Ascending apparitions of ice

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2011

Nugget Falls dumps frigid water through the thin ice on Mendenhall Lake all winter long. Most people keep a comfortable distance from the area of instability around the falls, but recently a few residents were much closer than one would expect.

Photo by Kris Williams
Photo by Kris Williams

As the temperatures dipped close to zero in mid-January, local climbers could be seen hanging on the icy corners of the falls as if they were swinging from a delicate crystal chandelier. Even though water was still flowing down most of the rock face, ice climbing on Nugget Falls was still possible. Hikers and skiers reported spotting climbers dancing up the lines of ice amongst the flowing water, and it’s no wonder such a sight stops them in their tracks.

Ice climbing on a completely frozen waterfall requires a person to be deliberate before every step. However, ice climbing on a waterfall that is only half-frozen requires some extra caution. In Juneau, a temperate rainforest, half-frozen waterfalls can sometimes be all that are available.

Local ice climber Alan Gordon reflects on his recent climb up Nugget Falls as one that was hardly without its risks.

“Although I might come up with the ‘safest’ way to complete a goal I have in mind, chances are there is still some sort of inherit risk involved,” Gordon said.

Photos show Gordon as he tapped his way up a thin ice ribbon amidst the cascading flow of water on Nugget Falls.

“I had to jump across a section of water and stick my ice tools in the ice as soon as I got to the other side,” he said. “Otherwise, I was going to go in the water for sure.”

The element of danger and inherent risk does not exceed the reward of ice climbing for Gordon. He said he has gone back to climb the falls multiple times since.

For Gordon, and those like him, to experience the feeling of hanging high above a frozen lake, clinging to something that will be gone in a few short months, can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Routes in Southeast appear and disappear, like apparitions, in a matter of days. The changing conditions and inconsistent weather of region adds interest to the sport, as climbs are always evolving. It is common for an ice climb to be thick and solid near the bottom, only to become melted-out and hollow near the top. A climber must be able to constantly read the ice flow as they climb, translate the conditions and determine the best place for their axes and crampons. For instance, ice with a blue or white color tells a climber that it is more solid than ice that is clear. Clear ice is normally colder and more prone to fracture when struck. The convex portions of a frozen waterfall are also more likely to break off, an unfortunate event called “dinner-plating” because of the round disk of ice that will break off when weighted by the climber. Climbers must look for stronger concave places to put in ice screws for protection against long falls. If they do not understand the conditions of a climb, things could get serious quickly.

“There are all kinds of variations of ice climbing out there and they all offer something new and interesting each time you climb them,” Gordon said.

When conditions line up, Juneau ice climbing can be some of the best in the country. Alas, these brief windows last only a few days before the terrain morphs back into the moderate temperatures of the coastal rainforest. It’s here that climbers do what they can with what nature provides.

On weeknights, when local ice climbers hear a climb has formed up, they leave work early and run out to the glacier in order to enjoy an ascent. These climbers can be seen scrambling up a corner of the icefall in the dwindling hours of light. Since days are short this time of year, it can mean that climbers do much of their ice climbing by the light of head lamp.

Nugget Falls is especially temperamental — it never entirely freezes — so climbers need to be flexible and able to adapt quickly to conditions if they wish to make an ascent. Only occasionally will temperatures drop so low that Nugget Falls will thicken up enough to hold the weight of a climber. When it does, they line up for a try.

But why hang on a slippery crag in near-zero temperatures?

“I simply just love doing it,” Gordon said.

He doesn’t need any other reason.

As the glacier retreats from Mendenhall Lake, new ice falls are continually revealing themselves. Local climbers are finding new routes hidden in the rocky folds along the right side of the glacier and snagging exciting first ascents. As the environment continues to change, many climbers say the best waterfall ice climbing may be ahead of us. However, some of the routes climbed last year haven’t seen ascents this year, as they refuse to form up. The only constant is the climbers readiness for change. It’s Southeast’s fluctuating environment that keeps climbers in town on their toes, continually waiting for the next cold spell and the next first ascent to reveal itself.

• Bill Dwyer works as an international mountain guide and thinks Juneau is the best town on the planet.



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