Ames Ice Hose

February 11, 2004

Dave Svilar, Jared Vilhauer

 

THIN  Route from the highway in winter 2004. FAT  Same route, but a lot more ice.  (Photo by a different climber in a different year)

 

AMES ICE HOSE  Looking up from the bottom on a different attempt.

Early indications suggested it would be a good week for Jared.  Our apartment had just endured a long and cruel holdout.  Everyone had their reasons, but one thing went silently unspoken: nobody was going to ante up for a roll of toilet paper.  Fingers weren't pointed, but tensions ran high, and soon the holdout was felt in other areas of the house - newspapers, dish towels, the plant.  Something had to give.  It wasn't going to be me - I had purchased the last 40 rolls and still was the only one to lay a scrubber on the toilet.  William just didn't care.  Jared had to prioritize - snowboard boots or toilet tissue?  He went with the boots.  Finally, just before the breaking point Jared walked in one morning wearing the smile of a kid that just made it through his first night without wetting the bed - he had saved enough money to buy a 4-pack of toilet paper!

Feeling giddy from his successful purchase Jared made a bold suggestion.  "Dave, this is the week for us to climb the Hose."  The Ames Ice Hose, recognized as an American ice classic, and a testpiece for future hardmen of the sport is a three or four pitch climb that follows a beautiful line of ice up the foreboding Ames Wall.  As one might imagine, due to the transient nature of ice conditions vary widely from week to week, but the ice on this climb can be particularly fickle.  According to a local guide and elite American ice climber conditions were, "paper thin with very difficult mixed climbing and sparse protection."  When I hear something like that I think to myself, 'that sounds dreadful, let's go snowboarding.'  When Jared hears something like that he thinks to himself, 'so you're saying there's a chance - let's give it a shot.' 

The addicting nature of climbing can be exemplified by the growing determination the climber feels after previous failed attempts.  On Jared's first attempt with Christian he climbed the first pitch only to be turned back after starting the second.  I joined him for attempt number two where we hiked all the way to the base only to have a closer inspection reveal that the second pitch didn't have any ice.  As an aspiring hardman it was imperative to have ascended this line.  As his roommate I could feel his determination build as well as his willingness to lay it on the line.  If there was one notch he wanted on his belt from this winter it was the Ames Ice Hose.

We made the now familiar 40 minute hike on snowshoes from the Ames Power Station to the base of the climb along the railroad grade that runs beneath the Ames Wall.  Due to the conditions on the route it wasn't surprising to see no trace of previous parties.  We stomped a platform out of the deep wind-drifted snow, Jared racked up and I answered nature's call.  The decision had already been made to bypass the thin ice on the first pitch for easier and most importantly, protectable rock.  On his first attempt with Christian, Jared had delicately hooked his way up the 60 foot vertical face without protection.  His one attempt at placing a stubby screw was futile.  Not only is it dumb to climb hard and high without pro, but the memory was just too recent, so he wisely opted for the rock on this third and final attempt.

The first few moves involve tricky 5.9 face climbing.  This doesn't sound all that daunting until you throw a pack, gloves, crampons and freezing temperatures into the mix.  Jared pulled out his tools and after several minutes of tense, precarious placements he was able to pull himself into the easier crack/chimney.  Feeling relieved to finally plug a cam (protection), he moved up the rest of the crack that proved to be much more difficult than it looked from the bottom, saying "Watch me" no more than a dozen times.  A sketchy traverse put him back on the ice and before long he reached what may be the sketchiest move of the pitch: reaching the anchors.  With the ice this thin the bolts were a good 10 feet from the ice, so after finding one bomber placement with his right tool, then dead hanging off his right arm he was able to use his 6'5" wingspan and left tool to desperately hook the rappel slings and swing over to the anchors.  I heard a relieved grunt followed by, "That pitch was fuckin' hard.  Off belay."

This mixed, ice, rock climbing was a little out of my comfort zone, but for some reason I had a false sense of confidence.  As a follower I wouldn't have to worry so much about falling, so my concerns were simple: just get up the climb.  Any thoughts that it would be easy ended on the first move.  Realizing that rock climbing the first few moves was out of the question, I pulled out my tools for some dry tooling and a lot of groveling.  It wasn't pretty, but I did manage to join Jared at the anchors without falling.        

ICE  Sick and thin with no prayer for pro.  Christian Prellwitz ROCK  Foregoing ice for tricky face moves.
FIRST PITCH FEAR  Pick your poison: Vapor thin ice or rock climbing in your gloves and crampons.  Hint: try the rock.

The anchors provide a clean view of much of the second pitch, which upon closer inspection made my stomach churn.  When the climb is 'in' the second pitch is a line of narrow, but fat ice that supposedly goes at WI 4.  Things were different this year, and the ice was so thin a it looked as if someone's breathe had frozen to the rock.  The second pitch continued up through a narrow chimney system that involved mixed climbing on treacherously thin ice that was merely inches thick and narrower than shoulder width in places.  Extreme ice climbers and 'M climbers' would say that the route was 'sick.'  To me the climb merely made me sick.  Just enough ice clung to the rock to make Jared think it was climbable. 

The crux of the climb turned out to be directly off the first belay - an overhang with ice only a few inches wide.  After clipping the fixed pin Jared walked his feet up underneath the perilous overhang and tried to reach his tool up an over.  Not able to see where he was swinging he asked me for help.  "A little to the left.  No, that's just rock.  A little more to your right.  No that's just rock too."  There wasn't much ice to get a grip on.  Sinking his pick a half inch into the ice Jared pulled himself over the overhang in one tense, desperate move.  In between these harrowing moves Jared was rewarded by large showers of spindrift that filled the back of his shirt with snow.  The rest of the pitch proved to be almost as tricky and difficult and took him well over an hour to lead.  Meanwhile I froze at the belay while being bombarded by ice chunks from above that were reaching their terminal velocity.  I cowered and moaned hoping to hear, "off belay" instead of seeing Jared tumbling down with the ice chunks.

As I climbed I was forced to adjust from my normal climbing style.  Instead of beating the ice like a redheaded mule, I treated it as delicately as a newborn kitten.  Instead of the reassuring vibrations of a well-sunk straight shafted tool, I used soft taps and fragile hooks.  Amazingly I ascended again without falling, although it was probably not as graceful as I made it sound.  By the time I reached the second belay my hands were cold, numb and all but useless.  My forearms muscles, which are highly developed for another use,  were pumped beyond recovery.  I wondered if I could make it up the last cruelly long ice pitch.

CRUX  Trying blindly to find a placement above the overhang.  Where does he think he's going to use those long screws?

 

SPINDRIFT!  Seconds later bracing for another icy shower.

   

THIN  Delicate progress on the second pitch.

The final pitch was a more familiar medium - pure ice!  No more delicate placements and paper thin ice.  Unfortunately, by this time my arms were ready to go back down.  Sometimes the last section of fat, blue ice is done in two pitches, but with 60 meter ropes it can be stretched out in one long pitch.  By the time I neared the top all the good form I had used on the first two pitches was out the window.  My arms were too tired to even raise over my head, so instead of a short, snappy swing I used an entire rotation of my body like Ken Griffey Jr swinging a baseball bat to make my last desperate tool placements.  So exhausted, yet so determined to reach the top I began to make wheezing sounds that probably resembled those of a dying camel.  I finally topped out and then was rewarded by a waste-deep slog through the snow to get to the tree that would serve as our rappel anchor.

Rappeling down the cliff it occurred to me that this was technically the most difficult thing I'd ever ascended.  Not only was the climbing hard, but the weather assured that nothing was going to be given to us on this day.  Snow fell through most of the climb, and temperatures dipped into the teens.  Spindrift blasted our faces and ran down the backs of our necks with an icy chill.  It takes a certain bravado or just plain masochist tendencies to even want to climb something so desperately thin in such brutal conditions.  I guess that's what it takes to be an outstanding climber.  This outing provided more evidence that Jared has what it takes to someday become an elite member of the climbing community, while contrarily I'll never have what it takes to become a great climber.  My ambitions don't involve stellar climbing ability or big routes, so it was fun just to be along on a route I'd never climb myself with someone who's climbing aspirations are set much higher than my own.  If only Jared could afford toilet paper.

 

BELAY BITCH  Chiseling a frozen Snickers with my teeth.

 

ICE  Finally setting a screw on the final pitch of the climb.

-written February 2004

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