Tom's Tips




An occasional series on mountaineering tips developed by CMC Member Tom Ritchie and published in the CMC Newsletter in 2002 and 2003.

Now that winter has arrived I am reminded of long days of tent incarceration while storms raged outside. To make your sentence more bearable consider adding these items to your kit.
Ear plugs. Anyone who has spent an endless night in a tent anchored on a ridge line in a gale knows sleep is impossible without them. Invariably, one disappears during the night. It’s dark. Finding the missing orb in the folds of your down cocoon as you twist and turn in the cacophony is impossible. You soon find the remaining plug does not reduce the volume of the constant staccato of your flapping tent by 50%. I recommend ear plugs that are connected by about 2 feet of fishing line. I have found them in lawnmower repair shops and home repair Centers. When one escapes during the night its capture is assured without fumbling for your head lamp and letting all that frigid air rush into your warm bag.
Speaking of ears, I always have a couple Q-tips in my first aid kit. If you are a scofflaw who arrogantly ignores written safety warnings on packages - a risk taker who tears “do not remove” tags off furniture cushions – then bravely disregarding the prohibition on the Q-tip box not to place them in your ears. You will find that inserting one of these implements into your auditory orifice after a week or two on an expedition will be heavenly. You will also be appalled by what you harvest.
Winter poses special problems for feet. Plastic boots do not breathe. Liners get wet and are hard to dry. You may even use vapor barrier socks. After a wet week with no sun you finally unwrap your feet. They look like a colorized version of the World War I photo in your high school hygiene text of a dough-boy’s feet submerged for days in the mud at the bottom of a trench. Consider packing some foot powder to prevent mountaineer’s trench foot. I pack mine in a film canister with one of those plastic tops used to convert them to salt and pepper shakers. It makes powdering those dogs easy.
All these items are small and light but can provide great dividends on long winter trips. They might push the weight of Bob Rockwell’s winter pack into double digit pounds, but for the rest of us I think they are worth considering.

Climb high - sleep low, Tom Ritchie.


Now Continuing the theme of small and light items for your winter kit, consider:
Ever spend a long night suffering the steadily accelerating demand of your well-hydrated body to get up and find some relief? Although you'd gladly swap all your Diamox for a pee bottle, no one brought one. They just take up too much precious space in a winter pack. Waiting in the dark while ground snow batters the tent and your sphincter screams you weigh the options. Can I remain engorged until morning? (Bad gamble!) Should I suit up and enter the nocturnal freezer that I know is just beyond my tent's zipper? (But it's almost morning!) Maybe commandeer my sleeping tent mate's water bottle? (Bad idea - he'll never become so hypoxic that he'll believe it's Gatorade.) The solution - a zip lock. They don't take up any space in your pack and are easy to use. I am told that the other sex finds them easier to use than the traditional pee bottle. I don't know. All my generous offers to help hold such a zip lock have been declined.
Speaking of unwanted moisture, consider packing a small sponge. It's a good way to clean up the melted snow someone (it's never you) kicked into the tent. Using a sponge is more neighborly than dabbing at the puddles with your tent mate's sleeping bag. You can even wipe the melting hoar frost off the tent ceiling as the morning sun reaches your tent.
Ever notice that once your aluminum shovel blade becomes super cooled the friction caused by jamming the blade into snow causes the snow next to the blade to melt and refreeze? Snow then sticks to your shovel making hard work, particularly at altitude, even harder. Once while shoveling a tent platform I noticed that the snow just flew off R.J.'s shovel. Every time his shovel took a bite it was with the ease of a warm knife cutting through butter. His secret? Glide wax. Just coat the aluminum blade with a hard cross-country ski glide wax.

Climb high - sleep low. Tom Ritchie.


I’ll start with a couple “old-timer” tips on getting traction in winter’s slippery environment.
Way back in the “Golden Age of Alpinism”, I’m talking B.C.1 , when 60 major peaks in the Alps were climbed for the first time in one decade, hob nailed boots provided limited purchase on ice for those that could afford them. Boots with a leather or hard rubber sole could turn a hard day’s climb up an icy chimney into endless night.2 Old-timers faced with this problem on cold days would simply pull on an old pair of baggy wool socks over their boots. Something to remember when faced with crossing an exposed icy slab without crampons. Wool socks and duct tape may get you across that traverse.
Losing one of the climbing skins for your skis can be a real drag. Hopping up hill on one leg using the skinned ski is a poor solution. A better solution is a length of 3 mm or 5 mm perlon which may just save the day. Put a knot on a bight in the middle of the cord forming a loop just large enough to slide over the tail of your ski. Tighten the loop just behind the heel plate and then weave, knotting the rope top and bottom around the ski, until you can cinch it tight at the toe piece. You just turned your ski into a snowshoe. No glide but it will climb great.
Old four season tents had zippers in the floor for cook holes3. During storms I miss that feature in newer models. Although tents today come with large vestibules it is always awkward leaning out to cook.   Besides, that space quickly fills up with packs and boots.   Consider installing a 36" zipper in a half circle in the floor of your tent. You can sit upright in front of your warm stove fully protected from the weather. Wind screens are unnecessary. Spills disappear in the snow. Install the zipper next to the main entrance. Not only does that allow you to leave a vent at the top of the door for steam to escape, but you’ll have a handy opening if your stove flares up and you need to quickly jettison the flaming bomb from your shelter. Remember, single wall tents may not meet flame retardant guidelines. Be careful. Almost all quality tent manufacturers have repair departments that will install floor zippers. I had one installed in my dome by The North Face.

Notes: 1Before Crampons. 2Find the name of a Beatles album and movie in this sentence for a free door prize ticket at the next member meeting. 3And other things that are equally difficult outside during a storm.

Climb high - sleep low. Tom Ritchie


Recently, while tent bound waiting out a storm, having exhausted the two usual topics, the discussion turned to all the climbing gadgets available today.   It became apparent that we have become dependent upon these toys – particularly rappel devices.   If traveling light and faced with a rappel without a figure 8 or an ATC, is your only option a slow down climb?   I thought a review of a few ways to improvise rappel devices with minimal equipment might be of interest.
What if you only have two carabineers to work with?   Of course you can always pull a bight of rope through one carabineer and use the second carabineer as a brake bar. Not recommended. The force placed on the gate by the ‘biner used as a brake bar could result in a gate failure with direr consequences. The system should be avoided, if possible, unless constructed with four carabineers with gates reversed.
However, there is a second lesser known way to rig two ‘biners as a rappel device. Clip one ‘biner to your harness or diaper sling. Facing the anchor pull a bight through the ‘biner from the bottom to the top.   Next, clip the second ‘biner around both the rope leading to the anchor and the line on the bight closest to the anchor.   Bring the ‘biners together by taking the slack out of the bight. You are now set to back off that cliff. Do not use this system on an overhang or when you cannot maintain steady pressure on the system.
What if you only have one carabineer available? You can still improvise a rappel device using the dreaded brake bar principle. A brake bar on a single carabineer should only be used in an emergency due to the possibility of a gate failure. With only one ‘biner in your arsenal the secret is to utilize other objects that are available for the brake bar. A small piton will work. Small angles are particularly good. You can also use an ice screw. Clip the eye of the piton or old style ice screw to the gate to keep the brake bar in place.   I have also seen the wood handle of a Chouinard piton hammer used as a brake bar. Remember, “Necessity is the mother of invention”.
If you are stuck with fabricating a rappel device that puts pressure on the gate of a carabineer, I recommend wrapping the trailing end of the rope around your waist and dropping it between your legs where you place your brake hand to provide some extra body friction for a “catch” in the event of an equipment failure. If you are using the ‘biner clipped to your harness in the braking system caution must be used to prevent the rope from running against the tie in loop on your harness. The friction could melt the tie-in loop, freeing the rappel rope and system from your harness.

WARNING.   Rappelling is extremely dangerous and may lead to severe injury or even death.   Gaining an adequate apprenticeship in constructing appropriate rappelling devices is your own responsibility.   You personally assume all risks and responsibilities for all damage, injury or death which may occur from constructing or using any rappel device described in this article.

Climb high - sleep low. Tom Ritchie


Brown rice syrup as an alternative to Gu

Various versions of “power food” have made their appearance over the last decade, with the most recent trend being a gel-type of concoction. (Some hardcore alpinists such as Mark Twight swear by the stuff.) It may keep your legs pumping on a long climb, but it can also empty your wallet in a hurry as well - it’s expensive.
However, if you look at the ingredients on a Clif bar or Clif Shot (the Clif version of Gu) you’ll see the main ingredient in each is brown rice syrup. You can buy a good size jar of brown rice syrup in the baking section of many grocery stores for about $2.50 - vastly cheaper than individual shots of commercial power gel. Get a small plastic bottle from an outdoor store, pour the syrup in, and take it along on your next climb or hike. For real haute climbing cuisine, you can add various flavorings or spices to it (vanilla, cinnamon, Kahlua?) to jazz it up a little. Note: It’s good practice to experiment with new food or gear on a day hike before you commit to a climb with it.
Thanks to Bonnie Van Domelen for contributing to this tip. The above “tip” was taken from the Mazamas web site at which generally includes a Tip of the Week.

Climb high - sleep low. Tom Ritchie

Keeping your hands warm in the cold air found on long slogs up the high peaks of Alaska or South America can be difficult. Gripping the cold metal head of your ice axe only exacerbates the problem by rapidly sucking the heat from your hand through your thick mittens. On a long traverse you can’t even switch the axe from your numb uphill hand to give it a chance to re-warm. The solution - cut and fold a thin piece of insulite over the head of your axe and secure it with non-absorbent tape. Leave the pick and adze exposed and cut a hole for the leash tie in. Neoprene is also an option. Your hands will thank you.
Ever been tied into the middle of a rope and come upon a running belay - maybe at an icy section - maybe by headlamp so you can’t see how solid your ropemates are? You start to unclip the lead rope so you can clip the trailing rope after you pass the protection. In your hypoxic state you stare at the lead rope running through that single carabineer. Has the leader put in more protection? How critical is this piece to the entire rope team? How long will it take me to get past this ‘ biner and reclip? You think to yourself “I wish there was a way to get past this piece without unclipping.” Well there is. Grab both the leading and trailing ropes with your trailing hand just below the tie-in knot. Slide your hand away from the knot. Take the bight you have just formed between the tie-in knot and your hand and clip it (both ropes) into the ‘ biner with your tie-in knot on the lead side of the protection. There are now three (3) ropes running through the ‘ biner – which like magic will become just the trailing rope as the slack is taken out of the lead rope.

Climb high - sleep low. Tom Ritchie

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Page created: February 7, 2006