JUNE LAKE, Calif. — Four teeth of sharpened steel--the front points of his crampons--were all that supported Jim Gaines 80 feet up an ice cube.
Gaines, a 40-year-old high school teacher from Long Beach, scrutinized the ice for a solid hold. Settling on a spot, he sank his ice ax. Until now, Gaines had been serenaded by the crunch of his own crampons and the crack of the axes he held in each hand for balance and backup should a foothold give way. But suddenly, here was a new sound.
Gaines worked the ax out again and the noise--a persistent gurgle--grew louder. In the hole left by the pick, he saw that he had broken through the ice to expose water streaming down the rock.
Although he'd known this was the nature of the climb all along, Gaines said he was exhilarated by the evidence before him--he was actually clinging to a partially frozen waterfall.
For generations, mountaineers have been tackling glaciers. Opaque and well-aerated Alpine ice, as glacier ice is called, is easily carved and presents a stable surface for climbers. The fast-frozen ice of a waterfall (it's called water ice), on the other hand, is clear, airless and extremely brittle. It's the most unreliable substance a climber could chose to support his or her weight.
"It was not possible to climb vertical water ice until the mid '60s," said ice climbing instructor Doug Robinson. "The best climbers in the world couldn't do it." The event that finally made frozen falls accessible was the development, by Ventura-based mountaineer and equipment manufacturer Yvon Chouinard, of a modified ax that grips steep, splintery ice where other axes have failed.
Small Boom Under Way Even after the introduction of this and other ice-specific equipment, mountaineers were slow to accept the idea that frozen waterfalls could at last be climbed relatively safely. It's only within the last few years that there's been a small boom in water ice climbing.
"People are starting to realize it's a sport," said Mimi Vadasz, co-director of the Alpine Skills Institute, which sponsors waterfall climbing classes.
For the last two winters, Vadasz said she's seen as many as 10 or 15 climbers a day traipsing past the institute's winter lodge at Donner Pass en route to a local waterfall. It's gotten so popular, she said, that you can no longer depend on having the ice to yourself.
This is not to say that everyone who tries the sport becomes a convert. As well as being the most difficult type of mountaineering to master, there's also the weather.
"For most people, the sport seems so cold," Vadasz said. "That does scare a lot of people off."
Jim Martin awoke in the night and sensed that something was wrong in his unheated camper. It was below zero outside in June Lake--Mammoth's more modest neighbor--but it wasn't the cold that had awakened Martin, a carpenter from San Francisco. It was that his alarm clock, frozen into silence, had stopped ticking.
Martin pulled the freezing metal into his down bag and cradled the clock to his chest until it thawed enough to begin ticking again. Then he dropped off to sleep.
In the morning, Martin joined nine other men and women in the Sierra Inn Cafe, about 350 miles north of Los Angeles. They were there to learn to climb a waterfall in a class offered by the the Alpine Skills Institute and taught by Doug Robinson and Leslie Hastings, free-lance mountain guides. Realizing that food would be the only fuel that would warm them all day, the climbers ordered large amounts of eggs, sweet rolls, potatoes, milk and coffee.
"What kind of gear should we bring?" a class member asked Robinson.
No Need for Sunscreen Robinson raised a bandaged hand from his plate of French toast (he'd fallen the day before while rock climbing and had cut his hand, requiring stitches) and looked out the window. The sky was blue--but that wouldn't matter where they were going.
"Lots of clothes," Robinson said, lowering his fork to his plate again. "You won't be needing your No. 15 sunscreen or your dark glasses." A rule of the game: Where you find the best ice, you won't find any sun.
Robinson warned the group that the sport they were about to attempt is the most dangerous facet of mountaineering. There's the possibility of avalanche. Crashing slabs of ice knocked loose by climbers above can knock out a crampon or cause head injuries. And since ice climbers have sharp implements strapped to every extremity, even a short fall can be devastating. Robinson said he has holes in both legs from being speared with tools when he fell ice climbing.
Beginners learning to climb rock are often encouraged to take falls in order to build trust in the safety ropes. That's not so on ice. Even though the climbers would be harnessed to a rope that would catch them in a fall, Robinson warned the group: "We're going to try not to fall at all. It's just too dangerous. All of this is not to say that ice climbing is a death-defying business--but there are a lot of ways to get hurt."