Being an Ice Climbing Dirtbag at Lee Vining

Darren leading Spiral Staircase

Last week I took the opportunity to go ice climbing with SMC at Lee Vining under the wing of the great Darren Shutt (SMC founder and great guy). I ended up climbing for three days, leading a WI3+ pitch and following a WI3+ multi-pitch. I topped it off by skiing in a snow storm at Mammoth in low 20s and 20-40 mph winds. But wait, there’s more! I also had the opportunity to test the car top tent out in winter weather while sleeping off NFS roads and borrowing internet from the public library after my coffee shop closed (I was also working remotely).

Welcome to Lee Vining

The rain transitioned into snow around 11pm as my car climbed to 7000 ft towards Carson Pass and visibility decreased. It would be another three hours until I passed passing the Lee Vining Mobile gas station (closed for the season) at 1:30am. I pulled off the second NFS road after the gas station to pitch the car top tent and fall into sleep.

My campsite for the week

It rained all night and wind shook not only the tent but occasionally the platform it was on too. I thought I was in for a wet day as the rain was still coming down upon reaching the parking area used as a trailhead for the Lee Vining ice just before the Poole Power Plant (37.9444197, -119.2148042). Luckily, the rain transitioned into snow once we reached the carved out belay ledges used for climbing. From the power plant you access the ice by hopping a rail around its right, crossing a stream and then walking left up a gulley. 2/3 of the way up you’ll see the ice on your left. As it would most days, the wind continuously whipped over top the clifftop. Kicking up spindrift and blowing snow into our faces. When it comes to ice climbing you want things cold so the ice remains frozen and comes apart less, but the wind chill doesn’t do anything but soak into your bones.

Tuesday was my fourth time ice climbing. By this point I had climbed one day on glacial ice and two on water ice so I could move pretty securely and adeptly, but I was still hoping to learn more technique. I spent this first day refining my techniques and picked up several tips:

  • Ice climbing is all about climbing in a relaxed stance to conserve energy. Resting your legs with heels down, swinging your arms using momentum and walking up using your legs.
  • Pressing your hips into the wall while moving your axes up and away from the wall when walking your crampons up keeps your balance and the most relaxed stance.
  • Aim your axe above bulges. Landing it on them is less secure and more likely to cause the ice to break off
  • Swinging your arms low and below the heart helps warm them

I tested out climbing all day with mountaineering crampons on my AT boots. To my delight both worked really well. Finally, to cap off the day I jumped off the belay ledge into the gulley to glissade half the way down to the parking lot.

Descending the gulley at the end of the day in the snow / wind.

Leading Ice

The second day I learned how to place ice screws and did some mock leading (placing protection while on top rope). Some basics about ice screws are that all their strength come from the threads and therefore the ice you screw them into. The harder it is to screw, the stronger the ice and therefore the placement. A good screw can be as strong as a bolt (22kN).

Reaching and establishing an ice screw anchor

My main take aways from this day were:

  • What you want when screwing is consistent friction and consistent core coming out the screw. If core stops coming out or screwing becomes super easy then you probably hit an air pocket and your threads (the strength) aren’t in anything.
  • Always clear your screws of ice after unscrewing them! Sometimes I hit rock or air when drilling in a screw and had to re-place it. If I don’t clear out the screw before replacing then it won’t screw in.
  • Just like with rock, plan out your rests to place screws. If you aren’t comfortable, kick out a ledge for your foot. Take time with good screw placements.
  • Always plan out your route and where your belayer will be. The leader is focusing on climbing and being safe. They are always going to knock ice down sometimes pebbles, sometimes boulders. A 2ft x 1 ft piece of ice came down while I was climbing and broke my belayer’s forearm because our belay was not positioned out of the way.

Muti-Pitch and the Main Wall

Darren heading up the first pitch of Spiral Staircase

This day was amazing. Everyone signed up for this day bailed and it was just Darren and I climbing. I lead three WI3 routes on the Chouinards wall. A couple things I learned about ice anchors:

  • Always place your screws diagonally offset by at least six inches so they don’t fracture into each other’s horizontal or vertical planes
  • Anchor one tool (possibly hammering it in) and clip to it while building an anchor
  • Never weight your anchor because it will weaken your screws from pressure melting. Consider your landed tool your main attachment.

At the end of the day I followed Darren up Spiral Staircase (WI3+, 250 ft, 2P) on the Main Wall. The climb was really cool and had two quite step sections on the second pitch.

The ice cave halfway through was deep and super cool.

Skiing in a Snow Storm

The next day (Friday) a snow storm was rolling in. It has been a goal of mine to ski in a snow storm under white out conditions. Partially because its good experience in a controlled (ski resort) environment and partially because I’ll get actually good snow at a resort which typically has groomed runs which are more like ice.

I definitely got what I wanted. It snowed all day with temperatures in the low 20s and winds 20-40 mph. Most upper mountain lifts were closed, but because Mammoth Mountain is so massive I still got a ton of skiing in. I moved up from blues to confidently dropping into blacks and diving into tree runs closer and closer together. It took wearing all my clothes to keep me warm as I ran my laps for seven hours all over the mountain. By the end of the day I tried keeping to routes with trees or other objects visible in the distance since the open runs would cause some form of ‘loss of kinesthesia’ where I lost sense of direction, whether I was moving  how steep the slope was or its aspect. I took one big fall because things became really steep really fast unexpectedly, but thats what I wanted right? It was an awesome day!