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Published by Clint Cook

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Published by: Clint Cook on Nov 15, 2011
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strap on some crampons and grab youraxes to go ice climbing in Ouray. The historic miningtown in Colorado’s stunning San Juan Mountainshas America’s fnest ice climbing. And ater you’vetackled either the world’s largest ice park, or oneo the many backcountry climbs nearby, you cansoak your aching muscles in one o the town’snatural hotsprings.
ice climbing combines the reedom o climbing with the primal joy o bashing away at ice.But the sport is challenging, psychologically andphysically. Ice is an unpredictable medium and leadclimbers need to be comortable dealing with ear.That said, i you’re seconding or top-roping– which you almost certainly will be i you’re startingout – ice climbing can be surprisingly sae.
Frozen Assets
You’ll need to keep your cool while chasing a rush atColorado’s famed Ice Festival
Words and photography by
J cCCk
Nobody calls me chicken
: just another method toscare ourselves shitless.
f all the
strangemotivations of man (andI say man, not human,deliberately), perhapsthe strangest of all is thepursuit of fear. And pursueit we do. Bungee jumping,kiteboarding, skydiving,mountain biking, wingsuiting,snowboarding, scuba diving,paragliding – the list goes on.Indeed, one of technology’sachievements is the ballooningnumber of methods we’veevolved, for sheer pleasure, toscare ourselves shitless.Of these, the most tried andtested is alpinism. It was the originaladrenaline sport, “invented” in 1760when Swiss naturalist Horace Bénédictde Saussure challenged all-comers toclimb the 4808-metre Mont Blanc.Before that, apparently no-one hadcontemplated the idea. Nor had theyeven considered that frighteningthemselves might be fun. Life-riskingactivities were generally undertaken toachieve other ends. Men fought sabre-tooth tigers for survival. We went to warfor women or land.But with alpinism, scaring oneself – often – has been the end. Perhapsthat’s not surprising for a sport wheremerely making it home is regardedas somewhat of a victory. And of allalpinism’s sub-branches, one standsout as being conspicuously kooky in itspucker factor: ice climbing. It’s hardfinding descriptions of the sport thatdon’t talk about how damn scary it is.My favourite is Duane Raleigh’s cheeryopening salvo in his book
Ice: Tools and Techniques
. “Ice is a monster with manyclaws that will gouge out the truthabout yourself,” he writes. “You learnmore in a dripping, fearful 10 feet of ice than in a century of key-tapping ornail-pounding, or whatever it is that youdo for a living.”Raleigh is right. Ice
a monster,a less-than-stable medium that canconform to your worst nightmares. Itcan be as soft as a slurpee, or just brittlegarbage. Any particular climb changesfrom year to year, month to month,day to day. Even a few hours make adifference. If the temperature rises, asolid climb in the morning can morphinto slush by the afternoon. Conversely,if it’s cold enough, the ice becomesfragile, fracturing off into dinner plate-size shards. Or worse.I haven’t climbed ice in a decade,since moving back to Australia. Butthe very last time I did, the ice I wasattached to, a sheet the size of a door,peeled away from the wall, with allfour of my points – both tools, bothcrampons – still attached. We dangledoff the rope, me and the chunk of ice,until I managed to kick it free and itcrashed to the ground.Now I, for one, regard myself as a bit of a ’fraidy cat. Not a totalchicken, mind you – I don’t mind someexcitement. But, like most blokes Isuspect, I’m kinda in the middle. I’lladmit I lowered off that last climbtrembling like a leaf. And I’ll admit thatwasn’t the only time, either. In fact,after a decade off, I’ve actually forgottenwhy I used to really like ice climbing. Iknow that I did, but all I remember nowis a vague sense of terror.
I’m reecting
on all this – why menpursue fear, my being a chicken, thatlast climb a decade ago – as I stand atthe base of a wall of sheer blue ice nearOuray. In particular, I’m wonderingwhy the hell I’m here. Americanclimbing luminary Chad Peele hasjust started his clinic and asked ourmotivations in coming. I’m here, in onesense, for the Ice Festival, when iceclimbers from all over converge on thetiny town of about 1000. I’m here towatch the climbing comps, check outthe gear stalls, watch the slideshows,go to the ice-themed parties and attendclimbing clinics. But why am I here,really? Especially if I’m a chicken? That,I can’t answer.At least I know the fear issue isn’tone I’ll confront directly today. Aftera decade off, I won’t even dream of tying into the rope’s sharp end, whichis where the peril predominantly lies.Fall when you’re lead climbing andyou’ve gotta pray that wobbly ice screwyou placed in the slush 3m beneath youholds. There’s a good chance it won’t.But for those either seconding or top-roping, the danger is greatly reduced.Especially here in the ice park. Asidefrom an ice tool being dropped fromabove, tripping over oneself is perhapsthe greatest danger. Granted, this is notan insignificant hazard and impalingoneself in the event of a stumble seemsrather likely given the fanged cramponsand daggered tools.But it’s those very implements, Iquickly remember once I hit the ice,that make it so much fun. Not onlydo we experience the freedom of climbing, we do so while whackingstuff. And let’s be honest, whackingstuff is
. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s hard-wired into our DNA. Men aretool-wielding beasts and hitting thingsis as fun a use of our tools as any. Evenat work. I’d take chopping wood oversawing wood any day; pounding nailsover jemmying them up anytime. Oursports inventions know this, too:
e: a mnse h man  as ha’  guge u he uh abu use.
meN’s HeaLTH
nOvember 2011
golf clubs, hockey sticks, cricket bats,tennis racquets – if we’re usingtools in sport, it’s most likely towhack something.Today, swinging the axeseems inordinately satisfying. This is“thunker” plastic; no brittle garbageor slurpee-soft ice today. Each strikesends the pick an inch deep – thunk– setting it solid and firm. Swing. Kick.Kick. Power up with the legs. Swing.Kick. Kick. Chad – who reminds me of a scaled-down Owen Wilson: similarpermanent grin, similar looks, similarhoneyed voice that could reassureyou, even when confronting the mostremarkable craziness – had talkedabout replicating actions, engagingin patterns we can run over and over.The simplicity of this swinging andkicking seems blessedly easy.Then we swap to a steeper optionand I come unstuck. Chad, the bastard,makes it look easy, pirouetting acrossthe ice while demonstrating bodypositions he wants us to work on: hipsin when you’re swinging, out whenyou’re kicking. “Swing like you screw,”he says, “kick like you poo.” But thisisn’t the problem; I can screw and poopretty well, in this sense at least. It’s hisother key piece of advice – holding thetools lightly – that I’m just too thick,or too chicken, to absorb. I clench thetools with a death grip, and the moremy forearms flame, the harder I clutch,turning my grip to jelly.A lunch break does little to helpand my arms have the strength of a
for the afternoon session.Each climb sees the point at which I
must give up and be lowered off gettingprogressively lower and lower. By mylast climb, I manage only to struggle afew metres off the ground. That night,I thank God for my hotel’s natural hotsprings, where I can soak away the stingof defeat.
Far – both in
terms of physical andpsychological distance – from theColoradan show pony resort townsof Vail and Aspen, or the populationcentre of Denver, Ouray seems remoteand somewhat lonely. The San JuanMountains cut it off from the rest of the world, and despite sitting at anelevation higher than Kosciuszko, thepocket-size town of six blocks by nine,with its Victorian buildings crowdingthe main street, feels to be in the midstof a coliseum; a tiny playing arenahemmed in by an outsized stadia of peaks towering a vertical mile abovethe town.
The town had always beenrenowned in American ice-climbingcircles for its backcountry routes,but in the early Nineties local hotelowners Bill Whitt and Gary Wildfigured they’d get more winter guestsif they created ice themselves. Asluck would have it, Ouray’s watersupply ran in pipes above a narrowbox canyon just beyond town. Whittand Wild sprang some leaks, tappedin some garden hoses and, hey presto,ice. Now, 15 years on and far moresophisticated, Ouray’s Ice Park isimpressive: a two-kilometre-long wallof climbs ranging from 10m to 50,from those suitable for never-evers tothose that shut down even the planet’sbest climbers. And all just a fewhundred metres from the carpark.
Now, with the festival in fullswing, the park is swarming. Asidefrom the crowds gathering to watchthe comps, nearly a hundred clinicsare held over three days. Being,well, a tightarse, I find their nearlygiveaway prices irresistible and
Badass rating 10/10.Time to give thosearms a rest and putthe legs to work.
Ouray Telluride
The tiny town of Ouray becomes a mecca for ice climbers during the festival 
meN’s HeaLTH
nOvember 2011
sign up for sessions every day. Andit helps. After feeling defeated thatfirst day – even cleaning my teeththe next morning, my arms
feelpumped – things begin improving. Ijoin a clinic with Trish Poulos, out of Salt Lake City, who explains why mytools are bouncing off the ice: as youget tired, your elbows float wide andyou don’t hit the ice square. So keepyour elbows in.
No chicken wings
. Andthe following day with Jason Nelson,I finally learn to ditch the death-grip.“Think of throwing a dart,” he says,“giving a flick of the wrist at the end.”When we return to the very climbsthat thumped me on the first day, nowI succeed.
ut of the
darkness shines a columnof light, of near-blinding intensity. It'sso, so close, but pain is taking over. Mystrength is waning and I’m wonderingif I’m ever going to make it to the light.It’s as if the juice is being slowly wrungout of my arms, like a wet towel twistedand twisted
and twisted 
, so tight thatjust a few drops of strength remain. Butthere’s no choice – keep moving beforethose last drops fall to the Earth. Delayis death.Yet again, I find myself asking
Whyam I here?
It’s three days after thefestival and I’m a few body-lengthsaway from topping out at Skylight, oneof Ouray’s most iconic backcountryclimbs. While I concede that its givenmoniker has a tad more delicacy, theclimb could just as easily have beencalled Butt Crack – the second pitch istwo cheeks of rock separated by an icycrevice that rarely sees the sun. Anda fall, I imagine, with pun intended,would have you in the poo. You’d bepin-balling and bouncing off eachcheek all the way to the bottom.
EssENTiaL GEar
Sotshells are perect or ice climbing. I precipitation alls, it’s gonna be as snow,not rain, so you can make use o the greaterbreathability they oer over hardshells. Plus,they’re more versatile.
The North Face’sGritstone jacket
had enoughinsulation and wind resistance tokeep me warm, and waswaterproo enough tokeep out the ice drips.It's breathability meantI never overheated andit was sleek enoughthat I could wear itaround San Franciscoon my way back
When you’re belaying, which canbe brutally cold while you’re standingaround waiting or your partner to fnishclimbing, you’ll want to team up yoursotshell with a down jacket. Go big andwarm – really warm – like
NorthFace’s Prism Optimus Jacket
; thenorthface.com.au).
One o the best things about iceclimbing is that you get to swaggerabout with all manner o daggeredand pointy implements.
BlackDiamond’s no-nonsense Viper
ice tools are reasonably priced and a joy to swing
; seatosummit.com.au).
BD’s Sabretooth Crampons,
withtheir horizontal ront points, oer theversatility o not only being perect orOuray’s waterall ice, but greatshould you ever decide tohead to NZ and try yourhand at scaling amountain
Clint Cook, head guide at SanJuan Mountain Guides, has just ledthe climb. Did I say led? I meant
up the damn thing. Soloedit, in fact. And as if to maintain somekind of cosmic equilibrium, as easyas Clint found Skylight, I’m findingit equally challenging. My forearmsare searing, my whole body is on theverge of quaking and the tools arerefusing to bite. In the back of mymind somewhere, I remember Clinttelling me to stick to the fundamentals.It seems an apt analogy for life, oneas applicable to the office, or even tolove, as to climbing. When shit hits thefan, remember this: the fundamentals.Which for this moment, I synthesise tothese:
Screw and poo. No chicken wings.Flick the wrist. Breathe
.But I’m not asking myself why I’mhere because I’ve put myself in
uray is far removed fromshow pony snow towns in Colorado.nce the tourists leave, it seemsremote and somewhat lonely.
meN’s HeaLTH
nOvember 2011

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