The taste of warm, salty blood filled my mouth as I shook my head to clear my vision. I felt something wet on my cheek; a quick swipe with my right hand and my glove came away stained red. The ice chunk had slammed into my head with enough force to momentarily stun and disorient me. I was fortunate that both of my ice tools were firmly anchored above my head when it impacted, or I might have taken a long plunge down onto a questionable screw placement. Olin shouted up something from below, but I couldn’t focus on him yet.
A quick look up confirmed that just a few hard moves would put me on easier ground, but one more ice screw to protect those moves suddenly seemed like a prudent idea. I hung by my left hand as my right reached down to unclip a screw. Gingerly, so as not to dislodge myself from my precarious stance, I placed the teeth of the screw against the ice at waist level and began to torque it into the brittle pillar. The sharp threads bit in easily, and I clipped it to one of the twin ropes with a sigh of relief. Now I was better protected against a potentially serious fall.
I worked my feet up before dislodging one of my picks and placing it higher. The ice was dry and fragile, and it seemed like seven or eight swings were necessary to excavate my way to ice that would hold body weight. The effort was exhausting. I had been on the pitch for forty-five minutes already, and my arms and calves were trembling with the exertion. I hoped the next section was easier…
“What?” I yelled down to Olin. The howling gust of wind had torn away his words.
“Ten – meters – of – rope – left – can – you – belay – from – there?” he shouted, spacing out his words to make it easier to understand.
I turned back to the climb. It would be a grim spot to belay; the ice was vertical, and there was no real ledge in site. It would be a hanging belay, and I was already shivering as the wind cooled my perspiration. Two hours of misery as Olin climbed up to my position and past me onto the next pitch was not an enticing thought.
“Fuck!” I swore under my breath as I slammed my ice tools into the wall in front of me. I popped the left axe loose, wanting to get a more secure placement to hang on as I drove the ice screws to build the anchor. I swung as hard as I could, only to stare in surprise as the entire head disappeared into the ice. I yanked the tool out, and put my eye to the hole I had created, staring in disbelief at what I saw. The shell of ice I was climbing on was eight inches thick and hollow, hiding a small cave between it and the rock wall.
“No fuckin’ way!” I exclaimed out loud as I smashed away at the wall in a frenzy, sending a cascade of ice blocks down the pillar.
Olin yelled up another unintelligible phrase, but I ignored him. I was completely fixated on creating a hole big enough to squeeze through so I could get out of the wind and belay him up in comfort. At last the gap was large enough to fit through, and I wormed my way inside. The thought never crossed my mind at the time, but I can only imagine what my partner was thinking as I disappeared inside the route fifty meters above his position.
Once inside, I sank one of my last ice screws to the eye and clipped into it with a short length of webbing. From the back gear loop on my harness, I removed a short length of seven millimeter nylon cord and slung it around a large icicle near the entrance to my little cave. I tied a clove hitch in the red rope and clipped it to the cord as a backup anchor, and then stuck my head out the window in the ice.
“OFF BELAY!” I screamed down at Olin, pulling hard twice on both ropes to make sure he got the message.
I pulled a frozen Snickers out of my jacket pocket and tore open the wrapper as I waited for him to disassemble the belay. He must be mildly hypothermic by now, I thought as the chocolate and nougat melted in my mouth. I feeling a twinge of guilt for taking so long on that pitch, but it had been a tough lead to start the ice climbing season with. I pulled up the ten meters of slack, feeling the ropes came tight on his harness and then slacken in my hands as he started to make his way across the traverse to the bottom of the ice flow. I leaned back against the rock wall and propped my feet up against the ice as I pulled a length of rope through my belay device. A perfect route in a beautiful setting and the unexpected pleasure of a protected belay spot on a windy day; so far, everything was going according to plan.