Finding a Crowd Free Tahoe: Ice Climbing Lake Tahoe
Ice climbing is just one of many Lake Tahoe winter sport options.
December 23, 2011
Ice is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as frozen water. However, as the reader knows, ice has much more meaning than that in our lives. Ice on the road means slower, often more dangerous driving. Ice at the ski resorts means crummy conditions, unless of course you cut your teeth skiing on the East Cost and think that boilerplate equals a mountain in good shape – I’ll venture to say that these people are the exception. Ice also means that it’s damn cold; at least by California standards. I know, this is all beginning to sound a little bit negative, but ice isn’t all bad, right?
One example of this good is ice climbing. Lake Tahoe may not have many places for this sport, but when ice forms in the right places, like on the cliffs of waterfalls, it can be quite beautiful and yield some great routes. Over time and with fluctuating temperatures, waterfalls grow into curtains, columns and pillars – natural architectural features with great aesthetic appeal. Frozen waterfalls are surreal and look like someone simply stopped time and the water, previously free falling, is now stuck in suspended animation. And, when it forms up in thick, robust flows, it can be exhilarating to climb. However, certain gear and a particular attitude are required to make the sport fun.
I have often written about rock climbing, its history, safety considerations and even style in this column. In many ways, ice climbing is nothing like rock climbing. First off, rock rarely changes form overnight or even year to year. Significant rock fall that alters a popular climbing area is big news. On the other hand, ice is water, and it continues to flow, grow, shrink or otherwise alter its form rapidly. This is especially true of the Lake Tahoe winter where predominately sunny, moderate weather usually keeps the cold snaps to short intervals.
Ice as a climbing medium is transient. As a result, climbing ice is much more condition dependent than rock. Although rock, too, has prime conditions dependent upon air temps, sun exposure and lack of moisture, they are far less fickle and easier to predict than the circumstances that lead to good ice. For this reason, understanding how to ice climb safely is essential.
If you’re going ice climbing, Lake Tahoe may offer some great places but the Tahoe ice climber must be vigilant and be willing to hike out to potential flows without necessarily being rewarded with quality ice to climb. As a result, when making plans for such an outing, would-be ice climbers often say things like: “We’re just ganna head out there for a look-see.” Or, after returning from an unsuccessful outing you’ll hear things like: “Oh, we just took the ol’ picks out for a walk.” That’s just the way things go sometimes.
It’s not just the demands of weather that make ice climbing a challenge. The very system that allows one to ascend vertical ice is in many ways complex and gear intensive. Here is a list of the requisite gear needed to get out there comfortably and safely: first you need alpine boots, steel crampons, two ice axes, a harness, 1-2 ropes, a dozen ice screws, traditional rock protection, cold weather clothing (including a lofty down jacket and a hard shell), a helmet, two pairs of gloves (one heavy, one light) and pack to accommodate the gear. Add to this a thermos full of your preferred hot liquid, some food and water and your 35-liter pack is jammed full.
So the bag is all packed, the desired flow has come into shape and you’re ready to swing the sticks. This is where the fun comes in! Ice climbing is sort of a weird hybrid of aid climbing and free climbing because the climbers use gear to suspend their weight as they climb, but that gear is directly attached to the climber’s body. That is not to say that the task is an easy one. On the contrary, swinging an ax into ice is physically demanding even on low angle terrain. Moreover, creating footholds by kicking the front-points of the crampon into solid ice is a challenge as well.
The systems used to climb, mitigate risk and provide protection in the event of a fall are, well, how do we say this… Ice climbing is a no fall sport. The basic safety gear is a hollow, threaded tube with a serrated tip that is screwed into the ice and then clipped into the rope. Though these screws can hold around two-thousand pounds when put into good ice, one should never depend on them to rationalize a potential fall. Accordingly, ice climbing is a sport where one is very cautious about pushing the limits of skill and ability. Falling is not an option on lead and even top rope scenarios prove dangerous because the crampons can catch the ice, thus injuring the ankle.
In closing, it should be said that ice climbing is a sport that one should be apprenticed into. It is like building a house. One must learn to master each tool, technique and be able to foresee trouble before one is in it. Then and only then can one cast out on their own. That’s not to say that ice climbing is not accessible to the novice. Seek out expert instruction and play it safe. ‘Til it snows, I’ll see you at the local flow. Happy Holidays Tahoe.
Nick Miley is a freelance writer and columnist living in South Lake Tahoe. He spends his free time exploring the Sierra, learning its history and writing about his experiences. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at his blog: tahoepulp.wordpress.com
Originally published in the December 23, 2011, issue of the Tahoe Daily Tribune and regularly vetted for accuracy.