Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ice Climbing for Mountaineers

Mountaineering, alpine climbing, peak-bagging, alpinism… I don't care what you call it. All who head to cold and wild high-country have more in common than we are different. Of those, many come to me asking about waterfall ice climbing. Most envision ice climbing as preparation for steep and technical frozen terrain on gnarly peaks. To some, that makes winter, day-trip, frozen waterfall climbing an appealing practice. To others, those who say "I'll only ever climb walk-up or scrambling peaks in snowy or dry conditions. I don't need to know about bashing a waterfall into drink-sized cubes with four spiky appendages", ice climbing seems like an uncomfortable distraction. I'll argue, however, that neither of these perspectives is all that accurate, and that learning and practicing ice climbing should have much broader appeal.
One of the best preparations for mountaineering?
I think so. Meagan in the Catskills of New York. 

First, for those that wish to dedicate a great deal of time to high-end, steep-ice climbing technique for their alpine climbing aspirations, a word of reality. While, indeed, elite climbers tackle sustained walls of near- and past-vertical ice on huge wilderness peaks, well over 99% of traditional alpine climbs require little to no steep ice climbing. For instance, on hundreds of alpine routes in all corners of North America (Including Alaska, Greenland,  Canada, and all over the "lower 48) I can count on my non-frostbite-damaged hands the number of ice pitches that exceeded 70 degrees in steepness (and half of them were on Mount Logan's notorious "Hummingbird Ridge"). In short, even if you aspire to alpine climbs of more technical repute (like Rainier's Liberty Ridge, or Hunter's West Ridge), the amount of truly steep ice is quite small.

If then, as I posit, mountaineers have precious little opportunity to employ steep ice technique, what is the appeal? Why do I find myself recommending ice climbing training to such a wide range of mountain aspirants? It comes down to two big things.

More than the athletic demands, ice climbing is an environmental and logistical challenge. Actual ice moves aren't that difficult. What you learn on any given day of ice climbing is how to care for oneself in truly miserable conditions. Even if you'll stick to Sierra summer peak bagging (reputed to be among the mellowest of mountain endeavors. I beg to differ, but I'm biased), you'll do well to be prepared for gnarly conditions. There is no better preparation than ice climbing.

Secondly, ice climbing is one of the best ways (backcountry skiing is another…) for many mountaineers to motivate for travel to high and steep country in the depth of winter. More time in mountain settings, regardless of the way one spends his or her time, is sure to help.

So git ya some! Right now is peak ice climbing season. On the East Coast, in California, and every mountain zone in between, the ice is in and ready for you!


Monday, January 5, 2015

New Things

Life has me focusing outside the mountains lately. Family time, mainly, is the current emphasis. Staying sharp for the mountains, especially with fairly high-end guiding gigs coming up, is nonetheless still a priority. Long drives, flat topography, holiday food, and non-physical work all seem to conspire against effective climbing conditioning. Turns out, not all training can be ideal. What's a city- or vacation-bound climber and ski-mountaineer to do?

Pullups on the shore of Lake Huron. "Let me take a #Selfie"
Creativity, motivation, and foundational knowledge serve the ill-equipped athlete. Without mountains or routine, the easy path is to revert and retire. However, wherever you are there is always something to carry, somewhere to run, and time to breathe hard. In the easy times, build good habits and skill with binges of coaching and gym-time and actual climbing, and one can continue to train even under less than ideal conditions.

It is all in the attitude. Alpine climbing and ski mountaineering inevitably present unique physical and mental challenges. No two peaks, pitches, or moves are the same. One's training prepares the body for that, in many cases by mimicking the ever varied nature. The rest of life can do the same, or not. Seeking challenges and learning can be its own reward. It is a matter of perspective. On one hand, learning is scary and uncomfortable. "I can't" are the words, fear is the emotion. "This is hard and it hurts" are the words, discomfort is the feeling. 
On the other hand, learning is empowering and inspirational. I have the distinct pleasure of spending a great deal of time with guests in the mountains, guests who are pushing their limits. Given how unfamiliar to them that environment is, I am constantly blown away by how seldom I hear "I can't." It would be easy to forgive these people, paying good money to be incredibly uncomfortable and challenged, for self-obstructive language and attitude. However, there is something inspiring about mountains and the guided experience that pushes people's attitudes out of their own way. Either that, or I am just lucky to work with only those of incredible fortitude of character. In any case, trying something new with mind open to the feelings instead of succumbing to the "I can't"s and the "This hurts"s is bound to deliver different results. 

Try new things. Body and mind, unstressed, inherently weaken. It's that whole second law of thermodynamics. I am a professional athlete in my middle thirties. My body is ever more fragile, and ever more valuable to my livelihood. It would be easy to lay low and justify taking the easy path. Stick with what is familiar. However, my lovely wife recently pushed me out of my comfort zone. She pulled from her own open mind and athletic soul a childhood playground trick. She hadn't flipped from the horizontal bar in 30 years. But her muscle memory was there. When I was 7, when learning something like this was more socially acceptable and easier on the bones, I didn't happen to learn this move. Here I am, a 35 year old with a lot to lose, inspired on a new trick. It was scary. I almost cried. No joke. But Meagan talked me through it. I never said "I can't". Nor did I fall on my head and make youtube history. I learned something new and, most importantly, remembered that I can keep learning new things. One can't get better without learning new things. One can't learn new things without getting better. And one can't train one's body without getting better. Learning, improvement, and physical training are all intertwined. They are one and the same.