Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Ice Thinking

Action Man 50

Ice Decisions

It’s been unusually dry with temperatures positively balmy in the valley and freezer like on North facing slopes. I am in Samoens, France during one of the worst months for snow that most people can remember. A 2-week trip to the USA has meant I have missed the best of the ice climbing conditions but some waterfalls are still frozen and today I am walking up to Le Lignon to see if we can climb some “cascade de glace”. The frost on the car in the early morning suggests that it has frozen at 800m but the icefalls sit at 1700m so things may be different. I am still learning about pure waterfall ice climbing. In Scotland on the Ben or in the Cairngorms long pure ice routes are quite rarely in condition but in France they almost never climb snow on rock or neve’ snow as we do. We manage to drive a good 3km up the closed winter road as there is almost no snow but even my Japanese 4x4 cant cope with the old road polished ice after a while, so we stop in a pull out having saved ourselves nearly half of the 1.45min walk in. Oddly at the car it is 2 degrees warmer than in the valley. Normally the temperature goes down with altitude but now at 1300m it has risen to zero degrees. I attach my watch with temperature guage to the out side of my rucksack away from my warming skin and make a mental note to myself that if the tempo is above 4 degrees at the base of the route we will probably not start the route. The hour walking passes quickly with glimpses of chamois and tales of daring do and did not. Most of the really big free standing ice falls have long since collapsed. The lack of surface water has dried them out, made the ice brittle and without new water to feed them they basically rot and fall down under their own weight during the extended drought and freeze thaw. We cross a massive debris path, a clearing in the trees caused by hundreds of tonnes of falling ice crashing down each spring. It’s like stepping in front a fan heater and a wall of warm air hits us as we plod up the snowshoe tracks. It’s a temperature inversion with a definite edge between warm and cold. The snow on the path turns from hard pack to sugar granules. It’s not been cold enough to bond the old crystals together. At the base of the route I put my pack down and look at the thermometer. 4.6 degrees, 0.6 degrees beyond my cut off. However this is not about an arbitrary, artificial cut off. It’s been a walk about reading signs, smelling the air and feeling the snow. The snow tells me that it barely froze at 1700m during the night whilst 300m below it’s bullet hard. The feel of the air tells me it’s going to stay warm and with the sun heating up the surrounding air and 1000m more of the mountain above our heads, things could well start falling on us. I kick the ice with my boot. It’s smooth and hard and there is a tinkle of running water behind the fall which tells me in colder weather its mass is being replenished and this is good, but I have a nagging doubt. Small icicles fall off the fringes of the cascade, and I decide to wait for another day. Ice climbing is a marginal art. It requires experience and motivation and it requires judgement and determination. 20 years ago I would have set off and it would probably have been fine. Today with all my experience I know I don’t know enough about the conditions or this environment to make a positive call to climb it. This maybe the last time I get a chance to climb ice this year but it does not feel right for me. I would love someone to tell me I am doing the right thing, or to not be so stupid, do it and it will be fine. But as with some tough decisions it’s a lonely place to stand. We shoulder our packs and head for the café’

No comments:

Post a Comment