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Climbing an ephemeral icicle

What luck to be able to enjoy one’s passion for ice climbing so close to home! Fabian Buhl, well known for his skills bouldering and multi-pitch climbing, tells us how it felt to climb a rarely formed superb piece of ice on the Seebenseefall, right in his own backyard near the Tyrolean village of Ehrwald, Austria.

January 20 2020

Ice climbing

© 2019 PETZL Distribution -  Thomas Senf

It’s all about seizing the opportunity

“We enjoyed another great winter in 2019, with lots of ice to climb. Conditions were typical for my home mountains, although water was trickling down the Seebenseefall just a little bit differently than usual. The classic, easier top out was not in good condition at all, but an incredible hanging curtain of ice had formed. By the end of the season it was in perfect condition, as was the impressive dagger on the left side of the wall that rarely forms, but when it does, figures among the most beautiful formations I have ever seen.

I had climbed the classic waterfall route a day prior with Alexander Huber, an alpinist and climber renowned for his ability to rise to the occasion in extreme conditions. We decided to go back in order to try the direct free hanging icicle, a dagger just begging to be climbed and too tempting to ignore.

I like to climb all different styles, from boulders to multi-pitch to alpine climbs. However, for an inspiring ice climb, I will drop everything. Ice is the only medium that you cannot climb for most of the year. Some lines only form once every decade or two. When a rare ice climb forms, it is time to go big or go home. Ice is merciless. It can be perfect one day and deadly the next, so if you hesitate you may very well miss your chance.

© 2019 PETZL Distribution -  Thomas Senf

The idea of ice climbing is absurd to begin with. Ice spends most of the year as a liquid. When temperatures dip below freezing, water molecules solidify and we scale them with least graceful climbing style of all, banging our tools into the ice to make upward progress. Opinions about ice climbing vary from person to person, but I think that when climbing somewhat fragile or thin ice, you need to have almost a sixth sense for conditions. Technical rock climbing has much more finesse than pounding your axes into the ice; this raw power and brutality is a huge contrast to the precise moves required on rock. But difference brings change, and change is something I like to experience over the course of a year. Ice climbing is a very unique discipline and I always feel incredibly fulfilled after a good day on ice.

© 2019 PETZL Distribution -  Thomas Senf

Maintain a rational mindset when climbing

To avoid missing our chance, we returned to the icefall motivated to climb a piece of ice that we had not seen for years! Having climbed the lower section of the route the day before, we made haste of the first few pitches. The next pitch, on less than stellar ice, led to a belay on a well-protected ledge that provided a great view of the free hanging icicle.

After a short break to assess the situation, all looked good and I started to climb, carefully picking my way up the ice. After making sure that it supported my weight, the climbing was pure bliss. How lucky we were to be in the right place at the right time for such great water ice. Once reassured, I placed a screw and pondered the next few moves. As I looked to my left, I could see a section of incredibly technical terrain, and noticed a line first put up in traditional style but yet to see a free ascent. This line veers off the classic Seebenseefall route by traversing a rock slab that stops beneath a thin and delicate icicle that seemed barely attached to the rock. In general, it never fully forms.

© 2019 PETZL Distribution -  Thomas Senf

True commitment on serious terrain

A section of mixed terrain leads up a chossy crack that requires torquing your tools while praying that the pitons will hold in a fall. The ice on the upper falls was thick enough and well-adhered to the rock, so we felt confident climbing the infamous dagger. The dramatic setting in Seebenseefall’s huge amphitheater created a truly singular yet somewhat intimidating experience. The climbing proved terrifying. The diameter was so thin that it felt more like I was hugging my way up the ephemeral dagger than climbing it.

After spending another day climbing this amazing line, temperatures started to increase. The next day foehn winds raised temperatures even more. Our route was no longer climbable, and most of the ice had either melted or fallen to the ground! We were more than lucky and made the most out of being in the right place at the right time.”

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