March 26, 2017

Ice Climbing and Experience

Ice climbing is one of my favorite types of climbing to guide. This winter I was lucky to facilitate movement on frozen water for a number of my regular clients (or "repeat offenders" as I sometimes refer to them). Two of them that I climbed with almost back - to - back are in very different places in their ice climbing careers. These two climbers have vastly different levels of experience, but each seems to (knowingly or not) take maximum advantage of that experience.

Kevin is in the second ice climbing phase of his life. The first ended before I ever picked up an ice tool. Kevin and I had spent a bunch of days rock climbing and a few mellow days on the ice when he got in touch about an ice climbing road trip. With a little effort plans came together and mid-February found us in Hyalite Canyon, just outside of Bozeman, MT. Though Kevin might still be getting the feel for all of the new gear, especially the boots, his ice climbing technique, stamina, and stoke haven't gotten rusty at all and he seemed to draw on a deep well of experience to climb hard four days in a row. He was up as early as me every day, and every bit as excited during the drive to the trailhead.
Kevin points back up at The Matrix (WI4- M4-5) after climbing it in what we thought were fairly fat conditions.

Though the trip was a success by many metrics, the high point for me came on the second pitch of a three pitch route called Cleopatra's Needle, when the rope running from my belay device down to Kevin stopped moving. We had been climbing increasingly difficult ice every day and Kevin followed each pitch perfunctorily, always pulling the final bulge smoothly and with a smile. As a guide I try to bring clients to a place (mentally or physically or both) where they are challenged. This is where the most learning and growth happens, and where the most fun is had. I was a little concerned that though we were ratcheting up the difficulty Kevin wasn't being challenged enough. Now he was at the bottom of the sustained pillar that defines the route, and the rope stopped moving for an entire half a minute. Finally, something made this steep ice climbing machine stop and think!  After that brief pause he started up again, and before too long he came into view with his usual grin, psyched on the pitch he just sent.

Jesse had climbed ice two days in his life, one at the Roadside Ice in June Lake and one with me on North Peak, when we met in Lee Vining a few days after the Hyalite trip. Though he doesn't have Kevin's depth of experience in the frozen vertical, he can match him in enthusiasm, and I think his "beginner's mind" can be an asset. Jesse and I were originally scheduled for a Monday and Tuesday, but severe weather forced us back a few days to a Friday and Saturday. I encourage clients to book ice climbing days mid-week as much as possible. Despite the fact that this can be difficult for climbers with 9-5 jobs and families, they often get much more out of their climbing days than when we go to Lee Vining Canyon on a weekend, because of the crowds.

Jesse and I got an early start on Friday, and managed to get in a bunch of laps on the left side of Chouinard Falls before things got a little too busy there. Recognizing that Spiral Staircase over on The Main Wall was in, and is somewhat rare, it seemed like a great way to finish off our first day and to show Jesse his first multi-pitch water ice route. He did well, hooking through the finish to the first pitch on what was probably the most sustained steep ice he had climbed to that point.

Jesse traversing over to the anchor on the classic finish to the first pitch of Spiral Staircase (WI4-).
Our second day started with a quick lap up what was left of C3PO in the Narrows before walking up-canyon and finding that both The Chimney Route/Photoshop and The Fischer King both had parties on them. Heel-Toe, however, looked formed up and nobody was on it. It even looked like the left finish was covered in ice! The first pitch can be thought-provoking for the leader, but is no more than interesting for the follower, and I was confident that we could bail from anywhere on the route if we needed to, so up we went. Jesse cruised the first pitch and we broke the second pitch into two, stopping at the ledge where the two finishes bifurcate. Looking ahead from here I now saw that the ice covering the left finish from below was several inches thick but detached from the cliff behind by about an inch. Oh well. A little dry tooling number got us past this and up to the top. Though this was certainly a step up for Jesse, he shined. I think this is due, in part, to his "beginner's mind".

As climbers we often assume that having more experience always trumps having less. Climbing with these two guys in quick succession was a great lesson in the fact that there are advantages to being at either end of the experience spectrum.