Monday, February 21, 2022

The Dangers of Collapse on an Ice Climb

In 1994, I had a very close call.

My friends and I were gearing up at the base of Shannon Falls (WI2+, II) in Squamish. The route wasn't really in. There was ice and it looked like there was a line, but that particular flow is high volume and it takes quite a lot for it to freeze. A tremendous amount of water was running behind the ice and the walls on either side of the climb were plastered in frozen spray.

But we were young and dumb and thought for sure that we could make it go...

We were gearing up at the base when something cracked up high. It sounded like a gunshot, and then like a tree falling through the forest. But it wasn't a tree, and it wasn't a was something bigger, and perhaps more dangerous. A block of ice the size of a minivan ripped off the semi-frozen falls and dropped toward us like a bomb.

The four of us scattered, getting away from the base of the falls just in time. The falling ice exploded on the ground, shooting basketball-sized blocks in every direction, zipping past us like missiles.

At the end of the day, we had a couple of bumps and bruises, but no one was truly injured.

It took a week to recover. And it took a week for the climb to finish freezing. So just seven days later, we found ourselves once again at the base of Shannon Falls. This time though, we sent the line.

For a long time, I was quite proud of that climb. It was technically easy, but the experience a week prior had left an indelible mark on me. The entire time we were on the route, I was convinced it was going to collapse...and I simply didn't have the judgement or experience to adequately assess the strength of the climb. Getting to the top, uninjured and happy, seemed like a great accomplishment.

But that's not how a climb should go. The baseline of success shouldn't be staying alive. Instead, it should be having a good time with our friends, while pushing ourselves in a controlled manner. One is not in control when they get on an ice climb that appears to be coming apart.

Ice climbs can and do collapse. If there is water running behind a climb -- especially if there's a lot of water -- it's time to go home. If it's so cold that the entire climb is brittle, then it's time to go home. It it's really warm out, and has been warm for a few days, it's time to go home. And if you just don't feel it, it's time to go home.

That's what should have happened in the following video. Whiteman Falls is a classic 2-pitch climb found in Kananaskies Country near Calgary. In the video, the climbers work up the line as you can hear water running behind, and then a large part of the climb collapses.

The video shows the incident from two perspectives. First, it shows it from the perspective of the climber, and then second, of the belayer. It gives you a really good feel for what it would be like to be near a climb as it collapses.

There is one thing that I thought this party did well. The belayer is perched in a place where he is secure from falling ice. One could make a very strong argument that this is how a belayer should be placed in all ice climbing situations.

Ice climbing is super fun, but it can also be dangerous. Learning how to protect both a leader and a follower from falling ice is a skill that takes time and experience to develop...

--Jason D. Martin

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