I returned home from Nepal and immediately jumped into the next trip. After a short week at home, where I helped commentate and forerun for ABS Bouldering Nationals here in Boulder, Sam and I drove to Vail with our good friends Boone Speed, Mike Call, and Brian Dalrymple for a week of shooting photos and video of ice and mixed climbing for The North Face. We ice climbed in Vail, Redstone, and Rifle and did a little bit of mixed climbing in Rifle as well. My goal for the trip was to learn how to lead ice. I have been ice/mixed climbing for over a year now and decided I better learn how to lead if I want to call myself an ice climber.
Using the crane to get the shot.
The end of the day in Vail.
Leading ice is no joke. It’s a whole new level of confidence and mental control that I have never experienced before in other styles of climbing. It is a counter-intuitive game of trust. You not only have to be 100% sure of yourself, your partner, your tools and placements, but the ice itself, which is prone to breaking. Trusting your life with something that tends to break often, and even disappear entirely during certain months of the year, is difficult and frightening.
Sam leading The Rigid Designator in Vail.
Despite the reputation for being relatively easy compared to sport climbing and bouldering, the mental challenge and level of danger far exceeds both. “You’re hanging on to jugs the WHOLE time,” is a common phrase used to downplay the seriousness of climbing frozen water in the middle of winter. It’s true, ice tools are massive handlebars that you’d only actually fall off of if you were in a state of complete forearm disrepair, similar to the pump you would acquire when climbing to the top of the Madness Cave at the Red River Gorge. The only difference is that at the Red, you can come flying off the wall, shrieking and screaming and throwing the ultimate of wobblers, only to hit the end of the rope in a smooth arc of air. Falling while leading ice is, well, not really an option.
Nuthin’ but clean air in the RRG.
My first ice lead was called The Seventh Tentacle, a route situated behind The Fang in the East Vail amphitheater and first climbed by Jeff Lowe in 1994. I can’t be sure how hard it is (WI4?) and honestly it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I managed to lead to the top, place 4 ice screws (for all 80 feet), and only have a few small moments of panic near the top when I did get a little too pumped for comfort. I was overgripping my tools while trying to place one of the screws, and spent nearly 10 minutes trying to get the teeth to bite into the ice. I wasn’t applying the correct amount of inward pressure on the screw because I was nervous about pulling outwardly on my tool. Instead, I continued to pull downward, trying to force the screw in at an awkward angle, shaky, cockeyed and unable to thread the ice. I had recurring images of the entire chunk of ice around my picks fracturing and then exploding dramatically like something that would happen in that movie Vertical Limit.
The Seventh Tentacle is the flow behind (and slightly right) of the detached dagger of ice fittingly know as “The Fang”
Vertical Limit: maybe a little exaggerated. Ok, alot.
I did eventually manage to place the screw correctly, but felt pumped and scared nearing the top. My tools were suddenly heavy and my hands were cramping from squeezing too hard. I swung hard to try to get the pick to sink into the ice but it only glanced off the outer surface, like trying to stab a rock with a knife. I panicked again for an instant, but gathered my composure and realized that I was becoming a victim of “tunnel vision”. Blinded by fear and fatigue, I had neglected to remember that I was climbing something slightly less than vertical and by standing on my feet, I might become less pumped – rookie error. I also noticed that my breathing was too rapid and uneven. I sank down on my right tool, trusting everything, and breathed for a few seconds before attempting to swing again. This time, the pick buried deep with a satisfying “thunk”. I climbed smooth and solid to the top.
My next few leads in Rifle and Redstone were less terrifying and I gained confidence each time, but I never lost that feeling of uneasiness. In my head, I compare it to driving on I-70. I don’t particularly like driving fast, passing semis, merging, etc. All of it makes me nervous. I am always slightly on edge and extra aware of my surroundings, conditions, and the possibility that a lapse in judgement could mean game over. Dramatic, I know, but a real danger that is often overlooked when we become too comfortable and make mistakes.
My least favorite part of traveling to the Western Slope
Unlike driving, however, I enjoy climbing ice. It is a beautiful and fascinating way to experience nature and climb outdoors in the frozen winter. Ice formations are exceptional examples of how the environment adapts and alters itself to changing conditions. They grow, shrink, and change over time and with each passing season in a unique life cycle all their own. For me, it is another medium of expression within climbing, and another set of skills to master and understand.
Sam climbing “The Drool” in Redstone, CO
Brian nailing the shot via zipline
Boone almost fell out of this tree while trying to get the perfect hiking shot.
Mixed climbing and shooting video in Rifle (Bernie Boettcher photo)
(Bernie Boettcher photo)