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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Bigger Picture?

I get a lot of email here from climbers just beginning to get out and get serious about their own technical climbing.  Over the last week I had a conversation with my climbing partner about the "bigger picture" and our own personal climbing objectives.

Neither of us likes crag climbing in particular.   Truth is, like most of us we'd rather be in the mountains.  The flip side to that is it takes a LOT more effort to get out in the mountains and get somethings done.  As in something actually climbed.    By this time of year, every year I have usually had a full belly of  frustration with the bad weather and the dangerous avalanche conditions.

We came up with a less than 50% percentage of successful trips  compared to what we have actually attempted in the mountains.  Alpinists are a hardcore and stubborn tribe!  Attributes I can admire even if I don't always possess them.  By this time of year I can more easily turn to rock climbing and riding my road bike.  I hate beating my head against the climbs I still want to get done before the temps soar and the snow and ice disappears for another year.  My lack of  motivation can be telling this time of year.  But it is also the time of year I most want to get my alpine projects done.

One of the many discussions we had this last week was the difference between crag climbing and actual alpinism.  From that discussion and the local conditions we were experiencing the conversation split into several topics.  One of the most interesting topics to me was how I end up labeling "little picture" and "big picture" climbs.

Hopefully what I relate from those conversations my help others sort out their own projects.

"Little picture" climbs in the context of Cold Thistle and Alpinism are generally crag climbs.  Climbs that are close to the road, little objective danger and generally (but not always) at the upper limit of one's technical skill level.   Little picture because you really don't have to concentrate on much past how hard the climbing is, what gear will I need and how will I get back down.

Small picture climbs generally allow you to make huge errors in judgment and the gear selection with little consequence for the mistake.  It is a great place to learn from mistakes.

The ice climbing in Ouray and Cody will generally fall into this category.  As will most of the top roping and smaller cragging areas around the country.    But there are "big picture" dangers any where it snows.  Ice always falls down when it gets warm or cold enough.  Bozeman at any given time gets snow and wind as can Cody.  There is no easy label when it comes to ice climbing. 

Hafner and Johnson Canyon are other "little picture" climbing areas.  The places you might head when the overall conditions are dismal in the Canadian Rockies.

Alpine objectives in the Canadian Rockies are not "little picture".   When it snows, the wind blows, or there is a radical temp change there, the actual technical difficulties will mean almost zip.  What really matters in Canada and the Alps is what might drop on your head at any given time,  It might well be rock, ice, lightening, rain or snow!   The climbing might well be "easy" by comparison.

If you spend enough time out you get to know what the real time picture is for your own objectives.  Small picture or Large picture?    Some climbing areas might be little picture in summer  (few issues that need to be on your mind but the actual climbing) and big picture (a laundry list of objective dangers) in winter.  The "picture" and what is required of you mentally can change by season or be the same year around.

It is easy to come from a strong technical back ground and jump into "small picture" objectives safely.

"Big picture" objectives on the other hand might well have little patience for strong technical climbers without the ability to process all the issues alpinism will eventually require.

The climbs that I generally see turn onto epics are where the climber's technical abilities get over whelmed by the bigger picture of the climb's objectives dangers.  That in turn forces the climber into a mental and physical state of tunnel vision.  Call it "sketched out".  But things go bad quickly when it happens.  Once you are forced to deal with the world via tunnel vision it is very easy to over look the environmental details that define your safety and well being on a big climb.

I think it is better to first label and then study your climbs.  Note the avi terrain on the approach and decent.  What are the snow conditions you want as compared to what you have.  What is the hour you want to be up and off the climb?   Will conditions allow you of attain your goals?  What is your plan if you can't maintain your time schedule?

There is a reason we look for "perfect conditions".  Perfect conditions make our climbs easier on the approach, decent and the actual climb.  Perfect conditions make the picture smaller.

What I learned, again, from the conversation is not to let anyone or any one climb over whelm your ability to appreciate the "picture" fully.   If something "feels" wrong, it generally is. Don't let your inability to articulate what is wrong stop you from making good decisions.  The mountains have been there a long time.  They aren't going any where.


I suspect it has something to do with the conditions in Canada last week but it is worth checking out Will's recent comments as well.  Same idea, different voice.


Bruno Schull said...

Hi Dane,

Love the new masthead picture, and glad to see (read?) your posting.

I'm heading off to Chamonix for a week or so, and, as usual, I am preoccupied with all the usual concerns, thoughts, obsessions, plans, doubts...perhaps the best way to say it is, before I go climbing, when there is the chance that I might approach some of my own "big picture" climbs...I just get scared! It's part of the process, and I imagine it helps get me in the right mindset. Will's post is good too, and, for some reason, I have been thinking about this stuff a lot this year. Trying to find my place in the mountains, I guess. Anyway, have a great spring, and enjoy the road biking!


Dane said...

Thanks Bruno! Enjoy Chamonix. Wish I were joining you. Biking? I wish. I'm none too smart so heading back to Canada for one more shot at a couple of old Nemesis and some head banging :)

Dersu said...

Nothing to do directly with this post, but Dane, what do you think about Will Gadd saying that dual points are superior to monopoint for 90% of ice climbing?

Dane said...

I know Will and totally agree. Mark Twight and Will have both said the same in print several times. I repeat it here. Will was one of the first to join Cold Thistle. I was totally surprised and honored.

I didn't even know how to use the blog yet when Will let this comment.

"For some reason I can't get comments to post. My apologies but I'm working on it. This from Will Gadd today: "Just use the Sabertooths--I've used them to climb m12, WI as hard as it gets, high altitude, logging, great all-purpose rigs as you note. And yep, if crampons get too light then they stop working... Nice blog!" on Crampons! These Freak'n 'Pons!"

Davy said...

Hi Dane,

Thanks for the insight. I'm pretty new to ice climbing and I suppose this is something I've thought about but never knew how to put into words.

Experience is everything and I've made a couple of "silly" mistakes that I've been able to get myself out of, learnt from it and used it on the next climb.

Being from Scotland we get some pretty decent climbing, the seasons pretty much gone here so until the next freeze the ice axes are on the shelf.

In response to the monopoint comment, I can really see an advantage to them, coordinating ice axe placement to crampon placement?? Or is this just the gear freak in me?


Dane said...

Hey Davey,
Monos certainly have their place. I use them as well. But I think dual fronts get a short shrift as of late. I never place my monos in my picks holes. But you could given the right conditions and people do talk about it. Just never done it. Hard to beat monos on hard mixed. On pure ice dual fronts offer a lot of additional security.

Karl Henize said...

On waterfall ice in the Canadian Rockies, I went from the G22 (dual verticals) to the Rambos (monos) and never looked back.

It is hard to fully separate the differences in performance due to rigidity, weight, and front point configuration.

However, I find that the Rambos penetrate the ice much better in hard/brittle conditions . With the G22s, my front points would often shatter the ice without "sticking". To get a solid foot placement, I would often need to chip away the ice until I had a solid platform to stand on.

The G22s were more stable on soft, plastic ice. But I found the additional stability to be virtually irrelevant.

I would compare the "duals vs. monos" to riding a bike. Once you have a achieved a certain level of proficiency, the training weels are more of a nuissance than a benefit.

Dane said...

Hi Karl, a couple of observations for you. The Rambo is one of the last truely rigid crampons. No question that design is better on pure ice than anything I have used over the years anyway. Always has been from the original Chouinard rigid onward. The other advantage to the Rambo is it is not a true monopoint but is offered some substantial support by the addition of the smaller fixed front point. No question the excellent forged Grivel front mono penetrates any ice easily.

The additional stability of traditional dual front points can depend on sun rotten ice or your body weight and boot leverage defined by size.

I have found all to be an issue at times.

As far a proficiency? I think you are hard pressed to make that arguement when both Twight and Gadd have recommend dual front points for the majority of uses.
And Twight helped design the last generation of Rambos!

On the contrary I think you'll find the most profienct ice climbers are capable of ditching the best pure ice crampons...the Rambo, and can still climb any ice (WI6 and harder) in virtually any crampon that fits their boot well enough.

Karl Henize said...

To clarify what I meant by "proficient climber", I meant someone who effectively uses the standard "poop and screw technique" with a wide stance. Monos will feel unstable when climbing with a narrow stance, unless the climber's tools are well centered.

I agree that most proficient climbers will climb almost equally well with any type of modern crampon, and that any differences are relatively minor. However, there are noticable differences.

The differences are notable for me when:

(1) Kicking once vs. kicking five times in hard, brittle ice to get a solid foot placement.

(2) Hooking and rotating on my front points, when twist-locking on thin, delicate, featured ice.

I still climb at the same grade level with both crampons, but I prefer climbing with monos. As I do not make a habit of climbing vertical, sun-rotted ice, I cannot comment on the difference in performance.