Ice. Its cold, slippery surface seems the unlikeliest of things to climb, but adventurers arrive here each winter to ascend a 60-story-tall wall of it.
Mono County has become a center for ice climbing in California because of its north-facing, eastern Sierra canyons that provide ideal conditions from December to March. Three frozen walls in Lee Vining Canyon (Bard Harrington Wall, Main Wall and Chouinard Falls) are the most favored. The canyon’s 600-foot-tall granite face, glazed with blue-white ice, is reached after a half-hour’s hike or snowshoe walk from the Tioga Road (SR 120 E). Some of the cliff’s named routes indicate its difficulty: Spiral Staircase, Plumb Line, Tight Rope, April Fools and White Lightning, while others make light of it: Casual Route, Larry, Moe and Curly or Colonel Clink.
Early each winter morning, climbers gather at Nicely’s restaurant in the town of Lee Vining to discuss their planned climbs over cups of hot coffee and cooling plates of bacon and eggs. Doug Nidever, head of the local Sierra Mountain Guides, says these gatherings are populated by two types of ice climbers: rock climbers who move to ice in winter in order to keep practicing their sport and alpinists who seek training on snow and ice before attempting to ascend peaks the likes of Mount Shasta or Denali.
Nidever, whose guides provide instruction and lead trips throughout the Sierra, says participation in ice climbing has doubled in the past five years and it’s not just from avid rock climbers, “Some have never seen an ice cube before. And, both men and women try it including a fair number of women teams who partner to support one another as they learn.”
Ice climbing classes include exercises that progressively demonstrate proper placement of feet and ice axe, transfer of weight, route finding and the use of protection. The technique involves digging the spiked tips of steel crampons, attached to the climber’s boots, into the ice and stepping up while balancing using an ice axe. The climber is protected, should he slip, by a climbing rope that is belayed by another climber and bound to the ice by stainless steel ice screws. Ice climbing’s advantage is that the climber can place a foot wherever he wants, whereas rock climbers must follow cracks and handholds on the rock.
The trickiest thing about learning to climb ice, according to Nidever, is learning to read the ice which varies from morning to afternoon. He says, “Rock doesn’t change, but ice is in a constant state of flux. It’s a medium that’s here today and gone tomorrow.” Ice climbing is so demanding of attention, Nidever explains, that it “wipes away whatever else is happening in your life. There’s little time for distraction and that’s one thing that appeals to climbers. The simple act of placing your ice axe or foot is all involving and separates you from whatever else is happening in your world.”
Despite its image as a high risk sport, climbing ranks 30th among sports injuries (as measured by American Sports Data Inc.), 7.5 times safer than cheerleading and nearly 16 times safer than tackle football. Nevertheless, it’s a sport whose technical aspects demand training. Sierra Mountain Guides employs only guides who have been certified by the American Mountain Guides Association. Ice climbing classes occur in Lee Vining Canyon on weekends from late December to mid-March. Introductory ice climbing courses are $280, advanced courses are $335 and mixed ice and rock climbing courses are $385. More information is found at www.themountainguide.com or by calling 1-877 ICE CLIMB (1-877-423-2546). Mono County travel information is available at www.monocounty.org or by calling 1-800-845-7922.
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