Days On Ice ~ High Sierra (January 1985)

Up until 2008, our adventures were retained only as memories and on Kodachromes. While our memories may have faded (just a bit), the Kodachromes haven’t – and we have a lot of them. So we’re digitizing a select few to bring some of our past adventures into the 21st Century. This is one of those.

In the early 1990s, when we were living in Denver, I went ice climbing with a couple of sportsmen who had a different take on what “sport” entailed.  In the summer months, they played golf.  No hiking, rock climbing, mountaineering, etc. – just golf.  In the winter months, they did extreme ice climbing.  No skiing, snowshoeing, mountaineering, etc. – just ice climbing.  I went along on one of their milder winter excursions.  We started with a simple “warm-up” climb (literally and figuratively) of a 30-foot frozen cascade in Rocky Mountain National Park, then moved on to a 75-foot frozen waterfall.  This was an essentially freestanding frozen column of water – anchored at the bottom by gravity and at the top by ice entwined in some tree roots at the lip of the fall.

This stack of ice seemed precarious to the point that even these ice wizards decided to top-rope it lest it collapse beneath us.  Or on us.  I was admonished to climb carefully, using only the tips – if at all possible – of my crampons and ice tools.  No heroic axe swings or crampon kicks.  Every time I moved up – no matter how carefully – this column of solid water vibrated ever so slightly.  Hit it just a little harder and it twanged.  My chance to ever reach geezer-hood was hanging by an ice crystal.  Oh rapacious joy!  This was a long, long 75-foot climb, top rope or not.  While topping-out, I noticed the ice enmeshed in the roots had cracked…ever…so…slightly.  This was the last time I ever went ice climbing.  Never developed much interest in golf either…

A few years before my Colorado cavalcade on ice, John, Alan, and I had gone ice climbing at two locations in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada – Rush Creek (June Lake) and Lee Vining Canyon.  Unlike the extreme ice climbers, the three of us were climbing ice primarily to hone our skills in case we needed to climb a little ice on a mountaineering trip.  The ice in both these locations is the result of leakage from Southern California Edison (SCE) penstocks running across the cliffs above.  As a result of this source, the ice flows and cascades in sheets down the cliffs at angles between 45° and near vertical.  Rush Creek was a good place to practice, while Lee Vining was the place to try your axe at 2-3 pitches of real ice climbing. 

Climbing up to the ice at Rush Creek from the SCE power station
Alan and John, almost to the ice
The ice at Rush Creek
John at Rush Creek
Alan at Rush Creek
Alan and John practicing anchors in ice
Me at Rush Creek

After spending most of the day on the sheet of ice, Alan and I did a short climb of a frozen creek just to the north of it. After that it was back to our small, but warm, rented room in June Lake – a room suspiciously close to the nearby restaurant and bar. 🙂

Climbing to reach the frozen creek
Climbing the creek
Almost to the top
Rush Creek near June Lake (P: parking, I: ice-covered cliff, H: Horsetail Falls)

Early the next morning we drove north into Lee Vining Canyon, parked, and then walked up to where ice coated the cliffs. While sun graced the peaks above, the deep canyon with its wall of ice stayed in perpetual shade.

Morning in Lee Vining Canyon
Other climbers on one of the ice walls in Lee Vining Canyon
Other climbers on another wall of ice
Alan (yellow helmet) gets ready to climb
Going vertical
Considering a placement
Setting an ice screw
Moving on
Running it out
Lee Vining Canyon (P: parking, I: ice cliffs)

We had a lot of fun in these two places.  Both are still hugely popular locations in California for ice climbing but one can’t help but think that the consistency and longevity of the ice has declined somewhat as the climate has warmed.  And the routes at Lee Vining now have names (e.g., Zippo’s Frozen Booger) and ratings, features that hadn’t yet come into being (at least formally) back in our days of yore. 😉

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4 comments

  1. Your photos are always great, but I think some of these are really outstanding! Especially the one with the other climbers from a distance, in Lee Vining Canyon.

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