By Trevor Bockstahler
The wind had seemed to sweep up all of the available dust in the White River floodplain as the Spring sunlight filtered through the sky and whipping treetops as a soft amber. I was somewhat sheltered on a small island beside sand-buried abandoned cabins and sickly trees as I stared at the roof of my tent that morning near the border of Southwest Alaska and the Yukon Territory. My train of thought jumped independently between the tracks of the challenges from the previous weeks, the challenges of the months ahead, and the biggest question of all… Why?
The answer had come just a few days before in the form of a beautiful breakdown while knee deep in moss on a steep Kluane mountainside. It still didn’t all make sense yet, but sometimes the mind needs to be put on the shelf when the heart is speaking. Dreams of blue skies, brilliant clouds, gray limestone, ice, and cliffs filled my need for a seemingly unattainable longing. So I made a trade with the Universe, this once in a lifetime multi-month mission in the far North for the chance to take this foggy, out-of-focus, abstraction of a dream and make it reality. But this came with steps, below was one of them.
I found myself setting up the back of my covered truck bed to sleep in during a midnight January snowstorm that had already dumped over a foot of snow in the quaint little town of Ouray, Colorado. Ouray, I was told by a friend months before, is home to a world renowned ice park and ice climbing festival during which they offer introductions into the sport via relatively cheap and accessible classes and clinics. Having no experience in ice climbing and only a few gym sessions of rock climbing, I decided back then that I would go! I convinced a friend from work to join me on the trip and to take one of the clinics with me. Although, it could hardly be considered convincing as their level of excitement was arguably higher than mine! We set off late after our work shifts that evening and found a remote snowy pull off on a dead end road to park and sleep just outside of town. Morning was coming soon and the back of the truck was ready for slumber, so we crawled in the back and fell asleep with anticipation.
We met a small crowd of other climbers of mixed experience levels at the Ouray Mountain Guides shop, the guides passed out required gear and sorted us into our proper groups. Soon we were in the back of a large off-roading truck with a bunch of happy strangers on our way to the ice park! Marcus Garcia and his assistant instructor Jesse showed us down the path to the bottom of the canyon that held dozens of ice routes and to the start of ours as we all got to know each other.
A wonderfully friendly group who all seemed to have an affinity for the outdoors in a handful of different forms, but none who had ice climbed before. We learned tons of technique on how to hold the ice tools (called tools, not axes when made for ice climbing), what is a good stick, how to kick in your crampons, leveraging the tools and crampons, and lots of body position tweaking from Marcus which granted him the nickname of Marcus ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ Garcia. But possibly more important to my goals was that I was able to ask what would normally be an annoying amount of questions about equipment to buy, how to find routes to climb, solo climbing techniques, and other miscellaneous things! It was a great time and I couldn’t have been happier with how it turned out, but wow does ice climbing destroy the forearms! That night we went to one of the many local hot springs with new friends from the clinic. The next day I ventured out on my own to climb with a friend from Boulder who was the catalyst for the trip to the ice fest, providing me the wonderful recommendation. Then that night we drove back to Vail for the next morning's work, but as short as the trip was it was just the beginning of my journey on the ice!
I took the lessons and recommendations from the clinic, ordered all the required gear for ice climbing in the Vail area, and channeled my inner ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ Garcia as I ventured off to the local climbing spots to get some practice. If Ouray was a festival, then Vail was a ghost town in regard to fellow ice climbers. I suspected this, and also knew that with my erratic and heavy work schedule as well as my inexperience that learning would be at a snail's pace if I couldn’t go climbing alone. So I took my canyoneering ropes, hiked above the easiest ice fall in the valley and built an anchor on a stable tree before running a couple solo laps with the Marcus recommended double rope and ascender system for safety. This simple description makes it seem fairly easy and straightforward and it more or less was, but the amount of fear and adrenaline from the exposure and nuance of the situation was intense and intoxicating! I was shaking just at the thought of it as I tied my knots, wondering if there was possibly something that I was overlooking that would cause the day to end in tragedy. But I did all the rigging correctly, the only unexpected problem was how quickly my grip strength vanished as I held a death grip on my ice tools in response to the nervous stress. The next day off of work I moved to the more intermediate walls with a bit more confidence in my rope system, my tools, and myself. Slowly but surely I would become a proficient ice climber!
Throughout the season I would sneak away to the ice whenever I had a day off to get some practice in. Soon I could chip my way up all but the most difficult climbs in the valley and was confident enough to go climbing at night if that was when free time so happened to be. Rigid Designator was my go-to climb, it was always a terrifying experience but there was a feeling of enchantment and accomplishment that overpowered the fear. How beautiful to be over a hundred feet off the ground holding onto a cold blue column of ice with nothing more than a couple small points of metal on your feet and in your hands. It is unnatural and intense, it felt as though a new world was open to me! But this route nor the others I had done were enough.
Before I had even set off to Ouray I knew of the world-renowned ice climb that was in the Vail Valley and being able to climb it before season's end was my goal. The Fang is a 130 foot, intimidating pillar of ice that stares you down with contempt as you hike up the trail to it and the other climbs. At its base is a graveyard of ice, chunks sometimes the size of a refrigerator that have crumbled off. The only people I had seen trying to climb it had retreated before making it even halfway up the daunting climb. It was wildly intimidating. I kept anxiously putting off my attempt, the one time I built up the courage was the time that the other group bailed on it. But between the impending warmer weather of Spring and my schedule, I would only have one more chance. I hiked up and around, and set my ropes as I had always done for every other climb, then began the rappel, lowering myself over the edge trying to take note of any dangerous weaknesses in the ice and of any places to rest mid-route. Then once at the bottom it was time to climb!
The base of the route is made up of what is called cauliflower ice, which is basically just mushroom-like fingers of ice that extend from the solid inner core of the ice fall, tapering down inward to what can range from large to dangerously small connection points with the core. The best example I have to describe it is like an icy bloomin’ onion, but cauliflower ice is what has been coined. It is these cauliflower pieces that made up the majority of the broken ice that lay below in the graveyard of ice so I started up the climb gingerly, trying my best to pick secure holds and footing but in such conditions this was overly wishful. With my crampons I sent a couple large chunks of ice tumbling down as I stepped on them, relying on my arms to hold my dangling body as I scrambled to find new footing. The way I would test the ice with my tools was to reach up with one, hook a piece of cauliflower and tug on it progressively harder, if it broke loose then it was clearly no good, if it held then I would use it to continue on.
Sometimes a chunk would break loose and make me grateful for helmets, one time a piece broke loose in an awkward fashion that convinced me that perhaps it had not and this trickster piece of ice smashed into my nose when I looked up at it to see what was going on. But I continued with the climb, now with watery eyes and dribbling dots of red up the ice like Hansel with his breadcrumbs.
The cauliflower section faded, leaving just the main core of the ice fall exposed as my grip strength began to fade all the same. But now being beyond the halfway point I gritted my teeth and held on for dear life as I transitioned off of the main pillar of the icefall onto a thin but wide curtain of ice that led to the top. After a short zigzag and maximum effort I pulled myself up and over the edge with a breath of relief and sat down to let my breath and adrenaline settle down. I walked away from that climb feeling accomplished and ready for what was in store, those dreams of ice and gray limestone seemed all the more clear now!