For Eddie Bauer guide Caroline George, the ice called her home this winter. After a two-year break from technical ice climbing—to dive into motherhood—the frozen vertical drew her back with a vengeance this year as she and her husband, guide Adam George, traveled from New Hampshire to Ouray to France and the Bernese Oberland, finding some of the best Euro ice in nearly a decade.
Back in the game with reliable childcare, Caroline ticked off Ilynx (WI6) and Crack Baby (WI6) in a two-day span, while also climbing the Patri in Cogne, Italy, and traveling to Trient, Switzerland, for her birthday. The stunning routes have long since melted into spring, but before the stories of the season fade away, Caroline sent us this seasonal report on her return to ice. –LYA Editor
Words and Images by Caroline George
I often get asked what draws me to ice. And maybe the answer is just that: it makes me feel alive. I love to climb, I love to ski, but pure ice climbing (i.e., frozen waterfalls vs. ice gullies) takes this to a whole new level. I want it more than I want most things. I didn’t realize how “addicted” I was until this winter. I had taken a two-year hiatus from ice climbing: in 2011, I spent the winter in Antarctica, Thailand and Jordan, and returned at the end of the ice-climbing season; and in 2012, I was pregnant. I hadn’t really missed it but when I swung my first axe, I realize how hungry the unfed worm had been.
We traveled to New Hampshire in December to spend the holidays with Adam’s family and headed straight to the only formed climbs in the area: Cannon’s Black Dyke and Fafnir. I instantly felt in tune with the elements. I can’t say I always do, but this year I did. I think it’s partly due to the fact that as a parent, you don’t have that much time and when you decide to do something, you give it your all.
In the past, my mind has wandered left and right, questioning the meaning of so much climbing, why I was doing it, etc. But this year, something shifted: I realized that ice climbing wasn’t just a hobby or a job. It was what feeds my soul. It felt like it is vital to me. We climbed a few more routes over the course of our time in the USA: Repentance, Remission and Deidre in New Hampshire, 7th Heaven in Provo, Utah. I was ever-so-lucky to compete in the Ouray Ice Festival at the last minute. I hadn’t trained for it, thinking that I wasn’t going to enter. I didn’t want the stress associated with training for an event while having a little baby waiting for me at home. So, when I decided to enter, I was able to do so with no pressure and really enjoy the moment. I was ecstatic! We also taught ice-climbing clinics in Ouray and in North Conway. I just love how ice climbing gathers people and the smile it brushes on people’s faces. There is something to being out in the cold and pushing yourself that is really unique to this sport.
When we returned to Europe, temperatures were at an all-time low and rarely formed ice climbs were in. Simultaneously, Olivia started going to day care a few days a week. It was the first time since she was born that I could just go without having to organize day care or calculate how much my day of climbing was going to cost in babysitting. And I was very keen to go.
So when Jon Bracey suggested we climb Ilynx (WI6), I had no idea what it was, but I was really excited to go! As we approached the climb, I could feel the excitement building. It was cold and the line didn’t come into view until we reached the base. It’s also when we realized that another party was on it. But it was one of my best friends, Tania.
So we made it work. Jon did a mixed variation so we could climb out of each other’s way. The climb was 5 pitches long, really stunning and offering a unique view on the world-renowned La Dame du Lac (the lady of the lake), a WI pillar that was first climbed in 1992.
It’s only been in a few times since. But this year, it looked to be in amazing shape. The clock was ticking though, and I had to get home in time to pick up Olivia. We packed up and headed back to the car, which was parked next to the steamy and mysterious-looking lake. A few days later, I was back, this time with Jon Griffith (www.alpineexposures.com).
As we approached, the whole horseshoe-shaped gorge was in thick clouds. It’s not until we reached the base that we could see the first couple of meters of the climb! There was a party of three Italians climbing a rando pitch to the left. When we started gearing up, they told us that they were in line to climb La Dame du Lac too. We were ready in no time, and Jon was already climbing up the approach pitch before I could say anything. But I explained to them that we would be quick, and that I was really pressed for time since I had to pick up my baby. They decided to do Ilynx instead. I felt bad, but also knew that this could be my only chance to climb this route. I followed in Jon’s footsteps to the base of the pillar and then started leading the first pitch. When I first swung my axe, a huge crack echoed in the canyon. It felt more eerie than ever.
Chatter started to crowd my judgment: “I am a mom, should I really be doing this?” The pillar was huge and the bottom of it was comprised of three disconnected small pillars that weren’t very well bonded to the base or together. But as I looked up at the overhanging ice face looming above me, I was drawn into the moment. I saw what layahead, and I knew I would do it and that I would be fine. I had the innate sense that I wasn’t risking my life. The climb had been done a lot the past couple of days, and I was able to find hooks to climb up without ever swinging a tool into the delicate features. I moved efficiently, never kicking or swinging, treading lightly and respectfully. The pillar ended at a gigantic, overhanging jaw-like feature that seemed about to eat you alive. There I traversed to the right, reaching another overhanging headwall that was part ice, part snow and, though it seemed really unlikely, it made for exciting and fun climbing. I belayed Jon up from a small alcove. I kept looking up, wondering which way might be the easiest way up, since I was looking almost straight up at a roof. Jon was ecstatic when he reached the anchor, saying he had never climbed anything this wild. And what lay ahead was sure to get him going even more! This climb is one of the wildest ice climbs I have ever done.
A week later, I decided to climb another incredible route in the Alps: Crack Baby on Kandersteg’s Breitwangflue (340m, WI6). This time, I partnered up with Swiss aspirant Nicole Berthod. We had never climbed together, so this was a great climb to start on. Adam drove me to Martigny and I had to take the train from there. I was carrying ski gear, climbing gear, sleeping clothing, etc. and could barely walk around the train station. It had been a while since I was train-bound and it felt a lot like being back in teenage-hood.
Nicole picked me up in Sion, and we drove together to Kandersteg to sleep at a cozy little bunk bed place. We woke up early and walked up the forest road to the base of the face. I had been there on several occasions before, but back then, there had been a lift that we could take almost to the base of the face. That lift was so old and broken-down that it was most certainly the scariest part of the climb. Nicole and I chatted so much that before we knew it, we were standing at the base of the 340-meter-high climb.
The first couple of pitches are not in-your-face steep, so we were able to warm up. Temperatures were perfect. There was no wind. And even better, there was no one else there! But once it gets steep, the climbing is really sustained and tricky. On one of the crux pitches, I had to do a really large step-across to another pillar, with 150m below my feet, before almost ramping across to the top of the pillar and mantling on a ledge. The following pitch was steep, sustained and tricky to climb. When we got to the top of that pitch, we wondered if it wasn’t too warm and whether we should keep going. It still looked so steep and tricky ahead. But we were motivated and kept going. I had to cut my feet loose on a traversing move before pulling up and mantling. It felt gymnastic.
The last pitch was kicked back a little but went on for a whole 60m. We were so excited to reach the top when we finally did!—and even more so when we got back down without getting our ropes stuck. We ran down to the car and made it back before dark. I had to spend the night at Nicole’s place since I didn’t have a car and the latest train to Chamonix was at 5pm from Martigny. But I did enjoy being a bit of a climbing bum again, even if just for two days.
The ice-climbing season came to an end shortly thereafter. I had two more climbing days with my friend and client Caroline Doucet in Cogne, Italy, where we climbed the beautiful Patri, and in Trient, Switzerland, where we celebrated my birthday! It may be spring now, but the excitement for next year’s ice season is already building up.
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