Monday, December 16, 2013

Some Local Ice Climbing

The northwest part of Oregon, where I am, is sort of known for its year round mild weather.  Pipes are not protected from the elements, because it so rarely gets below freezing, here.  So, to do ice climbing, here, I usually have to go into the mountains and climb in the crevasses of some glaciers.  However, the last couple of weeks, we had a tremendous cold spell, so some friends (Wim, with whom I went to Aconcagua, and Steve – new to all of you) and I were able to go into the “at sea level” Columbia River Gorge, just east of Portland, and climb a (mostly) frozen waterfall!

Here’s our objective:
The waterfall that we chose to climb is just east of Crown Point, where the million dollar bathroom, Vista House, is located, and it has the glorious name “The Crown Jewel!”  Who wouldn’t want to have the Crown Jewel under their belt (I say with all puns intended)?

For some reason, only Steve thought to take a picture of the entire waterfall from the base of the climb, before we started, while it was still light (picture courtesy of Steve):
Wim was our stud lead climber – i.e., the one who didn’t have the daylights scared out of him at the thought of the rope coming at him from the bottom, where, if he fell, he would actually fall.  Steve and I were happy to have Wim climb up, put in protection (for himself) on the way up, so that if he fell, maybe he’d only fall twice the distance from his last piece of protection.  And then Steve and I would each climb up, with the rope heading UP from us, to Wim’s belay device, where, if we happened to fall, we’d go at most a couple feet or so.  Even though it had only been a week since I’d climbed some ice with Wim on Reid Headwall on Mt. Hood, it felt as though it had been ages (and it had) since I’d done such a continuous climb of waterfall ice, which tends to be a tad more vertical than what I normally experience on the mountain.  And, I knew that I’d fallen from an ice pillar on that same day, so I think that I was still a little traumatized from that.   Here’s a picture of me on the pillar (in the Bergschrund on the south side of Mt. Hood) just before I peeled off on the day after Thanksgiving (11/29/13 – picture courtesy of Wim):
Ice climbers will know that the reason that I peeled off is because of my poor form on the pillar.  I excel at poor form when the ice is actually vertical. With practice, I’m sure that it will get better. . .

So, back to the Crown Jewel.  When doing something like this, I tend to like to check and even double-check everything to make sure that everything is connected the way that it should be so that people are as safe as they can be, given the circumstances.  So, before Wim headed up on the climb, I asked to check his gear – here I am doing that(Picture courtesy of Steve):
I’m set up to belay him (catch his fall, if he should fall) as soon as he starts putting in protection, and I’m clipped to an anchor (carabiner clipped into a small diameter rope that is tied around a huge tree), behind me, because if Wim *were* to fall, being heavier than I am, I’d likely go flying if it weren’t for being attached to that anchor.

Now that we’d checked each other out and made sure that everything was correct, I was happy for Wim to climb.  He felt very comfortable on the ice, and frequently climbed farther above his protection than I preferred, so I would keep calling up to him how far above his last “piece” he was.  He’d wait until he was in a good, stable position, and then put in some protection.  When he got to the top of the first pitch (about as long as the rope was), he built a nice anchor:

This shows the top of the ice screws with the holes that the carabiner clips onto, and then from each of the three screws, he’d attached another small rope, tied it off in the direction of the expected pull.  When I took this picture, Steve’s carabiner lower right corner was clipped into the anchor, and Steve was also clipped into the rightmost ice screw with another bit of rope coming off of him.  He started belaying Wim up the second pitch, while I dealt with some rope for another team of climbers who showed up that day.

Here is Steve:
belaying Wim:
Wim stopped a moment in his climb to take this picture of Steve and me standing at the top of the first pitch (photo courtesy of Wim):
That’s me with the orange helmet and hand raised in the air.  The guy in blue is one of the other climbers we’d helped.  Steve’s in the red attire.  Steve’s and my backpacks are small dots on the ground far below us.

After Wim got up, we had a plan for Steve to climb up, first, so that he would have plenty of resting opportunities, but Wim wasn’t able to get the slack out of his rope.  After several tries, admonishments via radio, and some frozen hands (Steve’s) that we spent some time warming up, I finally realized that Steve’s rope must be stuck, somehow, and that I should just climb, and clean (take out) the ice screws on the way up, and that likely I’d be able to free Steve’s rope, and then he could climb.  Steve took this picture of me from below, while he was waiting (photo courtesy of Steve):

My left foot is *solidly* placed (trust me!) with the 2 front points of the crampons that I’m wearing, and my right foot is actually quite comfortable sitting on top of what we refer to as a mushroom.  For some reason, my hips aren’t smashed up against the ice, as they should be, but that’s part of the poor form that I need to work on. . .  My form wasn’t *always* this poor, but it is in this picture.  Wim’s head is a little dark ball seemingly at the top of the two ropes.  (And, Hoa – those are your crampons – for some reason, I mistakenly picked those up instead of my own, but they worked fantastically!)

A little while later, Wim took this picture of me from above (photo courtesy of Wim):
You can’t even see Steve, but he’s down there!  What struck me, looking at this, was that when I was climbing the waterfall, I was thinking that it was vertical ice.  When Wim and I were discussing it later, he made some comment about “well, the ice was never really vertical”!  It wasn’t?  Well, no, it wasn’t – there really was a slight angle the whole time, as evidenced by all of the other pictures, above, but being on the ice, it had *felt* vertical to me, which is why I need to practice, more.  I knew that I didn’t have a hard time climbing it, which should have been my clue, since it’s as soon as it becomes really vertical that I have real difficulties climbing ice.

This climb took us hours – partly because we wanted to take pictures, partly because we helped out the other team, partly because Steve’s hands froze and we had to warm them up, partly because it took us so long to figure out that Steve’s rope was just plain stuck, and partly because climbing and putting in protection just takes a long time.   As we climbed, it got warmer.  As it got warmer, we could feel the difference in the ice, and started to see more and more water flowing UNDER the ice (this was, after all, a waterfall).  We started to fear for our safety if we were to rappel down this waterfall when we were done.  What if the anchor in the ice that we were using to rappel off of were to pull the whole chuck of ice off?  Or maybe we would crash through some of the icy waterfall and get seriously wet.  We were already quite wet because the waterfall was spraying water, but not seriously wet.  We were pretty close to the cars by some standards (just a mile or so away).  We decided that the safest alternative was to simply “walk off” the top of the waterfall.  This was an adventure in itself, since none of us had ever done this, and while we knew where we needed to get to, we didn’t really know how to get there, so we just guessed.  I saw what looked like a pretty clear path, and started up that.  Wim and Steve followed up the very steep, very moss-covered rock:
I tried to give a sense of how steep this was.  Those are railroad tracks, down below, with a snow covered, iced-over pond, next to it.  We kept our crampons on, because they made it easier to get purchase in this moss-covered dirt that we were climbing. 

We had views from places that most people will never be:
That’s the Columbia river on the upper left, with the state of Washington upper left.  On this side of the Columbia, we have I-84, from which we heard truckers tooting their horns at us all day (maybe they were impressed?), and then this inner little river that formed a pond, below us, and then the railroad (very hard to see in this picture, but it’s there), and finally, cliff side of the gully that we were climbing. 

We eventually made it through all of the brush, and growth to a ridge that led to the road, at which was posted a “no trespassing” sign (oops!), and then we walked up the road to and around the Vista house.  Wim told us that he’d read that there was a gully on the west side of the Vista House that made a decent return, so we headed over there.  Again donning our crampons, in spite of the dirt and rocks that we knew would dull them, because we figured it would give us the best purchase, and, in case we did run into frozen ground or ice, it would be easy if we had the crampons on.  We did run into both frozen ground and ice, and the crampons did, indeed, make the going easy.  Wim took a shot of me as I dashed down the gully (photo courtesy of Wim):
I was doing something that we call “downclimbing” – face toward the ground, and going down on all fours.  It’s incredibly fast and safe on steep terrain, which this was.  Fortunately, this gully, while steep in many places, was definitely pretty easy to go down, and never ended in a cliff, which we would have had to rappel down.  We were able to get all the way down to the railroad, follow it to the base of the ice climb, pick up our packs, and then head back, getting to the car about a ½ hour or so, later.  It was after sunset, but with all of the snow, and a bit of moon showing, it was plenty light enough for us to get to the car.  We did worry that the gate might have been closed because we parked the car in the state park parking lot, and it said that it was open from dawn until dusk, but the gate was still open, and we, with our muddy faces, and wet clothes, piled into the car and headed home, on quite the emotional high.  We’d climbed the Crown Jewel!!!!

May you have such opportunities in your life that give you an emotional high!