For the month of October I am excited to announce you can now book a private half-day lesson or guided climb with me through Northeast Mountaineering! This offer is only valid for the month of October and is based on my availability which I will try to keep updated below. If you are interested in any of these three half-day custom offerings use the contact form below or message me on Instagram or Facebook with the date you would like to book. Once I confirm the date is still open Northeast Mountaineering will invoice you to lock the date down!
1 person* $175 2 person* $225 3 person $310 4 person $400
Hours, you pick what works best for you!
8am-noon or noon-4pm
Beginner- Square Ledge Top-Roping
If you have never rock climbed before you can’t pick a better place to try it than Square Ledge in Pinkham Notch. A short 25 minute hike brings us to this 140 tall cliff with amazing views of Mount Washington and it is just covered in good hand and foot holds. There are climbs here that anyone can do! A great choice to see if you’ll like outdoor rock climbing, and the foliage right now is EPIC!
Intermediate- Guided climb up Upper Refuse
This three pitch 5.6 climb on Cathedral Ledge is an excellent introduction to multi-pitch traditional climbing and happens to offer an incredible view of Mount Washington Valley. You should have some prior outdoor top-roping experience for this program. *only available for 1 person or 2 person groups
Intermediate/Advanced- Self Rescue and Multi-pitch Efficiency
This skills based program will help intermediate and experienced sport and trad climbers acquire the skills necessary to perform a self-rescue and improve your overall efficiency on multi-pitch climbs. The curriculum includes improvised hauling systems, belay escapes, smooth transition techniques, and rope ascension. A solid foundation in basic belaying, rappelling, and lead climbing will help you make the most of this program.
Dates Still Available*
Interested? Just fill out this form and include the date(s) and which program you would like to book, including the AM or PM hours, and I will get back to you as soon as possible to confirm the date is still available and Northeast Mountaineering will invoice you!
Let me know if you have any questions and see you in the mountains!
Today’s tech tip is focused on multi-pitch traditional anchor efficiency. Of all the acronyms in circulation to help you evaluate an anchor (SERENE, RENE, ERNEST, NERDSS) I’ve always been partial to ERNEST as it addresses an often over looked part of traditional anchor building, namely “Timely”.
On a multi-pitch route efficiency is important and taking too long to construct or de-construct an anchor can cost a party valuable time that at best means they get less routes in during the day and at worst means they experience an unplanned bivouac.
When building traditional anchors on multi-pitch climbs most climbers build 3-piece anchors. It’s beneficial to the party to use some passive protection in the construction so that the next lead has more active protection (cams) available. In vertical crack systems I often try to find one or two passive pieces above a multi-directional active piece. Placing the passive pieces above the active piece makes it easier to create an anchor that can withstand an outward or even upward force if the belayer is lifted about the master-point while making a hard catch.
Cleaning passive pieces (nuts) that have been loaded can be time consuming and even impossible at times, so I look for opportunities to place passive pieces that are only seated with a light tug, and essentially backup other solid active pieces like the attached photo and video below demonstrate.
Combine arrangements like this with the low material cost time efficiency of a clove-hitch master carabiner anchor and you can create super fast efficient RENE, SERENE, ERNEST, NERDSS anchors in so many places! Give it a try!
One of the things I love about climbing is how we keep finding better ways of doing things. Sure, we get into ruts where we resist trying something different (why fix it if it ain’t broke mindset), but every 5-10 years I notice we make another leap forward because someone decided to think outside the box and try something new.
Most people who climb with me know I have an affinity for the “mini-Quad” when constructing my anchors. If you are not familiar with the “mini-Quad” check out my post and video about it here. The mini-Quad is still my “go to” choice when climbing in a party of three or more (mostly multi-pitch guiding), simply because having two separate master points is more comfortable for guests and helps with keeping things organized.
If I am climbing in a more common party of two though, I’m going to be using the Girth Hitch Carabiner Master Point a lot more frequently. It has some great advantages to other methods like;
Does not require long sling/cord material. For a typical two point anchor (bolts) a single shoulder length (60 cm) sling is sufficient.
It’s super fast to tie. Try it two or three times and you’ll see how fast you can build this.
It’s super fast to break-down. Since it is a “hitch” and not a hard “knot” once you remove the carabiner it vanishes. No welded dyneema knot to work on!
It’s redundant. Testing shows if one leg fails or gets cut (rockfall) the hitch will not slip! Compare this to a “sliding-x” anchor with the same length sling and this is definitely better if direction of load is close to uni-directional.
It’s “equalized” to the limitations of the physics. Yes true “equalization” isn’t quite possible but close enough.
It has zero extension should a leg fail.
All of this adds up to a great SERENE, RENE, ERNEST, NERDSS or whatever acronym you like when debating or evaluating the merits or flaws of an anchor.
It requires an extra locking carabiner to form a master point.
It is a “pre-equalized” method, meaning of the load direction changes you’ll lose load distribution (just like a tied off bight).
Every one is attaching to the same master-point, so for party’s of 3 I might more often opt for the mini-Quad
I plan on using one of my Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron carabiners as the master point carabiner for a couple reasons. It’s a fast carabiner to deploy and it auto-locks, but I prefer the added security of the style of locking mechanism since I am clove hitching myself into a separate locker attached to this master point locker, and will be belaying off a plaquette as well. While it should go without saying care needs to be taken when introducing this method, especially to newer climbers. Since the master point is a carabiner it is crucial no one mistakes this carabiner as their own attachment and removes it when perhaps taking the next lead. This perhaps is even more reason to use a Magnetron as the master carabiner and screw gate carabiners for your personal tether/clove hitch with rope attachments.
Regardless of what locker you use as the master point I would recommend having your belay plaquette set along the spine of the carabiner vs your own tether attachment for maximum strength and security.
Vs. The Clove Hitch Master Point Carabiner Method
Another similar looking method uses a clove hitch instead of a girth hitch to achieve many of the same advantages, however I find the girth hitch slightly faster and easier to tie.
The Girth Hitch Master Point Carabiner is a slick new solution to add to your repertoire. It is not a “solve-all” solution but based on context I can see this option being used efficiently and effectively in many situations. As with any new anchor skill practice on the ground first before you use it 100 feet off the deck. Seek proper instruction from qualified guides and instructors.
In 2008 having been on a few search and rescue missions for lost hikers I looked around for a quality navigation course and couldn’t find one I thought was comprehensive and effective, so I decided to create my own curriculum. I’ve since taught this course over 50 times for organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club, Tin Mountain Conservation, Eastern Mountain Sports Schools, Kennett High School Adult Education Series, Northeast Mountaineering, and for private high school outdoor programs like The Brooks School.
I’m excited to say I can now present the classroom portion of this course in an online live interactive format and I am announcing my first ever online Wilderness Navigation Course for Saturday, May 9th, from 9am-1pm EST. (NEW COURSE IS MAY 24th- invites have been sent to first 12 on waiting list)
So what will be covered in the course? Here’s a look at the curriculum:
Improvised (Survival) Navigation Techniques
Proper use of a Magnetic Compass
Reading Topographic Maps
Locating your position using terrain association
Locating your position using single-point resection
Location your position using triangulation
Navigating by altimeter
Navigating in a white-out
Creating accurate trip plans and estimating hiking time
A brief introduction to online mapping and smart phone app integration (this topic will be offered in detail in another online course soon!)
Course participants will also get a copy of the presentation for future reference and an invitation to connect to a private Facebook group to discuss any of the course content down the road as questions come up or information is forgotten.
For this first run I am limiting the class size to 10 students. (Class size increased to 12) If you are interested please read the next section carefully before registering!
Experience: You do not need to have any previous training or experience with navigation, reading maps, or using a compass. While this is an entry level course previous courses have shown me that even self described “experts” learn easier and better ways for performing some of these skills in this course.
Time Commitment: This course will run on Saturday May 9th from 9am-1pm EST. (New course is Sunday May 24th from 9am-1pm EST) You will need to be available during that time to fully participate.
Equipment: You will need a laptop or computer connected to the internet. While you could attend the course via a smartphone I think you will benefit from a full size screen. You will need a base plate style compass. I am a fan of these two models, the second one being my personal all time favorite compass and the one you will see me using throughout the course.
You will also need to be able to print three sheets of paper, two in color. There will be a single lesson worksheet and a color topographic PDF (both 8.5 x 11) emailed to you shortly after registering along with the invitation to the Zoom meeting. You will also receive instructions on how to print a local topographic map. Most of us have gotten familiar with Zoom over the last few weeks. If you haven’t attended a Zoom meeting yet do not worry, it is super easy and I’m happy to walk you through it 1 on 1 prior to the course so you are not stressed about that aspect!
Optional Equipment: A ruler or straight edge is handy but not required. A topographic map of your area can be helpful for a couple of the self-guided outdoor sessions.
There will be a couple self-guided outdoor sessions to keep us from sitting in a chair or staring at a computer screen for too long, so you will also need access to some “outside”… hopefully no one reading this is 20 levels down in a bunker right now.
How to Register/Tuition
If you meet all those requirements and would like to attend just fill out the short contact form below! I can answer any additional questions you might have and once I confirm I still have a spot available I will send a tuition ($50) request via PayPal or Venmo, your preference.
If I need to cancel the course for any reason at any time a full refund will be made. If you need to cancel earlier than two weeks prior to the course for any reason a full refund will be made. If you need to cancel within two weeks of the course a 50% refund will be made. If you need to cancel within one week of the course no refund will be made.
I am really excited about my foray into online instruction. I love teaching adults the variety of mountain skills I’ve acquired over two decades of guiding people in the mountains and this is a method I’ve wanted to try for years! I have other courses in the works, perhaps the most requested from a lot of my avalanche course students, is a course focused on online mapping and modern smartphone integration. While I love using tech responsibly in the mountains you must acquire and practice the fundamental navigation skills if you don’t want to find yourself in a spot because your tech failed!
So that’s it! Let me know if would like to sign up by filling out the short contact form below! Also please share this with your outdoorsy friends who might be interested!
EDIT: 5/25 WOW! I’m humbled that this course SOLD OUT in less then 24 hours! Fear not I will schedule another one very soon! If the demand is there I could even offer this on a weekly basis. If you are interested in this course please fill out the form below and I will add you to the list and notify you when the next course is scheduled! (second course invites have been sent to first 12 on waiting list, feel free to join the waiting list using the form below to receive notifications of openings and new courses)
See you in the mountains (when we are back to traveling),
Northeast Alpine Start
Disclaimer: No course online or in person can guarantee your safety. You are solely responsible for any outcome resulting in following information or advice in this post or in this course. I strongly discourage any non-essential travel outside of your home while we are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Please stay local while practicing these skills. Affiliate links help support this blog. Thank you.
I find it hard to believe the avalanche course season is almost over! I’ve had a great time teaching courses for Northeast Mountaineering with an amazing group of co-instructors and despite a relatively inconsistent Mother Nature field conditions have been quite prime for our course objectives.
One of the seasonal components of the AIARE Framework is “Continue Your Education”. AIARE 1 students often realize quite early in the course that becoming safer back-country travelers is a lifelong process. There is no finish line when it comes to avalanche education. To that end I share with my students one of the ways I’ve continued to learn about a subject I’ve been studying and teaching for over 10 years is by subscribing to multiple podcasts related to avalanche education. Multiple students have asked for a list of what podcasts I listen to which was the motivation of this post. So without further delay here’s my current playlist with a quick recap of what to expect from each. If you like to play in the snow you should give a few of these a listen on the commute into work or your drive up to the mountains!
“The podcast that helps keep you on top of the snow instead of buried beneath it.” This one is at the top of my list and if you only pick one podcast to listen to this is the one I’d recommend most. So many great episodes I hesitate to call out just one but I will… The April 5th, 2019 episode “Low Danger” is a must listen.
“Creating a stronger community through sharing stories, knowledge, and news amongst people who have a curious fascination with avalanches.” What can I say this podcast is fantastic! The range of guests is great and I haven’t found a single interview to not be engaging and enlightening… add it to your library!
Sadly it seems Doug hasn’t been able to keep this project going but the first two seasons are here for us to learn from. Doug focuses mostly on the human element and some of the episodes that have stayed with my had to do with effective communication in the backcountry and how we see ourselves in our stories (impaired objectivity). Definitely worth listening to the 1.5 seasons that are there and hopefully Doug can return to this project soon!
Honorable mention goes to the American Alpine Club’s Sharp End Podcast by Ashley Saupe. While not 100% about avalanches I’ve been a long time reader of the AAC’s Accidents in North American Climbing, a fantastic education resource in its own right and worth the annual cost of membership in my opinion! In each episode Ashley interviews those involved in climbing (and sometimes avalanche) accidents in an effort to learn what we can from these stories.
Well that’s the list. Within these 4 podcasts there are hundreds of hours of quality content that is sure to make you a more informed and safer backcountry traveler. If you found this post helpful please leave a comment below and if I missed one of your favorite podcasts please let me know! It doesn’t have to be avalanche related but outdoor recreation and risk management should be a consideration!
Happy listening and see you in the mountains!
Northeast Alpine Start
Affiliate links help support the content created here. Thank you!
(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.
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.
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.
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!
Next up let’s look at…
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.
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…
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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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Twelve hundred feet above Interstate 93 in dramatic Franconia Notch State Park lies the beginning of a 600 foot alpine ice climb that should be on every ice climbers wish list. Every time I have climbed this route I have thought of the young John Bouchard who grabbed the first ascent in an epic fashion that you should definitely read about in both An Ice Climber’s Guide to Northern New England and Yankee Rock & Ice (both available at International Mountain Equipment in North Conway).
Having successfully climbed it about a dozen times now (and bailed for various reasons at other times) I thought I would share some beta that might help you plan your ascent. I will be going into “more than guidebook” level detail so if you are one who prefers not to have any spoilers you might skip the sections below on Gear and Pitch Suggestions. If you’re the type that likes to scour internet forums for every slice of beta you can find maybe you’ll find something useful below!
Disclaimer: I am not an AMGA certified Alpine Guide nor have I taken the AMGA Ice Instructors Course. All the information below is liable to be incorrect. Using any of the below information is at your own risk. There are no guarantees that any of it is correct. Ice climbing is dangerous and death is possible. You are solely responsible for your safety. Seek qualified instruction.
“Is it in yet?” is a common phrase heard in late Fall within the local ice climbing community. Without a doubt by mid-October climbers are peaking at NEIce.com and NEClimbs.com in anticipation of the first ascent of the season being reported. I’m not sure when the official “earliest” ascent has occurred but I do recall quite a few in mid-late October. These are usually done by some of the best climbers of the region and conditions can be so fickle that the route might be “gone” the very next day.
16 days after this ascent I was climbing the Whitney-Gilman Ridge (adjacent route) in a t-shirt and there wasn’t any trace of ice left in the adjacent gully! For the route to reach more consensual “in” conditions we usually need to wait until mid-November. So far for the 2018/2019 season the route had been in fantastic shape and I’ve climbed it on 12/7, 12/9, and 12/20. All three times I was able to skip the rock traverse, something I had never done in previous years (details below on this variation).
Another aspect of “Timing” is choosing a start time. There is no denying it, this is a sought after route and there are a lot of ice climbers with this on their to-do list. It is also a terrible route to decide to climb below another party. The last pitch often has surprisingly brittle ice even when the rest of the route seems pretty solid. Despite using the most amount of caution I’ve had to let some microwave sized chunks of ice go from the third pitch. The first and second two pitches offer virtually no safe space to protect yourself from ice above. If you choose to climb under another party you are taking a real risk… one I don’t feel is warranted.
So what can you do? Three tactics…
Start early. I mean really early. The approach takes 45-55 minutes… so plan to do that by headlamp. Arriving at the first pitch at first light is a great way to improve your odds of getting on route first. It’s also nice to be back at the car by noon!
Wait. Ok, another party beat you to the route. Size them up. Only a party of two? Local? Climbed it before? Well in good conditions strong parties can top this three pitch route out in 90 minutes… Got a warm belay jacket? Stack your rope and ask them to holler when off route so you know you can start climbing. Two or more parties ahead of you or too cold/windy to hang around… time to head over to Crawford Notch or Evans Notch for option 2.
Start late. As the days get longer later starts might be a good choice. Show up at noon and see a party finishing the last pitch? Perfect timing, you can probably make it back to the car before dark! Keep in mind later starts and approaching darkness add some risk should something unforeseen happen. Carry enough stuff to survive a night in these conditions just in case.
Franconia Notch has earned a reputation for harsh weather when the rest of the state can seem quite comfortable. It’s common to drive up on clear calm conditions and pull into the parking lot to find gale force winds and frigid temps. The notch really does generate some of its own weather. To get a sense of what your day might be like start with the Higher Summits Forecast for a regional outlook then look closer at Cannon Mountain on Mountain-Forecast.com.
Protection: In fat conditions (December 2018) the route can be well protected with just ice screws. I usually carry one 22 cm that I use for the first ice anchor and for v-threads if bailing, eight 13 cm screws, and two 10 cm screws. A couple mid-sized cams can make protecting the last few moves before gaining the snowy exit ramp convenient. In leaner conditions you might benefit from also carrying a small rack of nuts and perhaps a few pins.
Rope: The climb is most often done in three rope stretching 60 meter pitches, so in a party of two I prefer to climb it with a single skinny single rated rope like my Sterling Fusion Nano IX DryXP Climbing Rope. If you have to bail having only one rope does make that a bit trickier. From the top of the first pitch I have bailed with a single 60 by making a v-thread mid-pitch and doing a second rappel. From the pin anchor at the top of the second pitch you would need to v-thread 3 times to reach the ground. If you climb with 60 meter twins/doubles you would only need one rap from the top of the first pitch, or two from the pin anchor at the top of the second pitch (last rap would be from a v-thread). While a 70 meter might make the pitches seem a bit less “stretched” I don’t think carrying an extra 30 feet of rope up the route makes sense, but 70’s are gaining popularity and if that is what you have you’d still need to v-thread off if you only have one. Parties of three would be best served with two skinny (9mm or less) 60 meter single ropes.
Clothing: Cannon can be burly when it comes to weather. It is not a cragging day and the warmth of the car is far away. My clothing system for a Cannon day looks something like; mid-weight wool base layers, soft-shell pants and jacket, light synthetic insulated hooded puffy, large down insulated hooded parka. You can see a lot of my favorite specific models over on my gear review page along with my “essentials” picks here. There are lots of packs suitable for this style of climb and I am partial to my Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Ice Pack for these types of missions that I reviewed here.
Communication: This is a great route to use a pair of FRS radios on. Almost every pitch is full length and it is difficult to communicate from both the top of pitch two and pitch three. I’ve started using radios on almost all alpine multi-pitch routes and don’t see me going back to losing my voice yelling “off belay” anytime soon.
The climb is located in Franconia Notch State Park off of NH Interstate 93 (US Route 3). Coming from the south (Boston) the drive is about 2 hours in good conditions. From North Conway it takes about an hour to drive over the Kancamagus Highway. From Montreal it’s about 3 hours. My locals tip is to set your GPS to the Dunkin Donuts in Lincoln, NH, 44 Main St, Lincoln, NH 03251. They open at 5 AM and it’s a convenient place to stop for a high calorie breakfast sandwich and last-minute bathrooms. I also like to “boot up” here so when I get to the cold and snowy parking lot and can just toss on my pack and start walking. Arriving with boots on ready to start walking has put me ahead of other climbing parties on this route and in Crawford and Pinkham Notch so many times I can’t recommend it enough.
If you are going for a later start White Mountain Bagel opens at 6:30 am and for the truly casual start and best breakfast in Lincoln you can get in the door of Flapjacks at 7:00 am.
Traditionally climbers would park at the “climber’s lot”, a small lot that is the first pull off after heading south from the Cannon Mt. Tram Exit (you reverse direction here if coming from the south). There is a small register box that is rarely used or checked in the winter and half the times I stop there are no forms or pencils to list your intended climb anyways. I do not park here, but I do pull through so I can get a quick look at how many cars are there. In the winter 95% of the cars parked here are probably gunning for the Black Dike, and if there are more than two cars I’m probably heading somewhere else. The most recent visit I saw two cars but both climbers were still inside them putting boots on so I pulled back onto the highway and headed to my preferred parking spot, Lafayette Place Campground, the next exit south. You can use Google Maps or Waze to get you to the Campground.
Approaching from the Lafayette Place Campground
Here there is plenty of parking when arriving early (5-7 am). I park right next to the bike path and head north on that path to the approach trail. This option is slightly longer than hiking from the climber’s lot, and slightly uphill, but has one big advantage. In half a mile it passes the descent trail. If you park at the climber’s lot you must then hike .65 miles uphill climbing back up 120 feet of elevation in the process. I prefer to walk .6 miles back downhill to the car at the end of the day.
Which ever approach you choose you might benefit from Microspikes. So far this year trail conditions have been so good they have not been needed, but that can change almost daily and Microspikes are way more comfortable on approaches and descents then having to stop and don your full on ice climbing crampons. Nailing the approach trail from the bike path can be tricky, and many have mistakenly taken one of the other approach trails that lead to other parts of the cliff (or the descent trail), and loss valuable time while heading to this climb. I once met a party who spent almost two hours approaching because they somehow took the northern Lakeview Approach trail and then had to traverse the bottom of the whole cliff.
It is just shy of a mile from the Lafayette Place Campground parking lot and about .4 miles from the climbers lot. At a brisk pace from the south it’s about 20 minutes, and you will pass the descent trail about half way there (don’t mistake that for the ascent trail!). For those with GPS capabilities it’s at 19T 0285700E, 4892603N WGS84, 1,913 elevation.
Once you break out of the woods and into the talus you still have 700 feet of elevation to gain. Some cairns mark a path but there is usually a packed out path you can follow that might be more efficient than the summer climbers path. Linking filled in snow fields can really make the footing easier while ascending to the route, with the obvious Whitney Gilman Ridge being the feature you should be working towards.
When you reach the base of the Whitney-Gilman Ridge you might opt to don harnesses, helmets, and crampons. The next 200 feet of snow climbing can sometimes be quite firm and the security of crampons and one ice axe can be prudent. In some snow conditions it might even be prudent to rope up and pitch this last part out. I have an old friend who took an unexpected ride down this approach pitch in an avalanche a decade ago and his partner suffered some serious injuries. It’s steep enough to avalanche so due diligence is a good idea.
There is often a “platform” stomped out about 50 feet below the start of the water ice from where most parties start to 5th class belay. Beyond that the snow slope steepens a little.
While not exactly part of a “route guide” I am going to interject some opinion on how a team tackles this route. While this next statement can open up a huge can of worms I’m going to simply say the best option is for the strongest partner to lead the whole route. Swapping leads is fun and all but in ice climbing it means one person will not be moving for quite a long time. During the swap the new leader hasn’t had the rest that the first leader has had… This topic is more complex and could go on for pages so I’m simply going to suggest that if you and your partner are of equal ability you just rock, paper, scissors for the lead role and have at it. Of course if during the climb the leader gets worked and wants to hand over the sharp end so be it, but if you are both climbing well the whole party will move faster and stay warmer if you do this route in one 3 pitch “block”.
Pitch Breakdowns and Variations
Pitch 1: Traditionally the first pitch is the easiest pitch. You start with 50 feet of snow climbing and gain the water ice. You place a screw or two and move a bit right. You place a few more screws and pick a spot to belay down and right of the infamous “rock traverse”. Most climbers probably place 5-6 screws on this pitch. The ice anchor built is usually a 2-screw anchor down and right of the traverse. It’s a good idea not to really stretch the rope and anchor right below the traverse so that the next lead can get some rope and a good screw in the system before they start the rock traverse. I’d say about 15 feet below the rock traverse is a great spot to post up.
Pitch 1 Variation: In good conditions (like December 2018) the ice on the second pitch may be thick enough to offer full strength screws allowing one to avoid the rock traverse and take a more direct (left) line. If this is the plan leaders can stay a bit left on the first pitch and create an ice anchor a little lower than the traditional anchor spot just before the steeper ice. This spot is a little more exposed to falling ice from the 2nd pitch so a good strategy is for the belayer to clove in with a bit of a long length of rope to allow for some ice dodging mobility. About a ten foot length worked well on my last two climbs and also allows for a bit more rope in the system when pulling a moderate but sometimes awkward first couple moves off the anchor.
Pitch 2 (rock traverse): There’s a lot of hype about this rock traverse… the thing is it’s actually quite chill. While the guidebooks says (5.6) it’s often much easier, just awkward and somewhat exposed. The real crux is finding the feet when the ledges have fresh snow on them. That and not hosing yourself with rope drag. In good conditions you can leave the 1st pitch anchor, climb up 15 or so feet, place a good screw with an extended alpine draws, and start moving left along the traverse. Only a step or two will let you reach some fixed tat that protects the traverse, then you need to get established on the steeper ice that becomes the routes first technical crux. It’s really not that bad, but can be awkward. As soon as you get established on the steeper ice the desire to place a screw can be strong. If the sticks are good try to get a few moves up. This will save you a lot of rope drag that you might notice at the end of this full length pitch. Where the steeper ice recedes is IMO the technical crux of the route… it is often fractured and brittle here. A few deep breaths and another good screw should see you into some lower angle terrain.
Most of the rest of the second pitch is enjoyable for a climber comfortable with Grade 4 ice. I choose to run it out a bit here to conserve screws. The second route crux appears near some often parasol type ice when you need to move into a bit of a chimney spot and the feet feel awkward. I get a good screw here then pull through by looking at the left wall for stemming options constantly. One or two more screws will see you staring at the pin anchor and the end of the Grade 4 style ice climbing.
Pitch 2 (left direct): When in good shape one can choose to stay left on the first pitch and gain the runnel directly negating the need for the rock traverse. In some ways this feels easier as line is more direct and you can easily get established on the steeper bit. In thin conditions this can be quite bold as it might not take 10 cm screws and there isn’t anything for rock gear here. So thin conditions, do the rock traverse… thick conditions, check this option out. After 30 feet or so of climbing you will see the rock traverse on your right just before the first steeper crux mentioned above.
Pitch 2 Anchor: As of December 2018 there is a 3 pin anchor equalized with some cord at the top of the second pitch with two steel cold shuts on it. The easiest option is to use a large shaped locking carabiner through the two cold shots as a “master carabiner”, then anchor and belay as norm. There are also plenty of options here for an ice anchor, and if you stop 20 feet lower you can watch/coach your partner through the crux.
Pitch 3: The last pitch starts off really mellow on often wet plastic ice before gaining some drier steeper bits. The line is usually pretty clear, but care should be taken as it isn’t over yet. The ice on pitch three can go from plastic here to dinner-plate-central here in only a few feet. Keep that game face on. The regular route stays left and as the water ice diminishes there’s some decent rock gear placements on the right just before you reach the snow-ramp-exit. You can get short screws here but cams are much faster if you have them. Once you reach the snow you can start getting turf shots but stay focused. An experienced climber fell from here two years ago and ended up with a broken femur and involved rescue. About 20 feet from the top I throw a sling around a small tree on the right to protect my last few moves to the top.
Pitch 3 right hand finish: Last year I did the right hand finish a few times and found it pretty fun. It’s a bit more awkward and ends a little prematurely but in certain conditions it might be a better exit.
The descent trail is pretty easy to pickup and follow though it is steep at times. I’ve had to wear crampons for the whole descent on some years, Microspikes other times, and at-least once been able to butt-glissade the majority of the descent in record time. My advice, make sure your shit is secure! Over the years I’ve seen quite a few “lost ice axe/screws” posts online from people glissading down the descent trail. Secure one axe, and keep one out if the glissading is good. Do not glissade with crampons on! Pack your harness and screws for the hike out. Once you reach the bike trail bang a right and head to the car (or a left and walk uphill if you choose the climber lot).
Time to refuel and rejoice as you just knocked off one of the most historic and well-known ice climbs in the East! A few of our favorite post climb spots in Lincoln, NH:
Woodstock Inn Station & Brewery– Large place with usually plenty of room at the bar, good beers and extensive menu. Make it in time for Happy Hour (3-5 pm) and enjoy half price apps and $3.50 pints on most of their beers!
Guided Trips (Am I ready?)
If this is a trip you’d prefer to do with a guide feel free to reach out to me. It is a serious undertaking so a shakedown cragging day may be suggested before we set our sights on this route. Climbers should be very comfortable following Grade 4+ ice before attempting to follow this route. A suggested progression to determine if you will enjoy the climb…
A season of top-rope ice experience.
Successfully following efficiently a full length climb of Mount Willard (Hitchcock or Left Hand Monkey Wrench to Cleft).
Comfortably following Standard to Penguin and Dracula (Frankenstein Cliffs) in one day.
Comfortable following Pinnacle Gully in Huntington Ravine.
This is just a broad suggestion of local objectives that would help determine when you might be ready for the Black Dike. Every climber learns at their own pace and a route like the Black Dike is worth waiting for a decent weather window, conditions, level of fitness, and technique.
I hope this article helps you plan your ascent of this New England classic someday! Even after 15 years of climbing this route I am blown away that we have such a thing in the East. Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or if you have some tips you’d like to share. I’ll leave you with some stunning video my friend Dave captured of my last ascent of the route in late December 2018. If your internet connection can handle it be sure to watch in full screen and 4K resolution! Enjoy!
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
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.
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.
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
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:
Let’s look at the main difference between Petzl’s two Triple Action options. The following is from Petzl.com:
• Rapid auto-locking
• Visual locking indicator
• 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
• Security of triple action locking (excluding rubbing and external pressure)
• Rapid auto-locking
• 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
• Rapid auto-locking.
• 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
• Security of triple action locking (excluding rubbing and external pressure)
• Rapid auto-locking
• 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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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The short answer is no. I recall reading an article in a popular climbing magazine about a decade ago where an IMFGA guide was encouraging climbers to stop “backing up” their tie-in knot. While the logic in the article was quite sound tying “back-up” knots above your standard Figure Eight Follow Through is still somewhat popular even ten years later.
We crave redundancy. Change is hard. “Safety” is elusive. “Experts” are everywhere. While researching this topic and polling various climbing forums opinions were all over the place. There was a mix of old school “this is how I learned 25 years ago” and new age “our climbing gym requires us to or we fail our belay test”.
Why not tie a back-up knot? Why not tie 3 back-up knots just in case the original and first two back-ups fail? To answer these questions with some amount of detail we need to break it down piece by piece, and that’s what we will do, but first let’s set the baseline.
By “tie-in” knot I am referring to the popular Figure Eight Follow Through. This is what the majority of climbers learn is the best knot for attaching the rope to the harness. Some climbers praise how the Double Bowline is somewhat easier to untie than a Figure 8 Follow Through. This is true, but the Double Bowline comes with enough caveats that I think it should not be used as your primary tie-in.
So for the purposes of this article we will be referring to the Figure Eight Follow Through whenever using “tie-in knot”. So why not back-up? Let’s start with the most important and work towards the minutia…
Simply put a properly tied Figure Eight Follow Through is more than strong enough. How strong is it? In pull tests it breaks at about 75-80% of the ropes full strength. Do you know how much force it takes to break a climbing rope? Enough to not worry about a 15-20% reduction that is for sure! It is slightly stronger than the aforementioned Double Bowline.
By “secure” we refer to the ability for the knot to loosen and untie itself through normal use. By design, once tightened, the Figure 8 Follow Through does not loosen. In fact it can be so tough to loosen it that some climbers who work steep overhanging sport projects and take multiple whippers while projecting might choose the easier to loosen Double Bowline in its place. Unless you are taking multiple whippers on overhanging climbs I’d encourage you to stick with the more well known and recognized Figure 8 Follow Through. Note the Double Bowlinedoes require a back-up for security!
That means six inches of tail after the knot is dressed and stressed. To dress the knot try to keep the strands on the same side while tightening the knot. Sometimes I’ll end up with a strand crossing over a strand leaving me with a knot that isn’t “pretty”. This twist does not significantly weaken or reduce its security in anyway. The sometimes heard phrase “a pretty knot is a safe knot” alludes to a pretty knot being easier for a partner to quickly inspect. You do not need to re-tie your knot if you only have a twist in it (but make sure the proper strands run parallel).
Climbing systems are complex enough. We do not need to add complexity for the illusion of being “safer”. Our focus when tying in should always be on tying the correct knot properly, not tying extra knots “in case we mess up the important knot”. That should never happen. Especially if you take your partner check seriously and have a second set of eyes look at your knot before you leave the ground.
Extraneous knots above the tie-in knot make it more difficult for a partner to visually inspect the important knot during the partner check. Not tying “back-up” knots saves time, even if just a little. While following a climb “back-up knots” can catch and jam on protection or quick-draws before you are in a good stance to un-clip them. While lead climbing having a cleaner profile at your tie-in can lead to smoother clips.
The Yosemite Finish
The ideal Figure 8 Follow Through Knot should have a “loop” about the size of your belay loop and 6 inches of tail. No more, no less. If you would like to “secure” your left over tail to keep it from “flapping around” consider the Yosemite Finish. While this is an excellent way to finish your knot it is often tied incorrectly, with climbers partially “un-finishing” their properly tied Figure 8 Follow Through when tucking the tail back into the knot. To maintain full strength and security the tail must wrap around the rope before being tucked back into the lower part of the knot. This maintains original knot strength and security and creates a really low profile knot to facilitate clipping, cleaning, and even rope management at crowded belays. Here’s a short video I created to show the process.
The majority of climbers these days learn the basics at climbing gyms and the majority of these gyms likely encourage or require this un-necessary redundancy. I offer that we should focus more on better partner checks and proper belaying techniques rather than wasting time backing up things that don’t need to be backed up. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below and share within your climbing circles if any of this was helpful!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
I reached out to UIAA for this article and while they didn’t get back to me in time for press-time I would like to now add their response to my inquiry on this subject:
From my point of view the only “UIAA approval” that could conceivably be construed from our materials currently online and in publication would be from materials in the UIAA Alpine Handbook, which has at least been circulated among enough commission members to be regarded as “UIAA approved” – which is NOT the same as “UIAA recommended”, after all there are “many ways to skin a cat”, and it would be an endless task to try to list them all!
Pages 143 and 189 of the UIAA Alpine Handbook show the use of the rethreaded Figure of 8, which is indeed shown without a stopper knot. However this does not mean that adding a stopper knot is therefore “not UIAA approved”. Adding a stopper knot adds a level of redundancy – and redundancy is a key component of the anchor system (eg the US favoured “ERNEST” and “SERENE” acronyms). If a bowline is used for tying in, the stopper knot is an essential component of the attachment. For a figure of 8 it is an optional extra.
Pros and cons of adding a stopper knot:
We need to bear in mind that guidance about tying in has to work for novices as well as for people who have enough experience to make subtle judgements.
The stopper knot should be butted up tight against the main knot. This stops the tail creeping out of the knot during extended use.
If the stopper knot comes undone, it provides a visual early warning that the knots may not be fully tensioned
If the knot isn’t properly “dressed and stressed” the stopper knot will prevent catastrophic failure unless it also comes undone (BUT all knots should always be checked….)
Different diameter ropes have different recommendations for the length of the tail. At least if you can tie a double stopper the tail is DEFINITELY long enough.
Takes extra time to tie and untie
Regularly works loose while climbing, even though the main knot remains perfectly secure
A serious disadvantage is that inexperienced/tired people might clip in between the knot and the stopper if the stopper isn’t butted tight against the main knot (BUT it should be).
We can see from this list that the pros and cons are fairly equally balanced. I would be wary of telling people NOT to use a stopper. By all means recommend that they don’t need one, but you are making a rod for your own back if they make a catastrophic mistake that a stopper knot could have prevented from escalating into an accident.
Thanks to Jeremy Ray for helping capture the images and video used in this post.