On Saturday, February 3rd two climbers from North East Climbing went to Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest in North Conway New Hampshire to demo different gear and make connections with other people in the climbing in the climbing culture of New England. We picked an uncommon brand of ice tools to compare to their more commonly seen competitors. Our plan was to do a couple easy multi-pitch climbs and then find some harder ice to top rope so headed to the Frankenstein Cliffs. We decided to climb the Chia route, which is one or two pitches of WI 3+ in the Center Amphitheater to work on transitions between leader and follower. We planned on doing the classic route that traverses to the right towards the top of the route. As usual I drove my tools into the ice to hold them up while I tie into the rope and do my final checks with my climbing partner. The first swing of my tools into the ice knocked off about a 4 inch round plate of the top layer of ice off of the wall, typical of the fragile ice conditions when the temperature is in the teens. I knew then that it was going to be a long day of needing two or three swings to make the tool stick in the ice.
The follower and I checked each other and I started to climb. After a couple of moves I place my first screw. A couple more and I placed my second screw. One more screw and I was through the steeper part of the climb. I got to a nice belay ledge about 50 feet up and threw another in. From there I knew a full rope length would definitely get us to the top of the climb so I clove hitched myself to the screw and worked on setting up our three-point anchor. The ice was flakey and I had to smack the top layer of ice off the wall to get to the more solid ice underneath it. Finally with all three screws in and the hot point established I pulled up the slack in the rope and I set up my ATC in guide mode. “On Belay”. “Climbing”. I feel slack build up on the climbing strand and I pull it through the device. The view from the belay ledge was incredible already and I couldn’t wait to get to the top. That’s the exact thought that was in my mind when I hear from below, “I have a problem. I can’t climb. My ice tool is missing a screw.”
I though for a couple seconds. Could he climb with one tool? That could be difficult, even on this route because it risks him taking a swinging fall on the traverse. Could I lower a tool to him? Maybe that would work for this pitch because I’m above him, but not the next pitch. Let’s cut our losses. “Okay, I’ll lower you”. He was able to unweight the rope and down-climb as I fed him slack from above. He reached the ground, “Off belay”. Now I just have to get down. I’ve rappeled on a v-thread before, but I usually have the reassurance of watching my heavier climbing partner go down first with an ice screw as a backup. This allowed me to physically watch the ice as the heavier person rappelled down the rope first and remove any doubt in my mind that it will hold my weight. This time it’s just me.
I chipped away at the flakey first layer of ice with the hammer on my tools, took one of my screws off of my anchor and drilled the two intersecting holes. Because it was so cold, there was no risk of the ice melting and refreezing on the rope if I put it straight through the holes. I passed the rope in one side but it couldn’t pass all the way through, I didn’t have a v-thread tool and my ice tool pick was too thick to fit in the hole to grab the rope. For a minute I pushed and twisted the rope into the hole in vain.
I took another couple seconds to think. I backed the rope out an inch and fed my half inch sewn runner into the opposite hole past the intersection. Then I pushed the rope into the hole as I pulled my runner out. This orientated the running end of the rope towards the opening and enabled me to pass the rope all the way through the v-thread.
I slowly pulled the rope through the anchor (so the friction would cause the ice to melt and refreeze on the rope) until I had the middle, tied the ends together and tossed the running ends down the ice wall. I set up for an ATC rappel with an autoblock backup. With one screw still and clipped around the rope, I slowly put my weight on the rappel device. It held. I jumped up and down off the wall to add some dynamic load.
It held, but I was still uneasy. I triple checked everything I could about the v-thread, is the ice good, is it away from any other ice screw placements, is there enough ice between the holes. I knew that when done correctly these anchors can hold a couple thousand pounds, and I also knew that I made my anchor correctly. Still I felt like I needed validation, “How does it look from down there?”. I head from down below, “Bomber!”. I knew that was the best I was going to get.
I un-clipped the backup webbing and took the screw out of the wall. I slowly loaded the rappel again, walking backwards off the ledge and down to recover my screws. Once on the ground I took a look at my follower’s tools. One of the screws to the head were missing, causing the pick to rotate upwards when the climber put his weight on it.
I learned a couple of lessons from this. Firstly, we should have double checked our equipment. When we signed out demo gear we should have quickly inspected the ice tools. When we did our pre-climb inspections, we should have checked each other’s hardware. Having a spare set of tools would have been smart, especially since we had a demo set of tools. Secondly, we should have brought the right equipment. Although we planned on doing routes we knew had easy walk offs, we should have both had v-thread tools with us. They weigh 5 ounces and cost $10. I was lucky enough to be able to improvise. Thirdly, I should have had more trust in my equipment and techniques that I have learned, as long as I do them correctly. I have made v-thread anchors and rappelled off of them before but I come from a culture of everything being double checked by someone else. I was looking for someone else to validate my v-thread when it was only me on the wall. This experience made me more self aware about some of my bad habits and weaknesses when it comes to climbing. Ultimately, I am continuing to adapt my techniques and practices to be the best climber I can be.