Why is Ice nICE?
Its almost a third decade to come soon, as I am climbing the frozen windmills of the vertical flying circus on the unpredictable terrain. Each year, each waterfall/icefall and destination and place have its own climate or microclimate, air temperature, wind direction, altitude, air pressure and humidity.
Each region has its own history and trends and moreover, it starts to change in the past few years, because of the ecology, making our ice climbing life easier, than ever, as the climate starts to chill down, despite frying up Global warming prediction of many experts... What can I say, for us ice climbers - the winters started to be longer and the season starts nowadays earlier, than ever before. You could start a warming up ascents in October and proceed climbing until late April or even late May. But, let's do one step at a time and differentiate ice as a structure or route and how it builds up and what is the category nowadays of it …
Let's define waterfall ice ( WI ) from Icefalls / glassier ice and alpine ice at first, as the alpine or glassier ice mostly forms, as a melting snow high above at altitude, because of the air temperature and pressure. But how literally the waterfall could freeze mid flow you would ask?
If you have a bit of time and you are curious, like me about the things, you could sit at the bank of the waterfall, when the air temperature starts to fall to minus 'C single numbers and observe the following : the water in the river/stream that supplies water to the waterfall supercools (when water experiences a temperature less than its freezing point without becoming a solid) when the temperature dips below the freezing point (around -6/8 degrees Celsius).
This results in a gradual slowing down of the flow as water molecules begin to stick to each other and form tiny, solid particles of 'frazil ice'. Frazil ice, which has an oily appearance when seen on the surface of the water, is a cluster of loose, randomly-oriented ice crystals shaped like tiny needles. It usually forms in rivers, lakes, oceans, and other water bodies containing turbulent, open and supercooled water.
These frazil ice discs cluster together and adhere to nearby surfaces, so in free-falling waterfalls, these discs attach to the overhang, whereas in waterfalls that flow down a cliff, the discs cling on to the cold rocks. Provided that the temperature stays at that level for a long enough time, frazil ice forms an anchor at the spot where the water drops from the rocks and begins to grow downwards, creating a column as tall as the height from which the waterfalls. The longer – the better ( it could be free standing columns), or Ice daggers, that are hanging mid in the air ( crazy "Flying Circus" ). After enough time passes, the entire waterfall appears to have frozen, making for a picturesque, but extremely surreal sight.
Although the process only occurs under cold conditions ( -6/-8 'C) and takes quite a bit of time ( at least several days of consistency low temperatures ) to bring a flowing water body to a complete standstill.
There are numerous factors, that are playing a major role in ice formation: 1) Temperature – not too cold, not to warm, these complex, intricate structures of crystalized ice build over time as the temperature continues to fall, and It needs to be a gradual process. 2) Time and consistency: A plummet in temperature for a week and the ice stops building, the ice may look great but there's no structure to it. It's brittle and has little to support itself. If it stays brutally cold, then perhaps the lower venues, where it's a few degrees warmer will start to come good. Too warm for too long, then it's a late bloomer with many of the lower venues possibly not even forming at all and climbing at a high venue where it's colder is key. A dry autumn with no snow means it could be a lean season with little seepage and only the main water courses coming into condition early on. Early snow may offer a good feed to many of the ice routes if you get a good melt-freeze cycle of weather.
Every season is different and that's what makes climbing the frozen waterfalls so special. Conditions change year to year and even day to day, so understanding how the ice has been formed, what the weather has been like over the past weeks before you head out and what's going on in the 'here and now' is key. Temperature is the biggest factor in the quality of ice and how safe the icefall is. Be mindful also of the snow that's built upon slopes above the icefall. The sun impacting that snow, the wind that cross-loads any bowls or gullies you may be climbing, both before and on that day. Don't plan too far ahead, but follow the weather and conditions and see how the ice is forming during this season. So, now we know, how the WI is build up.
Let's define the waterfall grades ( how easy, or hard, or even complicated is to climb the waterfall will be ) and also when we should or shouldn't climb it and what are the major details we should be looking for to stay safe...
Let's look closely at the WI grades: WI 1:
Walk up with crampons on. No tools required. No moves, tools swing etc. WI 2:
Tool is required. A pitch of 60º-70º ice, reasonably consistent, with a few short steep steps; good protection and belays all the way. Good rest position and belay. WI 3:
Sustained 70º-80º ice, usually fat and "plastic" (great for tool handling). May have short, steep sections (5-7m), but with good resting places; good protection and belays. Often requires some technical moves. WI 4:
A mostly sustained 75º-85º ice, separated by good belays and steps, or a less steep pitch with significantly vertical sections (8-12m). Generally, good quality ice, offering satisfactory protection with good rests position. WI 5:
A mostly vertical Ice, but with good rests, extended sections of vertical ice; the noticeably more strenuous pitch of good but steep (85º-90º) ice. Also good belays, in some cases tricky to find. Ice could be all sorts of condition from plastic to brittle, from "Organ Pipes" to the Daggers. WI 6:
Steep and technical–ice likely of poor quality and protection generally sparse and difficult to place. A high level of skill and strength is requisite. A good belay points or protection is tricky to find. Extended vertical pitches of 90/95 º ice all the way with poor/no rest position. The ice could be any sorts of Brittle pipes and daggers to thin mixte mushrooms. WI 7:
Steep, technical, and most dangerous ice formations, that are hard to protect from the Bottom / up climbing. Marginal pick placements usually make this dangerous. Very steep, possibly overhanging, strenuous pitch with few resting places. Quite rare to form …
The WI8 grade is new for me, never heard, but, if it exists it will be some sort of "Mission Impossible " WI 8
: It will be free hanging daggers in mid-air, over the siling or consistent overhanging terrain with the probability of poorly bonded thin ice with probably mixed sections required to finish the climb, with the nearly non-existent pro. Highly dangerous–a fall would likely be fatal.
In this brief article I will be touching the abseiling techniques, as "Abalakov", or snow anchors etc, as, if you already started climbing ice, you should have some alpine experience under your belt to operate on the ice terrain and escape the route, in case of emergency. If you require any information about how to make "Abalakov" protection/ descent point pls click here
, otherwise hire a professional guide or climbing instructor, that will be the coach you to perfection, how to make it and make it safe. So we have the walk through the basic principles and factor and now know, what is the waterfall ice is, how it builds up and how hard the grades are.
Now – let move forward and have a look at the major principles of how to stay safe on the road climb, is it worth it, or is it better to abort the mission and come back next time, week, month, season, or even year.
To avoid any contradictions in ethics, I will put my cards on a table and would say:
1. I am the pioneer in climbing, I like to open a new line, repeat the old/ remote or rarely repeated ones.
2. This principle applies the zero 2 hero impact on ecology and environment. I will only leaver a tet, ice screw/sling, and carabiners, if necessary or bolt the section if there is no chance to protect it by the trad gear.
I totally agree with the bolted belays at the popular destinations and routes, as it will decrease the environmental impact on ecology, as our modern ropes, tats and slings, carabiners and ice screws will be a the bottom of the waterfall in spring, or in the lake, ocean, sea, river etc quite for a long time , and who knows , it might be on our table in the stomach of salmon? So, if the area is often visited by ice climbers or alpinists and the route is popular – it's a great advantage to bolt the belays in order to Save the environment, or use as much, as possible V-V tread technique to zero the impact. So SAFETY FIRST:
By my own experience and PT & Sports science proof records all ice missions should be planned and scheduled precisely beforehand, and not as a last minute adventure. Yes – true, the more experience and knowledge you will get the more chances that you will be out of any mistakes or will prone to "bad decision "making, despite on many years of experience.
1. Plan your trip beforehand at least ( 1 month – 2 weeks – 1 week – 4 days ahead) - 3 month in advance is better, but 6 month or 26 weeks in advance is much better if you are considering to be on a road trip and hit the WI6/WI7 grades in Top Shape.
2. 6 month or 22-26 weeks is required to get your body and mind into the training regimen and sculpture it to the best shape. It requires dedication, time planning for strength, endurance, climbing indoor/ outdoor, projecting, agility and adopts new techniques and skills. Also, to have 1 week at least to recover to super compensate prior to the trip.
3. Also, it will give you the advantage to schedule your buying/bookings in advance (Tickets, bunk beds, hostel or hotel, gear, food, clothing and other ).
4. Also еhe months, that you will spend in preparation will give you an opportunity to deep dive into the massive data of the area, temperatures of the destinations, patterns, historical events, past weather forecasts and avalanche safety requirements, as the most waterfall formations are prone to avalanches, as they are a bottleneck of it, of the slopes or terrain of the approach, could be steep and will accumulate the stashes of snow and could trigger the uneven events . So the more information you could gather about the local area, climb, route, weather, forecasts, emergency contacts, local ice climbing clubs, alternative ice lines and avalanche bulletins – the better. As a resume:
You need circa 6 months or 22-26 weeks to prepare your body and mind for the road trip to be in top shape and to climb Top categories, as your body needs adaptation for loads of physical activity, new skills, endurance and strength patterns. (We will discuss how to train for the Ice season further (if you have 24 weeks, or you want to have a short cut )
Within 3 months in advance you will start to gather the data of the routes, historical weather forecast of the area, avalanche patterns, emergency contacts, and gear, kit, that you will require for the successful route ascent ( more in details about the kit further in the blog later on )
Also, within 3-1 month prior to the trip, you will book all your travel accommodation, transfers or cars before the trip with the probability of 90% forecast will last.
Alternatively, you should have you plan "B-C-D-E-F" of routes, destinations or areas, in case your desired route will not be in condition, or too lean, or it will be too much snow to get there and you don't have skis, snowshoes and there is no rental shop around, or you don't have a budget to get them beforehand. So, think creatively – what could you do alternatively? Drytooling? Alpine Ascend in a new valley nearby? Or to go snowboarding to the nearby resort, or there is a chance to get the ski touring kit there, or snowshoes? Visit a museum or sauna on a rest day? Do a cross-country skiing or trail run? So – you are the only limit of possibilities, that you can think off.
So Try to gather as much, as possible information about the area, shops, road closures, maps, local clubs, hospitals, hotels, B&B's, rangers and park patrols phone numbers, your rest day possibilities.
Get a map of the area, emergency contacts, and avalanche bulletins.
Get at least 3 different local weather forecast stations/ websites, that has the forecast of you are of interest.
With the map (hard copy or a google one – walk the route, how you will get to the base of the climb, how long does it take to drive, walk, break the trail, how steep the terrain is) - All these questions need to be addressed beforehand.
Might be it's a good idea to drive to the base of the climb or parking lot the day before, just to be familiar with the road or conditions?
What is the kit required to get to the base of the route? Skis? Snowshoes? Do you have them ready? Where to get them? Hire? Where from? How to use it or repair? Do you have a kit for it?
What are the emergency procedures and contacts will you apply?
Do all the members or your climbing partner, as you have an Outdoor First Aid certification and Snow Safety experience, knowledge and understanding of the basic principles and how to use the beacon, shovel, prone in case of emergency?
Do you both know what to do?
How to safely descend from the route or navigate in the mountains?
Do you have the same understanding of the probability or consequences of the events of the ice climbing/winter mountaineering?
Do you have anyone to contact in case of emergency, that knows where are you or will go? Have you called him/her and tell where you will go and when you will come back?
So – you need to address these questions and loads more in order to have peace of mind and A-B-C algorithm of what you will do in case of A-B-C.
So, Chance favors the prepared mind and it's better to be prepared beforehand with climbing partner and team!
I am probably haven't opened an America for you, but, if you answer on one of the questions with "NO" – it's an opportunity to start thinking about it and ask yourself how it could turn around your climbing experience, preparation and moreover performance on the trip ahead! Let's finish it!
The key principles of climbing smart and what factors you need to consider to climb a line or abort the mission:
Weather forecast ( last 7 -4 -2 days pattern ) How cold, mild, warm is it. Why we need it? If the temperature will be very cold for a quite long period of time – the ice structures become unconsolidated and there is no or very low bond between the layers of ice and its become unstable (daggers, freestanding columns, pillars) and brittle. So it could easily crack under your weight and fall with you or on your belayer when swinging the ax above your head it could break the "Lenses " – a big chunks of ice ( from 20 to 90cm in diameter, it's highly dependent on the angle). So with the very low temps this kind of highly likely conditions and events you should keep in mind.
The Mild temps will bring you the best swing, kick plastic ice ever – solid protection and swings all the way,
Warm temps – its an opposite of the brittle, but also it could drive the same events (Unstable of the structures, running water between the rock and ice structure, running water inside the waterfall, melting ice )
Terrain - is it prone to avalanches y/n?
Is it North Facing or is it on the Sun all day long?
Is it a popular climb?
Is it remote, or a 5 min walk?
So, when you will answer these questions the GO or NOT GO climbing section begins:
After you will analyze the weather and know the temperature you will be prepared for the basic evaluation and probability factors, that could cause the break of the ice, pillars, and columns
When you approach an icefall ( WI) have a look precisely on the colors of the waterfall. What do you see? If it white? Blue? Mineral Blue? Dark? Brownish? - The color coding will give you loads of useful information about the temperature, is the ice just builds up and adding up each day and hour, is it warm or is it melting, is it brittle or not. If you will know the basics and decode the sections in the mind field of potential danger, you will be prepared even before you will start to climb and could discuss what you see with your climbing partner.
Putting the dots together and adding the pieces of data you will come to the well-supported decision about GO/NOT TO GO, and if GO, what your possibilities and probabilities and what should you do and avoid.
I could add only one more thing – Mental Game, some WI are freaking dangerous or scaring and from the first 8 seconds your "Beautiful Mind" will suggest you quit and go home and be sorry for yourself.
Ask yourself and your climbing partner what he/she feels about it, what she/he sees and what he/she think and suggest.
There shouldn't be any delusion about the ascent, as by all means ice climbing is the most dangerous winter venture and 50/50% it doesn't work if you have obligations or this is your time to go
I will not suggest you do stupid or suicidal missions… I suggest to calculate your risks, discuss them, accept them, have a plan "B" and "C", as a back-up, and if you are mentally or your partner is mentally not ready to go, or even to belay you and second the route – abort the mission! Yes, sometimes it's painful and probably you will never come back to the same spot and the same conditions, but its better this way.
If you go – commit by 100% and give all, what you have been training for, as a TEAM! Have a nICE CLIMB!