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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why You Should Be Careful Ice Climbing After Rain and Warm Temperatures

I went to Poke O Moonshine on Wednesday with Silas Rossi. He'd never been there before, for rock climbing or ice climbing. We figured that we'd get at least a little climbing in despite the less than stellar forecast. As is often the case, the weather forecasters were a bit off, and it rained all night. Instead of snow there was rain, and when we arrived the cliff was running with water. Positive Thinking and the Waterfall wall, which were both in nice early season condition the day before, were decidedly "out". We checked out Neurosis, which was also on it's way "out" but is less steep, so the prospect of it falling off in one piece is much lower.

After bailing from a bolt near the top of the first pitch of Neurosis we returned to our car. While we were over at Neurosis a portion of the Waterfall wall fell off. It was easy to see the missing piece of ice.

Can you see the missing ice? Can you see the continuous fracture snaking it's way across the top? How about the two climbers at the base?

We spotted a party of two toproping the Waterfall, left of where the ice had calved off. We were amazed they were still climbing, as another substantial portion fell off while we were changing into our street clothes. As one of the climbers rappelled, we spotted a continuous fracture in the ice along the top of the Waterfall wall. We stared a bit longer then jumped in the car, heading to the Baxter Mountain Tavern for a late lunch. Just as we were leaving we spotted the party toproping the ice only feet left of the wall that had just fallen. I hope those climbers are ok.

Well, what's the takeaway? Is it that those particular climbers were foolish to be there? Maybe; I know I would not have been there. Is it that all ice climbing is unsafe when the weather is above freezing? That answer is not so simple. Most likely the right answer is going to be based on the specific weather conditions for that day. Like traveling through avalanche terrain when the risk of a slide is not uniformly "low", making decisions about safe ice climbing conditions takes good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience - you have to understand how ice behaves throughout a range of weather conditions if you're going to push your luck.

I felt like I was pushing my luck getting on Neurosis, a climb I've done before that is 2-3 ice grades below my lead limit. I think Silas did too, but we felt pressure to make the day happen because we'd driven a long way. Fortunately, both of us have a lot of winter climbing experience, and understand how ice behaves. Slab ice occasionally collapses. Often it just sits there though, getting compressed toward the ground until it gets so warm that the slab can no longer support itself. Steep ice, especially at places like the Waterfall, where the rock is free of features, supports itself. You cannot climb ice that supports itself in above-freezing weather for very long; this is asking for trouble.

The truth is, we've all been there. We ignore the forecast because it's our day off, or our client's day off if we're a guide. We drive a long way to climb, so we feel pressured to climb even though conditions are not optimal. Maybe we push the day longer than we should after it's been really warm (2 o'clock has always felt like the magic quitting time on warm days). It's never one thing that causes an accident, and myopia is often to blame.

As I've gained experience this decision has gotten easier. Most days, when conditions are like this I throw in the towel. I'll end up drinking coffee or beer somewhere with my climbing partner. Climbing always has and always will be a social activity for me, and the partner is more important than the climb. I've rescheduled guided days, only to watch my client go out with another guide and get hit by ice and take an axe to the face.

I know it's hard to throw in the towel on warm days, but erring on the conservative side is the right thing to do. You only get one chance to screw up that big, and nobody wants that to happen.