Ice Climbing

You might be surprised to find that ice climbing is a very new sport. Though people have been climbing on glaciers and ice slopes for centuries, the discipline of “ice climbing” – wherein people seek out and climb vertical waterfalls – only developed in the late-60s. Jeff Lowe, Yvon Chouinard and a small crew of legends worked together to develop the tools and techniques necessary to ascend vertical ice. In so doing they opened up an entirely new world of possibility in climbing, allowing people to see options in places that had previously been written off as unclimbable.

Until the 1960s, ice axes were long-shafted posts designed to be plunged into snow for protection. The first intrepid mountaineers to attempt the great summits of the Alps in the mid-nineteenth century carried long wooden “Alpenstocks,” sometimes up to six feet long that offered protection, balance and assistance. The length of the axes steadily shortened over the next century as crampon design also improved, and by the early 1960s climbers were generally wearing 12-pointed crampons with two durable front points and carrying a wooden-shafted axe about 80 cm long. In 1969 Chouinard came up with the first shortened ice tools with curved picks, paving the way for climbers like Lowe and himself to look anew at features previously thought unclimbable.

Dakota Jones - Stairway to Heaven - near

Dakota climbing Stairway to Heaven.

The first major ice climb done in North America, the one that heralded in the new era of climbing vertical ice, was done in Telluride in 1974. Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss walked up to Bridalveil Falls – a 365-foot pillar of ice (that Hardrockers, incidentally, now run right past in the summer when it is free-flowing water) – and resolved to climb it without aid. They succeeded, pushing past the frontiers of possibility and proving the capabilities of Chouinard’s new tools. Since then the technique has moved to the big mountains, allowing for extremely technical ascents all over the world, and even morphed into a sport of its own. People now compete in ice climbing competitions that feature a mixture of ice, rock and artificial walls, all of which are climbed with crampons and ice tools. For anyone looking to learn about the sport of ice climbing, the Ouray Ice Festival is the best place to look.

Held at Ouray’s famous Ice Park in early January each year, the Ice Festival is the event bringing ice climbers from all disciplines together for a weekend. Some people are competition ice climbers, some are dry-toolers, some are alpinists, but most are a combination of those and more: rock climbers, runners, skiers, readers, philosophers. In the morning you can watch people compete on steep, discontinuous ice and overhanging rock on a 120-foot wall, and in the evening you can watch presentations on climbing in places as disparate as Patagonia, Alaska, the Himalaya or Antarctica. In short, the Ice Fest is to climbers what races are to runners – a meeting-point, a center of focus for people with similar interests to get to know each other and talk about what they love most. Just like in running, everybody at the Ice Fest knows each other, knows what everybody has been doing and can’t wait to hear about what’s next. The competition may be one of the major ice climbing challenges in the world, but the real value of the Ouray Ice Festival lies in the way it brings people together.

Dakota Jones - Stairway to Heaven - far

Dakota climbing Stairway to Heaven.

I was at Ice Fest. Or, more accurately, I was around Ice Fest. I didn’t participate in it any more than to finagle a free dinner from Mountain Hardwear and go to the after-party on Saturday night. In truth, I was in the San Juans to climb. Brian Stefanovic and I spent the weekend camping in the mountains and climbing a ton. By the Tuesday following Ice Fest we had climbed for four out of the past five days, and put up one of the moderate classics in the area – Stairway to Heaven. We started by remembering our technique in the Ice Park and then headed to the mountains, climbing several waterfalls in the area, mostly above Silverton. And why? Why would I spend my time sleeping in my truck in -18F weather and climbing steep ice when other athletes are skiing like 4,000 meters of vertical each day? Because I want to climb big mountains.

I may never be the athlete that some are, but my priorities are different. While others work on developing their high-end fitness by running or skiing up and down huge mountains every day, I prefer to work on my technical climbing ability. To me, the ultimate goal is to climb big mountains in clean style. For those readers who may not understand the varied thoughts and opinions on what “clean style” means, basically, style is in the eye of the beholder. To me, clean style means fast, efficient and safe. It means no littering, no aid climbing and no shortcuts. It is authentic and genuine, proud and principled. Clean style is the climbing evocation of the way I want to live my life. To become the climber, athlete and, ultimately, person I want to be, I must focus first on the basics. Hence, ice climbing.

When I climbed the Innominata Ridge with Kilian last September, we climbed a classic route on Mont Blanc in a totally new style. Of course, he went back the following week and crushed our time, running our whole route plus about twenty kilometers two and a half hours faster. But the point is that we climbed a big mountain by a technical route in clean style. I walked away from that hungry for more. More mountains, more vertical, more climbing, more technical. But getting to that point requires caution.

Technical climbing can be dangerous, and the dangers are multiplied when the climber tries to go fast. I fear the 21st century push for records will lead some people to move unroped into life-threatening terrain, people who have been carried away with the cachet of setting records and who are not prepared for the difficulties they will encounter. I fear that good people will die unnecessarily. The line between ambition and recklessness is fine, and only common sense, experience and humility guard its crossing. For me, the rope is a trusted friend, one whom I don’t intend to forsake even as my climbing skills progress. Though I love the mountains dearly, I don’t want to die in them, and certainly not when I am twenty-two years old. That is why I have been climbing ice in the San Juans, so that when I finally venture to the big mountains I may be prepared.

The future is exciting. Mountain athletes now have the fitness, the access and the ability to accomplish feats never before dreamed possible. I want to be able to move through the mountains like never before, combining my running fitness with technical climbing skills to revolutionize mountain sports in the same way that Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss revolutionized climbing in the 1970s. But I’m willing to take my time and have fun in the learning process. Because the real reason I climb is not to revolutionize the sport, or break records, but to enjoy it. Real progress comes from embracing the challenges of a worthwhile pursuit, and investing lots of time and energy in that pursuit. Right now I’m having more fun climbing ice than I have had in a long time, and I can’t wait to see what I get to do next. But I’m in no hurry to get there.

There are 20 comments

  1. Nick Goodall

    You truly do make it sound awesome! It's nice to know that you're not there for records or medals, but for personal joy and achievement, I admire that.

    I wish you the best of luck with the sport, and I'm sure your enthusiasm and love for it will serve you well. I'm not sure it's something that I'll be venturing into, but maybe sometime I'll have a go, it seems like quite a challenge!

  2. Sniffer

    Any case of the screaming barffies? Nice climb. You ever get a chance to climb with House and Anderson. Skyward Mountaineering is around your neck of the woods.

  3. Art

    Great history lesson and introduction to a somewhat bazaar sport.

    I've ice climbed a bit, but its kind of hard to get serious about ice when you live in a place that is summer 12 months a year, plus, big rock walls are safer :-)

  4. Max

    The modern approach to high speed technical alpinism is scary like that. While speed is indeed protection in its own right, things go wrong. And in such mountains things can only really go wrong once. Maybe when this fad of speed records passes we can concentrate on how to protect ourselves at the speeds we blaze through alpine terrain?

  5. T.S.

    I've been keen to keep an eye on Jones's progress in climbing ever since I he hinted that he, a truly top-level mountain runner, was planning to put that aerobic capacity to use in the technical-climbing arena. It's an uncommon background for an alpinist to have. His results will undoubtedly be exciting because that sort of capacity generally translates into climbers going faster (and thus longer, often in the sorts of single-push efforts that can be done in a "clean" way). However, anecdotal evidence suggests that while he's primed to succeed on many "big mountains," many routes demand technical rock and ice prowess more than they demand the endurance of an ultra-runner. A few rambling words on that…

    Take a look at some of the routes in the Ruth Gorge, where Jones is planning to go in April: the Cobra Pillar, the Ham and Eggs couloir, and Blood From the Stone. The Cobra Pillar is a super-classic rock route (with an approach and finish on snow) that goes at VI 5.10+ A1 (I believe – correct me if I'm wrong on that). Even if Jones is a 5.11 or 5.12 trad climber and competent aid-er (I'm guessing), a fast ascent of the Pillar is not dependent on his redpoint grade, or his astounding speed going up, say, Grant-Swamp Pass or the opening climb at Transvulcania. Zack Smith and Renan Ozturk climbed the Cobra Pillar in 12 hours a few years ago, and although both are very, very strong guys, their speed was a product of their confidence with "Yosemite-style" techniques like short-fixing and block leading. Second, Ham and Eggs. Another ultra-classic, first put up by a team that included Jon Krakauer (of authorial fame). An ice and mixed gully with a bunch of steep and vertical ice – a medium on which Jones is well-practiced and clearly skilled. But, like the Cobra Pillar, speed on a route like Ham and Eggs is contingent on Jones and his partner having practice with long winter routes.

    Third, Blood From the Stone – someone mentioned Ueli Steck, who put up the route about a decade ago with Sean Easton. Blood from the Stone is an incomprehensibly hard route – if you need a visual, Easton wrote an article for the American Alpine Journal that one can download online easily. The route (in its original condition) follows a lot of thin ice smears, verglas, and mixed climbing up to M8 – which is some of the hardest alpine mixed anywhere in the world. On his blog, Colin Haley (who is kind of like Jones's analogue in the climbing world – he started young; he's absurdly talented and passionate, bold, taking the sport by storm) said that Easton and Steck's route was "the best route ever climbed in Alaska." Steck led a lot of the hard, scary, steep pitches (according to the AAJ article) as well as the M8 mixed section – made possible because, although he is astoundingly aerobically fit, that fitness is an equal counterpart to his world-class skills on steep ice and mixed terrain.

    It is also worth noting, here, the intersection of Jones's plaudit-worthy discussion of climbing ethics and climbing safety with the Easton/Steck story. Steck, coming from the European school of alpinism which values the creation of hard, yet repeatable routes, while Americans are generally more inclined to praise those who retreat from a route for ethical reasons rather than climb it using siege-style techniques or apparatus. Hence, up on the east face of Mount Dickey, Steck drilled a protection bolt on a mixed pitch rather than face a runout on difficult terrain covered in unconsolidated snow. Is that clean? In the article, Sean Easton doesn't care – it's one bolt and it kept his partner safe. But is that clean in Dakota Jones's eyes? Would he punch it, without any protection in? Or would that fall more to the side of being unsafe, in his eyes? It's an interesting conundrum, and this is the exact thing that has caused more debate, vituperation, and unfriendly internet-posting and morass-creating in the climbing community than anything else.

    Jones's background would perhaps point to a different, even more deified alpinist – this one more august than Steck – Reinhold Messner. Messner, by all accounts a great technical climber with many first ascents on rock and ice in the Alps and the Dolomites to his name, is nevertheless remembered mostly for his less-technical routes, such as his oxygen-less solo ascent of Mt. Everest. Much of Messner's indefatigable strength at altitude is credited to his training at lower elevations; in one of his books he tells of training in northern Italy and ascending 4,000 or more feet on foot in an hour. Even by the standards of a dedicated runner, this seems impressive (or maybe I'm just slow), and the Dakota Joneses, Anton Krupickas, and Kilian Jornets of the world can definitely move faster than even him (didn't Krupicka climb the first 6000 feet in 1:08 or something like that at Cavalls del Vent?). Longer routes that have fewer technical difficulties (in the Alaska Range, stuff like the Sultana Ridge on Foraker, the West Rib (and other ridge and buttress routes) on Denali, and slightly more technical routes like the Cassin Ridge or Washburn Wall on Mt. Huntington) are plum for a speedy ascent by Jones and company. Moreover, the possibilities for applying speed tactics (that would mesh well with Jones's aerobic capacity and endurance, q.v. the Messner example) to speed takedowns of super-hard routes like the Slovak Direct (and/or the associated Isis Face link-up), Dracula, or the Infinite Spur (though Steve House and Rolo Garibotti have set a dang high bar on that) are more or less endless. In Mark Twight's account of the 60-hour Slovak Direct ascent in 2000 he describes postholing up the final 3500 feet (from 16,500 ft. to 20,000) when his teammates are exhausted from the lower 5500 feet of technical ice and mixed – such work played a major role in the speed of the ascent. A team composed of people like Colin Haley, Jon Walsh, or Josh Wharton climbing with Dakota Jones – two to lead the 95 degree ice and M-hard for many an hour, and then Jones to eat up everything else – would tear it up in Alaska, or anywhere for that matter.

    Bravo to what Dakota is doing: Twight would be happy. He might also say, Speed is Safety :)

    From a mere bystander's perspective, it's extremely excited. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mr. Jones. And thanks to Bryon for publishing this sort of content, although it's not strictly ultrarunning-related.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      T.S.,

      Comment-of-the-year award potential here. :) Thanks for taking the time to put such a detailed and thoughtful addition to Dakota's "conversation" together. *This* is why I love the Internets.

    2. Dakota

      T.S.

      Wow. Thank you. I usually make a point to avoid commenting on my own articles, for the simple reason that if I've written my article well, I have nothing left to say. But your comment is kind and thought-provoking and worth responding to.

      First, I would like to point out that my abilities are far below those of alpinists like Colin Haley, Rolo, Reinhold Messner and Ueli Steck. I even got to climb with Ueli last fall and got completely shut down on his warmup route. I appreciate you comparing me to those guys, but the reality is that I am nowhere near their level right now.

      Second, I believe you are very right about the speed vs. technical point. In my eyes the reason runners are going to be able to go faster on big mountains than previous climbers is because they can link the technical sections faster. We can ascend trails and glaciers really fast, but when the climbing gets super hard the skill set changes. I could be the fittest guy in ultrarunning but that wouldn't necessarily make me climb 5.12 or M8 faster. To move fast on hyper-technical terrain one needs hyper-technical skills, hence my point about trying to improve my ice technique. I have a lot of running fitness, and now I'm willing to take a step back and start at the bottom of the climbing fitness ladder. Perhaps I could set records by teaming up with a super strong climber, but I don't want to just jug all the hard pitches.

      Third, I have no opinion on Ueli Steck placing a bolt on Blood From the Stone. I wasn't there, I don't know the conditions and I can't climb anywhere near that hard. All I know is that Ueli and Sean Easton put up one of the most impressive routes I have ever heard of, and they only placed one bolt. In the grand scheme of things, that doesn't seem like a big deal. Perhaps you should only be allowed to have an opinion on that bolt if you are good enough to get so close that you can actually see it. Besides, I don't think placing a bolt is exactly easy. He either hammered it in or carried a big-ass drill up the mountain, and neither option sounds very appealing when you're runout on a 5,000 ft. alpine face. In the end, they put up a new route on the east face of Mt. Dickey and returned without getting hurt. Corey Richards ended his talk at Ice Fest this year with the following list of priorities: 1) Return home, 2) Return home friends, and 3) Return home successful. That resonates very deeply with me, and Blood From the Stone was all three.

      Finally, I'm going to Alaska to climb, not to set records. While I would be lying if I said I didn't have grand ambitions of great success, I foremost want to experience the Alaska Range and all its vagaries. Being amongst the glaciers, the mountains and the sheer momentous scale of the place are the main goals of the trip. I hope someday to do great things there, but I always want to return home, and I believe the best way to do that is to stay small in a big place.

      Thank you again for your great comment. I hope to hear more from you in the future,

      Dakota

  6. adam

    " I foremost want to experience the Alaska Range and all its vagaries."

    Then hike into your climbs in the range. It's way better that way!

    2nd the advice to get with skyward! Those guys will teach you up right

  7. Rod

    One thing nobody mentions as part of the tranferrable skill set from ultrarunning to alpinism is the ability to suffer with equanimity. This allows good decisions.

  8. Ben Clark

    Mr. Jones has a great future ahead of him. I recently came to ultra running as a veteran of 14 expeditions in the Himalayas, 3 in Alaska and many more worldwide with first ascents in alpine or "clean" style as well skiing first descents. I came looking for my next challenges as a mountaineer-distance and more vertical! Ultra runners are an awesome and inspiring community from which to learn about challenges and how to face them, I feel lucky there are role models in the US like Dakota and Krupicka, Grant, who are crossing over into the alpine realm safely.

    For more on Bridal Veil falls referenced in Dakotas article above, here is a video from a few years back–it's a doozy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_femb-bxSQ

  9. mc

    I just got my copy of A Fine Line in the mail today and saw bonus footage of you and kilian sumiting Innominata. It was amazing to see and get your perspective on this new out look of mountain climbing.

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