Ice Climbing and Snow Riding

Who could have imagined a frozen waterfall so close? Two weeks ago, when I last hiked No Name Canyon, I remember a boulder-sized formation here. Now, there is a 50-foot wall of frozen pillars. Inspecting it, I notice a route that I might easily climb without protection; it is lower angle than the rest of the wall, but still 75-degrees near the top. Perhaps I can climb it without ice screws since I have none to use. There is a large cottonwood perched above the pillars that could anchor a top-rope. With a top-rope there are probably four different routes worth climbing. My ice tools are waiting at home.

I have ice climbed only once, on Mt. Baker’s North Ridge, but the experience affected me powerfully. A few weeks later I bought a new a set of ice tools—I had been borrowing a friend’s pair for the North Ridge. I carried the unused ice tools to Colorado with the hope of discovering something exactly like this: a backdoor ice crag, a practice wall, a diamond-plated statue in the rough Colorado hillsides. Now that I have found it, I cannot avoid trying to climb it. I feel a relentless itch to don my crampons and helmet.

I’m still itchy when I rise early the next morning. In fact, the itchiness is what wakes me. A frosty night has made icicles hard and I want to try the wall before inevitable sunshine breaches the canyon. I quickly cook breakfast while Freya loads her backpack. We are hiking up the canyon before the flavor of eggs and cheese has dissipated. Arriving at the wall, I strap my crampons and harness on while rays of warm light filter through the gossamer canopy above. Trailing the rope behind me, I begin to climb.

The ice is not blue like Washington glaciers. Instead, it is white and hard; my crampon points do not bite deeply, nor do my ice tools, but shallow divots are easily strong enough to hold my weight.
The rope flutters loosely, clipped to nothing, belayed by no one. There is no reason to belay since I have nothing to screw into the ice. A fall would be catastrophic: shattered bones, ice axe wounds, punctured organs, death. But I know I can climb this. I move six inches higher, wiggle my right axe loose and swing it like a hammer into what looks like solid ice. It is not solid enough; a large flake detaches and falls towards me. The flake grazes my shin and bounces off my crampon before it tumbles and smashes into a cloud of glitter on the horizontal surface below.

Now I’m spooked. I realize my fragility, my delicate stance. The damn rope is even tangled and I’m dragging it behind me in a heavy clump. Ice climbing is scary. I hesitate.

Then, feeling a little sheepish, I move to the side of the slab and dig my crampons into frozen dirt. Freya sits close by. She has been taking pictures from there and is relieved when I dismount the ice and scramble up the hillside to the big cottonwood. Apparently, people have climbed here before because there are two strands of cord wrapped around the tree with four carabiners connecting them. I add my own cord and my own carabiners and pass the rope through everything. I rappel to the base of the wall, ask Freya to belay, grip my ice tools, and dig in for some redemption.

Ice shards glitter. Sunglasses protect my eyes. If I were rock climbing, if these ice shards were instead pieces of stone, I would be terrified. But ice climbing is different. The ice changes with every swing of the axe, with every crampon-point kicked into the wall. The ice changes and the climber must change with it. My arms begin to tire from gripping the axes so tightly. I climb three different routes: the easy slab, a short vertical pillar of upside down soft-serve ice cream cones, and a series of these short pillars that are connected by shallow ledges like crown molding on a doorframe. When Freya lowers me from the third pitch, my hands can barely grip the axe handles anymore. My body is beginning to become accustomed to the movements though; standing on the ground feels momentarily unfamiliar. It takes me a few minutes to regain my balance.

Freya climbs next, her first time on ice. She moves like a rock climber, forgets to kick her toes into the wall, but finds good placements for the axes. She seems to enjoy the climb immensely. She groans and screams like she often does when she is trying very hard. She reaches the top of the slab without ever taking rope. Her hands are freezing when I lower her to the ground. She whimpers while warming them in her armpits, but she smiles too. I know sometime she will want to come back.

Before cold morning turns into warm afternoon, there is one more line that I would like to ascend: a single sustained pillar without any ledges or rests at the center of the wall. The pillar is too narrow for both my feet so one foot is stabbed into the center of the pillar while the other foot is stemmed out onto an adjacent part of the wall. The climb is exhilarating and I’m literally grinning, or maybe grimacing, as I remove my right axe and swing it into the pillar far above my head. A chunk of ice comes loose. The chunk falls towards me so quickly that I cannot dodge. It hits me directly in the teeth with a sound like a baseball being fouled away at the plate, but it doesn’t hurt at all. I continue climbing unfazed, until I doggedly reach the cottonwood. I am proud for having climbed this route and when Freya lowers me to the ground I am expecting minor praise but she just winces. There is blood dripping down my teeth so that my smile is disconcertingly crimson. I can’t even feel the cuts on my gums where the chunk of ice hit me. Today I learned why some ice climbers wear shields on their helmets. Instead of a shield, I wear a bit of blood. The blood, I think, is not quite so nerdy. Next time, I’ll just keep my mouth closed.

My ice tools have a few scratches now and so does my face. I no longer feel quite so itchy. Still, my overall hunger has only been slightly appeased. In fact, this small taste has probably made me even hungrier. The dents and divots that we left in the ice are imperceptible compared to the changes in my desire. I think I have found something to help pass the long winters. As we load our backpacks and hike down the canyon, I find myself wishing for crystals, clear skies, and a long hard freeze.

*

A storm arrives on cue. I awake to snow drifts and heavy winds. The car is completely covered; the porch carries soft mounds; tree boughs sag from accumulation. Everything has grown fat. Trees are fat, cars are fat, even driveways are fat. Snow clings to anything horizontal and some things vertical. Rotund houses and woodsheds are purely curved now: no angles, no peaks, no corners. There are only soft edges. And everything is clean, immaculate.

Snow erases dirt. Like a painter, it lays down a drop cloth then refinishes the sky. This is the first grey I have seen in Colorado. Until now, it has been all brown and blue and a little green. These clouds make me feel like I’m back at home. The weight of the snow, the dry crunch beneath my boots, the frozen dust that clogs the air is different though. There is almost no moisture in this snow. It is as light as bubbles.

Of all the gear I carried with me to Colorado there is only one thing that I have not yet used: my skis. The hourglass boards stand lonely and parched in the closet. They have never tasted the famous champagne that is now falling outside. The nearby resorts have been aching for a dump like this. Until now, their rocky runs have been made ski-able with man-made snow. But all the faucets and hoses in the world could not emulate a storm like this. This is what everyone has been waiting for. If there was ever a perfect day to get the skis out of the closet, this is it.

Except for the wind. The wind, at least here in the canyon, is a deterrent factor. There is nothing enticing about it. Muscle-bound gusts heave drifts into our windows. Since I haven’t stepped outside, I don’t know what the wind feels like, but judging from the way it looks and sounds I should probably save the skiing for tomorrow. Still, the snow will be best today and, since I haven’t stepped outside, I don’t realize what I’m getting myself into until I’m already carrying my skis to the car. The wind blows snow up my pant legs. Even though I’m wearing every layer of wool that I have, I’m still shivering. A cloying flurry fills the car with flakes when I open the hatchback. Skiing might be a bad idea, but I’m determined. I’m desperately trying to embrace the storm, to enjoy the harshest moments of winter. I can only pray that the winds will not be as fierce when I reach the resort. No matter how improbable that seems, I still hope.

And my prayers are answered, for when I plop onto the chairlift at 10am, there is hardly a breath of wind. Sunshine is even trying to burn through the snow clouds. The slopes gleam with 18-inches of fresh Colorado powder and there is barely a soul on the mountain. There are six empty chairs between the next skier and me. I shake my head, astounded. When I get off the lift, the tracks I leave on the exit ramp are all but fresh.

Gliding through aspen, making wide turns and pushing my tails through powder, I find my balance. The turns do not come easily at first—my quadriceps burn—but after a few runs the rhythmic dance feels normal. My hips swivel as my edges bite dust and I let bumps push me one way then the other; momentum makes the dance easier. I take falls when my skis get caught up in bottomless powder hollows. I flip head over heels into pillowy drifts. I gauge divots in my boards when I find rock on steeper slopes. Everything, even the rock, is delightfully new and beautiful and clean. I don’t stop skiing until the lifts shut down. By this time, both my quadriceps are rubber and my feet are completely numb. However, I’m ecstatic.

I’ve used every piece of equipment I brought to Colorado. I’ve ice climbed and skied and rock climbed and hiked. I wish I had more time to repeat these activities—I wish I could repeat them over and over—but Christmas is at hand. Family is waiting and so too are new adventures.

Still, in a little over a month of being here I think I have begun to understand why people love this country and I have realized that I am growing to appreciate it too. I appreciate the rich canyons, dense stone, flawless skies. I appreciate the hidden treasure, scary leads, chiseled cores. But if there is one thing that I appreciate above all else, it is the inexhaustible nature of this place. If you imagine this beautiful country as one giant desert then the portion I have experienced so far is comparable to a single grain of sand. The rocks, rivers, mountains and dunes are indeed limitless. Like imagining space, it is hard to comprehend the infinite number of adventures that are available here. I have left my tiny mark on the surface and it has left its mark on me. Even after a solid month of exploration, of new experiences and growth, there is still so much more to do. Where does one find the time to do all these things? Even while my feet regain consciousness in the lodge, while my heart rate slows and my muscles calm down, I begin to feel an itch.

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