Climbers relish new ice from thaw-freeze alternation

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Joe Stock knows all too well the dangers of climbing ice when it's too warm out. During a climbing trip many years ago, the day warmed up to the 40s and a chunk of ice fell away from the ice face, breaking his leg.

"When it's warm like that, it's super dangerous," said Stock, a mountaineer and writer in Anchorage. "So you just avoid climbing when it gets like that."

Anchorage's recent freeze-thaw-freeze, which saw temperatures dip to below zero, climb to 40-plus, then drop back down to the teens, has been unpredictable. And for outdoor recreationalists, this has complicated a typical outing.

Which wax do you use for your skis?

How many dogs can you safely hook to the sled?

How many layers must you dress in to stay comfortable?

Ice climbing is no different. And while above-freezing temperatures are definitely the time to stay off the ice, there is a bright side to the recent melt - new ice.

"You get new ice growth from that water that starts flowing," explained Bill Billmeier, a climbing guide with The Ascending Path in Girdwood. "In general, if people climb in an area where there is no new ice growth, it gets beat up from all the pick holes and traffic. But if it warms up and cools down again it can make that area like a new climb."

Scotty Vincik, a nursing major at University of Alaska Anchorage, has spent the winter climbing the rock and ice of Ptarmigan Peak, which he said has superb conditions. He, too, is enthused by the recent shift in temperatures - and for what it might mean to the climbing there.

"The warm weather, with the chinook wind that came in and thawed up some of the climbs, has created conditions with additional groundwater flowing," he said. "We should see the ice start to form up pretty well."

Winds can actually help the climbers, Vincik said.

"The strong winds ... scour all the snow off the front range and strip it off the ice and makes it a lot cleaner," he said. "It also cleans all the snow off the rock, so you can see what you're dealing with."

Temperatures on Wednesday hovered around the low 20s at midday and the forecast predicted readings below zero by the weekend. That means climbing should remain good, Stock and Billmeier said.

Stock said climbers should always visually inspect a climbing spot before roping up. Sometimes temperature changes cause the ice to detach from the cliff.

Seward Highway ice, because it is exposed to direct sunlight, is especially prone to such activity, Vincik said.

"Anywhere where there is that kind of exposure, you'll get melting," he said. Up higher, such as at Ptarmigan, the warm spell did little to shift the ice, he said.

On Wednesday, a few chunks of ice had fallen along the Seward Highway, and although still below freezing, it was considered unsafe for climbing.

A few more days of cold weather should help.

Meanwhile, Vincik said, climbers can head to higher elevations, such as Ptarmigan - or to areas without direct sun, such as Eklutna and Eagle River.

"It's been a really good year for going out to Ptarmigan," he said.

"They've been grooming four or five miles of ski trail and you can skate ski in, go climbing and skate ski out. It's really a world-class destination."

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