In a sport where the first rule is “don’t fall”, and warm spring conditions melting out the already small threads of my last ice screw which was at my feet, I panicked. A violent jerk and my ice axe which had been stuck for the last few minutes was free and instantaneously connected with my face. Lucky for me, I have a hammer instead of a sharp adze on the back of my axe as the adze could very easily have scooped out my eyeball. The force of the blow nearly sent me hurtling off the frozen waterfall, but adrenalin kept my left hand gripping my other solidly planted axe and helped me finish off the pitch despite the constant flow of blood clouding the vision in my right eye.
Todays mood was lighter though as I watched my climbing partner Rob holding the tops of garbage bags at his knees moving his legs like a puppeteer. I followed in similar fashion as we gingerly made our way over rocks worn smooth from millennia of cold rushing water. Reaching the opposite shore without any breaches of plastic, we stashed our river crossing kit and made our way up what looked like a straight forward slope towards the string of frozen waterfalls perched on the canyon walls.
200 meters up the slope, the nerves were firing on high alert once again as the grade steepened and the frozen scree slope shed its top layer under the weight of every step. After an hour of ball bearings and exposed, tenuous steps, we reached the first pitch of ice. The clear sunny days of a melt / freeze cycle had taken its toll on the ice which nowhad a sunbaked whiteness and was rotten and brittle.
The first pitch was moderate, so Rob started up, sending dinner platter sized slabs of ice with each hollow thud of his axe crashing onto the frozen ground below. The position was incredible. Sharp craggy peaks sparsely treed with ancient ponderosa pines began to poke out above the ochre canyon walls which, almost sheer, ended in the ultramarine river below. The first rays of sun felt good on my face, until the whizzing started.
It is a sound all too familiar to a mountaineer and one that without fail sends ball shrinking chills deep within. The rays of sun which created such calm, simple enjoyment have also been melting the ice above, releasing sharp projectiles once frozen in purgatory. Caught between the urge to look up and the knowledge that tied into my anchor, I can only move less than a meter side to side, I tuck my body as small as possible underneath my helmet away from the direction of the noise. The futility is laughable as the rock has generally shot past by the time you’ve heard it. As the morning heats up, the rocks come quicker, but not so frequently for us to turn back while sheltered belays are plentiful.
As Rob and I swap leads up the canyon wall, I ponder why we’re up here at all. Ice climbing is cold, wet, scary, dangerous, and very fickle on the coast, but with every solid swing of my ice axe biting into firm, frozen works of art perched high up on a forgotten canyon wall, the question remains unanswered. But this is pretty freakin’ cool.
- March 2008