IN SEARCH OF ICE IN JULY: BD employee Chris Thomas loves alpine climbing. Chris Thomas hates alpine climbing. Which is it?
Chris Thomas runs Black Diamond's Warranty Department and he's got a serious climbing jones. Dawn, dusk, all day, any day, Chris is out there climbing. He sent us the following report after a quick weekend solo quest to the Tetons in the hopes of finding some late-late-late-late season ice still lurking up in the alpine. It's a great timeline-style story of Chris's stoke and stew from the day's events that really illustrates the love/hate alpine climbers have with adventures in the mountains.
5:25 PM, July 16 I feel a little funny sitting on the front porch sharpening my ice tools in the 100 degree heat. I’m barefoot, shirtless, and if my neighbors weren’t home I’d probably take my shorts off. Sweat is pooling on the stairs. The ice in my cocktail glass doesn’t even last more than a minute or two. But that, I suppose, is the point. A friend sent me a photo of the back side of the Grand from a week ago and I can’t believe how much snow is still pasted to the steep, shady walls. It’s impossible to know for sure, but I wonder if there’s any ice hidden up there. Even if I get shut down, it would still be a worthy excuse to get out of the Utah heat for a little while and go exploring.
1:00 PM July 17 Bust out of work early and blaze up to Jackson. A new personal record: 4 hours 10 minutes to the Jenny Lake parking lot. There’s a lot more snow than I thought there would be—hell yeah!
6:00 PM The plan was to leave at midnight and go for the single push, but I’m thinking I should probably start walking up there now. Sitting on my ass, looking up at those mountains and knowing there’s still many hours of daylight left just isn’t going to work—I’m too psyched!
9:45 PM I settle into a spartan bivy and finish the rest of the pizza I brought for dinner. I’m not even a little bit tired, and consider just staying up and climbing something. NW ridge of Middle would be fun. Better judgment prevails and I eventually fall asleep staring up at a sky filled with more stars than I’ve ever seen in my life.
2:45 AM, July 18 I’m awake 15 minutes before my alarm goes off and fired up! I have my bag packed in no time and I’m practically running up the trail. Lucero is cranking loud on the iPod and I’m singing at the top of my lungs. Sorry to whoever was camped on the moraine!
4:15 AM Wow, I haven’t been on the lower saddle in almost 8 years. It’s funny how I’m still able to find the Valhalla Traverse first try in the dark. Memories from spending so much time here when I was 17 are engraved deep.
4:36 AM Surf down some scree, snoop around for a cairn, repeat. Fully loving every second of this.
5:35 AM First light over Jackson Lake and Mount Owen. Damn, this place is beautiful. I’ll be at the split for the Enclosure Ice Couloir vs. the Black Ice Couloir soon, decision time isn’t far off.
5:43 AM WOW! I get my first look around the corner and the North Buttress of the Enclosure is glowing orange in the early light. I hoot and holler at the top of my lungs to no one in particular—it feels good to be alive! As any climber would, I scan the buttress for cracks , weaknesses, and ice smears. Not sure, but I think I’m looking up at Emotional Rescue. Got to get back here with a partner and a rope to try that thing soon. One of the prettiest pieces of rock I’ve ever seen.
5:46 AM I’m so psyched to start the real climbing that I’m as giddy as a school girl. Picking one route over the other is going to be tough.
5:50 AM Snow is pretty soft. The Black Ice would provide more ice climbing, which was the point of the trip, but solo and without enough gear to bail I’m worried about the crux being melted out. I can see all the way to the top of the Enclosure and there’s snow and ice the whole way, but as it tops out on the middle of a ridge with no walk off, continuing up via the NW ridge is the only escape. Soloing 5.8 in clunky mountain boots is both terrifying and strangely arousing…
5:51 AM Snow is really soft. I can’t risk the crux being melted out on the Black Ice, goin’ for the Enclosure/NW ridge link up.
5:59 AM Swing, kick, kick. Swing, kick, kick. I settle into a comfortable rhythm and zone out. I have to try pretty hard to slow myself down and savor the moment, but it’s so much fun to cover ground really fast. Dreamy neve and ice. The repeated sharp sound of a perfect stick in plastic ice is sexy.
6:05 AM Woo Hoo! Half way up the ice section and loving it. My hands are a little cold and it feels soooo good. The cold wind whips me in the face and I’m smiling from ear to ear. It’s probably already 85 degrees in Salt Lake, suckers… I feel like I’m getting away with something.
6:25 AM Top of the Enclosure Couloir. So happy. Bluebird day, nothing in the universe could top this. I’m looking up at the NW ridge... looks steep! Much more intimidating than I thought it would be. And icy. I get started.
6:35 AM I’m looking up at what has to be the crux. Vertical finger and hand crack in a corner with slopey, polished feet. I can’t fit my boots into the crack, but fortunately the jams are good and I can just muscle it.
6:50 AM Wow, maybe that wasn’t the crux. I have one tool stuck in the ice, one hand in a wet finger lock, and my feet are pawing at verglassed edges. Staring a couple thousand feet down between my heels at Valhalla Canyon keeps my attention.
7:13 AM This thing keeps going and going! I think I’m looking at the summit, but it’s really just another steep step in the ridge. The climbing is amazing—always engaging but never too desperate. Rock shoes would be nice, but hey, at least my feet are warm. The scenery only gets better.
7:22 AM Several pitches later. Rad moves on jugs on overhanging rock! The knobby gneiss is smooth and sparkly. There are few experiences on earth that could ever match this.
7:30 AM One last boulder problem and I’m on top! God, I love alpine climbing. I need to take more trips. Looking out at the Wind Rivers in the distance makes the gears in my head start turning. Too many adventures to be had and not enough time.
7:32 AM The elation is starting to wear off. Hiking down the Owen-Spalding gully in mountain boots is painful… the clunk of a steel-shanked sole followed by a jar to the knees just isn’t much fun.
8:00 AM Finally, I’m back at the lower saddle. Can’t wait to get these boots off. I’m tired and it’s only 8 am. I look down to the valley floor and it’s a lonnngggg ways away. Buffalo wings and beer on tap beckon.
8:30 AM Alpine climbing is officially the biggest waste of time ever. My knees are killing me, my quads are seizing up. Even though it hurts, I run for a while so I can get back to the car faster. This sport is stupid.
9:57 AM Still crashing downhill. And I’m melting in the sun. From now on I only boulder and sport climb. Kolin is right—what’s so manly about climbing in the mountains? At least when you’re cragging you get to hang out with cute girls in sports bras.
10:29 AM Finally, the car. Never doing that again. I take my pack off and sit down. I hate this sport.
10:30 AM I take one sip of cold water and look up at the Grand: That was the best day ever. Hell yeah. It’s still early... maybe I can go run up the Snaz or something? I wonder if the Black Ice Couloir will be in next weekend? I could probably come back up in a couple days. There’s at least one more sharpening left in my picks. I love climbing.