Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christmas Comes Early - 2013 Ice in the Gorge

Tim Holscher on Ainsworth Left
Santa delivered an early present this year - a cold Arctic air mass and record low temperatures.  The temps started dropping last Sunday night, and over the course of the last week they stayed consistently below freezing with overnight lows in the Gorge dropping down to 10-15 deg. F.  It's been a few years since we've had a good, solid freeze in the area, and people were stoked to go check out the ice conditions!

Rumors started to trickle in during Thursday and Friday, and it didn't sound overly promising.  Despite the cold temps, most routes in the Gorge either hadn't come in at all or were super thin.  Many of the lines depend on seeps and spray, which is kicked up by the strong east winds that prevail when a powerful low pressure system moves onshore.  But we've had a relatively dry fall and for some reason this system didn't bring those traditional mean winds.  Still, it's not too often that we get temps that are this cold, so out we went in search of the elusive Columbia River Gorge ice climbing.

Saturday - Ainsworth Left

Tim, Guy and I rendezvoused in Troutdale at 7 am on Saturday morning, anxious to get on the road to check out the conditions. As we drove east in I84, small little smears started to appear on the hillsides, but Crown Jewel, pouring off of the gully just to the east of Crown Point, is always the first solid indication of what's to come.  As it came into view, we saw a wide curtain of ice dropping down the cliffside - a good sign that temps had been cold enough to set up some ice.  We were tempted, but it looked a little thin and we had hopes of finding other lines we hadn't climbed before, so we kept going.  Driving out the Old Highway, we found a whole lot nothing - small smears here and there, but most things weren't touching down.  Finally, we made it to Ainsworth and, pulling over the car, we looked up and saw a solid ribbon of white dropping 300+ ft down the cliff.  Oh yeah!  We saddled up.

Tim took the sharp end and styled a pretty spicy pitch.  The rumors were accurate - the ice was thin and difficult to protect on the steeper sections  This pitch would be killer in fat condition.


The second pitch was more of the same.  A lower angled section led to a short but steep finish, which was impossible to protect because of the chandeliered ice.  Tim again styled this pitch, making it look easy on some heady terrain.  Well done.

The third pitch looked so cool, but we decided to head down given the difficult conditions we found on the first two.  A full 150 ft of killer climbing awaits above!  It looked sick.  We made one 60m rap off a V-thread to the ground. 

After climbing Ainsworth, we had a little bit of time left and decided to search out an obscure route called Cascade Curtain near Cascade Locks.  We found the route but ran out of daylight so saved it for another day.  It looked to be in similar condition - pretty thin and flowing with water - but really cool and about 400 ft. tall.  Bad ass!

Cascade Curtain - 3-4 pitches to the top

Sunday - Upper Cape Horn

Jazzed by the climbing on Saturday, I went out again with Bill and Colin on Sunday, this time headed towards Cape Horn on the Washington side of the Gorge.  We lucked out again, finding good ice on the upper flows about a 20 min bushwhack from the road.

Bill on the left hand flow.


The ice at Cape Horn is in much better shape than what we found at Ainsworth - hero ice!  One swing sticks and solid screw placements had us laughing and yucking it up. 

Colin on the right hand flow.

I just invested in a new Canon 6D, which was one of the many reasons I was psyched to get out.  With the muted colors and diffuse light, most of the photos from the weekend look much better in black and white, which does a much better job of bringing out the dramatic contrast between the ice and the surrounding moss, brush and dirt.  But when your leader's wearing an orange ones-y, you gotta go with color!  Here's Colin - aka the Road Cone - enjoying beautiful conditions on the right hand line.

Ice climbing is such a cool pursuit because the ice itself is so ephemeral and finicky.   One day its here, the next its gone.  In the Gorge, its even more fleeting, as it only comes in for a few days once every couple of years.  I feel lucky to have snuck in a couple of days, and maybe - just maybe - we'll see another cold snap this year.  Thanks to Tim, Guy, Bill and Colin for the good times!    


  1. Nice work Chris, we were at the lower tier contemplating Catch of The Day but with only short screws and it on the thinner side we had to reschedule. Any beta on where to park and approach for upper tier?


  2. Topher - Park just west of Salmon Run on Highway 14 and then head straight up hill. You can't miss Salmon Run - its a 10 ft. wide curtain of WI4 about 25 ft from the road.