Sub Zero Zen in the Land of Furry White Asses - South Fork, Shoshone R, Cody WY
Main Vein by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
There are three steps to assessing an ice pitch:
1-The Approach: “Oh God, that looks terrifying”
2-The Base: “This doesn’t look so bad”
3-Halfway Up: “Oh God, this is terrifying”
But you’ve gotten yourself treed on something that is shattering and fracturing in great, skritchy columns that cock for an inch and come to rest on a thumb sized nubbin of frozen dirt. The ice is blue-brittle, the feet imaginary, the rock you seek refuge on crumbles beneath your front points, and the cruelest irony of all: despite the Enceladusian temperatures, the sun is melting your screws out, one by one.
Not that they’d hold, anyway.
There’s nowhere to go but up, so up you go, using every trick, every cheat, every breathing technique, every appeal to an indifferent universe you can muster.
And suddenly, both crampons are crunching through low angle snice, and your self-inflicted battle with the universe’s most ubiquitous and fickle medium is over as quickly as it began. You exhale. Gravity releases a growing smile.
It's your belayer’s turn.
The first pitch of Main Vein is seldom in. It’s still hard to say whether it was in or not during our final day of climbing in the South Fork of the Shoshone River. There is a rock bypass, which reputedly offers up its own set of horrors. I suppose a pitch like that does serve a purpose – to let you know that it’s time to go home.
Carter Mountain by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
Save a brief visit from our host Matt of the Double Diamond X Ranch, we saw no one for our first two days in the South Fork of the Shoshone River. That’s not to say the place is devoid of life. It’s a frozen petting zoo of bighorns, white tail deer, elk, eagles, red tail hawks, ravens, ouzels, magpies, ducks, great horned owls, lynxes, coyotes, foxes, rabbits – I’m just naming what we saw or heard – to that add grizzlies, mountain lions, pronghorns, moose...I’ve never seen wildlife density like it anywhere. The mountains surrounding the valley are stunning – and full of ice.
Hey There, Ice Climber by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
On Second Thought, Think of the Children by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
Matt and Jeanine own and operate the Double Diamond X Ranch, our home for the week and the clearly superior alternative to staying in some dumpy motel in rotten-egg reeking Cody - an hour commute each way – if the road is clear, that is. Staying in the valley allows one to become immersed in its silence and solitude – even more so if sub zero temperatures and snow conspire the keep other ice pilgrims away.
Home at the Double Diamond X Ranch by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
High On Boulder by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
The river crossing to High On Boulder was mostly frozen; only a couple of punch through slushies. The climb itself was in excellent condition save some delicate and brittle crux ice (shown).
Cabin Fever by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
Cabin Fever, as I discovered on lead, was not quite as solid as our previous objective. I knew something was up when water spurted out of my pick strike like a struck artery – then it snapped into focus – the entire flow save some WI6 icicles to the right was only an inch thick and visibly flowing on its inside surface. It certainly wasn't going to take screws - and probably not me, either. Fortunately, I was only 15 feet up and could easily back off of it and save it for another day.
Temperatures were, indeed, low. I led with 4 merino layers, a micropuffy, and a windshirt, and was barely holding my own with that. The amphitheatre, far from protecting from the spindrift laden wind, acted as a wind scoop. Still, it’s a spectacular place and the posthole in and out provided a scenic workout.
Postholing back from Cabin Fever by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
After our experience on Cabin Fever, we were ready for a sure bet, and we got one with the wonderful, moderate butter ice on Bozo’s Revenge. It didn’t come hassle-free, however. Snice and sub zero temperatures provided challenges that the climbing itself did not.
Snicing up to Bozo's Revenge by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
Bozo's Revenge by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
Post-Bozo's Revenge Saunter by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
Untitled by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
I should mention our vehicle – the Snow Shark, complete with a full set of Craigslist acquired I’Zen Studs and world’s dimmest low beams. That thing really ate up the snowy roads, though, even if it had to burn a bunker’s worth of fuel doing it.
Snowshark Sighting by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
The Special Love I Have For You (crux section, Main Vein) by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
Sunday Afternoon by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
Cold Crescent by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
For me, the South Fork was as much about its beauty and solitude as the climbing. I fell in love with the place. A frightening final climb effectively pushed me out of that nest, but I have a feeling I’ll return - winter and summer, for the rest of my life. After Cody, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to tolerate the tourististan that is Canmore, but to each his or her own, I reckon.
Parting Shot - South Fork of the Shoshone River by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
After a tough drive, DougD and his gracious wife Catherine were kind enough to put us up, feed us a wonderful dinner and breakfast, and provide excellent company and conversation in Spokane – which logged impressive 4 F temperatures the following morning. Thank you both for that.
Scenic Montana by PatGallagherArt, on Flickr
Feet: large fitting Scarpa Mont Blancs with two pairs of thick Smartwool socks worked well for me, Scarpa Phantom Guides with 2 pairs of thinner wool socks were a bit too chilly for Nastia.
Hands: Seirus neoprene liner gloves inside and XL OR Vert gloves for leading, OR Alti mitts for approaches/belaying.
Pants: I used Icebreaker boxers, the thinnest Smartwool long johns, and REI ACME pants. Nastia went with a merino baselayer and primaloft pants.
Top: I wore the thinnest Icebreaker short sleeve T, Ibex Indie Hoody, a $10 merino sweater from Goodwill, a Montbell UL hooded down puffy, and a light windshirt. Added an extra merino midlayer for the really cold day at Cabin Fever - plus a big assed puffy for standing around that day.
My gear kept me comfy enough.
Snow shoes would have come in handy for the Cabin Fever approach. Not so much for any of the others. Skis not recommended. Not enough coverage, too many rocks.