Losing My Iceginity: A newby's first time

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The screaming barfies: the sensation of your hands going numb, only to thaw so painfully that you want to scream and barf at the same time.

Prior to my first ice climbing experience, my only knowledge of the sport consisted of the basics: climbing on ice, freezing conditions, and the linguistic gem that is “the screaming barfies.” To say I was attracted to the idea would have earned someone a slap on the mouth. I’ve lived in snowy mountain villages my entire life and it’s taught me that being warm is more fun than being cold 83% of the time; translate this idea to the concept of climbing and needless to say my predisposition to the sport wasn’t favorable.

Approaching the Wall

As luck would have it, one of the editors here at O/B spends his winters ice climbing instead of tending to the eternal love affair between man and ski slope. Yes, I too thought this may be an early sign of dementia, but I admit now that I may have been wrong about him. Whether or not Dave is insane—he might on to something.

Friday morning brought clouds dark and thick enough to hide the Gallatin Range completely, the kind that give the impression the sun is going down when it’s still coming up. To reinforce this feeling, I received a text from Dave around noon reading one word: “headlamps.” At one o’clock, Dave arrived with the grace and swagger only a Honda Element can produce and sent me the text, “get out here.” I grabbed my pack and piled into “Jeanine.” Seeing as I’d never ice climbed before, I owned none of the essentials, so mountaineering boots, crampons, and an alpine helmet were waiting for me in the back seat. We made a stop to pick up Dave’s friend Kevin and headed to Hyalite Canyon.

The closer we got to our destination, the more I began to wonder what it might feel like to scream and barf at the same time. After twenty minutes of windy, snow-caked road, we made it up to the base of the trail. The snow was starting to come down at this point, high-quality powder that made me wonder why I was setting out to climb a sheer face of ice rather than take advantage of this sweet butter on the ski slope. The ice finally came into view after a sweaty 15-minute hike, and Dave and Kevin immediately set about being productive. We strapped on our harnesses, helmets, and crampons while Dave set a rope over the top of the wall so no one would have to lead climb.

                                                      Climbing G1

Kevin climbed first with as much effort as it takes to make a bowl of cereal (oatmeal, not Fruit Loops). Dave went next and near the halfway mark started yelling profanities mixed in with “My hands!” Due to thin gloves and the dropping temperature, the fabled screaming barfies set in on him early. It was my turn next; I grimaced at the daggers of ice and made my way to the wall, conscious of the fact that four out of the five extremities of my body could now impale me. My first swings with the axes felt good and the crampons stuck into the ice true to their function. Ten, if not twelve, feet later, my iron grip on the ice axes began to loosen and I plunged down the face of the wall. The glory was over. Dave yelled, “Just hang there for a bit, let the blood flow back into your hands.” I awkwardly experimented with where to place my axes as my hands and arms rebooted, finally settling on an improvised over-the-shoulder technique. And so the cycle of climbing 15 feet and yelling “Take!” right before plunging off the wall began. Eventually I made it to the top, and by the time I was lowered down, ice climbing held a new meaning for me.

dave mixed climbing                                                             

Following this route, our motley crew of mountain gentlemen proceeded to my second new sport of the day—mixed climbing—
which is essentially rock climbing with ice climbing gear. Dave took the lead, but at about ¾ of the way up, he started whimpering with his hands crammed in his armpits, begging to be lowered. Once back on the ground, he immediately fell prey to an attack of the screaming barfies. Sadly, there was no vomiting involved—only groans and stifled screams as the blood made its way back into his hands.
Kevin went next and finished the lead climb—again with the same amount of effort it takes to make a bowl of oatmeal. Finally it was my turn and I hesitantly placed the axes in the crack to start myself off. It was an overhang start that caused the already-taxed muscles in my forearms to tremble and my cramponed feet to slip off the rock. I tried again—this time with real determination. After a couple awkward maneuvers and minimal progress, I found myself hanging upside down, pride tossed into the wind along with any ambitions of completing the climb.

 The moral of the story? One sport at a time.   

 ice climbing with headlamp

I’ll be returning to the mixed routes soon enough and the ice even sooner. Discovering new aspects of the mountain to experience and appreciate is like finding out your girlfriend is actually a Swedish princess with a majority shareholding in Apple—your affections can only grow.

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