Dancing with Gravity
“Ice climbing is arguably the most extreme sport of all. It requires meticulous planning and complete reliance on very specialized equipment in the most dangerous circumstances” The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Extreme Sports.
Just outside the small town of Ouray, nestled in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado sits the Uncompahgre gorge. It’s cold, about minus 7, but I’m sweating. I like to think it’s the brisk march up the hill, but it could just be fear!
I’m standing at the base of “Le Pissoir” a thin, cylindrical tentacle of ice hanging down from the Gorge rim. It’s about 150ft high, but no fatter than a factory chimney. Corrugated with delicate flutings and weird Cauliflower-like knobs. And it glows, a mysterious shade of blue, radiating from inside somewhere.
I take careful aim at a patch of smooth, solid looking ice, swinging my right ax from the shoulder once, twice, until the pick lodges firmly above my head with a distinctive “thwunk” I repeat the process with my left ax, and then pull my body up.
On my feet are rigid plastic boots, clamped to there soles are my “Pit Bull” crampons, lightweight metal frames, with 14 razor sharp downward pointing teeth, 2 others point forward – kicking these “front points” into the ice gains me a tenuous purchase and allows me to shift the weight from my arms to my feet.
After 30 minutes of alternately kicking my feet and swinging my arms I’m about 100ft up this pencil of frozen water. The sturdy plastic like solidness of the first 50ft feet have given way to a honeycomb of brittle air pockets. I have to work a lot harder now. Each swing of my Axe cleaves off huge chunks of ice, which bounce and crash into the ground with a loud “crack” I need to pay attention, to tell myself, this is getting serious!
My forearms burn from the strain of hanging on, my calves are filling up with lactic acid and becoming uncomfortable. I gulp for air, my chest heaving due to the altitude and frigid temperature.
Just over an hour ago I was sitting in the warmth of the Victorian Inn’s sunny breakfast room dipping my “soldiers” into gooey yellow yokes and filling up on caffeine, now I’m struggling to keep a creeping fear at bay, droplets of salty cold sweat run into my eyes. My life has been reduced to a few crucial pieces of sharp metal tenuously embedded in “hard water” that’s all it is after all, just water!
I decided to climb “Le Pissoir WI6, without a rope, to climb it solo. I’ve been climbing ice for nearly Two decades and wanting to solo this route for the past Five years. I’m confident, nevertheless I’m very aware that a mistake now could be fatal – as one famous exponent of this dark art once said; “the ground is hard, and its forever”
Placing my tools as meticulously as a surgeon, I delicately pick my way to the top of the climb, pull onto level ground and finally shake out the cramp from my aching limbs. Waves of euphoria and nausea simultaneously wash over me and for the first time I notice a large group of people have gathered on the opposite side of the gorge, quietly watching. The only noise I can here is the thumping of my heart and my heaving lungs resounding against the still silence. I sit down, the first time I can take the weight from my arms in over an hour, in the snow, tired but elated. After a few minutes I cut my reverie short and slowly walk over to where the decent, back down to the base of the gorge is.
I’ve had an idea. I can see another waterfall not far up the gorge from this one and there’s still time, if I hurry, to climb it before dark!