Ask a veteran ice climber about ice climbing around Tahoe, and the words "small," "scattered" and even "awful" might come up. But while South Lake Tahoe may not be an ice-climbing Mecca, the South Shore winter climbing scene is growing as more snow sports enthusiasts head to the backcountry.
People just don't move to Tahoe for the ice, South Shore climber Bryce Stath said. Stath started ice climbing in Alaska almost a decade ago before moving to South Lake Tahoe last year.
"The Sierras don't produce ice like the other mountain ranges, but something is better than nothing. We go ice climbing when the skiing is marginal," Stath said.
Epic powder days can make for terrible ice climbing. Feet of snow covers routes and blocks access to the climbs, and the length and quality of the ice season varies drastically each winter as temperatures fluctuate. Novices be warned - ice climbing in Tahoe often involves thin ice and lots of mixed terrain, according to Stath.
Yet Stath said the number of strong rock climbers who want to test their skills on the ice is growing. Each year more people ask him to take them up in the winter, but with more climbers comes more risk.
"Being above people on ice is really dangerous. You have to be really mindful of where people are. And the equipment is very spiky and pointy. You just don't want to fall. It's such a different medium than rock. Ice can be really brittle," Stath said.
The most important lesson a beginning ice climber can learn is how to read the quality of the ice, a level of experience that can take years to master, longtime climber Karl Wallischeck said.
Wallischeck began ice climbing 35 years ago on the East Coast, where the winter climbing seasons are long and the ice plentiful. He kept ice climbing after he moved to Tahoe in 1987, but the limited terrain, "ephemeral" conditions and two full-time jobs shortened his season.
Wallischeck, who works as both a lieutenant for the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District and as a ski patroller at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, has seen the number of winter sports enthusiasts venturing into the backcountry, and onto the ice, rise. And the consequences of getting in over your head are severe, he said.
A 23-year-old El Cerrito man fell 125 feet to his death a year ago when he was ice climbing at Cascade Falls. Wallischeck said it's the only fatality that he knows of associated with the winter sport in Tahoe, but it's indicative of the level of experience needed to tackle even beginner routes.
Cascade and Eagle falls and other routes in Emerald Bay typically draw many novice climbers. The climbs are easy to access and find, South Shore climber Jenna Stevens said.
Like Stath and Wallischeck, Stevens didn't get her ice-climbing start in Tahoe. She honed her skills in Ouray, Colo., home of the biggest ice festival in North America.
"In those times that we're out there, reality just kind of disappears. It's just you and nature. It's become a way of life for us," Stevens said.
Stevens moved to the South Shore in May. Searching for ice climbing crags in the area is a hit-or-miss endeavor, and she'll often go out to survey routes without climbing them. Stevens hasn't found much data about good climbs around Tahoe, and there isn't a cohesive ice-climbing community to fill in those information gaps.
"Ice climbers seem to be a little more scarce. A lot of people are still kind of hesitant to get out there are try it," she said.
The best way for beginners to leap into the sport is to find an experienced partner who's willing to act as a mentor, Stevens said. The American Alpine Club annual ice climbing weekend set to take place Jan. 25-27 this year at Coldstream Canyon in Truckee, Calif., is another good introduction to the sport.
Stevens hopes that the ice-climbing community will come together as more people augment its ranks. It would be helpful to get more information about routes into the mainstream even if there isn't a lot of ice to publicize, Stevens said.
"People aren't really vocal about where routes are and it's really important for a climbing community to get data out there. It's definitely a challenging activity. Your muscles are going to be really sore, but it's a blast," she said.