My compatriots and I drove up to Lee Vining on the eastern side of Yosemite after work on Friday in rush hour traffic, which put us into LV after midnight. We tried to bribe the janitor at Schat's bakery in Bishop for a loaf of jalapeño cheese bread. She said she'd totally do it, but the place was bugged. There were surveillance cameras everywhere. Guess we weren't the only ones trying to bribe for bread. Tim even asked the hotel staff if he could pay an employee to pick it up on their way to work. They didn't feel his request warranted a response.
You are going to want to know who participated in this endeavor. I do this for every expedition...eh vacation.. I go on, so if we ever travel together I will root out your weakness. It's like survivor.
Left to right: Leang, Tim, James and me
From: Socal, east side
Occupation: Freelance marketing
Strengths: The loudest laugh, cry, scream. We will never be eaten by bears.
Weakness: She's invincible, but requires a clean bathroom.
From: New England by way of "stay weird" Santa Cruz
Occupation: Architectural design models
Strengths: A farmer's market in his backpack, and safety checks. We wont fall off the mountain and die, at least on Tim's watch, and we will always have food. Tim is pretty indispensable.
Weakness: He'd be the first to try the wild "berries"
From: Haystack, the hard streets of the Bay Area.
Occupation: IT for financial firm
Strengths: Super athlete. Marathons, then hiking, then climbing, then five meals. Usually his friends only make it to the five meals and waddle home.
Weakness: Is his dark humor actually humor?
From: Southern VA
Occupation: Artist for hire, until my blog takes off, haha. Oh you mean I have to write something.
Strengths: Resourcefulness and a good car DJ
Weakness: Questionable gear from the thrift store
I don't even like the cold. But climbing out of bed in the am, packing a sandwich, a backpack full of gear and then brewing a hot cup of tea to take out into the cold, hearkens back to original explorers.
Wilco is still very good for driving as the sun rises. June Lake is crystallized in the early morning. Everything looks like it has been etched on glass. The mountains are like magnets for me; I feel instantly aligned and recharged and even in my morning grog, I feel good. Really good.
Clipping carabiners everywhere, and the parade of boots.
We met up at a rundown chateau near the closed ski resort. The floor was littered with heavy boots, crampons and all of the other gear from Sierra Mountain Guides. Our two pros were polar opposite. Jed was serious and quiet, earnest and a little wan. Unlike Lil Wayne. Viren was lively and cheesy with a big grin, and the densest beard I've ever seen. He spoke with a surfer's drawl. "Hey guy, yeaaah just go on and grab some boooots and see what feeel goood. Awesome."
Ice Climbing 101: The approach sucks. They say it's par for the course. To find the back country waterfalls, you have to work for it. June Mountain's Horsetail Falls aren't exactly great ice climbing from what we heard from the locals, but it's a good place to learn, because they are "gentle" i.e. not completely vertical.
We had to climb an endless old Edison cargo track to get to it. Worked off the breakfast before we even got to the falls.
Caroline trucking it uphill. Viren is too cool.
These gigantic plastic boots
waitttt... thought the water was supposed to be frozen...
crampons about to make this ice game tip in my favor
fascinating how the water looked like it stopped in time
Ice axes, yep that means game time.
Ice Climbing 102: Swing with the wrist, kick with the shins, jab with the toes. You are all set. Go get 'em.
One of my fellow climbers was having a hard time getting her crampons on, so I helped and completely missed Viren leading the climb. I only got back to the wall when he was rappelling, so I missed everything. When he was back down on the ground, he looked around and says who's up? I was inconveniently standing right next to the rope. Nobody was volunteering, and I was awkwardly in position, so I reached down, grabbed the rope and said, "I'll go."
I realized that this was a bad idea about two feet off the ground, but my pride wouldn't let me step off the wall. I had no idea what to do. I was swinging the axe like a javelin and wedging it so deep in the ice that I couldn't get it out. My toes were already numb from kicking the wall. My calves were on fire holding my entire weight on the front two spikes of the crampons. It was definitely going to be a long ride up. I must be doing something wrong; I'm not that out of shape. I felt like I'd been hit by a truck, and I was only 8 feet off the ground. Laughter coming from the bottom.
Back in the chateau, the guides asked why we wanted to ice climb. We went around the circle with the obvious answers, I want to get into mountaineering, I've done it before I'm just rusty, I want to try something new, yadda, yadda.Then one guy said, I want to learn to fall on ice. In hindsight, I think he wanted to learn to self-arrest, as in when you are slipping down a slope, you roll over and drag the ice pick until it digs in and stops you. The guide cut him off and said, you don't want to fall on ice. I've been climbing for 15 years and I've never fallen on ice. You just don't do it. Those words echoed in my ears, as I was clinging to the headwall with all my strength trying to regain enough energy to inch up a little more. Don't fall. The pro says don't, don't fall. Maybe my brain was frozen because I didn't really consider that the rope was coming from above not below.
But I was playing it safe. The pro said it; I wasn't taking any chances. Don't fall. I was hugging the ice like a spider in the shower. My overheating face smudged up against the cold austere surface.
I could be up this in a second without ice. I miss rocks, I was whimpering to myself. Trying to jab the pick in with my left arm which was by the mid point like tossing a noodle at the wall and hoping to make a hole.
"The ice at the top is roooottten and choosssy so yeeeah, the booolt is about fifteeen feeet down." Viren's voice is running through my mind when I get to our anchor maybe a little less that 100 feet up the wall.
Can you see my frozen tears?
I didn't tell anyone about my misery, didn't want to be a kill joy. James was loving it! He popped up on the wall and was back down by the time I put on my jacket. Guess I'm just not made for this. Suck it up and make the best of it.
I went up another short route and was only slightly less tired when I got back to solid, not so solid ground. Did I mention the waterfalls were actually flowing under the snow and ice where we were standing. Apparently it has been too warm this winter, so the face of the falls is all that's really frozen. We could see the water flowing behind the ice on the wall. Talk about a good way to freak out; there was nothing to do but trust that the guides knew when melting ice was too sketchy to climb on.
James has to give up his favorite rock climbing move, the "high step"
Belaying was almost as much work as climbing. The wall was almost a double pitch in rock climbing terms, which means it's way more than a standard rope's length, and it's not vertical, so there was a lot of drag on the rope. (Even though in ice climbing they use a smaller diameter rope to cut down on that problem.) Still to keep the rope tight on the climber was like pulling a cargo truck. It took two of us to keep Leang from sliding down the mountain. All in a day's work.
Leang started coming down with a cold. She was coughing and hacking. I don't even know how she continued to plow through the routes. I know she was miserable. So to put ice on it, the gods of June Mt sent down some snowflakes.
Meanwhile Tim was on the other wall with Jed. His crampon came off off fifty feet up in the air. Instead of yelling "ice" to protect the belayers at the bottom from falling ice chunks, he was yelling "crampons." Watch out for those spikes falling from the sky. It's getting real.
But the pictures make it look good!
Speck in the wind. James is just a speck in the wind.
Ice Climbing 103: All the rock climbers were trying to get fancy on the ice, twisting and finessing their way up the wall. The ice is not amused. It cannot be cajoled like rocks. Number one lesson in ice climbing: it's not so much about creativity or savoir-faire. You are not meant to dance your way up the wall. In ice climbing, the appeal is the zen-like repetition. There are three moves and you repeat them in order, in proportion, in a steady rhythm all of the way up the wall. You make a triangle with your feet and one ice pick at the top. Pick right arm a little higher, stamp both feet in a foot up, side by side, shoulder length apart. Pick left little higher, feet, feet, pick right higher, feet, feet. All. The.Way. Up. Boring? Well that's where the zen comes in. Once your calves and arms aren't in cramping arrest, apparently you find yourself in a state of meditation.. so I'm told.
Can't take us anywhere.
Notes on gear. We were told that the crampons would shred our pants, so we better be cool with that. Pants should be ice and snow resistant. I didn't have any semi-waterproof pants except for my Mountain Hardwear zip-off things. I love those pants; we climbed Kilimanjaro together. No way I was ripping them up. So I took off the bottoms and climbed in the shorts. I was getting weird looks from everyone when I first walked in, but nothing to shred by my ankles and lots of warmth from the knee up. I now highly recommend climbing in shorts.
Ice Climbing 104: There are three levels of gear standard to a climb. The approach, the climb and the belay.
1)You get the hottest when approaching because usually it's a rigorous hike in, so before even taking off it's smart to strip down to the base layer. The idea is to prevent yourself from sweating, which is bane of the mountain, because sweat will cool down to shivers when you stop exerting yourself. Sweat is a no go.
2)The climb is, believe it or not, only moderate exertion, so we keep on a base layer and a jacket. I climbed it Jed's bomber down jacket because he was too hot and not using it.
3)When you are standing around and belaying is what you really have to worry about; that's when the cold seeps in. So to keep all your body heat from dissipating, before you even start to get cold, you suit up. The minute you arrive from the approach and the minute you get off of the climb when you are still warm, you put on everything you have to keep warm. I picture an Inuit layered up with seal blubber and polar bear hides.
The falls from afar. Heading out, time to go stuff our faces with anything remotely edible.
We were so dehydrated, we went to the local watering hole and drank one jug of water after another. The waiter tried to cut us off, but we wouldn't have it.
A lovely German woman named Irene (beside me) was just getting back into climbing after a decade or so. Her old boots had dry rotted and started to crumble apart after getting halfway up the mountain. It was comical; they were breaking apart in big chunks. I gave her my roll of duck tape, and she was able to coat both boots entirely, with the crampons they somehow stayed together until we got to the bottom. I thought it was a great story, the pieces of her boots were like a crumb trail. But she was embarrassed and wouldn't let me take a picture.
Day two the approach is supposed to be easier, but it's not. It's a mad dash over a football field of irregular large rocks, some heavy tickets, snow, ice, and then another miles or so of massive rock obstacles covered in deep snow drifts and ice. It was actually kind of fun, because I like to scramble over rocks, but then you start feeling like a toddler.. are we there yet? are we there yet? We had been out there for about an hour and half and still no sign of a destination.
Rock jumping in big plastic boots is fun
Jed is patiently waiting for the clumsy kids. I'm sure being a guide is swell.
Tim fell waist deep into a snow drift, but we got him out. Legs still intact.
When I saw the wall, my knees started to knock. Are you kidding me? We were looking around for a place to belay, the ice was vertical. Eh where we gonna stand?
I'm learning all kind of things. They put in some bolts and roped in a traverse line, so we could clip in and walk across the ledge on a line. In case we slipped, we'd be caught, awkwardly, yes, but better than sliding down the end of the waterfall. It was precarious, but we got used to it quickly, and soon the ledge looked las safe as a subway platform. And secretly I really liked it, clipping in to get everywhere, reminds me of all the mountaineering books I read, where climbers on Annapurna have to clip in the minute they leave their tent.
Looking at this mound of ice was even more intimidating that yesterday. Yesterday it was like seeing a freeze frame of a waterfall. This looks like just plain ice.
I was thinking about my gut reaction. Danger! Intrinsically ice has always been a cause for absolute alarm, imminent danger, whether it's the patch of ice in the road that will total your car, the icicles in the eaves that will tear up your roof, the spot on the library step that causes the whole city to go into a tailspin over potential lawsuits and old ladies falling, or the ice ramp at the ski resort that gets ever skier coming off the lift.
It's not just inhospitable, it's out to get you. So staring, or glaring rather, at this mound of ice the size of a large building and contemplating going up it, seemed kind of ridiculous. Like the ice is saying back to me, you need a dump truck of salt and a bulldozer to play with me. And I'm saying, well I have this little axe and some spiky shoes, will that do?
Viren led one route and Jed walked around to anchor in the second. Apparently this is a nice location (right outside the Yosemite entrance) you can just hike up to the top and use the bolts already in the rocks, sling rope over the edge down the waterfalls and not have to face the danger of leading the route.
If you are interested in how that works, here's the deal (because I had no clue before I started climbing.) Skip this if you already know.
You always climb with a harness and a rope attached to the loop in the front. Your fall depends on the rope going through a loop somewhere above you or hopefully not too far below you if you are leading.
When you lead a route, that means you go up with nothing to protect you from above. In ice climbing, the leaders carry hollow screws with them. They climb like normal for 10 or 15 feet, balance on a pick and crampons, then screw the bolt in. When it is about six inches into the ice and secure, they clip their rope into it. If they fall at that point, the rope will catch and their belayer at the bottom will hold the rope so it wont slip through the screw.
The danger is that as they climb up they get farther and farther away from the bolt so if they fall, they fall the length of the rope times two all of the way down past the last bolt. So what Jed meant the first day, you don't fall on ice, was in reference to this. If you fall doing this, you will most likely at least break a leg. He's never fallen leading a route. Clearly, you have to be really confident with your movements on the wall to do this.
But once they've lead the route, they set up an anchor at the top which can be two or three screws in the ice with the rope counterbalanced between them all. Sometimes the anchor is an actual bolt in the rock if the route is used a lot. From there, the leader loops the rope into the anchor and comes back down to the bottom.
Now the route is set. Anyone who wants to climb is doing what is called top rope. This means that the protection is above you and anytime you fall, assuming the belayer is doing their job, you will basically stay in the same place. You are kind of just hanging from a rope. As you move up the wall, the belayer keeps the rope relatively tight, so if you slip, you don't actually fall much. Now you can see why my thinking "you don't fall on ice" is silly when you can just hang on the rope at any given time.
Now you know. It's hard to explain verbally. But anyway, I would've been interested in that a couple years ago, so if you are former me reading, hope that helps.
On to the ice!
The first route I went up was rated the hardest, but actually it seemed a little easier because it was almost completely vertical, in some places it was. I seemed to be in the minority in this opinion, but vertical was better. It was more like climbing a ladder and less about hunching over on your toes like a goat.
In some places the ice was really thin and the water was spraying every which way. I tried to ignore the melting icicle I was jabbing holes into and justed trucked on up. Finally I got into a groove and was like okay, this is okay. My fingers and toes were completely numb, but my calves were hanging in there and I only had to stop once or twice. When I did, I didn't cling to the wall in panic. I just yelled down for tension and hung there until I could feel my toes a little bit again.
Irene's got new boots. Photo by Tim.
On my second run, my arms were getting tired, but I was feeling better and better about being on ice. Viren said to try to use the holes already there. I noticed the little notches where other climbers had lodged their ice axes. I started hooking my axe into the tiny ledge. They were remarkably strong for how little they were. I stopped swinging all together and just hooked my way all of the way up the routes. This was pretty sweet, kind of cheating, but I could climb all day even with noodle arms.
Jed's bomber kept me cozy all the way up.
That's the introduction to ice climbing. You know everything I do now. My interest originally was really for mountain climbing up to an altitude where there was snow and ice. I'd never intended to climb frozen waterfalls. That's just crazy haha! But it's pretty liberating to play on something so dangerous. Just have to be really mindful about the ice condition and pray that, until you know personally, at least your guides know when it's too warm or the ice is not safe enough.