Chasing the Ephemeral: A Zion Ice Climbing Photo Essay
A small crew of diehards uncover a once-in-a-lifetime stash of ice in Zion National Park.
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This story originally appeared in our February 2015 issue of our print edition.
4 a.m.! I rolled over to turn off my phone’s alarm with aching muscles. Angela and I had been skiing, bushwhacking, and romping chained up in 4-low from sun up to sun down for more than two weeks so that we could swing our tools on the best ice to form in Zion in years—perhaps ever.
Angela and I were crashing on the floor of a guiding shop where we’d worked all summer. But now, there were no clients to meet and entertain, and I wasn’t already sweating from the 100+ degree temps. There was no steady stream of cars heading into the national park entrance. Quaint little Springdale had become a ghost town.
It felt surreal and out of place, but it was time to transfer our half-awake, 1,000-yard stares into jittery caffeine-induced focus on the day’s ice project. I stumbled over to the stove, tripping on our gear strewn all across the floor: drying clothes, half-wet ropes, tools, screws, and boots hanging from the heater vents. It looked like someone had blown open a giant bag of Skittles (thank you, outdoor industry, for such bright, colorful gear). The roar of the double-burner stove broke the peaceful dawn. The day was on, and we raced to see what we could accomplish before it was gone.That morning we had another zombie among us. Matt had driven through the night a day earlier to get in on the action. I had told him over the phone that it was a big gamble to make the five-hour drive south. The temps were borderline for ice. It was melting out daily, though sometimes healing up at night, depending on the location. Not to mention it kept raining in Springdale. He made the mad dash anyway.
I had heard horror stories from Andrew Burr about some of the winter approaches in the east end of the park. He and a crew had made the descent to the Zicicle (WI5) years prior [see the cover of Climbing, October 2009]. They had to huff all the way in from the paved road, and he said they crawled on their knees most of the way. The inconsistent punch-hole crust didn’t allow them to hike, and they didn’t have skis because, well, c’mon, it’s the desert.
We chained up and slowly descended the few miles to where we’d park. We felt very lucky with the snow conditions. Too much snow and you high-center. Too little snow and the clay will swallow your vehicle whole—especially on the way out when the sun softens the road. On a recon mission years earlier, I got stuck in the clay for eight hours and threw a chain, never to be found again.
The day before had been a typically long day. We had sniffed out some big ice and tagged a massive 600-foot blue ribbon down the start of a slot canyon. We scoped a hanging football field of ice for today’s climb. It was such a different way of climbing. You never really knew what the bottom of the route was like or if it went. You could guess from the rim, but the distance straight down into a dark canyon is open to the imagination. Does it go? The saving grace for this style of top-down climbing was that on the way down, you got a full preview of what was to come. You could touch, feel, and kick at the soon-to-be-climbed ice.
We adopted a method of descending that would make it way more manageable to climb back out if needed. One of us would rap with double 70-meter ropes and put in a bomber anchor. If that pitch looked “leadable” (not necessarily the same as “protectable”), they would holler up for the rest of us to rap down and we’d commit to that pitch by pulling the ropes for the next rap. It was the ultimate ego test. Once we’d arrive at the bottom, the final rope pull was intimidating to say the least. OK, it was frightening as hell! It made us aware of how capable we really had to be. We couldn’t lower off a screw and make the walk of shame to the car to grab a beer. Not a day went by without some wild, scary, and dangerous climbing.
At the base, we pulled ropes. Angela, Matt, and I stood there looking up at several hundred feet of clean ice. We were in a tight canyon deep in one of Zion’s east drainages. The crux was now getting to that gigantic flow above us. The moves off the ground were fucking terrifying, to put it bluntly. It started with a single stubby (short ice screw) for 70 meters—this would become the pattern for most routes. It was a soloing mind game. If you blew out the ice against the rock on your first or second swing, you wouldn’t get another chance. I gave out a loud “Yahoo!” once my pick sunk in deeper than three teeth. The first real piece I clipped was the anchors we had set on the way down. Angela took us to the top on perfect, blue, steep, sticky ice. We named the route Nuclear Sunrise after the world-class sunrise we’d watched that morning on the drive in. A brilliant column of orange shot straight into the sky from the desert horizon. It looked like a bomb had gone off in the distance.
It was hard to rate the pitches on most of the routes we climbed. Sometimes it would be overhanging ice with good gear and other times it would be less-than-vertical, thin verglas without a single imperfection or shelf, leaving you without gear for 70 to 80 meters. We decided to use the Zion PDW rating, or “pretty damn Western.”
Maybe more insane than climbing these routes was trying to document and capture the magic as it happened. Burr put in the mileage—with a much heavier pack. While we were deep in a canyon dodging ice chunks, I looked up on the rim and spotted a naked Burr sunbathing and snapping away. He was just as blown away with the idea of ice climbing in such an already beautiful rock climbing mecca.
We had a lot of dead-end days, skiing and stomping through the desert without a glimpse of frozen things to climb. Not knowing what was around the next curve in the canyon or over the next edge was our virtue and also our vice. It kept us waking before dawn to hunt the extremely ephemeral ice. We knew this was our only chance to chase it down. In an 18-day rampage in February 2014, Angela Van Wiemeersch, Jesse Huey, Matt Tuttle, and I climbed more than a dozen big ice routes in the desert of southwest Utah. First ascents, all of them. Here are the best shots from the inimitable Andrew Burr.
Photos and captions by Andrew Burr.
WI5 | 400 feet
Climbing ice in Zion is anything but a casual experience. The day starts and ends in blackness, and coffee before dawn is not only common but a requirement. Drive from trailhead to trailhead with lights on, trying to get the bulk of climbing done before the sun peeks out to keep the ice frozen and hard. On this particular day, the duo from Orem—or “Bore-um” as Scott likes to call it—was greeted by an amazing sunrise, the type of sunrise immortalized in paintings of the desert West. What I would call some real John Wayne shit. Colors of atom bomb magnitude. Before a tool was ever lifted, the name Nuclear Sunrise was born. I wasn’t there for the first ascent, but when I arrived a few days later to photograph Scott and Angela, my jaw dropped at the first sight of the route—the upper section of ice seemed bigger than a football field. I was hooked, and I knew there must be more—much more. From the bottom, climb thin slabs to steep bulges that create gaps in the ice that must be reached past with no feet—get your ice campus on! Belay when the ice gets fat and then take the icy football field to the top.
WI4 | 420 feet
On the first ascent of this route, delaminating ice in the middle of the pitch that runs up this beautiful, shallow chimney/runnel system almost caused a catastrophe for first ascensionists Jesse Huey and Scott Adamson. After some rope and anchor shenanigans to get established on the route, I realized Scott was tied in but not on belay. He’s strong and capable, but when the temps warmed and one crampon kick sent a six-foot section of ice flying down, we only had minutes before he would go down the feature like a summer waterslide. Luckily for all, I was able to rappel down, and at the end of the line, the last rung of my aider provided an angel from above. This photo was taken seconds prior, and only now do I notice the look of sheer and utter hopelessness in Scott’s face. The French call a gully in the rock a goulet—another route that was named before a pick was ever swung.
WI4 | 165 feet
Walking around the outer reaches of Zion, my sense of discovery is a raw, visceral experience. I’ve spent time—too much time—stumbling about the desert looking for this exact thing and have come up empty nearly everytime. Hours turn into days, and we walk on. Rounding a corner and finding an ice flow draped over the rim and stretching to the canyon floor is a sight to behold, and not knowing it was there makes it even more special. This hanging slot canyon has bolted anchors for the summer folk, and during the FA, the top 60-meter column had baked in the sun, fallen off, and was laying useless in the bottom of the canyon. Thankfully, a rope was left fixed at the top to jumar back out. From the canyon bottom, a beautiful slabby flow travels up the wall and ends perfectly at the winter sun/shade line next to a bolted anchor. The complete 110-meter line will be a real prize.
Corn on the Kolob
WI4 | 80 feet
With borrowed tools, an oversized jacket, and hand-me-down gloves, Angela is the type of climber who gets it done with whatever is available—we’re talking MacGyver’s daughter here. She’s more than just bold and can hold her own with the boys—hell, she climbs better than most of the men I know. It seems like she can hold on forever, or maybe time just stands still as you watch the graceful beauty of her movement. On this particular day, we rapped down into this slot slightly above the raging water that was splashing up just enough to reach our heels. We built a belay, and she took the lead—not by roshambo or some offer of pity by her partner—she took it, and she owned it. It was her lead, she knew it, and she wanted it. As a matter of fact, she always wants the sharp end. Be careful, boys!
Beehive Ice: A Guide to Utah’s Ice and Mixed Climbs by Nathan Smith & Andrew Burr ($40)