Early Season Ice, by Majka Burhardt

Majka is currently on her way to Ethiopia to work on her latest book project, but she prepared this post about getting ready for ice season. And to get you all psyched for the frozen medium, check out this video by Chris Alstrin, featuring Majka and Audrey Gariepy, both Petzl athletes.

There comes a time in every ice climbers fall when they get a whiff of the frozen world. It might come from a weather forecast, an online photo, or an overheard conversation at the bar. However the news breaks, those most prone to addiction respond the fastest. Last year, it happened for me in October in Colorado. I snagged six pitches of early season ice on Pikes Peak and was inspired enough to leave 75-degree weather and go to Canada for the month.

Ice climbing is a disease. It’s some genetic mutation of rational thought. Once you get it, you have it for life. I caught it back in 1996 in the North Cascades. It landed me suiting up in long underwear in the Great White North twelve years later, mid-way through November. Back in ’96, in November, I was rock climbing in Joshua Tree. The decade-plus since has clearly served to only make me more deranged.

I’m a list maker, and when it comes to switching sports for the season I spend quality time with a paper and pen. This time around, my list looked something like this:

  • Sharpen my tools (find my file)
  • Sharpen crampons?
  • Gloves
  • More gloves?
  • Extra long underwear shirt
  • Hot cocoa (in bin in van?)
  • Screws. 8. 10. Do I have 10?
  • Nut Tool (picks!)
  • Bacon

Unfortunately, pork never factors into my rock climbing list—a fact which alone might make ice climbing all the more worth it. The morning of the climb, I checked each item and task down to the last, and even pocketed some extra bacon for lunch. Nevertheless, seven months of thinking about things like chalk bags and multiple pairs of shoes had left me rusty for ice. By the time I left the car, I realized I’d forgotten my favorite basher nuts and one key hex I like to hammer into icy cracks. Next time.

Our climb for the day was Killer Pillar at the Stanley Headwall. It wasn’t, exactly, in condition. But it was in condition enough—i.e. we wanted to climb enough to make it seem reasonable to spend three hours (driving and hiking) to get to a still dripping pillar in 31-degree weather. Ok, fine. In 31-degree weather following a weeklong stint of slightly above freezing temperatures. Later in the season—maybe in February, March—I would not go out on a day like today. But on that day last year, I was hungry to swing my tools.

Here is the thing about early-season-ice-itius. You know you have it bad when you realize, four steps into the snowy hike, that you would be fine if you just did the approach. I actually said that. Out loud. To my partners. 

I’d spent the two weeks before tied to my computer with writing deadlines and opportunity commingling to create 10-12 hour days.  Now I was smiling the whole way on a 93-minute hike. My boots crunched on the snow. My pack was full of sharps on my back. That was almost all I needed.

Almost.

When I started ice climbing what I liked the best was the realization that I could go anywhere, use anything, and when all else failed just muscle my way into new holds and positions. That was back on hard glacier ice, and later, on thick giant waterfall ice flows. That was back when you could camp out in your leashes when the going got tough and just wait, wait… wait some more for the pump to fade and release you back to the climb. Those climbs are still out there, but when you are going in early, you often get the opposite. Add in leashless tools and unleashed ambition and…

Set on the edge of a limestone cave marbled with slate and camel rock with intermittent daggers beginning their drip to the ground, Killar Pillar was making a rare touch down appearance. We racked up at the base.

The gear felt new and cool again, cool in that way we eschew as seasoned climbers even though we were just as susceptible to the allure of the same when we started: screws racked up evenly on my ice clips, draws running akimbo. Double ropes neatly nestled against my belay loop. Everything green and red and metallic set against the stark whiteness of snow.

My first tool placement was soft and gentle. I didn’t want the pillar to know I was trying to climb it. My second was a deep-set hook that was nearly transparent so that I could see the length of my pick behind the wet ice. My third was marginally better. I delicately balanced my frontpoints around a rib of ice. I tired hard not to tap. The pillar echoed anyways. I donwclimbed back to the ground.

“Cold?” my partner, Sarah Garlick asked.

“Something like that,” I said. I swung my arms for emphasis. “Why is it,” I went on, “that the first ice of the season is always the hardest?"

It’s true. If you are twisted and inflicted, you will try and get out the moment you can. Which means you have to get scrappy, off the deck: scratchy seeps, cobbled runnels, hollow pillars and water drenched almost-flows. It means, on the Killar Pillar, taping and hoping my way to one solid swing at the top.

In the end, I forgot my soft shell jacket, my wrist flick was rusty, and I was breathing hard the whole way from too many mid-morning pastries to power me through multiple days in front of the black box. It was just what I needed. Because though I love climbing when all of the systems and swings march out in a perfect line, it’s the almost-perfect day that inspires us, in the beginning, to go back for more.

Read more of Majka’s writing at www.majkaburhardt.com, and on her blog, http://www.majkaburhardt.com/liminal-line-blog/

 

 

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