It was snowing when we left the truck. I had piled on the layers, adding thermal top after thermal top, and hopping from foot to foot in the muddy snow to put on my extra socks inside the scuffed plastic mountaineering boots. I'd struggled (and mostly failed, I later discovered) to fit the newly-sharpened crampons to the unfamiliar boots. And I'd put on the warmest hat ever known (a Tog 24 with fleece earflaps, belonging to Dave) under a shiny pale blue helmet. I was ready to have my first go at ice climbing!
I am so loving it.
We trudged up the little-used logging track, contemplating the difficulties of getting around whilst wearing and carrying the equipment needed. A glance at the rapidly disappearing snow surface showed that the wolves whose tracks we could see were much better adapted for the conditions than ungainly humans like us.
The walk was only short, and before long I found myself gazing up at the ice fall. A tree trunk partially blocked the route, but the sound of rushing water was still clearly audible. "Is it usually this, umm, thawed?" I asked. "Oh yes," came the reply, "this is ideal for late winter ice. It'll be really plastic". I wracked my brain to try and remember whether 'plastic' was a good or bad thing.
I started clambering about on the gently sloping area at the base of the ice fall, trying to work out how much I trusted the crampons. Having established that the answer was 'not very much, especially not facing downhill', I tied in and started belaying the great leader as he lead up the 100ft fall of grade WI2 ice. For the uninitiated, WI2 means "ooh, it looks tricky when you're new but actually that's about the easiest ice you'll get".
Oop, there goes the great leader.
My attention wandered as the ice screws started going in above me. I was glad of all the layers as I started to chill, and the constant sound of running water was playing on my mind. Eventually, the shout came to start climbing, so I grabbed my camera, wrestled my wrists into the ice axes and I started hacking into the fall.
The ice was kind to me – 'plastic' is good, it turns out – and I rapidly gained confidence as I methodically kicked and chopped my way up. The art of getting an ice axe in is, it seems to me, to not try and use excessive force, but to rely on the weight of the axe head. When you get it right, it feels like throwing a dart, and the point of the axe grips with a similar ring. The great leader had chosen a route where the ice was best, which took me straight through a thicket sprawling over an ice bulge. He'd earlier asked "Do you like nature?" which had struck me as a question only a sociopath would ask, but now I was thinking "Nature can sod off, stop growing all over this nice bit of ice".
I caused some momentary concern by stopping to take pictures mid-climb (I've certainly never done that on rock) but made it to the top without any problems. The great leader looked at me. "What, no tears?" he exclaimed, seemingly incredulous. I tried to make my face as neutral as possible while I contemplated whether my new axe-wielding skills were sufficient for me to be able to get the axe cleanly between his eyes, and then whether I knew where the car keys were in order to make a swift getaway. "No… should there have been?" was as much as I could manage.
I rappelled back to the base, having concluded that there were now a few mind games in play. The great leader had managed to make my rappel alternately stationary or somewhat out of control in speed. I put it aside and focused on the ice. Hack, hack, step, step. Hack, hack, step, step. Hack, hack, balance, quickly extract the camera and take a photo, oh sugar, why can't I get my hand back into this bloody ice axe leash, come on you stupid thing, there we go, hack, hack, step, step.
As we walked back down the trail to the truck, the sun emerged and the temperature rose. All at once, the concern was whether there would be any good ice to climb on tomorrow, and where would it be? During the trip to the town where we stopped the night, we scanned the cracks and gullies of the surrounding mountains. All in a blur, I spotted a promising looking smear, in two sections, not too far from the road. It was agreed – that was our target next day.
As I lay in bed that night, I wondered about why it was that ice climbing had so appealed to me; and why I'd enjoyed this early taste so much. I got no closer to a revelation, but I decided that, given all the time spent getting to these places, I would make sure that next time I'd try to pick a partner with whom I didn't always feel the need to suffocate rising intolerance. I lay quiet and listened to the great leader snoring in the next motel room. I thanked my lucky stars I wasn't on a Himalayan mountainside sharing a tent with him.
The next morning dawned as clear and bright as the previous day had ended. I caused a great stir in the one-horse town's A&W by not conforming to the apparent uniform of plaid checked shirts; sorry guys, did I miss a memo? I wasn't sorry to leave the town behind as we headed back towards the ice fall we'd spotted the day before.
This time I was hopping from foot to foot on the highway; we struck straight up the hillside, skirting the stream which runs down from the ice fall, and pushing our way through ever more dense growth which clung to my clothes and whipped me on the face and in my eyes. My bag seemed to be full of rocks, and the ice axes perilously lashed to the front caught on every branch as we slogged uphill, through dead leaves and shaley talus which slipped downhill beneath my feet. The great leader pushed on and we found ourselves on a flat area between the two falls visible from the road; a couple of slings around a tree indicated that this had been climbed before, despite not being in the guidebook.
I tied in and was jerkily lowered to the base of the lower fall. Ice streaked up both sides of the free flowing creek, which had melted a wide central section, and was turning the ice borders to lacy frills. The fall looked steeper than yesterday – 75 degrees? Perhaps 80? for a section about 7 or 8 feet long next to the main fall. The challenge was greater and the adrenalin was flowing, especially when I realised that part of my route was an ice bridge, where the stream had got behind the ice and melted it away from the anchoring rock. Big circular flakes of ice were shearing off with each ice axe placement, and the kicking got harder. I was happy to appear over the top of the fall, and crunch towards the top anchor. That said, it whetted the appetite, and I willingly lowered off again, this time with the camera to hand. The 60ft route of WI2 ice had taken me about 10 minutes and I wanted to make the most of my chance to climb. Once we started talking about knots, anchors and belaying techniques, my eyes glazed over and my inability to grasp the technical side of things returned with a vengeance.
The view back down my route, and the walk in
The view as I started up the left hand lump
I stumbled back to the road, laden with gear, wondering when I might be able to manufacture another opportunity to get out and ice climb. It was an expensive experience, and getting into it longer term seems an equally costly proposition. Plus, I have just missed the coldest, iciest and snowiest winter in the UK for 20 years – what are the chances?! Still, it was compelling and challenging in equal measure so I might just have to suck it up and accept my taste for expensive hobbies.
A few more pictures: My view of the lead climb route on Acute Falls; the view down from the top of the route at Acute Falls; looking across to the right hand line up what I am pretentiously calling Innominate Falls on day 2; and the water rushing past my precarious photographic position.