Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Waterfall Ice Climbing - Cold and Scary, or Quite Contrary?

When I first got into rock climbing, nearly twelve years ago now, I solemnly vowed to never go ice climbing. From what I had read about the fickle pursuit, it sounded cold, steep, scary, and dangerous. At that point in my climbing career dangling from some small rock hold in warm weather was about as much excitement as I was hoping for. The thought of strapping medieval instruments of torture to every limb and lashing myself to 10 ton chunk of frozen water for a few hours at a time seemed about as far from enjoyable as I could imagine.

The author in SW British Columbia

These days, I manage to get at least a handful of ice trips in a year, and I would say that most of my most memorable climbs have been ice climbs in the alpine environment.

I don’t recall exactly when or where I decided to throw in the towel on that promise to myself to stay away from water ice. I can say that it didn’t come until after having spent a lot of time on rock and on glaciers. I think as I worked towards progressively more involved and difficult snow and glacier climbs, I started to understand a bit more about ice climbing and started to see that it wasn’t just a sport for gymnastic psychos with a death wish. I realized that there was moderate ice that even a snow walking, rock climbing, skinny guy could have fun on without dying. Of course once your toe is in the water, you might as well have your leg in the water. One your leg is in you might as well just take the dive. And so it went with ice climbing.

AAI climber John Greco in Banff

I started dabbling and playing around with tools on small chunks of ice in and around the Washington Cascades. Then, during my first year at AAI, I took a trip to Ouray with a co-worker at the time, Cory Bennett, and my ice climbing career was officially launched. I was blown away by the quantity and quality of the ice in Ouray. It was like the pictures I had seen in magazines and nothing like the anemic smears over pick dulling rocks and mini-pillars here in Washington. It was real ice. Long, beautiful waterfalls made of perfect blue ice.

We climbed every day for a week. At the time I was using straight shaft tools. By the end of the week, my knuckles were so badly bruised and swollen than I couldn’t get my gloves on any more, and so it was time to go home. Upon returning home I bought a pair of Black Diamond Cobra’s a real ice tool, and hit the ground running. I haven’t looked back and now each year, I anticipate the coming ice season as though awaiting the arrival of an old friend. It is cooling off here in the Cascades now, and ice should be just around the corner.

An AAI group approaches the climbing area in Lee Vining

If you are considering ice climbing for the first time, here are a few tips to get started.

1. Go with a more experienced partner or a guide. Surprise advice coming from an employee of a guide service, eh? Ice climbing, much more so that many other pursuits in the climbing world, is full of weird tools, techniques, terminology, and hazards. Going with someone who knows the ropes can save you hours, if not years of doing things wrong, inefficiently, even unsafely. On my first real ice trip I got to climb with a fellow named Scott DeCapio, and before seeing him climb, I didn’t know what a real ice climber looked like. Scott moved with a fluidity and confidence that I didn’t know was possible. He rarely swung more than once and climbed a pitch in a matter of seconds that had taken me a half an hour of hacking. With a few small tips and tricks, my ability progressed leaps and bounds in the days following that experience. It could have taken me seasons of flailing to get anywhere even close to what others helped me to accomplish in days. The value of instruction and leadership in ice climbing cannot be overstated.

2. Get the right tools for the job. Having the right gear can make the difference between a frozen knuckle bashing pumpfest, and an enjoyable pitch with warm hands and pain free fingers. These days there are more tool and crampon combinations than pitches in the Ouray Ice Park and making sense of the mess can be a daunting task. Consult a guide or a gear shop professional with experience and see what they recommend. Many services offer rental tools, which can give you the chance to try several different pairs in a day. Dress warmly, but be able to shed bulky layers quickly and get into your action suit for the climb. On long routes a small, stuffable parka will make your day. A thermos of hot drink in your pack is a lifesaver.

3. Know where to go. Picking the right location for an ice trip can make the difference between a great trip and a frustrating experience. Ideally your chosen location will have easy access to a variety of terrain, and you’ll be able to top rope easy climbs and harder pitches in the same area.

In North America, here is a list of reliable ice climbing destinations that would be perfect for a first (or 50th) ice climbing trip:

  • Ouray Colorado. The country’s first, biggest, and best ice climbing park. Many people don’t realize that Ouray is a Mecca for backcountry ice climbing as well.
  • Lee Vining Canyon, Eastern Sierra, CA. Lee Vining doesn’t have the volume of ice that Ouray does, but all of the routes are close to each other, and there are great options for easy to advanced ice routes and for mixed routes.
  • The Canadian Rockies. When ice climbers die and go to heaven, the go to the Canadian Rockies. The Rockies are widely known as the best ice climbing destination on the planet. One could spend a lifetime in the place and not climb the same route, in the same condition twice. Banff and Canmore are at the center of the climbing there.
  • Cody, Wyoming. Somewhat off the beaten path, Cody has ice climbing in the Wild West. There aren’t a lot of beginner options at Cody, and it is primarily known for its super high quality multi-pitch climbs.
  • Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman has a rich history in climbing and has been the home of many a world-class alpinist. The canyons surrounding the Bozeman area and farther east to Yellowstone National Park have many hallowed American classics hidden amongst their walls.
  • Washington State and Southwest British Columbia. AAI guide Jason Martin has authored a guide book, Washington Ice, detailing the ephemeral ice in Washington State. When it gets cold enough to form, there can be some amazing climbs in Washington. Reliably there are a few good options almost every year.

AAI teaches courses and guides climbs from mid-December through March in Ouray Colorado, Lee Vining, CA, and the Canadian Rockies.

If you would prefer to climb ice in the summer time – that is right, the summer time – (did I say summer?) come check out the glacier ice options on Mount Baker!

See our web site or email me at our info address for more details and happy climbing.

Coley Gentzel
AAI Program Coordinator and Guide

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