Ice climb your way to the top

It all started with a hike. Or really, just the idea of a very long, very hard hike. Up a mountain. In the snow. Anyone’s typical adventure brainstorm really.

We were browsing the International Alpine Guides list of California Mountaineering trips last February when we spotted their ice climbing course for the first time. Nah, we thought. We don’t even climb outside.

We signed up for the Intro to Winter Mountaineering trip as planned, but the idea of that ice climbing class stuck with us. Spring turned to summer and we did indeed start climbing outside. As our trad rack grew so did our climbing skills… with each new cam came a new story, new knowledge, new strength. And that same old itch.

What if we did try that ice climbing thing after all?

Then boom, there we were. Five hours in on day two of the course, snow and hail alternating down on us, with 40 mph winds howling through the canyon.

We’d made it.

Confession: rock climbing scares me.

Like truly terrifies me. The first climbing trip Ryan and I did with a guide we were hoping to build some skills and gain some knowledge. It was early May just a few months after that mountaineering course and we were on day two of the trip. The first day we had stuck to top roping to gain technique. Day two though, we went for a multi-pitch route to test our new skills. Clear skies. Cool winds. Wearing only long sleeve shirts to shield us from the sun at high altitudes.

Three pitches up, though, it started snowing. We knew we had to get off the wall before the rock became too slippery to climb, so our guide quickly led the route to a safe ledge where he could set up a belay station to rappel us all down. Ryan followed — leaving me to finish up and clean the gear. I had to make it that ledge.

It was a hard route for a beginner. I had to climb up a small chute, travel right across a traverse, continue up over a boulder and then angle down slightly to finally traverse right to the belay area. I slipped a couple times along the way, holding on with just the tips of my toes and fingers, centimeters away from swinging on the rope and whipping down below the boulder. But I hung on. And we all made it down safely.

I’m sure, in retrospect, that we weren’t in any real danger. But in my head….terrified is the only word I have to describe it.

Our first day back at the gym that next week I couldn’t even climb a 5.9. I had to have Ryan let me down half way up my heart was racing so much. I thought never again.

But conquering our fears is never easy. The next weekend we went out and top roped some sport routes in St Helena. Back on the horse, as they say.

I still carry that wariness with me every time we climb. Just that small what if of fear in the back of my mind. This is what I was thinking as we headed into our ice climbing course last weekend. Day one we would skill build. Easy enough. Day two though we’d test our strength. Apply what we’d learned. I was scared.

Day 1.

When we arrived in June Lake around 7am on Saturday, it was clear that it had just snowed a foot or two over night. All was white. But the sky across the early morning was clear blue.

Ryan and our guide Doug heading to the crag for day one of our course in June Lake, CA.

When we arrived at the wall it was covered in snow, so our guide Doug led a quick route to set up the top rope and clear the snow off the ice. When he got back down he had Ryan harness up and just said “Climb” — so we did. No instructions or anything. I only made it half way up the wall.

Doug on lead (L) and Ryan on top rope shortly after (R). Same wall. Much less snow.

Over the course of the day we got better. With each trip up the wall we practiced one small thing. Use only one axe. Stick each move with only one swing. Swing once with the axe but take two steps with each foot.

While climbing up an ice wall, the crampons on your feet grip the ice with each step that you take. And the ice tools in your hands do the same, allowing you to pull yourself up one swing at a time. You don’t even have to dig steps out for your feet, as I learned on my first go. Just one swing of the toe is enough for the crampon to grab hold.

One swing of the ice axe. Left foot. Right foot. Walk you hand up the axe. Pull it out. Swing again. Left foot. Right foot. Walk your hand up the axe. Pull it out. Swing again.

It’s really very rhythmic, much more so than rock climbing. And where rock climbing it’s possible to feel like you might slip at any moment, with ice climbing there’s that sound when the axe hits the ice. yes. perfect. You just know it’s not going anywhere. Then imagine that sense of security times two axes and two feet. Makes even the most cautious of us almost confident.

And by the end of the day, I felt confident. I thought to myself… “this ice climbing thing might actually be easy” but still, that caution was there.

Day 2.

Lee Vining, CA is even smaller than June Lake. A grand total of 200ish people compared to June Lakes 60o. So when we pulled off the main road down to the fire road and our guide guessed that there’d be twenty cars at the end of the road I couldn’t believe it. Twenty?

Our route led us straight into the canyon. See all the little black dots along the way? Those are people!

But of course he was right. Our hike from the car took us up into a canyon (see photo left: If you look closely, you can see the full line of people ahead of us on the path.) When we arrived at the crag the wall was already crowded, so we decided to head full left and get situated behind some exposed rock wall for safety. (Lesson # 1 of ice climbing: never stand below someone on the wall if you can help it.)

It was cold and a bit breezy, with snow flurries coming down every few minutes or so, along with the chant of “heads” from people roped up on the wall. Broken ice chips tumbled down around us.

The view from our little station.

Ryan let me take a first stab at the wall after Doug led to set up the route. Here was the moment of truth I was waiting for… what could possibly go wrong?

The answer: nothing really. The climb went smoothly. It was a long route, longer than all the ones we practiced on in our first day. Before I left Doug told me to climb slow and build in some breaks when I could.

Our path took us up to the right of the exposed rock (see picture on left), then left on top of an ice boulder where the anchor was placed. I moved up the ice, rhythmically placing my feet and axes. When I arrived at the top my calves were burning and my heart was racing and except for one moment when a hard-ish move had got to my head, I had sent the water ice 3 the route easy on my first try. WOW. What a feeling. I can’t really even describe it. And that view. It was something else.

Ryan working his way up our first route. Our second route is behind the rock wall to the left, up a chute of ice.

Ryan took a go after I did, and then we switched up our anchor for the last climb of the day. This time, we were heading left from our ledge, traversing out across the ice and rock before working our way up through a chute to the top.

Ryan traversing from our ledge to start the route.
Layered up in the cold.

After Doug let the route, Ryan set out, making his way slowly and surely up the wall. With each new swing of the axe the wind howled a little harder and the snow started falling a little faster. By the time Ryan hit the top of the route to rappel down, Doug and I had all our layers on. It was miserable.

With Ryan back down on the ground, it was my turn to go. I checked the clock and took in the weather; a big storm was scheduled to roll in that evening, and Ryan and I still had a 3-hour drive back to South Lake at the end of the day. I also knew Doug still had to climb up, clean the anchor, and rap down. With that little what if voice in the back of my head I decided not to do the last climb. The numbers just didn’t add up.

It wasn’t an easy decision. I didn’t want to back out just because I was nervous. But at the end of the day it did turn out to be a great decision.

When Doug finally got back down to us after cleaning the line, the hail that had started lightly falling earlier in the day had increased. Other groups were bailing. Our fingers and toes were freezing. We were ready to go.

After a 30 minute hike back to the car we were on the road. It felt strange, leaving Doug and the ice climbing behind, not knowing when we’d get back out there. But we still had a small struggle ahead of us. Coming from Lee Vining you take the 395 back toward Gardnerville, then head west on 88 toward 89 back into Meyers. The storm was predicted to roll in white out conditions just after dark, so we were racing the clock. (In case you were wondering: white out conditions are no joke, and especially no time to drive.) When we hit the high point on 89 coming down into Meyers around 5pm, you could hardly see the car in front of you.

We did eventually make it back to the Tahoe house safely. And even though Ryan says that it was a close call for a while, I never felt too nervous. Maybe my threshold for fear was expanding? =) We also made it back with more memories, more knowledge, and some pretty awesome photos to boot. Not a bad way to spend a 3-day weekend. Not bad at all.

Until our next adventure,