Penthouse Retrospective

by Phil Maranda Originally Published: February, 2001

Extreme Ice | 20 Years Ago This Month

After suiting up, it was finally time for a lesson, and McKay began by describing — and demonstrating — the correct method for using the deadly ice ax. “Bring it back over your shoulder like this, but not too far,” he cautioned. “As you swing it forward, let your wrist release, and the ax will be placed properly into the ice without your smashing your hands. Remember, the releasing of the wrist is the real important part of the swing — that’s where you get most of the power.”

Within 15 minutes we had covered the use of the rest of the equipment, the belaying process (securing the ropes at various intervals) that would later get us down the Wall, and a few more techniques used for successful ice climbing. Then McKay was off, attacking the first pitch of the Weeping Wall and displaying the smooth movements and precise tool placements gained from more than 18 years’ climbing experience. He quickly reached a small ledge, anchored himself to it with ice screws, then signaled for me to begin my ascent.

Tied by a rope to an experienced climber, I was nonetheless infused with terror. My life was passing before my eyes — ever heard that one before? — and I hadn’t even begun the climb. There was no choice, though; I simply had to climb. I couldn’t come off looking like a pussy in front of this guy who risked his life on the mountains almost every day. So I sucked it up, moved to the base of the Weeping Wall, drew back the ice ax in my right hand, and swung like there was no tomorrow. At the time, I didn’t think there would be.

Unfortunately, I ended up looking like a pussy, anyway. The ax didn’t penetrate far enough to support the weight of a gerbil, much less my 175 pounds – an inauspicious beginning for me extreme ice foray, as you can tell. But at least I didn’t rap my knuckles on the ice, I thought. My next swing was much harder, but once again the technique sucked, and though the ax struck deeper into the ice, this time my knuckles did in fad smash into the unforgiving surface.

During the ascent, my crampons and ice axes periodically wrenched loose from the ice, leaving the rope and McKay’s strength as all that kept me from a bad case of broken bones — or death. “Remember to keep your heels flat when you kick the toe of the crampon into the ice, and make sure at least one of the axes is secure before trying to move on,” McKay yelled from above when he grew tired of half-dragging my sorry ass up the Weeping Wall. After what seemed like an unbearable hour of scratching and crawling, I finally reached McKay’s location.

When at last I was anchored into the wall with three ice screws, I eased into my surroundings. I became comfortable surveying the land from this new position. It was then that it hit me: The concentration I was forced to use while climbing the Weeping Wall had erased the fear I had felt prior to my attempt. I was a bigger person than the fellow who, years earlier, was the failure of his climbing class. And then, just as my excitement peaked, McKay gave me a short lesson in belaying before lowering me back down the ice. He figured we had gone high enough for my first day.

The origins of ice climbing can be traced back more than 2,000 years. Some of the first people to grapple successfully with ice were not climbers at all but sheep herders tending their flocks high in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. To accomplish this arduous task, they fashioned spiked three-point devices to the bottoms of their boots (the first make-shift crampons), using their staffs for additional support and balance.

“I hung on for dear life. At long last I could tell people I was at the end of my rope … and mean It.”

By the 1700s, shepherds living in Europe’s Alps adapted a similar crampon and a modified staff, or alpenstock, pre-cursor to the modern ice ax. The extreme ice aipenstock was a long stick — in some cases taller than a man — with an iron tip at one end for penetrating the ice. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, English mountaineers had arrived on the scene and begun hiring the shepherds as guides into the icy, snow-covered mountain region. Almost overnight, it seemed, the peaks of the Alps became immensely popular with the adventurous Brits, and climbing for recreation was born.

As decades passed, ice climbing became a unique outdoor experience in and of itself, and over the past 15 to 20 years an ever-increasing number of adventurers have taken up the sport worldwide. Today, it’s estimated that there are more than 285,000 ice climbers in the United States alone. The sport now encompasses a whole range of terrain, including radically difficult mixed climbs (on both rock and ice), waterfalls, alpine ice routes, hanging icicles, and man-made ice walls.

It seems that anywhere there’s even the slightest trace of ice, there is a climber with large enough cojones to risk life and limb to reach the top of the route and claim the prize. Competitions both on man-made walls (think X-Games) and in ice parks, as at the Ice Craft exhibition held every year in Colorado’s Ouray Ice Park, offer everything from mixed routes to vertical walls, providing climbers with the opportunity to match their skills and wits against one another.

Some of us do not need to qualify the dangers of ice by creating an entirely new category of Extreme Ice. But some people are wacky.

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