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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Gear Review: Arc’teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness (and Giveaway!)

Arc'Teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness Review

This winter I was able to extensively test the Arc’teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness while ice climbing and guiding all over the White Mountains. My first experience with an Arc’teryx harness was mostly positive… there is a lot to like about the FL-365. Designed to be used year-round (365) for sport, trad, alpine, mixed, and ice climbing is this really a “quiver-of-one” option? It’s quite possible, but before we break it down let’s look at how it was tested.


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How We Tested

Starting with the first 2018/19 season ascent of Standard Route at Frankenstein back in November I then climbed about 25 days all over the White Mountains including three trips up the iconic Black Dike in December and multiple alpine gullies in Huntington Ravine. Much of this testing was conducted while guiding and carrying a full ice rack, some rock gear, and a typical load-out for leading multi-pitch routes in a party of three. Let’s start our review with the most noticeable features and work our way down to minutia.

Arc'Teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness Review
Starting season off with the first 2018/19 ascent of Standard Route, Frankenstein Cliffs- photo by Alexandra Roberts

Comfort

The most defining feature of this harness is the level of comfort it achieves while staying far under the weight of heavily padded “big-wall” style harnesses.  Arc’teryx accomplishes this by using a patented “Warp Strength Technology™” construction. Essentially load bearing fibers are woven through a thin wide waist-belt and leg loops and offer excellent true load distribution. This waist belt measures 4 1/4 inches wide at its widest in the back, and the leg loops measure 3 inches wide across the back of the thigh. These measurements, on average, are about 30% wider than comparable harnesses in the category and are noticeable with just a casual look. It’s impressive this added coverage doesn’t add a lot of weight, though it definitely effects the packability (more on that later).

Arc'Teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness Review
Arc’Teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness Review- photo by Alexandra Roberts

The leg loops, while not having buckles, are arguably “adjustable” in that Arc’teryx uses a stretchy elastic leg-loop that has about 3 inches of comfortable travel. This is my preferred style of leg-loop as I’m not a fan of non-stretchy adjustable buckle leg loops. Semi-hanging belays and steep rappelling revealed that this design strategy is more than marketing hype, it really is the most comfortable harness I’ve hung in. If you’d like to see more about this construction check out this video from Arc’teryx!

 

Racking Options

The Arc’teryx FL-365 Harness has more racking real estate than any other harness I’ve tested in this category. Each of the four main gear loops offer over 4 inches of racking space. The rubberized gear loop “stiffeners” are remove-able if you want to save a few ounces but I decided to set this harness up more for ice cragging than super-light alpinism. I also didn’t find removing them super intuitive and I could see how they would be tricky to get back on after removing. As it stands the design helps racked gear slide forward and the “stiffeners” make re-racking with gloves on quite convenient, definitely easier than lighter/softer gear loop styles.

Arc'Teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness Review
Arc’Teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness can rack a ton of gear- photo by Alexandra Roberts

A fifth soft gear loop is bar-tacked along the back of the harness. I found this a convenient place to clip my belay jacket, gloves, or a tag line. It’s important to note that all 5 of the gear loops are marked with “0kN” essentially being “not-rated”. The bar-tacking appears to be more than substantial for the heaviest of racks but the only “rated” part of the harness is the tie-in points and the belay loop.

Ice Clippers/Screw-Tool Holders

The Arc’teryx FL-365 Harness can accommodate 4 “ice clippers” for racking ice screws and securing your ice axes. I chose to only employ three of them, two on the right, and one on the left, as is my preference with my typical ice climbing load out. In sticking with the more ice cragging function I was using this harness for I opted to use two of the DMM Vaults on the left/right rear attachment points and a lighter Black Diamond Ice Clipper at the front/right attachment point. With this set-up I could easily carry my 8 13cm “running pro” screws on my right (dominant hand) side and my 22cm V-thread/anchor screw and stubbies on my left rear DMM Vault.

Fit

I requested a medium to review and quickly discovered Arc’teryx sizing is a little on the tight side. Based on the size chart I should have fit into a medium:

Arc'teryx FL-365 Harness Review

I am a 34 inch waist with a 23.5 inch thigh… which falls into a medium on the above size chart, and while I was able to get the three inches of tail past the buckle I could tell right away a large would fit me better. For reference I’m 180 lbs, 5’9″, with a 42 inch chest. This was over mid-weight long underwear and a soft-shell pant. Arc’teryx was kind enough to send out a large for me to review and is allowing me to raffle off the un-used medium to my readers! Details below!

Weight/Pack-ability

My size large weighs in at 365 grams (12.9 ounces). This is a couple ounces heavier than my other favorite ice climbing harnesses but I can see how those ounces buy some additional comfort. By adding the super secure and unbreakable DMM Vault clippers I’ve definitely taken on some additional weight. My home scale puts the harness with the clippers I have mentioned at 572 grams (20 ounces). The DMM Vaults also reduce the ability to pack the harness up tightly. For that reason I went all out and setting this up as an ultimate cragging/shorter approaches type rig. With all the clippers removed this harness does fold up quite efficiently and can be packed in small alpine packs without taking up to much space.

Arc'Teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness Review
Preparing to rap Dracula while testing the Arc’Teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness

Summary/Giveaway

Arc’teryx has done well trying to make the perfect “quiver-of-one” style harness. If you partake in all the various disciplines of climbing this really could be a great choice for you. The reality is no one design will ever be the best for each facet of climbing with sacrifices to be made to achieve the best attributes for the intended design.

It may be helpful in the case of the Arc’teryx to rate the harness on a 1-10 scale based on end use. To that end I submit the following opinions:

Gym 5/10 <- Super comfy but a bit overkill for this use, route-setters might like this level comfort while setting routes.

Sport 8/10 <- Working projects, scrubbing new routes, carrying 20 draws for full pitch routes, all good uses of this style of harness

Trad Cragging 9/10 <- Excellent choice for routes that require big racks or hanging belays

Aid Climbing 9/10 <- Again, excellent choice for larger racks and hanging in space

Alpine 7/10 <- A bit heavy and bulky for long approaches where pack space is at a premium

Ice Cragging 9/10 <- If the approach isn’t that long there are not many other harnesses that can compete here

Ski Mountaineering 4/10 <- Too much harness for this pursuit!

In conclusion the Arc’teryx FL-365 is the most comfortable harness I’ve tested with the greatest amount of convenient racking space. It excels when approaches are on the shorter side of things and you have a ton of gear to carry once you have dropped packs and racked up. There are lighter more pack-able options out there but they all sacrifice a bit of comfort to achieve those real ultra-light gram-counts… if you are looking for a harness that can do it all quite well than this would be a great model to try on!

Arc'Teryx FL-365 Climbing Harness Review
Starting the steeper crux on the second pitch of The Black Dike- photo by Chase the Summit

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Giveaway!

As mentioned I have an un-used size medium up for grabs! There are multiple ways to enter, just click the Rafflecopter link below to start earning entries into the give-away! Unfortunately this is only for a size medium and it can not be exchanged with Arc’teryx or any Arc’teryx dealer for a different size. Prize is as-is non-returnable anywhere, so please if it doesn’t fit you perfect gift it to someone it does fit!

Contest ends April 30th at 9 PM EST!Winner will be contacted by email and announced here within 48 hours of the contest ending!

 a Rafflecopter giveaway

Arcteryx FL-365 Review
Arcteryx FL-365 Size Medium Giveaway!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



Disclaimer: A media sample was provided for purpose of review and that did not effect my opinion on the model in any way. Affiliate links above help support the content created here at Northeast Alpine Start.

Gear Review- Petzl Nomic Ice Axes 2018

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

The new Petzl Nomic has been refined in a way that makes it one of the most versatile ice axes available. I had only climbed a dozen or so days on the older version of the Nomic preferring the greater flexibility of the Petzl Quarks for my first ten years of ice climbing but the thoughtful changes in design have changed that and I’ve reached for the new Petzl Nomics more than any other tool this winter. Before I get into the details let’s look at how we tested them.

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How We Tested

Petzl Nomic 2019 Review
Our first test run was actually the first 2018/19 season ascent of Standard Route at Frankenstein Cliff- photo by Alexandra Roberts

The east coast ice climbing season started early this year and I started climbing on these in November at Frankenstein Cliffs. My first test runs were up Standard Route and Dracula. I loaned them to some friends to solicit their opinions and they took a multi-sport trip up the alpine classic Pinnacle Gully. By December I had them back in my hands for no less than three trips up an excellent early season Black Dike. A few more days of guiding ice on Mount Willard and Cathedral Ledge and I’m finally ready to share my review!

Petzl Nomic Review 2019
Enjoying excellent early season conditions on the Black Dike- photo by Dave Dillon of Chase the Summit

Want to see them in action? Check out this amazing footage capture by my friend Dave Dillon!

 

Also some more amateur GoPro footage of some testing produced myself:

 


Balanced

The first thing that stands out to me with these tools is how incredibly well balanced they are. The addition of removable tapered pick weights, a “hydro-formed” shaft, and adjustable handles all work together to help this tool swing with amazing precision and efficiency. I chose to leave the pick weights on as I primarily climb pure ice routes and the added head weight assists with placement allowing me to save energy while swinging the tool and getting more one-swing-sticks. The taper of the weights is also designed to facilitate dry tooling in cracks.

Petzl Nomic Review 2019


Comfortable

While it might seem odd to describe an ice tool as “comfortable” it is an accurate description on these tools. By using a three size adjustable lower handle and over-molded and bi-material upper handle these tools can be adjusted to fit anyone’s hands. I found the medium setting on the lower handle to be perfect for my medium sized hands. An allen wrench is required for adjusting the GRIPREST handle.

Petzl Nomic Review 2019

The upper handle is rubberized so there is no need to add grip tape to the tools to increase security when switching hands or “choking up” on a placement. I also found the tools swing with great precision and security when held like this:

Petzl Nomic Review

The shape of the hydro-formed shaft makes holding these anywhere along the shaft or “high-dagger” position comfortable.


Versatile

There is a lot of customization possible with these tools! For starters you can choose from four different picks!

The tools come with the PUR’ICE picks. They taper to 3mm and offer excellent penetration and easy removal in most placements. The top is serrated to offer some stability when holding the tool upside down through I did not find this to be an issue as these tools now have a real spike on the bottom to allow proper piolet canne when topping out a climb. They can suffer if you misfire and find some early season rock to impact as I did manage to bend a pick on the Black Dike when I unintentionally struck some rock. I swung by International Mountain Equipment and replaced the bent pick with the ICE pick which I was happy to be able to compare! The ICE pick tapers from 4mm to 3.3mm at the tip and carries a CE UIAA Technical Rating (the PUR’ICE pick does not meet the Technical Rating standards). I’ve since climbed a dozen routes with both picks and have not noticed much of a difference in ease of placement and cleaning so I’ll likely replace the PUR’ICE pick with the more durable ICE pick once it is time for a new pick. For those who will do some steep dry-tooling with these tools you can pick from both the DRY and the PUR’DRY picks.

The removable MARTEAU modular hammer is included with the tools. This can be stripped off (along with the pick weights) to minimize weight for dry-tooling or left in place so you can test and reset pitons. You can also chose to replace it with the PANNE if you want an adze on a tool. Finally the serrated stainless steel spike on the bottom of the GRIPREST handle has a connection point that is compatible with the V-LINK tether system.


Summary

All of this adds up to one of the best choices for a technical climbing tool on the market! While you will notice how nice they feel in hand at your local gear shop you truly will be impressed the first time you take these out on real ice. These are a perfect choice for the ice climber who only occasionally (or never) climbs hard mixed routes. They excel on WI3+ routes. I would still reach for the Petzl Quarks for WI2 or more alpine type objectives but for ice cragging at Frankenstein, Ouray, or any WI4 and up these are the bees knees. I hope you get a chance to climb with them!

Buy on Moosejaw at 20% off right now!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

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Caught and Carried… a reminder small slab avalanches can have consequences

I have triggered a lot of small avalanches over the 10 years I’ve been an avalanche educator. They have all been intentional, small, and inconsequential. Yesterday morning I triggered one that bordered on the line of consequential as it carried me about 20 feet down slope towards some uninviting looking trees. It was a fairly small avalanche with a crown that was estimated to be about 25 meters across the slope and 30 centimeters deep at its apex. I was high on the slab when it failed and able to self arrest with my ski poles in the bed surface quite quickly. While there were no injuries there is certainly something to learn from the experience so I’ll present the following account with that desire in mind.

Earlier this season a new client hired me for a Backcountry Ski Skills Course. After getting a resume of ski descents and experience from him we conducted a skills course into the bottom of Hillman’s Highway and had a very successful day. A few weeks later he was back to take a 3-Day AIARE Avalanche Course and toured with me in the Gulf of Slides. Having vetted his ski ability and fitness we made a plan to ski from the summit of Mount Washington.

Mother Nature however decided our plan to travel above tree-line on our day together would be unrealistic.

avalanche mount washington
Higher Summits Forecast for 2/19/19

After conveying that the summit was out for our day together he let me know he was still stoked to see how far we could go so we made a plan to head into Tuckerman Ravine and see if we could ski some of one of the renowned gullies located within.

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center forecasted “Moderate” avalanche danger with the following “Bottom Line”:

Low density snow yesterday has been affected by NW wind overnight which has produced relatively small new slabs that are possible to human trigger.

I had experienced this low density snow the day before during a tour in the Gulf of Slides on the last day of teaching an AIARE 1 Avalanche Course with Northeast Mountaineering. Some footage from that tour…

 

The next day we made excellent time up the Tuckerman Ravine trail reaching Hermit Lake in one hour and 15 minutes. Fausto is a fitness coach so it was easy for us to both stay warm in with the current conditions:

avalanche mount washington

After a quick re-fuel stop we made out way up the Little Headwall and observed some signs of instability on the slopes just above.

avalanche mount washington
Shooting cracks observed in thin fresh wind slab just above the Little Headwall

Here the winds were full value and we tucked our heads down and pushed on to Connection Cache. We moved off the trail to the right to find a brief reprieve from the wind and don face masks and goggles before deciding to push a little further into the ravine. The winds were a little less brutal as we set a skin track up to the right of the Lobster Claw run out. We had observed enough active wind loading to rule out entering any of the major avalanche paths and a few hundred feet up the far right side of the ravine we decided it was time to transition and head back down.

We dropped on some stiff wind board low angle terrain and I brought us down into the Cutler drainage then out to skier’s right aiming for the high exit that would connect us down to the far side of the Lower Snowfields. Here we traversed across a small steep slope one at a time before getting to the top of the chute that leads down to the flats then connects back out to the Cutler.

The snow was a little punchy here but we could make a few good jump turns down about 50 feet. I posted up under a little tree island and had Fausto stop just above the island. A slightly lower angle open slope to skiers right looked like it would offer a few more turns before heading back into the drainage but it looked size-able enough to warrant caution. I told Fausto to stay put while I traversed over and onto this slope trying to stay high with the intention of ski cutting it and posting up on the far side.

About halfway across the slope I saw it fail around me. There was no noticeable collapse or whumph but the cracks I saw everywhere in sight made it clear what was happening. I yelled “avalanche” as I started moving down hill and noted the crown was only 10 feet above me. I dug my ski poles into the bed surface and the little amount of debris that I was riding on continued downhill… I came to a stop about 20 feet below where I had triggered it. For a few seconds I watched the debris go down slope for about 100 feet through some small trees that I was glad I wasn’t meeting soon.

Looking back uphill I could see Fausto was still in the spot I told him to stay and I instructed him to traverse over to me as there was no significant hang-fire left and I wanted him to join me on the bed surface. I shot some video and measured the slope angle, aspect, elevation, and position with the convenient Theodolite app. We then made our way down to the bottom of the run out for a couple more pics of the slide.

 

avalanche mount washington
Theodolite app

avalanche mount washington

So what happened?

The 13 cm of super low density (3.7%) snow that fell during an almost windless day on February 18th got introduced to severe winds over the evening hours and into the morning. As mentioned in the bulletin today “winds often allows us to  exceed the 1:3-5 ratio of new snow to wind slab”. This new slab felt like it was probably 1-Finger to Pencil on the Hand Hardness Scale. I estimated the crown to be about 30cm deep at its apex. This small test slope is directly lee to the west winds that were howling all night and observed while we were in the area. In the video you can see active loading occurring directly following the avalanche.

While this was my first “unintentional” triggered avalanche I don’t feel that I was completely caught off guard. Signs of instability along with expert opinion in the form of the avalanche bulletin guided our terrain choices and we stayed under 30 degrees and outside of major avalanche paths for good reason. We moved one at a time across suspect slopes and stopped where we could watch each other. I went onto the slope that failed half expecting to perhaps trigger a small slab and assumed I would be able to stay above it. I ended up taking a short some-what controlled ride 20 feet downslope while Fausto watched from a good vantage.

With the benefit of hind-sight a more conservative choice would have been to descend skier’s left of the Little Headwall, basically down our skin track where we had already accessed slope stability. Assessing “top down” terrain is obviously harder to do. In speaking with one of the snow rangers my terrain choice was somewhat validated as a reasonable choice given the conditions. Still, I’ll be thinking about this day for quite awhile. Unintentional but somewhat expected is a strange way to think about triggering an avalanche, but that’s where I’m at right now.

I hope sharing these details and thought processes with the community is beneficial. It doesn’t happen with out acute knowledge that my choices can be judged with different levels of objectivity. As an avalanche educator though I strongly believe we should learn from every single avalanche involvement and being able to share your experience in a clear and transparent fashion can only benefit the greater avalanche community.

 

Gear Review- BightGear Caldera Down Parka

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
BightGear Caldera Parka Review- Photo by Alexandra Roberts

I’m fortunate to be able to review about a half-dozen of the industry’s best belay jackets each winter. Chances are from December to April I’m spending 5-6 days a week climbing frozen waterfalls or teaching avalanche courses up on notoriously cold Mount Washington. This gives me a lot of field time to put these jackets through the ringer and form some opinions which I am happy to share with you to help you navigate the myriad of choices out there!

A month or so ago a fellow guide introduced me to BightGear, a new brand born under the prestigious umbrella of Cascades based Whittaker Mountaineering. At its core this brand is an authentic “Guide Designed & Tested” label. Before a product is even released it must be tested for over 100k of vertical climbing.

Some impressive numbers from BightGear that speak to this process:

WEAR TESTING BY THE NUMBERS

  • 2016 – Over 1.2 Million vertical feet of wear testing by our guide team of primary fabrics used in 76 sample prototypes to build 19 different styles.
  • 2017 – Reached over 48 million vertical feet of wear testing and use of 143 prototypes by our team of 60+ guides, and thousands of RMI climbers on Mt. Rainier.
  • 2018 – On target to reach over 100 million vertical feet of testing with the launch of the Bight Test program on mountains and outdoor playgrounds around the world.
BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Guide designed and tested on the slopes of Mt. Rainier- photo courtesy of RMI/NEM Guide Jordan Cargill

Pretty cool right? Having learned all this I was more than happy to receive the BightGear Caldera Down Parka for a demo. After a month of testing in a variety of conditions I feel I can fairly share my opinion on this piece. In the realm of down insulated belay parkas the Caldera easily competes with the best in class options out there! Let’s start with the most noticeable then finish with the minutiae.


How Warm Is It?

BightGear stuffed this parka with over 6 ounces of 850 fill power HyperDRY™ Goose Down. That’s a lot of high loft quality down, and the result is a parka that feels like a nice sleeping bag for your torso. By using more I-beam baffles in the construction of the parka (vs sewn through) BightGear completely eliminates cold-spots. The arms and hood feel just as lofty as the torso which I prefer in this “over all” type parka. I’ve worn this over my other layers down to -16 Fahrenheit while demoing snow pits at 4,400 feet on Mount Washington. Even after an hour of standing relatively still while teaching the basics of snow-pack evaluation I was kept toasty.

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Using the volcanic capabilities of the Caldera to dry out after attempting to climb a full shower Black Pudding Gully- Photo by Alexandra Roberts

How Dry Is It?

The BightGear Caldera uses a silky 20D nylon rip-stop with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish. Most of the days I tested the parka were in temperatures well below those where I would encounter any liquid precipitation. I did expose it to a rather drippy ice climb a couple weeks ago and noticed water beads off as expected with a DWR finish. I also wore it over a soaked soft-shell jacket following a deluge of an ice climb and it dried me out quite quickly without feeling like it absorbed to much of the moisture. I’ve become a huge fan of the DWR treated down used in this parka as I believe regular down would quickly become a wet lump of non-insulating feathers under similar conditions.

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Legit testing by one of the most renowned guide companies out there! Photo courtesy of Jordan Cargill

How Light and Pack-able Is It?

BightGear lists the weight of a size large at 646 grams (22.8 ounces). My home scale weighed my large in at 640 grams (22.6 ounces). This is within an ounce of other similar style/priced options. It easily stuffs into my Hyperlight Mountain Gear waterproof stuff sack and if packing space is at a real premium I can use my extra small compression stuff sack to get this down to the size of a 32 ounce water bottle!

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Easily stuffs into my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultralight Stuff Sack
BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Gets even smaller in my XS compression stuff sack

Minutiae

BightGear included a lot design choices to further make the Caldera one of the best down parkas I’ve ever tested. The hood fits perfectly over my climbing helmet and is well stuffed with down making it a comfortable place to retreat in the harshest conditions. The brushed tricot lining on the inside collar is super cozy when in “full turtle” mode. This same lining is in the well positioned hand warming front pockets. Articulated elbows make this jacket fit great over my other layers and the PowerStretch cuffs seal out cold and snow while playing in deep snow. There are also two stretchy inside stash pockets that can hold gloves or a water bottle.

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Be warm and toasty hood easily fits over my climbing helmet

Summary

It is clear that the BightGear Caldera Parka was designed by working mountain guides. It has everything you want in a big down “puffy” and nothing you don’t want. Of all the down parkas I have tested this one stands out as a top-pick for many reasons, not the least of which is the “half-sleeping bag” type feeling you get when you slip this on over your other layers. If you are looking to upgrade your belay jacket this one would be an excellent choice!

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Essentially a nice puffy down “sleeping bag for your torso”… with the right layers and a bivy sack this is a great option for a bivy sleep system.

Exclusive 30% Off Discount!

I am super excited to be able to offer my readers a 30% off discount on ANY thing from BightGear’s Website! While I can not post the code publicly here all you need to do is shoot me a DM through Instagram, a PM through Facebook, or go old school and shoot me an email at nealpinestart@gmail.com! This discount is only good until April 1st, 2019 so don’t delay!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

A media sample was provided for purpose of review. 

 

Snow, Avalanches, Reflection, and More Snow for MLK Weekend!

Well that was an intense four day weekend of snow, snow, and more snow. It all started for me on Friday when I taught an AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course for Northeast Mountaineering. The timing of our first rescue course was somber as an avalanche accident made national news the evening before when two young men would die from being caught in an avalanche and many others injured in Taos Ski Valley, NM.

New Mexico Avalanche
From ABC News: People search for victims after an avalanche buried multiple people near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley, one of the biggest resorts in New Mexico, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. The avalanche rushed down the mountainside of the New Mexico ski resort on Thursday, injuring at least a few people who were pulled from the snow after a roughly 20-minute rescue effort, a resort spokesman said. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP)
new mexico avalanche
People search for victims after an avalanche near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley, one of the biggest resorts in New Mexico, Jan. 17, 2019. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP)

My thoughts and prayers go out to the two young men, their families, and friends who have suffered this tragic loss.

Friday’s rescue course brought 10 students from first year back-country travelers to seasoned vets who teach avalanche awareness classes for the Appalachian Mountain Club. We spent a couple hours in the morning going over rescue gear and methodology before moving to a field location for hands on realistic practice. Towards the end of the day I was partially buried a meter down in the snow while my friend and SOLO Instructor Sue addressed patient considerations, treatment, and evacuation. I thank former USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane for showing me the effectiveness of having students try to pull an unconscious 180 pound person out of a burial position.

avalanche rescue
Just my airway cleared and one arm free there is a lot of work to do before proper treatment can begin- photo by Ryan Mcquire

We ended the course just as the edges of an incoming Nor’easter brought some snow fall and by Saturday morning it was coming down steady!

Nor'Easter Avalanche Course
My AM check of the radar showed multiple heavy bands of cold fluffy snow was on tap for all day Saturday

Saturday was the start of a three day AIARE Avalanche 1 Course and with my co-instructor Grant Price we had a full course of 12 students, all ski tourers with various levels of experience, but all eager to learn. After a productive morning of classroom and an afternoon of rescue practice I headed north to the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to present a Know Before You Go presentation. This one-hour program is designed for a broad audience to introduce the 5 steps of avoiding getting caught in an avalanche.

  • Get the Gear
  • Get the Training
  • Get the Forecast
  • Get the Picture
  • Get out of Harm’s Way

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

In attendance were various guests, visitors, AMC trip leaders, and an AMC avalanche awareness class. After the presentation Q&A took us pretty late into the night.

avalanche education
Some Q&A after the presentation- photo by AMC Parker Peltzer

Driving home around 10 pm I got to see some of the heaviest rates of snowfall before waking early Sunday to get Day 2 of the avalanche course going. We spent a little time inside talking about Human Factors and Heuristic Traps, some of which I had quite recently let get the better of my own decision making, before jumping into some sweet online tools and creating a tour plan for the rest of the day.

avalanche course
“PLAN your trip” is one part of the AIARE Framework that helps us make better decisions in the back country

As soon as we hit the trail we started spotting obvious clues of unstable Storm Slab. Just as we were crossing the first Cutler River bridge we saw this… can you spot the two clues to unstable snow?

avalanche course
From the first bridge over the Cutler River minutes from the Visitor Center

There are two natural “baby” slab avalanches in this picture. One is just left of the rock in the center and harder to see. The one on the right is easy to see. This is evidence of this fluffy “fist” density storm snow has gained cohesion and is sitting on a reactive weak layer… in other words it has formed into a “slab”. We found multiple spots along side the trail where “hand shears” would fail during isolation and informal ski cutting would produce noticeable results, on of the best just off the trail while crossing a small creek and captured by this students video:

 

We continued up to Hermit Lake and took a few minutes to poke in the snow near the Volunteer Ski Patrol Cabin. As we were close to our established turn around time we soon found ourselves enjoying some nice if not a bit bumpy turns down the Sherburne ski trail.

I’d later find out my friend and fellow avalanche educator Ben Allen was out in Bill Hill Glades in Gorham kicking off small slabs there. I could just picture his smile and giggle as he poked around in the snow triggering small inconsequential avalanches. If you didn’t know that is one of the favorite things for an avalanche educator to do! Well, that and shred super stable POW of course…

avalanche course
Skier triggered storm slabs in Gorham, NH- photo by Ben Allen

On Monday, the final day of our avalanche course, our students started trip planning at the NEM Bunkhouse at 8 AM. The Mount Washington Avalanche Center was forecasting HIGH danger for the day. In addition the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast was predicting ambient air temperatures to plummet to the negative teens with wind chills in the -50 to -70 range. A conservative tour was needed, and the group selected a tour up the Cog Railway with a high point of Jacob’s Ladder and  possibly a side trip over to the top of a new slide path.

avalanche course
Using the incredible CalTopo website we created a tour map that highlighted areas that might harbor more risk. Yellow were aspects fully exposed to the hurricane force NW winds coming later that day. Red terrain fit the criteria of areas of HIGH danger, and orange represented some areas of CONSIDERABLE danger.

We hit the trail close to 10 AM with a parking lot temperature of -9 Fahrenheit but surprisingly very low winds. The skin up to Waumbek tank took us just over an hour.

avalanche course
Skiing up the Cog

During a break the group decided they would like to visit the top of the new slide path so we made our way up a few more hundred feet before contouring and bushwhacking over to the slide path.

avalanche course
Top of “Phillipe Path”

Here I could feel the Human Factors tugging hard. The snow looked great. No tracks in it! We hadn’t really seen any signs of unstable snow like we had the day before. No cracking or whumping. It wasn’t as windy as we thought it would be. We had time to ski it. It was cold but climbing back up it would really warm us up.

I thought back to last weeks course when I had let Human Factors have a serious negative effect on my decision making. It was bluebird… no wind… perfect day to gain the ridge and complete a full “tour” on the last day of an avalanche class. The snow down here looked good… it must be good over there? Right? A student was apprehensive of her ability. Basically first time in the back country… My impaired objectivity reared its ugly head. “You can do it” I reassure without any evidence that she could. “We can side slip down until you feel comfortable making turns” I wrongly assumed. “It’s not that steep”… sure, for me, but what about her?

Listen to Every Voice, Respect Every Veto. These are tenants in good back-country partners.

Blue Sky Syndrome, Powder Fever, Over Confidence, and even some Kodak Courage had all crept into my consciousness. I failed to practice what I preach. I was not being objective. We made it down to the trail head just before dark. It took a few days and a formal debrief to really look back on that day for what it was. While I could call it a complete failure I’m looking at it as an ice cold head dunk of a wake-up call. 10 years of teaching these skills and I can still mess up. We all can. It’s how we move forward after making a mistake that counts.

Back to the top of Phillip, we turn our backs on what might be a killer powder run and head back to the Cog. We enjoy great low angle riding in calf deep powder back to the parking lot. We’ve returned way ahead of our turn around time as we listened to each other when we admitted we were pretty cold. No one got frostbite. The ski down had warmed us up enough for a quick round of Compression Tests and an Extended Column Test on a nearby slope.

 

We headed into the warmth of the AMC Thayer Hall for a tour debrief and to close the course. I handed out feedback forms that had been missing since the new curriculum rolled out.

What did you get out of this course?

How could the course be improved?

Where did you feel most at risk or in danger?

How can the instructors improve?

At the end of the day I read through all 12 forms. Small changes can be made based on these suggestions. Small changes lead to better learning environments for students and growth for the instructors.

I’m grateful for every comment and nudge from every student, fellow instructor, or guide I’ve ever gotten. Keep them coming.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

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maplevilla

Gear Talk: Radios in the Backcountry

using radios for Backcountry Skiing and Mountaineering
Matt Jones checks in using the BCA Link Radio before dropping in, Jones Pass, Colorado- photo by Bianca Germain

Over the last few years I’ve realized how important being able to quickly and clearly communicate with my partners in the mountains is. So much so that I’ve added a pair of hand-held radios to my “essentials” list. I started using BCA Link Radios while working on Mount Washington to stay in touch with other guides who worked for the same outfitter I did. After missing this reliable way to communicate on a recreational ski tour I started taking them with me on every ski trip. I also find them well suited to alpine and ice climbing gullies with long technical pitches that end at anchors out of sight (Pinnacle Gully and Black Dike are perfect examples).

The ease of being able to clearly communicate without yelling over the roar of the wind or interpret “rope tugs” adds greatly to your risk management strategies. Other benefits include being able to monitor National Weather Service current conditions and forecasts for your regions, summon outside help outside of cell phone coverage, and even tune into local FM stations on some models. I’ll share a few models worth looking at if you need to pick up a set of radios to improve your capabilities in the mountains.


Backcountry Access BC Link

BCA Link Radio

We had a fleet of these at the guide service I first worked with. They are simple to use, rugged, and convenient. The “Smart Mic” allows you to access all the controls you need without having to take the radio out of your pack. Equipped with 22 FRS and GMRS channels and 121 sub-channels it is compatible with all standard FRS/GMRS radios.

  • Group Communication System with Smart Mic and base unit
  • Water- and dust-resistant to IP56 standards
  • Compatible with all standard FRS/GMRS radios
  • 2.5-mile line-of-sight range ensures adequate coverage
  • 140 hour maximum battery life keeps unit running all day (3.7 Volt Lithium Ion)
  • Temperature operating range between -4F to 158F
  • Smart Mic is compatible with 3.5mm TS or TRS earphone plug
  • Battery charger included

Pros: Super user friendly to first time radio owners. No licenses needed to operate. Rugged and Water Resistant (IP56). Convenient Smart Mic. Can program local NWS channel for weather updates. Integrates well with BCA line of Airbags and Stash backpacks. Removable battery means you can bring extra batteries on a trip.

Cons: A little pricey but discounted now that there is a new version out! Can not program channels that would require a license to use outside of emergencies.


Backcountry Access BC Link 2.0

BCA Link 2.0 Radio

The new version boosts some significant improvements over the time tested original. More power means greater range, with the 2.0 offering up to 6 miles (line of sight), more than double the range of the original. A stronger battery (2300mAh lithium ion) also gives you more time between recharging (400 hours vs 140 hours in the original). A redesigned Smart Mic claims to better shed snow when you’re riding in face shot territory.

  • Two-way radio built for backcountry touring
  • Smart Mic offers glove-friendly handling
  • Rechargeable battery offers 400 hours of standby power
  • Recommended line-of-sight usable range of 6 miles; max of approximately 40-miles

Pros: Super user friendly to first time radio owners. No licenses needed to operate. Rugged and Water Resistant (IP56). Convenient Smart Mic. Can program local NWS channel for weather updates. Integrates well with BCA line of Airbags and Stash backpacks.

Cons: Pretty expensive, but this is a high-end choice in the realm of FRS/GRMS radios. Can not program channels that would require a license to use outside of emergencies. Battery is no longer removable so you can’t bring extra batteries (but you can charge with a standard charger or USB)


BaoFeng BF-F8HP

radios for backcountry skiing

The last few years I’ve been using the BaoFeng BF-F8HP and have been quite happy with them. With up to 8 watts of output they have great range. They can be programmed for FRS/GRMS. They can also be programmed to monitor and broadcast on licensed channels so care must be given you do not break FCC rules. You can listen to FM radio while the radio still monitors the channel your group is using, so if a communication is received the radio automatically mutes the FM radio station you were rocking out to while skinning up that non-consequential slope. You can also monitor National Weather Service regional weather.

Pros: Affordable. Dual band (monitor two channels at same time). Listen to local FM radio while hanging around camp or moving through no risk terrain. Can program local State and Federal frequencies to be used in case of emergency*

Cons: Not as water/weather resistant as the BCA Link Radios. I’ve ruined two in accidental immersion incidents (waterfall rappelling). In heavy rain I would want to keep this in the pack, maybe in a dry sack. “Boom mic” is not included and not as glove-friendly as BC Link Radios. I keep this radio out on my shoulder strap. Care must be given that you do not broadcast on frequencies that require licensing. If you need a fleet of them it’s good to have someone with a data cable and the PC software “Chirp” to program them.


What is legal?

Navigating what frequencies don’t require a license can be tricky. The BC Link Radios are quite powerful FRS/GRMS radios that keep it simple. The BaoFeng can land you a $15,000 fine if you are caught using licensed channels. Because of this I’ve decided to pursue an Technician license. An even easier to get license is the “Amateur” license and would probably make these issues even clearer.

You are allowed to monitor (listen) to channels that require a license to transmit on. You are also allowed to transmit on these channels without a license in the case of a real emergency. From the FCC:

Part 97.403: Safety of life and protection of property.

No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radio communication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.

All that said I’m looking forward to pursing a license so I can better answer these questions.


Summary

While some of the details of licensing can be unclear (without proper education) one thing that is clear is that handheld radios like these help us travel more safely and efficiently in the mountains. Here is an example of a conversation that could not happen with out radios from the top of a backcountry ski run:

“Dropping in 3” – alerts group I’m starting the first pitch of my ski run.

“Clear”- let’s group know next person can follow, I’ve stopped at a safer spot.

Even outside of avalanche terrain radios can assist with conveying hazards as they are discovered.

“Stay hard right at first corner to avoid a water bar”

In an alpine climbing scenario easily talking with your belayer when 50 meters apart and out of sight is comforting. None of the “Did he say off belay or OK?”. Was that three tugs or does she just need more slack?

Having both NWS weather updates and FM stations (BaoFeng) on long trips can help keep you informed and improve morale if stuck in your tent for an extra day waiting for good weather.

All of these reasons are why radios have become a part of my “essentials” every time I go into the mountains. Once you start using them you’ll wonder why you haven’t been using them all along!

Disclaimer: I do not have any level of radio license and information provided above may be incorrect. I will update this post after I have acquired a license but would love any comments from current licensed operators below and will make suggested edits where appropriate!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start