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Great Climbing story w/pics

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This was written by a local Stehekin Climber and is lifted from the Stehekin Choice (newspaper) webpage. To anyone who has seen Rainbow Falls in person (312 feet) this is even more impressive.


Winter season, 1990, took its time getting to Stehekin. Our snow was scanty and poor in the early part of December, but about the 18th of December an arctic cold front came south and the temperatures plummeted. The thermometer hovered around zero for three days and nights, and the wind stayed brisk. Since the flooding of November had kept the lake level high, the head of the lake and the river had much more water than usual; the ice formations were phenomenal. I was wishing my old ice skates weren't still in Michigan. The river here in front of the resort froze clear across; the talk of the town was frozen water systems. With no snow to ski on, I figured ice was the event of the week.


On December 20th I bundled up and rode my bike up the road for a look at Rainbow Falls. It was hard not to get excited when I saw that the falls had frozen into a huge, flowing ice cascade. The center part of the main falls was still running free, but the slower waters at the sides of the falls and the areas normally misted by spray were completely covered in ice. This looked like a big chunk of frozen opportunity to me, so I hopped back on the ice-bike and figured I better go pay a visit to my climbing partner, Dave Wilson. As per usual, Dave was ready for anything, so we arranged an exploration climb for the following day.


December 21, 1990. Winter Solstice. What better way to celebrate the season, the shortest day of the year, the returning of the sun, with a bit of ice climbing. Dave and I put just about all the clothes we owned onto our backs, covered that all with rain suits, topped off with a helmets and called it good. Pretty hard to move by now, but we loaded heaps of climbing gear into packs, jumped onto our bikes and tried to pedal. I could tell 'Ol Ready-for-anything-Dave wasn't exactly tuned up because when we got to the falls he found that he hadn't brought along his crampons. Oh well, no hurry, we're just out for some fun... I got myself ready and bouldered around on the lower falls while he went home to start over again.


About 80 feet up from the bottom of the main drop there is a cedar snag on the right that is accessible from rocks. I put a runner around that tree, gave it a few kicks and judged from the hollow tremors that the tree was good for a few more years of standing and overseeing the lower section of the falls. Hard to tell how long that cedar had been dead. There are two sets of initials carved into the tree with the date '37. At least two others had climbed to this spot to witness Rainbow Creek making its dramatic cascading plunges towards the Stehekin Valley. I rappelled down, and we were ready to climb with the safety of a top rope.


The 80 feet of falls protected by the top rope afforded us ample hard climbing, and gave us a feel for the quality of the ice. Part of our route was a free hanging icicle that looked very porous and had lots of water percolating through it. It definitely looked like something I should stay away from, but with top rope protection this was the perfect opportunity to gain experience on water ice. Dave and I each did some climbing on this section in the dripping water, getting completely covered with ice in the process. Our coated rain gear and helmets quickly turned into ice-armor while we stayed relatively comfortable inside with our multiple layers of clothing. We left that afternoon satisfied with a good day's climbing, and with confidence in our tools. We also awakened a few muscles that hadn't pounded a nail or climbed a rock or a tree recently.


Dave came by the next day wanting to see if more climbing was the order of the day. I suggested a rest and some preparations for the next day. Dave owned three ice screws for anchors or running protection of ice, plus a picket and some rock pitons, but we needed more protection to pound into the ice just for practice on the lower sections, or maybe, if we really felt like it, we might want to go up a bit, just to take a little look. . .


I spent a few hours in the shop the next day cutting 12" pieces of 1/2 inch galvanized pipe. I sharpened one end on the grinder, then clove hitched a loop of tubular webbing on the other end. A bunch of half hitches socked down with seine twine secured the webbing. Not being superstitious, I made 13 of these ice pitons.


About 3 a.m. on December 23th, I woke up in a cold sweat. I had to admit to myself that I'd been thinking about climbing the whole falls, not just some top rope exercise at the bottom. The thought of that was more than exciting, to the point of being frightful. I thought that we might not be ready for a vertical wilderness just yet. It all happened so quickly, "Presto chango, Rainbow Falls is frozen! Hey! Do you want to climb it? What?!" Maybe we better think about this a bit. . . If we were to climb it, we'd need to warm quickly to the project, test ourselves a bit, then go for it before a thaw ended the possibility. On the other hand, it was the holiday season, time to relax and lie around the home front, keep the fires roaring, wish for snow. . .Snow, that's the crux; if we had some we'd know what to do for sure. . .put all this junk back in the closet and go skiing!

Dave came over that morning and we agreed, yeah, let's just take it easy and see how these back-woods ice pitons work; we don't want to do anything too crazy. . . Definitely, we will not do anything dangerous, we decided. Our goal will be to reinforce our ice climbing skills in a controlled setting, with a top rope. The experience will stand us well in the future on a more committed alpine climb somewhere in the Cascades. Feeling good about our prospects for some fun climbing, Dave and I headed up the road at about 10 a.m. . . . A couple of committed LSM climbers. LATE START MOUNTAINEERING.

On that first day at the falls, we had seen a tree almost half way up the falls on the right that would really afford bomb proof protection and allow us to down climb from that spot, practice putting in our ice pitons, and then climb back up. Just what we wanted. We then proceeded to spend the next few hours trying to reach that tree from the rocks. After much groping around on steep rocks, bundled up like Teddy bears, we had to admit that we couldn't get to that tree. Our goal was safe climbing, not hanging it out over air with big packs and heaps of clothes. We backed down and returned to Cedar Snag '37.


We had climbed the 80 feet below Cedar Snag '37 two days prior, so the objective was now just to do some more climbing and put in some of the ice pitons we had. The temperature had risen to 15 degrees. While the ice still looked good, the part below us that had water perking through it had more today. It looked less than recreational. What exactly to do?


I led out from the belay at the cedar snag with four of my ice pitons. They seemed solid when I pounded them in, but where was I to go? I could climb down and be relatively safe, with the rope running from above, but the ice below looked pretty bad this day. I could climb up a bit, but I would be the guinea pig for these ice pitons, and how far up should I go? I looked up, then down, listened to Dave's steady stream of suggestions, then clipped out of each piece of protection as I edged back into the belay area, "You go look at it Dave, since you're full of bright ideas, and here, I'll just load you up with all this other stuff too." Dave took off after we switched positions, with all the gear minus his camera and pack. He had been snapping pictures of me, much to my irritation; one hand on my belay rope, camera in the other. I considered taking one of him, but decided that he would probably appreciate an attentive belayer more. Besides, I was beginning to wonder what we were going to do. It was 2 p.m.


Dave edged his way up, putting in an ice piton every 10 to 15 ft. Eventually he called down that my belay was ready, and I got going. Out from that initial belay at Tree '37, I looked up and saw him about 40 feet above me. "There's no way you can pull me off, I got you on a great belay!" Music to any second climber's ears, I climbed and cleaned the ice pitons out of their placements. They came out with some tapping of Dave's carpenter hammer, which I had tied onto my chest harness. The climbing was vertical and I was glad that Dave had taken the lead. Looking up from our new vantage, I was excited; the next bit of ground looked easier than the last, and since it was my turn to lead. I leap-frogged past Dave and headed on up, after getting all the equipment.


My first lead, the second pitch of the climb, was harder than it looked at first, but just one pitch of being protected from above had given me enough confidence to relax into the project. I placed ice pitons at intervals and felt pretty good about them, except that I noticed that some of the pipe pitons that had been used still had ice frozen inside of them, making them almost impossible to drive a second time. This was the type of situation that this particular day of practice was supposed to teach us about. Maybe we should have stuck to our original agenda of safe climbing. I realized that we were approaching the cross roads of the climb. Was it time to start an escape, or did we have enough unclogged pitons left for whatever lay above?

My lead ended at a cave formed by ice. I crawled into it and saw that it was a ledge with an ice curtain in front of it. I crawled along it for about 15 feet, then chopped out through the ice curtain so I could see down, and called Dave on up. I felt pretty secure wedged in there like that. As a matter of fact, it felt great after hanging out in the air just moments before! Dave made his way up nicely, not taking too long, but still leaving me plenty of time to try and figure out what the heck we were doing one third of the way up Rainbow Falls.


What to do now? The fading light indicated the time was 4:30 p.m.. There was a nice secure tree off to one side which would make a very positive anchor point for a rappell, but it was inaccessible due to a section of steep and smooth rock between it and the ice. The holding power of the ice pitons seemed good. But now that a core of ice remained inside, I was less than enthusiastic about rappelling on them. Putting the rope clear around some of these icicles would afford a good rappel anchor, but do (did??) we really want to do that? While climbing, we were trusting our skills to keep us on the ice; the ice pitons were supposed to catch us if we fell. To purposely hang all our weight on one or two pitons, or a bunch of icicles was the ultimate test of faith in our equipment and our ability to place it effectively, but also faith in the strength of ice itself. In the gathering dark, it was easy to go with the proven, and avoid any ultimate tests of the ice or our homemade pitons. We ruled out an escape.


Dave started out of the ice cave with all the lead equipment and headed up into the dark. My anxiety level began to rise, the pit of my stomach told me that we had done it again. The forty minutes in that cave belaying Dave has got to be one of my worst belay stances. A fall was unthinkable; the rope was iced to the consistency of some old power line cable. I knew the rope drag on Dave was bad, adding to his problems. It seemed to freeze to the ice whenever he stopped moving for a minute. The cold was setting in. Looking out my window I could see Tom Courtney at the base of the climb; then he was gone or it was too dark to see him. Everything not on that frozen falls was a world or more away. I had too much time to think about our position relative to what most people were doing at that moment. Communication was impossible next to the roar of the falls but I was with Dave, though I could not see or hear him, noting his progress an inch at a time on (by??) the rope around my waist.


Finally I got the impression that it was my turn to climb. I got out and starting moving up, grateful to be moving even if it was dark and who knew what was ahead. I moved up quickly, being less cautious, knowing that Dave probably had a good belay, and knowing that speed was essential. I got to Dave and found him in another cave, this one smaller and wetter, with dripping water at the entrance. It was decidedly not a good situation.


It was time for us to get off the falls, but also time for the utmost in care. There was no room for error, no possibility of spending the night. The cave was wet, and Dave was already having trouble with his feet. With size 15 feet, his boot selection is severely limited, and on this climb he was using a pair of summer hiking boots, way too flexible for standing on his crampon front points, and way too cold for ice climbing. Yet here we were. (there we were??)


I started my next lead in total darkness and in high anxiety. This was definitely not recreational climbing. I moved up as quickly as possible, finding myself almost detached from the realizations that I couldn't see my tool and foot placements, and that the ice pitons were not going into the ice in their plugged-up condition. I concentrated only on the next set of moves, putting in an ice piton occasionally, knowing that they were only psychological protection. The rope drag began to be incredible, and I had to pull for all I was worth against it, just to move up. The thought that it could be my means of protection that would cause a fall was ironic, to say the least.


Rising above yet another vertical step, I saw the edge of the falls above me 20 feet. I fought my rising excitement and kept my concentration centered on tool placement and balance; no time to celebrate yet. Here the incredible rope drag mingled with some shouting drifting up from below, and I was made to understand that I was out of rope. We had a doubled 220 feet rope between us; with allowance for knots, we must have had about 100 feet between us. But when there is no more, there is no more. I was nowhere near a decent belay, and I couldn't see a thing. I had hoped to get to a tree I had noticed near the top of the main drop, but that was just a shadow off to the right. No place for a stance.


It is common ice climbing practice to put in protection anywhere the ice is solid and just hang from it while belaying a second, but our ice-blunted pipe pitons did more damage to the ice than seemed reasonable for a safe placement. I slammed in two pitons anyway, clipped them to the rope, yelled for Dave to come on, then dug in crampon points and ice tools. If Dave were to pull off difficult climbing under pressure, with inadequate equipment, this was the time to do it. I ignored belayer's etiquette and pulled like a horse. The pull on Dave would be straight up, so I was in no danger of pulling him off a traverse. I knew half the pull would go for that incredible rope drag, so pull I did, keeping up a steady stream of encouragement for Dave, as if he could hear, but mostly for myself.


Gradually I made the edge of the falls, but we weren't safe yet and I pulled on the level for another 15 feet until I got into a slight depression, rolled over and got my crampons in a stance, and started to take in rope slack. I knew I was safe because Dave would not have been able to pull me out of that belay even though I was not tied into the rock or ice. I wished I could let him know but communication was still impossible.


Finally Dave came up over the edge, "Off belay! What does it look like?" While we were off the main falls, we were still faced with two plunge pools of about 25 feet each in height. I had glanced at the obstacles when I was belaying Dave, but I was spent and happy to know that the next lead was Dave's problem. "I don't know, you tell me what it looks like; you're Lead Man!" "Not my lead," he shot right back, "I lost one of my crampons half way up the pitch!"


I have no idea how Dave did that bit of climbing in the dark with just one crampon, with cold feet. It was a case of climb or die, or at least, climb or have a thoroughly miserable experience, the extent of which we really would rather not think about.

The next pitch turned out to be no more than one or two moves, despite all my grumbling about having to lead it. The final pitch was also about 25 feet of exposure up rock and onto forested ground to the left of the falls. As per Dave's explicit instructions, I found a Ponderosa pine about 2 feet through (thick??), put the rope around it and belayed Dave on up.

Relief, and just a bit of euphoria. . . it was about 9 p.m.. Just then we noticed flash lights at the base of the falls, and we were able to let people know that we were OK. We then turned to the project of finding and getting down the Rainbow Loop trail. It was exhausting work going through the deeper snow up above, with a pack filled with frozen gear, and no light. We flopped in the snow at intervals and eventually made the road at 12:45 a.m.


Some day the falls will freeze again. A good ice climber with about $500 of state-of-the-art ice climbing tools will find the falls to be just a good afternoon's romp. For us, part of the pleasure was climbing the falls when it became a possibility with the tools we had and those we fabricated in the shop. More of an adventure that way. Kind of like the time I refused to carry a guide book on the Ptarmigan Traverse, and then led Dave the wrong way around a mountain; more of an adventure that way.

Climb high. Look well to every step and remember the risks.



Edited by Blake

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