Cold Climbing

March 28, 2006 11:00 pm
Find out more about ice climbing in Baker County in the Thursday, March 30, edition of the Baker City Herald. (Submitted photograph).
Find out more about ice climbing in Baker County in the Thursday, March 30, edition of the Baker City Herald. (Submitted photograph).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Whit Hartz, Mark Hauter and John Powell climb waterfalls without getting wet.

Well, sometimes they sweat.

But you'd probably perspire too if you did what they do.

Imagine climbing a hundred-foot-high cliff coated in slippery ice.

Imagine further that you remain attached to the ice by, at most, four slivers of metal (but occasionally only one), none much wider than the tip of a flat-bladed screwdriver.

Hartz and Hauter, both from La Grande, and Powell, who lives in Baker City, start climbing when the water stops falling.

The trio ascends only after frigid temperatures have turned a stream of water into a stationary — and stable, they hope — sculpture.

But they don't mind waiting on the weather — in part because they never have to wait on other groups of climbers.

Hartz, Hauter and Powell estimate that fewer than a dozen people, themselves included, regularly climb ice in Northeastern Oregon.

"I've never seen another climber in this area that I didn't know," Hauter said.

Exclusivity aside, Hartz said, ice-climbing poses physical and mental challenges that distinguish it from more familiar gravity-defying pursuits — scaling rock cliffs such as those at Smith Rock in Central Oregon, for instance, or summiting Mount Hood or another glacier-encased volcano in the Cascades.

"Unlike rock, which is pretty consistent, ice is always changing, sometimes by the hour," said Hartz, who's also a conventional rock and mountain climber.

Plus, ice climbers revel in certain aesthetic advantages.

"The ice itself is just beautiful," said Hartz, 32, who grew up in Baker Valley and graduated from Powder Valley High School.

"It's almost another sport by itself."

Hauter, 42, said he took up the sport in Northeastern Oregon in 1982. He introduced Hartz to ice-climbing about four years ago.

Hauter said he basically taught himself to climb — by necessity, because the roster of local climbers was even shorter in the early 1980s than it is today.

Hauter said Dave Coughlin, a Baker City attorney and triathlete, was one of the few ice climbers in Northeastern Oregon at the time.

"I just decided that I wanted to do it, so I did it," Hauter said.

He said he first felt the lure of steep ice when he skied in the backcountry (a sport he enjoyed so much he turned it into a business — in the mid 1990s he and his wife, Kristin, operated a snow-cat skiing service in the Elkhorn Mountains near Baker City.)

"One thing led to another and pretty soon I wanted to climb those steep faces," Hauter said.

He said he searched for suitable routes during his ski trips. And he perused topographical maps — which show the steepness of slopes — "looking for cliffs."

He found plenty.

And almost a quarter century later, he's still looking.

"The adventure — that's a big part of it," Hauter said. "The challenge. And just the beauty. It takes you to some pretty wild places that you couldn't get to any other way."

Powell, 51, who said he has been climbing mountains "for most of my life," first scaled sheer ice back in the 1970s in the Columbia River Gorge.

Powell refers to frozen cliffs as "icicles" — an amusingly diminutive term, as many of the routes that he, Hauter and Hartz climb actually extend for hundreds of feet, making them considerably longer than the dagger-shaped things that hang from a building's eaves during a cold snap.

"It is," Hartz said with the nonchalance of an athlete who is accustomed to putting himself in perilous positions, "an adrenaline rush."

Those adrenaline rushes, and the danger that induces them, can become addictive, Hartz said.

Of course no climber, whether on ice or rock, wants to fall, even when he or she knows a stout rope should interrupt the plunge and prevent disaster.

But gravity is not the ice-climber's only foe.

Taking even a brief tumble while climbing an ice cliff can be roughly akin to thrusting your hand into the knife drawer in a dark kitchen.

Ice-climbers clutch in each fist a tool called an ice-pick, which looks like what it sounds like.

Climbers cinch onto each boot a set of crampons — metal spikes, 10 or 12 per boot.

These honed metal points anchor a climber to the ice, which is good, but they can also slice or skewer a falling climber who is flailing at the end of a safety rope, which is, well, not so good.

"You're pretty much surrounded by sharp, poky things," Hartz said with a laugh.

In case a wayward ice-pick or crampon severs a climber's rope — a particularly unpleasant event if the severed rope is the only one you happen to be attached to — ice-climbers sometimes tie into two ropes, he said.

Hartz already loved climbing before he ever rammed an ice-pick into the face of a frozen waterfall.

Hartz said his first climbing partner was his dad, Garry, who lives at Rock Creek west of Haines.

Whit Hartz said that prior to taking up ice-climbing he summited several peaks in the Wallowas, as well as volcanoes in the Cascades, including Mount Hood and Mount Adams.

He knew how to heft an ice-axe (which is similar to an ice-pick), and he was accustomed to the feel of crampons strapped to his boots.

Yet at first ice-climbing seemed strange to him.

"It's a totally different kind of ice axe, and crampons," Hartz said.

An ice-climbing pick, for instance, is considerably shorter, and thus easier to swing, than the sort of axe mountain climbers carry.

The skills a climber needs to reach the top, however, are similar whether he's clinging to rock or ice, Hartz said.

Ice-climbers reach up the cliff, first with one pick then with the other, and swing the tool, hammer-like, to drive the tip into the ice.

Once the climber is confident that the tip has a solid bite — "you can hear it and feel it when the tool is planted well, it gets pretty instinctive," Hartz said — he or she pulls up and then kicks each boot into the ice. Each set of crampons has a pair of points that jut from the toe, sort of like an insect's antennae, but sharper.

Generally a climber strives to maintain at least three solid holds at a time — both picks and one boot, or both boots and one pick.

It's possible, however — and sometimes necessary, to surmount an obstacle — to hang from the ice by a single pick, Hartz said.

In essence, then, each climb consists of a series of one-armed pullups. Some climbs are several hundred feet high, which explains why Hartz's biceps bulge more prominently than most people's.

"Climbing makes your forearms and your calves burn," he said.

Sometimes, though, the climbing is the easy part.

Just to reach the base of a cliff, climbers often devote hours of time, and ounces of sweat, to plain old lung-straining plodding through deep snow.

Frozen waterfalls — at least the frozen waterfalls in Northeastern Oregon — tend to form far up into the mountains, not over on the next block or beside a highway.

And ice-climbing, for reasons that don't require an advanced degree in thermodynamics to comprehend, is primarily a sport of winter and early spring.

Trouble is, no one bothers to plow snow off the mountain roads that lead to, or at least to the vicinity of, many local ice-climbing routes, Hartz said.

"There are very few that you can drive to," he said.

Which means ice-climbers usually rely on snowmobiles, skis and snowshoes — or just the latter two — to get to their favorite climbs, Hartz said.

Powell said he has had to resort to stomping a path with his snowshoes so he could wrestle his snowmobile up a steep slope just below Pine Creek Reservoir, a prime ice-climbing destination in the Elkhorn Mountains northwest of Baker City.

"This year was exceptional for ice, but none of it's easy to get to," Powell said.

This year also was exceptional for snow, which means those pre-climb journeys — "approaches" in the parlance of climbers — have been long and arduous, Hartz said.

"Sometimes it's a half-day endeavor to get there," he said.

The quality of the climbs, though, tends to offset the exertion, he said.

In addition to Pine Creek Reservoir and the upper Rock Creek canyon in the Elkhorns, Hauter said he also climbs frequently in the Lostine River Canyon in Wallowa County. Occasionally he drives east to Hells Canyon or south to the Strawberry Mountains. The Strawberrys, he said, boast perhaps the tallest ice-coated cliff in the region.

And one of the most dangerous to travel to, Powell said.

"You have to cross avalanche(-prone) terrain just to get there," he said.

Which illustrates a point Powell emphasizes: Ice-climbing is not the sort of sport a person ought to just try on a whim, without using proper equipment and knowing how to use it.

He recommends, as do Hartz and Hauter, that people interested in ice-climbing get acquainted with an experienced climber.

"I'm always willing to take someone up," Hartz said.

Just remember to pack plenty of clothes.

Sure you might sweat.

But when a frigid mountain gale kicks up, you'll appreciate a couple extra garments.

And, after all, you're climbing ice.

"It can," Hartz said, his face forming a sort of half smile, half grimace, "get pretty miserably cold."

In especially chilly winters, climbable ice sometimes forms near Catherine Creek State Park, not far from Union.

State Highway 203, which passes the park, is plowed throughout winter.

Ice-climbers use thin metal screws — called, appropriately, ice screws — to anchor their safety ropes to the cliff.

Hartz said the companies that make ice-climbing equipment bring to market new and better stuff every year.

Powell chuckles when he thinks of the rudimentary equipment he used during ice-climbing's infancy in the 1970s.