Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Blue Light Special

Though I had spent most of the past week in a benadryl and illness induced coma, the high pressure system and a couple motivated partners spurred me to consciousness.  Though I ended up drafting on my partners more than usual (especial at camp) still manage to lead a couple solid blocks of leads and together we completed a first winter ascent on a big route in good style.  Surprisingly everything went to plan.  We made it to the bivouac on day one with minimal night climbing, made it to the summit and back down to our packs in the daylight, even the snowmobile ran on our trip out!

Our line followed the buttress between the two prominent couloir systems

Jens has to be the most knowledgeable person for the Stuart Range.  He claims something like 180+ trips into the range... I thought I was bored of the area after maybe 18 trips! Unfortunately the line was nearly devoid of climbable ice being mostly comprised of frozen turf, snowy rock and icy cracks.  It wasn't dry enough to take off the crampons or even holster the tools for a pitch nor was it icy enough to prevent complete dulling of those points.  A small price to pay... gear is meant to be used after all.

The Blue Light Special 
Me scraping up the lower buttress on day one
We climbed in blocks of 2-4 pitches depending on terrain.  On the first day Jens and I both lead a three pitch block which brought us to a rappel and a short traversing pitch to the narrow bivouac ledge.  There is nothing I love more than an alpine bivy where you have to guy the tent to keep it from rolling off a cliff and stay tied in for the entire night... sleeping with a helmet on gives you bonus points.

Pretty awesome exposure on day two... the void looking right back...
 Colin lead out on day two.  His block had some amazing exposure.  I mentioned to Colin that it was like looking into the void, then realizing it was staring back at you (Nietzsche?).  Jens with his vast area experience knew every turn of the upper ridge and ended up taking another block with long simul-climbing sections.  I took the final block which culminated in a complex pitch to the windy summit anchor.
Jens negotiating the hurricane winds at the summit
It's pretty rare that an alpine climb works out... but this one did in essentially every aspect.  Colin even made it to his party in Seattle on day two!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The NW Ice Cycle

Just some more local ice that nobody is getting after...

The NW Ice Cycle
Will Gadd made up a Rockies Ice Cycle for his GravSports webpage.  Though ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies is magnitudes greater than the NW, I’ve created the NW Ice Cycle (hint, there is a lot of driving).  As a NW based ice climber I’ve hunted for ice with varying success and still managed to rack up 30-40 days each season.  Though I would never advise that anyone both be an ice climber and live in the NW but if necessary hopefully this will help you enjoy a long season and progress as an ice climber.
There just isn’t a lot of ice in the NW.  Though there are plenty of climbers who rack up double digit days climbing only in the NW you will spend a lot of low quality days on mediocre climbs without sustained difficulties.  If you want to increase the difficulty of what you’re climbing each season you need to climb what we do have: rock.  Establish a drytooling crag on some low quality crag to get used to climbing with your tools and crampons as well as developing some sport specific strengths and skills.
Summer:  Enjoy the good weather and climb lots of rock.  Your rock training will translate to ice skills once it gets cold.  True prophets of the sport will develop a local mixed crag where they can train in the fall and winter when there is no local climbable ice, or when schedule dictates a quick session.
Late Summer/Early Fall:  If you’re keen the serac climbing is in good shape this time of year.    Serac climbing is pretty mundane so most climbers will (should) opt for some crisp fall rock climbing.  If you have a local drytooling crag this is a great time to get a session or two.  If you get comfortable climbing with tools and crampons now, it won’t feel awkward when the early season ice forms.  Regardless, start doing some pull-ups.
October:  There is always a window for early season alpine ice in October in the NW.  Despite the message boards, I have climbed routes in excellent condition when everyone says that “nothing is in.”  Look for high elevation routes (Colfax, etc.) and go for it, there almost always in by mid-month.  This is also an awesome time to head to the Rockies.  If you get there before the snow starts dumping you can climb alpine on the Icefields Parkway or hit one of the many alpine-esque ice routes around Canmore.  Distant areas like the Sphynx in Montana or the Beartooths in Wyoming can be great now too.
November:  This is a month to travel.  Get as many days as you can, that way you’ll be honed when the climbs come in at home.  Bozeman, Cody and Banff should all be in condition by now.  The weather is probably too poor to climb high elevation ice in the NW and there won’t be any low elevation ice.  If atypical weather occurs there will be ice at elevation in the NW and it needs to be climbed.  Between trips you could be climbing at your local mixed crag if you bothered to make one over the summer.  Since you probably didn’t you’re like 98% of NW climbers and are watching the boards religiously while more inspired climbers have already racked up 10+ days.
December - February:  This is basically the  ice season in the NW.  It varies year to year but if you know where and when to climb you can climb almost every weekend these months.  If you get a strong arctic front it is really easy to find local climbs because everything is in on the West side.  Watch the telemetry and look for areas like Leavenworth, Banks Lake and Vantage when the East side is cold but its wet everywhere else.  Strobach Mountain is the best ice climbing in Washington.  In fact, if you consider the Motherload crag it is probably one of the best in North America.  I’ve climbed extensively from Banff, Cody, Colorado, Utah, California and New England and the only crags better than Strobach are Lake Willoughby, VT, the Stanley Headwall, BC and the Trophy Wall, AB.  It’s that good.  In all my trips to Strobach I’ve never even seen another climber, by far the most underused resource in Washington.  If there isn’t a lot of ice formed or it’s a bit warm try climbing the mixed lines on Icicle Creek Road.  It’s Little Bavaria’s answer to Scottish climbing and there are probably 300+ lines along the road that are only touched by a handful of climbers.
March:  Time to travel again.  Banff in March is amazing.  The days are long, the temperatures are moderate, the climbs are fat and the snow has settled.  Take a week because you will have the place to yourself.  Everyone is tired of ice from the winter, but because you’re from the PNW and haven’t seen any ice so far you’ll be stoked and alone on the climbs.  This is a great time to be rewarded for a season of poor conditions and hunting for ice.  Though there are exceptions, in general, the days are too long for climbs to form in the NW but alpine routes are possible and should be considered if conditions permit. 
April-Early Summer:  The ice sticks around for a long time in the alpine.  I know of routes like the NW Couloir of Eldorado getting climbed in July as fat ice routes.  There is no reason that the start of rock season should indicate the end of NW ice climbing.  There are hundreds of fat alpine ice routes waiting for a willing climber who has an imagination (and a bookmark of the Scurlock photo-gallery).