Ice Climbing with Italians

The lower part of The Ramp (WI2) looking pretty well hacked. Note my ice tools for scale.

The lower part of The Ramp (WI2) looking pretty well hacked. Note my ice tools for scale.

Normally, a casual half-day climbing trip in Boulder Canyon wouldn’t merrit a whole trip report. But this time, I traded in my usual rock shoes and camalots for crampons and ice screws. This would only be my second time on ice. Last January, Amy and I attended a wonderful ice-climbing clinic at Silverplume run by the CMC. It’s been a year since, but in that time, I’ve accumulated various other pseudo ice climbing gear, mostly under the guise of doing alpine climbs on large mountains, not technical ice cragging.

When I left the house at 8:30, the temperature was at a balmy -6o F. When I picked up Fabio (Italian #1), the temperature hadn’t improved much, nor had it warmed significantly when we met up with Davide (Italian #2) and his fiance Catalina. Ice climbing is normally a pretty chilly sport under the best of circumstances except for the 5% of the time you’re actually climbing (and sweating like a hog). We were resigned for a chilly half-day at the crags.

We headed up Boulder Canyon beautiful and crisp under the fresh six inches of snow from the past few days. Disembarking at Castle Rock, it was surprisingly warm out; still chilly, but definitely above-zero. We geared up and headed out, crossing the creek and heading for the obvious ice falls on the south side of the canyon. We spied a nice ice ramp leading up to a narrow gully, all at about 45 degrees. This was The Ramp (WI2) and was about the easiest thing in the area. Perfect for beginners such as ourselves with no adult supervision.

As I’ve said, my experience on ice is pretty minimal. Catalina has never swung an axe before either and Fabio, though experienced at mountaineering, has never done any technical ice. Davide was therefore the experienced one of the group and volunteered for lead duties. We pooled our available gear and came up with four good ice screws, six crappy screws (all mine), and two pairs of ice tools. Davide made short work of the lead placing all of three screws in about 40 meters of climbing. He thrashed about for a while at the top of the ramp setting up a toprope anchor. The whole climb was longer than we’d anticipated, so he belayed me up trailing the second rope.

The climbing was pretty easy, but I immediately began to see the limitations in my gear. My aluminum crampons, while wonderful for general mountaineering, don’t hold an edge at all and didn’t work well on the ice. Fabio pointed out that my frontpoints were actually bending when I put body weight on them! My leather boots were okay, but without the solid purchase of steel points, I felt less than secure. My cheap ice tools (BD X15s) worked nicely in the cold, brittle ice though my home-made leashes (24″ spectra runners) were less than ideal, especially when I had to stop and clean screws. Clearly my system needs a bit of tuning!

I reset one screw near the top of the narrow chute as a directional, then climbed the last 15′ and helped Davide set up a more rugged top-rope anchor. When we were both safely down, I took over belay duties while Catalina took up picks for her ice debut. She had some trouble at first getting her tools to and frontpoints to stick and struggled through the first wide ramp. Once on the narrow section above, however, she got the hang of it and cruised up to my directional.

Fabio had better luck trying one of my ice tools and his Grivel mountain axe (very nice!). He cruised up the route with no trouble and proceeded to clean the anchor.

Unfortunately, we all had afternoon commitments, so we couldn’t try out the adjacent narrow ice column rated WI3. However, with the easy access, we can easily come back out in a couple weeks and try it again.

Gear-wise, it’s a mixed bag. I originally picked up technical tools and my cheap, second-hand screws to get me through occasional bits of steep ice during alpine climbs. This trip proved that they are adequate for this purpose, but far from ideal. The biggest liability is surely my crampons which simply didn’t work for this task. Two years of walking on rocks have dulled the points to where they won’t penetrate hard ice at all. If I want to continue doing this, I need steel points. The cheap ice tools worked nicely (better than Davide’s tools mostly because they were a lot sharper), but the leash system needs work. My cheap ice screws are adequate, but I wouldn’t want to place any of them on lead! Fabio’s spiffy Grivel 360 and BD Turbo Express (>$50 each) were wonderfully fast and effortless in comparison. Clearly a compromise between the cheapest and most advanced technology is in order on all fronts. If I want to continue doing this kind of thing (technical ice), I’m going to need to shell out a bit of cash for some better gear.

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