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GETTING VERTICAL ON THE ICE OVER THE FALLS IN A BARREL? NO, UP THEM, WITH AN AX, IN WINTER.

Byline: Story and photos by Bill Becher Correspondent

LEE VINING - Ice chunks are falling on my head.

Climbing a frozen waterfall seems like an odd activity for a Southern Californian who thinks of ice as something you pack in a cooler to keep the drinks cold at Zuma Beach.

I'm roped to an anchor screwed into a near vertical sheet of ice at Lee Vining Canyon in the Eastern Sierra. I watch as Chris Valencia, who is taking an ice-climbing class here, works his way up the face. Chips fly as he pounds axes into the ice. Then he kicks the crampons strapped to his boots into the ice and hoists himself up.

There is a Spider-Man feeling to this process - you just whack the wall of ice and climb. But it can be extremely tiring if you don't use good technique, something we're here to learn.

Originally developed by mountaineers to pass difficult sections, ice climbing has now become a sport in itself. There are a number of places in California where you can get vertical on ice.

Depending on conditions, climbable ice can be found in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, Lake Tahoe, Mount Shasta and other places. In Southern California, San Jacinto Mountain and Angeles Crest (Williamson Rock Waterfall) can sometimes have ice to climb. In the fall, snow in mountain gullies in the Sierra is transformed by freeze/thaw cycles to climbable ice.

Lee Vining Canyon, off the Tioga Road near the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, provides some spectacular waterfall ice-climbing opportunities. Todd Vogel of the Sierra Mountain Center in Bishop teaches an introductory ice-climbing course that covers basic techniques. Rock-climbing experience is required.

``There's a lot more to the learning curve if you don't have rock-climbing skills,'' said Vogel. And you don't want to stand around in the cold learning how to put on your harness, tie onto the rope and manage the safety system called belaying.

The guides sometimes combine ice-climbing classes with snow travel instruction. Along with avalanche awareness, self-arrest is a key skill to learn for alpine adventures. This doesn't mean muttering Miranda rights to yourself; self-arrest is using an ice ax to stop a potentially fatal slip on ice or hard snow. Steep slopes and crusted ice are common in alpine travel, and once you start sliding, it can be hard to stop unless you know how to brake with the point of your ice ax.

I didn't need to self-arrest on the approach hike to the ice at Lee Vining Canyon. It's a fairly strenuous but well-trodden 45-minute hike up a box canyon with 800 feet of elevation gain. On the sides of the canyon, water from natural springs flowing out of porous talus rock freezes and forms walls of ice up to 200 feet high. The ice on the perpetually shaded north side of the canyon usually remains frozen all winter.

The ice has a bluish tinge, which somehow makes it seem even colder.

``It's really surreal to be up on a frozen waterfall,'' said Vogel. ``The amazing shapes, colors and textures of the ice provide something that's not otherwise climbable.''

Helmets are mandatory. When climbers scale the ice cliffs, they often send down large pieces of ice, not just little cubes like you might get from your ice-maker. These are some serious-size chunks that can hurt. For this reason, belayers - who manage the safety rope protecting a climber in case of a fall - stand to one side, not directly below the climbers.

One thing that differentiates ice climbing from rock climbing is the tools - crampons and ice axes - that climbers use to create grip on the ice.

If snowshoes are snow tires for your feet, crampons are four-wheel drive low-range. These pointy beauties look like something the villainess in a James Bond movie would strap onto her clogs and use to ventilate 007 with a flamenco stomp. Front points sticking out from the toes of the crampons provide a grip on vertical ice.

A pair of sharpened ice axes looped to your wrists and hammered into the ice as you climb provide additional hold. Patagonia clothing company founder Yvon Chouinard is credited with developing the modern curved ice ax. Before that innovation, straight-pick designs had a disconcerting tendency to pop out of the ice unexpectedly. The curved pick follows the natural arc of a climber's swing and holds more securely in the ice.

The ice-climbing protection system is somewhat different than that used by rock climbers. Instead of placing metal cams and wedges in cracks, ice climbers drive metal screws into the ice by hand and attach them to the rope with carabineers.

Ice climbing is a two-fisted, two-footed endeavor. Efficiency and energy management are the keys, as in rock climbing. Once you've reached your goal, the belayer lowers you back to the ground. Or, on a multipitch climb, the top climber belays for the bottom climber and they then repeat the process.

Day two of the class covered movement on steeper terrain, placing and removing ice screws, anchoring on ice and more practice.

``Modern ice protection is pretty good,'' said Vogel. ``As you progress, you learn what makes good, easily protected ice.'' If it's slushy ice and warm, as it commonly is in the spring, the protection is not any good. ``But today's ice is very good, and the screws are as strong as the carabineers connected to them,'' said Vogel.

The second day was very cold - about 15 degrees above zero. This makes the ice brittle. When the climbers hammered an ice ax, the ice split and cracked with a report that echoed in the canyon.

``It was disconcerting when you'd hit the ice and hear it fracturing,'' said Tom Nardini.

Nardini and Valencia, his climbing partner, have been climbing rock for nine years, but this was their first experience on ice.

``The second day was real exciting,'' said Nardini. His hands cramped before he made it to the top of a taller, steeper section of ice, and he had to descend.

There's a big difference between ice that is angled at 75 degrees and 85 degrees. Climbing the steeper ice feels as if you're climbing an overhang and takes a lot out of the climber. You get ``pumped,'' in climber's vernacular - your muscles load up with blood and get very fatigued.

Nardini made it to the top on his second try. He plans to get his own ice-climbing gear for more frozen adventures.

``Many rock climbers want to add ice to their repertoire - with that and some snow-travel training, you can climb anything,'' said Vogel.

Next stop Everest?

IF YOU GO

The Sierra Mountain Center in Bishop offers two-day introductory ice- climbing classes, plus advanced and private instruction. (760) 873-8526; www.sierramountaincenter.com; e-mail: info(at)sierramountaincenter.com.

The Introduction to Ice Climbing class is $325 with shared lodging, $285 without lodging. Dates in 2004: Jan. 3-4, Jan. 24-25, Feb. 7-8, Feb. 28-29, March 6-7, March 20-21.

The center also offers winter backcountry skiing, mountain climbing and avalanche courses. In the summer, it provides rock-climbing instruction and mountain guides.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) An ice climber ascends the precipitous face of a frozen waterfall in Lee Vining Canyon, left, and adventure that requires skill with an ice ax, above, and a whole lot of courage.

(3 -- color) Crampons on the feet and ice axes in the hands help climbers ascend frozen waterfalls like this one near Lee Vining.

Bill Becher/Special to Great Escapes

Box:

IF YOU GO (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 28, 2003
Words:1262
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