Kit for RMNP

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time this winter in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Front Range’s alpine playground. From big solo days to scary mixed routes to speed climbing on the Diamond, I’ve refined my clothing and gear kit down to the most essential and practical items. A few folks have contacted me with questions about the ideal gear, so here’s a breakdown of my favorites for winter climbing in RMNP.

Note: For the past year I’ve been working closely with two amazing companies: Rab and CAMP. These great folks provide me with cutting edge clothing and gear, which helps me pack the ideal kit for the mountains. Previously, I’ve been hesitant to plug their gear on my site, so as not to seem biased. Now, though, I’ve had plenty of time to judge the gear on it’s merits, and feel as though I can offer honest recommendations.

Below I’ve described my recommended gear in general terms, and then provided links to the actual items that I use.

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Hallets Peak and the Dragontail Spires

CLOTHING:

RMNP, like Patagonia and many of my favorite alpine areas, tends to have predictable weather in the winter. Good climbing days are typically high-pressure, sunny, windy, dry and cold. The ideal clothing setup consists of multiple layers, to prevent overheating while approaching and avoid hypothermia at belays. It should be windproof but breathable; tight fitting but non-restrictive; light but warm.

BASELAYER:

Powerstretch Fleece Pants: These comfortable pants are form fitting and stretchy. They dry quickly, so any sweat accumulated on approach won’t keep you cold while climbing. Rab PS Pants, 220g

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Fleece hoody: This is an essential piece that I wear on literally every winter climb. Mine is tight fitting; the balaclava-style hood that fits under my helmet and doesn’t restrict my vision. Rab Baseline Hoody, 340g.

Balaclava: When it’s really cold, I layer a thin balaclava under my baselayer’s hood. I can wear it just as a neck warmer, or pull it all the way up to protect my chin and cheeks. Rab Meco 165 Balaclava

SHELL:

For day trips with good forecasts, I’m less concerned about moisture from outside (precipitation) than I am with sweat. Breathabilty is key to staying dry when you’re working hard in the mountains, so I opt for a lightweight softshell that keeps the wind out. I also aim for a tight fit, especially in the pants to prevent crampons from catching on excess material.

Softshell pants: I wear my summer-weight softshells, over the fleece pants, and I think they  keep me warm enough in temps down to -15c. Mine are modified for winter with the addition of glove-friendly zipper pulls. Elastic hems at the ankles, plus elastic spats to hold them down, negate the need for gaiters. Rab Scimitar Pants, 380g.

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Tip: Make glove-friendly zipper pulls by melting little loops of 2-3mm cord with a lighter.
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Mike Arnold, in his Scimitar jacket, starting up the Englishman’s Route on Hallets (M6, 300m). His Infinity belay jacket is clipped to his harness.

Softshell jacket: Fit is key here. You need to be able to raise your arms high without pulling the waist up (and out from under your harness.) Also look for a hood that fits well over your helmet. I love Rab’s wire brim hoods, which keep falling snow and rain off my face. Drawstrings getting caught in my gear is a major pet-peeve of mine, so I tie up the elastic into knots, so they don’t hang down by my harness. Rab Scimitar Jacket, 580g.

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My Infinity puffy tries to cheer me up in a cold snow cave on the East face of Long’s.

Belay Jacket: Whenever I’m not moving (while brewing up, belaying, etc), the very first thing I do is pull on my puffy. In dry environments, down is unbeatable. Look for a jacket that packs the most down into the lightest package. Find a stuff sack that’s easy to stuff (I hate wrestling jackets into tiny bags!) and sports a bomber clip-in point. Rab’s Infinity Endurance jacket uses 210g of 850 fill power down to stave off hypothermia, and weighs just 480g (with a water-resistant outer to boot!)

GLOVES:

Climbing gloves: Dexterity is crucial; find tight fitting leather gloves that will allow you to handle ‘biners and ice tools. I also love rockclimbing in gloves; jamming is comfy and crimping is surprisingly secure. Practice gloved climbing on chilly days at the crag! Rab Alpine gloves.

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Alpine gloves, cranking on the Diamond!

Belay gloves: As with the puffy jacket, I put on my warmer gloves as soon as I stop moving. I don’t like huge unwieldy mitts, since I always need dexterity to put on layers, work the stove, belay, etc. Rab’s Latok gloves are my standard here: a good balance of warmth and usability. The eVent lining is nice when you’re swimming through loose snow, too.

Approach gloves: I’ll usually bring a third pair of gloves to wear on approach, to prevent my other pairs from getting sweaty. Thin and windproof is nice. Rab Phantom grip gloves.

CLIMBING GEAR:

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Colin Simon in the North Chimney, below the Diamond. We took one tool each, to save weight while climbing the Diamond.

TOOLS: There are a million considerations when looking at ice tools, but for RMNP I generally look for a lightweight and versatile tool capable of plunging up steep snow, getting sticks in thinly bonded ice, and hooking on small incut edges. A hammer is important for pounding the occasional pin, but I don’t find an adze useful. I use Cassin’s All Mountain Tools (with one hammer), 628g/tool. Because I’m clumsy, I like to use an elasticized tether on my tools. CAMP’s Gyro is nice, as it allows the tools to rotate independently. 

CRAMPONS: For steep climbing, on ice and rock, I prefer a monopoint setup (easier to balance on tiny holds). Cassin’s C Comp model (850g/pair) is a minimalist ‘pon that keeps you light on your feet, while still providing enough points for all manners of climbing. After scratching around for a season on RMNP granite, dull front points can easily be replaced (an advantage over single-piece ‘pons like the Petzl Dart).

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For lower angle climbing, on steep snow and icy gullies, I sometimes opt to go even lighter  with the XLC Nanotech hybrid Aluminum/Steel ‘pons. Steel frontpoints let you kick into ice, while the aluminum body keep the whole rig at 478g!

RACK: In RMNP, where ice is rare and most of the climbing is on snow covered rock, I will often take my standard summer rack, maybe with a few small pitons. I do swap out my Nano mini-biners for the full sized Photons, which at 29g are still as light as most competitors mini-biners.

PACK: I find that I’m more likely to bring a pack along on winter climbs, since I often carry over a peak, and have stove, jackets, etc to lug. As always, weight is important, as well as flexible capacity, a streamlined profile, and good ice tool attachments. The Cilogear 45L fits these requirements perfectly! After removing the lid, framesheet, and hipbelt mine clocks in at 635g. On route, the narrow shape keeps it out of my way, and the buckle system lets me vary the capacity from 75L to 22L. As with all of my packs, I replaced the framesheet with a piece of sleeping pad foam, which I can use as a butt-pad at breaks.

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Cilogear’s simple tool attachment sleeves.
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Tip: Once you make elastic “spats” on your pants, cut a channel on the bottom of your boot for the cord. This keeps it in place and prevents abrasion.

BOOTS: I know I harp on weight with all of my gear, but it’s most important with boots! Weight on your feet makes climbing cumbersome and awkward. I’m currently rocking the Asolo Cholatse (1700g/pair), which climb rock amazingly and sport a integrated neoprene gaiter to keep my ankles warm and dry. Though I haven’t tried them yet, I’m really excited to check out the Scarpa Rebel Carbon Ultras soon, which at 1420g/pair should feel like rock shoes!

STOVE: Even for day trips, I almost always carry a stove while winter climbing. Consider that the Jetboil Sol TI weights 245g, and a small fuel canister is 200g. (1mL of H2O=1g). So you could carry half a liter of water, or bring a jetboil and have the ability to melt snow into unlimited hot drinks! Of course, melting snow takes time, and in very windy conditions can be impossible. So I usually bring a 500ml thermos with hot tea, and brew up a couple times per day to refill it.

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I like to bring a variety of hot drinks, including tea bags, Emergen-C packets (excellent warm!), hot cocoa, and instant soup. Adding milk powder to tea provides extra calories.

Have redundancy in your stove lighting tools! The jetboil’s built-in ignitor fails after a few months, in my experience. After that I tear it out to save weight. Mini lighters are handy, but are useless when wet. I love the simplicity of  flint and steel (Light My Fire FireSteel Mini, 28g), which still won’t work when wet, but is more easily dried.

Fuel canisters can have trouble in extreme cold. Most canisters have a mix of Propane and Isobutane. Isobutane has a higher boiling point (-1c) than propane (-42c), so in cold temperature it will remain in liquid form (it won’t create the vapor pressure needed to force it out of the canister). Look for canisters with a  higher propane content, so that the fuel stays in gaseous form at a lower temperature. Warm the canister inside your jacket prior to use, and with your hands during use.

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ROPE: Decide, based on the route, if you need to bring one or two ropes. If the descent allows, I’ll usually choose a single line for weight and simplicity. A 70 or 80 meter cord allow for long pitches and rappels, and is especially useful while shortfixing. On easier routes, where you might be simuling long sections, a 6om rope will be less cumbersome. Look for a dry coating, and go with the smallest diameter with which you’re comfortable.

On solo adventures, when I only need a rope for rappels, I like my Edelrid Rap Line (6mm x 60m).

I hope that helps inspire you to get out in “The Park” and enjoy it’s unique style of climbing. With the right kit, it can actually be fun!

The Sprint and the Marathon

In the last couple weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to get out with some super-capable climbing partners on two of my favorite routes: Eldorado Canyon’s Naked Edge, and Rocky Mountain’s D7, on the world-famous Diamond. Both were routes I’d done before, in the case of the Edge probably a dozen times in the last few years, and in both cases we set new speed records.  Here’re the stories of those ascents.

(Think speed climbing is lame? Me too, kinda. My thoughts can be found in this previous post.)

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Eldorado Canyon, just south of Boulder, is dominated by the Redgarden Wall. A complex bulk of towers, ramps and ridges carved in colorful Fountain Sandstone, Redgarden hosts many of Boulder’s classic routes. Perhaps none are more famous or recognizable as the Naked Edge.

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which line do you think it is…

Local (err…global) legend Layton Kor made his first attempt at the route in 1962. At age 24, Kor was already the most visionary climber of his era, and in that same year he brought his gangly physique and efficient free/aid style to the Diamond with his notorious Yellow Wall (V, 5.8 A4). It took two years for Kor to return to the Edge, when he and Rick Horn completed their test-piece at Grade III, 5.9, A3.

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Lookin’ good, Layton

Though the route’s finger locks and crimps have now been cleaned (and over-gripped!) by generations of climbers, and nearly everyone now approaches the Edge as a free-climbing challenge, it still commands respect. Most parties allot at least a solid half-day to attempt the route, which includes 100m of technical approach pitches and 120m of intricate, often run-out, climbing up to 5.11b.

But there is a crew of local climbers for whom the iconic route has become a familiar friend, and perhaps a race course. Though I’m sure many climbers were inspired to run up and down the Edge quickly, the first speed record of which I’m aware is 1:38, by Michael Gilbert and Rob Slater in the early 1990s. Bob Rotert and Dave Vaughan took up the playful challenge in 2006, with their self-imposed “traditional style: no french free, no simul climbing and no skate boarding down the East Slabs” and posted a remarkable 1:22.

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Bobby Rotert himself, following the Naked Edge during a casual sub-two-hour lap.

Bob, who doesn’t let his grey hair stop him from rampaging on his dirt bike and cruising 5.11R, goaded me into attempting the challenge in 2010. As training for our first Patagonia trip, my friend Blake Herrington and I chose the windiest day in the forecast and battled 50mph gusts on the exposed arete. It must have been a tailwind, because we trimmed 9 more minutes from the time, finishing the round trip (bridge-to-bridge) challenge in 1:13.

In early 2012, the competition got more serious as local crushers Jason Wells and Stefan Griebel introduced simul-climbing to the event, and sliced our mark by a third, down to 49 minutes!!!

All year, while enjoying sunny granite in the Cascades, dodging seracs in the Waddington, and learning to scratch around in RMNP, the Naked Edge was in the back of my mind. Blake was now living in Washington, and so I had trouble recruiting a partner for the effort. Friends balked at the idea of simul-ing the insecure climbing and bombing down the fourth-class descent. Brad Gobright, a young rock-star from Orange County, was eager to try, but all through the fall season was recovering from a broken ankle (bouldering is dangerous!).

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Bradley G leading, with me belaying, on the Venturi Effect.

Come winter, I was ready to give up on the Edge for a while, since ice on the descent rarely melts and would make a speedy round-trip (even more) dangerous. And of course the route closes from February 1st to July 31st, to protect the nesting sites of Peregrine Falcons. Oh well, maybe next year…

Luckily for me (and unluckily for skiers!) this winter has been historically warm and dry on the Front Range. Since Brad’s ankle was somewhat healed, I began to badger him: “c’mon, just give it a try!”

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Brad on China Doll, photo by Rob Kepley. As you might have guessed, we don’t have any photos from our climb…

So finally we were on the bridge, watch in hand, racked up, shirtless, and stoked! We’d done a lap on the route earlier that day, and reacquainted ourselves with the tricky sequences. I started the time and we were off. A few hundred meters of trail, just enough to get our hearts racing, brought us to the base of a long water-polished ramp. We soloed the easy fifth-class in tennies, trying to keep our breath in check.

At the base of the first pitch, I pulled on my climbing slippers and started up the glorious 5.11a fingerlocks. I tried to focus less on speed and more on perfect footwork. Though not the crux, I find this pitch to be the most sustained, and I placed small cams every few meters. When the steep crack gave way to a pleasant slab, I sped back up and enjoyed the feeling of my toes gripping the small edges and knobs.

I stretched the rope to 75 meters, reaching a sloping ledge and setting a belay for Brad. I pulled up rope as fast as I could, keeping pace with his breakneck climbing. We tried to yell back and forth, but the wind scrambled our words into unintelligible noise. It wasn’t until Brad pulled over a ledge 35m below, and I could see him, that we communicated and decided to keep simul-ing.

The final two pitches feature the most interesting climbing on the route. Any seasoned Eldo climber can probably mime the beta for the notorious “Bomb-bay” pitch from memory. As I began this lead, I had just one cam left on my harness. Luckily, there’s plenty of “historic” (read: manky) fixed gear and I had enough draws to clip most of it.

At the top I slung a boulder, put Brad on belay, and yelled down “yer on be-layyyyyy”. I don’t think Brad heard me, but our friends on the other side of the canyon did and responded with cheers and monkey calls. Brad would tell me later that the rope was somehow caught under his leg and my forceful belay almost flipped him out of the bomb-bay…. Ooop, sorry bro!

Glancing at my watch, I was nervous. I’d reached the top of the route in just 29 minutes, a great pace, but with Brad’s suspect ankle I wasn’t sure how quickly we would blitz the descent. But Brad is tough, and with me running in front and finding the best path, we nearly reached terminal velocity on the slabby “walk-off”. I pulled out the watch on the bridge, cheered Brad on, and stopped the clock as we both touched the plaque in the middle of the span: 44 minutes!!

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Photo by Colin Simon

The Diamond is one of my favorite playgrounds here on the Front Range, and though I’ve been up it dozens of times in summer, I’d never thought about it as a winter objective until this winter. My friend Colin Simon got me psyched on going up there two weeks ago, and we enjoyed awesome conditions. The snow on approach and in the North Chimney was consolidated, the wall itself  was free of snow, and temps in the 20’s allowed for some freeclimbing. To my surprise, it was actually a type-one-fun day, and we climbed the route to Table Ledge before descending.

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Colin Simon and I before our first Diamond attempt

 

 

 

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Leading on D7, photo by Colin Simon

While it’s sometimes tough to find partners for these weird winter missions, my friend Joe Mills was chomping at the bit to try the Diamond, and I agreed to go up again a week later (Feb 3rd). Joe had been emailing with Josh Wharton, who’s 2001 ascent with Jonny Copp held the speed record for the Diamond in winter (14hrs 17m car-to-car). Josh encouraged Joe to go for the record, since it would give Josh an excuse to go try it again!

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Jonny Copp, before the original Triple Lindy linkup in RMNP. Photo by Kelly Cordes.

Joe and I went light and fast from the parking lot (just one headlamp, one rope, one backpack, one set of ice tools, etc) and power-walked up the approach trail. Since my last attempt, over a foot of fresh snow had fallen in the cirque, and the unconsolidated powder made for slow going past Chasm Lake. Once in the North Chimney, a 150m 5.4 approach route, we were wallowing and swimming in the loose snow, cursing our timing and lamenting that we’d never break the record at that pace.

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Colin mixed climbing in the North Chimney with one ice tool, on our first attempt.

Once on D7 itself, I was similarly frustrated by the fluffy powder that filled every fingerlock and camouflaged every crimp. That, combined with colder temps (biners would freeze to my lips if I tried to hold them in my mouth) meant less free climbing and more aid. Years of practice in Yosemite paid off, though, and I quickly established a rhythm of aid placements, high stepping and pulling off snowy holds to extend for my next piece.

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joe on table

We reached Table Ledge, traversed over to the Kieners Route, and stumbled to the summit completely out-of-breath. We rapped the North Face and jogged back to the car, both our throats swollen from dehydration. One look at the clock, though, and we didn’t care: 12 hours and 31 minutes, a new Diamond-in-winter record!

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Cumbre with Joe Mills

Rationalizing our absurd games

I kinda feel ashamed when I set out to race the clock. I love climbing because I love being outside, seeing beautiful places, and exploring my own physical limits. Ego driven competition is for meathead sports and macho show-offs.

But I love speed climbing, and especially trying to break records on my favorite routes! So how do I reconcile this contradiction?

Why I like climbing speed records:

-When at the crags, climbing fast means climbing more. Or maybe just getting back home in time for dinner instead of epic-ing all night.

-In the big, remote mountains, with short and uncertain weather windows, speed in essential to success and safety. Moving efficiently and quickly over complicated terrain is the difference between sending (and sitting out a storm back safely in base camp) and fighting off hypothermia in a snow cave for days.

-Quantifying speed (racing the clock) allows you to measure improvement, and prompts you to think creatively. If you try hard on a route, yet still don’t get the time you want, you’re forced to reevaluate your strategy and consider innovative tactics. Perhaps you’ll simul-climb, shortfix, take lighter/less gear, or simply break up pitches differently.

It’s not about ego and one-up-manship, it’s about training and having fun. Records are silly,  but we all find silly ways to motivate ourselves.

-Scott