Ice climbing in Tahoe offers beauty, danger
December 29, 2011
Ice is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as frozen water. However, as the reader knows, ice has much more meaning than that in our lives. Ice on the road means slower, often more dangerous driving. Ice at the ski resorts means crummy conditions, unless of course you cut your teeth skiing on the East Cost and think that boiler plate equals a mountain in good shape – I’ll venture to say that these people are the exception. Ice also means that it’s darn cold, at least by California standards. I know, this is all beginning to sound a little bit negative, but ice isn’t all bad, right?
When ice forms in the right places, like on the cliffs of waterfalls, it can be quite beautiful. Frozen waterfalls are surreal. They look like someone simply stopped time, and the water, previously free falling, is now stuck in suspended animation. Over time and with fluctuating temperatures, these waterfalls grow into curtains, columns and pillars – natural architectural features with great aesthetic appeal. And, when it forms up in thick, robust floes, it can be exhilarating to climb. However, certain gear and a particular attitude are required to make this sport fun.
I have often written about rock climbing, its history, safety considerations and even style in this column. In many ways ice climbing is nothing like rock climbing. First off, rock rarely changes form over night or even year to year. Significant rock fall that alters a popular climbing area is big news. On the other hand, ice is water, and it continues to flow, grow, shrink or otherwise alter its form rapidly. This is especially true in Tahoe where predominately sunny, moderate weather usually keeps the cold snaps to short intervals.
Ice as a climbing medium is transient. As a result, climbing ice is much more condition-dependent than rock. Although rock, too, has prime conditions dependent upon air temps, sun exposure and lack of moisture, they are far less fickle and easier to predict than the circumstances that lead to good ice.
Accordingly, the Tahoe ice climber must be vigilant and be willing to hike out to potential floes without necessarily being rewarded with quality ice to climb. As a result, when making plans for such an outing, would-be ice climbers often say things like: “We’re just gonna head out there for a look-see.” Or, after returning from an unsuccessful outing you’ll hear things like: “Oh, we just took the ol’ picks out for a walk.” That’s just the way things go sometimes.
It’s not just the demands of weather that make ice climbing a challenge. The very system that allows one to ascend vertical ice is in many ways complex and gear-intensive. Here is a list of the requisite gear to get out there comfortably and safely:
First you need alpine boots, steel crampons, two ice axes, a harness, one or two ropes, a dozen ice screws, traditional rock protection, cold-weather clothing (including a lofty down jacket and a hard shell), a helmet, two pairs of gloves (one heavy, one light) and a pack to accommodate the gear. Add to this a thermos full of your preferred hot liquid, some food and water, and your 35-liter pack is jammed full.
So the bag is all packed, the desired floe has come into shape and you’re ready to swing the sticks. This is where the fun comes in. Ice climbing is sort of a weird hybrid of aid climbing and free climbing because the climbers use gear to suspend their weight as they climb, but that gear is directly attached to the climber’s body. That is not to say the task is an easy one. On the contrary, swinging an ax into ice is physically demanding even on low-angle terrain. Creating footholds by kicking the front-points of the crampon in to solid ice is a challenge as well.
In closing, it should be said that ice climbing is a sport that one should be apprenticed into. It is like building a house. One must learn to master each tool and technique and be able to foresee trouble before one is in it. Then and only then can one cast out on his own. That’s not to say that ice climbing is not accessible to the novice. Seek out expert instruction and play it safe. Till it snows, I’ll see you at the local floe. Happy Holidays, Tahoe.
• Nick Miley is a freelance writer and columnist living in South Lake Tahoe. He spends his free time exploring the Sierra, learning its history and writing about his experiences. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at his blog: tahoepulp.wordpress.com.