‘Tis the season for ice

Leslie Silverman

‘Tis the season! For ice climbing that is!

Yep, my favorite season is here and I have already been out exploring our Black Hills ice. 

My partners and I ventured out into the wilderness to climb a 100 foot ice climb known as the Harney flow. (I asked the questions if it’s now called the Black Elk Peak flow but got no response.)

Getting to the flow requires a pretty long hike of about an hour and a half. You begin on a regular trail for about 1,000 feet, pickup an old closed trail — which you follow for about three-quarters of a mile — and end up bushwhacking the rest of the way. I didn’t count how many logs we stepped over but I’m not exaggerating when I say it was at least 30 (and likely closer to 50).

We do all this carrying ropes, crampons, ice tools, harnesses, helmets, ice screws and quickdraws as well as water, extra clothing and snacks. I carry my ice climbing boots too, because they are too uncomfortable to wear. My pack likely weighs a sixth of what I do.

We met up at the trailhead around 8:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning and by 10:30 a.m. we were swinging our axes.

Unlike rock climbing, where you grip the rock with your hands, in ice climbing you swing axes into the ice to “hold” the surface. However, the real strength in both types of climbing comes from your core and feet.

In ice climbing crampons attach to your boots and you kick these crampons into the ice and stand up on the points of the crampons. 

Many people think climbing isn’t safe. And with the flurry of recent climbing accidents that the media has reported non-climbers likely think people like me are death wishers. 

We are not. Climbing is super safe — if done correctly. Most systems are backed up, or what we call redundant. Most climbing accidents happen due to human error in rappelling, not in rock fall or falling while climbing, or even on ropes/gear failing.

Ice climbing, however, is more dangerous that rock climbing. Aside from large chunks of ice that come at you, your belayer (the person on the ground who catches you if you fal and your rope as you climb), you could in theory cut the rope with your own crampons or ice axe.

But the real potential for getting hurt ice climbing is that the screws you place into the ice while you lead up a climb may or may not be placed in well enough to hold a fall. You place them yourselves, screwing them into the ice as you move up. You can safely rest on them (we call that “taking”). But falling on them...that force might be too great for them to hold.

So the number one rule of ice climbing is that the leader must not fall. I’m way too chicken to lead ice; so for me I feel super safe and can just have fun. 

When we got to the flow on Thanksgiving morning my partner, B, wasn’t feeling well. I wasn’t going to make him lead and figured I was just content to have gotten out to see the flow. But there were three of us that morning.

The third person in our group, T, had only climbed ice a handful of times. I had way more experience than he did. But again I don't lead ice. I want to, but I have always wrestled with being mentally ready to do so. It takes both mental and physical strength to lead ice.

Physically, you need to push and screw the screws into the ice with one hand, while the other holds your axe. Mentally you need to trust your every move, knowing one slip could have dire circumstances. 

But T, he was ready to lead. B and I both reminded him of the risks of climbing ice. He turned to us and said, “Yeah I know. Don’t fall.” 

He placed eight screws on the 100-foot climb. He took twice. He likely got the first ascent of the season (meaning we don’t think anyone else has been back there this year). 

This is not a beginner’s climb yet he led it as if it was. He seemed a natural, like he had been doing this his whole life. I think he’s climbed ice maybe a half dozen times. He showed neither fear nor hesitation.

Watching his bravery I was in awe. I still am. I know that he’s not a super macho person, that this wasn’t about stroking his own ego. And it wasn’t about walking out all this way and not getting to climb.

For him it was about pushing himself, rising to the level of climber he wants to be. Being inspired by others he has seen, he trusted himself to climb to the top. And in doing so, this boy half my age inspired me.

When my turn came, I ran up the 100-foot flow, without taking, feeling at ease physically and mentally for my first time out this season. And it got me thinking that maybe this will be the year that I push beyond my own fear and work hard towards my longtime goal of leading ice. 

While some seek to be “inspired,” inspiration can come when we least expect it. It is after all “divine guidance.” We can choose what or who inspires us and what we will do with that inspiration.

Perhaps in the next few months I will write a column about my first ice lead of the season. Perhaps T’s bravery will inspire one of you to get out of your “comfort zone.” Or maybe you are, or can be, an inspiration to those around you!

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