Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ice Climbing at the Asbestos Wall

I am really feeling like I’d like to get more into ice climbing.

Perhaps I should have said this before my last post about ice, but better to say it late than never: I know very little about ice climbing. The last thing I want is for someone who actually knows a lot about ice climbing to stumble upon these ramblings and come away thinking that I regard myself as some kind of real ice climber because I’ve toproped short, picked-out beginner walls on four occasions in my life. Obviously, I know I am a beginner. In offering my thoughts I hope to offer a beginner’s perspective on ice, and not much more.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about my day with Vass at the Asbestos Wall in the Catskills.

As the day approached, I watched the weather, hoping it would stay below freezing this time. On my last ice climbing day the temperature had spiked up into the mid-forties, leading to very wet and potentially worrisome conditions. This time around there appeared to be no problems in that regard. The high for the day was projected to be just 14 degrees, which is less than the ideal temperature, since when it is so far below freezing the ice can be brittle and chip off in plates when you stick your axe in it. But at least I could expect that this time it wouldn’t be so difficult to stay dry, and I wouldn’t have to worry about melting chunks falling on our heads.

I proposed to Vass that we check out the Asbestos Wall, mostly because I believed it would be easy for us to set up top ropes. Neither of us was planning on leading. I of course have never led on ice, and while Vass has the screws and used to do it, our trip was going to be his first time on the ice in at least three years. So he just wanted to get a feel for it again and told me he’d prefer it if he didn’t have to lead.

I had never been to the Asbestos Wall, and in fact had never really considered trying it before because it has a reputation as an overcrowded nightmare, full of loud, inconsiderate gumbies hogging routes and hacking the ice into oblivion. It is also a very sunny wall and the ice tends to bake and get that milky/cloudy appearance that can signal poor conditions (hence the wall’s name). But since we were heading up on MLK Day, which is a Monday and a workday for many, I hoped it wouldn’t be too crowded. And with a forecasted high temperature well below freezing, this sunny area seemed like just the ticket.

When Vass and I arrived we immediately saw why the wall gets so crowded. The approach is incredibly easy. The ice is visible from the parking lot and the slope beneath the climbs is neither steep nor unpleasant. And although the sections of the wall aren’t terribly high—the tallest ones are maybe 40 feet, tops—they are generally vertical, with very few ledges or broken-up sections. Add to these virtues the ease of access to the trees atop the cliff and the place becomes a beginner ice climber’s dream come true.

All of this is provided, of course, that you have enough room to climb without fear of getting a rope dropped on your head. We met a woman at the wall who had tried to come the previous day (i.e., Sunday). She said her party had given up after being at the wall for less than an hour because they found the crowded conditions so miserable.

But on this holiday Monday we had no such issues. The woman I just mentioned was part of a group of three. There was a guided party and I think two other pairs at the wall all day. We found plenty of ice to share with this small group of climbers and had ourselves a great time. We set up ropes on three different sections of the wall over the course of the day, and at each section we were able to pick out three or four different lines to climb. We had no trouble getting a section of the wall to ourselves any time we wanted it. There were ample signs of the wall’s popularity; most of the climbs we chose had obvious pick markings, and some would have benefitted from some time alone to recover. In the most extreme cases there was evidence that fragile lower sections of the wall had been kicked out by clumsy, rough climbers who came before us. But there were some fat columns we climbed on which there was no evidence of prior climbers, most likely because these particular sections have so much water flowing through them that holes fill in and freeze over very quickly. We tried to find the least hacked-up lines we could, and took care not to cause further damage to any of the more fragile features we found. We had a fun day, one I’d repeat without hesitation. Even though the temperature was quite low we were in the sun until the late afternoon, and had no trouble staying warm, which of course presents another issue with this wall on warmer days, when it must be difficult to evaluate whether the ice is in good condition.

So I would recommend the Asbestos Wall highly, but only to beginners, and only on a weekday, and only when it is quite cold. It really is a sign of how popular ice climbing has become that you can find five parties at this wall on a weekday. I would guess that a decade ago you might not have found so many parties at this wall over an entire weekend. Now, it seems the weekend crowding is so bad that this wall becomes unbearable.  Even during the week, I can’t imagine what this wall would offer a solid leader on ice. There are better, longer, less-crowded climbs within a very short distance of this wall. But for easy access to steep toprope climbs, it’s pretty hard to beat.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Climbing Resolutions for 2011

It's hard to believe we're already halfway through January.  The year has just begun and already I feel the opportunities slipping away.  It is high time I made a list of my climbing resolutions for the year.  So without further ado, here you go:

1.  Keep getting more fit.  In early December I published a lengthy post describing my plan to get in better shape and improve my climbing.  I talked about some simple things I could do to get myself in better shape and lose weight, and steps I intended to take to bring some discipline to my gym climbing.  And while I haven't quite implemented all of the steps I listed back in December, I have made great progress in a few areas. 

I started riding my bike regularly again in December.  Although the weather has been terrible for cycling, I've been plugging away at it indoors on my rollers.  In the past I've found this kind of riding to be a major drag, but for some reason I'm into it now.  I can't say why, but who cares?  It's working.  I'm riding all the time and I feel motivated to keep it up.  My endurance has improved a lot in just six weeks; I'm even entertaining thoughts that I might race my bicycle again in the Spring. 

I've also changed my diet.  I eat breakfast at home, and I bring my lunch to work every day, usually a salad with tofu or some roasted chicken breast.  It shouldn't be a big surprise that increased exercise plus better eating will lead to weight loss, but nevertheless I'm still kind of in shock at how quickly I'm losing so much weight.  Since early December I've dropped 15 pounds.  15 pounds!  I'm swimming in my clothes.  I think I can easily lose another 5 or 10 before my weight will be ideal, and I think it's best if I lose the next few pounds a little more slowly than I dropped the first 15.  I'm almost alarmed at how well it's going. 

As for my climbing, I have not yet started shifting my gym climbing towards more disciplined aerobic or anaerobic endurance sessions.  I still just go and boulder whatever's new or whatever looks good to me, or climb the toprope problems if I have a partner.  But I have started to approach my bouldering sessions with a completely different attitude.  In December I told you that I spent most of my time on V3 problems because I could usually do them, and that I intended to start focusing on harder problems and eliminate the invisible ceiling in my own mind that was stopping me from moving up into more difficult routes.  Shortly after I wrote those words I started to focus on the V4s at the gym, and I found out to my surprise that I can do almost all of them.  Sometimes right away, sometimes after some focused effort, but almost always I can do them eventually.  This has come as such a shock that the implications are still sinking in to my brain; it was only a few days ago that I suddenly realized I should really be working on V5s, since the V4s aren't just projects for me as I expected, but rather seem to be at my level.  And wouldn't you know it?  I picked out a couple V5s the other day and with a little work sent them both. 

I'm sure my better conditioning and weight loss have both played a role in my new success at harder routes, but I think a large part of it is also mental.  Without knowing it, I was holding myself back.  I resolve to keep up the good work and to keep getting more fit.  And I resolve to believe that when it comes to my climbing, anything is possible.

2.  Climb more ice.  I really enjoyed ice climbing on New Year's Day and I'd love to do more of it.  I'm heading out to the Catskills again tomorrow with V, and I hope to get a few more days in this winter with A, my partner from two weeks ago.  What I need to do at some point is acquire the gear, so I can stop wasting time stopping at Rock and Snow to rent the necessary tools.  So although my wife doesn't yet know this, I resolve to drop about a grand on ice climbing gear in the near future!  And then maybe it'd be nice to set some goals for next season, like the Black Dike on Cannon Cliff or something.

3.  Plan, plan, plan!  I want to do more climbing outside the Gunks.  I'm dying to get back to Eldorado Canyon.  I have to visit Yosemite before I get old.  Closer to home, I'd really like to do some climbing in the Adirondacks, and in New Hampshire at Cathedral & Whitehorse Ledges, not to mention the Red River Gorge in Tennessee and the New River Gorge in West Virginia.  These are but a few of the world-class climbing areas I need to visit.  I know I can make one or two of these areas a part of my life if I plan ahead to make sure any climbing trip I take fits in with other obligations.  I already have one trip planned in April, with A to Red Rocks in April.  I need to pick something ambitious for the autumn and start arranging it soon.

4.  Attack the Gunks with a vengeance.  If I keep working hard this could be my year.  I'm back, and this time it's personal.  I plan to go after the 5.9s in the Gunks in 2011 and maybe even some 5.10s.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Day in Stoney Clove

Ice climbing sure is fun.

I have very little experience doing it. On New Year's Day I went up to the Catskills with Adrian for what would be only my third time trying it. I don't own any ice tools, crampons or appropriate boots, so I arranged to rent what I needed from Rock and Snow in New Paltz.

The forecast looked good as the day approached. It had been quite cold for weeks and the websites were reporting that many lines were in good condition. But then on New Year's Eve I started to get worried. Suddenly it was in the forties, in the city and up in the Catskills. The overnight low as 2010 turned into 2011 was above freezing. And the projected high for our climbing day had crept up all the way to 47. My last few rock climbing trips up to the Gunks in 2010 were on colder days than this!  I thought we might be wasting our time heading up there looking for ice. But Adrian thought it would take a few days for the ice to melt, so we decided to go for it despite the warm temperatures.

At Rock and Snow they gave me a pair of leashless Black Diamond Vipers. I had never climbed using leashless tools, so I asked if they had any leashes (the kind that attach to your wrist) for me. Instead, saying "leashes are overrated," the guy behind the counter gave me a spinner leash (which is more like a tether, attached to the harness, so the tools aren't lost if you drop them).  Then he advised us to look for shady walls, and we were on our own.

My partner Adrian has led a ton of ice over the years, but never here in the East. He was interested in some grade 3 or 4 climbs just to get his bearings. We set out for the Stoney Clove area, since there are so many different options there.  A was thinking we should check out the Little Black Dike (4-), which he felt he could comfortably lead, and while the dike is on the West (i.e., sunny) side of the road we thought it might still be in the shade given its corner location.

Upon arriving at the parking area, we got geared up and started back up the road to the top of the hill and the climbs.  But as we walked we got the sense that the climbs on the sunny, West side of the road might not be the best idea on this particular day.  The climbs on that side were baking in the sun, and not long after we began walking we could hear the constant sound of large chunks of ice breaking off and smashing on the scree below.  We were still on the road, near the top of the hill, when we decided to just head up to some East side climbs and see if the ice seemed more solid in the shade.

We scrambled up through what seemed like an endless pile of loose choss to get up to the ice.  Given the heavy snow that had fallen in the area just after Christmas, I was surprised that there wasn't more snow on the ground.  In places the snow was quite thick over the sticks and rocks, making it much easier to work your way upward, but there was lots of territory with no snow cover at all, and these uncovered patches were kind of miserable to work through.  Even though the approach was probably over within ten minutes, it seemed far longer. 

Once we arrived at the nearest attractive wall of ice, we roped up and had a nice enough time.  I'm still not exactly sure where we ended up.  In retrospect, using Molitoris' guidebook, I think we climbed on the unnamed flows of ice mentioned in the book between the East Side Corner and the East Crag Pillar.  We took a look at at least three different walls of ice, all of which had some nice steep flows, none of which were very tall.  The ice was reasonably fat and in the warm temperatures it was really very plastic.  Good sticks were easy to get. 

This was my first time belaying a leader who placed screws in the ice. As I watched Adrian leading, it almost seemed sane to me. At a couple of different walls, Adrian led up one route and then set a top rope from which we could try a few different lines.  Cleaning the screws was simple enough.  The idea of relying on them while climbing on lead... now that's a different thing.  It's something I'd have to consider after more than three tries at ice climbing, when I have more certainty about when my sticks are good and my feet are solid. 

I started out a little shaky with the ice climbing technique; my last attempt was two years ago.  On our first pitch I found the feet really tenuous and my arms started to tire quickly.  After Adrian gave me some pointers on lowering my heels so that all four front points of the crampons were engaged with the ice, my footwork improved dramatically.  I didn't take a single fall all day, although my feet did fail me a couple times, leaving me hanging by my arms.  In one spectacular sequence both of my feet skidded out, and at the same time my glasses fell off my face.  Somehow I managed to catch the glasses on my knee while hanging on with my arms.  Then I got one foot back on the ice while I kept the glasses balanced on my other bent knee, so that then I could let go of one axe, pick the glasses up off my leg and put them back on my head.  All without weighting the rope. 
In a less heroic moment later in the day, I managed to put one of my tools right through one of my ropes.  The rope wasn't severed but the pick definitely penetrated to the other side.  Since we were climbing with 9mm doubles, I wasn't worried that I wouldn't be held in a fall, so I just finished the pitch and then rapped using the other rope.  I wish I'd used my (limited) knowledge of knots; I could have tied the damaged portion of the rope into an alpine butterfly knot, taking it out of the system.  But I didn't think of it.  Now I either have to chop about ten feet off of the end of both ropes (to keep my doubles even), or buy a new pair. 
I loved the BD Viper tools.  Going leashless didn't seem like a big adjustment at all once I got out on the ice.  I felt really confident using them all day.  They felt good in my hands, very natural, and I never came remotely close to dropping one.  I'm strongly considering buying a pair, since they're on the cheaper end of the market for ice tools and I don't mind aluminum. 
Apart from my idiotic attempt to destroy one of my climbing ropes, there was one negative aspect to the day:  the wetness.  Because it was so warm, water was constantly running off the climbs.  I was wearing clothes I've happily climbed ice in before, in much colder temperatures.  I had a base layer, a fleece, and a thin water-resistant shell.  I had two pairs of gloves.  But it turned out none of these items was up to the wetness, and by the afternoon my shell was useless, and both pairs of gloves were soaked.  I was wet all over and I started to shiver uncontrollably.  We could have squeezed in another climb but I begged off and we headed back to New Paltz to return my rented gear.  We grabbed a bite at the P & G and I shivered all through dinner. 

I'm sure I'm making the day sound miserable but really it was a pretty nice time!  The best moment for me was when we climbed a very fragile-looking column, which you can see on the left side of the photo above.  It wasn't picked out at all but I was able to find several placements in depressions in the column that did not require a potentially damaging swing of the axe.  When I combined the gentle pick work with some delicate footsteps I was able to ascend the thing without destroying it, a happy surprise.  It gave me hope for an alpine climbing future that I might have, if I actually manage to ice climb a bit more often than once every two years.