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.
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.
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.