At the start of each winter, I never cease to be amazed by the way ice forms. Mere trickles freeze just enough to allow the ice climber to pick and scratch their way up thin smears that grace slabs and rock faces. The experienced ice climber has a rolodex of early-season climbs; he knows just where the ice comes in after the first cold nights of winter.
The first few days are usually the most memorable of the season. Ironically (yet fittingly), the first days of the ice season are the hardest – you’ve got to be on your “A game” right off the bat. Why? Protection. Ice is protected with ice screws. These screws come in various lengths and hold quite well in good ice. The problem is that the shortest screws are 10 cm. long. This is great when the ice itself is 12cm. thick or more. But what if it’s not? Then you can’t protect with screws. Sometimes you can fit some piece of rock gear in the underlying rock (often peckers, pins), or find cracks to the side of the flow to fit in cams and nuts. Often, though, it’s a moot point: the ice is often too thin, and without good protection where you need it.
These are the days where you lead with a rack of cajones. Experience and skill become the climber’s protection. A fall would be quite dangerous. So, you don’t fall. (The doctor says “If it hurts when you go like ‘this,’ don’t go like ‘this!’”).
Despite the danger, it can be relatively controllable with a little style and grace. The competent climber can be rewarded with a private dance with the ephemeral early-season ice maiden. And what an elegant dance it is!
Following are some shots from early season ice climbs:
--Mike Pond, AAI Instructor and Guide