Monday, December 7, 2015

Smugglers Notch Early Season Ice 2015/16

soloing on 30/11 at the mid-point of the gully leading up to the goods
On Wednesday before thanksgiving, 25 November, I was first up in Smugglers Notch. I had a hunch that there would be something or other to climb, so I took the tools for a walk. I am new to the Northeast this season and I don't have a sense of how things form up yet. Smugglers Notch is only 45 minutes or so  away from from where I'm living in Warren, Vermont. And it isn't such a inconvenience to get over there.

On the 25th, the climbs on the right side (coming up from Stowe) were hanging with forming ice, verglassed slabs and wet rock. The upper pitches of the climbs looked like they were coming along nicely. The lower parts where just wet rock or a very thin sheet of ice with water running underneath. The ice on Ragnarock and Elephants Head Gully was coming in but certainly not formed.

The west-facing side on the left was much more inviting: shielded from the sun, cold, hoarfrost and a dusting of snow. I went up the creek bed to approach the amphitheatre where Blind Fate looked good and a beautiful ice column as part of a line immediately to the left also was promising.

I climbed up the final approach gully mixing it up on thin ice and rock until I was under Blind Fate, (III, WI4). I took the Blind Fate option, mostly because I wanted to climb a Bouchard route on two different continents. I moved over the lower angle ramp, trending right. The ice was pretty thin and not always well bonded because of some running water. The upper part was in great shape. Plastic ice, well structured and a joy to climb.

I was back up at Smugglers Notch on Monday, 30 November. The warm weather on Thanksgiving Thursday and the following Friday took its toll on the fragile, early season ice. Everything had substantially deteriorated. The Elephants Head Buttress side was stripped of much of the hanging ice and just wet. The climbs in the Blind Fate sector were broken and dangerously unclimbable. All the following photos are from Monday, 30 November.
two daggers that will be nice when they touch down
elphants head sector
After seeing the effects of the warm weather and changes from Wednesdasy the 25th, I had mentally written-off the thought of finding anything to climb. I walked over the pass with a couple of dog walkers and turned around to head back towards Stowe. As I started descending on the road southwards, I saw the upper ice of a gully tucked-in a cold nook and facing a bit more north / northwest.
the good stuff at the end
I made my way up  a creek bed and into the steep woods towards the promising-looking ice curtain. I geared up at the base of an approach gully that was filled with compact ice. It was about 120 meters of climbing before I got to the upper part of the ice curtain visible from the road. The gully was thin and interspersed with vertical steps of two to four meters with some fun, easy mixed climbing too.
second 30 meter rappel
I used the ice features to move diagonally right towards a small cave and then up and left in a kind of ice staircase to top out. It was easier than it looked from lower down. The ice was plastic yet well bonded. It was, however dripping / running with melt water over the hanging icicles and forming nice cauliflower blobs.

I made five, 30 meter rappels to the base of the ice gully. finding good ice for V-threads was a challenge. I bored four holes for one anchor and equalised them with cord. The rest of the anchors were normal threads, with the last one from a tree.
skinny rap line through v-threads
A techical note: I really like my 6mm Rap Line (Mammut, but there are also some from Edelrid). I have used it while soloing in Chamonix last spring and summer. The 60 meter length packs really compactly and is very light. It's pretty unnerving to use it the first time if your not accustomed to such skinny ropes. At only 6mm, I can thread it directly through the V-threads, saving the waste of leaving cord behind when the fall melts out in spring.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Winter Season 2015 - 2016

chalky powder in verbier
For the 2015 - 2016 ski season I will be working as a ski instructor and backcountry guide at the Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vermont.

I will also take advantage of the opportunities of being in the Northeast USA to ice climb and guide in the abundant well-established areas for winter climbing. Some of the best ice climbing east of the Mississippi can be found in Vermont, New Hampshire (North Conway, Franconia & Crawford Notch), In the Adirondacks of northern New York and across the Canadian border in Quebec.

Additionally, I hope to do some climbing and skiing in the western & north western USA and Canada. From Christmas through the end of January 2016, I'll be in the western USA and Canada. Plans are to ski and ice climb in some of the regions most iconic places: Jackson Hole, Whistler, Baniff, Mount Raineer, Bozeman, Ouray, etc.

I have skied a few times at Sugarbush to get familiar with the area's terrain. Unfortunately, there hasn't been any substantial snowfall yet so all the skiing has been on-piste with artificial snow. As I write this a bit of snow is forecast for tomorrow (2nd December), but nothing significant. The long-range prognosis isn't optimistic. To get the snow cover to be able to ski the trees, which is the standard fare in the northeast, we need some major snowfall.

So now is the time in both my own skiing and with clients to work on refining technique in ways that can only be done on piste. Sort of like using indoor sport climbing to work on technical aspects of rock climbing.

Appointments for skiing together can be made through the Ski and Ride School of Sugarbush Resort ( or contacting me directly.

Monday, March 16, 2015

What if it's not true?

There is a well known quote from Mark Twain to the effect that if you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reflect and most likely change course.

As I look around at all of the things that interest me, my passions, my pursuits, etc., I realise more and more that what I considered "truths" in these fields have all been washed away and proven wrong. In short, my beliefs related to these areas have disappeared as new information, experiences, evaluations, on and on, have caused me to reflect and alter my older mindset. These days in fact, I try not to have beliefs. Why? Because latching on to the security of your beliefs causes stagnation. It is a mental laziness in which a person thinks, "That's what I believe, I don't have to think about it anymore, I can put it in its own compartment in my mind and be done with it!".

"Call me crazy, but I believe that changing and improving your life requires destroying a part of yourself and replacing it with a newer, better part of yourself. It is therefore, by definition, a painful process full of resistance and anxiety. You can’t grow muscle without challenging it with greater weight. You can’t build emotional resilience without forging through hardship and loss. And you can’t build a better mind without challenging your own beliefs and assumptions." - Mark Mason (

The vigorous questioning of your beliefs and assumptions is the best way to make progress in your fitness, nutrition, training, technique, etc. I would put forward that the greatest impediment to improving and evolving is consciously or unconsciously clinging to a self-created belief.

Ruthlessly examine, ruthlessly identify, ruthlessly eliminate, ruthlessly.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Black Crows Nevis Freebird Review

This season I've been skiing the Black Crows Nevis Freebird as my ski touring ski. I am skiing the 187.7cm length with either Dynafit TLT6 Performance boots, or the older TLT5 Performance boot also from Dynafit.

More information can be found at the Black Crow's site:

The ski is 187.7cm long with a 21 meter radius. Tip - waist - tail dimensions are 134-103-121. The weight is 3900 grams, according the Black Crows. The ski is designed as the touring version of the Navis. There are some material differences and construction adaptations to make the Navis Freebird a bit lighter and therefore more touring friendly. Note, that there are also construction differences between the various lengths of the Navis Freebird which manifest itself as pretty striking weight differences, more than the additional centimetres, between the various ski lengths.

I mounted ATK ( super-light weight race bindings on the skis. This places the boot very close to the top of the ski and there is very little ramp angle between the heel and toe piece of the binding.

This set-up makes the ski most suitable to skiing powder and soft snow, which is what I'm looking for when I'm skiing in the backcountry. For backcountry, self-powered skiing I want a ski that I can do everything from short half-day tours to week-long, or longer, traverses.  Additionally, i am normally doing some type of ski mountaineering endeavour, so I am often carrying the skis on my pack. 

My criteria for the selection of the ski was: waist around 100mm, not too much sidecut and therefore a radius of around 20 meters, wood core, laminated construction with a re-inforcing top sheet, not too much rocker - if any at all, and length at around 180-185cm. Other skis i considered were the La Sportive High5, Daystar Cham High Mountain / Cham 117, Line Sir Francis Bacon and Dynafit Grand Teton.

In the first few days of March, the Salzburg area got two decent storms with 30-40cm of new snow up high with each cycle. I really fell in love with skis as I could ski a number of days in a row on them. I developed the sense of playing around with the skis sweet spot. I found that I could ski all size and types of turns in a playful and powerful way. I was on terrain that included tight trees, wide-open slopes, narrow trails, forest roads, etc., really all types of terrain.  The snow conditions ranged from light, deep powder to hard-packed, skied-out trails and roads.

The ski is very stable and damp, sucking up changes in snow constancy. They power trough variable snow very well. The skis are stiff and have excellent edge hold. I believe that you have to stay forward on the ski and they respond immediately to rider input. They are certainly skis that need to be actively controlled.
In the past years, I have skied Line Prophets at 186cm, White Dot Preachers at 189cm for lift-serviced free riding and some shorter ski tours. For more traditional ski touring and ski mountaineering, I have been on Dynafit Stokes and Dynastar Mystic Riders that were around 175cm.

I ski lift-serviced stuff with Lange Free Ride boots with a 130 flex rating and Dynastar Vulcans (120 flex?). For all ski touring, I am on the TLT6 Performance - which for me is a fantastic fit and performance combination. If I plan on combing alpine ice & mixed climbing with a ski approach, I'll switch over to the striped down TLT5 Performance boot which climbs ice, snow and rock better.
The Black Crows are what I label as a "Chamonix ski": stiff. traditional chamber with a small amount of rocker, a bit heavy and very well built and sturdy. They ski and feel like a number of Dynastar skis. Also a bit like Völkl's older Mantra or Gotoma, with a little more heft and mass. I have surprised by the Black Crows nimbleness. The skis are really quick in tight terrain for their length.

At first, I was a bit too tentative on the ski. Once I found the skis sweet spot and was a little more aggressive, everything clicked. The ski is really inspiring for me to ski. It is certainly a ski that won't hold me back or leave me waiting in any way.

Monday, March 2, 2015


"We often fail to do what we most want to do - or at the very least we fail to do what, at the end of the day (or year, or lifetime) we will most wish we had done." - Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

Looking up from the mid-point of soloing some (unclimbed?) alpine ice in the Gastein valley
What is the benefit of climbing? Alpinism? Going further than that, what is the point of expending energy and effort into something that is not based on commodity exchange? Is there any reason or meaning to engaging in the risks that are innately intrinsic to the mountains? 

There are certainly aspects to climbing and alpinism of truly maximising your own well being through practicing the various alpine disciplines. Undertaking alpine activities can lead to developing meaningful contentment in an individual in a sustainable way that brings authentic, lasting value. The pursuit of mastery, developing a long-term practice, learning lessons that than can be applied to other parts of life are all benefits of being in the mountains. There are no short-term rewards, no pursuit of ease and comfort. the embracing of uncertainty, of struggle and suffering, for the sake of personal growth.
Searching for well being a few hundred meters above the Siglitz valley
Alpinism and certain practices of climbing can be thought of as a vehicle for transformation, transcendence, metamorphism - "alteration of the composition or structure ... by pressure, or other natural agency". Big words, big concepts. The structure is you in the physical and metaphysical sense. Meaningful changes in the nature of the mind through alpine pursuits can bring about a true sense of well being, accomplishment and satisfaction.

Personal change and evolution begin with a type of metaphoric "death". A conscious or unconscious decision to terminate. Be it the death an unproductive habit, self-limiting belief, unenlightened way of living, etc. One must give up something and allow it to wither away as the beginning step towards something new and different in an evolutionary movement towards authentic personal well-being. The letting go of a belief, faith, opinion, ...

Of course this is an universal concept (i.e., truism of the universe) expressed abundantly in nature, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and by writers such as Joseph Campbell, among many, many others.
Walter Bonatti in front of the Matterhorn north face
In contrast to a metaphorical death that leads to change and transformation there is a "dead-end death", one that avoids upsetting the status quo and trying to recreate the past in a misguided attempt to find happiness and well being. Nothing in the world works this way. It is a paradox of humanity that we think if we could just try to do and recreate what we remember made us happy, safe or satisfied in the past, then we will be happy, safe and satisfied in the future.

"Death" (analogous to giving up a part, letting go, releasing) > Change > Transformation > Transcendence > Awe

The "death" of your old self, old beliefs, old behaviours is the start of a transformation that opens forward and expands into a greater life. Accepting your personal status quo, fear, resistance, all that inhibits self-actualisation and keeps you seeking the comfort of staying the same is a "dead-end death". The later is the life akin to that of the "living dead", misguidedly trying to avoid discomfort, side-step the obstacles, the struggle, the uncertainty, while all the time striving to re-create the past.

In this manner, life is seen as part of a commodity civilisation - everything is reduced to a "deal" with others and yourself. Manipulate, acquire, consume. Become more and more isolated in the delusions of the ego. Happiness and contentment are fleeting at best, but terminally elusive.
What exactly is the value of scaling an un-climbed piece of ice? 
A transformative, metaphorical death of the old self and superficial ego has been part of human existence since millennia. Those who embrace this process from Odysseus in the Iliad, to Leonidas, Marcus Aurelius, Gautama Buddha, Meister Eckhardt, Sitting Bull, Ghandi, etc., etc., move towards a new life of abundant gifts that can not be belittled by applying a monetary value to them. These gifts are not part of any type of transaction.
The view of the way up, the path down and all in-between
Literally buying into the ideologies of consumerism, materialism, more is better, me against you, us against them, comparing, weighing, competing, judging ... all of it leads to a hardening, blunting, dehumanising inner death that goes no where - it is the death of the magic and mystery of the human spirit.

Climbing is a gift. It is a gift that has its own identity. It is a gift that is an agent of change and transformation and can therefore be the catalyst to transformation and perhaps transcendence  A bearer of new life. At best, leading the practitioner to a sense of awe and wonder.
Grateful for the gift
The gift that is climbing passes through the body, mind, spirit and leaves us altered. The best climbing is the creator of the impetus of individual transformation and a teacher of lessons of living that can save our lives as well as extinguish them. As with the spirit, applying values of commodity to your climbing or alpine experience pollutes and corrupts the endeavour and process. There is no greater proof of this than the example of what has gone on in the last couple of years on Everest.

The proper response to the gift of climbing is thankfulness and gratitude. In the beginning, it is easy to see the first powerful effects of climbing on your life and glimpse some of its teachings. Occasional insights may translate into other parts of your life. However, transformation is slow and it takes some time before the messages really sink in.

Looking back with humility, I can say that embracing the process of living the life of a climber, skier, alpinist, has opened up my consciousness to what is possible in my life. The intricate web that has been woven interconnecting interests, passions, experiences, etc. is unbelievably vast and ever expanding. There have been times of great satisfaction, joy, awe and meaningfulness as well as sadness, frustration, loss and anger. It is not good or bad. It just is what it is.

Note: this post has been inspired and influenced by reading the books of Sam Harris, particularly the the latest one I read, The Moral Landscape. Additionally, Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, supplied many of the themes and conflicts that I continue to wrestle with as I try to earn my living by pursuing a calling towards alpinism. (and I philosophically struggled with many years ago as a classical guitarist) However, the impetus for expressing these thoughts came from a podcast interview with Seth Godin conducted by James Altucher, and indirectly from Godin's books, The Icarus Deception and Linchpin.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

10 (+) Common Mistakes of Beginning Ice Climbers

half-ropes well apart running through protection
I have spent quite a lot of time in in the past six weeks doing some ice climbing courses and climbing with beginners starting to learning how to ice climb. Here are some things I see as common mistakes.

1) climb the physical structure of the ice, as if it were rock - you are using ice footholds and "pick holds" for placements, your tools are extensions of your arms, hands, fingers

2) ropes: keep half-ropes apart - there is an independent left & right side rope, they should never cross

3) rope tangles happen when the ropes wrap around each other through twisting (bad rope management while lead climbing) or by pulling the rope stack out from the bottom when rappelling (or not switching leads) and/or stacking ropes together

4) never rappel when you can walk-off (standard mountaineering practice), it is far safer to walk-off, faster and warmer as you are continuously moving

5) don't climb ice like its a ladder - you have to use too much body tension to maintain balance & keeping from "barn dooring", plus it is way too strenuous when the ice steepness to vertical and your feet are not stable

6) trouble removing your tools? you are not moving your feet up high enough, they are not level with each other and you are not fully standing up. you are too extended with your arms and therefore can't remove your  tools in an upward trajectory using the top of the pick (it's sharp, right?) to slice the ice

7) ice bulges of all types and sizes are off-limits for tool placements and setting ice screws

8) use small little divots and larger concave forms in the ice surface for crampon and tool placements, as well as setting ice screws (it's also cool to use an old pick placement hole to set an ice screw - the pick hole acts as a starter hole for the screw)

9) your elbow should not be outside the head of your tool when you swing

10) there is a grip for swinging your tool and a different grip when you use the tool as a hand hold as you move your body upward
hands staggered, heels down, watching feet = solid & secure

Okay, I'm on a roll so here are a few more ...

10+1) use the concave/opposing forms of runnels, "open books", in-between tubes, etc., to stem out on with your feet

10+2) move your feet three to five times for each tool placement, ending with the feet wider than the hands and horizontal

10+3) one tool is always higher than the other, your feet are parallel once you complete the cycle of the climbing movement

10+4) always strive for a one-swing "stick", throw the head of the tool, snapping it into the ice with your wrist - you need to be loose in order to generate speed

10+5) do not use material from the leaders rack to build the belay: you need one long (19cm - 22cm) ice screw as the main focal point of the anchor, and preferably a second 19cm screw as your second belay point for the back-up. Do not use up shorter slings, quickdraws, shorter screws. If you feel you need to use a 13cm screw at the belay, you're setting your belay up at the wrong place.

10+6) it is far better to climb a shorter pitch (ca. 30 to 40 meters) as a beginner than try to run-out the full length of the rope - you will be faster and stay warmer as a rope team

10+7) flex your ankle bringing your toes up, kick with a loose knee joint (generating speed) creating a pendulum-type swing with your foot following an upward trajectory into the ice - watch your foot all the way until your foot placement is bomber

further reading and info:
Will Gadd's book on Ice & Mixed Climbing,

Will Gadd's blog - (go back through the blog posts to get a lot of insights)

Jeff Lowe's book - it is still amazing what was done by him and those of his generation,

Art of Ice Climbing, from the Chamonix company Blue Ice - the newest and most valuable book on ice climbing to come out recently,

Sunday, February 15, 2015


I had just finished a two hour climbing session indoors at the Salzburg University Sports Training Center. The teenage school group that has a weekly climbing activity with me was lifeless, unmotivated, playing the, "oh, my life is so, so difficult", routine. I tried to compensate with extra positive enthusiasm for their pathetic, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, spoiled, self-centeredness. I lasted about an hour. Then my energy and patience was all used up. What a waste. I asked myself, "why?".

IN-Q, "Whistle"

As I drove off at around 10:15, there was a wheelchair athlete training on the 400 meter track. He didn't have a fancy race-type chair, he didn't have weather-proof clothing. it was cold. It was raining. He was hardcore. He wasn't feeling sorry for himself. He wasn't thinking about what he didn't have.

I went to the highly over-priced bio-grocery store near my apartment  Trying to find and buy some real, natural. whole food. A guy outside asked me for money to buy some food at the store's exit. To what level of despair and hopelessness would you have to sink in order to ask a stranger for a few coins?

A week later, I was on the small island of Telendos, across from Kalymnos, climbing with my friend Yannis. He started climbing a couple of years ago. He loves every opportunity he has to climb with someone of more experience and knowledge. He is over sixty years old. He had a heart attack last year. He stopped smoking. He never complains.

The founder of the Underground Strength Gym & Strongcast Podcast, Zach Even-Esh labels it the "pussifacation" of your existence: the lack of embracing discomfort. bitch'in & moan'in. half ass'in life.  -- And then thinking that if you pay someone, or if you're of a certain economic or material level that you can dump the responsibility of your happiness, satisfaction, entertainment, etc., on to someone else.

The mentality of "I deserve this", instead of, "have I earned the right to this experience?"

I hate this mentality, this sickness of our times. Zero tolerance.

Do what brings you joy. It is up to you. Do what you most want to do. Move with grace. Be thankful because you have been given a life full of opportunity that is limitless. Live with gratitude.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Early Season Ice Review

Ice and snow this past November and December was very hard to find. My winter season started at the end of Kaunertal in western Tyrol.  i climbed and skied the north face of the Weißseespitze with a couple of friends.
The cold, snowy face of the Weißseespitze
In December, everyone was complaining about the lack of snow and ice. I went up to check out some features that I sensed held ice on the north east face of the Berchtesgadner Hochthon on the Untersberg near Salzburg. Found a nice coulior with easy ice. It also laid the foundation for an wonderful alpine climb that I could pull off last week (January 21, 2015).
Easy first ascent on Salzburg's home mountain
The day after Christmas (still no snow yet), Jennifer and I went to the Gastein valley and into the Anlauftal. Walking up the steep boulder and scree drainage, Jennifer was on a treasure hunt, uncovering lost ice climber's booty from last season
"Look what I found, think it'll work?"
The moderate ice fall "Federweis" was in pretty good shape and a nice climb of three to four pitches.
The best ice in Anlauftal on December 26th
Right of "Federweis", the impressive "Mordor" stood in in good form with thin ice on the first two easy warm up pitches. It was interesting to see the bordering climbs of "Supervisor", "Seidenrampe", Rodeo", etc., bare of the surrounding snow.

Some of Austria's most impressive ice climbs

The first significant snow fell in the north-east Alps on December 26th. A lot more snow and cold temperatures arrived (finally) on the 29th of December. As i write this at the end of January 2015, winter has fully hit the area and there is plenty of fresh powder with decent ice in the classic Salzburg area ice climbing venues. However, the lower valley ice has still not come in, and may not this season as was the same with last year.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

New Year's 2015 in Cogne - short ice report

I was in Cogne for New Year's Eve and did some ice climbing with my wife. We were there from 30. December 2014 until 4. January 2015. The overall situation was typical early season ice: some things are not formed yet, ice is thin, and the climbs are harder than the grades.

What follows is a short overview:


Cascade di Lillaz - forming well, but too much water flow. The steep, short practice lines before the main fall are formed with possible top ropes from above. Also the easy gulley to the left of the main fall is well formed and not running with water.

Tutto Relativo - good, pillar not formed on crux pitch but possible with a few easy mixed moves on left, upper ice good

Pattigagio Artistico - very good

Hard Ice in the Rock - very good

Pattagagio & Hard Ice are reached with the standard traverse, the lower columns are of course not formed. There was a team that did the mixed variation on Pattagagio

Stella Artice is not fully formed

Cold Coulior - a bit harder than the grade and run out on the third pitch due to thin ice and a delicate exit. It is fun to climb with more features than when fully formed, upper ice is good

Tuborg is possible but the curtain is not fully formed all the way across and a small pillar touches down on the left

Candelera del Cayote has been climbed a lot but is perhaps a half-grade harder

Lauson - very featured and wet. Climbable when cold and best on an overcast day

Thoule - protected from direct sun, but still pretty wet later in the day. Overall very good shape

Patri - in the best shape of all the ice in Valnontey, and therefore the unthinking masses are lined up 10 deep .....

Repentance - has been climbed and is in good, but early season, conditions

Monday Money - first pitch is mixed and the rest is good ice, but also like Repentance in early season conditions

There is very little snow in the valleys. Approach skis or snow shoes are not needed. Temperatures have been pretty good ( with well below freezing at night and generally clear skies. There has been very little to no precipitation & temps are at about -10 to +4 degrees.