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Published by: Clint Cook on Nov 15, 2011
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manual adrenaline

Nobody calls me chicken: just another method to scare ourselves shitless.

Ice: a mo many fla nster with gouge o ws that’ll u about y t the truth ourself.


What: strap on some crampons and grab your axes to go ice climbing in Ouray. The historic mining town in Colorado’s stunning San Juan Mountains has America’s finest ice climbing. And after you’ve tackled either the world’s largest ice park, or one of the many backcountry climbs nearby, you can soak your aching muscles in one of the town’s natural hotsprings.

Frozen Assets
You’ll need to keep your cool while chasing a rush at Colorado’s famed Ice Festival
Words and photogr aphy by James mcCormaCk

Why: ice climbing combines the freedom of climbing with the primal joy of bashing away at ice. But the sport is challenging, psychologically and physically. Ice is an unpredictable medium and lead climbers need to be comfortable dealing with fear. That said, if you’re seconding or top-roping – which you almost certainly will be if you’re starting out – ice climbing can be surprisingly safe.

of all the strange motivations of man (and I say man, not human, deliberately), perhaps the strangest of all is the pursuit of fear. And pursue it we do. Bungee jumping, kiteboarding, skydiving, mountain biking, wingsuiting, snowboarding, scuba diving, paragliding – the list goes on. Indeed, one of technology’s achievements is the ballooning number of methods we’ve evolved, for sheer pleasure, to scare ourselves shitless. Of these, the most tried and tested is alpinism. It was the original adrenaline sport, “invented” in 1760 when Swiss naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussure challenged all-comers to climb the 4808-metre Mont Blanc. Before that, apparently no-one had contemplated the idea. Nor had they even considered that frightening themselves might be fun. Life-risking activities were generally undertaken to achieve other ends. Men fought sabretooth tigers for survival. We went to war for women or land. But with alpinism, scaring oneself – often – has been the end. Perhaps that’s not surprising for a sport where merely making it home is regarded as somewhat of a victory. And of all alpinism’s sub-branches, one stands out as being conspicuously kooky in its pucker factor: ice climbing. It’s hard finding descriptions of the sport that don’t talk about how damn scary it is. My favourite is Duane Raleigh’s cheery opening salvo in his book Ice: Tools and Techniques. “Ice is a monster with many claws that will gouge out the truth about yourself,” he writes. “You learn more in a dripping, fearful 10 feet of ice than in a century of key-tapping or nail-pounding, or whatever it is that you do for a living.” Raleigh is right. Ice is a monster, a less-than-stable medium that can conform to your worst nightmares. It can be as soft as a slurpee, or just brittle garbage. Any particular climb changes from year to year, month to month, day to day. Even a few hours make a difference. If the temperature rises, a solid climb in the morning can morph into slush by the afternoon. Conversely, if it’s cold enough, the ice becomes fragile, fracturing off into dinner platesize shards. Or worse. I haven’t climbed ice in a decade, since moving back to Australia. But the very last time I did, the ice I was attached to, a sheet the size of a door, peeled away from the wall, with all four of my points – both tools, both

crampons – still attached. We dangled off the rope, me and the chunk of ice, until I managed to kick it free and it crashed to the ground. Now I, for one, regard myself as a bit of a ’fraidy cat. Not a total chicken, mind you – I don’t mind some excitement. But, like most blokes I suspect, I’m kinda in the middle. I’ll admit I lowered off that last climb trembling like a leaf. And I’ll admit that wasn’t the only time, either. In fact, after a decade off, I’ve actually forgotten why I used to really like ice climbing. I know that I did, but all I remember now is a vague sense of terror. I’m reflecting on all this – why men pursue fear, my being a chicken, that last climb a decade ago – as I stand at the base of a wall of sheer blue ice near Ouray. In particular, I’m wondering why the hell I’m here. American climbing luminary Chad Peele has just started his clinic and asked our motivations in coming. I’m here, in one sense, for the Ice Festival, when ice climbers from all over converge on the tiny town of about 1000. I’m here to watch the climbing comps, check out the gear stalls, watch the slideshows, go to the ice-themed parties and attend climbing 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’t one I’ll confront directly today. After a decade off, I won’t even dream of tying into the rope’s sharp end, which is where the peril predominantly lies. Fall when you’re lead climbing and you’ve gotta pray that wobbly ice screw you placed in the slush 3m beneath you holds. There’s a good chance it won’t. But for those either seconding or toproping, the danger is greatly reduced. Especially here in the ice park. Aside from an ice tool being dropped from above, tripping over oneself is perhaps the greatest danger. Granted, this is not an insignificant hazard and impaling oneself in the event of a stumble seems rather likely given the fanged crampons and daggered tools. But it’s those very implements, I quickly remember once I hit the ice, that make it so much fun. Not only do we experience the freedom of climbing, we do so while whacking stuff. And let’s be honest, whacking stuff is cool. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s hard-wired into our DNA. Men are tool-wielding beasts and hitting things is as fun a use of our tools as any. Even at work. I’d take chopping wood over sawing wood any day; pounding nails over jemmying them up anytime. Our sports inventions know this, too:


YA H O O 7. c O m . A u / m e n s H e A l t H

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must give up and be lowered off getting progressively lower and lower. By my last climb, I manage only to struggle a few metres off the ground. That night, I thank God for my hotel’s natural hot springs, where I can soak away the sting of defeat. Far – both in terms of physical and psychological distance – from the Coloradan show pony resort towns of Vail and Aspen, or the population centre of Denver, Ouray seems remote and somewhat lonely. The San Juan Mountains cut it off from the rest of the world, and despite sitting at an elevation higher than Kosciuszko, the pocket-size town of six blocks by nine, with its Victorian buildings crowding the main street, feels to be in the midst of a coliseum; a tiny playing arena hemmed in by an outsized stadia of peaks towering a vertical mile above the town. The town had always been renowned in American ice-climbing circles for its backcountry routes, but in the early Nineties local hotel owners Bill Whitt and Gary Wild figured they’d get more winter guests if they created ice themselves. As luck would have it, Ouray’s water supply ran in pipes OKLAMOMA above a narrow box canyon just beyond town. Whitt and Wild sprang some leaks, tapped in some garden hoses and, hey presto, ice. Now, 15 years on and far more sophisticated, Ouray’s Ice Park is impressive: a two-kilometre-long wall of climbs ranging from 10m to 50, from those suitable for never-evers to those that shut down even the planet’s best climbers. And all just a few hundred metres from the carpark. Now, with the festival in full swing, the park is swarming. Aside from the crowds gathering to watch the comps, nearly a hundred clinics are held over three days. Being, well, a tightarse, I find their nearly giveaway prices irresistible and

golf clubs, hockey sticks, cricket bats, tennis racquets – if we’re using tools in sport, it’s most likely to whack something. Today, swinging the axe seems inordinately satisfying. This is “thunker” plastic; no brittle garbage or slurpee-soft ice today. Each strike sends 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: similar permanent grin, similar looks, similar honeyed voice that could reassure you, even when confronting the most remarkable craziness – had talked about replicating actions, engaging in patterns we can run over and over. The simplicity of this swinging and kicking seems blessedly easy. Then we swap to a steeper option and I come unstuck. Chad, the bastard, makes it look easy, pirouetting across the ice while demonstrating body positions he wants us to work on: hips in when you’re swinging, out when you’re kicking. “Swing like you screw,” he says, “kick like you poo.” But this isn’t the problem; I can screw and poo pretty well, in this sense at least. It’s his other key piece of advice – holding the tools lightly – that I’m just too thick, or too chicken, to absorb. I clench the tools with a death grip, and the more my forearms flame, the harder I clutch, turning my grip to jelly. A lunch break does little to help and my arms have the strength of a blancmange for the afternoon session. Each climb sees the point at which I

Badass rating 10/10. Time to give those arms a rest and put the legs to work.


United States






Ouray Telluride

The tiny town of Ouray becomes a mecca for ice climbers during the festival

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sign up for sessions every day. And it helps. After feeling defeated that first day – even cleaning my teeth the next morning, my arms still feel pumped – things begin improving. I join a clinic with Trish Poulos, out of Salt Lake City, who explains why my tools are bouncing off the ice: as you get tired, your elbows float wide and you don’t hit the ice square. So keep your elbows in. No chicken wings. And the 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 climbs that thumped me on the first day, now I succeed. out of the darkness shines a column of light, of near-blinding intensity. It's so, so close, but pain is taking over. My strength is waning and I’m wondering if I’m ever going to make it to the light. It’s as if the juice is being slowly wrung out of my arms, like a wet towel twisted and twisted and twisted, so tight that just a few drops of strength remain. But there’s no choice – keep moving before those last drops fall to the Earth. Delay is death. Yet again, I find myself asking Why am I here? It’s three days after the festival and I’m a few body-lengths away from topping out at Skylight, one of Ouray’s most iconic backcountry climbs. While I concede that its given moniker has a tad more delicacy, the climb could just as easily have been called Butt Crack – the second pitch is two cheeks of rock separated by an icy crevice that rarely sees the sun. And a fall, I imagine, with pun intended, would have you in the poo. You’d be pin-balling and bouncing off each cheek all the way to the bottom.

Clint Cook, head guide at San Juan Mountain Guides, has just led the climb. Did I say led? I meant romped up the damn thing. Soloed it, in fact. And as if to maintain some kind of cosmic equilibrium, as easy as Clint found Skylight, I’m finding it equally challenging. My forearms are searing, my whole body is on the verge of quaking and the tools are refusing to bite. In the back of my mind somewhere, I remember Clint telling me to stick to the fundamentals. It seems an apt analogy for life, one as applicable to the office, or even to love, as to climbing. When shit hits the fan, remember this: the fundamentals. Which for this moment, I synthesise to these: Screw and poo. No chicken wings. Flick the wrist. Breathe. But I’m not asking myself why I’m here because I’ve put myself in
When you’re belaying, which can be brutally cold while you’re standing around waiting for your partner to finish climbing, you’ll want to team up your softshell with a down jacket. Go big and warm – really warm – like The North Face’s Prism Optimus Jacket ($699 ; thenorthface.com.au). BD’s Sabretooth Crampons, with their horizontal front points, offer the versatility of not only being perfect for Ouray’s waterfall ice, but great should you ever decide to head to NZ and try your hand at scaling a mountain ($309.95; seatosummit. com.au).

ouray is far removed from show pony snow towns in Colorado. once the tourists leave, it seems remote and somewhat lonely.

EssENTiaL GEar
Softshells are perfect for ice climbing. If precipitation falls, it’s gonna be as snow, not rain, so you can make use of the greater breathability they offer over hardshells. Plus, they’re more versatile. The North Face’s Gritstone jacket had enough insulation and wind resistance to keep me warm, and was waterproof enough to keep out the ice drips. It's breathability meant I never overheated and it was sleek enough that I could wear it around San Francisco on my way back ($349 ; thenorthface.com.au).

One of the best things about ice climbing is that you get to swagger about with all manner of daggered and pointy implements. Black Diamond’s no-nonsense Viper ice tools are reasonably priced and a joy to swing ($299.95; seatosummit. com.au).

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another scary position. Precisely the opposite. Having not been on lead during these days in Ouray, I’ve felt nothing but safe. Not a single heartstopping moment. And with Clint belaying me from above, that’s not about to change. No, this is the weird thing: while on the one hand I’m thinking, “Thank Christ I’m not leading this”, on the other I feel I’m somehow losing out by not giving myself the sheer excitement of at least some sort of scare. And so I return to the question I asked days ago: “Why am I here?”. Why would I want both security and fear? At least a little fear anyway. Is it just that at these moments we obtain a diamond-sharp clarity of focus? Zen and the Art of a Smidgen of Fear? Is that what it takes in our safe lives to retreat to fundamentals? It would be nice to have some concise and elegant answers. None, however, offer themselves. Maybe that’s the immediate revelation: on ice, as in life, there are few neat answers. Then, as I pull through the chasm and the Skylight itself, I step into the light and let the warmth envelop me.

after a day of hard yakka, kick back with a brew and reflect on how hardcore you’ve been.

When: the festival is usually held in early January. But the park usually runs from mid-December to April 1, and the backcountry ice lasts into May. hoW: there’s no better place to learn the dark art of ice climbing than Ouray’s Ice Park (ourayicepark.com). Ideally, you’ll go during the festival, with its gear stalls, slideshows, parties, climbing comps and, if you’re there to learn, hundreds of dirtcheap climbing clinics. But if you can’t make it during the ice fest, don’t worry: San Juan Mountain Guides offer great instruction in the park and beyond (ourayclimbing.com). And they rent gear as well. For shuteye – and you’ll need it – Box Canyon Lodge is friendly and convenient (boxcanyonouray.com). Perhaps more importantly, you can soak your weary body in the lodge’s natural hot springs. And to fill your growling stomach after a day’s climbing, visit Ouray Brewery for its dry-rubbed ribs. While you’re there: the San Juans have some of America’s finest skiing to boot. Go to Telluride for resort glamour, but if you really want some memorable turns, the lifted backcountry of nearby Silverton Mountain is mindblowing.

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