That Peculiar Gift of Ice

It began in late November, early for this neck of the woods, but a several-day swathe of clammy rain undid the early buildup. Ice I climbed on my initial foray fell and the ground became saturated with a warm soup, rather than a moderate snowfall. The latter is preferable: it provides a continuous, gradual supply of meltwater and shade blanket for the flows that, around here at least, mostly face sunward. Instead, it rained, washing all the ice away and storing a thermal surplus that took a week of bitter cold weather to empty.

We rushed out the next weekend, hoping to find decent ice, but all was thin and still loosely connected, underlain by sheeting water wherever good runoff could be found, and not thick enough for safe passage on less-damp areas. We had fun, scraping our way up scary-thin, poorly-pasted films of ice, but it had to be on TR.

Along with two partners, I made an annual trek to the High Peaks area for a nighttime bout of ice climbing. With Charlie D. and Jason B., we drove up to Crystal Ice Tower and, after spending an inordinate amount of time finding the anchor, top-roped it twice each. Six headlamp-assisted runs on that thin line guaranteed us noteriety amongst our fellow ice brethren: we left the scene, replete with a much-mutilated Ice Tower, as evidence of our visit. With continuing cold temps and no precip in the forecast, that devastation would no doubt remain for the weekend crowd to view.

Work and such kept me busy, but I did get out to the Waterfall Wall (aka The Eastern Waterfall) on Crane last Thursday, and it was finally good enough to climb. Weather was sunny but chilly cold, and I felt the beginnings of a bug coming on, so I didn’t dawdle; just climbed the first three pitches and walked off. I was content to be outside, finally poking thick ice instead of blunting my tools on rock. It looked like a great season had begun.

The forecast held steady, cold until the weekend. Yesterday, guiding season opened for the Lake Placid EMS. I spent the day with two wonderful guys, learning the basics on Buster, then taking the lessons learned and applying them to the steeper venue of Crystal Ice Tower. We had a blast, calling it a day just before needing headlamps for our exit.

Now the forecast is calling for rain this afternoon, followed by yet another cold snap. I keep thinking of the ice out there, forming, falling, reforming. Not sure when one could say the real season begins. Was it back on my earliest scratch up that meagre ‘cicle on Wedding Cake? Or is it yet to be, only official when the ice forms and stays awhile? It got me thinking about the myriad fickle ways of water.

I teach science in my spare time (so to speak), and one fact that spans all the high school curriculum is water’s peculiar place among the common compounds of Earth. Unlike most molecules, its densest form (here on Earth) is liquid, a tad above freezing; not particularly interesting until you realize that, save for this property, ice would sink rather than coating over bodies of water. We would have to canoe across Chapel Pond to climb Chouinard’s Gully, at least until the entire pond froze through. And those flows of ice we climb? Most of them would be covered in seepage all winter long, the ice lying under a chilly stream or worse, hidden deep within rock fissures.

It also takes a lot of energy to change state. As one of my climbing buddies (an Earth Science teacher in his spare time) reminded me, it takes the same amount of energy to turn 32-degree ice into 32-degree water as it does to heat that liquid from 32 degrees to 112 degrees. While it works against us in the opening months of ice season, this is the fact that allows a late March charge to the North Face of Pitchoff for one last swing.

Ice is also incredibly resistant to solar radiation – a lot of the solar radiation it receives gets bounced back into the atmosphere – so we’re afforded even more late season time for frolicking on the vertical stuff. What doesn’t get reflected generally passes through to the underlying rock, which admittedly makes some lines scary carapace climbs, but also supplies the remelt that heals pickmarks, screwholes, and clubber pockets (those big divots nervous climbers excavate with their crampons).

An amazing molecule, indeed.

So I’m sitting here in my house, warm, cozy, and sick (that bug finally caught up with me), watching the snow fall outside. The forecast still says rain this afternoon. That will no doubt make things dicey for awhile, but I’m thinking this time, the initial blanket of snow will house a lot of the energy the later rain brings. That should somewhat neutralize the shift back into ice by expending it to become water today, instead of storing that energy in ground water. The cold returns with a vengeance Monday night, so the ice should quickly return to its former glory.

And all those toolmarks will be gone! 

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