Chatiemac Ice Initiated

Three of us made the long journey to the Chatiemac Cliffs today to scope out the ice situation.

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Ready to roll at the trailhead

We reached the Second Pond Trailhead before 8am and packed up for the trip. None of us took snowshoes. Having tested the terrain around home yesterday, I found the surface plenty strong enough to hold up without breaking. The trail here supported our decision as well as our bodies, so we merrily tramped northward. When it came time to leave the trail, that decision would prove questionable.

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Crossing a beaver dam enroute to the cliffs

A few steps off-track and we were all diving deep every few strides. We postholed our way unpleasantly for a quarter mile – I considered calling off the expedition – before reaching generally firmer snowcover and figuring out how to avoid the worst spots.

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The first patches of ice we sighted

An hour and change after leaving the trailhead, we stood below the westernmost obvious cliffs. The high slab appeared bare, but there might be some ice to either side of it; it was hard to tell. And obviously a steep slog, possibly a technical pitch, to go up and check. Lower, there were several hard-looking mixed lines, which none of us was motivated to tackle. We continued moving west

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This line is my dream rock project for 2013.

Soon, we reached the most impressive rock face in the area. Tom stood below my dream crack line for a photo op. A few tiny spindles of ice hung from this past-vertical seam, but nowhere near enough to call “mixed”; it would’ve been drytooling. And probably would’ve been harsh on what I hope to climb next summer. Nearby however, there was something that might have tempted us, if we’d brought big cams for the initial 30′.

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Hard mixed line, anyone?

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Or maybe this line?

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…or one of these unlikely looking dripples?

We kept going, passing several more dream-away type mixed options and one super-steep gully, eventually turning the corner and heading northward. Once around the bend, several more feasible lines presented themselves. Unfortunately, it was also evident that this week’s thaw had done a lot of damage here. As the cliff here faces southeast, that isn’t surprising. The good news is, it is recovering quickly. The challenging news: each line consists of easyish ice capped by steep headwalls.

We reached a decent – and plausible – looking line near what I knew to be the northernmost reach of the available ice, and decided to climb it. A skinny, short step led to a bit of naked rock, where a wide crack in the low-angle slab led to a large ledge system. I continued climbing past this, up into a tight notch between two steep flows. It was dripping wet in the squeeze, all my gear was thoroughly covered in frost when I topped out. Rather than belay high, I lowered to that ledge and set up a TR belay with both Mike and Tom on the rope simulclimbing.

Mike had his worst bout of screaming barfies ever as he worked up the lower stretch. We all noticed that it seemed colder than the forecast had predicted. In part, a stiff breeze was working around us constantly; add the dampness in the air and on our route, and we were dealing with more difficulties than temperature alone.

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Stemming up the final slot

Mike called an end to suffering when he reached me, pulling over and off the rope. Tom continued, cleaning the route, then coming down to our belay.

By the time he reached us, Mike was sufficiently recovered to tie in. He opted to take the vertical wall of ice at its fattest, most chandeliered section, not far from the slot. He worked up quickly, only struggling at the awkward end transition, after which he once again dealt with the onset of barfies before lowering.

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Tom handles the steep stuff

Tom’s turn: he hustled up to a narrow streak of thick ice with a slight icicle overhang at its apex, and continued the fast pace smoothly up to the top. He too began to suffer toward the top, but his alacrity avoided the worst of it.

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Goofing off on the way up

It was my turn. I hadn’t thought about it, but the extended time at belay had chilled me, especially my hands. Particularly, I noticed that my left forefinger was in a bad way. I jogged in place a bit, shook out, and tied in. This shouldn’t take long…

I chose a line slightly right of Tom’s narrow strip, stemming between that and an anemic runnel to its right. Within seconds, my hands were both miserable. I found a few no-hands stances and did my best to shake them out, but as soon as I grabbed the tools again, the cold would be intense.

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Something’s not right with one finger on my left hand…

I manned up and continued. That one finger went from agony to numb, leaving me in peace for the top-out. I expected the resultant bout of barfie, but noticed that finger wasn’t registering a complaint. Pulling off my glove, I was shocked to find the end of that finger was frozen solid. In less than two minutes, it had gone from painful to frozen!

I’ve had some nasty cold days ice climbing, but experiencing part of me frozen hard and stiff was new. Popping the pertinent patient in my mouth, it was quickly thawed out, with minimal harm done, but I’d had enough suffering for one day. I broke down the TR, rappelled to Tom and Mike, who shared my opinion of the conditions. We packed up.

We attempted a different exit strategy, which was a dismal failure. It still took over an hour to reach the cars. I’m sure I’ve managed this trip in less than an hour, but have failed in the past three trips to find that elusive way in.

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If You Go…

For the time being, expect an hour or more to reach the Chatiemac cliffs. If you are a strong mixed climber, there are some excellent projects awaiting your talents there. One or two routes are “mostly” pure ice climbing, probably at WI 4. A few warrant multipitch style climbing, though none are likely more than 200′ long or so.

We did see other hints of ice to the west, and there’s an obvious steep cliff high up on Gore’s western flank that warrants investigation, but it would be a tough hike up to it.

If you are a strong rock climber thinking of visiting the crag, wait for next autumn. The bugs are bad out there during the spring and early summer months, and there’s a gigantic field of nettles you may have to cross. Close to hunting season seems to be the best time of year to head out here for rock. The leaves are down, so you can see your objective; the nettles have withered, and the bugs are dead.

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