AS YOU READ THIS, IT’S JANUARY, the dead of winter, which for most of us means one of three things: 1) Your hands are a welter of calluses, cracks, and splits from pulling too much plastic—and spring can’t come soon enough. 2) You’ve found a dry, south-facing cliff, and you’re going to do every last route, even if they’re all zero stars. Or, 3) You’re ecstatic, because you love ice, mixed, and alpine climbing.
Ice climbing has enjoyed a parallel evolution to rock climbing, with both in the past five decades seeing the invention and mass production of gear that’s served to make each pursuit easier. On ice and mixed, it’s things like self-ratcheting screws, curved picks, and mono-points; on rock, it’s performance rock shoes, quick draws, nuts, and spring-loaded camming devices. Yet while rock climbing has largely gotten safer because of some of these advents, ice climbing remains as serious, committing, and sometimes terrifying as ever, even if the gear has made it physically easier. Why should that be? As you can see in Kennan Harvey’s photo essay “San Juan Silver” ( page 46), featuring the rowdy ice climbs of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, frozen waterfalls are intrinsically frightening places to be. Or take Aaron Peterson’s Flash shot (page 6) of two climbers lashed to the WI5 HMR above the dark, crashing waves of Lake Superior—their peril is tangible and immediate. It’s either summit the flow or straight into the drink, dragged into the murk by all that metal. And it’s in fact all that metal that’s part of the risk: You’re better off not falling with those sharp axes, spiny screws, and ankle-snapping crampons on (trust me, I’ve done it—once). Which means you must treat each lead as a semi-protected solo. Now factor in that ice can sheer out from under you, ice climbs are often in avalanche-prone areas, and that your pro is only as reliable as the ever-fluctuating medium. Danger!
But this is also what makes the discipline so beautiful—it is undistilled commitment, and takes you up some of the coolest features in the world. And even if you don’t much enjoy it yourself, you can certainly appreciate its beauty and historical roots in our sport. As Kevin Corrigan wryly notes in his Unsent column ( page 32), ice climbing is sometimes better to look at than to do. Or, it’s what we do when the crags are buried in snow but we still want to climb outside. Whatever your motivations, I hope you enjoy our winter issue. Stay safe out there.
DUSTIN EROH PONDERS HIS FATE ON HUNG JURY (WI4), KEYSTONE CANYON, VALDEZ, ALASKA.