Danger: Falling Ice

A week and a half ago Bayard Russell climbed the long coveted Painted Wall Icicle off of the Kancamangus Highway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The photo at right is of Bayard during the first ascent, taken by Kevin Mahoney of Mahoney Alpine Adventures.

Four or five years ago Jim Ewing and I wanted to check out the huge pillar that regularly formed and then fell off, but on my closest attempt we simply drove by and went to climb Omega on Cannon instead. Jim went back once in the following years, but no real attempts were made, at least by us. Others, however, were scoping the line too, and a couple of years ago a true effort was launched to dispatch the line by Bayard, Josh Hurst and Doug Madera, among others. Bayard wrote about it here, but long story short, when the ice was there the rock moves proved too challenging, and once the rock moves were sussed out there was no ice. Murphy’s Law, right?

So, this year during a very early form-up, Bayard snagged the line and opened the door for the rest of us. Two days later Josh Hurst and I were standing at the base eager to climb the second ascent. The previous day the route was baked by the sun, as most Painted Wall routes are on bluebird days, but the forecast was for overcast skies and flurries… perfect conditions. The forecasters got it wrong, however, and shortly after reaching the base of the route (after a much earned approach from several miles away because the river was not frozen and the Albany bridge was under construction!) the skies parted and the sun came out in force. This did not bode well. The pillar was huge, as can be seen below, but pieces of ice were constantly raining down from everywhere above us. Josh started with a burn on the M9 mixed rock pitch to refresh his memory of the moves.

While on route, the pillar left of our objective crashed to the ground. Prior to that collapse our guts told us that there was too much sun and not enough adhesion holding the ice to the wall. Following Josh, I took a burn up to the mid-point anchor to learn the moves and acquaint myself with the climb. Such cool movement!

After a short rest Josh geared up for a redpoint attempt on the rock pitch, as seen above pulling the first crux. Slow and strong, Josh was crushing it. Near the top of the pitch Josh had an axe shift and skid out of a crack, resulting in a fall. As it turns out, this was a rather good thing.

Just a few minutes after getting back on-route and climbing higher, Josh heard the pillar groan. He chose to back-aid away from the pillar, and then, out of the blue, the pillar detached and plummeted to the ground. It simply ripped from the wall and fell straight to the ground, and then disintegrated on impact. Josh described it as if a semi-truck tore by 5 feet behind him. And like that, our hopes of a second ascent, at least until the route has time to form up again, were dashed.

I took the opportunity to take two more training laps on the rock pitch. Not only was I able to better suss out the tricky sequences down low, but also get a little extra workout. The Painted Wall Icicle is definitely a plum line, and an instant classic. I am looking forward to getting back to it some time very soon!