Back on the Ice: A return to ice-climbing

Trudging up the seemingly endless boulderfield below the Mt. Lincoln ice, I couldn't help think how cyclical our pursuits of outdoor sports are.
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In the early 90s, while I was living in New York, I would save up every penny so that I could go skiing at Stowe on the weekends. Then I tried climbing, and skiing fell by the wayside, just as I moved to Colorado, ironically enough. My first winter here, in 1994, I pursued ice climbing with a single-mindedness that bordered on obsession. If a few days went by without me getting on the ice, I'd figure out a way to go, even if that meant climbing Clear Creek Canyon at night by headlamp, scaring the Clear Creek County sheriff into thinking I needed a rescue and leading to a comical exchange with me making signals with my headlamp to answer the questions the sheriff asked over his PA radio from the highway.

But as my marriage started to fall apart, climbing became more precarious; I didn't feel comfortable tying into a rope with my husband anymore, and the men who used to climb with me had stopped calling after I got married. It was about that time that I discovered telemark skiing, and my joy at hitting the slopes was rekindled, in part because I didn't need to depend on anyone but myself.

But for whatever reason, I headed up to the Mt. Lincoln ice climbing area yesterday. It was the first time I planned to climb ice in almost two years. The Lincoln Icefall area forms three distinct routes, with the Scottish Gully on the left being the most reliable early-season ice in Colorado. (It can often form by the first week of October). The ice is on the northeast face of Lincoln, above the Montgomery Reservoir, at an altitude of around 12,000 feet.

After parking my car and lacing up the boots, I started the steep approach to the ice. Ascending through the pine trees at the start, I reveled in the crisp air and the smell of pine forests, but mostly the solitude. With the smells came the memories.

The approach took about 30 minutes, as I gained 1,000 feet in elevation. At the base of the ice, I considered whether to do the climb or not.

The Scottish Gully isn't very difficult as ice climbs go, with a grade of WI3-WI4, depending on the line you take. The water ice grading system (WI) goes up to WI7 in difficulty, with things getting really hairy around WI5. But ice is a fickle surface, and the climb rarely forms the same way twice. One month, the ice can be thick and plastic, another it can be brittle and desperate. 

Sooner or later, almost every climber who gets passionate about climbing will consider soloing -- climbing without a rope. The risks are great, because there is no safety net if you make a mistake and fall. The rewards are also great though, as you can turn your brain off flow up the route.

I've soloed ice plenty of times, and I've also backed off many solo attempts when something seemed off at the start. I never know how it will go until I start up.

After donning my crampons and grabbing my ice tools, I stepped up to the ice and swung my left tool. The pick sunk in with a satisfying "thwack." Swinging the right tool in, I kicked my crampons in and started up. The first few moves felt a little hesitant; two years away will do that, and I wasn't sure how I felt about soloing my first route back. But after a few more steps up the ice, I gained confidence and continued up the 200-foot climb.

When soloing, you can't let your mind dwell on the ground beneath your feet. As I climbed higher, I found my rhythm, and a smile washed over my face. About two thirds of the way up, I stopped on the right side of the gully and retied my right boot, then looked down the gully at the distance I'd climbed. The gully is stepped out, so the distance to the ground doesn't seem as dire. My brain was in positive mode; turning back to the ice, I swung my left tool again. Thwack-thwack went the tools, kick-kick went the crampons, and I resumed the climb.

Near the top, I avoided the steep final headwall and climbed an easier variation to the right, topping out on the climb after about forty minutes. At the top, I sat down for a moment and enjoyed the view of Montgomery Reservoir and Hoosier Pass. Then, very carefully, I started the hike down. Climbing accidents happen most commonly on the descent, when you're tired.

After getting back to the base of the route, I picked up my pack, snapped a few more photos, and started the hike down to my car. I felt much lighter than I had when I had started the hike up. Whether this will be the start of another ice cycle is anyone's guess. For that moment, though, joy I'd once found in ice climbing was back.

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