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!


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