Dream vs. Reality: Ice Climbing

dream vs. reality ice climbing

Taking a crack at frozen waterfalls.

On the hardcore scale, ice climbing ranks as one of the most badass activities out there. Few, if any, undertakings demand the courage necessary to scale a frozen waterfall. Plus, alpine mountaineers who use ice axes and crampons are burly. Who doesn’t want to be like them? But as with most things, expectations don’t align perfectly with the reality. Let’s see how they fare when it comes to ice climbing.

With brand-new picks and razor-sharp crampons, you head up Hyalite on a beautiful January day. The sky is blue and there’s a ray of sunshine beaming down at the base of the climb while you rack up. Lucky you, it’s not hitting the column. It’s 22 degrees and the ice is fat. It’s juicy. It has a little water dripping down in a few spots, but nothing to worry about. You swing your pick at the vertical pillar and it sinks halfway in on the first try with a round, low-pitched thunk. Your second tool does the same, and you step your feet up into perfect boot-sized pockets. Up you go, into a world of complete and utter focus, fully in-tune with each and every movement. Climbing is a breeze. Two minutes later and you’re 50 feet off the deck. You calmly unclip a screw, give it a twist, and the threads catch immediately—a firmly-planted first piece of protection. You continue up the ribbon of ice, challenged but confident, all the way to the anchor sitting conveniently in another ray of sun. Your partner cheers from below as you switch roles and put him on belay. Ravens circle overhead and there’s not another human in sight. The air is cool but comfortable and the entire landscape is awash in a heavenly alpine glow. You smile and anticipate the next pitch, which will be even sweeter than the first.

It’s –10 outside and your crampons are dulled to rounded pegs from walking on rocks. Your pick is dull, too, and you forgot your file at home, as did your partner. Despite the cold temps, the sky is overcast and the air feels weirdly humid biting at your face. With digits as nimble as piano keys, you stumble to the base of the column and take a swing. Ice shatters in a spider web of thin plates all around your pick and falls to the ground. Try again. You dig through rotten crust to find some good ice beneath. Doing this every placement is going to slow things down, but you proceed anyway, awkward and scared. Twenty feet off the ground, your arms start to shake. A runnel is dripping water straight into the space between your helmet and jacket, under your layers and down your back. How the hell does water flow when it’s below zero? you ponder furiously. Your fingers burn. Everything burns. Then come the dry heaves. You sound like a beached killer whale choking on a seal, which the party next to you finds amusing and starts taking videos. You hazard a glance at the dull, grey sky and notice that you’re only halfway to the anchor. And you’re on top-rope, so even if you suck it up and drive on, you’re going to return to the exact same spot at which you started—just wetter and colder.