Ice Climbing First Tracks

I got a message from my climbing buddy Ryan, from http://www.climbingreport.com suggesting we go ice climbing up Provo Canyon to our favorite spot, Stairway to Heaven. He said it was early season and thin, but that a few days more of freezing should solidify it enough to get in some decent climbing.

Sadly the next few days were on the warm and rainy side. On Friday night he messaged suggesting we shoot for Pricecicle (Dirtcicle) which at a higher elevation was in better condition overall. I had some family events to attend to over the day, and didn’t have time for the 3 hours round trip drive, so that was out of the question. We settled on going out before dawn prepared to run a mixed line if needed, just to get in some climbing before my family event deadline.

At the base of Stairway to Heaven, in the dark, with Mount Timpanogos behind and the highway below.

At the base of Stairway to Heaven, in the dark, with Mount Timpanogos behind and the highway below.

We met at the Nunn’s Park lot at just a few minutes before 6 AM, and hiked in the dark the 3/4 mile to the fork in the trail heading up the gully to the base of Stairway. I had misplaced my good headlamp, so borrowed one the kids’ and it was really dark heading up the steep gravel in the dark. Remind me to dig out my good headlamp and keep it attached to my helmet at all times.

Thin ice indeed. Darktime view of the route at Stairway to Heaven

Thin ice indeed. Darktime view of the route at Stairway to Heaven

The route was really thin looking, but doable. There were thin slicks of ice over rock with some tiny pillars like melted candle wax hanging over rock depressions. It would be interesting. I had brought some slings and lockers for setting the toprope. Ryan went up with his rope and my pro and was gone for quite a bit longer than expected. I assumed he was having trouble crossing icy patches on the sloping shelf at the top of pitch one traversing the 50 or so yard to the chains for this route. I assumed he stopped to put on his crampons. He had his TNF Ice Project backpack [HERE] and I love the top crampon pocket. Envious.

Ryan rappelling over the falls at Stairway to Heaven

Ryan rappelling over the falls at Stairway to Heaven

I heard some rocks tumbling down to the right of the route and ducked out of the way just as he rapped over the edge. The rope was slightly to the right side of the route, but that’s where the best ice was, so it would do the job. I was really frozen standing there, so took first crack at the route to warm up. It was 23 with a real-feel of 17, but there was a really cold humid damp wind that made it feel more like 5F. Dang it was cold. I went up in my OR VERT gloves [HERE in a newer version] instead of my thinner climbing gloves. I also kept my puffy jacket on. Did I say it was cold?

It's not often I get to climb this dressed up.

It’s not often I get to climb this dressed up.

My hands froze really good, but the ice was decent. More decent than I expected. I got in some good sticks, a few good hooks, saw some sparks fly from the ends of my tools and popped out some really brittle toe points. One spot in particular felt off balance, backwards leaning slightly clearing a small bulge over some candlesticks. It had bad hollow sounding feet. But I was on toprope, so it’s all good.

Ryan climbing up the right side of the one doable route at Stairway to Heaven

Ryan climbing up the right side of the one doable route at Stairway to Heaven

I went up again on the right side as soon as Ryan was thawed out enough to belay. I went up much faster and my hands were warmer, having gotten that blood rush post-screaming-barfies. If you’ve been there you know what I mean. Ryan again booked it up the right side. We were both really stoked and while the ice wasn’t that great, the climbing was.

Ryan climbs another line slightly left of our first line

Ryan climbs another line slightly left of our first line

I took off again, as far left as the thin flow of ice would allow. It was much worse ice, with small blobs of ice to stick and thin smears to scratch. I did one of those “6 inches at a time” toekick ascents, breaking off the candle I was climbing with each kick. It was tough. Ryan followed that same line and afterward said it was really good fun.

Ryan working his way up the left side at Stairway to Heaven

Ryan working his way up the left side at Stairway to Heaven

I decided on the next lap to push it even further. I tried only hooking and placing. No swings. About halfway up I felt like my right tool was bomber, my right foot bomber. My left foot was nothing and my left tool was sketchy. I tried standing up on my almost nonexistent left toe point, and popped off. Solid pop. One split second moving up, the next split second hanging ten feet lower. In that split second I realized my left tool was following me so I ducked my head low and slammed my forearm over behind my neck. Sure enough it hit my helmet and dragged along my forearm for a split second. I wondered if it had hung up there or not. I heard the clatter a few seconds later, and turned to watch it bounce into the gully about 100′ below.

Dripping ice freezing instantly on our boots, tools, gloves, clothes. Water in our bottles freezing.

Dripping ice freezing instantly on our boots, tools, gloves, clothes. Water in our bottles freezing.

Ryan lowered me and thought maybe he could lower me into the gully and I could get a boost from the rope on the way back up. I looked at my watch and it was go time anyway. We could get it on the way past down to the car. Ryan said he’d rap down after cleaning. After his last lap I started putting my gear away and helped clear the rope for his descent. We hiked down the gully to the tool, and I hung it on my backpack waist belt. I don’t recommend that on a steep gravel descent, by the way. You don’t want pointy things interrupting your tumble down the scree.

That little tiny white stripe of ice to the left of center is where we were climbing at Stairway to Heaven

That little tiny white stripe of ice to the left of center is where we were climbing at Stairway to Heaven

At the bottom I paused for a photo and gosh did it look bare. Really bare. Had I done the approach at daylight I might have turned around. So glad we had this first day of climbing Stairway to Heaven for the 2015-2016 winter ice climbing season. Hope we get plenty more really good memorable days climbing this year.

About Charles Miske

Author, Climber, Mountaineer, Publisher, Athlete, Fitness

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