Christmas had come and gone and was highlighted by seeing the children’s faces on Christmas morning. Even though my older son professes that he knows there is no Santa, he is still confused when his parents, especially his Mom, insist the spirit of Santa is real. I personally have no doubts however…
Since moving to Alabama from Colorado, I had been corresponding with Nick Parker in Huntsville, Alabama via the Internet. Actually we had started over a year ago when I still lived in Colorado, but it had grown more common since moving to Montgomery. He mentioned in November that he was going ice climbing with some guy he describes as “a crazy Canadian from Ottawa” in New York in January, but he also was going to climb some ice in North Carolina, only 6 hours away. I casually threw out the bait that I would be happy to belay him for some ice experience. A few days after returning from Disney World after Christmas I received a phone call from him asking if I was game for a kamikaze run to North Carolina. I accepted, then mentioned it to my wife who insisted I go climbing … must have been my attitude of late.:-)
Nick told me where the climb was in western North Carolina and after looking at a map, decided I was closer driving by myself from the south through Atlanta, north through South Carolina, to the area. We agreed to meet there by noon on Friday. I loaded up my gear, grabbing my climbing hardware, plastic boots, and winter clothing; something I had not done since leaving Colorado. Out of the house by 6:00am, I drove through northern Georgia up I-85 making good time. As I meandered through South Carolina on back roads I hit the highpoint, Mt Sassafras, bringing my total to five state highpoints. An interesting family pastime, high pointing takes you to places you would not normally travel for any other purpose!
I arrived at the climbing site at about 5,000′ after 25 miles of twisting mountain roads that did nothing to slow the buildup of anticipation. I had never really done any ice climbing — would I like it? Could I do it? Was it hard? Was it easy? Hmmm, all good questions. As I pulled over to the side of the road, Nick was out of his car in a bright red North Face climbing jumpsuit and we introduced ourselves in person for the first time. The climbing site was along a road about a quarter mile long where ground water seeping at the top of the cut produced sheets and multiple frozen waterfalls with the highest being 80-90 feet. We stretched out after the long car ride and I suited up.
The ice was awesome and doubts flooded my thoughts. There was one other party on the ice and they moseyed down to chat with us and offer the use of their fixed line on the highest flow. They were from nearby Clemson University and were very friendly and helpful. Nick had scoped out a good practice section about 40-50′ high so we started with some basic instruction. I was using my strap on mixed alpine crampons and neither of us knew how well they were going to work. Here is where he almost encountered a show stopper when Nick could not find his “snotrag” The Clemson folks offered to sell him theirs for $10, but Nick declined, though shaken for lack of a key piece of his ice climbing equipment!
Nick supplied the ice tools and offered to adjust his crampons for my mammoth feet if I needed them. I suggested I try my own crampons first. Both he and I were equally interested in safety so it was mutually pleasant feeling to have a partner who was keen on safety. He started up the flow, leading and placing protection to the top where he rigged a top rope. The lead took some time as he carefully ascended a clean line. A quick rap down and before I knew it he was handing me the tools. Hmmm again… not known as mister upper body strength I wondered if I would be able to hang in there. I stepped up to the ice and practiced a few swings, hanging from the picks.
My crampons front points bit and I was able to stand off the ground. Time to go for it… I stepped back onto the ground, and swung the pick high, hearing the comfortable thunk of a good placement. Now the left hand, another good “thunk”. Kicking into the ice, I was soon six feet up. I started using the techniques I had observed from Nick and he offered instruction. Before I knew it I was 30 feet up and hooked for life. What a wonderful feeling – the joy of climbing but with a slightly different twist– a new technology– a new confidence building exercise — a new tool for harder and steeper snow and alpine climbs to come!
We spent the rest of the afternoon on this flow ascending harder and harder routes. As the sun started to paint a rosy glow on the ridge top behind us, the shadows started to darken on our wall. We decided to climb until dark to take full advantage of our short trip.
As we walked down the wall to bid our Clemson friends good-bye, we scoped out another wall with bulges and hanging ice sickles. Nick thought he could lead it and I said I could follow it. Up he started and as I stood there belaying I noticed the glow receding on the ridge top behind me, soon leaving me in the dusk, trying to keep my hands warm as Nick found the leading more challenging than originally thought. He got up in about 45 mins and rapped back down where I eagerly awaited my turn in the growing darkness. After moving around and getting the circulation going in my hands again, I stepped up to the ice. Soon I was picking my way through the route, finding indeed where it looked like you could just walk up from the ground, was in reality a slightly overhanging, awkward crux. I made it and lowered back down to Nick, seeing a half moon appear above our heads. Nick quickly reclimbed up the route and broke the anchors down in now total darkness. Every so often a car would round the curve and catch the ice and us in their headlights… what madness they must have thought!
Nick rapped off the route the final time as I snapped a picture with a flash from my new climbing camera. If that picture turns out with the moon in the background….! We loaded out gear and drove down to a small town where we located a restaurant with a salad/food bar where we replenished our stores while getting to know each other a bit better. We had a lot in common, including age and family lives. Our next task was to locate a motel room for the so we could retire to our room to sort and dry gear for the next day. I had brought three different kinds of my home brew beer along to sample as one of the football bowl games lit up the small room. As I was sorting through some gear with my back turned to Nick, I heard this “thump, thump”. Nick, testing my mountaineering experience level asked me what I thought that sound was…before he could finish his sentence I calmly replied, “a frozen Power Bar”. Nick fell quiet in awe realizing I was a pro at winter mountaineering!
Hitting the sack, we turned the oppressive heat off in the room and woke to our wrist alarms at 5:30 the next morning to outside temperature of 16 degrees and a hotel room not much warmer! We packed up, stopping for coffee and Danish at a quick stop and headed up the mountain; arriving to find the wall bathed in sunlight with puffy clouds moving overhead across the ridge. Nick thought we may as well climb the highest route first while we were fresh. He started up the 80′ route doing the hardest lead on ice that he had ever done – Grade III+. I started out belaying in the sunlight in my polypro, but by the time he was midway, it was overcast and getting colder.
Soon my hands were numb as I slowly let out the rope. As he topped out and called out “off belay” I ran to my pack, and put on every bit of clothing I had brought to include my OR mittens over my gloves! He rapped down and it was my turn. He wanted me to try his crampons so I accepted and adjusted them for my size 12 Scarpas. The first kick transformed me forever … oh, that is how it is supposed to feel! I felt I could walk up the pitch without tools! Grabbing his tools, the crampons gave me more confidence as I went up the waterfall. I lost no style points and actually felt I was doing it right. When Nick complimented me, it reinforced my positive thoughts. About half way up I looked down… wow a bit tougher and higher than it looked from below.
At the top there was a bulge that required commitment. He suggested I go for it and with these words; I reached over with a couple of good pick placements and was on top! I savored the moment and asked for a moment to catch my breath before a wild lower that had me swinging into a crevice as the rope twisted on the top ice. I was soon on solid ground; breaking a sweat and the happiest I had been in the outdoors since being on Pikes Peak alone in June. I belayed Nick while he went up a direct route and then we ice bouldered into the midafternoon.
All too soon we were packing our gear for the long drive home and parting company. Through Nick’s pointers I had taken Beginning Ice 101 and passed while Nick had gotten in some needed practice before his climbing trip to New York. As I drove home I felt revitalized, ready to tackle what 1996 had to offer and pleased to have a new friend in the climbing business. I am counting on Santa being real….cuz I need some new ice tools for the next three day weekend!