the Gear Institute as their new “GPS Expert Tester”.
Over the last few years of blogging I have discovered one of my favorite things to do is review outdoor gear in a detailed and hopefully constructive way and I’m excited to be able to do this in a formal capacity with GI. I’m testing multiple models from Magellan, Suunto, and Garmin with results posting in July.
While I plan to keep posting trip reports and photos from each guided day these reviews seem to be what has really driven an increase in traffic to this blog. Last year saw huge growth in readership and this year has already reached half of last years visitation.
I want to first thank my readers and followers on WordPress, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It is because of you all that companies are willing to support my blogging through product demos, so THANK YOU!
A second big shout out to all the companies that have supported this endeavor with product demos:
Looking ahead at the next month while there won’t be too much guiding until summer I’ll be spending a lot of time in the field for product testing. I’ll run a few more gear giveaways (Congrats to Todd R for winning the last contest!), so if you want to hear about some outback climbing destinations or some of the newest outdoor gear on the market please follow me on one (or all) of these channels!
A climber triggered an avalanche that caught and carried 4 climbers and 1 skier 800 feet down a 45 degree slope only a few feet a way from our class. I’m sure I’m still processing the day and while some might suggest I decompress a day or two before digging into the events leading up to the incident I feel the sooner I sit down and write about the incident from my perspective the more accurate that assessment will be. So here we go.
On Friday 1/15/16 we started our second AIARE course of the season. Ironically before our students arrived my co-instructor Mike & I debated the fact that the Mount Washington Avalanche Center had not yet started using the 5-scale Danger Rating system, and on a holiday weekend with a Nor’Easter bearing down I was concerned about mountain travelers without any formal avalanche education assuming “General Advisory = No problem”.
To the MWAC defense, the bold “Please remember that avalanche activity may occur before the issuance of a 5-scale danger rating forecast. As always, make your own snow stability assessments when traveling in avalanche terrain.” disclaimer should be sufficient, but my opinion was that a formal rating for specific terrain features and colored slat boards “might” help those with limited knowledge and mountain sense make better choices. I’ll expand on that at the end of this post…
Our first day was a bit heavy in the classroom with some companion rescue practice outside in the afternoon. While we covered some of the basics of the avalanche phenomenon our first real Nor’Easter of the season was getting ready to help our winter snow pack materialize on our 2nd day:
We spent some time on the 2nd day (yesterday) up in Crawford Notch previewing avalanche terrain and learning about making quality weather, snow pack, and avalanche observations:
On our 3rd day we met at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Storm totals didn’t quite reach the 6-14 inches forecasted, and we only received 5.2″ at the summit from this system. Regardless of the less than expected snow totals we observed active wind loading on our drive to the trail-head:
During our trip planning session we identified The Chute & Left Gully as potential field locations, and areas that might also offer a few good turns.
AM Trip Planning Session
The USFS Snow Rangers had posted a General Bulletin. Two snippets I’ll highlight here for some foreshadowing:
“Many of you may be searching for these handful of locations to pursue your sport rather than the brush and rock that dominate the Ravines. If this is you, expect instability until proven otherwise by your stability assessments… recognize this holiday weekend will have many others out and about that could be potential triggers above you.”
We split into two tour groups of 7 each and made our way up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. My group arrived at Hermit Lake at 1050, a bit before our 2nd group. We made a quick weather observation then continued up to the floor of the ravine arriving below Lunch rocks at 1150.
Before our arrival USFS Snow Rangers had made some observations in the ravine and posted an update in “The Pit” that I wouldn’t see until later. A pic from their blog post:
In their update they reported a small skier triggered avalanche to the right of our intended destination:
“a report of another small avalanche triggered by a skier. This was in the area we call “Chicken Rock Gully,”…The party triggered the slide near the rocks at the top of this slope. They reported that it was about 4-6″ deep, 40′ wide x 50′ long, and ran down to the bottom of Lunch Rocks.”
This was prior to our arrival at 1150 and we were not aware of it until much later in the day. We observed a few snowboarders ascending and descending the snowfield in The Sluice in the vicinity of the Summer Hiking Trail. Seeing debris below The Chute (and no one in the area) we decided to set a skin track up towards that area.
Our climbers traveled on consolidated surfaces and got to see some of the intact blocks of wind slab from yesterdays natural avalanche cycle:
Our estimated skin track:
Right before we took our skis off to kick steps up the final stretch to our destination a student asked if it was ok we had 3 of our group in the direct line of the obvious avalanche path with a pilllow of wind slab just above us. We discussed how the lack of a natural or human trigger made our position a reasonable choice. No one was above us and we could see all active loading had ceased.
After a hand shear at the yellow dot I committed us to the small 43 degree slope to climbers left of the choke on The Chute (pink line below small crown line). A 2 person Canadian party (represented in orange) punched through. A party of 3, represented in green, held back a minute before two started climbing up through the choke point.
The two Canadians pushed through the choke. Two of the three party team fell in behind them. I had just finished measuring the slope angle at our intended pit location:
A minute or two later I heard a rumble and glanced up to the choke to see a size-able amount of snow come flying by. I yelled “Avalanche” multiple times as I tried to keep a visual on the 2 climbers I was able to make out in the fast moving slide. I had two students to my right, who were still 10-15 feet from the mass of snow that had just came blasting down the gully. As much as I’ve practiced this over the last 14 years I can say there is a lot of truth in the statement “practice never ends”.
My class was safe, positioned outside the fall line of this avalanche, but having just noted a solo skier approaching from below, I was sure at least 4 people had taken a ride, and as the powder cloud settled my biggest fear was someone had been buried with no beacon on (not wearing beacons in avalanche terrain on Mount Washington is an issue I won’t get into here, but needs addressing).
I radioed Mike who had just passed Connection Cache. After conveying some of my first impressions he continued up with his portion of the class to provide assistance. Ben, a former student and the only person not caught from the party of 3, indicated he would respond with us, and we all switched to “search mode” on our beacons. A visual search quickly located 4 people on the surface, and a 5th moments later as we made our descent. Uncertain if only 5 were caught we carried out a quick signal search on the debris field, which I estimated was 40 meters wide by 100 meters long.
As we reached the toe of the debris it was only slightly comforting that we hadn’t picked up any signals. None of the 5 people carried by the avalanche had beacons on. The two climbers from the party of 3 had ended up high in the debris and not taken the full ride. While they reported fruitless attempts at self-arrest and escape they were lucky to be pushed off to the skier’s right of the main slide. The other three ended up very low in the debris, carried pretty far down into the bushes that hadn’t been reached yet by the avalanche cycle yesterday.
The first two we reached was one of the French Canadians and Androscroggin Search and Rescue Member Corey Swartz (who was caught & carried but uninjured). Corey was providing first aid and my student Joe contributed some first aid supplies.
I made contact with the far left victim, the solo skier who was hit far down in the run out by the avalanche, who was being assisted by the other Canadian. He had an obvious leg injury but with the help of a partner was trying to exit the debris field. We advised that stabilization would be best as USFS Rangers were in route, and they elected to crawl/drag down to flatter terrain.
I sent Joe to the floor of the ravine to communicate with the rest of our class and assist with the initial packaging of the injured climber then returned back to my group who had been standing by with shovels & probes in case an extrication was required.
We returned to our high point to collect our skis and I grabbed a shot of the crown from the right side of “the choke”.
The Canadians had climbed through the fresh crown line from yesterday’s cycle and had climbed about 15 feet higher on the “hang fire” from the wind slab before the remaining slab released and dragged them down, catching the 2 climbers from the 3 person team that had just entered the choke point.
We descended to the floor just as the more seriously injured patient was littered down the Tuck’s trail with two of my students and my co-instructor Mike, eventually to be evacuated by USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane by snowmobile.
After a bit of discussion at the floor of the ravine we descended to Hermit Lake to regroup with the two who assisted with the patient transfer to Hermit Lake and we descend the Sherburne ski trail together.
We then debriefed the course and incident before parting ways. And then I got to spend some solo time thinking about our day.
So what happened? Well, the first thing is recognizing we have the advantage of hind-sight. We could Monday morning quarter-back the Patriots close win last night as well as this incident. Knowing almost nothing about football, and a bit about snow, I’ll take a stab at what happened here based on everything I heard, saw, and assumed, today (corrections from witnesses welcome).
Ben reported talking to the Canadians earlier in the day and that they said their intention was to summit Mount Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. This is disturbing, as this was clear in the bulletin that had been posted yesterday:
“There may also be a small number of you that plan on trying to follow the Tuckerman and Huntington summer trails through each Ravine. This is not a good idea as they both run through some snowfields that harbor potential hazards. Save the summer trails for summer.” -MWAC
I would like to say that everyone knows that the Summer/Winter Lionshead Trail is the preferred method of ascending Mount Washington from the east in the Winter.
I would like to say that.
“Blue Sky Syndrome”
It was absolutely bluebird up there today. While temps in the ravine were around -9c (16F) there was almost no wind, so it was a really enjoyable place to be…
At this point I am convinced the two who triggered the avalanche, who had stated they had planned to climb up the ravine via the “trail” decided to follow my group, and the group of three, because;
A) It looked like we knew what we were doing
B) It looked like a fun ascent line
I can’t think of any other reason why they would have deviated from their previously stated intention.
“Familiarity” and “Experienced”
Ben’s group, having talked with USFS Snow Rangers, had decided they would investigate the crown from yesterdays natural avalanche but not travel above it. They recognized the risk, to an extent. Members of that party had stated earlier in the AM that avalanche gear would not be needed as it was “early season/general bulletin”.
This did not sit well, rightfully so, with Ben, who was the only member wearing a beacon and carrying rescue gear when his two partners were swept past him in a size-able avalanche.
I estimated the avalanche to be R3 (40-60% of path) and D2.5 (easily bury or kill a person). It’s remarkable to me that out of 5 people carried only 1 was partially buried and only two received notable injuries. Had anyone been buried under the snow without a beacon on it would have been likely for this to have been an avalanche fatality, and not an “incident”.
This incident, as most “first of the season” incidents usually are, should serve as a wake up call to both those with considerable snow sense, and those who know they need to gain some. Winter came a bit late, but avalanche season has arrived.
Let’s preference this discussion with the acknowledgement that this is a very opinionated and multi-faceted topic. My own opinions in the last 10 years have swung the pendulum from “Absolutely not” to “Well… maybe”. In this post I attempt to debunk some of the outdated info that still permeates many experienced wilderness travelers opinions and offer a balanced modern look at the Smartphone/Dedicated GPS argument.
First we need to get some very serious disclaimers out of the way.
No technology, whether it be the greatest new iPhone or the most rugged time tested handheld GPS, should replace a solid understanding of navigating with map & compass. This, and supplemental “Improvised/Survival Navigation” skills, is sadly a dying art, and one of the main reasons I created an 8 hour Wilderness Navigation course to help people re-discover or hone these base-line skills. If plotting a bearing on a map and correcting for magnetic declination scares you, you should start here.
If you are like me though, and never head into the mountains without a paper map & compass but like to supplement your options by creating track logs, routes, and way-points, then you should read on and discover the advantages and disadvantages smartphone navigation.
Let’s start with one of the biggest arguments against smartphone navigation.
When I first tried using a smartphone as a primary navigation tool it was with the iPhone 4. I had downloaded a $5 GPS app that seemed to magically turn my phone into a $200 handheld GPS. It only took about 2 hours on the trail to realize that battery life was a big concern with smartphone GPS use. I went from 100% to 23% in only a few hours.
Fast forward to today. It’s all about “power management”. Updates to the iPhone iOS now allow the GPS chip to function even when the phone is in airplane mode!
I used to shut off WiFi and blue-tooth to conserve juice but going into airplane mode is the best way to save battery power. The biggest power draw on the phone’s battery when is attempting to locate cell towers to provide 3G, 4G, LTE style service. This constant “searching for a signal” kills batteries very quickly.
If you switch to airplane mode that search doesn’t happen. Your battery life is extended ten-fold. I’ve GPS’d 8 hour treks in cell free zones and arrived back at the car with more than 80% of my juice left. Switching airplane mode on and off can be done on the iPhone with a swipe up and one button press:
This strategy has eliminated my own need to carry extra battery power on day-trips. That being said, it’s never a bad idea to have a little extra “ammunition”. For that there are countless options on the marked for portable re-charging devices. I recently picked up a re-charger on Amazon for $20 that seems to pack a huge punch in a size smaller than a pack of cigarettes. Since I haven’t fully tested it yet I won’t mention the details of it here yet, but I will mention the one re-charger I have used with great success. The Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus.
This little device has 4 rechargeable AA batteries inside. It’s functionality is incredibly simple. It charges at home by plugging into any USB port. I can use it to re-charge my iPhone from dead, “1-3 times”. In my personal testing I would say it probably will charge a dead iPhone in normal temperatures 1.5 times. But it also has a usu-able LED flashlight (consider it a backup to your headlamp you won’t forget at home), and for extended trips, can be recharged with solar power when used with one of their solar panels.
The AA batteries are removable so you could use this for headlamps, radios, avalanche beacons, anything that requires AA batteries to operate (can be outfitted to charge AAA too).
So to recap the “battery dies too quick” argument in the Smartphone vrs. Handheld debate: Use airplane mode and if heading out for more than a day carry a recharger.
EDIT 12/9/15: Comments related to battery life have brought up to issues I’d like to add here.
Screen Use. It’s true if you leave your screen on battery life will be greatly reduced. Since I only occasionally refer to the device on an “as needed” basis, this has little effect on my battery drain. If you are needing to constantly stare at the phone to try to orientate yourself you have missed some opportunities during your trip planning session.
Cold Weather. It was pointed out that sub-arctic temperatures can make a phone go from 100% to zero in minutes when exposed to harsh low digits. This is a very valid point. I combat this by carrying my phone in an inner zippered chest pocket or on more moderate days a zippered hip pocket. It will get very humid in these inner layers so the water-resistent (or proof) case is very important here. When I need to get a quick location update I do it keeping the phone very close to my body, pretty much within inches of my face. When it is that cold out I’ll have a large insulated jacket on with a big hood, and I can shelter the phone from massive heat loss for a minute while I orientate myself.
EDIT 1/13/2016: After multiple excursions in sub 20F temps with moderate wind chills I must concur a dedicated handheld GPS is needed for reliability in these temps. The phone battery simply can’t withstand these temps long enough to even get a quick location fix. For real winter navigation stick with a dedicated hand-held with AA Lithium batteries. For the other three seasons read on!
Anyone who has ever experienced the sickening feeling of picking up there multi-hundred dollar device off the ground to see the screen look like this knows what I am about to address. Durability. A “naked” iPhone is a very vulnerable target. It took me two cracked iPhone screens to realize I needed protection. The first one happened when I leaned against a boulder after climbing a long multi-pitch rock climb and heard the crack in my right hip pocket. The second time happened when I removed my protective case then fumbled the phone for a short 3 foot drop to a hardwood floor.
There is no arguing that a “naked” iPhone is heart ache waiting to happen. Luckily the industry has responded with more than half a dozen solutions. I am currently testing two, and finding they are both quite bomber protection for my investment.
Both cases have high scores in drop protection but the Thule option also boasts a “IP68” waterproof rating. Extra insurance during that drippy ice climb or that bathroom fumble. I’ll review both cases in more detail later this winter when I have had adequate field time.
So to recap “Smartphones are not durable enough”… you’re right, but after market cases can make them contenders.
There’s a lot of reading out there regarding this issue, one of which is a kinda-cool plotting study done by a Canadian Search & Rescue member. While I won’t argue that an external antennae will squeak you out a couple more meters of accuracy for all intensive purposes the newest GPS chips, like the one in the iPhone 5 or higher, are more than enough accurate for navigational purposes. Just check out this cool gif from this post:
No matter what device is used in the above test, you are going to find your tent in a whiteout.
So to recap “Smartphone GPS is not accurate enough”- current iOS & iPhone 5 or later definitely are.
Well we are running out of negatives to using a newer smartphone for wilderness navigation. Let’s look at some additional considerations that are swaying me to use this as my exclusive GPS device:
Let’s compare some key features from this top of the line dedicated handheld model, the Garmin Montana 680t, to the iPhone 6s+.
I’ll be honest the biggest deciding factor for me to upgrade to the iPhone 6S Plus was the huge screen. Not only has it been awesome for navigation but this is my home “tablet” as well for streaming TV, email, etc. Many people have asked if I regret the size and I honestly say I could never go back. Anyways let’s look at the facts rather than my opinion in relation to screen size & resolution:
Garmin 680t: 2″ x 3.5″ ; 4″ diag (7 sq. in. viewing space)
iPhone 6s Plus: 4.75″ x 2.75″; 5.5″ diag (13.06 sq. in. viewing space)
The iPhone 6s Plus has almost twice the amount of viewing space!
Garmin 680t: 272 x 480 pixels (130560 pixels)
iPhone 6s Plus: 1920 x 1080 pixels (2073600 pixels)
The iPhone 6s Plus has more than 6 times the resolution!
There’s really no arguing this point. Viewing USGS topo maps, satellite imagery, etc., is all much more beautiful on a modern high quality smartphone than any dedicated recreation handheld GPS on the market.
Weight becomes a virtual tie when you factor in a waterproof case
The comparison between the two is becoming more and more unfair. We haven’t even touched on the photo and video capabilities of the newest iPhone, and I won’t bother as they put any photo/video capabilities of any handheld GPS to shame.
What are we missing?
Oh! Mapping software! Smartphones don’t have remove-able data cards for importing all that great topographic information! Unfortunately the need for purchasing multiple SD cards to store topo info from various sources is becoming a thing of the past. Did I say unfortunately? I meant fortunately.
With websites like CalTopo and apps like ViewRanger that let you store maps for offline use and Avenza PDF Reader that lets you create and upload custom maps that are as good, or often much better, than anything that has been available on the market, the era of needing remove-able SD cards and dozens of DVDs with regional maps has come to an end. I provide some information on how to do this in my last blog post here.
So to sum it all up, I am all in. Smartphone Wilderness Navigation is here, and when approached the right way, can be as reliable as any handheld GPS ever was. That statement comes with a very big grain of salt. If you rely on technology, over basic understanding of wilderness navigation, when every battery is spent, every LCD screen is frozen, and water crept into your fancy protective case… you will eventually need a rescue. But if you have that foundation of navigational knowledge, then Smartphone GPS has reached a level of dependability that can replace the need for dedicated handheld GPS units.
There. I said it. Please join the discussion below!