Monday, February 23, 2009

Gaissau Ice

Heavy snow over the last couple of days had brought the avalanche danger level up to 4. So on Saturday the 21st, my partner Toni and I went in search of some (hopefully) unclimbed ice. Our first destination was a nearby gorge at the end of the Wiestal reservoir. The gorge is well known to canyoneers in the summer. We knew before hand that getting to the potential ice would be difficult and complex.

We wallowed around on steep wooded slopes over the gorge trying to find a descent route in which we would not have to rappel. The snow was mid-thigh to waist deep. Toni was using snow shoes and I was on short approach skis. Toni definitely had made the smarter choice for the approach. That meant he got to break trail.

We were unable to find an adequate descent route, so we went back to the car and headed to our second choice for the day in Gaissau. The waterfall pictured above is what we ended up climbing. We climbed two distinct lines on the 30 meter ice fall, the left and right pillars. Behind the ice was a cave. The two pillars had formed a curtain-like structure of icicles that were hallow. the ice temperature was good and the ice was thick enough to always find good screw placements.

As in the Wiestal gorge, we were impressed by the amount of snow on the approach. What normally would have taken 20 minutes turned into a slog with a stream crossing over meter-high snow covered blocks. When we got to the base of the climb we were both wet from the consistent and heavy snow fall as well as from sweating.

Toni climbed first and had to do a lot snow removal at the top of the fall once he had cleared the steeper lower section. When Toni topped out, there was a piece of Kevlar accessory cord around a tree that some one had used as a rappel anchor. We weren't the first ones to climb here. Regardless, it was a nice climb on an ice fall that is not in a guidebook. We had to find, evaluate and make the climb based on our own feelings and beliefs. It also was the correct choice for a day with bad weather and high avalanche danger.

Equipment and Material
Most people climb water ice at the level of WI 3 to WI 4. What is the appropriate material and equipment for frozen water falls at this level? After a few years of experience, this is what I bring when I am expecting normal to good ice conditions in a WI 4 Ice fall:
  • 12-14 ice screws - 2@ 22cm, 4@19cm, 4-6@16cm, 2@13cm, all Black Diamond Turbo Express
  • 6 normal quick draws
  • 2-60cm slings carried as quick draws
  • 1 Yeats "Screamer" damping quick draw (All quick draws are with large wire-gate karabiners)
  • 2-60cm slings racked with one large and one small screw-gate karabiner (total of 2 large & 2 small karabiners)
  • 2-120cm slings racked together on a wire-gate karabiner
  • self-locking belay device with two small screw-gate karabiners (I like the Petzl Reverso 3)
  • 2 additional small screw-gate karabiners and one extra wire-gate karabiner
  • 5 meters of 5mm accessory cord, 1m cord in a loop (5mm), Petzl Tbloc, Abalakov thread hooker (all carried on a wire-gate karabiner.
  • Extra cord for rappel anchors, 7mm, carried on a wire-gate karabiner (ca. 1 meter for every expected rappel)
  • knife that can be openned with one hand
  • one 30cm sewn sling to tie-off screws if necessary
I climb with leash-less tools (Petzl Nomic) and Grivel Rambo 3 crampons. On my Black Diamond Blizzard Harness I have 3 fixed plastic material karabiners to rack all the screws; one on the left and two on the right.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Snow Conditions: North Eastern Alps

Today I got out on a favorite bad weather/unstable conditions ski tour in Berchtesgaden. 1260 meters of elevation gain and a bit less then 4 hours car-to-car. Throughout the tour it was snowing lightly and then by about 13:30/14:00 our forecast storm hit. It has been snowing steadily for the past 3 hours now and it will continue overnight and through tomorrow, increasing in intensity.

Last Tuesday was the last big snow fall; 80cm to 1 meter of new snow in about 36 hours. When this storm is done, we will get another 50cm and more is on the way at the beginning of the coming week.

On the roof of a mountain hut on an alm today there was 2.5 to 3 meters of snow. The alm was at about 1300m. The amount of snow that we have gotten over the winter will guarantee excellent conditions for spring skiing and ski mountaineering. Additionally, the steep north faces of many classic mixed climbs will be in excellent shape come May, June and July.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Since the day after Christmas I have been working as a Austrian certified ski instructor at a small local ski area and at two different beginner hills. "Östtereiches Schilehrer" sounds pretty impressive, but in reality you don't ski endless powder runs or philosophize about the fine points of edging or weighting the skis.

First off, the work is demanding. Try to bring a four or five year old with zero experience to link turns with a snow plough in five days. Do it in a group of 8 to 10 kids and add some cold, wind and bad weather - that is more the reality of what a typical ski instructor does. There are also things that you don't even think about at first: getting into the bindings, riding a T-bar or chair lift, side-stepping, getting up once you fall over, etc., etc.

Last week I was rewarded with a good group of 10 and 11 year old kids who I could start getting to ski parallel and edge with their hips and knees. In addition there was fresh snow every day (20cm-30cm) and very few people on the slopes. I have to say that last week was more what I had always imagined work as a ski instructor would be like.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ice Conditions

Ice conditions in the Salzburg area have been very good over the last three weeks. A number of hidden ice flows that have not formed in the last four to five years have come into shape.

I have been in the Malta valley, Gastein valley, around Berchtesgaden, Gaissau (Hintersee & Wiestal) and Strubklamm climbing. The conditions have been good to excellent. The photos are from the "Kraftwerksfälle", 80m/WI4-5+ taken on Saturday the 7th of February.

The ice has been better at the lower elevations as we have gone through a few periods of Föhn conditions and inversion weather. In the small valley areas such as Königsee/Berchtesgaden, small micro-climates are in effect that really hold the cold and do not heat up throughout the day.

After climbing ice in the area over the last few years, I believe that I am starting to get a good feel to how things develop and change during the season in my immediate area. I starting to understand where and when to climb certain things as well as when to back off.

This season I have pretty much gone over to using a two ice screw belay in a line configuration as opposed to using self equalizing system. From what I have read and heard in Austria as well as through international sources, the self equalizing system is not as beneficial in spreading the force of a fall as once thought. As in all belay systems, what is most important is the quality of the ice. I try to set up a belay with two screws in two independent ice structures that are about 40cm to 50cm apart. The main belay point is always the lower screw. I set the first screw, clip in a large central locking carabiner with my smaller self belay screw gate carabiner then I clove hitch one of the half ropes to the self belay screw gate. Next I set a second screw and girth hitch a 60cm sling through the central carabiner and attach it to the second screw with a locking screw gate carabiner. If necessary, I will also set my tools and tie them in with a clove hitch using second half rope.

This system mimics what is used very often on bolted alpine rock routes. It is simple, fast, clean and in good ice it is very secure.