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    November: The Birth

    Early season ice posing potential issues somewhere in Wyoming.

    Early season ice posing potential issues somewhere in Wyoming.

    by Dustin Fric

    Chasing down frozen waterfalls in any winter month can be as simple as driving to a local crag or can get as creative as you want to make it. Early season ice climbing is almost always creative. Plucking off gems and finding new waterfalls is right outside most people's doorstep with a little creativity, perseverance and practice.

    Climbing ice in November always poses issues and provides benefits, just like everything else in life. One thing that makes November so magical is watching the ice come in. Seeing these frozen giants grow, morph and transform into sometimes completely different waterfalls throughout every year. November is like watching a birth if you will, the birth of a new season full of growth and potential.

    For some of us waiting through late summer and October can be as depressing as a six month sentence in San Quentin. Then comes November; the time that snow falls in the high country and ground temps drop enough to enjoy frozen mediums. From mud to moss and water it all starts to freeze. This is when it “snaps” which means game time for a large group of frozen waterfall connoisseurs from all over the world. These are the ones who wake up with clammy palms and a glimmer in their eye ready to walk, ski, ford rivers, and freeze it out just to get a taste of what their life has been missing.

    Ice Climbing…Let's all go get some!

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    Chris Kalman Goes Ice Climbing

    Everything was still, and quiet save for the clinking of ice screws against one another, the grind of crampons and tools scraping on rocks, and a few birds chirping in the early morning light.  Then there was a “whooooosh” and then my head was in my hands, and I was cursing, and I still wasn’t sure why.  At the time, the seconds that ticked away felt like long drawn out minutes.  I went through a mental checklist as I reconstructed the events.  Alert and oriented?  Check.  Breathing? Check. No bleeding out of gaping head wounds?  Check.  Partner wide-eyed and concerned, asking if you are alright between expletives?  Check.

    Okay, so I was fine.  I took a baseball sized rock to the head, but I was wearing this badass helmet (this is not an ad for the Petzl Sirocco - but that is an awesome helmet), and the my head and helmet escaped unscathed.  A diligent EMT may have had me pegged for irritable and combative - standard signs of a head wound.  But in this case, I was just still in the process of adjusting to one of the harsh realities (apparently) of ice and mixed climbing.  You get hit in the head a lot.  Eventually, the rope pulled tight, and our rope gun belayed Joey and I up.  It was my third day of ice climbing, my first day of mixed climbing, and I was climbing Bird Brain Boulevard, the classic Ouray mixed climb first done by climbing heroes Charlie Fowler, Jeff Lowe, and Mark Wilford. 

    I’ve been rock climbing for round about 15 years - which doesn’t sound like that much to a lot of the older heads out there, but it’s half the time I’ve been alive, so it feels like a lot.  I’m pretty comfortable on a nice sunny wall of granite, cruxing out above totally bomber protection, clinging desperately to holds that aren’t going to break any time in the next 25,000 years or so.  I trust my risk assessment, know how to avoid dangerous objectives, and of late have begun to shake a bit of a reputation for rather ball-dropping runouts and free-solos in lieu of a reputation for headpointing and telling people to check their knots.  You get away with enough close-calls, and I think this is often inevitable.

    So it was with a mix of skepticism and caution that I originally decided to approach ice climbing.  Following the OR show in SLC, I caught a ride down to Ouray and Ridgway where I had a few friends malingering around town as ice-climbing bums.  Philippe Wheelock (badass ice-climber mountaineer best friend kinda dude), and Drew Smith (BFF, nickname: Dreamy Drew, superstrong Montana boy kinda dude), would be my rope guns for the next three days.

    First up was the ice park.  Drew ropegunned a toprope up from the summit of the icepark for me, handed me a couple tools, and told me to leanback (I was tied in).  I said “Wait, isn’t there like something I should know?”  “No, he told me.  It’s just like rock climbing except really easy.” And away I went.  About thirty seconds later I was standing on a frozen creek, and about two minutes later I was back at the top.  Turns out, it was really easy - whatever it was - but it sure as hell wasn’t anything I’d feel comfortable leading!  Yikes!  The entire time I was showered by ice crystals, and it felt like if I kicked hard enough I’d knock down the whole chosspile (I mean waterfall)!  This was crazy.  Drew assured me, however, that it gets a lot better.  The Ice park is really aerated, and would, indeed, make a harrowing lead.

    Day two Drew and I got out early to climb the world class Ames Ice Hose.  It’s kind of weird getting ropegunned up a world class route on your second day climbing.  People wanted to know was it like the coolest thing I ever climbed, and I thought it certainly was not, but I didn’t have much previous ice to compare it to… It was really pretty, very nice shades of blue and white, and it was great to catch the surreal sunrise over the San Juans.  The most notable thing about the climbing was that instead of getting showered in little chandelier crystals, I was continually showered in grapefruit sized chunks of ice.  They hurt when they hit, but didn’t cause any serious injury.  Still, Ice climbing was not starting to feel less sketchy.  If you lead, you risk falling with a ton of little sharp pointy things on you.  But if you follow, your angry leader will knock ice daggers on you all day long.  Sketchy.

    Day three I rested with some awesome weather, and Ouray choss climbing with my good friend Jeff Morris who was passing through.  We climbed with our shirts off, drank beers, and ate burgers shortly after climbing.  This was an awesome day, and certainly par for the rock climbing course.  My friends sent some gnarly ice mixed climbs the same day… into the same evening… They put up some FA apparently, but by the sounds of it, they almost died on the descent.  Maybe not.  Hard to say.  Anyway, they didn’t die.  And that’s awesome.

    Day four, we got the super shralpine start for Bird Brain Boulevard.  This would be my first ever mixed climb, and my first time getting ropegunned by mountain climbing ace Philippe Wheelock.  You already caught the story with the rock: that was pitch 2.  The rest of the day went pretty much without incident with the exception of Philippe reminding me over and over again that it probably wasn’t wise to weight the anchors… Awesome news after you just got belayed up on them.  I guess Philippe really trusted my 5.7 chimneying in crampon skills, because that’s about all I did all day long.  Again, not terribly challenging technically, but mentally draining.

    At the top, I hugged Philippe and my new buddy Joey, and thanked them for a rad day.  I guess Bird Brain Boulevard was my favorite ice/mixed climbing.  I still don’t know what all these damned numbers and letters mean, but they say that one is WI5/M5.  In my mind, that means 5.7X with some C1 moves on A4 placements.  I can’t help but feel like iced/mixed climbing is far more akin to aid climbing than rock climbing - at least when you’re not clipping bolts.  When I told Philippe that I had enjoyed myself in spite of almost getting decapitated by the deathrock he trundled, he was typically stoic: “Yeah, if you’re going to be an alpinist, you have to have a pretty short memory” he grumbled, as he disappeared out of sight down the first rappel.

    I lingered there for a moment taking in the view, and the first real sunshine we’d felt all day.  I don’t know if I would call myself a converted ice climber, but there is definitely something compelling about being able to bag summits in the winter.  And oh yeah, I definitely liked looking at the ice crystals and formations.  The whole sport is very very shimmery.

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    Ice Climbing off the Salmon River, Idaho

    by Dustin Fric

    In January I took a trip DEEP into the Frank Church River of no Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness in the lower 48. Matt Scrivner, Angela Lynch and I climbed several new routes in the area but one stands out as momentous. We named it Salmon River Quiver and to me it is one of the most significant waterfalls to be climbed in Idaho in quite a while. Armed with kayaks, wetsuits, dry tops and a small assortment of rock and ice pro we were not taking no for an answer. The ice flow snakes it's way 450' feet to the top of the shelf. Tucked away in a shallow groove the climb embodied an Alpine feel and character was oozing out of the tie-dyed ice when we first saw it. The best part of the climb is the third pitch; starting at a rock anchor and climbing a two foot vein for 70 feet and ending at a double tiered curtain. Sometimes you stumble upon Real Gems that take your breath away, and sometimes you get to climb them in the presence of the best company imaginable, that's what MAKES climbing.


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    Ice Climbing in the Rolwaling Himal

    Kang Nachugo

    Kang Nachugo

    by Nick Frazee

    Overall our trip was fantastic, splitter weather most days, great temps, wonderful ice conditions, and the serenity and beauty of a nearly empty Himalayan valley. We spent 5 weeks climbing all that we could in an area that may take closer to 5 years to fully explore, and along with a first ascent of a 500’ flow, we topped out plenty of enormous, seldom climbed lines up to 1200’ in length. Every climb we got on was a classic by our standards here in Bozeman, but in my eyes, the true gem of the trip was an unfathomable formation we could see from where we stayed.

    We had been staring at it for weeks, all the while talking about possible lines up it, what we might encounter, wondering if it would even go. 450’ of ice, equally strange, funky, and strait up ugly, it loomed across the river from our camp. Huge overhanging mushrooms stretched out horizontally, flanking steep ice up the lower section, a massive overhanging bulge riddled with mushrooms and jellyfish guarded the center,
    and then there was the top, a massive black tube about 20 meters high rolled over the lip to more solid looking, easier ground. The funk down low we knew would be interesting, thoughtful climbing though manageable, but the black tube on top terrified us. We often speculated as to what was actually going on up there, would it be a thin window pane? Would it have open running water? Would it even support body weight? Could we sneak around it on the thin dry white ice on either side?

    We decided to give it time. Perhaps with warmer or colder weather, the resulting changes in the formation, would give us a better idea as to what we were getting into. A few weeks passed, nothing changed, the black tube remained constant, unwilling to grow, unwilling to build up fat blue ice that we hoped would eventually form. Eventually, however, our curiosity got the best of us. We got sick of waiting and wondering, packed up and decided to go have a closer look.

    Bud Martin approaches our first ascent.
    Bud Martin approaches our first ascent. Bud Martin following the first pitch of our first ascent
    Bud Martin following the first pitch of our first ascent The “black tube” at the top of the funky flow
    The “black tube” at the top of the funky flow The funky flow from the approach
    The funky flow from the approach Bud Martin getting awkward in the mushrooms and jellyfish
    Bud Martin getting awkward in the mushrooms and jellyfish Bud Martin leads towards the tube
    Bud Martin leads towards the tube The clear tube on top
    The clear tube on top

    With plenty of stops on the approach to eye up the route, and pick possible lines through the baffling features, we geared up and cautiously moved up the first pitch to a belay cave to where the really interesting climbing began. I moved out onto a steep, featureless curtain, topped by enormous mushrooms and jellyfish, awkwardly moved over, around, and between the large overhangs and set up a hanging belay in the only place I could, directly below the last pitch. I cowered beneath my pack sneaking peeks of Bud as ice rained down from the dry white features he was negotiating. By the time he made it to the black tube he was out of sight, he moved slowly, cautiously and all I could do was imagine what he was encountering up there, wondering if we would have to bail. Suddenly he began moving smoothly again, and as i paid out rope I realized he had made it work, he was topping it out. The ropes came tight and I headed up, when I
    got to the tube I was shocked to find Bud’s path straight up it. We had expected to have to sneak around it on the thin white ice on the side but as i followed his delicate pick marks i realized what he had found 15 min before, the tube was absolutely bomber, almost two feet thick the whole way... but formed of crystal clear ice. I began to laugh, not believing what we were climbing, every crack and fracture from every tool
    placement was perfectly visible. You could see each tooth of your pick and how it sat inside the ice, the water flowing and swirling on the backside, and even the rock beneath the flowing water. As I topped out still on perfectly clear ice, Bud stood with a smile on his face that said “I cant believe we got away with that.” We both began to hoot and holler, laughing and giggling like little girls the whole way down.



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    Three Guys, one Bivy, a Tent and a Shoebox

    By Dustin Fric

    Every year we spend early season running around with heavy packs; winter camping; trying to pluck off classic ice lines in thin conditions. Travis McAlpine and I have been putting life on hold for the month of November for six years, chasing this dream and hunting the unique. From replacing transmissions in the snow to quitting jobs, nothing is out of line when it comes to making November THE month that propels us into the winter.

     Along the way we always go from making calculated decisions to throwing all caution to the wind, sometimes resulting in working at random establishments or getting dropped off in canyons with no planned ride out or time frame in mind. All of this in pursuit of thin, fresh, virgin, marginally protectable ice just ahead of the pack.

     I ended up rolling my ankle and tearing some ligaments off on the second day of a fifty day trip. In a parking lot of all places. So far so good, things usually have to go so wrong that plans take a drastic change of direction a few times before November is over. It seems we are right on track. I think that long climbing trips help build our character by breaking us down to the point we let go. The whole point is: you’re spending time with the people you choose to, and want to learn more about and become more connected with. Two weeks laid up icing and elevating and we were right back on track.

    Typically I find my partners and I share similar characteristics, as well as similar goals; all in it to push our-selves without taking it too far. Knowing and pushing past our limits, while being comfortable in the alpine. Your partners are what make climbing interesting and fun and also the reason soloing gets boring.

    Travis McAlpine is the most fired-up future hard man you could ever meet, worthy of a story himself, and surely the topic of many stories yet to unfold. With the motivation of an Iron Horse, most spend their day just trying to keep up. Travis often pushes on with wet boots in a one-piece suit from the eighties, happy as a clam. He is our rope gun, with a handful of screws, an anorexic rock rack, 2 spectres, some KBs and a McAlpine we were bound to get into it.

    Zach Clanton, an aspiring alpinist and professional photographer from the land of Honey Boo Boo and confederate flags would prove to be a crucial link in our team. Earlier this year, Zach threw caution to the wind to solidify his career as a photographer by moving to Alaska and living in his Honda Element all winter long. Super motivated at 25 years old, Zach put it all on the line to pursue his passion. This kind of motivation is a rare commodity in today's comfort driven world. Having just returned from an expedition in the Arctic to climb ice, Zach was fired up to go climb anything frozen.

    We decided to head out to the Nabesna valley, rock star style, due to Travis’s work obligations. Leaving Girdwood at 9:00 PM we drove through the night only to arrive in camp and have more work ahead of us, pitching camp. Zack's “shoebox” or Honda home was the bottleneck in our operation. With two front seats and a custom bed, one person had to lay in the back for the drive. The bed would end up breaking before the trip was over. We ended up in Nabesna with a slim selection of amenities and by day two we moved into a lavatory. From cooking to hanging out the bathroom turned into our sanctuary overnight when the temps dipped to -17 Fahrenheit. By the end of our trip the voles were so full that we could pick them up to show them the door.

     Its funny how during the period of breakdown denial sets in, then you let go and succumb to your situation and persevere. One comment Zack made stands out when I think of this “When we first came in here I didn’t want to touch anything, now we have gloves hanging on the toilet bar and it’s comfortable in here!”  Climbing exemplifies the concept of learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I have to admit I have eaten in a bathroom before, but this was another level of dirt-bagging.

    There are only two roads leading into the Wrangell- St. Elias, which is hard to believe considering the park is the size of Switzerland. The state is so vast that climbing is most accessible via bicycle, skis, packraft, snowmobile or plane. A logistical nightmare to some ends up being the spark that starts the fire for others.

    Climbing in Nabesna is not much of a logistical nightmare, just far, far away from a hospital. It is a large open river valley engulfed by mountains, chock full of Moose, Caribou and Grizzlies. Early season climbing here is unique to say the least. With 165 different species of moss, the frozen turf approaches seem surreal. Early mornings start with a stroll through parting mist and fog, hopping from shaggy blob to blob like a scene from a Dr. Seuss book.

    In our four days in the Valley we took a day to do recon and realized the classics must be classics for a reason. We warmed up on The Corridor; a long fun WI 3 with huge smiles, singing songs and soloing. Eight rappels led us back to the frozen turf word.

    With that out of the way we focused on Spring Fling, a ridiculously nice thin ice streak that lasts for 1400’. Which climbed much better then it looked, and again it looked amazing. Skinny flows in a narrow slot couloir with an incredible view of the valley floor below. On the seventh pitch I yelled, “oh HELL ya!” in a red neck accent, right after Zach got pounded with spin drift. This left us laughing for a while.

    Threads, chock stones and boulders frozen in the creek made the rappel pretty touchy especially in the dark as a three man team, but in the end it went great.  We also ended up being more cautious about not running into any Bear or Moose on the walk out. A drive that lasted into the early morning led us back to Girdwood, Satisfied, but ready for more frozen water.   

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