For some climbers, the call of ice is hard to ignore

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Created: Monday, December 24, 2018 8:00 amUpdated: Friday, January 4, 2019 11:55 pm

Xander Bianchi of the Ouray Ice Park takes us into a scientific poetic world of water and ice in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

Ice climbing is unlike any other medium of the sport of climbing, as the conditions of the ice is always in flux.
Karsten Delap navigates through a delicate curtain, striking a graceful balance between frozen water, gravity and infatuation. Eureka, Colorado. Photo by Xander Bianchi.

By Xander Bianchi

Where to begin? At 32°F, to be exact.

That’s where the magic happens. A puddle of molecular tetrahedrals built from oxygen, hydrogen and a couple of spirited electrons suddenly converges to form psychedelic patterns, blooming like hexagonal flowers from a crystal seed. Each crystal becomes a launching pad for the next, as the whole cluster fervently explodes into a geometric circus of lines and form.

Ice crystals will grow on just about anything. Water is a polar molecule – it has a positive side and a negative side. This means that it tends to stick to other things that have a charge, allowing for some wild shapes when it freezes to its surroundings. Photo by Xander Bianchi

Water is one of the most important molecules on the planet and, by no coincidence, also one of the strangest. No other compound exists naturally in all three phases – solid, liquid and gas – and no other compound, arguably, is as essential to life itself.

In addition to specific temperature and pressure, liquid water also needs a seed to start the crystal growing process. It could be a speck of dust, another shard of ice, or the surface of tree bark. Photo by Xander Bianchi.

The magic

Water exhibits a handful of peculiar properties that make it a fortuitous oddball, and most of them are because of something called hydrogen bonding. Essentially, this translates to water being a polar molecule, having a positive and a negative side. Beyond producing the phenomenon of floating ice (water is the only non-metallic compound to feature a lower density solid phase), this hydrogen bonding is also responsible for something called adhesion.

The polar nature of water means it generally likes to stick to things, such as rock. So, if you’re one of those rare birds who calls yourself an ice climber, be sure to pause the next time you’re cursing those screaming barfies (a nauseating pain that frequently occurs in an ice climber’s arm and hands) and thank hydrogen bonding for allowing you to explore the vertical realm of ice.

Ice clings to rock with tremendous strength, allowing climbers to scale their way into an often surreal world.
A climber ventures into a labyrinth of ice and rock in the Uncompahgre Gorge of Ouray, Colorado. Photo by Xander Bianchi.

The why

Why do we climb frozen waterfalls? What is it that compels us to trudge into the arctic cold and don medieval battle equipment in order to stand on top of some arbitrary chunk of freezing earth?

“Ice climbing makes you sensitive to everything,” says Bill MacTiernan, a longtime resident of Ouray, Colorado, and a pioneer of climbing in the area. “The wildness of the ice; it triggers something.”

Ouray resident Andrés Marin swings into excellent quality blue ice on the San Juan classic “Stairway to Heaven” near Silverton, Colorado. The sapphire color is a sign that the ice is consolidated, meaning there is very little air trapped beneath the surface. Photo by Xander Bianchi. 

Ice is beautiful
Water is essential to human life for obvious reasons. However, beyond hydrating every cell in our body, some of us might argue that our need for water strums a much deeper chord.

My personal fascination with ice began as long ago as I can remember. When icicles formed on the gutters around my house growing up, I would routinely search for the longest and sharpest stalactite to amputate from the roof and wield around like a sword plucked from one of Jupiter’s moons. I used to watch the progress of a small pond as it silently made the transition from summer to winter – slowly suspending leaves and bubbles in layer after layer of crystal blackness.

These days, my captivation with ice expands every season within the walls of a beautiful chasm we call the Uncompahgre Gorge, itself carved by the will of water. As winter drapes the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado in their white winter robes, the cliffs of the gorge begin to seep with moisture, the seed of a crystal crop soon to be harvested. The frosted air breathes softly, transforming drops of liquid into swirling sculptures of visceral elegance.

Ice is beautiful. Mesmerizing. A “suspended animation,” as MacTiernan calls it. Yet, sometimes, to stare at it is simply not enough.

An ice climber working his way up a natural ice formation outside Ouray, Colorado.
The lure of climbing ice often begins as a visual obsession with the wild beauty of frozen waterfalls. Eventually, to look is just not enough. Steven Van Sickle indulges in a closer examination of Horsetail Falls, just outside his hometown of Ouray, Colorado. Photo by Xander Bianchi.

Bizarre terms
Some of us are compelled to engage further, to get closer, until the absurd idea of climbing these crystals becomes unassailable. How else could we render an experience any closer to life than by hanging life itself on the edges of it?

In the words of writer Jon Krakauer, describing his situation while in the midst of exploring such an idea, “My attachment to the world (had) been reduced to a few thin points of steel sunk half an inch into a giant popsicle.” Indeed, the experience of climbing a frozen waterfall is something often described in rather bizarre terms.

One of the most defining differences between rock and ice climbing is the ephemeral element. “(Ice climbing) demands awareness. I think that’s what’s fascinating about it,” MacTiernan says as he recounts stories of ice adventures in the San Juans. “It’s so much more encompassing than just climbing the pitch. You’ve had to pick the weather, the day, and be aware of the whole environment (in order to) understand the ice itself. There’s a good day to be here, and there’s a bad day to be here.”

An ice climber sinker her ice axes into beautiful blue ice in Colorado's San Juan Mountains.
Climbing ice is an all-encompassing endeavor, demanding awareness of mind, body and the entire environment as a whole. Lindsey Hamm enjoys blissful focus during an ascent of Whorehouse Hoses near Silverton, Colorado. Photo by Xander Bianchi.

Fleeting moments
The rock will always be there, inviting you through the same basic choreography (elegant though it may be), whereas the passage allowed by an ice climb is an ever-changing solution – a momentary interpretation of geology, weather and gravity calculated in real-time.

Water is an inextricable part of life as a climber. It transports the glucose in your blood from that last Clif Bar you reluctantly forced down. It cools our bodies as sweat evaporating from our skin when we’re run out on the sharp end. It shapes the very walls and canyons we are drawn to explore, and frozen ribbons of water become a medium through which we challenge the physical and mental limits of ourselves as humans.

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