Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ice climbing in Ouray:  The story of progression

I first swung ice tools in 2003 on a glacier in southeast Alaska.  I thought it was fun but I spent the majority of the next 10 years rock climbing, working as a mountain guide, and then becoming a nurse.  About once a year or every other year, I would swing tools or do a really long ice climb with a partner that was just psyched to have someone to follow them up something.  I have had a bit of a love/hate relationship with ice climbing over the years.  I love it because it can take me to amazing places and views.  I hate it because its cold and scary.   It wasn't until these last two winters, that I have really started to dedicate some time to this crazy sport.  I have tried to commit to getting over my fears, learning the techniques and figuring out how to stay warm.  With that I have come up with a list of several things that have helped me move beyond the beginner stage to the average stage.

Surround yourself with experts

I have been fortunate enough to have climbed with many people who were significantly better than me.  These have been great opportunities to observe technique and strategy.  If you are lucky enough to find a patient mentor, take advantage of the experience and try to remain humble as you go through the learning curve.  Of course, you do have to be careful to not relay on your more experienced partner too much. When its appropriate to step out of your beginner role, go for it confidently and safely.   That being said, I have gotten to climb many things that I wouldn't otherwise been capable of doing without a more skilled partner.

Don't turn down great opportunities

This relates to the above point a bit.  If your expert partner wants to drag you up a climb you wouldn't have a chance of completing without him or her, do it!  While its important to know your limits, don't forget to push yourself when the opportunity arises.  In 2004, after swinging tools just a handful of times, my friend Jason asked me to climb the Ham and Eggs Coulior on the Moose's Tooth in the Ruth Gorge, Alaska.  I looked up the route description and checked out a picture and was immediately sold.  Upon flying into the range, I was quickly intimidated by the actual size of the route and started to doubt myself.  Instead of giving up, I remembered that I was with a safe and solid partner and was fully capable of completing this objective.  A week after flying in, we got the weather window and climbed the route in good style even passing a party on the way up.  Thanks Jason for believing in me!

Top of the Ham and Eggs Coulior in 2004

The Ham and Eggs Coulior on the Moose's Tooth

Get the best gear out there

Climbing, especially ice climbing, is a very gear intensive sport.  The gear is continually evolving and I truly think performance can be advanced with the best gear out there.  Is that cheating?  I don't think so as its where the industry is going.  The Petzl Nomics have been the piece of gear that has really helped advance my ice climbing and increase my confidence.  I can't imagine using a different tool.  So work those extra hours and get the gear that will help you be successful.

Learn how to place ice screws efficiently
Don't waste your energy placing gear; use that energy to get up the climb.  First follow people up climbs and learn how to take out ice screws while hanging off your tools.  Practice close to the ground by just bouldering around the crag and placing screws every now and then.  Try to use both hands.  Remember to place screws about level with your waist and use your hip and core strength to help start the screw.

Figure out how to stay warm

There can be a bit of standing around while ice climbing and to have fun out there it is imp  I get cold pretty quickly, especially my toes and hands.  Generally speaking, if you keep your core warm, your extremities are more likely to stay warm.  I've experimented with a lot of different layers but I have found the Patagonia Fitz Roy Down Jacket to be my favorite belay parka for cold temperatures.  This jacket is made from 800 fill goose down and has a great hood!  I will often use a smaller synthetic jacket like a Patagonia nano, a soft shell and some base layers.  For gloves I have been using the BD enforcer and punisher gloves to climb in.  I also like the OR extrovert gloves. I also always carry an extra pair of bigger gloves, like the enforcer gloves, to put on at belays.  I put these gloves inside my jacket while I climb so they stay nice and toasty.  I'm not afraid of using hand warmers and a thermos of tea is always a really nice touch.  If you do get the screamy-barfies, remember that it generally only happens once and I don't know of any person that has actually vomited from them.  If you do think you have legitimate frost bite, get yourself to a hospital with a burn center for treatment within 24 hours of the injury as there are some new treatments that are quite successful if implemented early enough.  Most importantly, play around with different systems and techniques to find out what works for you.

Sometimes staying warm involves wearing your partner's belay pocket. Photo Jonathon Spitzer taken while climbing the mini-mini moonflower in Alaska in 2012

Ouray, CO

Having considered, experimented and practiced with the above mentioned points, I figured it was time for me to take a proper ice climbing trip.  In early January, I went to Ouray, CO with Jonathon and Terry for a quick four day trip to check out the ice climbing.  Our trip to Ouray was the perfect place for me step up my ice game.  The ice park is very beginner friendly and there are plenty of other multi-pitch moderate ice climbs in the vicinity.  We spent the first day at the ice park. 

Terry leading in the ice park

The following day, I teamed up with my old friend Eitan and cragged on the skyline road.  While following him up a steeper climb, I got inspired to lead my first WI 4.  I slowly and tentatively worked my way up the steepest pitch of ice, I have ever lead without any major epic aside from a dropped screw (which Eitan caught) and earning the nickname 'seamstress.'

Eiton leading something cool on the Skyline Road

On our third day, we climbed the Stairway to Heaven in a party of three. Jonathon has climbed it several times but was excited to climb it again with us.  He had a rough go of it after getting hit in the face with some falling ice and bending a pick but preserved through it.  I challenged myself again by leading a steeper variation on one of the upper pitches.  For me, slow is the name of the game in this new sport.  One day, it will get faster and easier.

Leading moderate terrain on the Stairway to Heaven. Photo Jonathon Spitzer.

Side view of the lower pitches on Stairway to Heaven

On our drive home, we stopped at Colorado National Monument and climbed No Thoroughfare Falls, a beautiful and unique ice climb that flows out of sandstone walls.  I had the pleasure of leading the boys up this climb.  It was quite fun and I found myself starting to enjoy this crazy sport.

Starting up No Thoroughfare Falls. Photo Jonathon Spitzer.
Terry and Jonathon following the first pitch

While I have been climbing for quite some time, I would still consider myself relatively new to ice climbing.  It has been fun to be a beginner again and have a sport to take less seriously.  It is also rewarding to see more rapid improvement and progression, as I've noticed the longer you do a sport, the actual progression becomes less tangible.  Trying this new component of climbing has reminded me to remember to have fun with these sports and enjoy them for the beautiful places and colorful people they have brought into my life.


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