Mountain starts usually seem like a much better idea the day before than they do the morning of. I was vividly reminded of this while rolling out of bed at 3:50 am. Amy and I were bound for our first venture in technical ice climbing with the Colorado Mountain Club.
Amy and I have been climbing rock for years. It's not that we're interested in taking up ice climbing as well, but it seemed fun to pick up a new skill and see how the other half (well, probably a lot less than half) lives. Technical ice skills would also undoubtedly help with snow climbing and the occasional patch of ice in a shady couloir. What the heck, lethally sharp metal implements attached to every limb? It worked for Edward Scissorhands. What's not to like?
We met downtown in Boulder at 5am and immediately split into two groups: six students and two or three instructors in each. Our group was Kendra and Brett, a young married couple recently arrived from Australia; Roger, a software salesman from Oklahoma; Mark, a fellow caver; and Amy and I. We piled into two vehicles and headed off for Silver Plume along I-70.
It was still dark when we arrived a little after 6. We'd been prepared for a lot of standing around in cold weather, but the first few moments outside the comfortable warmth of the car was definitely eye-openning. Traffic roared past on I-70 twenty yards away and a bitter wind cut through our warmest layers as we changed into our plastic boots and helmets and divied up the communal supply of ropes and ice tools. In addition to all the technical gear, I'd brought along anything I thought would be remotely useful: jumars, leather boots, alpine axe, aluminum crampons, plenty of food and spare gloves. I'm out of practice carrying a pack that heavy and a hundred yards reminded me rather pointedly of this fact.
The evolution of the ice axe. On the left is a traditional alpine axe: long and straight with a forward-curved pick and adze. In the middle is a more traditional ice tool with a shorter, bent shaft and reverse-curved pick. On the right is an example of the new generation of leashless tools for ice and mixed climbing. Missing is the spike on the end of the shaft.
Two of our instructors, Krista and Cornelia, headed off quickly for the ice to start setting up the ropes. The rest of us kept a slower pace and after a tenth of a mile, it was light enough to turn off our headlamps. We stopped to don harnesses and crampons before proceeding up a frozen stream bed covered with smooth pillows of ice. Andrew, our dynamic and personable main instructor, gave us pointers on flat-footed French technique and climbing low-angle ice. We proceeded up the stream bed past the ruins of the intensive mining activity of the Colorado gold rush.
It was certainly not the prettiest place I've been in Colorado, but things soon improved. We rounded a corner and caught sight of an ice-fall roughly 50' tall and the same wide. Crista and Cornelia could be seen leading up the icefall setting up topropes for the class. The wall started out with a lumpy, low-angle (35-45 degrees?) slab followed by 15-20' of vertical, convoluted ice wall, some of it in free-hanging curtains. We set up camp in a nook below the ice and broke out refreshments.
Andrew divided us into two groups of three, one for each of the topropes: Rodger, Amy and I accompanied Cornelia to the upper rope up a snow ramp to a small belay platform on the right. Andrew and Krista kept the others down below to climb the longer, left-hand route. I took first bellay duty while Roger tied in and prepared to climb and Cornelia instructed. His technique was definitely inspired by rock climbing and he was hampered by the desire to edge, not a great idea when you're counting on front points on your toes. Amy fared a little better in technique but was clearly a little wigged out by the novel experience. All the while, bits of ice rained down on the people below. It's clear why people wear helmets in this sport!
Amy takes to the low-angle ice.
Finally I got to take hold of the tools (Grivel Rambo Evolution 2s) and take to the ice. Going last, I definitely benefitted from the mistakes of Amy and Rodger and made pretty good progress up the face. I was careful to keep my toes pointed in where the frontpoints could bite ice and to keep a wide stance with both arms and legs to maintain balance (the classic X-position). Swinging the ice tools felt remarkably natural and I quickly learned that a gentle swing will set the pick perfectly adequately. Front-pointing was a little dicey since I couldn't always see what my feet were getting into, but generally a few deliberate kicks cleared enough space for crampon purchase. Getting the ice tools out was conciderably harder than I had expected; I often had to move my hand up the shaft and whack them upward with the palm of my hand. Interestingly, modern ice tools have reverse-curved picks to make removal easier. Old-school forward-curved picks must be a real pain!
Pulling over bulges in the ice was a great challenge, but eventually I came to a small shelf about 7 feet below the top. Here things became more interesting as I was faced with a free-hanging curtain of ice a couple inches thick, detached from the base, and slightly overhung. I planted my tools as well as I could and gingerly kicked into the curtain. On lead, this would be a serious sphincter moment, but the ice was surprisingly strong and I pulled over onto the top feeling extremely bad-ass. Success! Wow!
The rest of the day went very well, but nothing could match the elation of that first climb. I learned the techniques of hooking (where the ice tools are placed in preexisting holes in the ice rather than being swung with force) and daggering (where you grab the heads of the axes as you climb past them, thus minimizing the number of times you need to place and remove your tools). Ice chunks rained down continuously from people above onto people below. Brett took a good hit to the head and Kendra got beaned in the helmet by a softball-sized rock. Even though she was wearing a helmet, it nearly knocked her senseless.
After two climbs each on the right hand rope, we traded with the lower group (after Kendra recovered from a direct hit by a softball-sized rock knocked down by another group). Roger's technique improved and Amy gained more confidence. Cornelia was extremely enthusiastic about our progress and was full of praise for our budding skills. After a few more climbs, she allowed me to use (so long as I was very very nice to them) her fancy Quark Ergo leashless tools, some of the meanest-looking axes I've ever seen.
After a spot of lunch, Andrew suggested we try climbing with only one axe. To make things interesting, I decided to try it with my alpine axe. Definitely harder and I was forced to use various contortions on the steep stuff. But definitely doable. Later I tried it again with my flexible leather boots and aluminum crampons with my alpine axe and a short, straight-shafted ice tool. Usually ice climbing requires rigid boots to properly front-point. My leathers, stiff as they are, flopped and bent all over the place and I was forced to develop new techniques. It works, but I definitely appreciate the stiff boots!
The steepest part of the wall, perfect for hooking!
By 2pm the ice had become rather mushy and soft. The base of the cliff, which had been smooth snow and ice before was covered a couple inches deep in ice cubes. We were all pretty tired out and ready to move on. Andrew lead us part way down the gully to some low-angle ice bulges where we played with ice protection for a while. He demonstrated various types of ice screws and ice hooks and then we got a chance. I was impressed at how effortlessly ice screws bit into the ice. Pound-in snargs were another matter and took quite a bit of effort.
Krista demonstrated a V-thread for us by boring two holes with long screws at a 90-degree angle to each other. The trick is to have the holes intersect such that you can run a cord through them and create an anchor out of ice. This is easier said than done, however, as it's very tricky to get the holes to intersect.
Finally, the sun was setting and we trudged back down to the road. What had seemed unreasonably steep and dangerous on the way up was completely casual on the way down. We arrived back at the cars a little after 4pm and gratefully changed into normal shoes. The drive back was uneventful and we returned to the meeting point, cold, windy and dark, much the way we'd left it.
It was a fantastic experience with a set of personable, knowledgable instructors and motivated students. Well worth the money and effort in every way. I went into this experience curious but somewhat ambivalent. I came out extremely excited about ice climbing and wanting to try it again. Only the fact that the neccessary gear runs well over $1000 for the basic setup is likely to keep me from rushing out immediately to see what I can find.
Somehow, I knew this would happen!
The Wilderness Journal