Tag Archives: North Cascades National Park

Bollards are not Jive-Ass

Constructing a bollard snow anchor

Wim Aarts constructing a bollard snow anchor

I was teaching an intermediate level snow climbing class this weekend and was reminded of how suspiciously beginning alpine climbers view bollards the first time they see them. A rappel anchor made of a rope wrapped around a bit of snow?  I suppose we shouldn’t blame them, because at first glance they do look a little jive-ass. And to be fair, in making test bollards constructed in sloppy snow I’ve seen the rope cut through like a hot knife through butter. But in hard snow, where you have to chop the trough with the adze of you ice ax, they’re extremely strong. And if you back up the rope with a few pickets or ice axes (one of each in the photo above), have the heavier climbers rappel first, and then have the lightest person pull the back up gear and go last, it’s also quite safe.

At any rate, we built a few bollards this weekend to prove the point. The students weren’t convinced until one of the instructors, Andrew Rios, rappelled first, proving that one could do so and live to tell about it.

Andrew raps off of the bollard

Andrew raps off of the bollard

Location: White River Glacier, Mt. Hood, Oregon, USA

Obvious for all but the novice alpine climber? I’m not so convinced. Case in point: last summer I climbed the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak with my buddy Matt. This is primarily an alpine rock route, but the approach to the rock involves climbing up a couloir of fairly steep snow and ice. As the summer progresses and the snow melts, it pulls away from the rock leaving an intimidating moat on all sides of an ever steeper peninsula of snow.  It’s steep enough that most people prefer to rappel back down it rather than risk down climbing the late day mushy snow. There are bolts on the rock for late season when all of the snow is melted out. However, when we were there in July, when the couloir is still filled with snow, the bolts were an unreachable 2 meters from the edge of the snow ramp. A number of climbers–obviously more comfortable on rock than on high angle snow–made the dangerous and difficult decision to climb into the moat, risking a deadly slide under the snow and ice, to set up a rappel from those bolts.

A much faster, easier, and safer method would have been to carve a bollard into the edge of the snow, which is exactly what Matt and I did.

Steve making a snow bollard rappel anchor.

Steve making a snow bollard rappel anchor (Photo by Matt Sundling).

Location: Forbidden Peak, North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA

Forbidden Rappel Anchor

Matt descending the final gendarme near the summit of Forbidden Peak.

Matt descending the final gendarme near the summit of Forbidden Peak.

Last weekend I climbed Forbidden Peak, just a few miles from the Canadian boarder in Washington’s North Cascades National Park. It’s an absolutely gorgeous climb–one of the most stunningly beautiful climbs in the United States in my opinion. It’s not surprising that it’s listed as one of the 50 Classic Climbs in North America. It’s a huge ridge climb with fairly easy rock climbing (mostly  4th class with a few low 5th class moves) on solid, grippy granite, but with dramatic exposure and breathtakingly amazing vistas. The photo above is my climbing buddy Matt descending the final gendarme before the summit (I was on the summit when I took this shot). As you can see, it’s not exactly an ugly place.

You can see Forbidden Peak itself from the approach trail in the photo directly below.

Photo of the approach to Forbidden Peak in North Cascades National Park

Forbidden Peak: One of the 50 Classic Climbs in North America

At any rate, we were behind several other teams and one of them was particularly slow. We ended up stuck behind them all day, which made for an extremely long day. As a result, we ended up rappelling (abseiling for you Anglophiles) down the approach gullies in the dark.

Perhaps you’ve been there, setting up rappel stations in the dark with a headlamp when exhausted and sleepy and descending into the dark void, again and again, wishing you were back at camp snug in your sleeping bag.

I think it was around the sixth rappel that I found myself at the rappel anchor in the photo below.

Jive-Ass Rappel Station

Jive-Ass Rappel Station

I wasn’t the first in my team to arrive, mind you. Several of my party had already rappelled. I was just hanging there with my climbing companion Margaret, waiting for my turn, looking at the anchor. Did I mention I was tired? With nothing else to do, I examined the anchor (as is my habit). It occurred to me that what we had here was a bit of 6 mm perlon cord double wrapped through a little hole in the rock. The little hole was made by one protuberance of granite touching another, but they weren’t exactly connected. It wasn’t one continuous piece of rock. It was almost like a slung chockstone. And as if knowing this was a potential failure point, the anchor builder took one strand of that 6 mm perlon and tied it off to two bits of webbing slung around some rocks a bit higher.

I didn’t like it. After a few moments I took out my camera and took the photo above, to which Margaret said, “You think this is jive-ass, don’t you?” This is what people say whenever I take a photo of an anchor now. I said, “Yes!” And with that, we backed up the carabiners with a section of webbing tied to the slung rocks above and went on our way.

Location: Forbidden Peak, North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA

Knot Shoved in a Crack?

Knot stuffed in a crack anchor

Knot stuffed in a crack

This Jive-Ass rappel (abseil for you Anglophiles) anchor was photographed by Ryan Cupp. It’s on the summit block of Mt. Shuksan, in Washington’s North Cascades National Park. I actually saw this scary thing when I climbed the Fisher Chimney route in 2011 (imagine the UV damage that webbing has suffered in the meantime), but I neglected to photograph it. I’m so grateful that Ryan snapped a photo.

I didn’t trust this protection and neither did Ryan.

Location: Mt. Shuksan, North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA

The picture is pretty self-explanatory. This anchor point consists of a knot tied in a piece of nylon webbing and stuffed in a crack in the rock. Traditionally, this is known as a “knot chock”. They’re typically tied in rope, but also in webbing, and to be fair, some people will surely debate their Jive-Ass status.

It’s always been my understanding that in the early days of rock climbing and alpine mountaineering, and perhaps even up to the 1970s and 1980s among poor dirt baggers with limited funds, knot chocks were used fairly regularly as an inexpensive and effective means of passive protection. But with the advent of decent wire nuts and hexes, and eventually spring loaded camming devices (SLCDs), knot chocks went the way of the alpenstock and the hobnail boot. At least among the North American trad climbers and alpinists I know, knot chocks are archaic, old school, no longer is use, and of dubious trustworthiness. And I am certainly of this school. A knot stuffed in a crack looks, well, pretty Jive-Ass to me. I certainly wasn’t about to rappel off of one on the summit block of Mt. Shuksan (even if I could have been certain that the webbing was fresh and free of UV damage). As a modern, western gear geek I’m used to using bomber, thoroughly drop tested, field tested, UIAA and CE certified gear that’s reliably rated for a quantifiable number of kNs. I don’t know what kind of forces a knot in a section of 9/16 inch webbing can hold, so I don’t trust it. Maybe I’m just a prima donna that way, but I like being alive.

All of that said, I also understand that in some parts of the world using knots as passive pro is still common practice. I’ve been told that rope chocks are common place in parts of Eastern Europe and Asia, and even in Western Europe on delicate rock (like sandstone) that would be damaged by conventional metallic trad gear. And after a bit of my own informal online research, I also see rope chocks are sometimes still used by a few American canyoneering die-hards as an environmentally friendly (i.e. it doesn’t gouge sandstone) means of protection, at least if this article by Dave Black is accurate. So perhaps rope chocks aren’t so obsolete after all.

I still don’t want to rappel off of one though.

For some forum discussion on knot chocks, see this discussion from SuperTopo and this discussion from RockClimbing.com.