Ice Climbing – 3 Screws and Radioactive Webbing by Doug Oatis

by

Radioactive Webbing 2
“I hope you know after we move, I’m going to get into ice climbing.”
I distinctly remember saying that to my wife weeks before we relocated to Denver. She might claim she doesn’t remember…but I’m not buying it.

After we moved in June, narrowly avoiding the start of the Phoenix summer, I was like a kid in a candy store. In the first three months I had been climbing on Lumpy Ridge (destroyed by a 10c), Eldo (had a blast on the Bastille Crack), bagged 6-14ers, and dulled my crampons and ice axes doing multiple snow climbs.

The entire time, however, I was waiting for winter…and ice. I already owned the ‘Freedom of the Hills’ (I’m old school…4th edition) and had recently purchased Will Gadd’s ‘Ice and Mixed Climbing’ book, but something about strapping knives to your hands and feet and swinging them at brittle material made me think twice about trying to figure it out on my own.

When I finally saw ice climbing classes start to show up on the CMC website I cleared out my schedule. The picture below is from my Ice Climbing Clinic, taught by Kent Crites.
CMC Ice Climbers at Clinic
I thought of a lot of things on the week leading up to my first field day:
Would general crampons (horizontal front points) work for ice climbing?
What kind of gloves should I bring?
Which would give out first…my hands or legs?
Why did I volunteer to bring a stove (I had to put a bit of work to get it somewhat operational)?
Will this be fun…or “fun”?

Sunrise at Glacier Gorge
The day of the field day, the alarm clock went off at 3:30am (I live in Littleton, so the 5am meeting time wasn’t convenient…good thing too much sleep is bad for climbing). My plans for filling up on fat and carbs were foiled by McDonalds (one couldn’t accept credit cards, the other was still serving dinner at 4:45am…seems a little early for a Big Mac). So, I filled up on trail mix and whatever else I had managed to throw in my car. At the meet-up spot we piled into cars and set off towards Glacier Gorge.

A week prior I had received the latest Patagonia Catalog with an article by Kelly Cordes talking about the conditions at Glacier Gorge…where it’s a physical and mental struggle to even leave the car. Well, Glacier Gorge did not disappoint. It was a struggle to open the car door and put on mountaineering boots in the 50mph winds.
CMC Glacier Gorge Ice Climbing in RMNP
The hike in was amazing, the best part was definitely crossing over a couple of frozen lakes. We finally arrived at the climbing area after an hour and a half. I made quick work of getting ready to climb, as the instructors readied the ropes. When it was finally time to climb, I was the first to volunteer (or I jumped in front of everyone else…depends on one’s perspective).
Doug Ice Climbing in Glacier Gorge
Three swings up and it was apparent my desk job wasn’t doing me any favors. My mechanics were anything but fluid, but damn…was it fun. A few more feet up, and I found out rock climbing foot technique DOES NOT work on ice. On rock, at least the way I climb, you use the side of your foot. That’s possibly the worst thing you can do on ice (unless you’re stemming). On ice, you kick straight in and drop the heel to engage the secondary points (this is more stable and provides a little relief for your calf). To be honest, I never really had a problem dropping the heel. Remembering to kick straight in, now that was a different story!

I made it up the first route okay and somehow got on another route rather quickly (I don’t think I jumped in front of anyone on this one). Halfway up, I started complaining about the tools. I just couldn’t stick anything. Turns out that I was forgetting to shake out my hands and they were now stupid. I had caught a severe case of alien hands syndrome.

The problem with climbing in leashes is one tends to swing, stick, and then hang in the leash. Couple this with having your arms above your head and the resulting lack of blood flow limits how much ‘control’ you have over your own hands. Once that happens, forget about having a good swing/flick of the axe.

The rest of the day I had to keep reminding myself to kick in straight and shake my hands out. At the end I was surprised how good my hands felt. It was similar to gym climbing with jugs all around that you can hang off of with leashes (just remember to shake out). My legs were a little sore, but overall I felt pretty good.

Not even a week went by before I worked out a plan to meet some friends from AZ in Ouray for two days of climbing. During that ‘lull’ I sharpened my sabretooths, picked up a set of quarks, and a BD spinner (determined to go leash-less).

Doug Ready To Lead an Ice Climb
Ouray…wow. The very first thing I noticed while enjoying the continental breakfast at the hotel was that everyone else in the room was a dirtbag climber (meant as a compliment). After a quick breakfast we walked to our destination…Southpark Wall. We setup a quick anchor on some existing bolts and rappelled into the canyon.

The next 5-6 hours were filled with nonstop climbing, swapping ropes with nearby parties. I lucked out in that the couple next to us let me sport lead on his screws and rope. On that lead, I accidentally clipped the rope up/over one of my tool umbilical lines. After unwrapping my tool from around the rope, I finished the rest without any issue. Unlike the CMC course my hands were pretty sore, probably a combination of going leash-less and doing a lot of climbing.

I treated my first-day aches with some Mexican food mixed with a healthy dose of beer and margaritas. The next day we drove into the park and setup shop a couple hundred feet from the previous day. We had to deal with some poor climbing etiquette from another group (dropped their lines right in between our group’s lines and rappelled down as we were climbing). There’s already a significant amount of ice falling down from other climbers nearby; throw in people trying to rappel almost on top of you and things can get a little intense.

Doug Leading at Ouray Ice Park
Towards the end of the day I was feeling good enough to try and lead a mellow line I had spotted earlier. I begged and borrowed until I had enough screws (I had 3, wrangled up an additional 6) and started up. I had tried placing a screw during the CMC course…and it was a disaster. My hands were stupid, I was wearing leashes, and it took a good amount of effort to even start the screw…I tried not to think about that as I started up. I climbed up a good 10-15 feet (told you it was mellow) and the first screw went in fairly easily until the last couple of threads. I had to clear out a small bulge of ice that was preventing it from threading in.

Not having to deal with leashes was nice…if I needed the tool I could grab it, if I didn’t I could either sink it in or lay it across my shoulder. After carving out enough ice, the screw set in all the way and I continued up. I made sure to check all other placement areas for flat-ish ice that wouldn’t require as much work. I finally made it to a cave-feature that was maybe 15 feet below the top and was able to take a short breather. I thought about placing another screw before I topped out, but seeing the tree on top was enough motivation to run it out to the end. Again…way too much fun.

Doug Clipping Into First Screw While Ice Climbing
So if you’re still reading, here are the take-aways/tips/suggestions I can offer as a complete n00b ice climber:

1. Go ice climbing…seriously

2. Horizontal front points work just fine for climbing

3. Go leash-less. Realize that I haven’t done any backcountry/alpine mixed routes (which Will Gadd recommends still wearing leashes), I just found that the leashes got in the way. Going leash-less makes it a little more rock-climbing-esque in that you have more freedom with what you can do with your hands

4. Wear a helmet. Pretty much if someone is above you, ice will be falling down. During the CMC course I remember hiding behind a bulge in the ice because someone climbing next to me was knocking off dinner plates. In the Ice Park it was like a battle zone, on the first day someone got hit in the nose/lip and was bleeding profusely.

5. Bring the right clothes. I brought two sets of gloves (BD Punishers for climbing, BD Guides for belaying), hard shell pants/jacket, a down jacket, a R1 hoody, and light base-layers and was comfortable the entire time. I would strip down to the R1 or R1+shell while climbing then add the down jacket and swap gloves while belaying to keep warm. Worked out perfect.

6. If you’re going to Ouray…
a. Bring long enough slings/static cord to setup anchors. It wasn’t unusual to see anchors tied to trees that were a good 15-20 feet from canyon wall.
b. Try and drop your rope so that each end goes up a different section of the wall. You might have to get creative to rap into the canyon, but this will let you get more climbing in, as you can typically get 2-3 lines out of one end of the rope.
c. Go to Ouray

7. You don’t have to be a rock climbing superstar. I top out leading on 10s (sport) or 8-9 (trad)…really nothing that will get me sponsored or pictured in a catalog. That said, you need to feel comfortable climbing (what it feels like to climb above gear, etc) in order to have fun.

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