Ice Climbing News Story

Jim Frankenfield;; 1-877-604-0166

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Note: The following story appeared in the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper two days prior to a slide show I gave at the University of Oregon. They also put a picture and notation on the masthead. The slide show ended up attracting so many people we had to move rooms, much to the surprise of both myself and the UofO program coordinator. The article was written by Mike Stahlberg, R-G sports writer. -- Jim

For most people, the word evokes images of a cold drink on a hot summer day, of graceful Olympic skaters, of pugnacious hockey players, or maybe even of something powerful and dangerous enough to sink the Titanic. For people like Jim Frankenfield, however, ice means opportunity. The opportunity to challenge one's self to the ultimate in a cold, harsh, beautiful - and potentially hazardous - setting.

Frankenfield is an ice climber, someone who will happily spend hours clinging like a spider to the frozen face of a giant icicle just for fun. Someone who may not be able to walk on water, but who can climb a waterfall - while it's frozen, of course. When he's not skiing, camping or climbing ice, rocks or mountains, Frankenfield is an avalanche scientist.

Frankenfield will offer a glimpse into the world of ice climbing Thursday in Eugene at a University of Oregon Outdoor Program slide show. The free show, which begins at 7:30 p.m. in Room 110 of Willamette Hall on the University of Oregon campus, will include mountaineering and ice climbing adventures in the Canadian Rockies, Utah, the Tetons and France.

Climbing ice is something that mountaineers have always had to deal with, simply because ice stood between them and the summit. But now ice climbing is evolving into a sport unto itself, one that is no longer limited to an alpine setting.

But don't think it's a popular pastime. Outside Magazine estimates that no more than 1 percent of the 150,000 active Alpine climbers in the U.S. regularly grab an ice axe or ice hammer in each hand, strap bear-trap like contraptions onto their feet and attack vertical walls of ice.

The slippery slope of an icefall is not the preferred place to begin one's climbing career. "I can't really picture many people going out and getting into ice climbing without having previously been involved in rock climbing" said Frankenfield, who speaks softly, like someone in the habit of avoiding loud noises that might trigger an avalanche.

Frankenfield himself got involved in rock climbing while living in Tucson, Ariz. Moving to Utah opened to door to winter alpine activities like mountaineering, telemark skiing and, eventually, ice climbing. "Ogden Canyon and some of the other canyons had viaducts that carry water and sometimes leaks in those viaducts formed ice waterfalls that you could climb,'' he said.

What would make someone even want to claw their way up waterfalls? "Climbing for me has been a very personal activity,'' said Frankenfield. "I've done a lot of it alone or with one other person on long ice climbs. But it's a challenge you pick and a challenge that you have to meet. "One of the things for me is that there aren't really a lot of factors that are beyond your control _ there are some beyond your control, but you still have to make judgments, like with avalanche hazards, but whether or not you succeed depends on your own decisions and your own abilities.''

Ice climbers equip their boots with special crampons - metal devices with pointed cleats, two of which point forward and can be kicked into the ice to gain footholds. Ice axes - 8-inch serrated picks with fiberglass handles - are plunged into the ice to gain handholds. A cord, or "leash" is attached to the handle of the ice axe and wrapped around the climber's wrist.

Climbers wear gloves or mittens on their hands and don't try to grip the slippery surface directly. Instead, they use chop-chop, step-step motions to make their way upward.

"One of the things it takes a long time to learn in ice climbing is to not depend too much on your grip, but to rest in the leash of the tool," Frankenfield said. Another crucial point is to remember to keep the heel of boot down, because lifting the heel causes the crampon points to release their grip on the ice. The rule is to keep three points of support in contact with the ice at all times, moving only one foot or hand at a time. Every so often, the lead climber stops to insert an eight-inch hollow metal ice screws into the ice. These screws are the climbers' "protection,'' because they serve as anchor points for safety ropes.

Rock climbing and ice climbing are similar, but different. "To me, ice climbing is a much more intensive, focused activity," said Frankenfield. That's necessary because ice climbers are working with a surface that is less predictable than rock. "Ice is different than rock," Washington climber Bill Erler said in an Associated Press article on the sport. "Ice changes constantly. If it's brittle or full of air bubbles, you sometimes have to be smart and just walk away. You can't afford to overestimate your ability."

Erler said he's driven hundreds of miles and backpacked into an remote waterfall, only to back off after chopping at it a few times with an ice ax. Even if the ice is nice, other factors can be wrong.

"On many ice climbs, there's an avalanche hazard - it can really be hazardous," Frankenfield said. "Sometimes, even if the ice conditions are fine, you have to ask yourself if the other hazards are too high to do it that day."

Another difference between ice and rock climbing is that ice climbers frequently work with less "protection" in the form of hardware attached to the climbing surface. "Typically, you put these ice screws in much less frequently than in rock climbing," said Frankenfield. "It's usually pretty hard to stop in a place where you're in a halfway comfortable position to put the ice screw in."

As a result ice climbers risk falling a greater distance before the safety rope halts their plunge. "If you climb 10 feet above that protection, then you're going to fall 20 feet before you stop," Frankenfield said.

An ice screw is strong enough to hold thousands of pounds, but they are only as good as the ice in which they are embedded . "Sometimes that protection _ even though you know it's strong, or should be strong _ just looking at it can be unnerving,'' Frankenfield said.

Even with solid ""protection,'' ice climbers risk being injured by the extremely sharp tools and implements they carry. "Falling is not recommended for ice climbers," said Erler. You can snag a crampon point and break an ankle, skewer yourself with a pick or chop your rope in half."

A final difference, Frankenfield said, is that rock climbing "tends to be a little more social, a little more relaxed, perhaps. You rarely have groups of people that go out ice climbing."

In Oregon, ice climbing opportunities are pretty rare - other than for some alpine climbs in the Cascades that require long approach hikes. One popular place for practicing ice climbs is Elliott Glacier on Mount Hood. In late summer and fall, climbers will find a crevasse and use its walls to practice their techniques.

Lower-elevation climbing opportunities are at the whim of the weather. "I've heard that, in the Columbia Gorge, some of those large waterfalls will sometimes freeze, but that it's a sporadic thing and you've got to go out on the day or two when conditions are right," Frankenfield said. But it's been several winters since Oregon has had the sustained periods of sub-freezing temperatures needed to produce good climbing ice at low elevations.

"Living here, it's frustrating for me this year," Frankenfield said. "My primary chance to climb will be in February when I'll be back in Utah for a few days.

The best climbing opportunities in North America, however, are in the Canadian Rockies. Frankenfield last year teamed up with another climber to tackle "Polar Circus", which features walls of vertical ice several hundred feet higher, and other classic routes in the Ice Fields Parkway between Banff and Jasper.

"It's a renowned ice climbing area with a large number of water ice climbs, the mast majority of which are very accessible,'' said Frankenfield. Accessible, that is, if you can walk up frozen waterfalls.

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