Entries By zeb blais
Alpine climbing requires a lot of different skills. Alpinists are constantly route finding, assessing hazards, protecting exposed areas, and moving efficiently in the terrain. If you’re climbing with a qualified guide, they’ll take care of the big picture and you’ll just need to focus on the movement skills. Moving efficiently in technical terrain is what makes climbing challenging and fun - there’s always something to learn and ways to improve. The better you move, the less energy a climb will take and the more you’ll be able to focus on what’s going on around you and enjoy the climb.
On classic alpine climbs, like Forbidden Peak’s West Ridge, Sahale’s Quien Sabe or Shuksan’s Fisher Chimneys, basic rock climbing skills are the key to moving efficiently on summit day. These skills only get better with practice, and adding some balance and rock movement skills to your training regime can give you a big leg up. With a few pointers and some practice, you can develop your rock movement skills so that you stay on your feet, use less energy and are more confident on rock before you arrive in the mountains.
Basic rock movement is similar to how you walk already, with a little more attention paid to the physics at your feet. Here are some techniques that you can use to effectively move on rock:
Climbing with your eyes
I constantly remind my clients to “climb with their eyes.” Look around the terrain, find the easiest path, and plan it out a few steps ahead of time. Finding the easiest way up takes a good deal of focus while you climb, but it’s a great way to stay engaged and it saves a great deal of energy over the course of a long day.
As you climb, look for features that resemble stairs – level platforms that you can get your entire boot on. This allows you to use a minimal amount of energy for balance and makes it easy to use a technique called the rest step. If you can find a natural staircase up the mountain it’s just walking!
When you can’t find large stair-like features in the rock, you have to lower your standards. Instead of using a perfect stair, you may be reduced to placing the edge of your boot onto a tiny feature. This is called edging. The smaller the features you are edging on, the more effort and balance it takes to keep from slipping off. Keep climbing with your eyes and look for the biggest features possible!
Edging allows you to climb very steep, relatively blank rock faces. It’s tougher physically and much less secure than stepping onto boot-sized platforms. With some practice you’ll be able to get up steep, technical rock and begin to feel comfortable on it. The more time you spend practicing on different sized edges and on different types of rock (granite, limestone, sandstone, basalt, etc) the more you’ll recognize how secure you are on those features.
Check out this video from Eastern Mountain Sports on edging skills!
Smearing uses the friction and adhesion between your boot soles and the rock grip surfaces that are too smooth or sloped to edge on. To get maximize your grip you need to do two things:
1. maximize the contact area between your soles and the rock
2. make sure the force you’re exerting is perpendicular to the rock surface.
This means putting the rubber to the road, or in this case, the boot sole to the slab. Articulate your knees and ankles so that the sole of your boot matches the angle of the rock. By putting as much rubber on the rock as you can, you increase the adhesion of the rubber soles to the rock and can grip some surprisingly steep slopes.
Make sure to apply your body weight as close to perpendicular to the rock as you can. This boils down to keeping your weight directly above your feet by keeping your posture upright. With your back straight and your head high, your weight will naturally rest directly above your feet. This keeps the normal force of your bodyweight pushing into the rock, which increases friction. The more friction, the better the grip and the more you can relax and look around to plan your next moves.
This body positioning is counter-intuitive for most people. Climbers that are unaware of their body position often lean forward, putting their body weight uphill of their boots, changing the direction of the normal force towards parallel with the rock, and reducing friction, resulting in a slip. It’s very common, especially when terrain gets steeper, to want to lean in toward the rock – resist the urge and climb strong!
Here’s another EMS video showing smearing skills.
With both edging and smearing, the more practice you get the more comfortable you’ll be on challenging rock. You’ll develop a more realistic assessment of how secure your foot placements are and that will make a huge difference in how efficient you are. Being more confident with your foot placements will allow you to relax on difficult terrain and you will save a ton of energy.
You can practice these techniques at home. Get started at your local climbing gym or sniff out small rock outcroppings if you don’t have access to a rock gym. Keep your practice low on the rocks so that you don’t get stuck on top of something- it’s always easier to climb up rock than it is to down climb!
Zeb Blais is a senior guide at RMI Expeditions. Zeb splits his time between the Sierras in California and the North Cascades of Washington. He guides worldwide for RMI, from Aconcagua to Mexico, Rainier to Alaska. A passionate skier, Zeb spends his free time pursuing personal adventures around the world, including an attempted traverse of the Fedchenko Glacier of Tajikistan.
Questions? Comments? Share your thoughts here on the RMI Blog!
September 19, 2015
Posted by: Zeb Blais
After listening to rain hit our tent for most of the night, there was finally silence in the morning. We started our summit attempt of Mt. Baker via the Coleman Demining route with high cloud cover but fairly dry. When we were almost to the pumice ridge the clouds grew darker and precipitation in the form of rain began. The visibility dropped and I made the decision to descend. We are down safe and sound and enjoyed the climb despite the damp conditions.
Until next season!
RMI Guide Zeb Blais
We got back into cell service late last night after an exciting day of climbing on Mount Shuksan yesterday. New snow in the Fisher Chimneys made it prudent to wear our crampons all the way down to the talus field below the Chimneys. Our team had a great time descending this tough terrain and came away from the trip with an excellent experience. Fun climbing in this wild September weather!
Thanks for the inspiring attitudes everyone.
September 15, 2015
The guide team monitored weather conditions throughout the night, only to find snow and poor visibility each time we looked out of our tent. With our time frame and weather forecast, our plan for the day is to pack up camp and take as much time as we need to get down the Chimneys safely. We’ll send another dispatch from town.
RMI Guide Zeb Blais & Team
Sahale Mountain is the perfect place to start your alpine climbing career. The climb has it all: a thick, forested approach to the Boston Basin Camp on a tough climber’s trail, low angle rock slab climbing, a intricate glacial navigation and even a pitch or two of 5th class rock climbing. While this may sound daunting, the relatively low mileage and vertical gain for the trip make it a very accessible climb for those looking to improve their movement skills and get a taste of alpine climbing. For experienced mountaineers, it’s pure fun. Late this August, the constantly changing terrain and the remote setting of Boston Basin provided a stunning backdrop for four days of climbing for our small group of four climbers, fellow guide Robby Young, and myself.
While Sahale Mountain is a good introduction to the North Cascades, it is still a physically demanding climb that requires climbers to show up prepared. The approach is arduous. With heavy packs full of food, fuel, tents, climbing gear and layers, the thin climbers’ trail winds through the forest about 3 miles and around 3,500’ vertical up to the lowest camp in Boston Basin. One of our team counted crossing over 300 downed trees on the approach (he claimed to be accurate, but my hunch is that he cooked the books a little on that number). Regardless of the actual number, this wasn’t a well-maintained city sidewalk!
Once we emerged from the thick forest, Boston Basin greeted us with spectacular views of granite peaks in all directions. North of camp Mount Torment and Forbidden Peak look as intimidating as their names imply. East of camp, Sharkfin, Boston Peak and Sahale fence in the Quien Sabe—Spanish for who knows—Glacier. Simply camping in this setting is worth the price of admission, but at this point the fun was just beginning.
After setting up camp, we rested for the remainder of the day to get an early start on a day of training for our summit bid. Much of the climbing on Sahale consists of moderate rock, so our team focused on rock movement for much of our training day. Between camp and the Quien Sabe Glacier lies 1,400’ of low and moderate angle granite slab walking. Moving on this terrain requires skillful footwork and good balance. After practicing smearing, edging and route finding on rock we gained the glacier. Donning crampons, harnesses and ice axes we delved into efficient movement techniques for snow, ice and glacial travel. With our team’s improved movement skills, we headed back to camp ready to tackle our objective the next day.
We rose early, in full darkness, to set ourselves up for a potentially long summit push. Due to light snow accumulations over the winter and a hot summer, the Quien Sabe had very little seasonal snow remaining. The route wound from the far north edge of the glacier to the south where the glacier bumps up against a rock arrete at 8,200’. The climbing was straightforward and there was only one section of glacier where we needed to walk with absolute focus on each step.
At the south end of the glacier, we moved onto rock for about 50’ vertical feet and then climbed directly up a steep snow face. We had watched teams navigating the bergshrund (the largest, highest crevasse on a glacier) just north of this area the previous day while we were training. We decided the jumbled ice plugs and snow bridges they had crossed were not something we wanted to tangle with unnecessarily, and we believed that we had spotted a smoother route to the South that eliminated the hazard of walking through broken ice of the “direct” route.
Above the bergshrund, we found smooth climbing onto the ridge. Often a moat can form between the glacier and the rock, which can make the transition from glacier to rock difficult, but this wasn’t the case for us. A small step off the glacier onto the solid rock of Sahale’s summit ridge was all it took. 50’ of 3rd class scrambling put us on the ridge headed for the summit pyramid.
Robby and I short roped our teams along the narrow rocky ridge until we arrived at the last steep pitch leading to Sahale’s pointy summit. This pitch presents a 4th or low 5th class move or two to get to the highest block of granite on top. We pitched out this section, running our rope out to the top and belaying our climbers up the short step. What a great way to top out! Without a breath of wind on the summit, our team enjoyed the high perch for a full half hour before starting the descent.
Our team moved well across the softened the surface of the glacier, and soon we were back on the rock slabs above camp stripping crampons. We just had a couple of short stretches of slab to down climb to get back to our tents. The team pulled it off in great style and we finished the climb telling stories and watching a beautiful sunset.
With gravity and the motivation of a meal in town helping us, we descended the climbers’ trail back to our cars. Soon we were enjoying cold beer and Marblemount’s best barbecue, Que Car BBQ!
Whether you’ve done a pile of 14ers or this is your first mountaineering trip, Sahale is a great trip.
Zeb Blais is a senior guide at RMI Expeditions. He has climbed and skied mountains across the globe. In the spring of 2014, he set out to traverse Tajikistan’s Fedchenko Glacier on skis. Find Zeb on Instagram at @zebblais.
September 4, 2015
The Mount Rainier summit climb teams, led by RMI Guides Eric Frank and Zeb Blais, were unable to summit this morning and turned on the Disappointment Cleaver. Although the weather was clear, calm, and cold, the avalanche danger and new snow kept the team from continuing their summit bid. Both teams are safely back at Camp Muir and are planning a 9:00 a.m. departure to begin their descent to Paradise.
I know you are disappointed you didn’t get to summit, but we are so proud of all of you. Can’t wait for you to come home so we can celebrate!
Posted by: Kim on 9/4/2015 at 8:07 am
August 31, 2015
RMI Guides Brent Okita and Zeb Blais lead their Four Day Summit Climb teams to approximately 11,400 on the Disappointment Cleaver route before turning around due to avalanche danger higher on the route.
The teams returned to Camp Muir and will begin their descent to Paradise this morning. We look forward to seeing them at Rainier BaseCamp later today.
Thank you for bringing my husband Dan(and his crew) back safely :-)
Posted by: Kerri on 8/31/2015 at 5:23 pm
Tom, I hope it was a fun adventure - happy to hear everyone is safe! Looking forward to hearing all about it.
Posted by: LB on 8/31/2015 at 2:25 pm
August 23, 2015
Posted by: Zeb Blais
We reached the Mt. Baker summit at 9 a.m. PST! Although we had lots of smoke from wildfires, we had clear skies at the top. Our descent is going well and we will be at the trailhead later today.
To Grant, Beau, Chet and Phil. summating on aug. 24th…Good Luck…God Speed! Enjoy the view….Safe journey…up and down!..from..Dad/Lance
Posted by: Lance Morrow on 8/23/2015 at 6:06 pm
August 19, 2015
Hi, this is RMI Guide Zeb Blais and team checking in from Boston Basin, our camp for Sahale Mountain. Earlier this morning we summitted Sahale under perfectly blue skies and low winds. Our team was strong all the way up and all the way down. We are enjoying the sunshine up here in the North Cascades.
August 15, 2015
RMI Guides Pete Van Deventer and Zeb Blais guided their Four Day Summit Climb teams to Camp Comfort (12,800 ft) on Mt. Rainier before route conditions forced the teams to turn. The teams are descending to Camp Muir to rest and repack before continuing their descent to Paradise. We look forward to welcoming the teams back in Ashford later today.