By Garrick Hart
Early season ice climbing is dangerous… To be fair, all ice climbing is pretty dangerous, but early season ice is usually thin, difficult, wet, and often doesn’t take protection well. In addition, there is always the lingering question of whether there is enough well-bonded ice to prevent the whole climb from falling down if you try to climb it.
When that reality is coupled with the fact that I’m rusty because I haven’t climbed any ice for eight months, my first few ice leads of the season could easily become the highest risk climbing that I do all year long… To complicate matters further, that same eight-month layoff makes me anxious to take on the risk anyway!
The only way to climb early ice safely is to climb with absolute confidence… but it must be a confidence that is solidly based in reality!
After completing a pre-season ice cycle at Mountain Athlete I know that I can hang on as long as it takes to dig out good gear… I know this because of the 40 minute sessions I’ve spent hanging from tools on the gently overhanging system board. I know that I can power through long sections of steep, pumpy ice because of the 60+ tech board laps on a 30 degree overhang I did in 10 minutes while training. I know that I can pull an awkward crux move because of the countless boulder problems I’ve done over the past 8 weeks across the roof of the cave.
I can step to the base of an early season Ice climb and know that I’m ready to climb it safely, because I’ve put in the work, and proven to myself in the gym that I am ready. In a type of climbing where falling is not an option, that confidence means everything. For me, risk management on a hard Ice lead begins in the gym!
As we hiked towards Alpha and Omega in Hyalite canyon over Thanksgiving weekend, it was hard to contain the excitement when they came into view (and not just because the sighting confirmed we were not lost). The parallel pillars were stunning, and both touched down. When we got close and racked up, we saw that Omega was running with water, and looked too slushy for screws down low, so I headed towards Alpha. Alpha looked like a solid, fat free standing pillar, until I got close… It turned out to be a curtain that touched down over the cave, not a pillar. It was about 4 feet wide, but only about 4 inches thick at the lower points, gradually thickening to where it poured over the over the cave. On comes one of the most difficult part of Ice climbing… Using good judgment while evaluating risk, when emotions are flooded with a combination of fear and the desire to send! It’s often hard to determine the difference between perceived and actual risk in those moments!
I turned my attention back towards Omega where there was a line of bolts in the back of the cave. With some drytool shenanigans we could gain the pillar high enough to be on solid protectable ice at the lip of the cave. Once gaining the ice, the long sessions on the system board began to pay dividends. I had to hang on to the steep pillar while knocking off some large hanging daggers from the lip to allow passage out of the cave. Once on the pillar I had to hang out and dig through the slush and rotten ice to get solid tool placements and screws underneath… but the season was under way!
Attention returned towards Alpha, and its thin curtain. We figured that we couldn’t get any reliable screws, until near the lip of the cave where the ice thickened and was bonded to rock. I was reminded of the sessions hanging on the hinges of the tech board as I tip toed up the delicate curtain towards solid pro. The hinges require precision and focus, even when fatigued, because if you shift on them too much, you’ll be heading towards the crash pad before you even know there’s a problem. The mental discipline that is trained on them pays off, when you can’t just swing hard and bury the tool. You have to tap, and test the placements, then delicately move up on thin ice, often stepping the monopoint of your crampon in old pick holes to avoid having to kick. Alpha and Omega… A fun start to what looks to be a great season!