How to: Surviving “Bug Season”

After a long snowy winter many climbers and hikers are chomping at the chance to get on some dry Spring rock and trail. Unfortunately right around this time many insects are chomping at the chance to chomp on us! Namely:

Black-flies

Gnats

Mosquitoes

Ticks

Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody Review
Black flies try to fly away with my climbing partner Tom on White Ledge in Albany, NH. How many black flies can you count?

In this post I’d like to share some of my favorite strategies to keep the dreaded “bug season” from keeping you from enjoying what it is you do in the mountains! To combat these four little buggers we will use a four-pronged approach! First…


Clothing

Step 1: The first line of defense should be clothing. Everyone knows long-sleeves and pants are preferable for bug protection but they seem so hot when the temperature and humidity is high right? Well some long-sleeve options actually feel cooler than going shirtless! Here’s my current favorite tops when dealing with an onslaught of bloodthirsty insects and warm temps!

Patagonia Sunshade Technical Hoody
The Patagonia Sunshade Technical Hoody

Patagonia Sunshade Technical Hoody (Women’s Here)

I have a detailed review of this staple of my outdoor clothing kit here, but the gist of it is every New England climber (and possibly every climber/traveler everywhere) should own this piece. Solid UPF protection and bug protection in a super comfy hoodie. Win win win.


Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody Review

Black Diamond Alpine Start Hooded Jacket (Women’s Here)

This ultralight ultra-breathable hooded “wind-shirt” is an excellent physical barrier for Cannon Cliff’s renowned alpine tough black-flies. You can see my detailed review of this piece here.

As for pant protection there are a ton of solid choices out there so a lot of it comes down to personal preference/style. I’m a fan of the Black Diamond Modernist Rock Pants but there are so many good options out there as long as you treat them with Step 2:


Permethrin

rock climbing bug protection

Step 2: I’ve used this stuff on my clothes from Peru to Okinawa to my home-state of New Hampshire with a season blatantly called “bug season” and I’m 100% convinced it is the most effective and safe option for true bug protection. You can Goggle all the research in the world on this product but I’ll just leave the highlights here:

  1. It is for clothing/gear/shoes… not skin.
  2. It dries in a few hours after treating and is then 100% safe to humans, no “leaching” into your sweaty skin
  3. It lasts for weeks even with washing (I only treat my “bug season” outfit once a year each Spring)
  4. While safe for almost all mammals it is not safe with cats for some reason. Do not spray your cat with this.

Pro-tip: treat your approach/hiking shoes and you will likely never find a tick crawling up your leg unless the grass you walk through is higher than your shoes. Treat your hiking pants and shirt and wade through fields of ticks with little worry. You can pick up a bottle cheap on Amazon here.


Timing

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review
The author topping out the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, Mount Washington. Photo by Brent Doscher

Step 3: Generally bug season in the US is from early April to early May but in the White Mountains it’s a usually a little later, and Spring we’ve had some prolonged late season cold and snow that has pushed it back a bit further than normal. I’ve only seen two ticks on my so far and haven’t seen my first mosquito yet, while southern NH is probably getting into the thick of it as I type this. Also biting things are most active an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. Climbing mid-day might help reduce bloody interactions.


DEET/PICARIDIN

rock climbing new hampshire bug season

Step 4: I have long carried a small 4 oz bottle of DEET as a last resort when all the above measures fall to protect from an onslaught of thirsty flying things. Both products are effective, but Picaridin is showing more appeal as it is definitely less toxic to both us and the plastics/nylon we come in contact with. Regardless of which you use, I recommend trying the first three steps on my list and carrying a small bottle of this as a “last resort”.


Summary

Protecting yourself from biting insects and the diseases they can carry should be more thought-out then just stepping out of the car and soaking yourself (and your kids) with an aerosol can of bug dope. Hopefully some of these tips can help keep you bite-free while you are out doing what you do!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



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Tech Tip- How Not to Fall while Skiing Tuckerman Ravine

(originally posted April 2018, updated March 2019)

With the arrival of April the Spring skiing (and falling) season has started in Tuckerman Ravine. After watching a couple tumble almost 500 feet down “The Lip” last year I thought some advice on fall prevention might be prudent.

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
Approximate fall

First tip…

Timing

The snow conditions in Tuckerman Ravine vary greatly this time of year from day to day and often hour to hour. The best type of snow for descending this time of year is referred to as “corn snow”. This is snow that has undergone multiple freeze thaw cycles and looks like little kernels of corn. Backcountry skiers jest that we are “harvesting corn” when the conditions are good. But corn snow is all about timing.

Try to ski too early in the season or the day and the corn hasn’t formed yet. Conditions that promote the formation of good corn snow are close or above freezing temperatures, strong solar radiation, and low winds. Try too ski to late in the day when the sun has dipped below the ridge will often find that the soft buttery edge-able forgiving corn has quickly transformed back into a frozen mess. Literally minutes can make a difference in how a run will ski.

So how do you hit it at the right time? First, you check the Higher Summits Forecast before you even leave Pinkham Notch. You’re hoping that the forecasted temps are at least in the mid to upper 20’s and that summit winds are under 50 mph. You also want to see “Mostly Sunny” or “In The Clear”. Overcast days are not for harvesting corn.

Next you should check the Current Summit Conditions. Specifically what you want from this page is the temperature “profile” that shows what the temperatures are at various elevations on the mountain, wind speeds, and sky condition. This page, along with the Higher Summits Forecast, are both bookmarked on my iPhone for quick daily reference.

Spring Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
MWOBS Current Conditions Page- The ski terrain in the ravine is roughly between 4,200 and 5,200 feet in elevation

Ideally temps in the Ravine will be at or above freezing, winds will be low, and the sky will be mostly clear. The lower charts help identify trends. In the above example the winds have died to almost nothing, temperatures are increasing, and barometric pressure has risen and is holding steady (indicating not a big change for the rest of the day). Visibility however is only 1/8 of a mile with some snow and freezing fog (shown under “weather”)… this means no corn today.

Finally, to determine when the slope you want to descend will lose the sun you have a few tools at your disposal. During trip planning you can use CalTopo’s “Sun Exposure” layer to see when certain aspects and runs will lose the sun. In this example you can see what areas still have sun at 2 PM today.

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine

While actually out skiing you could also use an app like PeakFinder AR. An example of how I might use this app would be climbing up Right Gully and deciding to go ski in the East Snowfields for a bit before returning to descend Right Gully. Halfway up the gully, near the steepest pitch, I open up the PeakFinder app and find the path of the sun. Where it intersects the ridge the app will mark the exact time the sun will go below the ridge line (often an hour or more before true sunset). I know now what time I need to be through this spot if I still want soft snow!

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
This screenshot is not from Right Gully, but demonstrates the capability

Next up let’s look at…

Gear

Later in the season there will likely be established “boot ladders” where dozens, or hundreds, of other visitors will have kicked deep steps into the 40 to 50 degree slopes allowing people to ascend these slopes with little extra gear.

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
A well established boot ladder- photo from OutdoorTripReports.com

However, some of these items could really make a difference early in the season, or later in the day, and also could allow you to travel outside of the established boot ladder, which would make you less of a sitting duck if someone higher up looses their footing. First, the most important…

Helmet!

Skida Headwear Review
The author preparing to descend from 4900 feet in Tuckerman Ravine during mid-winter conditions

Most skiers these days wear helmets at ski resorts while ripping fast groomers and shredding pow in the glades but then many choose not to wear a helmet while skiing in Tuckerman Ravine (which has much more objective hazards than a controlled ski resort). Head injuries can occur from falls, collisions with other skiers, and occasionally falling ice and/or rocks. Most ski helmets though are too hot for a 50 degree sunny day in the ravine, so consider buying or borrowing a well ventilated climbing helmet. New this year the Petzl Meteor Helmet is the first UIAA and CE-certified ski touring helmet and would be my first pick (currently reviewing).

They are available from BackcountryREI and Moosejaw.

Mountaineering Axe

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
Crampons and a mountaineering axe provide security on steep firm slopes- photo by Brent Doscher

When the professional rangers of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center say that “long sliding falls” are a specific hazard today one would be wise to carry, and know how to use, a mountaineering axe to arrest or prevent a fall. This would be in hand during the ascent with your ski poles strapped to your pack (baskets up). While there are many models that will suit this purpose I am currently carrying the Black Diamond Raven Ultra Ice Axe which is incredibility light-weight (12 ounces) yet still has a steel head and pick. Lots of experienced skiers like the added flexibility of carrying a Black Diamond Whippet Pole (also available in a carbon model) instead of a full fledged mountaineering axe, and if snow conditions are soft enough this can be a great option.

Crampons

Skiing Tuckerman Ravine
Petzl LLF Crampons- photo from Petzl.com

While an established boot pack might feel secure leaving the boot back or taking the path less traveled may require some traction. Micro-spikes might be helpful on the lower angled hiking trail below Hermit Lake (Hojo’s) but won’t cut it in 40 degree terrain. For snowboard boots check out the Black Diamond Neve Strap Crampons. For those who count ounces and wear technical touring boots my current favorite is the feather-weight Petzl Leopard LLF Crampons.

Education

skiing Tuckerman Ravine
The author heads into steeper terrain in the Gulf of Slides, Mount Washington- photo by Erik Howes

If you would like to take a course in basic crampon and mountaineering axe technique I teach a one-day skills course at Northeast Mountaineering. I also offer Backcountry Skiing Skills Courses along with Ski Mountaineering and this is the perfect time of year to attend one of these courses! Contact me at nealpinestart@gmail.com for availability.

Resources

Higher Summits Forecast

Current Summit Conditions

Mount Washington Avalanche Center

Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol

Time for Tuckerman

Friends of Tuckerman Ravine

Granite Backcountry Alliance

Ski the Whites

Summary

Skiing (and falling) in Tuckerman Ravine is a time-honored tradition and rite-of-passage for many East Coast and beyond skiers. YouTube is full of videos of these falls. Some result in no injury, others result in “snow rash”, bruises, cuts, broken bones, a least one LifeFlight, and occasional fatalities. Hopefully the above advice can help prevent a few of these from happening this season. There is a lot of fun and sun to be had in the next few weeks in Tuckerman Ravine but let’s be sure we respect the hazards that exist in our wild places.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Winter 2018/19 Season Recap

Even though we are into our fourth week of Spring, Winter is certainly holding on here in Mount Washington Valley where we received 4 inches of snow just yesterday! While I haven’t hung up the skis or ice tools yet (planning an alpine ski tour for this Thursday) I figured I better get my season recap out there because before we know it Spring will actually arrive and I’ve got a busy line-up of early season rock climbing objectives and gear reviews to work on!

This winter started off in epic fashion with over 50 inches of snow recorded on the summit of Mount Washington in October! This set us up for some great early ice season conditions and I kicked my season off on November 15th with the first of the season ascent of Standard Route at Frankenstein Cliffs.

ice climbing new hampshire
November 15th, 2018, first seasonal ascent of Standard Route- photo by Alexandra Roberts

After one more trip up Standard and a bit of a thrutch up an early season Dracula I found myself climbing the Black Dike three times in a month! All three times were memorable with the highlight being the third trip where I beat my own personal time on the route (90 minutes) and had the amazing opportunity of my friend Dave Dillon of Chase The Summit shooting the climb with his drone. I’ll cherish this footage forever Dave! Thank you!

 

November saw over 60 inches of snow on Mount Washington and in-hindsight I found myself wishing we had scheduled some early season avalanche courses, we definitely had the conditions to run a couple!

Avalanche Courses

Know Before You Go at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
Presenting at AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center- photo by AMC Parker Peltzer

Our first avalanche course started on December 14th and our last one ended on March 31st. All in all Northeast Mountaineering had a record breaking 179 students take an AIARE course with me this winter! Taking my first avalanche course was such a pivotal moment in my life back in 2003 and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to help these participants get on a path of learning how to manage risk in our amazing snowy environments! I’m also grateful to have been able to work alongside Grant Price who was a fantastic co-facilitator and who I learned quite a bit from over the season. To all of my students this past winter, thank you!

There were two stand-out moments for me during the avalanche course season. The first was a complete failure in my own group management strategies that resulted in getting a student into a very uncomfortable and risky situation. I’d been teaching people how to look out for Human Factors and Heuristic Traps for over a decade and found myself anything but immune to their ability to cloud our judgement and steer us to make poor decisions. I shared some of this humbling tale in this post if you are interested in more details.

The second stand-out was triggering and getting carried in D2 size slab avalanche while guiding a back-country ski trip into Tuckerman Ravine. Despite fearing a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking I shared that experience in this post.


Reviews and Giveaways

Petzl Nomic 2019 Review
Alexandra Roberts takes the new Nomics for an alpine spin up Pinnacle Gully- photo by Brent Doscher

Through-out the winter I got to review some really awesome gear including the new Petzl Nomics, the Arc’teryx FL-365 harness, and the BightGear Caldera Parka. I have a few more reviews almost finished that will post soon. The review section of the blog has definitely grown over the last two years! I’ve got quite a few giveaways planned for this summer and every footwear review will have a chance to wind some of that amazing Friendly Foot! Let me know in the comments if there is something you would like me to review and I’ll try to get my hands on it!


Granite Backcountry Alliance

backcountry skiing granite backcountry alliance
Nice turns on Baldface Knob before dropping into the Granite Backcountry Alliance’s glade project- photo by Grant Price

My only regret is I didn’t get to explore more of the Granite Backcountry Alliances glade projects! I got two runs in at the locals favorite Maple Villa Glade and one super fun trip off the Baldface Knob… the stuff GBA is doing is nothing short of incredible for the New England BC ski community… if you haven’t checked them out and considered contributing or volunteering please do so!


Course Suggestions for Spring

Even though mid-April is approaching I still have an ice climbing course booked for this upcoming weekend, and a back-country ski course on April 16th. Based on the current Higher Summits Forecast and the amount of snow we have on the ground it’s shaping up to be an EPIC alpine ski season (knock on wood). It will likely be pretty late when the Mount Washington Auto Road is able to open but as soon as it does I will be getting my annual season pass again… if we are lucky we will have a couple weeks of being able to access alpine skiing via the road through May!

All that said here’s a couple courses I teach you might consider to add some skills to your kit before the summer rock climbing season goes full swing!

Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering: Whether objective based (Gulf of Slides, Great Gulf, Monroe Brook) or skills based (crampon & axe use, route planning, protecting/rappeling with a rope) or a mix of both there is still a lot of snow up there and it is great to get on it while we can still ski all the way back to the car! Reach out to me if you’d like to plan something!

ski mountaineering backcountry skiing

Wilderness Navigation This 8 hour course covers a lot more than just map & compass skills. I start with Improvised “Survival” Navigation, then work up to advanced compass & map skills, and introduce modern web-based tools, and still leave time for a 3-4 hour field session! Check with me on availability before booking at the above link!

Wilderness Navigation
My favorite compass, the Sunnto MC-2

Self-Rescue for Recreational Rock Climbers– Can you escape a belay? Ascend a loaded rope to aid an injured lead climber? Create a counter-balance rappel and bring that injured lead climber back to the ground? That’s what we will learn in a one-day self-rescue course. We can run this course rain or shine, and if you want to follow more than single pitch routes you should acquire these skills! Contact me first to check on my availability then we can get you booked through Northeast Mountaineering at this link.

rock climbing self rescue
Chris learns about the initial awkwardness of rope ascension having already “Escape the Belay”

Tech Tips

 

Other plans include growing my Tech Tips page… what do you want to see? Leave a comment below and if it’s a skill I can demonstrate I will! I’m also working on a webinar to share CalTopo/Avenza (smartphone trip-planning and navigational tools). I will likely offer this as a 2-3 hour course a couple nights in May/June. If that’s something you’d be into make sure you are subscribed!

Thanks!

Special shout out to Northeast Mountaineering for juggling all the crazy logistics of running a small but super busy guide service and avalanche course provider. Considering the amount of business that came through that little ole’ Bunkhouse in Jackson, NH things went incredibly smooth with only the most minor of hiccups along the way. Huge thanks as well to Ortovox for having me on their athlete team for another year, I am so honored to represent a small part of this amazing company! And stoked for another year with DPS Skis! I put so many miles on my DPS Tour 1 Wailer 99’s, and this was my first season with the Phantom Glide treatment… I will write a full post about that experience and have some video to share as well! Stay tuned for that. Finally thank you to Revo for supporting me with the best sunglasses and snow goggles I have ever worn. I didn’t know how quality lenses performed until I partnered with this company and I’m stoked to represent them all over the mountain!

AIARE Avalanche Course
@Ortovox, @DPSskis, @Revo

Well I guess that’s pretty much it. It ain’t over yet but man it has been an AMAZING winter! Go enjoy a little bit more of winter… bug season will be here soon enough!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



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Route Guide: Climbing The Black Dike

Ice Climbing the Black Dike

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.

Timing Beta

“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.

ice climbing Black Dike
From the top of pitch 2 pin anchor, October 20th, 2015, From NEIce.com, Photo by Majka Burhardt.

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.

Weather Beta

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.

Gear Beta

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.

Getting There

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.

Approach Beta

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.

ice climbing black dike

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.

Leading Strategies

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

Black Dike Photo Topo Ice Climbing
Photo topo of the route. Photo and Legend by Dave Dillon of Chase the Summit, Lines and Dots by me.

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.

Ice climbing the Black Dike
Belaying my partner up to the top of the first pitch direct variation- photo by Chase The Summit

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.

ice climbing the Black Dike
Starting the steeper crux on the second pitch, the rock traverse is to my right- photo by Chase The Summit

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.

ice climbing the Black Dike
About 50 feet from the pitch 2 pin anchor there is one more awkward move a few feet above me here- photo by Chase The Summit

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.

Descent Info

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).

Apres Climb

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:

Black Mountain Burger Co.– Excellent gourmet burgers and hand cut fries, high-end craft beers and cocktails.

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.

Summary

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!



Tech Tip: Tying Off Your Belay Device

You are four pitches up a moderate multi-pitch climb. Your partner just crushed the crux moves and is about 140 feet above you when you hear the yell. The rope comes tight on your belay device. He is out of view and there is no response to your calls. What now?

In today’s Tech Tip we’re going to cover what is often the first step in a rescue scenario, tying off your belay device. This skill, at the very least, will allow you to go “hand’s free” so you can perhaps get your cell phone out of your pack and call for help. Even better if you have the right skills you might end up transferring the climber’s weight to the anchor and ascending the rope to them to provide potentially life-saving first aid, then build a system that will help you bring them back down to the ground.

But it all starts with being able to tie-off your belay device.



“Self-Rescue” skills are something every climber should acquire and practice even if you don’t intend to lead climb. The systems can seem complex, and sometimes they are, but they are not that complex. You can learn them. Accidents will happen. The longer you climb the more likely you will need them. I recommend you try to get them before you wish you had them.

Self Rescue Skills Course

If you would like to brush up on your self-rescue skills with me send me an email at nealpinestart at gmail and we can find a date that works for you. This course is best done with one of your regular partners so you can be prepared to rescue each other should an accident occur.

Cost

1 person: $250 per person
2 people: $150 per person
3 people: $130 per person
4 people: $120 per person

 Course will be booked through Northeast Mountaineering once we have picked a date.



Disclaimer: Climbing is dangerous and attempting anything described in this post can lead to serious injury or death. You are solely responsible for your safety. 

How to Choose the Best Locking Carabiners (and Giveaway)

 

How to Choose the Best Locking Carabiner

Locking carabiners are an integral part of the climbers kit. In this post we are going to take a close look at the notable differences in styles, shapes, and mechanisms along with making suggestions as to where in the climbing system certain models are best suited for both convenience and greater security.


Screwgate Locking Carabiners

Petzl Attache Locking Carabiners

The most common style of locking carabiner is the traditional screwgate. This style has a “sleeve” on the gate that can be twisted until the sleeve is over a potion of the carabiner reducing the chance of the gate opening in any situation. A common error for beginning climbers is to screw this sleeve to tightly when locking the carabiner and finding it difficult to unscrew after the carabiner has seen load. Best practice is to simply screw the sleeve to where it stops easily turning then stop. Do not give it that “extra” turn. Then perform a quick “squeeze” test to verify the carabiner is locked. These carabiners are suitable for any use in the climbing system from belaying and anchoring to creating a top-rope master point. I prefer a screwgate as my personal anchor carabiner while multi-pitch climbing since auto-locking styles do not facilitate tying a clove-hitch on to the carabiner as smoothly as a screwgate that you can leave unlocked until you want to lock it. You can see that process in this quick video:

I also think a pair of the Petzl Attaches is the best choice for a top-rope master point and I carry two dedicated to this use. The reason these excel at this use is Petzl designed some grooves in the sleeve that interlock with the forged ribs of a reverse and opposed Petzl Attache. When used in this configuration the slightest of load basically eliminates the ability for these carabiners to unlock by vibration or even intentional hands. If you’ve ever arrived at a top-rope anchor to discover a locking carabiner has become unlocked during your session you’ll appreciate this added security feature in addition to the more well known “unlocked” red indicator, a nice visual clue that the carabiner is not locked.

Petzl OK Locking Carabiner and Petzl Micro Traxion Pulley
Petzl OK Locking Carabiner and Petzl Micro Traxion Pulley

Another screw gate carabiner I carry is the Petzl OK Locking Carabiner.  This carabiner is in a symmetrical oval shape which makes it ideal for use in both aid climbing and big wall climbing with the Petzl Ascension Handled Ascender. For improvised rescue (both multi-pitch trad and glacier travel) it pairs perfectly with the Petzl Tibloc. For use in a self-belay top-rope system (or a more robust rescue system) it pairs perfectly with the Petzl Micro Traxion Pulley pictured above.

Petzl William Locking Carabiner
The Petzl William Locking Carabiner easily organizes 6 quick-draws, 4 alpine draws, and my two “mini-quads“.

I do carry one larger Petzl William Locking Carabiner shown above which has a few advantages over the smaller locking carabiners I have already mentioned. If I need to lower someone with a Munter-Hitch the wider “rope end” shape of the carabiner offers smoother lowering even when using thicker ropes. There are also some situations where a large locking carabiner can make a convenient easy-to-use “master-point” at the anchor when climbing in parties of 3 or more. I also find this carabiner to be a convenient way of keeping my quick-draws and alpine draws organized before or after the climb.

One final thought on screwgate carabiners… it has been noted that these mechanisms can be less prone to “gunking up” in dirty environments. For ice climbing I have not found them to be less prone to getting iced up then any other style of carabiner. See the maintenance section near the end of this post for tips on prevention.


Twist Lock Carabiners

The next style we are going to look at is a locking mechanism that requires some care to be safely used. Twist Lock carabiners have a spring loaded sleeve that self-rotates into the locked position when the gate is closed. The advantage is the carabiner locks itself quickly. Popular models in this category are the Black Diamond Twistlock Carabiner, the Petzl Am’D Locking Carabiner and the Petzl Sm’D Locking Carabiner (both available in other locking styles). There is potentially less security in this style in the event of moving rope or a wrongly clipped belay loop that could press across the locked gate unlocking and opening it in an alarming fashion. This is best shown in a quick video clip:

 

While there are not many documented cases of this style failing there are a few incidents where this style might have contributed to a climber becoming disconnected from their rope system. Details are sparse enough that it could be fairly considered rumor. Regardless these carabiners are best used within the climbing system where there will not be moving rope going through them and their position can be monitored to ensure no unintended “unlocks”.

Some examples of where I would discourage their use:

  • Rappelling with a tube style (Black Diamond ATC/Petzl Verso) device. It is conceivable that the carabiner could rotate into a position where either the climbing rope or the belay loop of the harness could press against the spring loaded sleeve in a manner that could cause it to open like demonstrated in the video above.
  • Anchoring in on multi-pitch climbs, especially if in a larger climbing party. For starters it is a little less smooth tying a clove-hitch on to the carabiner when the carabiner looks itself when ever the gate closes. Also any moving rope, cordage, or slings above your anchor carabiner run a risk, however small, of passing over the gate in a potential fashion to open the gate.

Some examples of where they would be appropriate:

  • Rappelling with a figure-8 style device. While not very common in rock climbing circles these devices are still preferred for caving, spelunking, canyoneering, and rescue. The difference between this and a plate style device is the moving rope does not pass through the carabiner greatly reducing the chance of it coming into any contact with the gate. Care should still be used when loading the system that the belay loop is not twisted and the carabiner is in position to be loaded properly along its main axis.
  • Belaying with a brake assisting device like the Petzl GriGri2 or GriGri+. Since the climbing rope does not go through the carabiner with these devices the risk of unintended opening is almost nil. Care should still be used when loading the system that the belay loop is not twisted and the carabiner is in position to be loaded properly along its main axis.
  • Added security at static points in a climbing system. For example to secure one leg of a multi-leg static top-rope anchor. Once the system is set up and loaded there is virtually no risk of anything coming in contact with the sleeve. Essentially Twist Lock carabiners are best used in places where they will not be exposed to much moving material.

Triple Action Locking Carabiners

Petzl OK Triact with Petzl GriGri2
Petzl OK Triact with Petzl GriGri2

This category offers a fair amount of extra security over Twist Lock carabiners. While there are some variations within this category essentially a Triple Action carabiner requires three “actions” to unlock and open. In comparison it could be argued a Twist Lock under the right (or wrong) circumstances only requires one action to unlock and open (see video above). Popular styles include:

Petzl William Locking Carabiner: Available in Ball-Lock and Tri-Act Lock

Petzl Am’D Locking Carabiner: Available in Ball-Lock and Tri-Act Lock

Petzl Sm’D Locking Carabiner: Available in Ball-Lock and Tri-Act Lock

Petzl OK Locking Carabiner: Available in Ball-Lock and Tri-Act Lock


Let’s look at the main difference between Petzl’s two Triple Action options. The following is from Petzl.com:

BALL-LOCK

Petzl Ball-Lock Carabiners
Petzl Ball-Lock Carabiners

ERGONOMICS

Advantages:

• Rapid auto-locking

• Visual locking indicator

Disadvantages:

• Sleeve must be unlocked each time the carabiner is opened

• Tricky sleeve operation, especially with gloves, requires practice. System is less “ambidextrous” than the others

• Two hands needed to insert a device into the carabiner

SAFETY

Advantages: 

• Security of triple action locking (excluding rubbing and external pressure)

• Rapid auto-locking

Risks:

• Chance of improper locking when the carabiner closes (e.g. sling caught between the nose and the gate). The user must verify that the carabiner is properly closed and locked, even when using an auto-locking system

TRIACT-LOCK

Petzl Triact Locking Carabiners
Petzl Triact Locking Carabiners

ERGONOMICS

Advantages:

• Rapid auto-locking.

Disadvantages:

• Sleeve must be unlocked each time the carabiner is opened

• Tricky sleeve operation, requires practice

• Two hands needed to insert a device into the carabiner

SAFETY

Advantages:

• Security of triple action locking (excluding rubbing and external pressure)

• Rapid auto-locking

Risks:

• Chance of improper locking when the carabiner closes (e.g. sling caught between the nose and the gate). The user must verify that the carabiner is properly closed and locked, even when using an auto-locking system

• Sensitivity to mud or other foreign objects that can impede auto-locking

This style of carabiner is an excellent choice for dedicated belay/rappel carabiners, plate style belay devices, and brake assisting devices like the Petzl GriGri2 and GriGri+ (review here).


Some other Triple Action options

DMM Big Boa HMS Carabiner: Available in “Locksafe” option

DMM Aero HMS Carabiner: Available in “Locksafe” option

DMM Rhino Carabiner: Available in “Locksafe” option

Mad Rock Hulk HMS Carabiner: Available in “Triple Lock”

CAMP USA Guide XL Carabiner: Available in “3Lock”


Magnetic Auto-Locking Carabiners

Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron Carabiner

While a small category in the industry this is my most favored style of auto-locking carabiner. Namely the Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron Carabiner. This innovative style uses a magnetic system to lock the carabiner the moment the gate shuts. To unlock the carabiner one must pinch both sides of the gate. This motion is quickly mastered with either hand making this a very easy style to operate (yet next to impossible to create a scenario where the rope or a belay loop could mimic this pinch). After three winters of use I’ve had no issues with the mechanism getting iced up. Essentially I find these to be the fastest and most secure option in two places in my climbing system. First I use one for my main belay/rappel carabiner. Zero chance of forgetting to lock this important attachment and while it seems trivial the few seconds saved at every transition can add up. Second I use two on my plaquette style belay device.

Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron Carabiner
Black Diamond VaporLock and RockLock Magnetron Carabiners with the Kong GiGi

Pictured here is my KONG GiGi but the popular Petzl Reverso 4 and Black Diamond ATC Guide would be a common substitute. Since some may ask about the GiGi I’ll add here that I typically am guiding with two clients so often I belay two ropes simultaneously. This can trash a guide’s elbows and shoulders over decades of yarding up rope and the Kong GiGi helps by having less resistance when pulling slack. I do also carry a Petzl Reverso 4 for rappels and as a “back-up” should anyone drop their belay device on a multi-pitch climb.


Maintenance

Depending on the environment you climb in you may need to do some light maintenance to keep your locking carabiners functioning properly. In the Northeast I don’t find my locking carabiners needing much attention and probably give them a tune up every 3-5 years if they haven’t incurred enough wear to be retired. Climbing in soft dusty deserts might require a more regular maintenance cycle. Luckily it isn’t that hard. If a gate or sleeve is sticking or feels “gritty” wash the carabiner in a warm soapy wash. An old toothbrush can help if they are really gunked up. Rinse well. Apply a quality lube like Metolius Cam Lube. I’ve also had great results with Teflon based bike lubricants. DO NOT use WD-40 as this spray really attracts dust and dirt and you’ll find yourself back in the kitchen sink pretty quickly.


My Kit

After reading all this you might be wondering how many locking carabiners I carry. I see quite a few newer climber carrying an excess of locking carabiners on their harnesses. If you think carefully about your climbing system you can streamline it which will help make you a more efficient all-around climber. Here’s exactly what I carry for multi-pitch traditional or alpine climbing:

Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron Carabiner paired with my Petzl Reverso 4

Black Diamond VaporLock and RockLock paired with my Kong GiGi

Petzl Attache dedicated to being my anchor carabiner, doubles as my third-hand back-up during rappels

Petzl William Locking Carabiner for racking my draws, munter-hitches, master-points

If we will be top-roping I add two Petzl Attaches per top-rope system I’m setting up.

So that’s only 5 locking carabiners with specific jobs for multi-pitch climbing and another 2 for top-roping. As always if you find yourself short a locking carabiner somewhere you feel you need one you can use two non-locking carabiners with gates reversed and opposed.


Related

Tying a Clove-Hitch on the Carabiner

Tying a Munter-Hitch on the Carabiner

Gear for Top-Roping

Improved Belay Checks


Summary/Giveaway

Hopefully this post has been informative and will help you optimize the amount and style of locking carabiners you spend your money on. There are so many options out there these days and it is helpful to recognize where one style may more more convenient, or even more secure, than another style. Drop a comment below on anything related to this post and your name will be entered into a drawing for a brand new Petzl Am’D BallLock Carabiner! Drawing will be held on October 31st at 12 PM EST and winner announce here and contacted via email.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



Links above are affiliate links. By making a purchase you support the content created at Northeast Alpine Start at no additional cost to you! Thank you!

Swing leading or leading in blocks?(And Giveaway)

Swing leads or block lead?
Photo by Brent Doscher

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

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

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

Warmer

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


Physically easier

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


Mentally easier

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


Strategies

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

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

    Summary

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


    Giveaway!

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

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

 a Rafflecopter giveaway

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start