Monday, June 23, 2008

The Attraction -- and Terror -- Of Climbing Frozen Waterfalls

Along the South Fork of the Shoshone River, Wyo.

I was less than halfway up the steep frozen waterfall when I lost all feeling in my hands. This was not a welcome development, considering that the main thing keeping me from falling was the grip I had on the two ice tools I was holding above my head.
[frozen waterfalls]
Keith scales Carotid Artery, a climb that left him bloodied but beaming.

Putting a screw into the ice and clipping my rope to it suddenly seemed like a great idea. Unfortunately this also requires the ability to feel your fingers. My last screw was at least 10 feet below me, which meant that if my wooden hands slipped off the tools I was going for a 20-footer, assuming the screw didn't rip out.

The technical term for a long, scary fall is a "whipper." Detailed contemplation of a whipper is called "being gripped" -- as in gripped by fear.

Part of the attraction (and no little of the terror) of climbing is problem-solving, figuring out what to do in a situation where there are no great options and no little peril in making a wrong move. Ice climbing, especially, is all about managing fear and pain -- which perhaps explains why there aren't more ice climbers.

I began breathing deeply, trying to rush oxygen to my blood. I carefully let go of the tool in my right hand, hung the arm as low as it would go and started waving the hand vigorously, trying to stimulate the flow of blood back into the fingers. "Shaking out," it's called.

Counting to 10, I tried to resist the urge to grab the tool too soon. I counted to 10 again as my circulation returned, marked by an intense, shooting pain like nails being driven into my fingertips. Grabbing the right tool, I repeated the process with my other hand.

Then I calmly placed a screw and continued climbing to the top, bringing my partner, Keith, up on the rope.

We were climbing in the South Fork, a wide river valley 35 miles outside of Cody, home to more frozen waterfalls than any other place in the Lower 48. On an average year you can find 150 pitches of ice along both sides of the river; on a good year -- and this was a very good year -- that number probably doubles.

This day, for example, Keith and I climbed a succession of five frozen waterfalls -- a route called High on Boulder, the last pitch of which is the aptly named Pillar of Pain. Long, hard climbs with big approaches in a remote wilderness area -- this is the essence of South Fork climbing.

The vastness of South Fork climbing is matched by the scarcity of people. In more populated states, such as Colorado, routes of this quality would have lines most days. In a couple of weeks' climbing here, we rarely encountered other climbers -- and days went by without seeing anyone except for big horned sheep, pronghorn antelope, immense herds of deer and elk and the occasional fox or ferret.

Getting to the ice isn't easy. You drive to the end of a dirt road, look for an ice bridge over the river and then start slogging up hillsides, wallowing in glue-like muck and deep patches of snow, navigating through prickly underbrush and scrambling up piles of slippery scree. You're also sharing the valley with grizzly bears and mountain lions -- neither of which we saw, although a dismembered and well-cleaned deer carcass strewn about the approach to one climb was evidence of large carnivores.

The South Fork, given its inaccessibility, is not a place to make mistakes. Unfortunately, they sometimes happen. As Keith and I were rappelling High on Boulder, he told me about the time he was climbing the route and something fell past him: It was a pair of climbers -- one experienced, one a novice -- who were roped together without any ice screws securing the line. Keith is a doctor, but by the time he got to the climbers both were dead.

A few days later Keith and I ran into a local who was walking his dog at the end of the dirt road where we were sorting our gear. "I saw two men die up there," he said, pointing to the distinctive, V-shaped flow of High on Boulder. It turns out he had been there the same day Keith witnessed the fatal fall.

"You didn't stop climbing ice?" he asked Keith in disbelief.

"Nope," Keith said.

Explaining the allure of the sport is hard to do. Sheer beauty is part of it. One day Keith and I spent the better part of two hours hiking upstream to where the canyon's walls become steep and narrow and an ice flow drops out of a thin side canyon. The setting was spectacular, the climbing compelling.

Halfway up the ice became as clear as a windshield, and beneath it I could see water flowing in wavelets over rock features. I could have stared at the scene for hours. Higher up the canyon, I found myself facing a vertical wall of featureless blue ice as smooth as glass. I felt like a vandal defacing the perfect surface by swinging my tools into the ice, which was nearly as hard as concrete, making for a challenging, exciting climb.

The variability of the medium, even on a single day, is amazing. Another time Keith and I ventured up a gulley system full of falls called Broken Hearts. The weather was sunny and warm, and I thought I might die of heatstroke on the early pitches, where the ice was aerated by its southern exposure, making it overly sticky. Tools went in easily and securely but were almost impossible to pull out.

Up the gulley, we entered a vast rock amphitheater, where two dramatic flows poured over opposite sides of the rim, falling 150 feet. On the right was My Only Valentine, which most years is a wasp-waisted column of ice rising from a smooth cone. This time it was wide and fat in the middle, while the bottom was a forest of ice mushrooms -- weirdly shaped forms that are challenging to negotiate. I found myself pulling a series of overhanging gymnastic moves to climb the mushrooms, before working my way up the steep main section. And then the sting-in-the-tail: Running out of screws, my arms weak with fatigue, I swung into the last few feet of ice, my tools bouncing off like bullets on Superman's chest. Somehow, I scratched my way up.

The flow on the other side is called Carotid Artery, and in more than half-a-dozen trips up this canyon Keith had never seen it reach all the way to the ground. This time only a few, arm-wide sections of the fall touched down, but that was enough for Keith, who could hardly wait to start the climb, which is rated WI6. In English that means Really Hard.

Keith started swinging into a skein of overhanging icicles, most of which crashed, shards flying in all directions, littering the base of the climb like a chandelier factory hit by a hurricane. From high on the cliff, a stream of water was dripping, drenching Keith. Placing protection was tricky, requiring him to batter away pounds of brittle ice until he reached a surface firm enough to twist a screw into. Toward the top, Keith stopped moving. We were now in the shade and I stamped my feet and shook my free hand (the other was holding the rope) to stay warm. I had no idea why he stopped just when the climbing looked easier.

Finally, Keith resumed climbing. I followed the rope up. Water had frozen a quarter of an inch thick on the carabiners attaching the screws to the rope, forcing me to bash the ice off before removing them. The climbing was extremely strenuous, tool sticks tenuous, crampon placements even worse. Toward the top I started seeing blood on the ice. Not the usual small dribbles caused by ice nicks but large, running splotches like you'd see at a crime scene. Now I knew why Keith had paused. I began to fear that the climb was living up to its name.

Pulling over the lip of the fall, I saw Keith. Blood washed his entire face and soaked his clothing. He explained that a chunk of ice had whacked him above the eyebrow, the blood gushing over his glasses so copiously that he couldn't see. Luckily he could feel around for a water drip and rinse his lenses and finish the climb.

Keith is usually laconic, as if words mean too much to waste. Battered but beaming, he summed up the ineffable appeal of ice climbing.

"It was worth it," he said with a smile.

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