Gran Carambano: Part III

Gran Carambano (IV, WI 5, 100m) in the Froze-To-Death Cirque of the Beartooth Mountains. The route follows the large, steep flow on the far left.

Gran Carambano (III, WI 5, 100m) in the Froze-To-Death Cirque of the Beartooth Mountains. The route follows the large, steep flow on the far left.


We worked beside each other, stamping a platform with our snowshoes near the top of the snow ramp. The wind was less violent now, although occasional strong gusts still threatened to knock us off balance and send us glissading down the slope toward the boulder field below. The air was frigid, and the warmth of the sun was still hours away from our north-facing wall.

“Whaddya think, good enough?” I asked.

Olin glanced down at our handiwork, a six foot by three foot platform cut into the thirty-five degree slope, and nodded his assent. “That ought to do it.”

We had fashioned our belay spot about twenty meters left of the ice flow to position the belayer out of the path of falling ice generated by the leader. Rocks and ice chunks had whistled past us as we trudged up the snow ramp, so we both had our helmets on already. I reached barehanded into my pack and started digging out gear, arranging it in a neat line on the level surface of our perch. Ropes, ice screws, crampons, ice tools, nylon runners, carabiners, my harness, a small rack of rock protection, and a helmet camera all joined the parade. Numb fingers felt for the quick release buckles on my snowshoes, and I shoved them upright into the snow beside my trekking poles before slipping into my harness. With my fingers finally back in my belay mitts, I tucked my hands under my armpits and jumped lightly in place to keep blood circulating as I waited for my extremities to regain feeling.

Olin grinned at my obvious discomfort. “Got the barfies yet?”

I shook my head in response. “I never get them until I start climbing.”

“Same here,” he said, “but I’m hoping the garlic cayenne hot cocoa did the trick and I won’t have to worry about them this time.”

I just shook my head. The screaming barfies were, in my opinion, the worst part of ice climbing. After holding your ice tools above your head for an entire pitch, blood has a difficult time forcing its way up into your fingers. As a result, blood vessels in your hands cool and constrict. When you reach the top and lower your hands, exertion-warmed blood from your core comes rushing back into your upper extremities and forces rapid dilation and warming. The resulting shock feels like your hands are being simultaneously dipped in boiling oil and stabbed with hot needles, and the pain is occasionally enough to induce retching or vomiting. The only redeeming quality of the process was that once you endured the screaming barfies, you typically would not get them again for the duration of the day. I didn’t have much faith in the efficacy of Olin’s miracle cocoa, but I understood the desire to circumvent that part of the experience.

I snapped the heel bail shut on my second crampon and tightened the strap around my boot as Olin finished flaking out the green rope. I started to do the same with its red counterpart, running the slender line through my mittened hands to make sure there were no tangles. My mind was racing as I tried to figure out a way to ask Olin if I could lead the first pitch without coming across as a greedy asshole. Although the second half of the climb also looked aesthetic and challenging, the prize of the route was clearly the first fifty meters. A short section of easy, rolling ice led to a slender, vertical pillar that shot straight up the wall. The column was guarded by fragile, brittle icicles that promised technical climbing and potential bodily harm if the leader wasn’t careful.

By all rights, the lead was Olin’s; it was his route, and I was just lucky to be in the first ascent party. Reaching down for the ropes, I shoved a bight of each rope through the slots in my belay device and clipped the assembly into the loop on my harness with a locking carabiner. His route, his lead, and I would content myself with being on the sharp end for the second pitch. Olin glanced up at me as he kneeled to tighten his crampons, a surprised look on his face.

“Don’t you want to take the lead?”

“Are you kidding me?” I asked, scrambling to unrig my belay before he changed his mind. “I mean, yeah I want it, but don’t you? It’s your route, you should take the crux pitch.”

Olin laughed. “You’d make a horrible poker player. You’ve been jonesin’ to lead that pillar from the moment you saw it, it’s all over your face.” He paused for a second. “And I’m not sure I want to jump on a pitch like this for my first lead of the season. I don’t know what grade it will go at, but it looks pretty serious.”

I nodded, trying momentarily to appreciate the gravity of his implication, but I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. Olin laughed again as he handed me the bag of ice screws and dug his thick down belay jacket out of the pack at his feet.

“Rack up, crazy man. I’ll sit here and freeze while you climb, so try not to take too long.”

I took the ice screws, clipping each one in turn onto my harness and slipping nylon runners over my head and around one arm. A figure-of-eight knot secured both ropes to my harness, and I looked down to verify that my kit was in order. Picking up one of my ice tools, I brushed a snow clump off the adze and turned to my partner.

“Ready to rock?”

“You mean ice,” he grunted as he sat down heavily into the snow. “Alright, Jimmy, you are on belay.”

A screenshot from the helmet cam video. I have just completed the traverse across the snow ramp, and I am placing an ice screw to protect the belay before launching onto the ice.

A screenshot from the helmet cam video. I have just completed the traverse across the snow ramp, and I am placing an ice screw to protect the belay before launching onto the ice.

I nodded as I turned back to face the route. Suddenly, it looked a steeper, harder, more fragile. Reaching down into the snow, I grabbed my other ice tool and plunge-stepped my way across the slope to the base of the ice flow. Always take protection when you can get it, and always protect the belay: valuable lessons I was taught by mentors who had learned them through hard-won experience. I reached down to unclip one of my long ice screws and sank it to the eye in the dense, dry alpine ice, clipping it to the green rope. The feeling of nervous anticipation in the pit of my stomach rose to a crescendo and then suddenly died as I sank my picks into the brittle surface. I glanced back at Olin before committing my body weight to the tool placements.


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