Tagged ‘Climbing‘

Guaranteed Gear: 8 Holiday Ideas That Don’t Suck

We’re passionate about sharing our stories and motivating you to get outside. It makes everything that we do here worthwhile when we run into one of you in the flesh and you tell us that our articles got you excited to plan trips of your own. It’s amazing, humbling, and drives us to work harder.

Still, we’re not rich, and running this site costs hundreds of dollars. To make up for it, we work in some advertising and we get a small cut when you use our links to buy gear. This week I’m doing something a little different and offering some gift ideas for your most beloved gearhead. Unlike what you find on, ahem, other sites, I make you a promise: these things DO NOT SUCK. These are pure wins that I or someone close to me have beaten to death out of love. They’re guaranteed to please.

So enjoy! Help support Mountain Lessons by clicking our links and shopping for some gear. We’ll be here next year either way, because we love you. But it helps.

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Arc’teryx Cerium LT Down Jacket: A seriously warm jacket made with high quality down that packs small enough for daily carry while out skiing. It uses synthetic insulation in the hood and cuffs to keep you warm when it’s wet outside. It’s spendy because it’s just better than the competition. Read on →

Why I Can’t Quit Climbing

Each of the three times that I’ve come back to climbing after a break this summer, I’ve thought about how I want to quit. I especially want to quit trad climbing, with its fiddly gear and unknown safety margin, but also, I want to quit climbing above bolts and pads. I want to quit climbing because it’s so damn uncomfortable. Climbing forces me to stare out beyond my comfort zone, and with plenty of time for contemplation, forces me to step beyond it with trembling legs. That, too, is why I can’t quit climbing.

The last time that I thought about quitting, I sat astride my other summer love, a mountain bike. Having waited out a thunderstorm and suffered through hail and lightning beneath a shrub of a tree in the high desert outside of Bend, I was pedaling hard and fast down the bermed corners and rock drops of the Funner trail, sprinting for warmth and drifting the corners through piles of hail balls. Cornering left at a fork towards the more technical downhill section, I opted for the largest drop on the left and pinned it off into the air. Flying far and landing with absurd softness at speed, I laughed aloud at the ridiculous fun of freeride mountain biking. I wondered: why on earth would I choose to climb when I can fly on my bike? And why (for the love of the sweet baby Jesus) would I ever choose to climb ice rather than go skiing?

Mountain Biking Flagline in Bend, OR

Mountain Biking Flagline high above Bend, OR, on the slopes of Mt Bachelor.

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Climbing Illumination Rock

Approaching Illumination Rock

Approaching Illumination Rock

Memory is a poor record. Four years ago, Alex Ragus and I decided that it would be a good idea to go rock climbing on Illumination Rock.  We went, and I swore that I would never repeat the experience.  But memory fades, and yesterday I found myself once-again climbing Illumination Rock.  Read on →

Find a Good Partner, Be a Good Partner

Today, I want to talk about partners.  I have had the great fortune of stumbling into some life-changing partnerships through my development as a climber and a skier, and these partnerships have without-question helped to shape both who I am in the mountains as well as the rest of my life.  When I reflect on how I came to these partnerships, some of it seems like luck, but I also think that I found these wonderful people in part because I made an effort to be a good partner.  Being a good partner will take you far, without question, so I have tried to distill some of what I think makes a good partner, and what I look for before heading out with someone new.

Partnership is, to many misanthropes, a surprisingly appealing part of mountain travel.  Mountains don’t care about you. They’re simply an inert medium for exploring your own constitution.  On the other hand, sharing trying and glorious experiences with a partner amplifies the joy and minimizes the negative aspects of the mountains. While certainly there is a certain aesthetic and logistic appeal to traveling alone, a partner can take the edge off the hardest moments, turn suffering into laughter, and facilitate learning through mentorship.

“In 1961 I led this chimney in a state of metabolic uproar. At the base of the pitch I smoked several cigarettes (the first and last ones of my life). This was to calm me. Then I spooned half a jar of honey. This was to ensure superhuman strength. Mort Hempel, my partner, watched this silly ritual with mouth agape and eyes exploding with fear.” 

Steve Roper, about the 3rd pitch of the Worst Error

Partners should be complementary in skills, and matched in risk tolerance and expectations.  With complementary skill sets, the team is stronger and more capable than either partner alone.  Two minds can facilitate bother better and worse decision-making than one mind alone, but with matched risk tolerance and expectations, two minds will make better decisions together.  With complementary skill sets, the team is able to handle more and more-diverse challenges than either member.  Matched risk tolerance is also a must, because nothing can sour an outing quite as much as realizing that what one partner thinks is safe, the other finds appalling.

Breaking trail towards dragontail

The Author, breaking trail towards Dragontail Peak. When you know that your partners will be doing the brunt of the climbing, step up and do the grunt work.  (Photo: Colin Bohannan)

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Umbilicals “Not For Climbing Use”


While watching this video recently, I was struck both by the mechanism of the fall, which resembles a rag doll falling down a laundry heap, as well as by the failure of a piece of equipment which has recently regained popularity and widespread use among ice and alpine climbers. I’m referring of course to ice tool umbilicals.

The umbilical is an old idea which briefly fell out of style with the advent of the wrist loop for vertical ice climbing.  Old umbilicals would prevent dropping axes, but leashes offered a much more efficient resting position while climbing.  Recently,  as tools have developed steeper picks and larger pinky-hooks, umbilicals have regained popularity as a means of climbing longer and more committing routes without the risk of dropping a tool.  Though they create slightly more hassle and clutter, they are a clear choice compared to carrying a third tool.

But drop-protection is not the only way that they’re used.  There is an implicit understanding among climbers who use umbilicals that they function as a sort of moving belay.  Or at least, we would hope so.  As the video shows at 00:45, the leader’s umbilical fails under the sudden load of his weight. This illustrates a fundamental deficiency in the design of ice umbilicals which should be fixed. Read on →

Releasing the Grip

Two Climbers Cross the Stuart Glacier


I was sick and tired of eating humble pie.

I was hundreds of feet in the air on a tiny perch of stone, teeth chattering in the freezing shade, and I’d just given up.  The sun was just around the corner, tauntingly warming the NE face of Mt Stuart while slyly dodging our slow but steady upward ascent.  I’d planned on leading the pitch that I was now belaying, as I had belayed or followed all other pitches on the route, but this just wasn’t my climb.

Three weeks earlier I was in Portland, my new home again, and I was pulling out my hair trying to finish the last week of a summer course of physics without giving up on that too.  It was the kind of week when I’m tempted to buy a plane ticket in the wee hours of the morning, out of ill judgement and the bursting need for escape that grows under the pressure of unshirked responsibility.  It was during that week that I’d started to browse Nelson’sSelected Climbs in the Cascades and Fred Beckey’s Cascade Alpine Guide, hunting around for a dream.  The North Ridge of Mt Stuart caught my eye.  Just two hours later, the physics was forgotten and I’d drawn up a plan, complete with maps and hourly breakdown of the approach and climb, to pull off the route during a two-day window between shifts in the ER. One day and an one email to my long-time partner later, the trip was scheduled.

In the weeks preceeding, I climbed at the gym wearing a pack, traversing for hours rather than pulling down hard on boulder problems as I usually do.  I went running, biking, gave up beer, packed and repacked. I thought that I was prepared. I felt lean and mean, and I was excited to go after the biggest climb that I’d yet attempted. I studied the topo, trip reports, maps, and I visualized successful and calm movement over the climb.

And now, sitting at the small belay perch between the first and second crux pitches of the Upper North Ridge of Mt Stuart (IV 5.9, 17 pitches, 1600′) I forgave myself and gave up hope of regaining my dignity for the day.  All day I’d followed Alex along the ridge, simul-climbing rhythmically, sometimes haltingly, but never feeling at ease.  The terrain was easy, even with a pack, and though I’d felt invincible and fit on the approach, I now felt like I needed to crawl out of my skin. The exposure around me should have been thrilling, but I resisted it and grew stressed by the remoteness and commitment of our position.


Alex Catching First Light on the Bivy Perch, North Ridge of Mt Stuart, WA

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