Ice Climbing into the New Year at Coldstream Canyon

Top roping our right route and bringing up a rope for a second route.
Top roping our right route and bringing up a rope for a second route.

Less than 24 hours earlier I woke up in a freezing desert outside Red Rock Canyon where I spent Christmas rock climbing. I now found myself in a snowy parking lot stuffing climbing ropes and ice tools into an already full backpack. I would be celebrating this New Year’s Eve by winter camping in a Coldstream Canyon at the base of frozen waterfalls for ice climbing. Welcome to Brice-style holidays.



The gate past the parking lot was open so we were able to shuttle an advance group with heavy packs three miles in near the Lost Trail Lodge with the next group to follow on foot. After being dropped off we still had three snowshoe miles, mostly on road, before we followed snowshoe tracks left toward the canyon. I had injured my shoulder from landing on ice while skiing 10 days before and the heavy pack reminded me with painful aching.

Once arrived, our group leader free climbed up to the top up a moderate slope and threw down ropes from the extended chain anchors left here from summer craigging. The ice climbing had begun!

Night Climbing into the New Year

View of the whole Coldstream Canyon.
View of the whole Coldstream Canyon.

These water ice (WI3, WI4) climbs were very different than the glacial ice climbing I did in Peru. Instead of always front pointing my way up solid vertical ice I could step into footholds, hook my axe in pockets, and use a hand on rock half the time. I watched more talented climbers as they used only a single swing or kick to secure their appendages into the ice. Testing ice and using minimal impact force on it to climb delicate features like chandelleers or ascending with only one axe to better climb a mixed route. For many in our group this was their first ice climb and each person ran up a route several times before dusk set in and we stomped back to camp in our crampons for dinner.

Left route that had the wet waterfall on it. It was more moderate in slope and offered potential for dry tooling on the right.
Left route that had the wet waterfall on it. It was more moderate in slope and offered potential for dry tooling on the right.

Sadie and I did one last route under the night sky, lighting the ice by headlamp before heading back to warm foil packages of rehydrated food. On Sadie’s climb the rope had gotten so icy that I had to wrap it around my hand to pull it through the belay device. Both providing grip and shattering the quarter to half half inch thick ice casing around her line. There was plenty of running water on this route and the belay rope was very close to an exposed water fall at the top.

Back at camp we broke out New Years Eve. Popping the champagne and passing it around telling the most humorous embarrassing moment of 2016, our favorite climb or what we were most thankful for. I blasted Veorra from my iPhone as we walked back up to the walls to ice climb into the new year. The ice glistened under headlamp as I swung my tools for purchase and thrusted my mountaineering crampons into icicle-like features. A little before midnight we pulled the ropes and returned to our tents. Sleeping in my snow nestled home I was surprised by how much warmer it was compared to the first night I slept in the desert outside Red Rock Canyon.


The next morning we hit the walls at a leisurely pace around 9am. A cold front had rolled in, dropping the temperature to a high of freezing and forecasted to bring in over a foot of snow. I became a frozen statue with numbing fingers and toes while belaying a couple lead climbers up our left route for over an hour. I revived them by walking to camp and back before hoping on another route, trying my best to mimic techniques I observed the prior day: multiple foot steps for one tool swing, keeping my butt out as I walked up and placing my heels down to engage my secondary points.


Comparing Ice and Rock Climbing

After lunch we took off for six miles of snowshoeing back to trailhead, half of this by headlamp, until we arrived to our snowy cars. Ice climbing is a cool idea and a helpful mountaineering skill, but running up the same route over and over again didn’t quite provide the same level of challenge that rock climbing craiging provides with dozens of routes on a single wall. The biggest thing I was surprised by on my first water ice experience is how much ice comes off when you are climbing. Ice is constantly showering down. One person got hit in the helmet by a piece the size of my head. Another in the face by a baseball sized piece. Its dangerous!

So… I’m going to try to learn these skills to make me a better mountaineer. However, ice climbing didn’t have the variation or body movement flow to make it as enjoyable as rock climbing and won’t be something I start doing on the regular. I’m interested to see how different areas feel when I go the super popular Lee Vining area which has many more routes for ice climbing instruction later this month.