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