In 1992 and 1993 I worked with Chris Noble on a coffee table book about ice climbing that never panned out. During those two winters he shot some great pictures in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and the Canadian Rockies. We had a great time together. At one point during the project we sold an article to Men's Fitness. It was a teaching point for me because what I wrote and how they rewrote it, and then characterized me wasn't what I was aiming for. But hell, it helped pay for film so we didn't object too much. Still, with a title like The Ice Pirate, what would you imagine the article was about?
Climbing frozen waterfalls is an alien activity to man; not as unnatural as being under water, but close. Without specific tools it can't be done. These are boots and crampons for the feet, an ice axe and hammer in each hand. They are made from steel developed to manufacture field artillery, from aluminum alloys designed for use in air and spacecraft.
Waterfall climbing is a sport in its own right, not simply an extension of mountaineering. And although one can rapidly become "competent", it takes years of effort and discipline and pain to climb ice really well and remain safe doing so. It is often misinterpreted as being safe in comparison to hard alpinism (ice climbing is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the alpine climbing discipline). But even the roadside waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies form at or above altitudes of four to five thousand feet. It's winter, the weather can change rapidly, avalanche danger presents a genuine hazard and the ice itself is a changeable and suspect medium.
To climb frozen waterfalls one must have a personality which accepts risk. This is true even though today's "good climbers" have demystified the sport to the climbing public. It is a natural effect of having done a lot of it and become very good; traditional routes (climbs first done in the 1970s and still considered "entertaining" by modern standards) are regularly soloed by today's super-alpinists. My 2hr 4min solo of the 3000 foot high "Slipstream" on the East Face of Snowdome (in the Canadian Rockies) stated to onlookers that the climb isn't that hard. And it isn't - for me.
But when the ice is too fragile to risk placing protection and the ropes arc limply towards a partner who won't be able to keep me from hitting the ground if I fall, nothing is banal. Even tied-in to the rope, with my friends down below sending good, confident vibes I am dependent solely on my tools. I love how well they work. Easing up on the hammer, I lock-off and rotate my torso to give me a longer reach and drive the axe higher. I weight-test it and pull up to better stances for my feet. Kicking hard with my crampons might fracture the free-hanging pillar so I place them gently.
Near the top of the pitch my left hand is so cold and numb that I can't feel whether I am hanging on or not. The wristleash that keeps me from falling also cuts off the circulation and my hands have been well above my heart for over 25 minutes. But even without being able to feel the hand I can plant my tools by relaxing and losing myself in each motion. "Muscle memory", trained through repetition of specific movements is the last line of defense before muscle failure, the one key to success once my brain is "out of order". I stop thinking. I quit trying so damn hard. The unnatural thing happens very naturally. I'm on top in a jiffy.