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Scaring Myself Stiff
If Your Favorite Sport Isn't Happening, Try Something New

Dave Swanwick
As I was walking up the riverbed, en route to a glacial cave that would lead us to an 1800ft multi-pitched grade III ice route, I started to wonder whether or not this was a good idea. I was planning on leading a multi-pitched route on my fifth day of ice climbing with a partner who was on his second day out (the first being the day before with me). Was I insane or just getting a little stir crazy waiting for snow?

With the lack of snow here in Colorado, one is forced to create new ways to get the adrenaline flowing. Some friends hiked up this weekend to ski a 50-foot stretch of snow 10 times. Whoopee!?!?! No thanks.

"I began to think about the consequences of a lead fall way out here. Not only the pain of falling, but the bummer of hypothermia and a probable all night ordeal..." — Dave Swanwick

I have been wanting to ice climb for years, but the skiing has always been too good and I will always choose skiing over other winter sports. I have been out a few times and played around, but I have never committed the energy to pursue the sport. Finally, we have a winter that is conducive to getting me out on the ice.

There are two elements to taking part in any sport: the desire and the action. For the most part my crampons have nestled in their bag, my Black Prophets (ice tools) have collected dust on a shelf and my ice screws have been hanging in my gear closet. They get broken out a few times a year to be used as anchors on a ski descent or just to play around on and practice with. Over the past two weeks I decided to get after it. I had the gear ready and waiting. The hard part now was to find a partner.

Who was I going to go with? All of my friends who climb have partners and my summer rock climbing partner is a school teacher and therefore can't take time off in the winter. The only person I could rally (with much persuasion) was my longtime buddy, Chris Gray. The only problem being that Chris doesn't have the gear and had never ice climbed. But after heading out twice by myself, I figured a partner with no experience, with whom I would have fun with and who could haul my injured carcass to safety, was better than no partner at all. Chris rented some Scarpas, two Black Prophets and either owned or borrowed the rest of the gear.

Up the riverbed
So there we were heading up the riverbed to the ice, my Alpamayo mountaineering axe keeping me from falling over on the slick logs and multiple river crossings. Chris was wondering what we were in for and I was wondering if I had gone off the deep end. We had a great day with no incidents the day before, which had boosted my confidence and got us both stoked to go out again. My friends, Alan Bernholtz (runs the local guiding service) and Ian the Aussie (the mentor for many local climbers), told us about the spot we were headed to. With their input I figured we could handle it.

At the end of the hour-long approach we reached the ice cave. The cave was amazing in itself. We took a few shots, but we didn't hang out for long, as we were anxious to get up on the route. The first few steps were easy, 10-foot pitches with 50 feet of flat, deep powder in between. Chris took the lead until the first real pitch.

"Even when your favorite sport is not happening, get out and try something new..."
The first pitch was mellow, 60-degree ice and thus a great warm-up. The second pitch was a full rope length with three vertical sections in it, which got the juices flowing, but was not too hard. The third pitch was where the real fun started. Tons of vertical and variable ice. I started getting gripped on this section. I began to think about the consequences of a lead fall way out here. Not only the pain of falling, but the bummer of hypothermia and a probable all-night ordeal. Time to focus.

I put a screw in early. It went in well and I felt confident it would hold, but the next screw I put in, I had a hard time with. There was a lot of crappy ice and I couldn't find a good spot in which to put it. Finally, I got it into some good ice, but as I was done screwing it in, the whole plate cracked and changed color. The piece held my weight, but I didn't think it would hold a lead fall. My calves were starting to flame out, and I decided I would be better off going for it than trying to get a better piece in. I made the next section easily, but the exposure had me pumped up. I made the next belay point, fixed an anchor, put on my Hard Corps Puff Daddy down coat and yelled to Chris, "on belay!" Time to cool down and reflect on the beauty of the day. The canyon was dark, but the opposing face was basking in a glorious glow. It is amazing how fear tunes your senses and makes you appreciate life and beauty in the world.

We cleared the next two 10-foot steps with Chris leading. The top of the ridge was just 50 feet above us. It was 2:30pm. We had the choice of walking up the snow field or climbing the 35-foot ice wall on our right. We both had energy left, so Chris free-soloed the 60-degree section on the left and I figured I would go for the vertical part.

Belay slave
I went up 10 feet and convinced myself I was being an idiot to attempt this face at this time of day, so I downclimbed. But once at the bottom, I was so pissed at myself for not going for it that I just started climbing. At 20 feet, the ice was really variable, and again I was questioning my decision, but at this point I was better off going up than down.

I kept going and then the ice broke off a foot deep in front of my feet. I was holding on with both tools and swinging my feet trying to get purchase. The ice was too overhung, so I had to do a pull-up with both arms and get my feet up to where my knees had been. Meanwhile, Chris, who was at the top, could only see my head and was chatting away about what a great route it was or something (yada yada yada). Too scared to say anything, yet screaming inside my head for him to shut up, I kept climbing and made the top a few seconds later. Once I had made it, I was so elated I just didn't care enough to explain to Chris I hadn't heard a word he'd said.

The whole way down we talked about what an amazing experience that was and how if it had snowed more this fall, we probably would have skied rather than having the day we had just had.

So even when your favorite sport is not happening, get out and try something new. You might just surprise yourself.

Dave Swanwick, MountainZone.com Correspondent


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