Saturday, March 10, 2012

Joel & his Ice Climbing Adventures


“It’s a fun pitch, isn’t it?” Jon, my climbing guide, asks when I’m within earshot on the second pitch of Chasing the Sun.

“In a masochistic way,” I respond, huffing and puffing after kicking and picking my way up a frozen waterfall for nearly 20 minutes straight.

“That’s ice climbing,” Jon replies with a knowing laugh and a smile.

I’m not sure “fun” is the right word to describe scaling frozen waterfalls. I can understand “challenging,” “addictive,” gratifying,” “satisfying” or even “rewarding,” but I don’t think the word “fun” crossed my mind at any time when I was actually climbing, arms pumped from swinging tools and hanging on to a single ax as I clean Jon’s ice screws while ascending. All I wished for was to be at the top and have a decent rest before the next ascent.

No such luck, as the next waterfall is 500 vertical feet and ¼-mile ahead. The only rest I get is belaying Jon as he flashes the next pitch. The whole time, I’m dodging dislodged ice chunks the size of dinner plates while it’s raining rocks.

But afterwards, from the comfort of the couch, I watched the helmet-cam videos over and over again, re-living my glory until I sent Jon an email query asking about another trip.

I’m a relative newbie to ice climbing, which in the U.S. is a relatively new sport. Or you could say there’s a lot of room for growth in the sport – at least there is on the Southfork of the Shoshone River outside of Cody, Wyo.

There are people like Jon who can name all the waterfalls along the Southfork and tell you firsthand how often they’re in and how hard they are to climb as well as lead you safely up them.

I’m not the most experienced climber, and I’m far from the best or the strongest, so why should I write about a topic I’m not an expert at but so many other local people are? I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to be Jon to climb water ice, but if you’re starting out, you need to learn from someone like him.

Some people are natural climbers. I’m not. It helps me to know that Jon’s not, either (at least he’s kind enough to tell me so). He says he spent a lot of time perfecting his form and learning how to climb rock and ice, just like I am. But he started a decade ago.

Besides, just because climbing comes easy to some doesn’t mean the mountain recognizes that. Those who are most likely to die in avalanches are experts. They know about the mountain, but the mountain doesn’t know or care about them.

It doesn’t hurt, also, to resign yourself to death; you’re unlikely to meet him while you’re climbing, even ice climbing, but if you haven’t already glimpsed him in a deer jumping across your path in the dark on the Southfork road, you haven’t ever seen him, and you will be surprised no matter when and where he finds you. But accepting death will help you make the moves you need, even though your rope and your guide will save you, even if your vehicle doesn’t.

Jackson Hole Mountain Guides has a Cody office that I can highly recommend, as I’ve rock or ice climbed with all of their guides (a few of them I’ve done both with, more than once); Southwest Adventure Guides is a Colorado company approved by the Shoshone National Forest for commercial waterfall ice guiding on the Southfork, and I’m sure their guides are all fully safe and competent, but I have never personally experienced them.

Geologists describe the slow-cooling igneous rock of the Absarokas with terms like “breccia.” Climbers call the crumbly volcanic conglomerate “choss,” “rotten” or, locally, “frozen kitty litter.” I’m surprised I haven’t heard anyone call it “Cody cheddar” or “Southfork Feta.”  It’s impossible to protect because it disintegrates as soon as you touch it.

But it creates world-class frozen waterfalls.

Maybe that’s part of the attraction to ice climbing for me as a local. When I lived in the Colorado high country, with two world-class ski resorts in my backyard, I spent most of my time riding. Living next to a world-class national park, I still hike the trails, despite the extra crowds and buffalo (tourist) jams. When I spent a summer in Washington, D.C., of course I visited its monuments and museums. Who would visit our nation’s capital without taking time for the Lincoln Memorial?

Living next door to some of the best ice climbing in the U.S., I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least try some of the routes people like Jon call “classics,” “gems” and “beautiful.” (Did I mention Jon spent seven years guiding a North American “classic,” Mount Hood, and still moved to Cody just to climb water ice?)

In addition to having the right geological conditions for world-class ice climbing, the Southfork offers an unprecedented mountaineering experience. Rather than single-pitch waterfalls where you put on your crampons sitting in your vehicle and make laps on the same route all day next to three other climbing parties, the easiest approach to Southfork ice falls is at least an hour. Not along a trail, but up a rocky drainage; or scrambling up slippery, 60-degree scree fields; or short-roping low-angle ice for a mile or more; or all of these in one trip.

I can appreciate lapping a single pitch with one ice tool as a means to an end, like I can appreciate bouldering to get better at rock climbing, but in both cases, I’m looking for a larger, longer mountaineering experience, not to climb the hardest, least-protected route possible.

And with at least three pitches on most routes, you can start climbing at 7 a.m. and not get back until 7 p.m. – or later, if you’re not strict about your turnaround time. Climbers who know the Southfork know it takes at least as long to descend as ascend – and that’s if you can rappel rather than having to downclimb.

I’ve climbed Granite Peak, Montana’s highest point and one of the most technical highpoints in the U.S., but I didn’t feel like a real mountaineer until I spent seven hours accessing and climbing three distinct pitches of water ice without seeing a soul other than my guide/climbing partner. Or until I sat atop a 60-meter pitch alone in the cold while Jon rappelled to the base, all the while hearing shattering and crashing ice without the benefit of knowing or seeing what is happening below. For a while, I was a little worried the whole structure might collapse underneath me. But I trust my guide and partner. At that point, what other choice do I have?

Waiting in the freezing wind, I’m tied to a six-inch-thick evergreen that’s keeping me from sliding down a 70-degree slope (expert ski runs are typically 40 degrees to 60 degrees), thanking goodness I have a warm bed to retire to later rather than a tent and a mummy bag, and wondering when I will hear “Off rappel,” from Jon, those exhilarating and somewhat frightening words that mean it’s my turn to back down the 60-meter frozen waterfall. At least it’s not a V-thread, an anchor that’s perfectly acceptable and safe, but not as inspiring of confidence as the little live evergreen tree that supports us (yes, both of us) right now.

After he lands, Jon’s voice is surprisingly loud and clear from 200 feet below. It echoes up along the canyon walls and maybe unlooses some frozen kitty litter. Or maybe it has been raining rocks since we started, and I’ve been too focused on my own purchase, my own selfish attachment the ice. On the way down, I smash through and dislodge more of the chandeliered icicles that I heard Jon destroy before. Most people would lower their heads and hide behind their helmet. Jon’s experienced enough that he’s well away from the bottom of the ice fall, well out of range of the dislodged, dangerous dinner plates.

The biggest barrier to climbing water ice is a sizeable upfront investment in gear, training and knowledge. It’s somewhere between snow skiing and learning to fly a private aircraft, depending on your climbing goals. But it’s gear that’s going to save your life. You don’t want to scrimp on that, do you? You wouldn’t build an airplane out of plywood, would you? If you would, I’m not flying with you, and I probably won’t climb with you, either.

Thankfully, it’s pretty much free after that – just calories and gas. Luckily I have plenty of both.

If you’re just starting out, you’ll be following a leader – someone like Jon. Someone who knows what they’re doing, has likely climbed the route at least once before, knows friends or other guides who have climbed the route in the past week or so, has a full rack of gear and knows when conditions are unsafe naturally or unsafe for your fitness, health or skill level.

Necessary gear for following on ice includes: a climbing harness ($75-$100), a climbing helmet ($100, see “choss,” “rotten rock” and “frozen kitty litter” and note that you will be below it), mountaineering boots (as much as $500), ice tools (about $200 each), crampons (+/- $200 a pair), some locking carabiners (as much as $15 each), a rope or two (about $200 each), appropriate clothing (priceless – waterproof and warm! I can climb in a fleece and uninsulated pants, but I start sweating in the shade when it hits 65 degrees Fahrenheit).

If you hire a guide service, check with them to see what they provide. Depending on the service, they might provide harnesses, locking carabiners and a climbing helmet (bike helmets don’t count). The guide will almost certainly provide any needed ropes and an assortment of protection (ice screws, about $60 each, as well as cordelettes and webbing for anchors, price varies by the foot depending on diameter and performance).

For the rest of the gear, a local shop called Sunlight Sports has a knowledgeable staff (many are climbers of rock and/or ice themselves), and they rent technical mountaineering boots, crampons and ice tools.

If you’re a dirtbag rock climber looking to try ice, check out the annual Southfork Ice Festival, which takes place Presidents Day Weekend each year.  Visit starting in about November to find ice climbing clinics, rescue scenarios and multi-pitch climbs.

In addition to having free hardware to demo from sponsors (crampons, tools, mountaineering boots, etc., from companies such as Scarpa, Black Diamond, Grivel, Petzl and others), I was surprised to be able to demo software (ropes, gloves and a softshell jacket) from companies such as Rab, Sterling Ropes and Mountain Hardware. For free. Did I mention free? The single-pitch clinics are led by seasoned climbers and guides, and the multi-pitch trips the second day were about $450 worth of guided climbing.

At this year’s festival, the never-evers clinic was free, while the rest of the clinics cost a small fee, which is a donation to the Wyoming Search and Rescue Association.

Having a guide rather than a climbing buddy means at least that you can tell outrageous lies at the bar after your adventure, and they should at least feel some obligation to back up your absurdities – if you tip them well enough. After all, even if you don’t know it, they just got done saving your ass, probably more than once.

And there’s no need to winter camp along the Southfork, The Cody hotel has world-class winter accommodations at dirtbag prices for climbers and non-climbers alike.

I don’t know whether to envy or pity guides like Jon.

I took time off from work to visit this extraordinary environment. And I paid good money to do so safely (which means I will climb again, not necessarily that I will realize my objectives). Jon gets to spend his days here regularly, and he gets paid for it, although he’s not climbing the waterfalls he wants to or the routes he chooses. He has to accommodate me.

Me, out of breath after 15 minutes on the approach. Me, scared to climb WI4, which he could probably solo. Me, who might well drop his biners or his $60 ice screws as I clean a pitch (if you do this, it should drive the percent you tip your guide upward).

 Him, waiting above, encouraging me to summon the strength to finish the final 10 feet of a pitch. And genuinely celebrating and cheering when I make it. Him, letting me rest on the rope. Him, managing a twisted and partially frozen rope. Placing the gear. Building the anchors. Re-climbing  pitches if the rope gets bound while pulling a rappel line. Responsible for my life as well as his own.

Or, even for others much less experienced than me. Baby-sitting adults, some of whom might be more difficult than children. I feel like hanging from a frozen waterfall (or a tenuous rock hold) amplifies your personality, whether good or bad, selfish or selfless.

I feel better that I have at least met both the working and bitter ends of a rope. I’m not actively trying to kill him, like so many clients, but that doesn’t mean I still couldn’t manage somehow, out here, hours from rescue, even with two personal locator beacons. Miles and hours from anyone. Nowhere near cell service in a frozen-kitty-litter canyon, where it’s raining rocks the size of a pit bull’s skull and ice the size of dinner plates.

It must be like working as a ski instructor who’s stuck on green groomers on a powder day. There are no friends on a powder day, but there’s still rent to pay at the end of the month.

I guess I envy and pity guides like Jon.

You should be sure to try ice climbing if you are in the area.

It’s a lot of fun. Really.


  1. Nice and awesome adventures, I really like it very much. Thanks for sharing!

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