Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bonking Bigtime for Beginners

If you like to have fun outdoors, we've all had that experience of the calories out exceeding the calories in: aka 'bonking'. Pushing through this is part of the price of admission. Last winter Andrew McLean gave me and Mark McGurl a little tour of his backyard and coming back from the backyard was, as it often is, a bit more lengthy than the pleasurable and sunny ski there. While we enjoyed 5-10" of fresh power skiing down into a very nice valley, we had to work to enjoy the 15-25 mile per hour gusts along a several mile long ridge back to our re-insertion point. Fortunately Andrew came well armed, with hot tea and some of those little jelly bellies which I've got to remember to get this year. Unfortunately, Mark, while quite the hale fellow, neglected to even eat breakfast, and by now was definitely feeling the over/under on his calorie deficit. We were lucky to be well equipped and while the final run back down the Canyons was a bit sloppier even than usual, it was a great time. The kind of great time you find brings you back for more, even when you swore you'd never do it again at the time. I think we might even get Mark's brother out there this year....

Friday, July 29, 2011


There are many excellent posts on the 'pedial extremity' topic lately, coming from blogs like Cold Thistle, covering everything from socks to insoles to climbing boots to skiing. I don't think I can hope to obsess quite so much as Dane does, but there seems to me to be a place for the less rare air beginners out there. In particular, I used up a bit of my foot karma early on, squeezing into La Sportiva Mega's which were not only shaped nothing like any foot I've ever seen, but about 2 sizes too small. Which is what you get for taking advice from climbers who have only barely survived themselves.

In my later years I've started to see feet/knees/back as the key continuum of good health for hikers, climbers and skiers, and have a few things I'd like to have done better earlier. One is wear only shoes that fit, as opposed to those which look good. This is a bit of a challenge for those of us with any aspirations towards fashion, and I know my brother for one has had a pair of NF trainers banned from the home for offending the fashion police (they look fine to me, but other sources agree with the enforcer, his wife.) I've only had one really good boot fitting (thanks to Jan Wellford of the Mountaineer,) and it's something I would have done much sooner if I knew how positive the results would be. I tried on shells with a blind eye to what looked good, and went for a relatively old design (Garmont Mega Ride), because it fit my relatively low volume foot. Given the recent developments in very light boots, and the expansion of these into climb and ski setups, I may revisit soon, but taking the time to sit with a good fitter (and it takes more than an hour) is well worth your while. I've also been using orthopedic insoles for years now, both off-the shelf and custom, and am convinced these make a great difference too.

That said, there are lower cost alternatives to a full custom approach (my boots were on sale, and the custom fit cost nothing extra.) Spenco makes excellent insoles and they are definitely better than stock ones. Companies like Sole ( make a good alternative too, and one you can bake to shape in your oven, as well as comfortable if pricey flip flops. My first mountain boots, the weight training Galibier Super Guides, were not much fun without the neoprene insole I used to defray the cold conducted by crampons. Those boots (bought 30 years ago) are still in use by my long-time climbing partner, and while heavy, are a great example of old-time craftsmanship. If you have a chance to demo boots jump on it, because I cannot say for shame how much money I've spent on boots which did not really fit over the years. I even wore a lovely pair of Scarpas for years before admitting it was probably causing the annual loss of a big toenail, not to mention a bit of frost nip. If you can find a brand, or even insole/sock combination which works for you, go with it. My longest-standing boots are hiking boots from Technica, sold to me used for $90 by the generous Rich Gottlieb of Rock and Snow, still going great guns even when I'm not.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ski Mountaineering in Chamonix

I was lucky enough recently to go to Chamonix for my first week of skiing there - including a couple of days of off-piste. I had only been there once before, climbing, and that was the first time I'd ever used a guide. I've figured out that certain places and activities benefit hugely from a local introducer, and without one in Cham, you may die. And, as my friend Jim Lawyer says, hiring a guide is a good way to get up something.

My guide the first visit two years ago was Gael Pernollet, who referred me to Sylvain Ravanel this trip. Both are superb men, guides, and members of the the La Compagnie Guides de Chamonix ( For all the guides winter is a key season, and as Gael was occupied he referred me to Sylvain.

Sylvain's contribution to this blog has to do with simplicity. He is a big proponent, and there were plenty of instances where it was hard to argue with the guide and his experience. For example, putting on skis just below the Aiguille de Midi is a fairly standard exercise: you walk down the ridge, complete with handrails and cut steps in winter up until around May. While crampons are likely a good thing, aluminum will suffice, and Sylvain loaned me some as I had none. The little landing where you clip into the skis is a bit exposed, and I was having trouble with my Dynafits, which I've only used for a couple of seasons. Fortunately I'd just put on runaway leashes (G3), because the bindings did not want to engage properly for me, and I don't have ski breaks. This is when Sylvain expressed his disdain for the 'tech binding' of which the Dynafit is the pre-eminent and original example. He, like most off- and on-piste skiers I saw, has a step in binding (Silvretta Pure Carbon in his case on a light rig, Rossis for a heavier weight setup he used another day.) The Fritchi was a very pervasive binding, and heavier ski setups than mine were on about 70% of those I saw.

While I'm still very happy with my light weight AT gear (see earlier posts) I can concede that a heavier setup would be good to have for all the on-again off-again skiing in Cham: the piste seems to be mostly the access and easiest way down, with much of the terrain which is 'off-piste' being right next to lift accessed runs. And there is no question if I were a good enough skier to hit steep or icy couloir I'd want a step-in rig with heavier skis. There is more food for thought to come on Sylvain's 'simple is right' approach.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Got gear?

Since I'm in treatment for my gear obsession disorder, my therapist says it's good to document some of the peculiarities of my condition. One symptom is my preoccupation with not having the right tool at the right time (second only to having too much stuff - actually a much more real and present danger for me.) Years ago I was climbing a wonderful multi-pitch waterfall in Vermont at Smuggler's Notch, The Blue Room, I believe. After 2 streaming pitches in temperatures almost 30 degrees below freezing, I was happily ensconced in a cave, belaying my partner John Thackray up the final 40 feet to the top. Near the top I heard a faint complaint: "all the screws are solid ice to the core - do you have any more?" I reviewed the situation (our belay had the only other screws) and admitted that I didn't have any more, nor did I have a means of clearing those which were blocked, other than inserting them in an unspecified part of my anatomy. I declined, and we retreated, having had a fine time, but not a complete line. Since then I carry a small tent peg, probably less than $1, and have never had this issue. It's the old 'for loss of a nail the kingdom was lost' but it must resonate with many explorers: when has any serious outdoor activist not been stopped cold by not having just that particular piece of trickery? Now it must be said that in the tradition of John Muir, reported to camp with an overcoat, cup, blanket and a few pieces of food and tinder, we are wimps. However, accepting that fact, packing is always a balancing act between bringing enough to gain your objectives and not too much, so you're dragged down by the weight. In the case of the ice screw dilemma, the item in question weighs maybe an ounce, so the weight/benefit analysis would have show it well worth bringing. My favorite trip last winter (there are a few shots below) was to the Trap Dike with one Philip Drew. We brought skis for the approach and exit, minimal camping kit for the night, ice axes and crampons, a 30 meter rope and an ice screw or two. We had a blast. Everything got used, the weight was not too onerous on the iced luge run of a trail, we had to scrimp in a few spots, down climbing where we could not rappel, but it all worked out. It was enormously satisfying, even for a kit hound like me.