Ice Climbing in June Lake and Lee Vining, CA
You know the saying, "Getting there is half the battle" ? Well, I think with ice-climbing that this is definitely true. My climbing (rock) partner, Jim, and I got it in our heads late December that ice-climbing was a natural progression to the rock climbing we've been doing and decided to sign up for a ice-climbing 101 course in California just outside of Mammoth Lakes, Ca where I typically go skiing. It was amazing! I can't say that it really translated the same as rock climbing, but the whole weekend was just fantastic. I'm always amazed at how even the worst weeks can just completely seem to disappear when I am outside doing something bananas like this.
Let me get into the details a bit more... Jim and I (and a couple of other friends) drove up to Mammoth this past weekend to catch the fresh snow that came in on Thursday. Our ice climbing course was not till Saturday and Sunday, so I got to ski on the best snow we've had all season on Friday. Every other weekend I've been up to Mammoth, it has been kind of crappy snow. So Friday was great.
Then Saturday rolled around and we had to be up by 5am to get ready and head out to our ice climbing course. We woke up, ate a big breakfast, and drove out to June Lake to meet with our group, and as you can see below it was like driving in a winter wonderland. I couldn't stop taking pictures of it!
The Subaru handled all the snow fantastically! Not that I ever doubted it would... No snow chains required on this beast of a car.
This is where the "getting there is half the battle" quote comes in... Our journey to our first day of ice-climbing involved a 2-3 hour approach hike to the crag. I think it took that long this time because of all the very fresh snow (apparently just a few days before we arrived there was nothing but dirt here). We started our hike up this very steep and long railroad track.
I wish my story was a bit cooler, but I ate shit on these railroad tracks at an icy spot near the bottom of the tracks and got this cool black eye from banging my eye against one of the railroad ties... only minutes within the beginning of our hike. Like a boss. I blame this battle wound on being born in Texas.
I was completely fine though... except for my pride, and we continued up the tracks relatively uneventfully for a long time. Eventually we turned off into this snowy field and continued our hike. This was my first time to ever go hiking in snow, and I loved it! It was really challenging, but very cool. The whole hike I kept thinking, "I can't believe I'm hiking in snow!" for some reason it felt really bad-ass... but again, its probably a product of being raised in Texas. Just kidding, it was just bad-ass.
We had to do a bit of scrambling up this crack here...
Here's Jim just getting to the top of the scramble. It wasn't super hard, but honestly, scrambling up rock in big snow/ice boots isn't the easiest thing I've ever done. It's really easy to slip on the ice when there is no surfaces to grab onto.
Here is just a view showing how isolated it felt to be out there.
Our guide, Dave, rigged up a system to belay us up the scrambling route.
Finally, after a long time trekking through the snow, scrambling up some rock, and avoiding some ice-cold streams, we made it to our crag. I'm not the most experienced snow-hiker, but I do have a bit of experience belaying (since I could probably do it in my sleep now), so I belayed our instructor as he set the first route. I'm the gnome looking figure you see below. It was so cold down there, I was doing this little dance (which you obviously can't see here) the entire time I was belaying so that I could try to not freeze to death. Also, note to self, don't pack a camel back when you go outdoors in sub-30 degree F weather. I wasn't able to use the 3 liters of water i packed because my camel back froze. I think it was like 4 degrees F outside. It was freaking cold!
For my troubles, I got to be the first on the ice in our group. I think this route was rated Water/Ice 1 or 2, so relatively easy. I seem to remember making it up the route fairly quickly and it was fun. However, what was not fun was what our instructor told us is called the "screaming barfies". Essentially, I got to the top of the route right, and my hands started to "de-thaw" a bit, and all of a sudden I experienced some of the worst pain of my life. I can't even really describe it, but my hands were in so much pain! I remember my belayer was lowering me, and I was holding the ice tools and was yelling "Lower me faster now!" because I didn't want to drop the ice tools from all the pain in my hand. I survived though... no ice tools dropped. The screaming barfies lasted about 5 minutes, but other than that, the climbing was great! Ha!
We only got to go up once that day because we had spent a lot of time on administrative stuff in the morning and the hike out to the ice took a while, but I was exhausted already, so it was alright.... and we needed to hike back.
After the climbing in June Lake, we went to happy hour, grabbed a beer and food with our group, and went back to Mammoth to fall asleep and do the whole thing over again Sunday.
Sunday, however, we went to Lee Vining instead. Again, we had another long hike to our crag in the morning. This time was a bit different though. Apparently, this area is a relatively simple hike in the winter when there has been enough snow because it just packs over the rocks and you walk right over it. This time, however, it was fresh snow, and not a whole lot of it was packed at all... so every step was like "Errr, uhh there is a hole there. I can't step on that... where is the freaking boulder!!" It was sketchy to say the least. It was about a 2 hour hike through this boulder field. I was no good at it when I started. I kept thinking about how shitty it would be to sprain my ankle or something on an approach hike to go ice-climbing, but I was over-reacting and eventually got the hang of things.
I found that if my leg fell through a hole, it was typically fine. I just had to pull it out, and try a different spot. No biggie.
The blue ice you see below is where we were headed to.
The view from our little crag was fantastic.
The routes here were more around Water/Ice 3 level, and I got to attempt a couple of them. This one is of Jim on one of the routes. Honestly, ice climbing isn't easy. It's tiring because you are constantly swinging your ice tools, and you've got to get good foot placement, and try to prevent yourself from getting the screaming barfies (which I got again here... but they weren't as bad this time). On top of that, if you are belaying someone, you've got to dodge falling ice, and try to stay warm.
Another snow storm started rolling through at the end of our day here, which made it more cold.
Anyways, it was awesome. I definitely see more ice-climbing in my future. I'm a long way from leading any ice climbs, but am looking forward to getting more experience on the ice. I also am really looking forward to more hiking in the snow on uneven terrain!
The hike back was quick.
We had a long drive back home Sunday, but it was definitely worth it. You should give ice-climbing a shot sometime if you've never been before. It's a fantastic experience when you get to push your limits and do things you've never done before. Besides, I find it super therapeutic getting outside and completely unplugging from my life. All of a sudden you have to worry about your basics, and all the other stuff seems pointless. It's a great feeling.