Ice climbing is pretty stupid.
Non-climbers, I know what you’re thinking: Duh, any idiot can see that it’s a ridiculous sport. Non-climbers lump ice climbing in with other relatively stupid activities, like deep-water scuba diving into a cave with sharks, or pretty much anything Bear Grylls does in your average episode of Man vs. Wild: Now, the last thing you want to do in this situation is get wet or hurt, but I’m going to jump into this raging river of freezing glacial meltwater and dodge sharp boulders to reach the other shore. Once there, I’ll catch a poisonous snake and eat it raw, and bend a tree over a cliff and slide down it to execute a sketchy descent that I don’t really need to risk.
Climbers: You think it’s perfectly normal to climb ice. But ice climbing is stupid, and you’re in denial if you think otherwise.
First off, it’s freaking cold out there. It has to be–no ice to climb without freezing temperatures. Much like skiers, when the thermostat dips below 32, ice climbers rejoice. They dream of climbing and conveniently forget about the crash of sitting motionless (except for chattering teeth) in 20-degree temps while belaying their climbing partners. They forget they’ll have the screaming barfies in their hands and feet when they climb again. No, selective memory dominates, and a good freeze-thaw cycle makes ice climbers itch all over and methodically sharpen ice tools and crampons in preparation for an infusion of their crack.
This sharpening of the already pointy tools of the trade is the next reason why ice climbing is stupid. Your chances of self-inflicted stabbing are high. Despite my best efforts and caution, I poked numerous crampon holes in my gaiters and pants in one short season. While mixed climbing a week or so ago, I dropped an ice tool while holding it directly over my head. Fearing serious bodily harm, I swung out of the way but for some reason instinctively reached out to catch it–and succeeded in grabbing it by the shaft, not the pick. Witnesses were impressed by my reflexes, but this incident could have ended in a puncture wound rather than in cheers. I was lucky.
Reason number three is the obvious problem with ice: ice breaks. Regularly. Ice climbing almost always results in some amount of ice breaking and falling. Dodging falling ice is a sport unto itself, and here in Colorado, where ice climbing is fairly popular and thin smears draw a crowd, there are some losers in the game.
Lastly, I have proof from the insurance industry that ice climbing is stupid. If you’re a rock climber, State Farm probably will insure you. Rock climbing can be relatively safe, and since most rock climbers are fit, educated, and extremely committed to safety, we can get life insurance. During my underwriting interview with the company’s climbing guru, I was passing his questions with flying colors.
“Do you take classes?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Do you do any high-altitude mountaineering?”
“Climb big walls and sleep on a portaledge?”
“Wear a helmet?”
Then he said:
“Okay, here’s where I lose most people. Do you ice climb?”
The stupidity of ice climbing really hit home when we were out with a guide recently and he told us that when rock climbers ask him about ice he says, don’t do it. Later, stretching for a divot in the rock with my ice tool, I complained about being short and he said, “Well, I’d remind you that you’re taller than Lynn Hill, but she’s smart and doesn’t ice climb.” Then, this uber-experienced, safety-obsessed guide proceeded to juggle my ice tools and nearly stab himself when he dropped one.
I gazed at us standing in the snow, freezing, sharp objects everywhere, ice on the ground, all having a blast putting metal to rock and ice and laughing at the juggling antics. For the first time, I realized we all had a screw loose.
(That’s another thing–ice screws for protection? Crazy.)
So if you’re not already an ice climber, please, heed my guide’s warning, don’t do it. It’s stupid. It’s dangerous. The screaming barfies hurt, but not as much as falling ice or ice tools.
But if I’m too late to stop you, I’ll see you out there next weekend with my freshly sharpened tools, hot tea in my backpack, and helmet securely fastened to my stupid head.
It may be stupid but it sure is fun!
On my 21st birthday I was climbing in Telluride with Charley Fowler and John Cleary. I pulled off a dinner plate and ripped 3 screws before my second-to-last screw held and I stopped about 2 feet from the deck. Charley just looked at me and deadpanned, “Happy Birthday. It’s 9am. Ready for a beer?”
Later that year I was on Bridalveil in Provo Canyon with the legend/hero (and late) Alex Lowe at a 4th pitch belay getting ready to start the 5th when an avvy cut loose above us. It shot mostly over our heads and covered us in snowdust. In a dialogue that was similar to TS Garp, Alex said: “We’ll keep climbing. The chances of another avvy hitting us are astronomical. It’s been pre-disastered. We’re going to be safe now. Let’s keep climbing.”
Yes, it’s stupid. But tons of fun!
Thanks for leaving this perfect epilogue to my post, David! Be safe. 🙂
Better pass the word on to Genny. On monday I caught her looking into crampons. Friends don’t let friends ice climb.
I will always be proud of the fact that I facilitated the meeting between you and your ice tools. Screaming barfies, indeed!! Your post made me yearn for a civilized winter activity with you…. 🙂
Are you selling some gear? Ice is coming in around here. Admit it. You want to climb the Black Dike or Moby Grape when y’all come to visit.
Selling gear? Are you crazy?
Before I come there to climb the Black Dike, you should come here to climb the Smear of Fear (though I think it’s out right now…).
Wow! WONDERFUL post and great ice-climbing recommendation! After your story, I’ve GOT to try this! (Kind of like an envelope that says, “Whatever you do, DON’T open this!”)
I’m getting in the car now. See you in 12 hours after a quick stop at REI : )
I generally get a chuckle out of ice climbing posts, but this one takes the cake. I’m thinking long and hard about the status of my “friends” who are trying to get me into ice climbing… ulterior motives of some type, perhaps?
Running to the shop to renew my ice gear. OK, I’ll get a new helmet as well!
Nice post! I happened to go ice climbing for the first time this past weekend so it was especially timely.
Ha ha, awesome!! My hubby laid down the law years ago, and he can be a stubborn man. We will not be ice climbing any time soon because (eerily similar to your concerns): 1 – Ice falls down at least once a year, probably more, 2 – Swinging sharp objects near eyes or ropes makes him squirm, and 3 – We can’t afford a whole new sport.
Oddly, these are the same rules he uses for why I shouldn’t go tornado chasing with my Met friends here at school. Well, basically.
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