A Washington state leader of the American Alpine Club tells why she loves to go ice climbing, and offers a few tips on where and how.
I swung my right ice tool high, the pick slicing into the pale-blue ice with a satisfying thunk. Like squarely hitting a baseball with a bat, the sound signified the tool sticking well into the ice.
A cold wind blew tiny shards of ice into my face as I lifted my right foot over a small shiny bulge, setting the crampon front points into the ice with a sharp kick. I looked down over the white-and-blue pocked ice to my belayer, almost 100 feet below me.
I was a few swings from the top of the popular ice climb Hubba Hubba, near Leavenworth. I took a deep breath and made the next few critical moves, being careful not to make a mistake, since only my ice tools and the front points of my crampons stood between ascending this frozen ladder and taking a long fall.
Obviously, I lived to tell about it. And I’ve done plenty more ice climbs since then.
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Ice climbing is the adventure sport of ascending frozen waterfalls, seeps and snow-formed ice. Its tools — crampons, ice tools, harnesses, ice screws — are derived from mountaineering, but its techniques are unique to the sport. With unpredictability and environmental hazards common, ice climbing is both dangerous (ascending frozen waterfalls will never be the safest thing to do with one’s January Sunday) and exhilarating.
Challenge + beauty
Beyond working out the “puzzle” of an ascent, climbers are drawn to the beauty. Ice formations are Mother Nature’s ever-changing artwork. Glistening white and iridescent blue, ice lines form unique features such as pillars, curtains, gigantic icicles, ice caves, cauliflower formations and more. As the ice melts and re-forms throughout a season, climbs become easier or harder, gain or lose features and grow longer or shorter. The fact that ice changes frequently keeps climbs fresh, new, interesting and unexpected.
In a cold year, Washington has hundreds of routes, and the Northwest has some of the greatest variety of ice climbing in any of the Lower 48 states: alpine ice (formed from snow under intense pressure), water ice (frozen waterfalls and seeps), and mixed rock and ice.
Ice climbers in the state rank Leavenworth, Banks Lake and Snoqualmie Pass among their favorite locations to climb. Here are some highlights:
On the eastern side of Stevens Pass, Leavenworth has cold and snowy winters, with perfect conditions for ice to form. This area is known for its wide variety of classic ice climbs that form consistently year after year. Water-ice climbs are on the forested hillsides around the town, while alpine ice is found in the couloirs of Dragontail Peak and Mount Stuart. There are a few beginner climbs in this area with rambly, 60- to 70-degree ice (in which the “degrees” refers to the angle of ascent — 90 degrees being straight up). However, a majority of the routes are intermediate level with 80-degree ice and harder climbs with long sustained vertical sections, and challenging features such as mixed rock and ice, pillars and spots requiring delicate tool placements.
The “Most Dramatic Approach” award in the Leavenworth area goes to Drury Falls, accessible only by crossing the Wenatchee River by boat (remember, crampons and inflatable boats do not go well together).
On the east side of the state, the consistently cold temperatures, waterfalls, seeps and multitiered rock faces make this man-made lake, between Dry Falls and Grand Coulee dams in Grant County, prime ice-climbing real estate. The ice lines form on the east and west shore cliffs bordering the reservoir. Climbs range from difficult vertical routes with poor ice quality, ice caves and curtains — icicles that form a detached wall partway up a climb, like a curtain in front of a window — to easy beginner routes with low-angle ice and walk-offs at the top (meaning you can walk back down to the bottom instead of having to rappel).
Banks Lake has quite a bit of frozen brush to deal with on climbs. Ice climbers joke that shears are necessary climbing gear when attempting a route here; they are only half joking.
The cliffs above Devil’s Punch Bowl (a good beginner area) and Trotsky’s Revenge are notorious for monstericles (giant icicles) that form above the routes like the Sword of Damocles from Greek legend, threatening to fall on the climbers below. These tree-sized icicles periodically come crashing down, obliterating everything in their path (thus the name Devil’s Punch Bowl). The key to climbing in this area is avoiding weeks when temperatures are above freezing.
Because it’s close to Seattle, Snoqualmie Pass has some of the busiest ice around. Routes are both within the ski areas and in the backcountry. There are numerous beginner, intermediate and advanced climbs in this area. In addition to water-ice lines forming on the cliffs and in the gullies of the Snoqualmie Pass mountains, alpine ice forms on the mountains’ sides and in couloirs. Most ice climbs can be reached in under an hour of hiking, or wallowing, depending on snow conditions.
Unfortunately, many of the easier climbs in the Snoqualmie Pass area come with either avalanche danger or an audience. Stellar Falls and the North Face of Denny Mountain are both guilty of the latter.
With access via chairlifts, it’s not long before skiers gather to watch climbers ascend. For the cost of a lift ticket, you and your gear, sans crampons on the feet, can hop a ride to one of these climbs.
Genevieve Hathaway is founder and editor of a Seattle-based women’s climbing magazine, Alpine Athena (www.alpineathena.com), and is co-chairman of the Cascades Section of the American Alpine Club.