Lessons on ice reach far beyond the climb
Ice climbing has changed a lot in the past decade. The gear has evolved and climbers have mastered advanced techniques. The cold, effort and sense of terror the sport can evoke have pretty much stayed the same, though. BRADLY J. BONER / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Molly Absolon, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
January 2, 2013
I quit ice climbing when I got pregnant. I felt relief when I put away my tools for the last time. Ice climbing had always been a mixed bag for me. Most of my memories are of shivering with cold and fear, crying through painful “screaming barfies” as the blood flow returned to my hands and feet, dodging flying chunks of ice and getting frustrated and frightened by my wobbly tool placements.
But there’s the other side of the equation that I cannot deny: The incredible, surreal magic of climbing a frozen waterfall, the extraordinary beauty of the blue and white ice as it forms into chandeliers, cauliflowers, ice sickles and pillars that glint in the sun, and the crazy places the climbs take you — places that you could never access if the water was not frozen.
“You are moving up frozen water,” said Mattie Shaefor, a talented climber who guides for Exum, leads ice-climbing clinics, teaches reading to elementary school children and is the mother of two young boys. “It’s this ethereal medium that blows my mind. I love it against my better judgment.”
Shaefor took me out ice climbing last week at the newly opened Teton Ice Park. It was quickly clear to me that a lot has changed about the sport since I last picked up my tools more than 12 years ago. A lot, but not everything.
“Ice climbing is all about mitigating suffering,” Shaefor told me. “It’s about managing your fears. I find it gives me a window into myself. I am always discovering something I need to know.”
Shaefor said she looks for a place of ease inside the suffering of ice climbing. She forces herself to turn up the positive voices in her mind when she begins to doubt herself. These lessons transfer to daily life and have helped her through challenging times.
But if the suffering inherent in ice climbing hasn’t changed, the equipment has. When I last ice climbed, I wore heavy Foot Fang crampons and clunky plastic boots. Now climbers use light leather boots that allow them to feel more, and the crampons have been stripped down to enhance precision and control.
Gone also are the leashes that link the axes to your wrists and require constant fussing to adjust or remove as you scale a climb.
Instead, Shaefor’s axes sport contoured grips designed to hold your hand in a comfortable, relaxed position — at least in theory.
My grip was anything but relaxed as I headed up my first climb. I was on toprope, so safety was not an issue, but tell that to your racing brain as you balance on little pointy crampon tips and try to swing a tool over your head.
The day we were at the park was cold, and my axe placements rattled in the brittle ice. It took me several swings to get something that gave me even a modicum of security. Shaefor coached me on my body position and gave me tips on technique as I wobbled my way up the climb, then she got on the route to demonstrate. She moved gracefully, her swings measured and precise, her placements thoughtful and planned. I felt like I bashed my way up the ice pillar while Mattie danced.
Ice climbing has been around in some form or another since humans first attempted to scale mountains. Originally, most people climbed ice by chopping steps. Early ice climbers use hobnails placed in the soles of their boots. In 1908, 10-point crampons replaced the hobnails. Still, the points of the crampons were limited to the bottom of the boot, which meant climbers were forced to roll their ankles to keep their feet flat on the ice so the points of their crampons would stick securely. Images of early mountaineers show them walking downhill crouched almost in a sitting position to maximize the contact of their feet with the ice.
As the slope became steeper, that method — known as French technique — failed, and climbers were forced to begin chopping tiny ice platforms to step on. It was a slow, tedious process that took skill and practice to master.
In the 1930s crampons evolved to include forward-slanting points that allowed climbers to “front point,” or kick the points of the crampons into the ice and climb up on their tippy toes. Ice climbing gradually evolved. Climbers began to expand their focus from alpine ice to waterfalls — ephemeral pillars of frozen water that formed each winter, though always in a slightly different way, with a slightly different challenge.
Now climbers not only ascend these pillars, they also mix it up, moving from ice to rock and back. The climbs are crazy gymnastic feats. Climbers traverse out great overhanging caves, their feet cutting loose as they swing from tool placement to tool placement; their legs hooking over their arms in contorted “figure-fours.” There are boots made precisely for this kind of ascent that are essentially a rock shoe with a crampon permanently attached — costing a mere $600 or more. But even as the equipment evolves and the climbs get harder, the sport remains relatively obscure.
“We’re fringy, very fringy,” Shaefor said. “There’s an old proverb that says you can’t get a frog to jump into boiling water, but if you gradually increase the heat, the frog won’t jump out and will eventually get cooked. Ice climbers are kind of like that. Slowly the water heats up, but you don’t really notice.”
The Teton Ice Park is a great way for climbers to ease into the hot water. You can drive right up to the park, climb with the safety of a toprope and practice your technique so your placements land with a reassuring thunk every time.
As for me, after three pitches at the ice park I felt a glow. Was it the proverbial warming water sucking me in? Maybe. Or maybe it was just the glow of spending a couple of hours out in the cold and snow. Either way, it was fun in a warped kind of way.
For information on the ice park, call 690-1385 or 208-787-2610 or visit TetonIcePark.com.
The Sports section’s columns will undergo some transformations in the new year. Mountainsides, a column dutifully written by Molly Absolon and Amy Hatch, will take a hiatus. Absolon will alternate on page 2 with fishing guru Paul Bruun on a weekly basis. I thank Absolon and Hatch for their beautiful writing and tireless and reliable work on Mountainsides. — Ed.