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copyright 1998 by Mike Sarmiento
After being cooped up in my office for the past 7 weekends in a row, I was itching to get back into the mountains. I needed to relax. Waterfall ice climbing, I thought, would do the trick. Seemed logical to me.
The weekend warrior inside me blasted out of the office at 4:45pm sharp. I had one hour to pack all my gear and get down to our group meeting place by 7pm. I was stressed out that I'd forget something so I packed EVERYTHING in sight. After spending an hour in Friday commuter traffic, I got to Tuan's apartment at 7:25pm - feeling bad about being late. Tuan was there waiting, along with Jim. No one else.
"Where the heck is everybody?" I thought. The last e-mail I got said there were nine people going.
"Did you hear the news?" Jim asked.
"Tuan's not going."
"What?" I said in disbelief.
"It's true," Tuan said. He had sent out a late e-mail canceling the trip for personal reasons. "But there is still the group from Stanford going."
"I'm not sure if I'm still going either," Jim added.
My heart was sinking. I had been looking forward to ice climbing all week. I've rock climbed for a number of years, but had yet to learn how to climb ice. I reasoned that if I couldn't climb ice, then I'd have to adjust my mountaineering goals - or at least just choose to take routes that one could simply walk up.
"You don't need to ice climb to every summit," Tuan told me earlier. "There are many routes that won't require it. It's just not as much fun."
Mountaineering has been described as "the art of suffering." I figured I could use all the fun I could get.
I sat there in Tuan's apartment deciding if I should stay or go. On the one hand, I could spend a great weekend with my girlfriend. I'd been so busy with my company's annual audit that Angela and I hadn't spent much time together lately. I definitely missed being with her. On the other hand, it would be my last chance this season to climb ice. The weather was getting warmer and the ice would soon be out of condition. I didn't want to wait until next season.
I reasoned that I would meet the group from Stanford and make a decision at that point. I didn't want to go if no one was qualified to provide a safe climbing environment. When Angela and I started dating, I promised her I'd be safe about my outdoor adventures. I intended to keep my promise to her.
Brian, Jack, Esther, and Chris arrived around 7:45pm. They planned on back country skiing if the ice was out of condition. Jack could lead climb ice, and Brian and Chris had climbed waterfalls before. Only Esther and I had never ice climbed. All four were outdoor instructors in Stanford's Outdoor Education Program. Enough experience among them to make me feel safe. I was in.
Tuan was good enough to lend us five ice tools - ice axes specifically designed to climb steep ice or water fall ice. They had well sharpened picks and a lower bend on the shaft for easier placement in ice. If looks could kill, these tools left no doubt. I guess this is why some people never take up ice climbing. When you think about the gear you use, there's a risk of injury. And then there's the ice itself.
I was in.
But I was hesitant.
- o -
We arrived at Lodgepole campground around 2:30am. Temps hovered in the mid-30s and the place was deserted. We weren't supposed to camp there, but we did anyway in the club tradition. Chris, Esther and Brian set up a bivy while Jack and I pitched his 2 person 4 season tent.
I was glad Jack rode in my car. He had the most experience in the group with ice climbing. I picked his brain during the 4.5 hour drive to Sequoia National Park.
"So Jack," I asked, "What kind of technique should I know about ice climbing?"
"Don't know, really," he answered in his British accent, "I suppose that Jeff Lowe is the most vocal about how to climb ice.
He says you should try to place your tools as high as you can, but not so high that you are stretched out. And once you get a good placement, you simply straight-arm and hang from the ice axe leashes. You use your muscular-skeletal system to support your weight while your place your feet.
And you just want to use a natural swing. Don't pound the axe in too hard, or you'll have trouble pulling it out. Nor do you want to place the tools too close together, because you might shatter the ice. And don't put the pick in at an angle to the plane of the ice, or it might glide off and not place correctly. Plus you'll have a harder time pulling it out. Just straight in, perpendicular, with a natural swing.
Do the same with your feet. A nice, natural swing at the knees. Just kick it straight in. Or stem your feet to try to rest your calf muscles. Sometimes if you really need to rest, you can cut a step with the adze of your axe, and use that to step into the ice with your feet sideways to rest your calves."
"Natural swing huh?" I responded, "That should be easy. I've been fly casting for years, so my right arm will do well!"
I started to swing my arms, one at a time, and visualized placing a tool in the ice. A nice, natural swing. No wasted motion. One swing, one placement. One kick, one placement. Climb.
Seemed easy enough to me.
- o -
The sun was already beating down on our tent when I woke Saturday morning. I looked at my watch. It was past 10am. We were off to a very late start and the day was going to be a warm one. That didn't make the climbing very promising.
We dismantled our campsite, made breakfast, and discussed what our plans would be for the day.
"We should ski today up to Tokopah Falls and see if the ice is in condition," Jack suggested. "Tomorrow we can bring our gear and climb if it's climbable."
"I think we should just go and climb," Brian offered.
"I could just go skiing all day," Esther said.
"Well, if we are going to climb," added Chris, "Then we shouldn't be half-ass about it. Let's ski up there and climb. Otherwise, let's just ski."
All eyes eventually turned to me.
"I'm perfectly happy to do either," I commented. I was no help at all to the decision making process. "I'm just glad to be up in the mountains again."
"Well Mike," Jack quipped, "That's only because you haven't suffered enough."
I laughed with him, but I knew he was right.
In the end, we decided to climb. We didn't know what the conditions would be like, so we brought ice screws, a lot of webbing, cams, nuts, biners, one top rope, and a whole lot of other gear. Since they were OEP instructors, they "borrowed" some equipment from Stanford. Cross country skis, step in crampons, ice axes, etc. A nice little benefit. Esther set out ahead of us while we sorted out what to bring.
Of course, we brought too much.
- o -
The sun was warm and my pack was heavy. I elected to wear only my Lifa long underwear, top and bottom. I looked like a sleepwalker on skis. It wouldn't have been so bad if I had the mid-weight underwear - but I only had the light-weight grade and you could practically see through it.
"Good god!" Jack said when he saw me. "We have a streaker in our midst!"
"I don't care what I look like. I'm going to be comfortable," I said. Comfort before fashion, I thought.
We set out for Tokopah falls past 11am - much later than we would have liked. Temps were probably in the 70s. What ever ice was waiting for us would surely be in bad condition.
"You just haven't suffered enough," I remembered Jack saying.
The trail lazily followed the North Fork of the Kaweah River through Tokopah Valley. Our approach was a little over two miles with a 1000 foot elevation gain.
By the time we made it to the falls, I felt as if I had skied six miles. This was partly due to a wrong turn we made. Once we crossed the bridge over Kaweah River, we should have made an immediate right turn and followed the river. Instead, we followed ski tracks to a NPS sign which had a trail map that threw us off course. We ended up ascending and descending a lot of hills until we finally caught up with the true trail about a mile later.
I bought myself a pair of Tua Montet telemark skis and Scarpa T2 boots last season with the goal of learning how to telemark. I figured this would be as good a time as any to learn. Having a heavy pack on my back would test my skills further. Unfortunately, I didn't wax my skis properly with kick wax so on every up hill, I slipped back as much as I slid forward. I was too lazy to take off my pack to put my skins on and I didn't want to be left too far behind. In hindsight, I should have just put the skins on. But like I said, I was lazy - and stupid.
Everyone skied ahead of me. I didn't mind since I liked the solitude. The sound of my ski boots creaking, my steady breathing, and snow compacting underneath kept me in good company. It was a beautiful day and I wished I could ski slower to appreciate more of my surroundings. On both sides of me were magnificent ridges covered in snow. Large conifers guarded the valley's secrets and sunlight reflected off the snow, warming my face. I made sure to keep up and made a mental note to take pictures on the way back.
Skiing a little over a mile and a half in brought us into view of The Watch Tower - a huge granite face rising 800 feet from the valley floor. Climbing guide books show many classic routes to climb in the summer on the Tower. In the winter, the Tower featured Moon Age Dream, a classic seven pitch ice climb rated at WI-4 (Waterfall Ice - Grade 4). My eyes widened. Climbing that looked like fun. And the ice seemed thick enough to support a climbing party. Some parts looked thin and might require mixed ice and rock climbing. Unfortunately, Jack didn't think he would want to lead it. So I settled on perhaps climbing it in the future. I hadn't even done my first ice climb and already I was making in ice climb "To Do" list. I whipped out my camera and took a few shots.
- o -
***A note on ice climbing grades (excerpted from _Freedom Of The Hills_, published by The Mountaineers):
The variable conditions of ice climbing makes rating climbs difficult. The only two factors that don't vary a lot from year to year are length and steepness of ice. Thickness of ice, temperature, plus the nature of the ice and whether or not it offers good protection affect its difficulty.
Three rating systems have been introduced in North America - the New England Ice (NEI) rating system, first described in the early 70s by Rick Wilcox, another in 79 by Jeff Lowe, and the third in 88 by Albi Sole. All use a modified version of the Scottish system, which consists of two elements:
1. The Seriousness/Overall Grade or Commitment Rating, and 2. The Technical Grade.
Water ice is seasonal frozen waterfall ice or non-porous ice found in alpine settings and is denoted as WI then the grading.
The Technical Grade (1-7) rates the single most difficult pitch, taking into account the sustained nature of the climbing, ice thickness, and natural ice features.
Grade 4 is sustained 75-85 degree ice, separated by good belays or a less steep pitch with significant vertical sections, generally good quality ice and satisfactory protection.
Grade 5 is noticeably more strenuous pitch of good but steep 85-90 degree ice and can be considered the equivalent of 5.9 rock in terms of relative technical ability required.
The Seriousness Grade (I to VII) takes into account the length, continuity, remoteness, hazards, and difficulty of descent. It is not, however, totally unaffected by technical difficulty.
Grade III is a multi-pitch route at low elevation, which may take several hours, or a route with a long approach on skis demanding good winter travel skills, or a route subject to occasional winter hazards.
Grade IV is a multi-pitch route at higher elevations or in a remote region requiring mountaineering and winter travel skills. It may be subject to objective hazards such as avalanches or rock fall. Descent may present difficulties.
The Commitment Rating (I to VII) shows the time and logistical requirements of a climb.
I: Takes up to several hours. II: About half a day III: A full day, up to 7 or 8 hours. IV: A substantial undertaking - a very long day and possibly includes a bivouac.
- o -
We arrived close to the base of Tokopah Falls just past 1 p.m., which gave this climb a seriousness rating of III. With our ski back, it would warrant at least a commitment rating of II, if not III . The day was very late and warm. I was overheating and already finished off two liters of water. I had one liter left and drank half when we ate lunch. I surveyed our surroundings and immediately zoomed in on our climb.
Tokopah Falls is created from run off from Pear Lake, Aster Lake, Emerald Lake, and Heather Lake. Once over the falls, the water joins the Kaweah River, which has it's origin just below the 11,188 foot Mount Silliman to the east. In the winter, the slow moving water freezes and forms an ice climb about 100 feet high and 300 feet wide. One big ice cliff. Beautiful. Majestic. Beckoning me.
"So that's Tokopah!" I exclaimed. "Looks thick enough!"
"Well, not really," corrected Jack. "We can do it. But check out that huge horizontal crack on the left. It's ready to come down. Not good. We'll have to climb right. And it's warming up, so the ice is melting fast."
Jack finished his lunch then set out to fix top rope anchors for us. He brought a rope, ice screws, webbing, and other gear to fix our anchors. I watched his silhouette move up the slope, becoming smaller against the backdrop of the ridges. Slowly he climbed up towards the top of the falls.
"Is he going to be safe?" I asked, concerned about avalanches. There was evidence of a recent avalanche a few hundred feet from where Jack was climbing.
"He should be all right," Esther answered. "Although, he is pretty close to the run out zone."
An avalanche area is a location with one or more avalanche paths. An avalanche path is the entire area in which an avalanche moves and consists of three parts:
1. The Starting Zone - where unstable snow breaks loose from the snow cover and starts to slide. 2. The Track - the slope or channel down which snow moves at more or less a uniform speed. 3. The Run Out Zone - the portion of the avalanche path where the snow slows down and comes to a rest.
Although Jack was relatively safe in the run out zone, if an avalanche occurred above him, then he could get swept with the resulting wind blast. I watched him worriedly, making note of his position in case something happened and we'd have to dig him out.
In hindsight, we skied in as a liability that day. No one wore an avalanche beacon or carried a snow shovel. Brian, Chris, Esther and Jack did have ski poles that could convert to avalanche probes. Although our approach was well away from avalanche zones, we were now in one. To our north and south were steep ridges just ready to unload. The day was warm, and if I dug a snow pit and tested snow temperature to gauge avalanche probability, I'm sure I would have found snow temps approaching 0 degrees Celsius - a primary signal of isothermal conditions and high avalanche danger.
And Jack was in the run out zone.
I ate my lunch, then watched Chris, then Brian, then Esther follow Jacks tracks up the slope towards the top of Tokopah falls. When I finished eating, I put skins on my telemarks and followed everyone's tracks, hoping my fears of an avalanche didn't come true.
The slope increased in steepness, and I felt my heart pounding heavier to compensate. I looked up and breathed in the sights and smells. It was beautiful here.
I then heard a crack, followed by a rumble.
My heart jumped.
The hairs on my body rose.
SON OF A BITCH!
! ! ! AVALANCHE ! ! !
I panicked for a second until I could figure out the origin. The ground beneath me wasn't moving. It wasn't above me and my senses quickly turned towards the ridge across the valley. A prominent gully caught my eye and I focused in on a waterfall like avalanche sliding down it. I whipped out my camera and took a few slide shots.
I watched in amazement as the avalanche took place. It was like watching slow moving water tumble down. Rocks crumbled along the path. As each successive wave hit another snow bank, more snow was added and the avalanche became larger. Swooshing noises filled the air. When it was all over, I felt uneasily privileged - I had watched an avalanche's dangerous beauty without experiencing it's wrath.
I put my camera away and set back up the hill, a little faster this time.
When I got to the top, Esther was on her way down. I took a few shots of her making free heel turns on the soft virgin powder. These were great ski conditions, and I couldn't wait to make my own turns.
"How'd you like that avalanche?" I asked Brian when I got to the top.
"Wow, that was cool!" he responded. "I got a few pictures of it!"
"So did I!"
"Are we all set here?" I said, noting their anchors.
"Yup," he answered. "All done. We've got a belay anchor set up, and anchors using the skis and a tree. We'll belay from the top. I think Chris is going first. Then Jack. When they get to the top, we'll switch belays and then I can go."
"Cool!" I exclaimed. "See you later!"
I turned around a skied back down the hill - making a fool of myself on every turn. That was a nice reminder to myself that I was a beginner at telemarking. I continued to the bottom of the hill to where I had left my pack. Then I brought all my gear close to the base of the ice climb. Esther and Jack were already there, playing around the ice while Chris tied in.
I took my boots out of my pack and changed from my T-2s to my new K-3s. As I donned them, I couldn't help but think of Angela.
"I'm pretty darn lucky," I thought. "Not only does she support my outdoor addiction, she also buys me new boots for Christmas!" Lucky indeed.
- o -
Chris started up the climb. He had the great idea of climbing with his skis attached to his pack. That way he could ski down instead of walk. Seemed sensible until he got halfway up and found he'd gotten so pumped from the extra weight that he couldn't finish the climb. In the end, he didn't ski down after all.
I took a picture of him and his attempt.
Jack went next.
I watched him intently to try to find clues on technique. It was just as he had told me in the car. Natural arm swings, natural kicks. Little by little he climbed his way to the top. I was impressed. I also took note of where we he climbed and the sound of the ice as he placed his tools. More often than not, when he placed a tool, a hollow sounding thud followed. I didn't know what solid ice was supposed to sound like, but that didn't sound good at all. It sounded as if the ice was getting ready to peel off the rock, with a large air gap already existing between rock and ice. Yet Jack made it to the top anyway.
Esther went next. I took a few shots of her make her way up. The hollow sounding placements continued for her too. After she got up about 20 feet, she decided not to continue.
"Down!" she yelled to Chris, who was belaying her now.
No response from Chris.
She hung there for a while, then yelled again. "DOWN ROPE!"
After more yelling, Chris finally responded. "Wha-a-t?"
"DOWN ROPE!!!!" she yelled again, frustrated.
"You want down? OK!"
Chris lowered her to the bottom. She untied, yelled "Off belay!" then handed me the rope.
"How was it?" I asked, a little fearful that I had come all this way and the ice had now gotten out of condition.
"It's horrible," she answered. "It just seems so hollow and I didn't feel very confident in the placements. And it's melting like crazy. I just kept getting wetter and wetter. But you should still give it a go."
"Oh," I said hesitantly, not very confident that I'd get any farther than her.
- o -
"On belay?" I yelled up to Chris.
"On belay?" I yelled again.
Still no response.
I waited a few minutes and yelled again.
Still no response.
Finally, I just yelled, "Climbing!"
Instantly, I got a response.
"NO! You are not on belay yet!"
That was all I wanted to hear. I found my self getting a little impatient. The tools were sharp and cool in my hands, and I wanted to use them. I wanted to see if I was up to this. Could I stand this test?
"On belay!" I finally heard.
Adrenaline started to flow throw my body.
"CLIMBING!" I yelled, and placed my first tool on ice.
Actually, it was more like placing the spike in deep snow. The bottom of the section was a deep snow bank. Once up about 15 feet, the snow gave way to the ice that Esther had talked about. Hollow sounds that took away your confidence with each swing.
I arrived at the ice and set my feet. I surveyed the ice above me and found a spot to make my first ever tool placement. I swung my tool. It glided off. Not a good start.
"So much for being Jeff Lowe!" I thought.>
I swung again. This time it placed. I pulled down on it and experienced what Esther had told me. Not very solid ice at all. The tool pulled out. I swung it again, this time it stayed. Not bomber by any standards, but good enough for me to place the tool in my other hand.
When I felt confident in both placements, I straightened my arms and hung on the leashes. I moved my feet up then kicked until they stayed. Cautiously, I stood on my feet.
"Thank god!" I thought. My crampons stayed in place. The ice tools where now about chest level and I locked my right arm, pulled down on the leash, and loosened the left tool.
Immediately, I looked to place the tool. One swing, one placement. The focus that I get from climbing came to me, and I found myself in a meditative zone and rhythm. Look for a placement, swing a tool, hang, plant the feet, stand, lock arms, remove tools, feel the adrenaline, repeat. Over and over and over and over. I got into my climbing rhythm, with only small interruptions by the occasional non-placement of a tool.
Before I decided to come on this trip, I asked Tuan if he thought I could do it.
"Perhaps," he answered.
"Well, how much harder is it than rock climbing?"
"Oh, it eez much eeezier," he replied. "You don't have to look for a hold. You make your own!"
He was right. This was much easier than rock climbing, but a heck of a lot colder. In mid-thought, I started to realize that I couldn't feel my fingers anymore. Every time I placed a tool and hung on the leash, my fingers came into contact with the ice. They were freezing, even though I had Gore-Tex over gloves.
I climbed past the thin ice that Esther talked about. I had no reference point by which to judge the quality of the ice so if I could climb it, then it seemed in good condition to me. There were definitely sections that were thinner than others. But all in all it was climbable and my ignorance of good ice versus bad kept me going. Three-fourths of the way up, I looked up and was able to see Chris belaying me.
"Hey!" he said, "How's it going?"
"Great," I responded, "A little tiring!"
"Have you ever done this before?"
"Nope. First time. I love it!"
"Well, you're doing great. Just keep on going!"
"But my fingers are frozen!"
"You are holding your tools wrong," he said. "After you place it, let go of the shaft, put your fingers behind the axe, and just hang on the leashes."
"Oh," I said. Duh!
I was getting closer to the top and valued his suggestion. My fingers started to get feeling back.
When I climb, I always where a helmet. Today was no exception. As I approached the top, I began to wonder why Tuan required that everyone bring a helmet for this trip. I placed a tool, felt it secure well, then hung on the leashes. As I started to place my feet, the tool came loose and landed directly onto my head.
I stopped wondering why I wore a helmet each time I climbed.
At the top of the climb was a section that had no ice at all. Just snow and rock. I got to try mixed climbing. I kicked into a section of ice and the piece shattered in half then fell downward in two large chunks.
"ICE!!!!!" Chris yelled, warning anyone below. I just watched it fall away and was glad that I wasn't falling with it.
I continued trying to get up and over the top. However, my crampons kept skidding off the rock. I found a tree under the snow and used it to try to pull myself up. My feet kept gliding off. I made a big push, stood on my crampons, and then felt a sharp pain as my right crampon slid off the rock into my left thigh. Somehow, my pants stayed intact, but my skin didn't. Later, when we got back to Lodgepole, I inspected my injury and knew it wouldn't be pretty when I found blood on my long johns. I had a gash about one-eighth of an inch deep where a crampon point had penetrated. The gash ran down my left inner thigh for about 5 inches but became shallower as it neared my knee. It healed after a week.
"Skin heals, Gore-tex doesn't," Chris told me later.
Guess I should be glad I didn't rip my pants.
When I finally got to the top using a high step and brute force, I felt elated. My first ice climb, and I really enjoyed it. Jack had skied back up to the top so that he could belay Brian next.
"Good show Mike!" Jack congratulated.
"Thanks! That was great. I can see why people get into it. That won't be my last either!"
I rested a little while Chris and Jack changed belays. Adrenaline still rushed through me and I stayed with the natural high, smiling stupidly as I walked back down. Smiling very stupidly. It was wonderful.
- o -
Brian climbed after me, then Chris gave it another go. It was starting to get late and the sun shone on the ice by the time Chris started. We were getting concerned about returning before dark, as I don't think everyone brought head lamps. Fortunately, Chris climbed quickly and they dismantled the anchors.
Esther packed up all her gear and headed back well ahead of us. We didn't leave Tokopah until well after 6 p.m. I volunteered to carry the Brian's rope, which was now wet, heavy and unwieldy, causing me to fall more than I should have. We followed our tracks back down the valley, and night fall soon over took us.
I pulled out my headlamp but didn't turn it on, hoping that my eyes would adjust to the darkness and the full moon would light our path. Jack and I were the least experienced skiers, and it showed. He and I kept falling and falling and falling. It would not have been so bad if I didn't have a heavy pack, but every time I fell, I had to get back up with the weight of the pack pulling me back down.
I soon grew very tired and very frustrated. I had been waiting the entire trip for the suffering to start.
It had started.
I had no more water, food, or energy. I was sleepy, cold then hot, wet then sweaty. With each fall, I lost a little more patience with myself. But I persevered, knowing that we'd get back somehow. We turned on our headlamps once we realized that we couldn't see where we were going. Only Brian, Chris and I had headlamps. Jack just followed us in our light.
We negotiated a few steep hills that dumped me on my butt many times and defeated my spirit. Halfway down, Brian offered to take his rope off my hands.
"I'll be OK," I told him.
Four falls later, I realized that being macho wasn't worth the risk of injuring myself in a fall and jeopardizing group safety. I handed Brian his rope and found my pack fifteen pounds lighter. It made a big difference.
"We must be close," Chris said eventually. "I remember this area as being close to the bridge. We should be there soon."
Thank god, I thought. I couldn't wait to drink something, eat, and change into something dry.
We skied on and on. From behind, I heard Chris yelling Esther's name. Somehow, she had seen our headlamps and moved towards us until we were within hearing distance of one another. Even though she left well ahead of us, she got caught in the dark also. Without a headlamp and all by herself. It was luck that we found each other. I had actually been hoping to get back to the cars to find she had whipped up some hot drinks for us. The idea kept me going. Now I had to think of something else.
We'd been skiing for what seemed like hours, and I knew we must be close - that kept me going. We finally came to the bridge, and then the trail head. It felt good to get out of my boots and walk around with light feet. All of us had a long day, and we were tired and hungry. It was past 9 p.m. when we arrived at the cars.
I had suffered. But it wasn't as bad as I expected.
Once we drank a little and ate a little, all our moods changed. Everyone became a little more jovial. We discussed what our plans would be for the next day. No one wanted to climb again. Everyone wanted to ski tour.
Chris, Esther, and Brian decided to ski a trail from Wolverton to Giant Forest, which turned out to be a great back country trail that they recommended highly. Jack and I decided to practice free heel turns on the gentle slopes of Wolverton. By the end of Sunday, I had my turns down and became very confident with my new found skills. Later that Sunday, Jack and I took a small tour of the Sequoias in Giant Forest. It was a great trail and very few people were on it.
Once we had a general idea for the next day's plans, we fired up our one stove and began to cook a dinner that we wished cooked faster. Esther had already fallen asleep.
"I think I lost 6 pounds today!" I exclaimed.
Everyone laughed in agreement.
My sense of humor was back, and I was glad. I would need it for my next trip.
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