The morning is crisp and it is cold, about 10°F (-12°C). The approach is short and we arrive early to the crag. I get ready to climb a gorgeous insipient crack that pinches out and moves to an ice dagger that has not fully formed yet. I’m not wearing much because I need the maximum amount of mobility to accomplish the route. While others wear big padded gloves with Thinsulate, I wear bikini gloves with a thin layer of rubber. Others are climbing in fleece, puff jackets, and many layers; I have on a t-shirt and shell jacket only. Others have thick and warm boots to which their crampons are attached; I lace up the equivalent of rock shoes with spikes. Others are leashed to their tools, I go leashless. While others spend their energy on ice, I spend mine on rock. I am becoming a modern mixed climber.
Mmmm... mixed climbing.
I begin up the route, overhanging from the start, and begin to work my way up the face. Precise mono-points and pick placements help me rest and clip as I move higher and higher. I pull up hard, lock off, and reach for a hold three feet away. I pirate my tool and match to clip the next bolt before reaching for an equally large move with my other hand. I am getting gassed now, and I start to feel the cold, or rather I feel nothing because of the cold. I try to rest but am just pumping out. I pull a few more moves and make one more clip before not knowing where to go. I pull up and lock off, searching the rock with my other pick as if it were and extended finger, feeling for a hold that is good enough to fully weight. My forearms are burning up now and I quickly find what I think is the best hold, pull myself underneath it and watch as the hold rips off the wall and spits me below. The fall is over and I scream, not because I am hurt, but because I am frustrated. Oh well, next time I will get higher. I am lowered and put on a thick belay parka, waiting to warm up and give the line another go in a few minutes.
Working the 'Cupcake Corner' crack
This is a typical tale of a modern mixed climber, and one that I hope to tell over and over again. Embracing the most unconventional tools and methods to ascend lines that were previously untouchable, this unique and relatively new niche of the sport has attracted almost as much controversy as it has curiosity. Along with the constant ethical debate about bolting, damaging the rock with crampons and tools have caused many to avoid this sport. It is an accepted evil that mixed climbers try to avoid talking about. Mixed climbers are like sport climbers in the sense that they have distilled the sport down to creating the most difficult and intricate lines possible. This is the focus, the climbing is about the execution of these powerful moves and beautiful sequences, and not about the actual process of placing protection. That is why most difficult sport climbs are bolt protected, (although there are trad-mixed routes up to difficulties of M10 such as Robert Jasper’s 1998 Flying Circus (145 m, M10), which only used bolts at the belay stations.)
Running a lap on the Designator
Whatever the case may be, there is just something about mixed that seems alluring to me. From my very first trip out on ice in Boulder Canyon, I was tooling around and scouting out mixed routes. It is truly unlike any other ice climbing. Although only in my second season of ice, I have already embraced this unique style of climbing and would rather climb rock with ice tools than find pure columns of ice or venture into the alpine environment. Perhaps it was the technical beauty of the climbing that was alluring to me. I loved the use of very powerful and acrobatic moves, implementing the most unusual style to ascend an overhanging rock wall. It was and still is so very captivating to me. Or perhaps it was the longing to reach those small amounts of ice, such as daggers or curtains that never touch the ground, which could only be touched by climbing a difficult rock route beforehand. Whatever the reason, the more I did it, the more comfortable I felt and the more I became enveloped in this niche of climbing that borders free and aid climbing.
As soon as it became too cold to climb outside, I automatically got psyched about mixed routes around Colorado. It was as if someone had flicked a switch in my brain. I trained hard and ventured away from my finger strength training and moved to lock-off training. I set up routes in the gym that I could use my tools on and would climb them over and over again to simulate movements I would find outside. I even ascended the emergency escape stairs outside my window using tools and figure fours. All I could ever do was think about mixed climbing, and would spend hours in my room charting out lines in the various classic areas of the Front Range that I would soon go out and try. Some of my climbing buddies thought I was nuts, and continually gave me crap for what I was doing. Who the hell climbs rock in the winter with tools?! You are nothing but a glorified aid climber! Don’t you have any respect for ethics and the rock?! I couldn’t have cared less about what they were saying. I was in my own world now.
The Practice: RMNP
After about a month of training I convinced the usual crew (Jeff, Fabio, Andy, and Brian) to head out to Loch Vale for some ice. I was secretly planning to hop on some of the harder mixed lines there and was eager to test myself on the rock outside. At this point, I had never been on anything harder than M3 outside, but was hopeful and felt that I could climb much harder. All that training had to do something, right?
Loch Vale Topo.
We arrived to the Loch on a fairly cold day, the coldest in which I have done such hard climbing. We ran into a few others already on the ice in the Loch and asked about the mixed lines in the area. When they mentioned the overhanging wall ahead that had lines protected with bolts, I could not control myself.
Brian warned me to put on a helmet first, but I darted across the danger zone to bask in the glory of the magnificent wall. Holy cow, this is amazing! I know it sounds absurd, but my heart was beating as fast as if I were about to kiss a girl, and I hurried to put on my gear. I spotted what seemed like a reasonable line similar to terrain that I had trained on in the gym and was determined to try her out. To the right of my chosen line was a route called Blade Runner (M8).
Movin' on up on solid rock.
It looked magnificent. The rock here was solid and good, and I had no worries of anything breaking. After putting on my bikini-gloves, Jeff gave me a catch and I headed up the wall. It was cold and windy, but I did not care. I found a good ledge and matched my hands after pirating the tool. I was not afraid to try moves that I had done in the gym and worked slowly up the rock.
It was difficult reaching the first clip and after making it I needed a rest. I would work this climb sport style, which has become accepted in the mixed climbing world as well. After pulling Jeff off his belay stance I was lowered and warmed myself. It was extremely cold, at least nothing that I was used to yet. I was gripping the tools too hard and pumping out too quick.
Jason and Jerry 'The Ice Man' getting ready to climb the Designator.
Jason on the Designator
After thrutching around for a while, and being heckled by the crew a significant amount for my falls, I finally made it to my high-point for the day. I was proud of what I had done and learned a lot. For my first true time on mixed outside, it could not have gone better.
After belaying the others on the climb, and watching them struggle severely with this weird style of climbing, I felt a little better. Not because they did not make it as high as I did, but because I think they got some sense of what modern mixed climbing was about and how it felt. We played around some more on some pure ice falls, and after being sufficiently tired and cold; we left for Ed’s Cantina and grabbed some food before taking off home. I found out later that the route I tried was called Free Strike Zone and went at M7. I knew this was within my reach and couldn’t wait to go back.
The Practice: Vail
Not long after my RMNP excursion I met up with some fellow SP’ers, Jason and Jerry, to go to Vail, a supposed mecca for modern mixed climbing. They seemed as excited as me to get on hard ice and mixed and were nice enough to let me tag along.
Under Fabio's watchful eyes, I begin 'Amphibian' (M8-)
The amphitheatre was huge and I was slightly intimidated. Bolts were everywhere and any imaginable line ranging from M5 to M10 led to the lip of the cave. This rock was much different than that found in RMNP. It is composed of calcified shale, making for chossy and insecure holds. It was hard to imagine that the testpeices of modern mixed climbing were developed here, such as Jeff Lowe’s Octopussy, the worlds first M8.
After warming up on some ice, we tried our hands at Amphibian (M8-). It was difficult from the get go, and it was clear to me that the movements had to be worked out as if it were a sport climb. I did pretty badly on my first go and Jason told me that I should do Cupcake Corner (M5) to get used to the style and rock of Vail.
I cruised up the lower portion, being able to hang out at any point I wanted with no problem. I reached the crux bulge and pulled off some small rocks. I knew what I had to do, lock off one arm, holster a tool, and then smear my feet to reach for a side pull with my hand to clip off of. This was truly mixed climbing! I was unable to do this, but left that day with a good understanding of what mixed climbing was like in Vail.
Tooless on the Tuna Rolls
The very next day I headed back with the same crew that I managed to convince to go to Loch Vale with me. We messed around on Spiral Staircase, and then I was drawn back to the amphitheater. This time I had the moves dialed on the lower section of Amphibian and made it to the fifth bolt pretty quick. It was nice to see progress, and even more so, nice to see that these routes could be unlocked by projecting them as I would a sport line. I also hopped back on Cupcake Corner and this time made the crux moves, only to be scared by the ice that was too brittle for my comfort. Jeff and I decided to stay a while longer and took advantage of a top rope lap on the Frigid Inseminator (M6 WI5). The rest of the crew once again gave their go on mixed, which I could tell was getting boring for them, and took off early as to avoid a long sit in traffic on the way back. Jeff struggled with the short mixed section of the climb, but finally gained the ice. It was humbling to see that even the smallest of rock section could be difficult and required the proper technique and power. It was also inspiring to see Jeff have his go on the hard route. This had been Jeff’s second attempt at mixed, his first being the route I set up in Loch Vale. I could tell he was frustrated with the difficulties, but was also fascinated by the climbing. I made a quick lap to the top and after being lowered it was our turn to sit in traffic on the way home to the Front Range.
Ines on the 'Diving Board'
I was now officially hooked. I was having some ankle pains, but did not think much of it and taped heavily before going back to Vail with Jason and Jerry the next day. Vail was becoming my home base for mixed climbing. No matter what the weather was like outside, the cave provided adequate protection to climb all day long. After Jason led the Rigid Designator, a gorgeous WI5 column, Jerry and I followed on top rope and we ended the day with some more climbing on mixed lines. I was pretty tired now from three days straight of climbing and needed a break. After a short rest I knew that with some more training and dedication I would be able to swing around like a monkey on a completely overhanging roof 80 feet off the deck.
[img:368979:alignright:small:Brian on 'Cupcake Corner'][img:369014:alignleft:small:The 'Thang']
The following weekend I traveled with Jeff to Ouray. It was my first time ever being there to watch the Ice Festival. This was going to be awesome. Both Jeff and I had signed up for clinics and would also watch the competition. We arrived in Ouray and immediately took part in the festivities. This was an amazing place. After chatting with Ines Papert, Steve House, and some other athletes and representatives from several companies we took off to get some sleep before the comp the next day. During the walk home, the ankle that had been bothering me for days began to swell. I hoped it was from overuse and thought that a good nights rest and some more Aleve would fix the problem.
The next day was the big comp. The finals route was amazing, a steep section of what looked to be M9 rock followed by a short ice traverse and then a man made section of the route consisting of two free hanging logs, also known as tuna rolls, and the final 45° plywood sheet with climbing holds on it, called the diving board. The route would go at M11+ and make for quite a show. Other than the occasional trip to get food or visit vendors, we watched all day. I was fixated on the route, this is what I wanted to do. Several competitors were spit off the route and it was only near the end that climbers such as Ines Papert made it to the diving board with an amazing display of strength and acrobatic problem solving. The crowd went nuts as the climbers did the most amazing and crazy moves possible to reach the top within the allotted 20 minutes. At days end I was still on a buzz from watching the comp, even though I did not climb! It was something new and amazing, and something that I hope to train for in the near future. My ankle had become much worse now and I was hobbling around everywhere, I began to realize that my scheduled clinic for Hard Mixed Climbing would not happen. I took another long nights rest and prayed that the ankle would heal soon.[img:372736:aligncenter:medium:Tooless on the Tuna Rolls]
The next day I awoke and was unable to weight my ankle. I knew now that I had to see a doctor. It felt as if it were broken and popping Aleve all day did little to curb the pain. While Jeff took his intermediate ice course with Guy Lacielle, I lied in bed and waited to go home. As we left Ouray I was in pain and a little disappointed, but extremely excited to come back the following year and train hard to enter the competition as well.
[img:372851:aligncenter:medium:Ines on the 'Diving Board']
After some x-rays and a trip to the doctor, I was told that I had not broken my ankle, but micro-tore some tendons and had an extreme case of tendonitis. The worst news possible, he might as well have come into the room and said “Your ice season is over this year, you will be lucky to climb rocks in late March.” Nevertheless, I am focused and passionate about this sport and look at the injury as some time off to get better and stronger for next season. I have already learned so much and had an amazing second season of mixed, I know that I can only get better and hope that others are able to share in my excitement. For now it is waiting but, I don’t have to wait too long since most of mixed climbing is on rock, and not on ice!