Friday, September 28, 2012

Ice Climbing: A Scary Sport or Just Misunderstood

I fell in love with ice climbing at the Ouray Ice Festival in January of 2007.  I had just moved out to Colorado the summer before and a friend of mine still living in Florida was interested in coming out to Colorado for the festival.  He convinced myself and a housemate of mine to go on a roadtrip to Ouray to climb and participate in the Ice Festival in Ouray.  Having no idea what I should really expect I reserved myself to hoping that it wouldn't be too cold and that I wouldn't get too scared.  I was amazed, when I arrived at that box canyon outside Ouray on the way up "Million Dollar Highway", to see ice climbers young and old screaming and yelling and hacking away at the ice.  It was a veritable baptism by fire and I was ready.  I, and no one else with us, had any gear for ice climbing other than harnesses and ropes, so we scoured the demo tents and came out geared up in Scarpa and La Sportiva boots, Petzl and Black Diamond ice tools and crampons that looked like they should be mounted to a stick to fashion some kind of mace.  We were ready to ice climb...WI1.  We started out small and looking back now I am very thankful that my friend, now a paramedic in Denver, was there to curtail my more wilder dreams of leading daggers and delicate curtains that first fateful day.  We top roped everything and had a great time, but we all had a very healthy respect for the ice and the inherent danger that lived in that box Canyon.

I have read a lot about ice climbing on guide websites, in guidebooks, in instruction books and I must say that the safety aspect of preparing for ice climbing is pretty well covered.  I have even more experience from the actual activity of ice climbing all over Colorado on hard and easy routes in fairly timid environments and even more committing areas.  With that being said I still see plenty of ice climbers doing the wrong things when out on ice.  Standing in the wrong place, not having proper climbing or belaying skill and techniques, not being prepared for changing conditions in the alpine environments, etc. and I thought I would use this post to expound on my thoughts about ice climbing safety.
In the Ouray Ice Park
Hopefully the points I have below will help explain ice climbing to non climbers and reiterate important safety to those who do ice climb or have tried it at any time.  These are fairly straight forward and mostly seem like common sense, but I wanted to post what I think are some of the most important safety concerns and things to know about the sport.
  1. Never fall - This is not rock climbing.
  2. Stay out of the way of falling ice
  3. Use Pro...a lot!
  4. Top rope...a lot! - Probably 75+ pitches of top rope to really understand ice and be confident and competent enough to lead.
  5. Do not be afraid to clip into your tools while placing pro
  6. Practice placing pro on top rope
  7. Bring more gloves than you think you'll need
These are not exhaustive and are more so guidelines than rules, obviously you can do whatever you want, but overall these will keep you more comfortable climbing ice and give you a better chance of having a fun day instead of an "interesting" day.  Ice climbing is certainly a dangerous sport, but only as dangerous as you let it be.  These guidelines can help you mitigate any potential hazards with a clear head and proper precautions.  Will Gadd is definitely one of the best ice climbers in the world and he adheres to most if not all of these points and I figure if he does, they're good enough for me.  Eli Helmuth, a mountain guide in Colorado, adheres to a very strict set of rules and guidelines and he is out every day in the wilderness of Colorado, skiing, ice climbing and rock climbing.  There are plenty of resources out there and I encourage anyone interested in the sport to grab a book or guide and read up on the techniques, skills and precautions that these well written instructions can provide.  There are things as simple as, how to retreat off a route properly, to the more intricate details of ice climbing like analyzing types of ice and gauging how safe an area or climb might be.  Good apparel, a jacket and pants, are extremely important as well as good boots and crampons that fit well and feel good.  Your gear might be most important once you start leading.  Make sure you get everything you need and want to make clipping easier, sticking tools more efficient and placing pro simpler.  All these things can make a day in sub freezing temperatures not only bearable, but fun and exciting.
My friend Austin top roping a pillar
Ice climbing is a gift and if you have ever gone ice climbing or wish and pray for the season to be good in September, you know what I am talking about.  For ice to form and create the amazing areas and individual routes that we dream of every winter is impressive.  Ice climbers understand the rarity of their sport and the delicate balance that it teeters on every winter and they come back every year for more and more experiences in sub freezing temperatures and altitudes that most reserve for the summer months of May through September.  It is a great sport, a mesmerizing sport, a misunderstood the general public.


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