Lesson Learnt: Ice Climbing on a Bluebird Day
Artwork by Elena S
Driving up the winding road just before the sun peaked across the jagged range, we had only one aim that day. Climb Altered States, a impressive ice fall cascading from the slopes below Double Cone in the Remarkables range, New Zealand.
And to ensure our success, we needed an early start before the sun melted it!
My friend Luke and I arrived at the ski field carpark, organised our things, and set off with the soft glow of dawn at our backs. As we exited the skifield boundary and entered the cirque containing our climb, the glow turned bright as the sun appeared and radiated everything it touched. It was going to be a cloudless, sunny day. We both remarked that every skier and snowboarder would be out to make use of the perfect day.
IT FEELS A BIT HOT, EH?
Arriving at the steep snow slope at the base of the ice climb, we were already wondering if we had left it too late. Small specks of ice came down in a steady stream and the ice glistened with wetness.
Standing 60 meters high, Altered States was the result of the slow melt-thaw cycle of the snow slopes above, resulting in an incredible display of frozen wonder with a similar structure to melted wax. Its edges and overhangs were fringed with icicles, sparkling in the sun.
We grovelled up through the deep snow to the base, and as the slope was quite steep, we stomped and packed down a ledge from which to launch.
If we climbed it quickly, we could make it to the top before the ice turned to water. It was my first time climbing ice in the sun, and my first year climbing ice, having spent the winter thus far in shaded aspects where the temperatures remained cold, and the ice frozen solid. Today would be a new experience.
So without a further thought, I tied into the rope, readied my ice tools and crampons, and started up.
Photo by Luke Welch
With each thunk of the ice tool and crunch of the crampon as I swung and kicked, I moved higher. A few meters in, with spindrift and ice chunks coming down in waves, I go to wipe the muck off my sunglasses, an expensive pair of Julbo’s, and swear as one lens falls out and goes spinning down the slope. I turn and watch as it runs over our tracks and keeps rolling before stopping somewhere far below us.
Downclimbing to the base, I pull out my ski goggles, and try again.
Up and up I go. Every few meters I stop and place an ice screw for protection.
Ice screws are used in ice climbing as protection in the case of a fall. Any falls on ice are dangerous due to the crampons catching on the ice- resulting in sprains, fractures, or worse. Unlike all other climbing styles, ice climbing is the only style where the old mantra of ‘the lead climber must not fall’ holds true in its entirety. You do not fall on ice. Ever.
Each arc of the ice tool and resounding thunk gets me higher. I kick and listen closely to the thud of crampons digging deep into the ice. I test each placement of hand and foot, tugging two, three times, always reminded that falling is not an option. I want to be solid.
The ice inspires me less the higher I climb. It’s dripping wet, and some spots are almost slushy. It also gets harder to find good spots for protection.
I halt as I reach a good spot for a belay. I would make an anchor, then bring Luke up who would continue on and lead the last section.
A FORAY INTO PLUMBING
Spending a significant amount of time trying to find good ice to make a belay, water pours out of one ice screw like a tap as a connect the plumbing on some hidden rivulet of water underneath the surface. I unzip my jacket to cool down from the beating sun.
Meanwhile down below, with his new ski boots, Luke fits his crampons but they do not sit well, moving side to side. I finally find and link 3 ice screws for an anchor, satisfied that they would hold, and Luke begins climbing, joining me soon on the belay.
Happy that the crampons would hold and he would be fine, he starts up the next pitch, moving off to the side as he moves up. Meanwhile, my mind was trying to tell me something. A niggle that just wouldn’t stop. I watch the ever increasing chunks of ice come down in a steady stream. Like a rain shower approaching, it just kept growing, thickening, until it was too obvious to ignore.
The climb is literally melting in front of us. I look at the ice screws of my anchor intently. The more I stare, the more I notice the drips of water coming off the metal, and the gap forming between the threads and the ice.
Looking up at Luke, I voice my concern.
“Luke, this anchor doesn’t feel too good. I don’t trust that these screws are holding well. I think it’s all melting”. As I say this, I halfheartedly pull on the middle screw as a test, and to my horror, it pulls clean out!
Artwork by Elena S
My heart quickens and I become aware of my precarious weight sitting on ice screws that could come out at any moment. I no longer had an anchor. My stomach tightened with the realisation. A climbers anchor, whether rock or ice- is a sanctuary of safety. Without it...
Luke wastes no time and climbs back down to my position. No lengthy discussion was needed. We were agreed. It was time to get out of there!
WALKING ON EGGSHELLS
The falling ice keeps intensifying as we ready ourselves for synchronised V-threads. Using our longest ice screws, we would use the technique to make joined ice threads through which we would pass cord, which we would then abseil down on so as not to leave expensive ice screws behind. As the ice was of such poor quality now, we figured two V-threads, half a meter apart and joined with the cord, would increase our chances of having a solid abseiling point.
With the mounting pressure of a potential anchor failure, we use our other ice screws as back up as we went to work. When one screw felt dodgy, we put in another. Holes dotted the ice around us from failed ice screws. Struggling to find any ice we felt secure on, we kept our weight off them as much as possible.
Finally finishing the V-threads, hoping we had found ice that would hold amongst all the slushiness, we get our cord through and set up our abseil.
I head off first, followed by Luke shortly after. We both abseiled as carefully as we could, a feeling akin to walking on eggshells as we gingerly step down, bit by bit, willing it to be as smooth as possible. Just don’t bounce on the rope, I keep telling myself. I spot some larger backpack sized chunks of ice come down nearby, not long after we reach the ground.
Luke confirms the rest of the anchor screws had pulled out as easily as the first as he removed them. We felt like we had dodged a bullet, the ice was melting frighteningly fast!
Still in the danger zone from a larger collapse, we retreat out to a safe distance and coil our ropes, re-pack our gear, and get the hell out of there.
As we follow our tracks, now soft and slushy in the mid morning heat, I find the lens to my sunglasses. With the intense heat absorbed by its black tint, it had melted into the snow, making it more obvious to find. At least that’s one win for the day, maybe 2 if we considered getting away from the ice without disaster.
Returning to the ski field, skiers whooped as they blasted down the slopes, loving the bluebird day and sunny weather. I guess we now knew what it was like to climb ice too late in the day. And upon reflection, maybe we should have just gone skiing?
Lessons Learnt is a series documenting or telling the story of the adventures and epics that could have been avoided, done differently, or at least, provide a lesson on what not to do. Some details or events may be simplified, left out, or added for story telling purposes, and the sole purpose is to provide entertainment, not instruction.