Note: The following story appeared in the Eugene Register-Guard
two days prior to a slide show I gave at the University
of Oregon. They also put a picture and notation on the masthead. The slide
show ended up attracting so many people we had to move rooms, much to
the surprise of both myself and the UofO program coordinator. The article
was written by Mike Stahlberg, R-G sports writer. -- Jim
For most people, the word evokes images of a cold drink on a hot summer
day, of graceful Olympic skaters, of pugnacious hockey players, or maybe
even of something powerful and dangerous enough to sink the Titanic. For
people like Jim Frankenfield, however, ice means opportunity. The opportunity
to challenge one's self to the ultimate in a cold, harsh, beautiful -
and potentially hazardous - setting.
Frankenfield is an ice climber, someone who will happily spend hours
clinging like a spider to the frozen face of a giant icicle just for fun.
Someone who may not be able to walk on water, but who can climb a waterfall
- while it's frozen, of course. When he's not skiing, camping or climbing
ice, rocks or mountains, Frankenfield is an avalanche
Frankenfield will offer a glimpse into the world of ice climbing Thursday
in Eugene at a University of Oregon Outdoor Program slide show. The free
show, which begins at 7:30 p.m. in Room 110 of Willamette Hall on the
University of Oregon campus, will include mountaineering and ice climbing
adventures in the Canadian Rockies, Utah, the Tetons and France.
Climbing ice is something that mountaineers have always had to deal
with, simply because ice stood between them and the summit. But now ice
climbing is evolving into a sport unto itself, one that is no longer limited
to an alpine setting.
But don't think it's a popular pastime. Outside Magazine estimates that
no more than 1 percent of the 150,000 active Alpine climbers in the U.S.
regularly grab an ice axe or ice hammer in each hand, strap bear-trap
like contraptions onto their feet and attack vertical walls of ice.
The slippery slope of an icefall is not the preferred place to begin
one's climbing career. "I can't really picture many people going out and
getting into ice climbing without having previously been involved in rock
climbing" said Frankenfield, who speaks softly, like someone in the habit
of avoiding loud noises that might trigger an avalanche.
Frankenfield himself got involved in rock climbing while living in Tucson,
Ariz. Moving to Utah opened to door to winter alpine activities like mountaineering,
telemark skiing and, eventually, ice climbing. "Ogden Canyon and some
of the other canyons had viaducts that carry water and sometimes leaks
in those viaducts formed ice waterfalls that you could climb,'' he said.
What would make someone even want to claw their way up waterfalls? "Climbing
for me has been a very personal activity,'' said Frankenfield. "I've done
a lot of it alone or with one other person on long ice climbs. But it's
a challenge you pick and a challenge that you have to meet. "One of the
things for me is that there aren't really a lot of factors that are beyond
your control _ there are some beyond your control, but you still have
to make judgments, like with avalanche hazards, but whether or not you
succeed depends on your own decisions and your own abilities.''
Ice climbers equip their boots with special crampons - metal devices
with pointed cleats, two of which point forward and can be kicked into
the ice to gain footholds. Ice axes - 8-inch serrated picks with fiberglass
handles - are plunged into the ice to gain handholds. A cord, or "leash"
is attached to the handle of the ice axe and wrapped around the climber's
Climbers wear gloves or mittens on their hands and don't try to grip
the slippery surface directly. Instead, they use chop-chop, step-step
motions to make their way upward.
"One of the things it takes a long time to learn in ice climbing is
to not depend too much on your grip, but to rest in the leash of the tool,"
Frankenfield said. Another crucial point is to remember to keep the heel
of boot down, because lifting the heel causes the crampon points to release
their grip on the ice. The rule is to keep three points of support in
contact with the ice at all times, moving only one foot or hand at a time.
Every so often, the lead climber stops to insert an eight-inch hollow
metal ice screws into the ice. These screws are the climbers' "protection,''
because they serve as anchor points for safety ropes.
Rock climbing and ice climbing are similar, but different. "To me, ice
climbing is a much more intensive, focused activity," said Frankenfield.
That's necessary because ice climbers are working with a surface that
is less predictable than rock. "Ice is different than rock," Washington
climber Bill Erler said in an Associated Press article on the sport. "Ice
changes constantly. If it's brittle or full of air bubbles, you sometimes
have to be smart and just walk away. You can't afford to overestimate
Erler said he's driven hundreds of miles and backpacked into an remote
waterfall, only to back off after chopping at it a few times with an ice
ax. Even if the ice is nice, other factors can be wrong.
"On many ice climbs, there's an avalanche hazard - it can really be
hazardous," Frankenfield said. "Sometimes, even if the ice conditions
are fine, you have to ask yourself if the other hazards are too high to
do it that day."
Another difference between ice and rock climbing is that ice climbers
frequently work with less "protection" in the form of hardware attached
to the climbing surface. "Typically, you put these ice screws in much
less frequently than in rock climbing," said Frankenfield. "It's usually
pretty hard to stop in a place where you're in a halfway comfortable position
to put the ice screw in."
As a result ice climbers risk falling a greater distance before the
safety rope halts their plunge. "If you climb 10 feet above that protection,
then you're going to fall 20 feet before you stop," Frankenfield said.
An ice screw is strong enough to hold thousands of pounds, but they
are only as good as the ice in which they are embedded . "Sometimes that
protection _ even though you know it's strong, or should be strong _ just
looking at it can be unnerving,'' Frankenfield said.
Even with solid ""protection,'' ice climbers risk being injured by the
extremely sharp tools and implements they carry. "Falling is not recommended
for ice climbers," said Erler. You can snag a crampon point and break
an ankle, skewer yourself with a pick or chop your rope in half."
A final difference, Frankenfield said, is that rock climbing "tends
to be a little more social, a little more relaxed, perhaps. You rarely
have groups of people that go out ice climbing."
In Oregon, ice climbing opportunities are pretty rare - other than for
some alpine climbs in the Cascades that require long approach hikes. One
popular place for practicing ice climbs is Elliott Glacier on Mount Hood.
In late summer and fall, climbers will find a crevasse and use its walls
to practice their techniques.
Lower-elevation climbing opportunities are at the whim of the weather.
"I've heard that, in the Columbia Gorge, some of those large waterfalls
will sometimes freeze, but that it's a sporadic thing and you've got to
go out on the day or two when conditions are right," Frankenfield said.
But it's been several winters since Oregon has had the sustained periods
of sub-freezing temperatures needed to produce good climbing ice at low
"Living here, it's frustrating for me this year," Frankenfield said.
"My primary chance to climb will be in February when I'll be back in Utah
for a few days.
The best climbing opportunities in North America, however, are in the
Canadian Rockies. Frankenfield last year teamed up with another climber
to tackle "Polar Circus", which features walls of vertical ice several
hundred feet higher, and other classic routes in the Ice Fields Parkway
between Banff and Jasper.
"It's a renowned ice climbing area with a large number of water ice
climbs, the mast majority of which are very accessible,'' said Frankenfield.
Accessible, that is, if you can walk up frozen waterfalls.