How I Had the Best Start to an Ice Season I’ve Ever Had



Walking into the gym on my first day, little did I know that the “pain cave” waited for me in the shadows of the climbing wall.
Walking into the gym on my first day, little did I know that the “pain cave” waited for me in the shadows of the climbing wall.


By Taylor Luneau

Three thousand miles from home and nearly an hour from the closest town, depending on how many bighorn sheep you needed to dodge, I stare blankly at the fire hose of rushing water that is supposed to be my ice climbing route in the Shoshone National Forest’s South Fork. The warm November weather has brought comfortable climbing temperatures but having chosen a south facing aspect to climb, a relative mistake or accepted adventure (I have yet to decide), my climbing partner and I had found ourselves in the typical early season ice climbing conundrum. Having already climbed through two pitches of scrappy, western conglomerate “kitty-litter” rock, some snow slogging and a pitch of decent ice, I turn the corner to find that our ice route has turned into suspect spray ice and a technical, as I call it, aggressive uphill swim. Using what’s left of the dull point of my ice axe, I scrape out a suspect crack to my right and try not to fall into the hollow ice beneath my feet. I place not one, but three pieces of rock protection before considering moving another inch. If two lobes of the cam are on flakey, rotten rock does that still count? Or is this what they call, mental protection? Either way, this climb is beginning to show me the true meaning of Western Hospitality.

Having just moved to Jackson Hole only months prior to my climbing trip in the Shoshone National Forest near Cody Wyoming, the massive, and convoluted mountains of Wyoming and Montana were a totally new experience to me. Hailing from a small town in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont I had picked up ice climbing in college and was fortunate enough to have some really amazing mentors teach me the trade. But while the ice climbing in the Northeast is, in my opinion, some of the best available in North America, it is rarely as wild or removed from society as the routes I was now experiencing in the Rocky Mountain West. Coming in to Jackson, a “flatlander” by local standards and relatively new to alpine climbing, I had several anxiety attacks out of fear that I would be unable or worse incapable of climbing the classic routes of the area.

Sandbag get-ups.
Sandbag get-ups.

Sitting on the bank of Jackson Lake, glancing upon the Tetons for my first time, I pondered this terrible thought and realized that I had a secret weapon. Hailing from a long history as a highly competitive hockey player I had grown a strong work ethic when it came to strength conditioning and cross training for my sport. So when it came time that I hang up my skates and focus more primarily on climbing, it seemed as if fate had guided me to Mountain Athlete.

Sitting there watching a Reel Rock Film Tour, I first came to learn of Mountain Athlete and their approach to sport specific fitness early in my college career. I immediately purchased a climbing plan and began training fervently at my school’s gym and the local mountaineering school, Petra Cliffs. I continued to religiously follow these plans up to the date when Rob Shaul accepted me into his gym, (after a constant barrage of my emails!) having just graduated from Saint Michaels College and deciding to move to Jackson.

The training was not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. Each morning I would leave my house at 5 am, sprint pass the local family of moose (ice tools at the ready!) and drive to the gym that I had spent years dreaming of training in. My first day there I hung from a tech board doing interval training between two longtime Exum guides. I quickly realized that this was the show, the big time. These were professional guides and serious athletes and I was fortunate enough to be training alongside them.

For six weeks I cycled between drytooling circuits and weighted step-ups, figure four drills and core exercises. Rob pushed each of us to train at our hardest every morning and we set high expectations for each other as a team. This was a professional atmosphere, a realm where the good came to become great, and believe you me, we worked our asses off in that gym. But it was worth it.

Lab rats train lock offs.
Lab rats train lock offs.

At my exit exam, I wrote with a fine tip, dry erase marker my scores for our standardized tests as ice climbing lab rats.  I realized that I had cut my timed 500 weighted box step-ups by more than three minutes, increased my max tech board laps in ten minutes by 30% and more than doubled my max figure four reps! This took place in a matter of six weeks mind you. My hard work had paid off, but how would it translate to real life situations? Would I be feeling these gains when my tools finally touched ice?

I had experienced some success with alpine climbing during my training cycle. I climbed the south ridge of Nez Perce, the Tunnel Route on the north face of Teewinot and many other great Teton classics. However, my first ice climbing success of the year was a mix of ice and alpine snow climb up the Stettner, Chevy and Ford Couloirs to the top of the Grand Teton.

Grand Teton Summit, WY.
Grand Teton Summit, WY.

Imagine my surprise when a relative “flatlander” was motoring up the east face of the Grand, at over 13,000 feet, lungs unhindered. I could feel my effort paying off, my early mornings and sore muscles were showing their worth. But I still waited with anxiety for the steep ice climbing yet to come.

Giving one last tug on the suspect rock pro I set off up the hollow ice tube, dancing between globular spray ice and delicately tapping the front points of my crampons into the same placements my ice tools had previously been. Running it out 15, 20 then 25 feet, I stay calm and relaxed knowing that after doing training sessions where I hung from my tools for a continuous 45 minutes, there was no way in hell I was letting go of my tools now.

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Alpha, WI4. Hyalite Canyon, MT. Photo: John Howland

I top out the pitch with a major sigh of relief and continue up the next, slightly better but still thin pitch. “Off Belay Greg!” I yell down. “And you’re not gonna believe what we just found!” My partner joins me at the belay ledge and we both crane our necks backward and stare in disbelief at the sight of the next pitch. A beautiful, un-touched, blue column of steep ice hovers above us tempting our confidence and strength.

“I flashed back to the gym thinking of a piece of tape that was stuck to the wall where I did my hangboard training. On it read, “the mountain doesn’t care.” Never had I realized how true this statement was than having so much air below my feet and in such a wild environment.”

In the no-fall sport of ice climbing, there is no room for hubris. One must be completely honest with oneself and maneuver within an understood line of limitations or risk serious and catastrophic failure. If you feel as though you’re way out of your comfort zone, then you’re probably going to get yourself into trouble.

Land of the Lost, Wi4. Hyalite Canyon, MT. Photo: Andy Tankersly
Land of the Lost, WI4. Hyalite Canyon, MT. Photo: Andy Tankersly

I considered this for a moment and reflected on the decision I may have made in the previous season. At this point, it was easy enough to bail and leave this pitch for the next pair of lucky climbers. But I had gained a new found confidence, one that only comes from hard work and persistent training.

I racked up, breathed deep and took off. Before long I was maneuvering the pitches crux, what felt at times like overhanging ice, but I was relentless. I flashed back to the gym thinking of a piece of tape that was stuck to the wall where I did my hangboard training. On it read, “the mountain doesn’t care.” Never had I realized how true this statement was then having so much air below my feet and in such a wild environment. But I was stronger than before, and shortly after this, I was standing on top of the pillar shouting in excitement down to my partner below.

Poster Child, M4, WI4. Smugglers Notch, VT. Photo Nicholas Ludwig
Poster Child, M4, WI4. Smugglers Notch, VT. Photo Nicholas Ludwig

Mountain Athlete had given me a confidence in the mountains that was one of a kind. My time training as an ice climbing lab rat was invaluable to my ability as a young ice climber. What would follow after my trip to Cody were a series of amazing new experiences that may have been un-attainable for me without putting in a serious and concentrated effort in my pre season training. I was able to go further, climb harder and ultimately enjoy my time more while doing it. In the words of Alex Lowe, “The best ice climber is the one having the most fun.” Well truth be told, having worked harder than ever in my pre-season, I was having way more fun than ever before!

I took these skills and sought out new terrain, first applying them to some of the classics of Hyalite Canyon, MT. We visited Alpha and Omega, The Dribbles, Land of the Lost and Genesis 1 and 2. Before long I had tied the number of WI4 climbs I had done in the previous year. I followed a friend up Responsible Family Men, a climb that reminds us all that there is always more work to be done!

I flew home to the East and found success there as well. I climbed routes that I had been scared silly of just a year before. I visited the iconic Lake Willoughby, (an ice climbers dream!) and climbed the famous 20 Below Zero Gully WI4+ feeling strong and confident. I looked over at a party climbing Glass Menagerie WI5, and felt more inspired to continue my training than ever before.

In the following days we would link up mix climbs and steep ice routes into single outings that had previously required several days to achieve.

We climbed Mount Washington’s Pinnacle Gully WI3, in negative 30°F with 80mph gusts. I walked away with numb feet and a wind burned face but I felt a 100% confident as I climbed through thin ice conditions and heavy spindrifts pummeling me on the lead. Cold weather is a sure “fire” way to see if you’ve been training in the off-season. When you can’t feel your hands but manage to not let go of your grip on your tools, you know your hard work is paying off. The fact of the matter is, if you train hard and smart in your preparation for whatever sport you enjoy, you’re inevitably going to get better at your pursuit and doors are going to start opening for you.

A great training program should provide you the physical and mental stamina to perform your sport at your best and this is what Mountain Athlete has to offer. Their sport-specific programs will prepare you for your mountain adventures and inevitably open up more terrain for you. Before you know it, you’ll be climbing that route that has always scared you or you’ll suddenly be recreating in more remote areas and feeling fully confident while doing so.

Omega, M5 WI5, Hyalite Canyon, MT. Photo: John Howland
Omega, M5 WI5, Hyalite Canyon, MT. Photo: John Howland

Outdoor sports require so much in the realm of technical, physical and mental readiness and the penalty for poor preparation is serious and often abrupt. Luckily, if you’re willing to put in the time and work, and maybe sprint past a few moose, Mountain Athlete has the resources you need to get ready for your sport. And speaking from my experience as an ice climbing lab rat, their ice program is one of a kind and will undoubtedly prepare you for the season and set you up for success. In the end and most importantly, it will inevitably allow you to have more fun recreating with your friends and experiencing life to it’s fullest degree.

Train smarter. Climb harder. Be Happier.


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