Winter Gear Prep Part 1- The Essentials (2017)

It’s that time of year again! The leaves are falling and it’s time to start planning for all the snowy and icy adventures that await! Thanks to reader Paul for reminding me I never finished this multi-part gear prep series from last Fall! I’ve gone through and edited Part 1 to reflect what is actually in my pack this season. I will update Part 2 this week and finish Part 3 & 4 in the next two weeks!

Winter Gear Prep
What’s in your pack? photo by Brent Doscher

(Originally posted October 2016, now updated October 2017)

Every year around this time I start getting excited about the arrival of my favorite season, Winter! To help fuel the stoke I go through my gear closet and take stock. What’s worn out and what needs replacing? What’s good to go for another icy season? I thought it might be helpful to provide a gear checklist with recommendations on what I use in all categories. In this first segment I’ll cover “The Essentials” a personally modified list of the classic “Ten Essentials“.

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The Essentials

Maps– I use the free online mapping software CalTopo for all my mapping and trip planning needs. This powerful software has so much potential every outdoor adventurer should familiarize themselves with this tool! If you’d like to take a course that covers survival navigation and these advanced navigation skills go here!

Compass– I love my Suunto MC-2 compass which I reviewed in full detail here.

Buy on Backcountry   Buy from EMS   Buy on Amazon

If you’re looking for a smaller more affordable compass I also highly endorse the Suunto A-10 Compass.

Buy on Backcountry   Buy at REI   Buy from EMS   Buy on Amazon


Headlamp– I recently upgraded my headlamps and currently carry the Petzl Zipka 2 and the Petzl Actik. You really can’t go wrong with a Petzl headlamp.

Buy the Petzl Zipka 2 on Backcountry, Amazon, REI

Buy the Petzl Actik on Backcountry, Amazon, EMS, REI


Batteries– I put fresh lithium batteries in my headlamps every Fall. Days are shorter and I am much more likely to need a headlamp. Lithium easily out performs alkaline in cold weather so the Energizer AA’s and AAA’s are always on hand. The best deal I can find on these batteries is on Amazon which is linked here.


First Aid Kit– I start with the Adventure Medical Kit .7 then modify it a little. I add more gloves (acquired from visits to the hospital) and a bottle of iodine tablets (for emergency water treatment and wound irrigation), and a small refillable bottle of Advil.


Knife– Colonial makes dozens of great models like this one.


Bivy Sack– I carry a AMK Heatsheets Emergency Bivy on every single outing. It only weighs a few ounces and is worthwhile the extra insurance!


Handwarmers– I always carry 6-8 hand warmers in my winter pack. Pro-tip: If you need to use them… place them under your glove on your wrist, right where that artery is. Much more effective than placing it in the palm of your hand which reduces grip on ice axes/ski poles. Usually the glove can hold it in place though sometimes I’ll use a little athletic tape.


A “Buff– A very versatile clothing accessory! I have a few so I can wash them occasionally and always have one ready to go.


Glove Liners– I usually need to purchase a couple pairs of these because I do wear them out within a year or two. Totally worth the cheap price though!


Dermatone Sunblock– I always have a tin of this stuff with me in the winter.


Neoprene Face Mask– I like this simple style. It works well in combination with the Buff and my hat/hood. Bigger “fancier” ones make it difficult not to over heat. Pro-tip, if you have fogging issues when used with your goggles take a pair of scissors and enlarge the mouth holes.


GogglesRevo Capsule with the Green Water Lens. The one “essential” category I don’t skimp on. I need quality breathable goggles for the mountain work I do and this pair has not disappointed. As a Revo ambassador I’m able to extend a 20% discount on these to any of my readers! All you need to do is order them directly from http://www.revo.com and enter promo code “ALPINESTARTF&F” and you’ll get 20% off the purchase!


Well that’s it for my “Essentials” list. Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments below!

Part 2 will focus on my various clothing systems specific for ice climbing, mountaineering, and back-country skiing.

Part 3 will focus on ice climbing gear and maintenance.

Part 4 will cover ski gear and maintenance.

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See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Disclaimer- Every product mentioned above except the goggles was purchased with my own money. This post contains affiliate links that help support this blog.

See you in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start

Mount Washington Ascent 12-19-16

This past Monday I headed up to the rockpile again with Virginia/Maryland based Max & Rachel. After gearing up at the Northeast Mountaineering bunkhouse we hit the trail at about 8:15. Following last weeks snow/rain/deep freeze trail conditions were quite nice on the lower Tuckerman Trail. The first “step” on Winter Lionhead had considerable water ice but full crampons and ice axe, and a little coaching saw us through it in quick time. Above this step cramponing was great all the way to the summit which we reached around 1:15pm in really low wind conditions. Definitely a great day on the mountain and I hope to see Max & Rachel back for another adventure this winter!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

P.S. If you decide to book an adventure with Northeast Mountaineering use promo code “DavidNEM” to get a chance at winning a free guided day of your choosing!

Eastern Snow Avalanche Workshop

A couple weeks ago I attended the sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop and wrote a brief summary of the event with a few photos. Here, with permission, is a special sneak preview of the more detailed report my friend and colleague Jonathan Shefftz has written for The Avalanche Review before it goes to print! Enjoy!

6th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop
6th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop

Sixth Annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”)

by Jonathan S. Shefftz

The sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”) on November 5 attracted approximately 150 attendees at Fryeburg Academy, just across the state border from New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in the White Mountains’ Presidential Range.

This year’s ESAW was as always a collaborative effort.  The organizing partners included the Snow Rangers of the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center (“MWAC”) and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol (“MWVSP”).  ESAW once again relied on a grant from our lead sponsor the American Avalanche Association (“AAA”), to be led here soon by Eastern Representative-elect Mark Renson, with your faithful correspondent as AAA Member Representative.  Additional support came from our headline industry sponsor Outdoor Research.  Registration fee proceeds over and above hosting costs benefitted the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund, which provides avalanche education to youth of the Northeast.

ESAW kicked off the prior Friday evening with a social event hosted by the Friends of MWAC and fueled by Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing at the International Mountain Equipment shop and guide service.  Then Saturday morning the avalanche presentations started up at Fryeburg Academy.

Chris Joosen, MWAC former Lead Snow Ranger (only the third since its 1951 formation) and outgoing AAA Eastern Representative, flew back East from his new Oregon home to serve yet again as our MC.  Also flying out East was our first presenter, Simon Trautman of the National Avalanche Center (“NAC”), who introduced us to “Avalanche Danger Scales and How Forecasters Use Them” including data to compare/contrast ratings distributions across the forecast centers of different nations.

We then retreated well below treeline as Tyler Ray of the newly formed Granite Backcountry Alliance (i.e., for the “Granite State” of New Hampshire) joined MWAC Snow Ranger Helon Hoffer for “Backcountry Skiing on Public Lands: The Creation of Legitimate and Sustainable Glades.”  Although New England backcountry skiing guidebooks reference only official ski trails (many cut by the famed Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression) plus the avalanche terrain at and above treeline, much of the backcountry skiing here actually takes place on the “down low”:  glades illicitly cut on public lands for “forest fire prevention” and other in-the-know euphemisms.  This was brought into the open in 2007 when two would-be Vermont backcountry skiers were criminally charged with felony-level violations for chainsawing a prominent line (aka “Jailhouse Chute”).  But recent collaboration in Vermont with the USFS between non-profit groups has created glades that are both nicely skiable and legitimately accessible.  The increasing availability of such terrain can offer a safe alternative to skiing at and above treeline when avalanche danger is elevated.  And fortuitously for the Granite Backcountry Alliance, the off-season position for Snow Ranger Hoffer is the USFS Trails Manager for much of the Presidentials Range.

Next, AAA’s Executive Director Jaime Musnicki returned to her native New England to make good on her plan to attend as many regional SAWs as possible, and also to present on “Personal Reflections:  Making Sense of Our Own Close Calls in Avalanche Terrain.” As if the incident she described in detail weren’t already harrowing enough, her partner had been her new boyfriend at the time, out on their first ski tour together.  And not only did Jaime come out on top of the debris, four years later the two of them are still together.

On a similar note, Jon Miller, of Dogy Down Films, although unable to attend in person, presented to us on “Risk, Rewards, and the Balancing of Mountain Experiences and Goals” via a tailored video introduction and debriefing for us to sandwich his film “Season on the Brink.”  His life-threatening fall this past spring in a Mount Washington couloir was extensively written up at the time, but the video footage he showed us — from both a partner and his own helmet cam — was especially terrifying.  Just as memorable were the assessments from the party members of “What really sticks with me is that we just shouldn’t have been there” and “A series of little details and little errors that added up.”  After a helicopter airlift, Jon spent a month in hospital care before regaining the ability to talk and walk normally.

Dallas Glass, our fourth Western presenter of the morning, here to lead the avalanche instructor training the following day for the American Avalanche Institute for Research and Education (“AIARE”), presented on “Blue Skies, Powder Days, and Las Vegas: Minimizing the Role of Luck in Avalanche Terrain.”  For ESAW regulars over the years, Dallas’s presentation was the perfect follow-up to the 2012 presentation to us by Blase Reardon (then of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center, and now of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center).  Back then, Blase had emphasized that the backcountry snowpack does not provide a consistent environment with regular feedback, but rather its feedback is inconsistent and often fatal.  (Remember Bruce Tremper’s analogy of playing soccer in a mine field.)  “Experts” are often just those who have gotten lucky over time, like many stock pickers who have beaten the market over a selected time period.  This year, Dallas explained how debriefing your day is the feedback loop that completes the risk management process.  Professional guides always hold a debriefing as part of their standard operating procedures.  To help recreationalists aspire toward this goal, Dallas quoted an incentivizing line from his fellow Pacific Northwest guide Larry Goldie:  “Why having a beer at the end of the day could save your life.”  It (the debriefing, not necessarily the alcoholic content!) allows us to identify when we got lucky and thereby recalibrate, so that on future trips we aren’t relying on “luck” to stay safe.  We have all gotten lucky in the mountains, but we need to recognize when that occurs so that we don’t need an incident to provide us feedback, and instead we can use “no event” days to learn from and grow as backcounty travelers.

After lunch, Jaime Musnicki explained the upcoming split between recreational versus professional tracks in U.S. avalanche training.  Fortunately the details need not be reiterated here, since you the dear reader have of course already carefully read every single prior TAR article on this subject.  (Right?)  This fed into a panel discussion on avalanche education with Jaime Musnicki, Jeff Lane (previously a MWAC Snow Ranger for ten years), Simon Trautman, and Dallas Glass, moderated by MWAC Snow Ranger Frank Carus.

Thus far we had been getting off lightly on the technical side.  To ratchet everything up several notches, as always we could rely on Dr. Sam Colbeck, retired from the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (in Hanover, NH) after three decades of groundbreaking cold lab and field research in snow crystal bonding and wet grain relationships.  In his fifth year of ESAW presentations, this time Sam explained “Why Skis Slide on Snow.”  The answer is not simply “because it’s fun” since that’s why we use skis to slide on snow, as opposed to why they are actually able to slide so well.

And those skis slide especially well on very steep terrain with lots of blown-in snow, which was the focus of the presentation by Frank Carus on “Forecasting Avalanche Danger in Inherently Dangerous Terrain” regarding the couloirs in the at-treeline glacial cirques on our Mount Washingon.  Next, Simon Trautman presented on “What are we doing now?” at the NAC, following up on the presentation at the 2014 ESAW by the NAC’s Director Karl Birkeland.

And finally, Chris Joosen wrapped up with “Reflecting on a Life with Avalanches” incorporating his 26 years working on Mount Washington.  His conclusion was followed by a standing ovation from all attendees.  And from all us who have depended for so many years on Chris’s work and his direction of the MWAC Snow Rangers, thank you!

We concluded with our annual expo, including rep displays for AAA, AIARE, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond / Pieps, Catamount Trail Association, Bryce & Ronnie Athlete Safety & Security (“BRASS”) Foundation, DPS Skis, Friends of MWAC, Granite Backcountry Alliance, La Sportiva, Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation, Mammut / Barryvox, MWVSP, Mount Washington Weather Observatory, Petzl & Adventure Medical, Salomon, Northeast Mountaineering guides, Ortovox / Deuter, and Outdoor Research.  Throughout the day we had raffled off and auctioned donations from these sponsors plus ARVA, Dynafit, Hagan, MSR, Pomoca, Ski the East, and Toko.  

Jonathan Shefftz patrols at Northfield Mountain and Mount Greylock in Western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and daughter (who notched her first-ever October ski outing this season). He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and AAA governing board member. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or “coaching” his daughter’s skiing (i.e., picking her up off the snow), he works as a financial economics consultant and has been qualified as an expert witness in state and federal courts. He can be reached at JShefftz@post.harvard.edu or just look for the lycra-clad skinner training for his NE Rando Race Series.

 

Mount Washington, Willard, and Elephant’s Head… my winter guiding season finally begins!

This weekend kicks off the start of my winter guiding season. Yesterday I had the pleasure of leading a motivated father & son team from Connecticut up Mount Washington in some of the thinnest conditions I have ever seen this late in December. Despite the absence of snow we had a pretty enjoyable climb with comfortable weather and some great views.

Connor and his father, Thomas
Connor and his father, Thomas
Crossing the Cutler River for the second time
Crossing the Cutler River for the second time
Climbing through the clouds Boot Spur Ridge appears behind us
Climbing through the clouds Boot Spur Ridge appears behind us
Summer Lion's Head Trail
Summer Lion’s Head Trail
Just Below Lion's Head
Just Below Lion’s Head
A group ahead of us climbing up to Lion's Head
A group ahead of us climbing up to Lion’s Head
Reaching Lion's Head
Reaching Lion’s Head
Tuckerman Ravine looking pretty bony for mid-December
Tuckerman Ravine looking pretty bony for mid-December
Nearing Split Rock with Lion's Head below in the fog
Nearing Split Rock with Lion’s Head below in the fog

We made it all the way to the lower summit parking lot before needing to don our micro-spikes for the final 100 yards (that parking lot is an ice skating rink).

Clear skis as we reach the lower parking lot and for the first time need traction
Clear skis as we reach the lower parking lot and for the first time need traction
Obligatory summit shot
Obligatory summit shot
Our route
Our route

Today I had 3 guests for a Winter Climbing 101 Course. It’s no secret Mother Nature has dealt us a sub-par hand in terms of “winter” conditions, but John, Mitzy, and Tom were still enthusastic about what we could accomplish and with a little thinking “outside the box” we put together a pretty productive day. We started the morning off in our new conference room where I shared some of the online resources for trip planning in the White Mountains. Namely, HikeSafe, the Mount Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast and Regional Mesonet, and CalTopo.

We then had a gear shakedown looking at differences in ice axes & crampons before packing up and heading north to Crawford Notch. I knew Willey’s Slide & other usual early season standby’s would still be questionable but we had a backup plan in place. Our drive through the Notch confirmed my suspicions regarding “climb-able” ice and we parked at the Mt. Willard Trail parking lot. After shaving the technical gear from our packs we hit the 1.6 mile trail up to Mt. Willard. While non-technical in nature we were able to go into detailed conversations regarding mountaineering concerns. Heat loss, cold weather injuries, altitude illness, navigation, avalanche awareness, mountain weather, layering strategies, were all discussed in detail. About an hour later we arrived at a socked in summit, just in time for a clearing while we enjoyed our lunch.

John & Mitzy on summit of Mt. Willard
John & Mitzy on the summit of Mt. Willard
Tom on Mt. Willard with Mt. Webster behind
Tom on Mt. Willard with Mt. Webster behind
Love that view
Love that view

We opted to wear micro-spikes for the descent and headed back down to the car. With a couple hours to spare, and wanting a bit more “technical” end to our day, we made our way over to Elephant’s Head. This .3 mile trail brought us up to the top of this 120 foot bluff where we all rappelled during intermittent snow squalls.

Rappelling the Elephant Head
Tom rappelling the Elephant Head
Our route
Our route

While we seem to be off to a rough start this year I want to put a little perspective on the situation. It’s true we had a great start last year with freak powder skiing on Halloween and a personal 11/20 ascent of Pinnacle in great conditions. But then we had a big December thaw with 3 days of rain towards the end of December which essential pushed the reset button on our winter. We then went on to have one of the best winter & ski seasons I have experienced since moving here in 2001. El Nino or not, I’m holding out hope that just like last winter our season is simply going to begin a bit later, but still be quite epic. The two new pairs of skis sitting in my closet sure do hope so!

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See you in the mountains!

-NEAlpineStart