After a week of guiding and running ice climbing courses at the beginning of February, I got to ice climb for a week on a short road trip through southern Austria, South Tyrol and into the Dolomites. In the course of the week, my partner Toni and I climbed for five days with one travel and one rest day. Each climbing day had at least one ice fall with pitches that were rated WI5 or harder. So the trip was a great opportunity to climb hard, sustained, steep ice.
On the right is the Hinterer Maralmfall, WI5/210m in the Malta valley of Carinthia. On our way south, we stopped in the Malta valley to climb some of the classic harder falls including Kathedrale, WI5+/305m. The conditions in the valley were very good with regards to the amounts of ice on routes, however the temps were on the cold side, so the ice was at time brittle and hard. I had wanted to climb the Hinterer Maralmfall for the past three years. Due to conditions and orientation of the fall, it had not formed with any margin of safety until this season.
After a couple of days of climbing in the Malta valley, we took a rest/travel day to drive into south Tyrol and further into the Dolomites past the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Cristallo, (cappachino stop in Cortina), Le Tofane, etc., with our end destination on the south east side of the Marmolada in a concentrated ice climbing area of Sottoguda.
By this point the snowy conditions in the north eastern Alps had given way to warm and sunny conditions with cold temperatures in the Dolomites. The friendly skies gave a false impression to the seriousness of the avalanche conditions. The danger scale was at 3, which gave us pause to make the long approaches in very narrow valleys to get to some of the more remote ice climbs. Therefore the small village of Sottoguda with its very attractive gorge full of ice routes perfectly fit the situation. The photo on the right shows Toni seconding the last pitch of Cascata del Sole, WI3+/120m, (yes, finally getting to the "Sole" part of the "Cascata" ) which was our morning warm up climb for one of our long days in the Serrai di Sottoguda.
The gorge of Sottoguda offers climbs in the moderate range to harder athletic sport climbing-like lines. There are also some short and intense dry tooling routes that are bolt protected and mixed lines where natural protection is called for.
The gorge is dominated on the right side by the wide ice fall La Cattedrale, WI 4+-6/100m. In the two-picture sequence below, Toni is on the first pitch of the two-pitch middle line which is rated at WI5. The central line is an elegant, direct route that is continuously steep with a nice shelf at the mid-point for the first belay anchor at about 50 meters into the climb.
Of the many climbs in the gorge three stand out because they were excellent climbs that had interesting ice features. "Excallibur", WI4+/110m, had a very sustained first pitch with the third pitch having super fun climbing on cauliflower ice, tubes, and mushrooms that was like the ice equivalent of Kalymnos limestone. "La Spirale della Contingenza", WI4+/110m, was a thin line that was deeply embedded between rocks. It had some great steep climbing with the possibility to stem out on the rock bordering the ice flow. The line, "LaSpada nella Roca", WI5/45m is a sustained endurance climb up a steep ice pencil.
On our last day we decided to drive back through Cortina and continue further east to the village of Somprade. There, we had hoped to climb a couple of routes before heading back to Salzburg. We spotted the lines form the road and checked them out with binoculars. The ice was already in the sun and was that frothy white color of rotten, deteriorating ice. The climbs on the other side of the valley were in the shade, but full of powder snow in the less steep sections and were threatened from slides from above. Plan "B" was then to drive on past the east side of the Tre Cima and climb something in East Tyrol on the way back to Salzburg.
We settled on the "Mittewald Eisfall", WI5/80m, in the Puster valley near Silian. The two-pitch route ended up being much more serious than its rating due to the nature of the ice. The ice had built up in large mushrooms and cauliflower pedals that were very brittle. Finding and placing screws was labor intensive. Route finding was also challenging because there was very rarely a direct line. We had expected a laid back cruise. It wasn't.
That brings me to the whole subject of ice grades. Some very well known alpine ice and mixed climbers have said that WI5 is really as hard as it gets when climbing ice. Will Gadd recently wrote this related to grades:
"Grades are increasingly sort of the same to me; beyond "it's steep, not steep, whatever" ice grades generally have far less to do with how technically hard something is than what's going on in the leader's head. And, speaking personally, my head is a confused place while leading tenuous water ice...
I think ice climbing grades past, "It's kinda vertical for a good distance and therefore WI 5" are likely useless. Almost all "hard" ice routes are some version of water ice 5 with bad gear. So all hard ice routes, ..., are "grade 5" plus the stories and photos... Yeah, I just rated something WI10, ha ha!"
Ice climbing is such a mental form of climbing because it demands honesty on many levels. Why are you climbing this route? Are you ready technically? Are you ready physically? Mentally, can you stay calm and focused and do you have confidence in your ability, fitness, etc.?
In sport rock routes you can get in over your head with almost no risk and consequence. You can get on routes and push your levels in a controlled environment that does not have, and purposely avoids, the mental stress that you find in ice climbing. Learning and developing skills in ice climbing demands a lot of volume climbing ice and building up technical and mental strength along the way. How? Climb ice at every opportunity. Focus more on building your ability with volume on lower graded climbs. Climb "easy" routes in "bad" conditions. Run it out on easy climbs to develop mental fortitude. Train endurance (general, strength, power) and recovery while your in a route in the climbing gym.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot, while doing all this ice climbing, keep your nose out of the way of falling ice!