Thursday, September 29, 2005

September Ice

It snowed down to 11,500 feet on Colorado’s Front Range on Tuesday night, and although the forecast is for temps in the low 80s in Denver this weekend, a few ice climbers undoubtedly will trek up to Longs Peak to see what climbs might be in. Fall ice climbing on Longs is a great and frustrating game: It’s a four-mile walk with 2,500 vertical feet of climbing just to see if the good climbs exist. Even the Longs Peak web cam doesn’t reveal what’s happening where the ice forms inside the Chasm Lake cirque. I’ve walked up there three times in the fall to try the Smear of Fear, the 250-foot route on Longs’ Lower East Face established in 1989 by the formidable trio of Duncan Ferguson, Jeff Lowe and Malcolm Daly. The first two times, no ice had formed and we walked right back out. The third time, ice plunged all the way to the snow at the base. This is very, very rare—often you have to climb a difficult pitch of rock on the left to reach the lowest ice, even when the Smear is “in.”

But here’s the thing with autumn ice climbing: The hardest climbs often form up when you’ve had the least time to practice. My partner and I geared up for the well-formed Smear, and then I kicked steps up a steep bank of snow and swung a tool at two inches of ice over granite slab. The pick bounced out. I swung a little more gently and the pick stuck, but I hesitated. I looked up the slab of ice, only four or five feet wide, and calculated the meters to the first possible protection. I knew the climbing wouldn’t be too hard, but I hadn’t climbed ice for many months. I was physically strong but mentally weak. My partner wasn’t game either, and so we headed off to do Alexander’s Chimney as a consolation prize. And the sad thing is I’ll probably never find the Smear in such great shape again.

But you never know. Maybe I’ll head up there this weekend and check it out.

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