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Doug Millen Climbing early season ice

The Hazards of Early Season Ice Climbing

And How to Avoid Them

Pinnacle Gully Early Season - Gary Reuters - early season ice

Pinnacle Gully Early Season – Gary Reuters

 by Doug Millen

Unchecked Ego:

Yes, it’s great to get that early season tick and bragging rights, but the risks are high for those with little experience with early season ice climbing.  Are you inexperienced? Think before you ice climb and take an honest look at your skill set, gear and abilities. Your life could depend on it. If you climb WI3+ on a normal day that doesn’t mean you can get up a climb of that grade safely in poor conditions. Often WI3+ climbs are for grade WI5 leaders in the early season.

Falling Ice:

Falling ice is one of the biggest hazards in early season ice climbing. Always be aware of the ice above your climb. Early in the season most ice is not well bonded and frequently falls off, especially later in the day as temperatures rise and the sun works the climb. Early starts are best, and most often are mandatory.

Unprotectable thin ice in King Ravine (Nov. 2011) - early season ice

Unprotectable thin ice in King Ravine (Nov. 2011)

Unbonded ice:

The 2nd greatest hazard is unbonded ice. In the early season, the water, rock and ground are still warm. Ice will build out with those first few cold days, but the bonds to the earth haven’t been established yet and you will often find hollow spaces under the ice. One must determine if the ice can support your weight and if it’s connected to more substantial ice to let you pass safely. The top outs most likely won’t be frozen turf but wet, soft moss over rock. Sometimes the crux is getting off at the top of the climb. You must be prepared and resourceful. Once I topped out on a climb only to find wet, thin, and delaminated ice with no secure way to make it off the climb. I untied one rope and tied it to my tool and then tossed it up unto the woods where it caught a small tree.  Then I “batman-ed” up the rope to safety. Aid climbing for sure, but better than taking a fall.

Free-hanging Columns:

Early season free hanging columns are not safe to climb. They are often brittle and candled.  Give them time. It takes many freeze / thaw cycles to temper and solidify the ice so it is safe to climb. Also, columns may not be well connected at the top and will not support your weight. Early season columns offer  poor protection and very poor sticks for the tools due to the new, candled and brittle ice.

 

Limited Protection:

This is not sport or gym climbing. Most often the gear you get is just for the head and would not hold a fall. Short screws, Spectres, pins and a small rock rack are standard for most early season ice climbs. Sometimes a small tied off tree in a crack is the best you can hope for.  Use anything you can and the more protection you use, the better off you are. At least with a collection of bad gear, it will slow you down should you fall.

Keeping the rope away from the water! - early season ice

Keeping the rope away from the water!

Wet and Frozen Ropes:

A wet rope is not as strong as a dry one and there is often a lot of water running early season.  If it is a cold day, your ropes could get frozen and useless in no time.  Dry-treated ropes are best and be sure to manage your ropes, keeping them out of the water. Your old fuzzy rock climbing rope will act just like a sponge. Leave it home.

Sunshine:

A cloudy day is your friend. The sun can quickly change the condition of your ice climb. Think about what the sun will be doing when you are on the climb. For instance, the upper reaches of Fafnir on Cannon Cliff gets the sun late in the morning, often showering the lower reaches of the climb and the approach to the Black Dike with falling ice. Think ahead as to where the sun will be shining and where you want to be when the sun hits.  Any time the sun leaves or shines on a climb it will cause expansion or contraction. This will cause rocks and ice to move and fall off.

Rising Temps:

If the forecast is for rising temperatures think about what that might mean for your ice climb. Above freezing temps at night and rising temps during the day should send up a red flag. Be aware of what the temperatures have been leading up to the day of your climb and plan accordingly. Consecutive days of rising temps are not good. One warm day after many days of cold is not bad and may offer good safe climbing.

~Doug Millen

You may also like: Protecting the Ice We Climb


pinnacle gully up close

Conditions Update! 11.10.17

New Hampshire

We had some eyes on the condition of two early season prizes in on Wednesday the 8th!  A close look at Pinnacle Gully revealed some unconsolidated and thin, but hopeful, frost and ice.  No rock pro options that morning led to a ‘No Go’, but with temperatures remaining frigid, it may be climbable soon!  I’m sure the motivated will head into Huntington Ravine this weekend.

Conditions - Pinnacle From Afar (11.8.17) . Photo: Brady

Pinnacle From Afar (11.8.17) . Photo: Gary Reuters

 

Conditions - Pinnacle Up Close (11.8.17) . Photo: Brady

Pinnacle Up Close (11.8.17) . Photo: Gary Reuters

No doubt Cannon Cliff will get a close inspection as well.  We have a ‘from-the-road zoom in’ to the dike area and Fafnir. Who will be enticed to take a walk up and peer around the corner?

Conditions - Fafnir (11.8.17) . Photo: John Mallery

Fafnir (11.8.17) . Photo: John Mallery

 

The Black Dike 11-10-17

The second follows the runnel pitch on an early season ascent of the Black Dike. 11-10-17 / www.facebook.com/CannonCliffFranconia/

Vermont

In Vermont, it’s currently snowing on the higher peaks and I know a few climbers who only need a millimeter of ice on the cliffs of Smuggler’s Notch to make it go.

New York

A look at our Instagram feed shows crampons to ice!  @willclimbz posted a sweet pic of Slide 1 on Whiteface in ‘Thin But In’ conditions.  Right on!

Slide 1, Whiteface. Photo: Will Roth

We certainly had some warm temperatures in October and my usual Halloween ice was far from happening this year. Now temperatures are remaining below freezing up high for a few days leading into the weekend.  Finally!  Hope to see some great photos and reports of ascents coming in.  Have a great weekend!

The Expected and Unexpected of Early Season

Splashing through the rushing water currents on the trail did not invoke confidence that anything would be frozen up higher.  Still, my climbing partner and I did not slow our pace into King Ravine.  We climbed over the countless snow covered boulders trying not to slip into the human eating crevasses as we picked our way towards Great Gully.  It was warm and wet.  By the time we started our final approach to the drainage in low visibility, I had already resigned to the fact that we would be just out for a hike inside the low lying cloud bank.  To no surprise, Great Gully was a mess of rushing water and soft snow.

The floor of the ravine in the clouds. (photo by Joel Dashnaw)

If you are like me, you can’t choose your days to go climbing.  I’m chained to a desk Monday through Friday and on some weekends I’m working my second job as a photographer.  This particular weekend, I only had Sunday free. So despite the rain on Saturday and rising temperatures, I found myself clinging to the desperate hope that the ice that existed a few days before would still be hanging on. It was a tradition for me to get out and climb ice on Halloween weekend.  Rather, get out and attempt to climb ice.


Related Post:  Chronicles of the Overly Motivated


I love everything that goes along with being back inside winter’s grip. Although nothing is as good as having your mind and body back on some frozen water for the first time, there’s always more to it.  It’s time spent with your climbing partners, or time spent solo.  It’s time spent preparing and getting the psych up.  It’s about throwing yourself back out into harsh elements.  It’s about being in the mountains.  On this day, we post-holed through upwards of three feet of blown-in snow as we neared the lip of the ravine. (The type of snow that has that layer of crust that may or may not hold your weight.) We stumbled, stammered and literally crawled our way upwards.  We weren’t going to climb an ice-choked gully that day, but we were determined to reach the top regardless.  As we were about halfway up the headwall, the clouds began to fade and a brilliant blue sky revealed itself.

Leaving the clouds behind us. (photo by Courtney Ley)

Any thought of ice I had was left below me inside the cloud bank.  We weren’t out there anymore to find ice to climb, or lamenting it didn’t exist that day.  We were thrilled to experience one of the most outstanding undercasts I’ve ever seen.  Most years, my early season tradition of just ‘going out there anyway’ finds a reward for me. Some years it’s ice to climb.  Other years, it becomes something completely unexpected.

Photographs by Joel Dashnaw and Courtney Ley

September rime ice!

It was an excellent day above tree line on Sunday.  Cool temps with a bluebird sky above and an undercast below.  Not to mention, evidence of the first overnight freeze of the season!

There’s nothing like a little rime ice to feed the psych!

(click on thumbnails to enlarge)

Photos by Courtney Ley

 

 

 

 

A Season Within a Season

Article by Courtney Ley

It is when one season weakens and surrenders to the growing strength of another that we can most clearly see the movement of time changing space.  The leaves brown, crumble and fall at our feet.  The water slowly comes to a halt and freezes.  It is quiet and I’m alone.  As if I’m in the middle of nature’s own time lapse, I peer around the same corner but I find my surroundings are different.  The air is warm but the ground is cold.  I am winding my way around a dark, shaded place but I have a clear objective.  I am climbing up towards the top where the light begins.  Before I reach it, I am confronted with unknowns despite being in a place I’ve travelled many times before.  During this time, everything is unpredictable, and often one day is strikingly different from the next.  I am confident I can handle anything I encounter but my movements must be thought out.  I place my ice tools delicately in the newly formed ice and my crampons on a thin shelf of rock.  Upwards, slowly, as if not to disturb the passage of time that I find myself enveloped in.

Before I had set off, I didn’t know what the condition of the ice was going to be, if there would be any ice at all.  For in that time before the heart of winter takes a hold, just a few degrees up or down has a drastic effect. Winter just doesn’t arrive full strength right away.  It comes and goes until the warm air of autumn finally gives in.  Ice may appear and disappear within hours.  Despite this, I am able to find peace in the battle of the seasons.  Autumn has allowed winter to take a hold of this place, for now.  I sink the first couple of teeth on my pick into the ice.  At times, I’m putting a tool away and grabbing a hold of the rock.  A kick with my crampons proved too hard and some ice has fell away.  I find another place for my feet.

In early season, I find adventure in the mountains I’ve visited time and time again.  It is necessary to keep constant watch on the weather, to plan and strategize when and where to go, because the ice is never guaranteed.  I travel light, unburdened by ropes or gear.  I start early because the approach is long and the place is high.  I want to reach the top, but I linger. Finding ice to climb during this time is worthy of a little savoring.

My mind is so focused at the task at hand that I don’t see anything else beyond this place.    But every once and awhile I will pause and watch the surrounding mountains grow smaller and more plentiful.  On this day as I reach the top, I’m greeted by warm sun.  Wind sculpted rime ice covers the rocky landscape.  I have climbed up a ravine I had before in a gully I had before, but the climb was different.  Soon winter will move in and the ice will grow and the snow will arrive and people will begin heading into this place.  Tool and crampon placements will be easier to find, the ice will be more reliable and conditions predictable.  The three dimensional world of rock, thin ice, running water and vegetation will relent into world of white snow and white ice.  For now, I have this place to myself.  I walk in the frosted alpine terrain satisfied and content that I had climbed ice that only few knew existed.  And ice that would most likely melt away before it returns.

There is depth and variety to early season.  The trees in the valleys still hold on to their last leaves as they flicker in the wind. Higher up the branches are encased in ice.  As I make my way up and down the mountain, I experience the two seasons as separate entities above and below. During my climb, they are melded into one.  When I descend, I start to hear the crunch of autumn under my feet.  Whites fade away as pale greens and yellows return to the woods.

It is now that this early season, this season within a season, is beginning to fade.  I watch the snow fall, the ice build and number of people grow quickly and fill in the gullies, slots, corners and clefts of the mountains.  I thought it only appropriate to bid a farewell to this time and place as I now seek out more remote places to experience that sense of adventure I am always thirsting for.

YES!

Let the “Games” begin!

Damnation Gully – Huntington Ravine, Mt Washington NH

Sunday October 10, 2010

AlfonzoEarlyIce1

Alfonzo finds some early ice on Damnation Gully, Huntington Ravine 10/10/10 – Doug Millen

 

While others were climbing warm rock at Rumney, or having their Sunday coffee, Alfonzo, the alpine junkie was in his element climbing some early season ice. We found more ice than expected, and it was well bonded, but by mid morning the sun was starting to take it’s toll. Looks like a great start to the season. Look for more photos in the gallery .

Doug Millen