Friday, January 29, 2010

A Tale of Two Couloirs

Last Saturday on the 23rd of January my partner Toni and I wanted to complete a long standing project of mine by linking up two steep couloirs in an isolated area of the mountain group Steinernes Meer ("Sea of Stone") in Berchtesgaden.

The plan was to climb up the hidden couloir in the left center of the picture below (500m, 60 degrees / AI3/III, first ascent J. Fratianni 31.03.2008). Then we would ski down the more visible central couloir (slanting from left to right, 600m, 50 degrees). To the best of my knowledge, I did the first ski descent also in March of 2008.

I had attempted this link-up last March on the 18th/19th, but was turned away by too warm weather and loose snow slides.

The picture above is in the first couloir at about 1850m. The slope is 40 degrees. To this point it felt like we had already done a hundred switchback turns.

The first crux of the left couloir is a short ice step at AI3. As is clear in the photo above, there is very little ice. When I climbed this in March of 2008, the ice was fat but very hard and compact. On the first ascent, I left my skis and pack here and soloed the remaining climbing, rappelling over the ice pitch from a snow bollard reinforced with rocks that I broke off from the side of the wall above the ice fall.

Because of the less than desirable conditions on Saturday, Toni and I changed plans and decided to ski down the first couloir from in front of the ice step and then climb and ski the central couloir. We skied down the first couloir to a protected spot behind a large boulder at about 1500m and deposited all the technical gear that we would not need for the second couloir.

This is the view down the second couloir from about its midpoint. It is about 40 to 45 degrees steep and fairly wide, so therefore we could continue to skin up zig-zagging back and forth.

Soon the couloir narrowed and became even steeper so that we put our skis on our backs and boot-packed up the upper couloir as it wined around to the left.

The crux of the couloir is about 50 degrees. The snow became a bit firmer here so going up was somewhat easier. When skiing down through this section, the steepness really got your attention.
As we got to the top, the couloir leveled where we could comfortably put our skis on and get everything set for our descent.

This is the view looking down the couloir from the beginning of the descent. We had excellent conditions to ski down something so steep. The snow was packed powder that was stable.

The couloir is regularly flushed out with small soft snow slides that come of the side walls or directly down the center of the couloir. The constant purging acts as a regular natural stress on the snow pack which stabilizes the snow by causing it to settle. We had previously had about a ten day period of little to no snow accumulation and consistent cold temperatures of a high pressure system. Toni and I were very cautious when evaluating the avalanche conditions in the couloirs. I was particularly concerned about buried depth hoar in the snow pack as the sun never reaches into the couloirs until around the end of March or beginning of April.

Conditions are dangerous in this type of terrain when there is a lot of unsettled new snow, when the snow is wind deposited (cross loaded) from the sides, depth hoar forms and persists as the snow pack becomes thicker to the point in which the weal layer can no longer support the heavier snow above it, or when the air temperature increases together with higher humidity increasing the potential for large wet snow slides.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Will Gadd's Ice Climbing Gems

Canadian climber Will Gadd recently climbed ice for 24 hours to raise money for a charity. On his blog he has posted some reflections on his experience with regards to training, nutrition, equipment, etc. He posted this the other day, and better words on basic ice climbing technique, movement and volume could not be written.

"The basic move of ice climbing is a staggered hands low-weight pull-up with the balance of your weight in a basic air squat. Feet at the same level (this is the most common mistake in ice climbing--your feet should always be at very close to the same level), hike feet up with straight arms, push up with legs, place high tool, repeat to the top. Feet always at the same level, tools never at the same level, twice as many foot placements at least as tool placements..."

"I learned a lot about ice climbing fast and efficiently through all of these thousands and thousands of feet. When you're doing huge volumes of ice little differences in movement patterns add up quickly. I developed huge calluses on my little fingers from hanging onto the Cobras and new Fusions. I learned so much about dynamic movement on ice, momentum, and a subtle hip push very similar to the finish of a good squat that, when combined, really helped a tremendous amount. I've now been ice climbing for over 25 years off and on, and perhaps the most important thing I've learned is that being a good ice climber is all about mileage on ice."

In the book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell states that it take 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in something. That is a lot of ice climbing. Focusing on efficient body movement is often overlooked when ice climbing because the climber is separated form the ice element by crampons and ice tools, not to mention the gloves, heavy boots (when compared to rock shoes) and layers of warm clothing. All this leads to getting disengaged from feeling good climbing movement when on ice.

Climbing is movement and when you see someone move fluidly over ice instead of the wooden, Frankenstein style, you know that they have gone along way into putting in their 10,000 hours.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

AV-Salzburg Eisklettern Grundkurs

Am 16. und 17. Jänner bin ich mit 5 hoch motiviert Eisklettern Neulings unterwegs. Wir sind in Berchtesgaden / Königsee bei der Eisfall "Damenstart", WI 3 bis WI 4 und in Gasteinertal in der "Eisgarten" (zwischen Böckstein und Sportgastein). Dort sind wir in die Routen "Liebelei", WI 3+ bis WI 5 und "Eisgarten-Couloir", WI 3 gewesen.

Glücklicherweise haben wir gutes Eisverhältnisse erwischt. In 2 Tage sind die Kursteilnehmerinnen sehr viel geklettert und haben auch sehr viel gelernt. Es war einen wunderschön Wochenende mit einen super Kursgruppe.

Klick auf die Slideshow in der Fotoalbum zum kommen und Fotos zu downloaden.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eis Saison Warm-Up

Einen Slideshow vom Veranstaltung "Eis Saison Warm-Up" ins Maltatal, 07.-10. Jänner.

Ins Fotoalbum zum kommen und Fotos und Videos zum downloaden, bitte auf die Slideshow klicken.

Herzlichen Dank an alle Teilnehmerinnen für einen Super Kurs!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Off-Piste Skiing Course

On January 2nd and 3rd I had a small group of participants for a ski technique course to improve and develop the ability to ski off-piste.

Parallel carving is a skiing skill that is essential to master on a prepared slope before getting in the back country. Why? because twisting your skis doesn't work in powder, crud, and other types of variable snow.

The ability to balance over the downhill edge and maintain a centered, balanced, stance can only be learned on the piste.

We did a number of exercises on slope in order to improve balance, footwork, steering, edging, etc. The group then tried to transfer the movements to off-piste terrain. The pistes in Schladming were very well prepared with a lot of artificial snow. Hard, icy, slopes expose all imperfections in balance and edging.

Everyday the group also was able to skin into some off-piste, un-tracked terrain to ski powder. The highlight of the short course was the descent pictured below.

We climbed the ridge with skins and then were able to ski down the face on the left (in shadow) for a wonderful steep powder descent. It was a nice end to the the weekend in which all the participants made clear and noticeable improvement in their skiing ability.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Search

In every ice season there is a period at both the beginning and the end when a certain personal investment is involved in searching for climbable ice. Depending on time of year, temperatures, weather conditions, relative humidity, etc., the search is for ice that is forming in early winter, and later ice that hasn't degraded too much in early spring.

Will Gadd and Kelly Cordes, among many others, write about the seasonal quest to find the fickle ice and mixed climbs that form early in the season. They both acknowledge that a lot of times, I would say at least fifty percent of the time, you come away empty handed. Cordes uses the phrase, "taking his tools for a walk". I like that.

In this post Cordes writes about this process of following a hunch, seeing something from afar and then taking the chance that just maybe there will be ice to climb.

In the last two weeks, I have gotten calls from people asking about conditions, and then the caller goes on to hypothesize about this or that ice fall, or I have read posts on websites where people have presented themselves as knowledgeable about conditions without being at the area in question. People talk or write about this stuff without investing the time to check things out. My favorite recent example is here regarding an ice fall in the Malta valley of Carinthia.

The writer writes on the 5th of January that the fall is possible but only on the right side in the upper pitches. On the 5th of January my partner and I climbed the fall "Superfreucht", starting on very thin and difficult to protect ice on the right and then moving to the left on the upper pitches for a steeper exit at the top.

The materialistic mentality of society has long ago seeped into the minds of climbers. People work all week, have little time for outside interests, and want a guaranteed return when they go out to climb ice. It's a lot easier to call someone or look in the Internet than to think for yourself and invest the time and energy in finding what's in shape.

Part of being a real ice climber is just taking your tools for a walk.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Happy New Ice Year! by Jennifer Fratianni

“This is my year to try new things!” I boldly declared at the breakfast table on New Year’s morning. Two hours later, I was standing in front of cascading ice with ice axes in hand. I was going to climb ice. Perhaps my judgment was a bit clouded by the liquid libations of the previous evening. But deep down in my climbing soul, I knew this was the next step.

Even though I have learned to trust myself as a climber, the idea of ice climbing still made me a bit queasy. The equipment, for one, greatly resembles instruments of torture, which equally fascinated and frightened me. I had secretly been yearning to wield ice axes for a while, but was afraid I might lobotomize myself in the process. (I am a tomboy at heart and love tools!) Once Joe was roped up and ready to go he said, “Watch my feet,” and began kicking footholds in the ice with his crampons.

“Holly shit!” I said as the icicles showered down of my helmet. “Stand behind that boulder,” instructed Joe. I felt clumsy belaying in big gloves. I peered out from behind my boulder, not wanting to miss anything, but waiting for the next chunks to fall. “Swing from your elbow, like this,” said Joe, planting ice axes with ease. He moved fluidly up the icefall, pausing to set ice screws and clear loose ice. Soon he was atop the frozen fall, setting a top rope. It was my turn.

Keep the rope tight,” I said, apprehensively approaching the ice. I was surprised how secure I felt on my feet after taking the first step. The ice was pliable like plastic. I started wildly swinging my axes and ice came down in big chunks. “Watch it!” I yelled as ice flew past my face. Joe chuckled from below. “Swing from your elbow – not your wrist!” he reminded me patiently. What a difference that made. Soon I was planting my axes much better. I didn’t need to hack huge holes in the ice for the picks of the axes to hold. Their teeth needed just a tiny bit of ice to hold. I liked the rhythm the climbing -- planting the picks and then kicking in footholds. Swinging those axes made me feel powerful! “That’s what I’m talking about!” I shouted and then whack – I’d set an axe. It was a great feeling. Much to my surprise I quickly found myself at the top without any gaping wounds. “Whoohoo!” I yelled holding the axes over my head.

I have many friends who are fascinated by my obsession for climbing, as am I. I have always enjoyed doing things outside, but never thought I would refer to myself as a climber, especially not an ice climber. When I try to coax my friends into climbing, I often hear the same excuses. “I’m too old, too fat, too weak, and too scared,” they say. Hadn’t I echoed those same insecurities to Joe? “But climbing makes you feel younger, skinnier, stronger and braver!” I assure them. What other sport can give you all that?