I poke the teeth of a 13cm screw into solid ice 40 feet up a line in the New Funtier area in Colorado’s Ouray Ice Park. I am solid here, right? Easy ice (WI2+, maybe WI3) both picks firmly placed, crampons hooked into good spots. I push with a gloved left palm, awkwardly twisting the screw half a rotation. I wish to be doing this with my right hand, wish for thinner gloves, wish for anything to make it less tricky. Then I start thinking too much: Don’t fall; Don’t drop the screw; Stop wishing you were on rock, comfortably looking for a cam placement.
I’m a little gripped. It’s maybe my 25th pitch of ice ever, and only my fourth lead. My left hand feels weak and uncoordinated just swinging a tool, let alone trying to turn an ice screw. I talk myself through Gumby Time. Start the screw, start it again, then again. It finally bites, and I flip the crank knob and turn it around and around, watching the finger of crushed ice snake out of the hole as the screw tunnels in. I clip the screw and kick and stick to the anchor.
I am not learning to lead ice because I want to climb water ice exclusively. I am learning to lead ice because I want access to terrain in the mountains that requires proficiency at leading ice, swinging tools, making v-threads, and staying warm. I envision couloirs and dihedrals high in the mountains. Not difficult, but requiring a rack of ice screws and pickets, cams and nuts. Alternating between swinging ice tools, climbing alpine rock with gloves on, and easy dry-tooling.
For seven years, I’ve been slowly accumulating the knowledge I need to climb in the mountains: wilderness navigation, experience at altitude, bivying with minimal gear, moving on rock, leading sport routes, leading trad, building anchors on multi-pitch climbs, rope management, route-finding, reading weather, mitigating crumbly rock and its risks, avalanche safety, backcountry skiing, and, most recently, leading ice. I still need some crevasse rescue knowledge and practice, and plenty more ski laps and ice pitches, before I’m totally self-sufficient in three seasons, but I feel like I’m getting there, finally.
I see tons of folks who crush hard at sport climbing and bouldering, competition climbing, splitter cracks, or even just gym climbing— lots of people who specialize in just one or two disciplines. And I wonder if I’m doing the right thing by focusing on simply being proficient, of average ability or even mediocre, at all of them. If I stopped imagining myself chugging up snowy ridges in crampons with a hood over my helmet and spent some time in the gym instead, would 5.12 be possible, instead of seeming like the moon? Is anyone else asking themselves the same question?
Climbing is growing, and gym-learning climbers are sending harder than ever, younger than ever. But what is their ultimate goal? Lines in the mountains like I crave, or new, hard boulder problems and sport routes? Do young climbers want to be Hayden Kennedy, Kyle Dempster, and Colin Haley, or Ashima Shiraishi, Adam Ondra, and Sasha DiGiulian?
The old school thinking was that bouldering is training for rock climbing, and rock climbing is training for mountain climbing. The new school is bouldering is training for bouldering, and sometimes bouldering is training for hard sport—and we don’t expect any famous climber to deviate too much from their niche. You’d probably do a double-take if you heard Conrad Anker was working on a highball project in Bishop—or maybe you did do a double-take when you read that champion sport climber Emily Harrington summited Everest last year and is now leading hard mixed climbs.
Stand-up comedian Mitch Hedberg (rest in peace) had a joke about how folks in show business used to ask him if he could start writing material for sitcoms and movie scripts: “It’s as if I were a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook, and they said, ‘Alright, you’re a cook—can you farm?’”
Metaphorically, I’m both a mediocre cook and a novice farmer. When I get ready to “climb,” I usually think of what kind of rack I’ll take, the forecast, whether I need one rope to rappel or two, can I get away with only packing one liter of water, what layers I should bring, whether there’s snow on the approach, and if I have fresh batteries in my headlamp. What do you pack? A set of quickdraws and a rope? Three different pairs of shoes and a brush?
Every time I make it down from a multi-pitch climb just before dark, beat the weather, free stuck ropes, keep from decking on ledges, and don’t scare myself too badly placing gear at the crux, I think to myself, Yeah, I’m a climber. Then someone asks me to go bouldering and I can’t climb shit, flailing on their warm-ups. And I think I need to go to the gym more, boulder more, get stronger, maybe someday look at a campus board with something less than total confusion. And then I see a photo of a mountain somewhere and I take a deep breath, or I click around mountainproject.com and find myself gravitating to climbs that are 400 feet or longer.
Then I wonder if there’s a year separating the generation who wants to climb big things, and the generation who wants to climb really hard shorter things. And what age is that demarcation line? When did Generation Trad watch Generation Rad walk in the door?
Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for Climbing. He lives in his van, sleeps on friends’ couches, and writes at semi-rad.com.