Monday, April 16, 2007

Guessing Game

It's April and that means the annual search for spring ice in Rocky Mountain National Park has begun. This is my favorite time of year in the Park, even though it's also the most frustrating time of year. Yesterday Jack Roberts and I walked and snowshoed up to the Loch, hoping the long mixed climbs on Cathedral Wall might be in shape. That's Cathedral Wall in the upper left of this photo; two 1,000-foot chimney systems sometimes fill with ice in the spring, when the snow above them melts and the running water freezes overnight. Sometimes. Every time I do one of these spring missions, half the talk during the approach is about previous searches for ice—which climbs each of us has done, and how many tries it took to find them in condition. There's a climb called Vanquished just up the valley from Cathedral Wall that is at the top of the hit list for every longtime alpine ice climber in eastern Colorado. Nearly everyone has walked in to try to catch it in shape. Practically no one I know has ever seen it formed. And yet, almost every year it gets climbed, sometimes in the spring, sometimes in the fall. It must exist: There are pictures! Vanquished is said to be a great route, but it wouldn't be half the climb if it formed reliably every season. Guessing is part of the game, and the low odds make winning that much sweeter.

Yesterday there was no ice at all in the Cathedral Wall chimneys, and so, after a two-hour walk with 30-pound packs, we turned around and walked back out. At least it was a beautiful day—warm with no wind. And we weren't the only ones guessing these climbs might be in. Fifteen minutes down the trail, we ran into two other climbers. As soon as one of them saw us carrying big packs, he said, "Uh-oh, which climb didn't you do?" They turned around and walked out with us.

But the season is far from over. The photo above was taken in mid-March 2004, and it shows less snow and ice on the face than we saw yesterday. By the end of April 2004, however, both of the climbs on Cathedral Wall had come into superb condition. And so we faithful watch the weather, hoping for a big dump of wet spring snow that doesn't immediately blow off the cliffs, followed by a day or two of warm sun and icy nights. And then the guessing game will begin again.

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