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March 9, 2006
Man does it finally feel as if Spring may actually get here. That is it feels that way on the day I'm writing this, which is Thursday. It was 44 degrees and sunny yesterday and it's 36 and snowing lightly here in the Valley at 3 PM. We've actually had some pretty nice days, the last couple. Certainly they have been better than Saturday's howling winds and blowing snow. Unfortunately the real snow that passed through missed us here, but it did lay some down over in places like Jay Peak. For those who aren't ready to give up on winter, I'll bet Mother Nature has at least one more surprise for us.
An acquaintance asked me recently how they could overcome the dreaded "Plateau". They had felt certain they were headed for the "5's" this season , but were once again stuck around the 4/4+ ice grade. They had found themselves sweaty and nervous on more than one occassion when trying to push themselves into harder climbs and were looking at ways to overcome those plateaus and break into the 5's. There is a good thread on this topic on NEClimbs, but I thought I'd mention it here as well.
Almost all climbers are constantly looking to ratchet up their performance. Books and videos have been done on the subject of how to climb harder. The Grade III ice climber wants to move into IV's and V's just like the 5.9 rock leader who's greedily eyeing those 10's. It's a natural progression, but one that can often be harder than it seems it should be. In my opinion up to a certain point it's the mastery of the basic techniques that will help you the most in getting to where you can want to be. In ice climbing it's pretty much the following.
1) Be able to swing the tools and get a good stick with a single swing almost every time. This conserves energy and ice climbing is really a game of keeping yourself from getting pumped out.
2) Perfect your balance and footwork in a manner that lets you feel relaxed, even on very steep ice. I see way too many climbers just kicking away with their feet, not even looking down. You wouldn't do that rock climbing, why do it on ice?
3) Be able to place good gear quickly. This goes hand in hand with conserving energy and also includes perfecting a technique for racking and unracking your gear in the most efficient manner for you.
Each of these things are ones that we can all work on and require practice. Let's face it, the more comfortable you feel doing each of these, the more comfortable you will feel mentally on harder ice. If you feel confident that you can get up on any steep piece of ice & hang in there long enough to place a screw, and you know from experience that that screw is going to be 85-90% effective, then you can feel confident in going ahead.
So how do we get better in all of these areas. Well practice of course, and the best practice is working on these things when you are NOT on the sharp end of the rope. Just like for rock, ice bouldering is absolutely great practice for ice climbing. Finding a place where you can repeatedly move up and down on somewhat steep but short ice curtains or columns is key. Doing that while hanging in and placing and removing gear is a real plus. In the early season I spend a significant amount of time working on this kind of thing. Go over to the North End on a weekday morning early in the season and you will likely see me in full regalia moving all over the place & putting in screws and taking them out. By the time the season is in full swing I generally feel good about finding stances, getting in balance, hanging on & getting in gear in a wide variety of situations.
Sure there are the Alex Lowe's of the world, who are able to totally conquer/suppress their fear, pressing on in the total confidence that they can pull off almost anything. These are the Ice Gods. They have that strength, experience and mental fortitude to do almost anything. For the rest of us it's a matter of constantly honing our skills bit by bit, gradually getting up to a certain level where, coupled with whatever mental strength we can muster on a given day, we can climb to our maximum ability level. It's a fully interactive thing.
I know I have told the story about someone asking me why I placed so many screws in Dropline several years ago. The answer being; because I could! And because I can, I feel confident in attempting a climb like that or Machine or Last Exit. It was only once I had attained a level of experience & mental strength such that I knew I would be able to hang in & place reasonable pro on most anything, was I able to ratchet up my climbing level to doing the harder climbs on a regular basis. I have learned be canny in using what strength I have, and it's not all that much - really! Just like climbing steep rock, you don't hang on your biceps. It's all in the skeleton. In addition I'll take any possible rest whenever and wherever I can get. I only run things out if there is no other choice. And frankly, if all else fails, I have absolutely no problem with looping the rope over the head of my tool to give myself a break!!! I know that using all those techniques I can manage to get up an awful lot of the climbs around here. I'm not going to be doing 1 arm pullups on free hangers.
Oh yeah - one other thing... Having the right belayer is important. While I do go out and climb with a wide variety of people, when I'm doing something really difficult I try & recruit one of a couple of folks that I know will be right there & focused with and on me. Recently I've been lucky enough to climb a lot with Brad White, one of the owner's of IMCS, and most of the harder things I've done this season have been when Brad and I were out. I am 100% confident that when he is on the belay end of the rope he is totally with me. Of course he feels the same when the roles are reversed. Having that level of confidence in my partner adds a significant amount to my confidence.
To summarize, I guess the main suggestion I have is to practice a lot. It's very similar to playing a difficult piece of music. You slow it down in the beginning and work on refining the technique. Then, once you have it totally under your belt, you speed it up. All the years I spent practicing scales on my bass, didn't practice on stage. Practicing your ice climbing in a bouldering situation is almost the same. I don't practice on stage, why should I practice all the climbing techniques on the sharp end? Get the techniques totally together and when you get up on the steep stuff, you'll send it.
The National Park Service has announced that beginning next year the number of climbers allowed on Alaska's 6,096 metre-high Mount McKinley will be capped at 1,500 a year. Since 1903, McKinley has been attempted by 30,049 climbers and just over half have reached the summit. Ninety-five climbers have died trying, including 11 in 1992. Park spokeswoman Kris Fister said almost all climbing is done during a brief two-month period in May and June, and about 95% of climbers chose the West Buttress route to reach the top.
Up on one of the Mount Washington Valley's finest crags and want to know what that climb you're looking at is? Or maybe you're on your way up from Boston and want to check out the Ice Report for your upcoming weekend plans. Or more likely, you're at work just want to daydream about your next adventure. Well if you have a smart phone handy, you can get to NEClimbs from anywhere you have cell service. While it doesn't offer every single feature of the site and it's not an "app", in mobile form, it does do a whole lot and is very useful. Here is the live link to the mobile version of NEClimbs:
Check it out and if you have issues on your specific phone, please feel free to let me know.
Join us and LIKE us on Facebook. I'll try and post some interesting pix every Thursday and the latest Ice Report in the season, tho certainly not the whole Report. Here's where you can check it out:
Have fun and climb safe,
The White Mountain Report
North Conway, New Hampshire
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|Chris Jones, North Twin, North Face|