Tag Archives: ice climbing

Oughto Elimination

CIMG4053“I ought to be able to climb this,” I thought.

My partner agreed. “You got it, man,” he called from the belay.

Of course, the problem was that I didn’t have it. If the helpful blob of ice for my left foot had been there instead of the mushy snow that was, I would have had it. If the sun had not already melted loose the key chunk of ice above my head, I would have had it. If there were a foot hold above the little bump of granite which supported one point of my right crampon, I would have had it.

I pulled sideways on the quarter-inch, diagonal edge which provided the only purchase for the picks of my ice tools on the overhang which I was trying to exit. The ice having proven useless, I tried to clear it from the rock and then ratcheted my way up, fishing for an edge to latch onto with my left tool. Before I found one, my right foot popped off the little bump. My knee took up the counter-pressure before the pick of my right tool popped off the rock.

Pleasantly surprised to find myself still attached to the route, I lowered gently back onto the little bump. Ambition drove me up one more time, with predictable results.

“Not gonna happen today,” I said, “I’m coming down.”


That attempt was my third on the route. We rappelled the three pitches below and descended avalanche debris to the floor of the cirque. As we coiled the ropes, a few tons of wet snow rumbled down a ledge system beside our abandoned line of ascent. We walked back to camp in silence, crawled into the tent and took our boots off.

“Well,” I offered, “we could always go climb at the Tower.”


Few who climb remember the moment they started. The best most of us can do is to recall a time when we realized that we were climbers, but we were well into it by then. It sprouted as an inspiration regardless of the seed. As we acted on the landscape though, it changed our notions of what we could do and what we wanted to do. Aspiration took over from inspiration.

For most of us, ambition came close behind. Everybody’s had a list or project take possession of them for a stretch. In the worst case, our projects frustrated us, wore us down and made us quit, even if we finished them. In the best case, by the time we achieved our ambitions (or at last abandoned them), they had changed us so that the climbs to which we devoted ourselves no longer seemed so hard or so desirable as the routes we had discovered along the way.

Two Winters ago, an old man began to frequent our local ice climbing crag. He was a person of some renown, with many first ascents to his name in the ranges of North America. But, he had never climbed the waterfalls in the South Fork Valley of the Shoshone. He was training for the Valley’s steep cascades with miles of rolling ice between them, by climbing at the little cave we had nicknamed “forty feet of fun”.

His equipment was antiquated, but he wielded it with an ingrained ability reflecting many years of focused movement over ice and snow.  Still, he was slow and the length of his reach and the height of his steps betrayed the effects of 70 years of mountain travel on joints and tendons. He must have known what he was doing, so he must have known that his chances of getting up any of the climbs in the South Fork were extremely slim.

Finally, I had to ask, “What do you plan to climb in the Valley?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “I’m just going to go and see.”

A puzzled smirk spread over his face as he spoke, and I began to suspect. I’d felt the same expression of bemusement on my own face on occasion, after pulling a hard crux, usually on a “project”, when I couldn’t recall the moves involved or even how hard they felt. Then I would walk around for the rest of the day with the fading suspicion that maybe I didn’t climb it, maybe I fell off and even died, but had lost the capacity to notice in the process. Maybe the old guy felt that way all the time now; I didn’t ask about it or anything else, and I never found out how his trip turned out.


Back in the tent, both of us stared at the nylon floor for a few moments.

Then my partner lifted his head and replied, “You know, climbing at Devils Tower has been on my list for a long time.”

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CIMG4015Seven is the number of pitches for Broken Hearts, one of the best climbs in the Southfork valley. The trouble is, those pitches do not often coexist in time. The upper tier of three amphitheaters waits for the Spring to grow its pillars. By then, the sun has eaten away the path up the ice that leads to the show.

Looking back at the road from the half-way point on the walk up.

Looking back at the road from the half-way point on the walk up.

What a show it is, too. The final three pitches, along with Carotid Artery, are a different story from the lark in the lower drainage. But there is a price. To reach this venue in Springtime, when the lower pitches are missing, one has to walk up the walk-off.

Carotid Artery

Carotid Artery

Walking around on the valley walls in Cody is ill-advised in principle. The slopes are steep, loose and rocky, and it is easy to reach  a precipitous dead-end, resulting in grueling detours and back tracking. The course which skirts the lower canyon of Broken Hearts is better than most.As I plodded the solid hour of uphill however, I found myself making notes for the next time: “Remember, it is that bad, it is that bad, …”.

My Only Valentine

My Only Valentine

In the first of the three bowls, Carotid Artery was not formed. Some new fixed gear adorned the crack behind the hanging dagger, but the ice was too far out from the wall to make a mixed version feasible or safe.



The rest of the pitches were there, though. We knew from the start that the seventh belonged to Rich. We didn’t need to discuss it. He had been thwarted twice before, having to walk away from the climb due to conditions and time. Conditions were not perfect this time. A massive amount of water poured over the roof at the top. We were prepared for it this time, though.


Like a character moving over landscape out of a Dr. Seuss book, Rich made his way up the twisting series of steps and columns. He was able to skirt the roof, though the climbing to do so was still past vertical.  As I swore away the barfies at the top, water dribbled from the velcro cuffs of my current hand-wear. I found myself making notes again: “Remember, gloves with gauntlets next time.”

Lap 2 on Pillar of Pain the next day

Lap 2 on Pillar of Pain the next day

By the end of it all we were wet, cold, miserable and exhausted. We would be the same way at the end of the day tomorrow. Ice climbing is just freaky like that, and if you aren’t too, you probably won’t keep doing it. I will. I found myself making more notes on the trudge back down: “Remember, it was worth it…”

The upper valley

The upper valley

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It’s an Ice Fest Every Time

Sheep on Deer Creek

Sheep on Deer Creek

Rich made that comment while we discussed the merits of driving to downtown Cody to visit the Southfork Ice Fest. It would have been nice to see Aaron’s slide show, but we were kind of tired.

My kingdom for a Bosch! Mixed potential left of Bitch's Brew

My kingdom for a Bosch! Mixed potential left of Bitch’s Brew

Regarding the source of our amotivational state, Rich summarized as only he can, “Someday we’re going to bite off more than we can chew.”

Pitch 2, Bitch's Brew

Pitch 2, Bitch’s Brew

We always seem to end up in Cody on the Ice Fest weekend, but we never make it to the event itself. I think our efforts to dodge the “crowds” (this is the one weekend where you can expect to see other people during your day out on a route) sabotage us. We end up going to things like Illogicicle that are harder to access and farther back.

Steep ice on Who's Your Daddy

Steep ice on Who’s Your Daddy

This time it was Bitch’s Brew and Who’s Your Daddy. Bitch’s Brew is just across from Smooth Emerald Milkshake a couple of miles up, and I do mean up Deer Creek trail. The latter climb is a relatively popular moderate, so we figured some ambitious festivants would be breaking trail for us. We were wrong.

Fortunately, we only had a few pristine drifts to break through. The climb was worth it, as usual: one WI 4 , 65 meter pitch, followed by a pitch of wind-sculpted WI 5+, a short pitch of WI 5, and some grade 3 possibilities above. Did I mention it is in the nice warm sun all day?


Who’s Your Daddy is the alternative to the first pitch of Ovisight. The approach was mercifully in good shape. The Legg Creek pitch was too. Where the whole drainage pours through a 2 foot wide slot, there was a solid, 6 inch wide strip of through the last 20 feet of climbing (it even allowed a good stubby ice screw). The trip up the last, left side-drainage was a slog.

3rd pitch

3rd pitch

The two, steep steps to solo combined with the thigh-deep snow burned up a good chunk of daylight. The three upper pitches delivered however, especially the third, which had an overhanging section in the middle. Here’s to good dental health.

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A Moister Brownie…

4th pitch of Mean Green

4th pitch of Mean Green

…is not necessarily a better brownie, especially when it comes to dirty ice.


The Southfork is not is stellar shape this year. Climbs like Moratorium haven’t seen enough water to form up properly, while South-facing routes like Ovisight haven’t seen enough cold.


Mr. Mulkey has pulled off ascents of Pillars of the Community and the mixed start to Joy After Pain (the latter with help from a friend, see video and photos at coldfear.com) but even those climbs are beginning to sublimate away.


We squeaked by the third pitch of Broken Hearts.


On the return trip, it was gone.

6th pitch of Broken Hearts

6th pitch of Broken Hearts

Carotid Artery wasn’t even close enough for me to agonize over.


Mean Green looked to be missing the fourth pitch, but it turned out that the ice was just so full of dirt, you could barely distinguish it from the rock.

The Valley from the top of pitch 5, Mean Green

The Valley from the top of pitch 5, Mean Green

It feels like the season has never gotten started this year; thoughts of Canada are already popping into my head unbidden.

Ten Sleep

Ten Sleep

We’ll give it a couple of more weeks.

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Ice Climbing is Dangerous


So we place tubular screws in the ice to secure the rope in case of a fall. But even placing the  protection is difficult enough to be controversial. You find them less and less, but there are some experienced climbers who feel it is safer to go without protection against all but a catastrophic fall. Their rationale is that the screws are too tiring to place and the placements are not predictably reliable.

As if it isn't hard enough - penalty slack

As if it isn’t hard enough – penalty slack

I disagree, of course, but I’m an optimist. I figure, if the screw hit an air pocket,  it may fail if I take a big fall on it, but that means it may not too, and I know that the ground will be even less forgiving. I have some data to back up my optimism. There are the drop tests done by Craig Leubben and Chris Harmston. Then there’s my anecdotal evidence. I know several people who have fallen on ice screws. The majority came away with fractures, true, but the screws held and all the climbers lived to climb again. In addition, I have personally witnessed two falls on ice screws.


The first was several years ago. A friend and I were watching a couple of guys climb Jaws a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National park. The sun was baking the upper third of the climb and the leader wisely placed a screw just before he climbed out of the shade. About fifteen feet into the tropics, he started having trouble getting his tools to stick. He placed another screw and continued. After ten more feet, it was clear he could not go up any farther; the ice was just too thin and rotten. Things looked better off to his right though, so he struck out in that direction. It proved a false hope. Two moves into the traverse, he slid down several feet. He recovered, made two more tool placements, then popped off. The upper screw blew out of the ice without even stretching the rope. The shadow piece caught him after about fifty feet, just five feet from the ground.


I witnessed the second fall just five days ago. A younger gentleman was climbing at our training area. I had led a solid line just to his right a few minutes before. He wanted to go a bit steeper. The line he chose had a little overhanging icicle about fifteen feet up and he launched for it. Rich had tapped on that feature on his way past it, and neither of us liked the sound it made. I almost said something, but I didn’t want to intrude. Tony’s a good climber; he would be careful. He drove an ice screw in the pillar below the icicle, hooked a tool on a feature in the middle of the hanging dagger, and took a tentative swing for the top of the icicle. As soon as the pick of the tool made contact, the whole thing cut loose. Fortunately, he had his legs out from under the falling chunk, so he missed having his bottom half skewered. The screw caught him just before his crampon points scraped the ground. The screw did not bend and the ice around the hanger hadn’t a chip in it. The fall factor had to be close to 1.5. I shall persist in my optimism.


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Dr. Blue Thumb (with apologies to Cypress Hill)

Right Pillars

Right Pillars

The crop has come in. It may be no taller than G1 in Hyalite, but it is more potent, and much closer to home.

Central pillar

Central pillar

Overhangs, chandelier, steps – it’s all there for the pleasant terror of the community.

All ninja missions require video documentation for payment. Left pillars.

All ninja missions require video documentation for payment. Left pillars.

Maybe the Black Hills will sprout some more ice climbers after all.

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Oh Suzanna

Elusive ice in Ten Sleep

Elusive ice in Ten Sleep

The pick made a distinctive ‘plink’ as it bounced off the rock. The sound always sends a shock down my spine, but I can’t tell if it’s the nature of the noise itself or purely the implications. I tapped a little higher and the tool set with a hollow sound no less disappointing than the ‘plink’. The resonance came from a layer of air separating the ice from the cliff face. I spared a glance down.

By the road in the shadow of the canyon floor, I could just make out a tiny brown stain by the car where the dregs of my coffee had flash-frozen when I poured them out an hour ago. The shadow ended in a sharp line half-way up the steep drainage and the upper portion took full morning sun.  Twenty feet below me, my last ice screw basked in the direct radiation. I drove another short screw into the ice. It gnawed through with dismissive ease.

The ice may have been just four to six inches thick, but it was not vertical and was well supported by a thicker lip of ice at the bottom. So, even though it was not continuously attached to the rock, it wasn’t likely to break off in a sheet unless I got very clumsy. The consistency was perfect, too. Though too soft to hold an ice screw well, it allowed the points of the tools and crampons to bite and set. ‘Hero ice’ was the name for it. The whole trip had been black and white like that.


Every time we drive through Ten Sleep Canyon we look up into the second drainage East of the fish hatchery, hoping to see ice. Usually, we only see a water streak. Sometimes we see a thin smear. Very rarely, we see a fully formed climb. When the ice is formed, we vow to climb it on the way back through, but it always disappears before we return. Nevertheless, when we saw substantial ice in the drainage on our way out this time, we took it as a good omen.

High on Boulder and Moonrise from the river

High on Boulder and Moonrise from the trail.

The sense of good fortune evaporated as we traveled from Cody to the Southfork the following morning. Just as we reached the gravel road, something went wrong in my stomach, and the organ decided to right things by turning itself inside out. We were reduced to a driving tour of the valley between puke stops. The conditions looked dry. Moratorium was thin. Mean Green had a translucent 4th pitch. Ovisight lacked a first pitch. Broken Hearts looked pretty good, though.

High on Boulder and Moonrise (right-hand climb)

High on Boulder and Moonrise (right-hand climb)

Rich had to make a day of downtown Cody once we got back, but my problems subsided over that time and once again we felt fortunate. By the following morning, I was ready to try again. We headed for the lower pitches of High on Boulder, plus Moonrise.


I hate Moonrise. Rich says I have a psychological problem with the climb. I may, but it often forms up with a series of short roofs, and as everyone knows, roofs are for short people – short roofs the more so.

Another view of Moonrise

Another view of Moonrise

I climbed poorly on Moonrise. After such a depressing reversal, I was sure that the column in Ten Sleep had fallen. Yet as we passed the fish hatchery, there it was intact. We pulled a quick, dangerous U-turn on the shoulderless highway and parked in the last pull-out. The approach was longer and steeper than expected. The climb looked less steep than expected, maybe a WI 4(-) but with the thin ice, imaginary protection and bent pick, it remained interesting. As we rappelled from a bundle of icicles at the top, an old song kept running through my head, “…sun’s so hot I froze to death, oh don’t you cry for me… ‘least I don’t live in Alabama, so don’t you cry for me…” Or something like that.

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Weird Seasonal Activities

It’s time to be mixed up. A little good-humored anarchy prepares us for the fearful chaos of winter climbing.

This isn’t mixed climbing, where one foot is on rock and the other is on ice. This is climbing rock with ice tools.

Without crags developed for climbing with tools and crampons, it would be nearly impossible to be an ice climber living in the Black Hills. Being an alpine climber would  be entirely impossible. But with our specialized crags, when the waterfalls finally freeze in Cody and the faces and gullies ice up in the Big Horns, Tetons and Canadian Rockies, our strength and balance are tuned up and with a few swings of the ice tools to knock the rust off, we are back in the game.

Now,we just wait for the cold.


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Can Demon Possession Make You a Better Ice Climber?

I’ve been wanting to sell my soul for a while now, but I just can’t find the right buyer. I’ll admit I didn’t think it through before I started looking, but who does? This sort of transaction has such a history, it’s hard not to slip into the ruts, and I did. The first buyer I considered was the Devil.

It turns out that he has already had a pretty extensive background check, and is not considered a good risk. Even though a seller knows that the Devil is the embodiment of dishonesty, it is almost impossible to devise an effective means to circumvent that fact. A whole lot of very smart people have evaluated deals with the Devil, and the consensus is that even if you get what you want, you won’t get it in the way you want, which, unfortunately, is crucial.

Having rejected what the Devil had to offer, I next considered God. Dealing with an all-powerful, benevolent entity takes care of the reliability problems which confound deals with the Devil, but I had to reject a deal with God as well. As an all-powerful being, he can be very picky about what he offers, and as a benevolent being, he’s only going to offer what’s best for you. Trouble is, what’s best for you isn’t necessarily what’s good for you. He offers one package built around guarantees of immortality and eternal pats from the hand that holds it all, including ultimate reassurance. Your satisfaction is guaranteed, and there is the problem. If you make the sale on those terms you will be satisfied with what you get, and stop wanting whatever it was that prompted you sell in the first place. In that case, the crusaders had it right. Once you settle, it’s best to find some helpful fellow to kill you quick so you can get to the goods and avoid running afoul of  contractual conditions.

With the conventional choices eliminated, I decided to go with eccentric, so instead of scrolling through the Saints or Old Testament demons, I investigated Laplace’s Demon as a possible buyer. Laplace’s Demon is part of a thought experiment about determinism. The Demon is a perfect calculator who, knowing the initial conditions of the universe, can figure all future conditions. A critical few cast aspersions on my inquiry, saying that the Demon was a purely imaginary creature. However, during my background check of God I had encountered the Ontological Argument, which said that if I could imagine a perfect being, the only way it could really be perfect was if it was real as well as imaginary, so a perfect imaginary being must also be a real being. I had received a reassuring number of reassurances from the keepers of the Lord’s earthly franchise that this metaphysical maneuver actually detected a real  quality of the universe via an indirect examination of the nature of our minds and didn’t just ignore the dependency of imaginary objects. It seemed I was on the right track. Sadly, the complete examination of Laplace’s Demon ended in disappointment as well.

I have to back up for a moment here to clarify my motivation for marketing my soul in the first place. It is a modest ambition, really: I thought I might be able to trade my soul for something that would make me a better ice climber. You see, I am very dissatisfied with the method and means of improvement available to me currently. The method is learning through practice and progressive challenge. The means is critical appraisal of what it is ‘like’ to properly swing and weight an ice tool. The means part is the real problem; I could live with the method if I didn’t have to deal with the vagaries of the means.

Swinging an ice tool isn’t like juggling or jumping rope. Once you know the technique, you don’t just get better by repetition, up to your physical limits. You have to know what a good swing feels like so you can know whether the pick has set well in the ice, and if it hasn’t, just how badly it has set. Everything else – the energy you expend for each foot of upward progress, the security of the protection you place, the speed of your ascent – follows from what each swing is like. By the same token, the quality of a swing depends on a huge bundle of factors beyond the alignment of the elbow and timing of the wrist-flip. The quality of my swing follows from the appearance and feel of the ice, my level of mental focus, my level of physical responsiveness, the accuracy of my estimation of my physical responsiveness, etc..

It’s an impossible set of variables to track, but all together, they feel a certain way when they fall together right. To get better,  I can match every swing against the memory of that right swing until they begin to cluster closer and closer to that theme. There’s a hidden bonus in this means of progression, too. I can use the information I get from what a swing is like in combination with the same kinds of themes regarding body position, balance, and ice structure to sort out an entire climb, both before I start and as the climb unfolds. Though it’s a slippery and imprecise means, my mind, anybody’s mind,  can use it to manipulate otherwise intractable sets of details, albeit by proxy, which brings me back to why the Demon can’t help me.

To have the reductive knowledge that he does, the demon must rely on one simple trick: he ignores time. Since events are multiply contingent upon other events in an ultimate reduction (or even in an incomplete one) the resulting structure, with all events completed and with all the chaotic processes gamed out, is a web of converging and diverging causal chains. From the Demon’s viewpoint, it makes no sense in sequence, any more than it makes sense to say an unmarked map has a beginning or end rather than boundaries. Given his quirk, the Demon can help me in one of three ways. First, he can jump in and yell, “Stop!” when I approach a point where a bad swing exists. That may only make things worse. Second, he can take over and guide my arm, but to realize each step to a good swing in sequence is likely to take ages in lining up, or proceed in fits and starts as he makes adjustments to jump from path to path, neither of which I can afford. Third, he can show me where I am in the interlocking mass of causal connections relative to a good swing, but then the information is only approximate until I actually swing (or close enough) and that’s just the kind of situation I’m trying to escape.  Laplace’s Demon is no more helpful than the Devil himself. I can’t use either of them to cheat the world out of another degree of freedom. I’m stuck feeling my way through with qualities and beliefs about qualities.

The worst part is, I suspect I am taking advantage of the means I have about as well as I can, as is the rest of the species. Our brains are quality having, belief generating, story telling organs. The stories our brains make are good enough that we can’t say for sure where the stories end, and where their causes begin. I don’t think beliefs or qualities cause anything, but maybe they do capture something about the way the world works that reduction misses. They seem like way points on the Demon’s map of causal relations, marking time. Even so, I can’t say for sure that qualities and beliefs aren’t real things, determining the actions of their constituents. That would require an external perspective, like the kind a perfectly knowledgeable Demon could give me. Hmmm – What does the Ontological Argument say about contacting a perfect being, and whether or not I can get an hourly rate?

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Dutch Whatever

“I’ve noticed that in the alpine, everyone’s hesitant to rate anything harder than M6 – and then everything’s M6. Why do you think that is?” Mike wondered.

M6 is a grade given mixed rock and ice climbing. For most folks, it’s the grade that consistently feels hard, the place where you start to feel like you could fall off. I thought back to the previous day in the Clarks Fork. When you’re trolling for blind pick placements under a sheet of snow, yarding on apparently frozen blocks with the secondary points of your crampon wedged in a crack coated with ice and running with water, it really is all M6 until you’ve climbed it.

Looking down the 6th pitch of Broken Hearts

It had rolled for us, though. We had felt good after sneaking in six pitches of Broken Hearts as the climb melted around us. It was a good omen, and we had word that the climb in the Clarks Fork had looked feasible as of two weeks ago.

Beta doesn’t obviate omens when it comes to going into the Clarks Fork, though. The climb was probably there. The approach was surely there, and in the usual condition: a brutal wallow through the continental snowpack, followed by a dicey stumble down frozen dirt beside a stream bed.

It was quite a reward at the bottom, almost enough to make you forget you had to walk back up what you just came down. The morning sun shone into the gorge, tanning the 800 ft. granite walls, while the river grumbled under ice, welling in pools where the channel widened.

Call of Cthulhu first pitch

And there was the climb I’d fallen off two years ago. The weasel-like part of me that scampers around the base of my skull was disappointed I wouldn’t get a rematch with the mixed version of the first pitch. The more clear-thinking part was glad to see the first pitch touching down.

The climbing wasn’t too hard, it just took a light touch on the sun-baked, arching pillar. Mike accepted the ramble up the second pitch with equanimity.

Mike nearing the end of pitch #2

The third pitch was alpine climbing, the beautiful sort of stuff made of rock and ice at once which defies any sort of rating, with a little bit of M4 (after the fact) to finish.

Pitch 3/4 belay

Mike got his karmic justice for enduring the mediocrity of the second pitch. Steep sunny ice on the fourth pitch lead to a spacious belay cave at the end of the route.

Beginning pitch #4

By any name, it was a stellar climb. So good, I barely noticed the quadriceps hematoma from rockfall on the way down. Hell, I’d even forgotten the walk out by the time we left the parking lot. Ok, maybe that’s a lie, but it was pretty damn good.

Pitch #4

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