Smashin’ And Crashin’ My Way Through Resolution #1

Working through the lower sequence on Reefer Madness, M8.

Working through the lower sequence on Reefer Madness, M8.

I wrote at the beginning of the year that I have three goals to accomplish in 2015, and that I would post updates whenever I had checked one off the list. Well, the pencil came out and the box has been checked, because I climbed my first WI6 route on lead this weekend! For those who don’t know what that means, a WI6 route has vertical and overhanging ice, hard to find and/or bad protection in case of a fall, and limited or no opportunities for resting.

Warming up on Thin And Bear It, an easy M6.

Warming up on Thin And Bear It, an easy M6.

Nate and I headed up to Duluth early on Saturday morning with the intent to climb at Casket Quarry both days. After warming up on a short, moderate M6 called Thin And Bear It, we headed over to climb Martini Madness. Martini is M6 or M7 depending on ice conditions, and on Saturday it was definitely M7. A huge chunk of the hanging dagger had broken off, leaving a fairly sizable ice roof to climb and the promise of a painful ledge dive if the leader fell while make the move onto the upper ice flow.

We both cruised Martini, and I was feeling strong and smooth after leading the route. As Nate flaked the rope, I studied our next challenge: the intimidating ice line called The Chimney. In good ice conditions, the pitch is a fun WI5/M5 that takes enough good ice screws to prevent a dangerous fall. These conditions, however, were anything but good. The vertical ice leading up to the huge ice roof was sun-leeched and hollow. Picks and crampon points had to be placed and weighted delicately, since much of the ice was just a skin with an inch or two of space between it and the rock wall.

I managed to place one ten centimeter screw about ten feet up and a thirteen centimeter screw about eight feet higher. Neither piece would have held a fall, but it was comforting to look down and see my rope clipped to something.

The ice line on the far left is The Chimney in WI6 conditions. A friend of mine can be seen climbing on Martini Madness, M7.

The ice line on the far left is The Chimney in WI6 conditions. A friend of mine can be seen climbing on Martini Madness, M7.

I gently hooked and tapped my way up below the ice roof and clipped the bolt in the rock wall to the left – the one thing that would stop me from falling to the ground if I whipped on the next few moves. Even so, I realized, it would be a painful fall, as the location of the bolt in relation to the overhang meant that I would swing back into the ice with a frightening amount of momentum. I wavered mentally for a minute, unsure of my ability to pull the crux without falling. I reached down to my harness and fingered a single carabiner…it would be simple to clip the rope to the bolt and have Nate lower me under the pretense of not wanting to risk an injury two weeks before my climbing trip to Switzerland. Suddenly, a familiar voice from below broke into my internal debate.

“Get your ass up there, Jimmy, we don’t have all fucking day!”

I looked down to see a cluster of people watching me from the ground. The source of the stoke was local pro climber Adam Dailey. Another Duluth badass, Rick Kollath, chimed in as well.

“Yeah, everyone is waiting on you, stop messing around and climb that thing!”

I smiled and shook my head. Ego and peer pressure is a dumb reason to climb, but there was no way I was backing off with some of my climbing heroes watching. I took a deep breath, leaned out as far as I could on my left ice tool, and carefully tapped the tip of my right tool into the soft ice a few inches above the lip of the roof. I tugged it gently, testing it as best I could before I committed my full body weight to it. The placement seemed solid, so I unhooked my left tool and slotted it into a hole in the ice a few inches above my right pick. Both tools felt secure, so it was now or never.

I took a deep breath and cut both of my feet loose from the ice below the roof, swinging the right leg out and up onto a hanging icicle about ten inches in diameter. The crampon point came to rest on a tiny ledge, and I slowly stood up so I could unweight the tools and move them higher. Suddenly, the entire icicle snapped off just above my foot and I fell back onto my ice tools.

“Fuck fuck fuck!” I screamed as I loaded my tools. I was sure that one or both of them was going blow, sending me for a long, painful ride down. Both placements held though, and I let out the breath I had been holding in one forceful gasp as more cheers came from below.

“Wooooohooooo! Ride that shit, bro! Get back up there! You got this!”

Looking for a good stick after pulling the ice roof.

Looking for a good stick after pulling the ice roof.

I took another deep breath and swung my legs up and to the right again until my torso was almost horizontal. With my right crampon planted in good ice, I pulled my right tool out and swung it into the ice as high above me as I could. The first swing went deep, and I pulled up on the handle until I could get my left foot planted. With both feet now secure and the pressure off my arms, I quickly climbed the last few moves to the anchors and clipped the rope into the bolts with a pair of quickdraws.

Topping out on The Chimney in Casket Quarry.

Topping out on The Chimney in Casket Quarry.

“Bring me down, brother!” I yelled to Nate.

With my feet firmly planted on the ground, I looked back up at the route and promised myself that I wouldn’t hop on anything that hard or sketchy for a long time…or at least until next week. With that thought in mind, we spent Sunday working on mixed and drytool lines that, although difficult, were equipped with bolts. It’s still possible to take a pretty good fall, but the bolts reduce the chance of serious injury.

Topping out on Off Road, M7. Bad ice but a beautiful new mixed line at Casket Quarry.

Tiptoeing through sketchy ice on Off Road, M7.

One 2015 resolution accomplished, and two more to go.

Horizontal scribbling about vertical scratching

I didn’t think a thirty-six hour escapade deserves a place under the “Trips/Adventures” menu, but I wanted to bang out a quick blurb about what turned out to be an awesome weekend of first experiences and new accomplishments.

Nate and I left New Brighton early on Saturday morning for Casket Quarry in Duluth. Casket is unique; unlike the ice climbing quarry in Sandstone where there are plenty of moderate pure ice and mixed lines, Casket has been developed almost exclusively for hard, ground-up mixed climbing. If you can’t pull at least M6, you won’t have much fun there. This is really the first season I have started scratching around on steep rock routes with ice tools and crampons, other than the occasional easy mixed climbing moves on alpine routes. To be honest, I always viewed modern bolted mixed routes as contrived and a good way to burn through expensive picks and crampon front points. Now that I’ve gotten in the game though, I’m addicted. Hard mixed climbing takes an incredible amount of physical and mental strength, and I have already seen my endurance and technique on pure ice routes improve because of it.

We had the privilege to climb with an incredible crew on Saturday – many of these guys are legends and pioneers of the Minnesota climbing scene, and they climb HARD. It was a super productive day, as I led my first two M7 routes and didn’t take a fall on either. One of my three resolutions for the year is to lead M9, so that only leaves two grades to go…and next weekend the goal is to lead Reefer Madness, M8.  Nate and I were so fixated on the climbing that we neglected to take a single picture that day, so I’ll include a link here to the Mountain Project guide for Casket Quarry.

After a beer and a mind-blowing wild rice burger at Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, Nate and I pointed the Corolla south towards Sandstone, arriving at the quarry at about 2000. We set up camp in the dark, made some hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps, and passed out in the tent to rest up for another day on the ice.

Not a bad view from the tent.

Not a bad view from the tent.

We woke up the next morning ready to hit it hard. Amidst a growing sea of brightly colored topropes, we ticked one steep ice route after another. I led up each WI4 and WI5 route we could find, placing three or four ice screws on each to protect against a fall. At the top of each route, I slung a tree or clipped an anchor bolt and set up a belay to bring Nate up as he unclipped and removed the screws. When we were both safely at the top, we untied from the rope and let it fall back down to the base, and then rappelled down on a fixed line, grabbed our rope, and started on a new line of ice. We started to get pretty tired after a few hours of that cycle, so it was a welcome reprieve when my girlfriend Liz showed up for her first ever ice climbing experience!

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Liz only started climbing when she met me last summer, but she already regularly knocks out 5.9’s and the occasional 5.10 both in the gym and outdoors. I suppose a high degree of fitness from being a disciplined distance runner and a regular at the gym didn’t exactly hinder her progress in a harness. That being said, she’s not a huge fan of being cold, and ice climbing is a totally different animal, so I wasn’t sure how she would do or whether or not she’d like it. No big surprise – she tied in on a steep route and smoked right to the top. Even her heavy, clunky ski boots didn’t seem to hold her back, and she enjoyed it enough that I think we’ll be looking for some real ice climbing boots for her.

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A couple beers and an episode of the Mighty Boosh closed out the weekend, and now it’s back to the daily grind for five days. If only it were five days of play and two days of work…