Washington climbers go where and when it’s cold enough, for a sport that offers relatively easy advancement for newcomers.
Kim Desrosiers couldn’t pinpoint exactly why she was so drawn to ice climbing, but as she unpacked her gear in the Cascades last summer, she knew she was exactly where she was meant to be.
Spotlight on snow sports
“The climb on Mount Baker and the Coleman Glacier was profound for me,” she says. “Not only from the sporting aspect, in that it physically challenged this 48-year-old female body to the edge of what was possible, but also from the meditative side, being in that vast expanse, among the inexplicable blues of the seracs, in what seemed to be the heart of the world, and experiencing the nonconceptual side of climbing.”
Desrosiers, who lives in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, began rock-climbing a few years ago and was inspired to take the American Alpine Institute’s (AAI) introductory course after getting a taste of ice climbing in New Hampshire. She chose the Bellingham-based institute because it’s regarded as one of the top climbing schools in the world.
Not only for the physically gifted
“Ice climbing is more about process and less about how physically gifted you are. It’s being confident in the movement and making progress along the path and being supported by our buddies and partners and trusting in them,” she says. “For whatever reason, your body weight is completely supported by these tiny, tiny pieces of metal. It’s really physically accessible for people who aren’t professional athletes or in the gym all the time.”
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Jason Martin, operations director for AAI and co-author of “Washington Ice: A Climbing Guide,” says it’s easier to move up the ladder of challenge in ice climbing than in traditional rock climbing.
“Anybody can do it, it’s just a matter of what level they can do it at. At the very least they have to walk to the climb — if they can do that and have a base level of fitness, they can climb something,” he says.
A seasoned mountaineer, Martin was won over by ice climbing as a sport after learning the techniques to make challenging ascents of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker.
“It’s a varied challenge and has a very different feel to it than rock climbing,” Martin says. “You use some of the same muscles and some of the same protective systems, but if you put the time and energy into it, unlike rock climbing — where at some level you will plateau and the movement forward is very slow — with ice climbing you can climb at higher levels relatively quickly.”
Managing your pump
This is hard to believe as you watch people “spiderman-ing” over the beautiful but unforgiving stalactites of a frozen waterfall. But Martin explains it’s all in “managing your pump” — referring to anaerobic muscle fatigue in the forearms and calves. (Harder climbs are referred to as “pretty pumpy.”) A skilled ice climber is good at both minimizing risk by placing equipment safely, and finding positions where he or she can rest to “let the pump go down,” so as to continue climbing.
For vertical climbs, ice climbers progress on a rope behind a lead climber, who sets ice screws into the frozen wall. Carrying an ice tool (a reverse curve pick ax) in each hand, and wearing crampons, climbers methodically kick the toe points of each of their crampons into the ice in turn, and swing their ice tools into the ice, one hand after the other, to transport themselves via these four points of contact.
“You don’t have to climb the hardest thing in the world to have fun,” says Martin, quoting the late Alex Lowe, a luminary in the world of ice climbing and mountaineering: “‘The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!’”
The typical progression is to start at lower angles and work up to higher and higher angles — from walking on ice with crampons, to using one ice tool, then moving to vertical climbs that require two ice tools. According to Martin, it’s not uncommon for beginners to climb even medium-ranked ice, especially if they have some rock-climbing experience.
One of the biggest challenges for ice climbers in Washington is the state’s maritime climate. Much as the surfer anticipates conditions that will create the perfect swell, the ice climber waits impatiently for prolonged cold snaps — and then moves quickly to exploit Washington’s capricious conditions.
“Washington ice is more fickle than ice in Colorado or Canada, and as a result, as far as winter waterfall ice, you have to pay attention for it,” says Martin, adding that we have plenty of good ice up high, only it’s blocked by deep snow. “Most of the ice that comes in every year in Washington, comes in for a few weeks at a time and then goes out, and then maybe comes in again.”
This is why the AAI holds its beginner’s course on the predictably frozen glacial flanks of Mount Baker, where Desrosiers found her climbing muse last July.
“With climbing and especially ice climbing, mindfulness and awareness are a big part of it,” says Desrosiers, a longtime meditator in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
To those considering giving ice climbing a go, Desrosiers says, “You are only limited by yourself — if you look at that activity and it inspires you, the doing of it will cascade across everything else you do by just showing up and trying it. It’s more about giving in to your curiosity and trusting the wisdom of your own curiosity about why you might be attracted to it.”
If you go
Ice climbing requires special training and equipment, and it is not safe to attempt it without them.
To get you started, the Bellingham-based American Alpine Institute offers ice-climbing courses and guided climbs for individuals and groups of all skill levels. Programs include both alpine ice and waterfall ice in Washington, British Columbia, California and Colorado.
The introductory ice-climbing course offers sessions May through September at Mount Baker. The institute also offers daylong guided climbs for those who can’t wait until next spring to try it. 360-671-1505 or alpineinstitute.com.
Watch it before you try it
Here are a few of the more-accessible places to see ice climbers in action:
• Pan Dome Falls, viewed from Chairlift 2 at Mount Baker Ski Area.
• Indian Creek Falls at Indian Canyon Park in Spokane.
• Hubba Hubba, off Icicle Creek Road, near Leavenworth (visible across the creek from the road)
• Banks Lake, including several viewing spots right off Highway 155, in Northeast Washington near Electric City.
Best website for ice condition information: cascadeclimbers.com
“Washington Ice: A Climbing Guide, ” by Jason D. Martin and Alex Krawarik (Mountaineers Books, 2003)