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.

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