A Sharper Sharp End of Climbing

Last season was a poor one for ice climbing; I only got out twice with a total of six pitches of WI2-3 toproping. As it happens, both of those trips were to Jewel Lake Slabs (aka Overflow). Now Jewel is a lovely crag and a great high country haven when the weather is howling, as it so often is, but with so many other areas to choose from…

2009/10 is shaping up to be a much better season. Fabio and I made plans to get some early season ice climbing in with a couple possible destinations in RMNP. We picked up Matt Gates along the way and caravaned up to the Glacier Gorge TH… only to find that the weather was well and truly awful! Back to Jewel Lake.

Fabio and Matt crossing Mills Lake.

Strangely, we arrived at the ice flows and found them deserted with the deep powder completely untracked. Setting up at the base, I decided it was time to man-up and attempt my first real ice lead. Technically, I’ve been on the ice sharp end once before, but it was a mellow to the point of relaxing. The main flow at Jewel has a minor rest stance half way up, but is otherwise otherwise committing, steep WI3. I collected screws, draws and courage from Matt and Fabio, tied in, and started up.

Things started out well enough, especially for my first time on ice since last January. I followed a lower angle arete up the first 30 feet, sinking three screws in fat ice. I climb with a leashless system (tethered for committing climbs such as this), and I was suffering a serious forearm pump. Just past the third screw, both crampons kicked out and, before I even knew what was happening, I was hanging from my tools, arms screaming. Whew!

With visions of rest stances dancing in my head, I gratefully made a dicey sideways move to the snow-covered ledge… only to find out it wasn’t a ledge at all! What’s more, I looked down and discoverd that, in my distraction, I’d only tied in through my leg loops! Now this is probably still secure, but would probably flip me upside down in the event of a fall. OK, Danforth. Settle down and solve the problem. I clipped into the nearest screw and carefully rethreaded the rope, tying it properly, and belatedly triple-checking my system.


Here goes nothing.

Crap! No rest stance!

Never a good sight.

Okay. Moving on. Time for the second half of the pitch. Shake off the mental excitement. Move up a body length. Sink a screw. Had some trouble this time getting it clipped. Fine motor control definitely going. Move up another ten feet. Sink another screw. Crap, can’t get it started! Try another spot. Finally get it sunk. Move up another seven feet. My left tool bounces ineffectually off the ice. Can’t get a good stick. OK, this is getting untenable. Time to bail. With another 20′ to go and rapidly dwindling reserves, plus being mentally frazzled, it was the right decision to make. I down-climbed to the last screw (fortunately, a long one in fat, blue ice) and called to be lowered.

The hordes descdend (and ascend).

Back on the ground, I lacked even the hand strength to untie the rope. Wow, that was not how I’d pictured my first time on the sharp end going! A cup of tea from the thermos (critical ice climbing gear, that) got me back toward normal. Matt took up tools and finished the last 20′ of my lead and commented that the ice up top got pretty rotten and gnarly. I’d made the right call.

We got in three pitches each as finally the hoardes arrived. By noon, we’d satisfied ourselves and left the ice to the dozen climbers now vigorously hacking and slashing away. The weather had improved a little bit, but the wind still sounded like a freight train down in the valley and we gratefully arrived back at the cars around 2.

So. First real ice lead. Or at least the first 75% of my first ice lead. I’m glad that’s over with; I can now settle down and climb ice as I see fit. In retrospect, tackling such a sustained climb right off the bat may have been a good choice from the psychological perspective, but not good in terms of technique and strength. While my forearm strength was never great, climbing once a season hasn’t done it any favors.

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