Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ice Climbing

The year was 2007.  I was less than a year out of college and I still had no idea what direction my life was taking.  At the end of the year, I took a trip out to Colorado with two climbing partners, David and Scott.  Our goal was to climb some ice.  This trip was slightly intimidating to me.  I had never climbed ice before.  Also, I had never been to Colorado before this trip.  Little did I know that it would be the first of many trips to this great state.  On the drive out I soaked in as much information on how to ice climb.  I knew that you would swing these weapon like tools into the ice, then kick your crampons into the ice and move up that way.  Basically, that is what you do but there are other more finite nuances that can help improve your skills on this frozen medium.

After a few days of seeing ice and not climbing it due to either snow or weather conditions we continued on to Ouray, CO.  There in this small mountain town in southwestern Colorado, there is a premier ice park.  Basically, they take this box canyon on the edge of town and make ice flows every 15-20 feet along an entire side of the canyon.  There is so much ice and it tends to get fat quick.  This would be my chance to learn in a convenient location.  It isn't often that you can walk 5 minutes from your hotel and be gearing up at the top of your climb.  During this trip, I top-roped many pitches of ice up to WI5*.  Buy the end of the trip I was hooked and couldn't wait until the next chance I would have to get back on ice.

Though ice forms in certain places in the midwest, I had one thing keeping me from seeking it out.  I had no ice climbing gear except the used mountaineering boots that I purchased while in Colorado.  Finally, in the winter of 2010/2011 I had the necessary gear to go out and top-rope ice.  I had boots, crampons, and axes.  I was set.  Luckily, some ice formed up in southern Illinois.  I spent one day playing on the frozen waterfalls.  Soon after that, the temperatures began to rise which quickly melted the waterfalls we had climbed.  This led us back to climbing on rock.  This one day of climbing did rekindle my desire to get on ice.

A few months after that day of climbing ice I moved to North Carolina.  It was then that I heard about the ice climbing opportunities here in the south.  Already in April I was wanting winter to arrive and the ice to form up.  Back in November was the first time I saw any ice here.  One morning Karsten asked me if i wanted to go check on the conditions of the ice on Highway 215 near the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I readily hopped in the car and we took off.  It was thin and barely there but just the sight of ice got me psyched.

This was going to be the year that I progress in my ice climbing.  Since ice climbing can be a much more dangerous activity than rock climbing, more care is taken to avoid injuries.  In ice climbing you are told that when leading you do not fall.  This is mostly because while climbing ice you have around two dozen spikes attached to you.  In a leader fall those spikes could catch on the ice, resulting in a sprained or broken leg or one of those spikes could find itself piercing through a piece of your clothing and into your skin.  Neither of these options sound like something I desire to do.  Because of this, I had never led any ice.  Also, I do not own the proper equipment to lead ice.  In ice climbing you place ice screws into the good parts of the ice.  As long as the ice is of decent quality, those screws will hold a fall if you happen to slip, which you should try to avoid.  Little did I know that this would all change shortly.

Finally, the ice formed up enough to climb it.  At that same time, my friend Caroliegh came up from Georgia to climb.  I asked her if she wanted to go ice climbing.  A little reluctant at first since she doesn't enjoy the cold, she soon agreed.  The morning we were going to go ice climbing, Ron, one of the other guides here at Fox, texted me and asked if we were still going climbing and wanted to join.  This was nice since Ron has more experience on ice than I do.  We met up with Ron and started the drive up 215.  Little did I know that we were not going to climb at the main walls on 215.  When Ron instructed me to continue past them while driving I knew he had something better planned.  This sometimes scares me.  Ron has been on of those guys who is always up for an adventure and also pushes me more than most people.  He then told us that we were going to do a climb called Creek Stomp.

We continue driving north on 215 past the parkway and back down hill in Haywood county.  After a few miles, Ron tells me to pull off along side the road.  We gear up then begin a hike into the woods.  Ron had told me about a previous trip here he took with Lindsay, another guides, where they went up the wrong gully and were forced to do some nasty bushwacking to crest a ridge to the proper gully.  After hiking for about ten minutes up the gully Ron voiced concern that he may have led us into the wrong gully.  He then scouted ahead while Caroliegh and I waiting.  Luckily, he soon found the beginning of the ice and we headed up to meet him.  Once we caught up, we started to put our harnesses and crampons on.  I was then informed that I would have the chance to practice my short-roping skills on ice.  I was not expecting this but hey, I could use the practice.  While I prepared my coils for short-roping, Ron began instructing Caroliegh on how to use the crampons.  We made our way up the low angled frozen creek until we caught up with Ron at a sheet of vertical ice.  I was stoked.  Finally, we would get to swing our tools.  When I arrived, Ron pointed out that there were already ice screws with quickdraws in the ice.  He had soloed up and placed the screws on this pitch for me to lead up.  Time to pinkpoint this pitch

I headed up.  It was a very chill pitch.  I would guess it goes at WI2.  After a few screws, the angle lessens.  I continued up with no protection, I didn't get any more screws from Ron, to a tree that is used as a rappel station.  There I belayed Caroliegh up while Ron climbed along side her to help her out.  While we were at the rappel station, you could hear Bella below whining.  Bella had ascended the slope next to the creek which was just a snow covered hill.  Now with a wall of ice impeding her ascent she became unhappy.  Until suddenly, a very happy looking dog appeared in the brush next to us.  It was Bella.  She found an alternate route to the side of the vertical ice.  We continued up the creek from there to another wall of ice.  This one was taller and steeper than the first.  When I arrive Ron has this goofy looking grin on his face which means that I get to lead this one as well.

This pitch, according to Ron, is a WI3.  It has four vertical sections broken up by good stances.  I started climbing.  At the first stance, I placed my first screw.  Then I continued up the next vertical section.  During this part I began to get wet from the climb dripping on me.  I reach the second stance and place another screw.  Things are looking good.  From here I head up to the third stance and place my third screw.  Here I chill out for a little bit and scope out the best way to the top of the climb.  The next section, I traverse to the left to surmount the next vertical section to the last stance.  At the last stance, I am only a few moves from the top of the pitch. I considered placing a screw here but chose not to mostly because I just wanted to get to the top quickly.  I start up the last section.  I am able to reach past some ice that isn't that great but I must use it for my feet.  Right before pulling the lip to the top, My left foot comes off the ice.  Luckily, my axes are in good so I grip down and pull myself up just a bit to get my feet back on good ice.  One or two moves later and I am standing up top of my first true ice lead.  From there I brought Caroliegh up.  Ron made his way up by some other means.  At the top of this pitch we decided to head back to the car then get a lap or two in at 215.  We rappelled down and made our way back to the car.

This day got me very excited for the trip that Fox Mountain Guides is taking to New Hampshire in February. I just hope I will have time to get out and climb a lot. It is going to be a great trip.  If you would like to learn about how you can join us feel free to contact me.

*WI is the prefix for a Water Ice rating.  this link will give you a good description of ratings.

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