Adventure of the Week: Ice climbing
March 13, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — I'm clinging 20 feet from the ground to a rather large icicle.
Heart pounding, hands numb, I'm suspended by fickle pieces of steel spikes that are pinned to the thick, vertical masse suspending me against the tug of gravity.
It's in that moment that life's chaos subsides and all I can think is, "I seriously hope that axe placement is solid."
When the first snow flies, ice climbing may not be the first venture that comes to mind for outdoor pursuits.
But it's one I've had my eye on for quite some time.
"Ice climbing gives you a different perspective," said Patrick Meyer, owner of Rocky Mountain Ventures, our American Mountain Guiding Association guide for the day. "You don't get to see this view from anywhere else really."
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The window is short, Meyer said, typically from December to March with January and February being the peak season for ice climbing.
"The thickest parts are 4 feet or more where it's built out throughout the season, while the thinnest parts are anywhere from 3 to 10 inches depending on the inclement weather and how that affects the ice," Meyer said.
Luckily, the conditions were in our favor Friday as reporter Matt Stensland and I laced up our boots and donned our crampons, harnesses and helmets.
Watching our guide, as he expertly ascends the mammoth frozen wall, sinking his axes with a quick flick of the wrist, the sharp points comfortably jut to the face as he makes his way up in a matter of minutes.
Similar to rock climbing, but not – think of comparing English to Swedish, there are few similarities – yet, you know, different.
Ice climbing, he explained during our tutorial, is a no-fall sport using basic equipment like mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axe, climbing harness, carabineers, helmet and belay device.
"Think about climbing a ladder, it's a similar motion," Meyer said.
Fish Creek Falls is frozen ice, by nature a brittle and suspect medium. When ice climbing, you walk between comfort and risk, all for the allure of the unknown.
The conditions may never be perfect. You hope your selection of layers will keep you warm aside from the adrenaline rush.
I ponder, "Is that the right ‘thunk?’ What if we puncture a hole in the ice and come crashing to the ground? Will these spikes on my feet and axe really hold me up?"
I imagined ice climbing to be a sheer flat wall that would take some skill in maneuvering the ice axes and crampons, but alas, I was wrong – thankfully.
I volunteered to climb first after Meyer set up the anchor of the top-rope climb. The second time around he belayed us from the top and let us rappel down the wall on our own.
I found myself feeling a little disoriented navigating the terrain. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the small steps and ledges, natural footholds and shelves within the ice.
It really wasn't such a foreign phenomenon, stepping up and swinging the axe. If I stopped to look a little closer, I could actually see the waterfalls rushing water under the ice.
Instilling that addictive rush, the stresses of everyday life fall with the bits of ice down the wall. Big winter climbs may be years away for a novice like me, but like all the other icy warnings of crampons and fall potential – be careful with ice climbing, you just might like it.