Epic Ice Climb

The following is a repost from an old blog, dated Feb 13, 2009

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You would have to be there to believe it. I honestly don’t remember having that much fun. Ever.

As stated in a previous post, I just found out about the trip on Wednesday, which gave me precisely two days to prepare. The guide told me to dress warm, which meant a good outer shell, a fleece inner layer, a soft shell under that, then a non-cotton/sweat wicking layer under that, then one more inner thermal layer. And that was just the top half of my body. (You have to have synthetic/wool layers. It is very important to keep dry when working in cold conditions. If you have cotton, your feet and body will get damp when you work up a sweat, then stay wet. You then lose heat very quickly; not what you want when you are ice climbing.) I needed the proper layers of socks that would keep my feet both warm and dry, yet allow me the freedom to climb in the customized boots. I needed a good pair of gloves that were thin enough so I could grip the ice axes, yet were thick enough to keep my hands warm and loose while I was on the face. I also needed some pants that were warm and water proof. Again, no cotton. I didn’t have all of those things, so I improvised a little. 

I am on a budget, but I had to go buy the proper layer of socks to fit the customized boots that I was renting. No way around that one (ever spend thirty bucks on two pair of socks?). I asked around for some gloves, but all I could find were snowboarding gloves (too big to allow for a good grip on the axes) or the fleece gloves (certainly small enough to allow a good grip, but not water proof). I finally found a pair at a sporting goods store on my lunch hour Friday night before the trip, about an hour before the store closed. Luckily, the gloves I was looking for were on sale. 

For the top half of my body, I used an old army issue jacket I got from a friend in Mississippi which actually was a cotton blend. I figured I could get away with it because I was using it as an outer shell and would use it mostly to keep warm when I wasn’t climbing. I then lined it with a synthetic liner from a Columbia jacket which was perfect. If you are wondering about the shell to which the liner belonged, it was pink and blue, and it looks like it is from the early Nineties and I would have lost at least ten cool points by wearing it. The next layer was my soft shell that I bought recently as a light jacket and it proved perfect. Synthetic, water proof, snug fit, and abrasion resistant. Under that I wore one of my soccer shirts that was sweat wicking, then my long sleeve rash guard that I got in Hawaii. Pants were easy. I just put on some warm ups made of a poly blend and my snowboarding pants over that. I tried it all out after work to make sure everything fit and to get everything in one place before the big day.

The trip up Maple Canyon takes about an hour and a half from Provo and I didn’t know where it was exactly, so I decided to tack on another half hour to the trip just to be sure. That brought my departure time to around 7:00 am to be there by 9:00 am. I needed every minute. When you consider my bed time of 2:00 am, I was seriously worried about how my lack of sleep would effect my drive down and my climbing. As it turns out, never underestimate the power of adrenaline. If only I could have been this excited for school. After a few mini adventures trying to find the canyon, I pull up to a group pulling out gear and I knew I had made it. 

We were put in groups of similar climbing skill and I ended up with a band of brothers and their mom ranging from a kid early in high school to a kid early in college. They were kind of goofy and loved every minute of it. The more I got to know them the more comfortable I became. For some reason, they looked to me like a big brother. 

After a brief demonstration on how not to get killed, we awkwardly fit our crampons to our boots and got ready to climb. The instructor gave our group the best set up right off the get go. Our first climb was a short ice formation dubbed “White Russian”.  The youngest brother, Collin, went first and he took about half an hour to get up the climb. We were still feeling out how to climb and not die at the same time. I was up next and after learning from some mistakes he made, I went up it in about 3 min. No kidding. The other brothers tinkered around with it as well, but went up it pretty fast after that. The first climb served as the perfect warm up.

We were super psyched to hit the best and most difficult climb in the canyon, an 80 foot water fall dubbed “Get Whacked”. I didn’t know it at the time, but the instructor had us doing this climb this early because he believed the boys I was with were the only people in the club who could actually get to the top. No one from the group before us was able to get much farther than half way up the fall. This time the next brother in line, Kevin, started the climb. We rooted for the kid to get up there, but we were cautiously optimistic. Frankly, he made it look easy. The next brother, Davin, was next and he too went up with out much problem. You could hear them working for it, but after a while we all felt the peak was an inevitability. Collin was next and he went up no problem either. 

As we sat around watching each other climb, soaking it all in, I just quietly assumed the guys who went before us were just not quite as good as I thought. I was feeling a little less intimidated by the club. Finally, it was my turn to strap on the crampons and start picking some ice. Putting on crampons and holding those menacing ice axes transforms you into a super hero. It was what I imagine Batman or Spiderman felt like when suited up. It was go time. I hit the wall, with a jumbled up strategy that I formed while watching the other guys climb. It consisted of two things, Up & Fast. Just before I hit the wall, Collin leaned over with his goofy grin and said, “This group is a group of finishers.” There was no way I was going to let a sophomore in high school show me up. (I found out later he competes in indoor climbing and is one of the best climbers in the club.)

I stepped up to the bottom of the frozen water fall and didn’t bother to even look up. I struck my axe in with confidence and started to move. Kick, Kick, Pick, Pick. Kick, Kick, Pick, Pick. It was that easy. I straddled a sickle up the first part of the ‘fall, which was a bit uncomfortable, but it made it easy to find the depressions on either side where I made my feet and picks stick. There are certain parts of the ice where you can stick your axes or feet where the ice won’t shatter. You have to read the ice and look for depressions, then make sure your axes and crampons stick hard. If you try to strike a bulge or an icicle, it will simply shatter. If you go in too weak, you could pull a tool out when you put any pressure on it at all. My strategy was great for finding depressions on either side of the icicle, but made moving side to side or seeing anything else rather difficult. Nothing like having a huge icicle in your face while you’re climbing. 

I flew up the first 20 feet no problem and made it to the first cauliflower roof. I took Davin’s advice and rested there. It was then I realized I was in trouble. Over the previous months, I have been training at the local climbing gym alone. The only thing to do alone is to do shorter climbs that do not require a rope. This is a great way to build strength and problem solving skills, but a terrible way to prepare for a longer climb that requires endurance. This was going to be harder than I thought. Way harder than I thought. It was on that ledge that my forearms began tightening up. My legs began to feel weaker, like after a long run. I thought I had better get going or this “rest” will max me out.

The water fall becomes a little tricky here. There is no one icicle. I really have to look for the place to put my axe. That means more time in a constant, tense grip on my other axe. I start to slow down over the next 20 feet as exhaustion sets in. It is taking a lot of strength to swing the axe hard enough to get a good stick. It is taking even more to hold on and pull up while I find my next foot stick. Unlike normal rock, there is no real place for me to rest. I am either throwing my axe in the ice or doing a modified pull up while I find a place for my feet. My forearms become so tight that I can hardly grip the ice axe, let alone pull it out the ice after a good stick. 

I fight though the pain, putting extra emphasis on speed and foot work to try and take some pressure off of my arms. I learned that speed and foot work do not go well together and my right foot slips out of the ice when I go to make a move. My left arm swings out wildly to counter balance while might right arm takes nearly all my weight on a single point in the ice. 

I have to make a concession and I tell Davin to take up slack while I rest. I was really worried about dropping an axe, which would make the next 40 feet impossible. I rest for what seems like an eternity. The exhaustion does not go away. I feel my stomach empty and for the first time I wonder if I ate enough for breakfast. I start to grab my axes for the next run, knowing full well that my next rest may be at the end of a fall. 

As I start to plant my feet again, Davin shouts out a very good question, “Are you rested?” This made me feel so much better. He let me know in a subtle way that allowed me to keep my dignity that I could take more time if I needed it. This was especially important coming from my belay. There is an unspoken rule of conduct from climber to belayer that a climber shouldn’t rest too long, because it tires out the belayer. When you have a climber resting on the rope, it puts an awkward pressure on the belayer’s harness that is terribly uncomfortable. Also, with the thin ropes used for ice climbing, it puts a lot of strain on the arms and legs of the belayer who is in constant tension trying to keep you off the ground. It is considered rude because the belayer could be completely exhausted and unready to climb his next route if the climber he belayed took too much time to rest. 

After a few extra minutes on that wall, wondering if I could finish this route, I realized my forearms were not getting any better. I decided to suck it up and go for it. I told myself, “Just don’t let go. I don’t care how much it hurts to hold on, just don’t let go and you will get to the top.” I gathered myself and got ready for the pain. When I start going again, my forearms immediately question my decision making ability.

Absolutely nothing else is on my mind but the pain and the will to keep going. The more I climb, the louder the pain until there is no room for anything else and my technique soon suffers. I make it several more feet when reach back to strike a depression with my left axe and it ricochets of the ice. 

Someone in the small crowd that has gathered yells, “Watch it!” and I look down to see my axe hit the ground, sixty feet below. An emotion that can best be described as a mixture of “Dang it!” and “Never seen that before” sets in. “Now what?” I asked myself. I am now supporting my body weight on one exhausted, burning forearm and two tentatively placed toe picks. The thought of going down only lasted a split second and was dismissed immediately. Collin jokingly said, “Try it with one axe!” There were several perfectly good human beings that couldn’t make it with two I thought. I looked up at the ice in front of me and I analyzed my next few moves to see if it was possible. I saw the crux was right in front of me, only a few feet away. After that, the ice then began to slope ever so slightly away, meaning it was more a matter of foot work than axe work. 

In the mean time, my right arm was starting to check out and unless I did something quick, I might be looking up at an axe in the ice instead of down at one. I put both hands on the axe, extend both arms so that I am leaning on the tool, then take my feet higher and kick in. I then quickly extend my legs, lifting the axe out of the ice in one violent motion. I begin to tilt and fall backward immediately. In one swift movement, I lift the axe over my head like a logger and plunge it into a depression a few feet higher. My temporary fall is arrested and I immediately extend my arms again and rest. Collin goes nuts, asking everyone around him if they just saw what happened. I start to hear several suggestions from the small crowd to try and help me out. “Try using the rock on the right with your free hand.” I reach over and try to grasp the wet rock with my glove, holding on to the axe with my decidedly tired left hand. Not happening. It was like trying to pull out a nail with a plastic fork. 

I go back to my axe with both hands and set my feet again. I look for the next depression and make my move. I was only able to get it a few inches higher, but higher none the less. Everyone below can see how tired I am. I could certainly feel it. I found creative ways to rest by placing my elbow over the top of the tool and resting on it like draped laundry. The next few moves involved more of the same, with a minute or two of resting in between. There was no way I was going to come down without getting to the top. 

The next few minutes are more of the same. Kick, Kick, Pick. Kick, Kick, Pick. The gentle slope is everything I dreamed of and more. The arms now bear little weight and I can lean forward with nothing in the ice but my toes. However, the closer I got to the summit, the more the rope began to pull me sideways. This time when I go to make my move, the pick doesn’t stick and I’m off. I untangle the rope a little and get back on the wall to finish. 

I finally get to the top, but I’m way too tired to celebrate. The small crowd does it for me. I yell to Davin to take in slack and I put my axe on my shoulder and descend. I start to feel my arms tighten up, solidifying into bricks of useless mass. I kick a couple of loose pieces of ice on the way down to make it safer for the next climber. I get to the ground relieved and satisfied that I didn’t give up. I start to wonder if I just did something stupid or brave. My mind leaves that debate for later. Right now, I’m hungry.