Climbing frozen water


The Eastside’s most ephemeral sport in full swing

On an unusually warm midwinter day, Juan Lopez swung into the ice with the hard-earned familiarity of years of working construction.

A veteran of a battle against diabetes and holding a laundry list of prescription medications, Lopez, 43, of Woodlake, said he was looking for moderation. He found it by climbing ice.

“I’ve always liked the use of tools,” he said on a recent outing, “so when I saw people climbing ice walls with ice tools, it intrigued me; and the love of being outdoors in the winter added more to the adventure.”

No one would argue that ice climbing is an odd sport. Ephemeral by nature, the season is practically over by the time it starts, and, conveniently, just as you start to get pretty good.

But perhaps that short window of opportunity adds to the allure.

Rock climbers, non-climbers, meet-up groups, vacationing troops and others all might find reasons to pick up a set of ice tools, don crampons, and try their hands (and feet) at this wild activity.

Climbers say they regard ice climbing as a way to expand their overall mountaineering skills and confidence in the mountains; or they may enjoy it as a sport unto itself. But prior experience climbing is by no means a prerequisite for venturing onto the ice.

Perhaps Lopez’s peculiar pathway to ice via construction work is a better “feeder” sport than anything else.

Lopez knew how to swing an ice tool before he ever picked one up, given that the action of swinging a hammer is very similar. To one veteran ice climber, he was not so much a natural as he was an old hand, even on his first swing.

What hooked him, he said, was the actual sound of climbing ice.

 “The remarkable sound the tools make when they strike the ice was the winning bonus of this sport,” he said.

A satisfying thunk, and a climber can move up with grace and confidence.

Lopez was not always a climber. And, he said, he was not always the healthy, robust person sharing a rope with another climber on this particular day.

Some years ago, Lopez said he had a harsh reality check.

“When I was diagnosed by the doctor with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes,” he said, “I decided to use my love of the mountains to exercise, and started watching my diet because I refused to fix my health issue with chemicals.”

He took up backpacking, and then donned snowshoes to keep up his habit through the winter. Then came his foray onto the ice.

He said he loves it for “the adventure and amount of focus that is needed to accomplish your goal. You have to clear your mind from the outside world, and all worries are gone.

“Climbing,” he said, “is my escape from the chaos of the world.”

Ice climbing is not the easiest sport to pick up. After years of mountaineering and some rock climbing, Lopez said he decided to hire a guide to teach him the ropes of ice climbing.

Climbing ice is like climbing really bad rock. Every other hand-hold breaks off and hurtles indiscriminately toward the ground—or a belayer’s head, if he or she is in the wrong spot.

The number one rule with ice climbing is to get out of the way of falling ice.

Number two: Try not to embarrass yourself by referring to your two ice tools as ice axes. Completely different equipment.

And number three: Enjoy.

Ice climbing can take mountaineers places they never thought they’d end up. Tucked away in icy north-facing corners and cliffs, in deep canyons or high on mountains, ice can be out of the way and in plain sight at the same time.

It’s that lingering strip of snow up high on Mt. Dana in the fall, or that inconspicuous frozen waterfall far below the Tioga Road at the start of winter.

Or, it’s a road trip to Colorado’s ice park or Montana’s infamous Hyalite Canyon.

For Lopez, ice climbing was a reason to drive around the Sierra Nevada; a way to see the Eastside—finding adventure in his own (extended) backyard.

Whether building new skills or rebuilding a wayward life, ice climbing can offer a fresh perspective and a renewed sense of adventure and exploration.

Lopez said he knew how to use his strength and skills to build houses. With that, he took another swing, and realized he could also lay himself a new foundation.