Heaven and Ice

Heaven, well that’s easy; Coat me in chocolate, roll me in a barrel of nuts, then feed me to a handful of beautiful girls who haven’t eaten for a week! Ice, well that’s not so easy to explain, forever changing and always an unknown, that’s the challenge of waterfall ice.

[A discourse on the vagaries of frozen H2O, by Adrian Nelhams]

There’s no challenge in Heaven, we all know girls have a sweet tooth and love chocolate, especially if they’ve been starved for a week, but Ice now that’s a different story.

So what’s going on with the ice? How cold/warm has it been, and for how long? Has it been a short cold snap? (Like making ice cubes in a freezer). The ice will look and react in much the same way as it just shatters with every pick placement. Ice needs a certain amount of time to form well and a good cold spell with a little warmer sunshine thrown in can create some great ice. If there’s been a very warm spell, then to be on the safe side you may need to look for icefalls at a slightly higher altitude and north facing. If it’s a seepage line then will it be formed at all? Has the area had a very dry autumn leading into the winter? If so, has it affected how certain lines have formed or whether those lines have formed at all? A main drainage line that takes a lot of water can take longer to form and may also return to its original state quicker. The steeper the line the more the water drips down in a vertical plane creating fragile columns with ice shaped like upside down mushrooms at its base, which can be hollow/fragile and difficult to get good tool placements. Easier angled ice is under less tension and tends to flow more like water giving way to easier pick placements as the ice is displaced less with each tool placement.

Any sudden steep rise or fall in the temperature outside will have a major affect on the ice, putting it under a greater amount of stress and tension causing steep pillars/fringes to possibly drop. If it’s very cold for too long without any influence of the sun or warmer temperatures then the ice becomes very brittle and reacts just the same as hitting glass. Pillars will fracture and shatter badly, causing them to possibly drop with any extra weight. Fringes and hanging daggers will just break off, as the ice is too thin and brittle. Prolonged periods of very warm weather will slowly change the ice back to its normal state of water. This added weight of water in the steeper ice and pillars will them under a lot more tension, to a point that your extra weight when climbing it, may cause them to drop. Although it is a balance, as warmer weather tends to relax the ice, giving a lot more first time placements and its then that the steeper harder routes are maybe in their best condition especially on northern aspects. Easier angled icefalls are obviously under less tension and can take more of a beating and are generally formed in large water courses or from bigger drainages which naturally take a lot more water, are maybe wetter, but also maybe less dangerous?(just beware of big avalanche bowls above). If it’s hot during the day and freezing at night you may need to clear a lot of ice in the morning, if you’re the first up. The sun melts the icefall’s surface and then freezes it again over night, creating a surface of either frozen drips or fragile columns to clear or a surface of lenses and dinner plating ice, which you’ll need to clear to get to the better ice below. Generally any ice bulges of easier angle ice where there is more of an accumulation of water/ice will be the worst for plating/fracturing so stick to the grooves and natural runnels. In any prolonged warm spell it’s the north facing routes to take shelter on, where the ice is the best and probably the safest. With the tension gone from the cold and dinner plating north facing ice it offers good climbing.

Something else to be aware of in prolonged warm periods is that you can get a lot of rock fall. The fractured and loose alpine rock that you invariably get around icefalls is loosened from its frozen state and washed down by the warmer wetter conditions. A sign of any rock fall activity is that the snow below the ice is pitted with small rocks. Be careful in these conditions of climbing any long gullies where rocks can be funnelled down and you’ll be exposed to this type of rock fall, especially later in the day. During these hot and sunny spells the ice can lose its bond to the rock as the rock heats up and the ice becomes delaminated from the rock. You’ll hear a booming sound when you’re climbing the fall, just be careful it’s not too steep and the pillar is not too detached as your extra weight on it may cause it to drop.

Is there a risk of the slope avalanching above the icefall, or from a huge bowl sat high, out of sight, exposed to the full heat of the mid-day sun, while you’re in the shady freezer on a north slope? (Always better to try to assess this by either by looking at a map, looking at the fall from a distance on the way in or by getting some local knowledge). Has it been snowing recently, is it snowing now, has the wind increased, depositing the snow on lee slopes, which may then become very avalanche prone now or later? Are there any signs that it’s been windy, (scoured snow less slopes on one aspect with snow building up on others)? Even if it hasn’t been windy but just snowing heavily, how big is the catchment area above the icefall? Are you going to get large amounts of build-up that may get funnelled down over you while you’re climbing? Even large amounts of heavy spindrift coming down northern aspects are enough to wipe you out as is heavy wet snow on sunny warm aspects in prolonged warm periods. What’s the slope like leading up to the icefall? Are you crossing avalanche prone slopes or exposed to terrain traps from other slopes on the other side of the valley? Is the snow helping to fatten the icefall by feeding the ice in the heat of the day? Has the snow just settled on the easier angled ice, insulating it and creating an ‘egg shell’ type surface, with a hard frozen outer and then just crud underneath, covering the good ice 6 inches below? If there’s been no snow at all, then beware of ice falling from climbers above you. Any ice kicked down by climbers above, even if they’re out of sight on another pitch further up the route, will keep rattling down the dry icy slopes, which are normally covered in snow and soften or stop the falling ice.

Ultimately every icefall is different on any given day, so where does it leave us?
Well the list is endless and I’ve tried to mention a few points. There’s no substitute for experience which also gives you that gut feeling of whether something is right or not. The signs are all around you from when you get somewhere, to asking around what people have done, finding out what the weather’s been like and what the forecast is, to what it’s like when you get up in the morning, signs you see walking in and ultimately what it feels like when you get there and swing your axe?

It’s only then that you’ll have a feeling of whether it’s on or not? And if you’re with the right climbing partner you won’t feel pushed into anything and will make the right decision.

Just remember the ice conditions and weather don’t care who you are or whether you’ve spent all your savings to get out there. Its important to be with the right climbing partner and be patient, don’t let enthusiasm take over and blinker any judgement even if you’re flying home the following day.

The routes will still be there another day and the trick is for you to be there too!

Just remember, there’s always Heaven!