The North American Contribution

Mountain climbing in all its forms was slower to develop in Canada and the United States than in Great Britain and Europe. By the early 1960s, however, Americans had developed new equipment and techniques for rock climbing that allowed them to make the first ascents of some of the world's greatest rock walls in Yosemite Valley of California. In mid-decade, some Yosemite climbers traveled to the Alps and made the hardest rock climbs of the day, using hardware and techniques they had brought from home. At the same time, these Americans were introduced to ice and snow climbing, an interest they brought with them when they returned home. Unfortunately, except in Alaska, the opportunities for alpine-type climbs on glaciers and ice fields is limited to only a few areas in the high mountains of the United States, In winter, however, frozen waterfalls and ice-filled chimneys are plentiful throughout the northern states, particularly in the northeast and the intermountain region of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana.

In the early 1970s, the standards of the hardest Alpine and Scottish climbs were equaled in New Hampshire with such climbs as John Bouchard's first soto winter ascent of the 600-foot Black Dike (III, WI5-) on Cannon Mountain, which Chouinard had described as "a black, filthy, horrendous icicle, 600 feet high, unclimbcd," and John Bragg and Rick Wilcox's ascent of Repentance (III, Wl5) on Cathedral Ledge, which consists of four pitches of hard ice climbing on a 5 9 rock route. These eastern routes were impressive and provided the impetus for a ten-year growth in the popularity of ice climbing in the region, But it was in Utah and Colorado that the new standards were set for free climbing on ice.

By 1971, my brother Greg Lowe had already used the new ice gear on the first ascent of an obscure but, for the time, phenomenally difficult climb on Mahlens Peak Waterfall in northern Utah. The crux pitch, under the conditions of the first ascent (WI6), is seventy-five feet of vertical and overhanging ice, which Greg led entirely free with almost no protection. In one hold stroke, ice climbing had been brought up to par with rock standards. In the mid-1960s in Idaho's City of Rocks, Greg had been among the first to lead 5.12 on rock in classic, completely free style. The same strength and abilities had now been applied to ice, opening up a vast and exciting new arena for adventure.

Ice Climbing Ice Route Bourgeau Left

Greg Low*, shown hero making tin setond ascent {1972) of his standard-lotting climb on Mahlen's Peak Waterfall, was one of the first dimbers to fuBy exploit the potential of carved picks and rigid crampons. Greg's line followed the vertical overhanging left edge of the ¡«fall and would today b« rated WI6. Greg is the originator ef the modern internal-frame pack, passive and spring-loaded camming nuts, supergaiters, Snarg ke pHons (with the author), Hummingbird tools, and Footfang crampons (with Mike Lowe], and other inventions too numerous to mention. In his spare time he is an award-winning cinsmatographer. (Photo: lance Wilcox)

33 ▼ The North American Contribution

Greg introduced Mike Weis and me to the beauty and challenge of climbing frozen waterfalls in the winter of 1972, and we found it much to our [iking, complementing, as it did, the other three seasons of rock climbing, mountaineering, and skiing that constituted the focus of our existence. On January 2, 1974, Mike and 1 completed the first ascent of Colorado's Bridalveil Falls (111, W16). We found 400 feet of near-vertical, vertical, and overhanging ice spiced with cauliflower and chandelierlike formations. We discovered that the tube screws and ice pitons commercially available at that time would only fracture the extremely cold and brittle ice into large plates and chunks, but Greg had lent us half a dozen homemade chrome-moly tubes with tips beveled to the inside. These could be driven in without destroying the ice, allowing us to climb Bridalveil with some protection. They were later developed into Snarg ice pitons,

While Americans were making their initial explorations of winter icefails, a group of expatriate Brits led by Bugs McKeith, Rob Wood, and George Homer, along with locals Tim Auger, John Lauchlan, and Laurie Skreslet, were busy searching out the best of the frozen waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies. Their excellent climbs included Bourgeau Left-hand (III, WI5),Takkakkaw Falls (IV, WI4 + ), the technical test piece Nemesis (111, Wl6), the Weeping Wall (111, WI5), Weeping Pillar (IV, WI5 + ), and Polar Circus (V, W15). Although this group's first ascents tended to use fixed ropes and aid-climbing techniques (such as aid slings attached to the tools), it wasn't long before all the Canadian routes were free-climbed. These free ascents were, at first, the work of visiting Americans like John Roskelley, Dave Wright, Duncan Ferguson, and Greg Davis, but soon the locals Jack Firth, Albi Sole, James Blench, Ray Jotterand, Skreslet, and Lauchlan resumed the lead role.

In Quebec, Claude Berube and Regis Richard climbed the 1,000-foot Le Loutre (IV, Wl5) in 1977 completely free, signaling the beginning of a Canadian

Jim Elzinga Climber
NUk« Weis eyeing the trux second pitch of Bridalveil Fallt during the first ascent in Jeaeory 1974. Two weeks of 20'F temperatures had prodeced very brittle ice, adding to the difficulties. (Photo: Jeff to we)

dominance of waterfall ice, although Mike Weis and 1 established Curtain Call (III, Wl6) in the Columbia Icefields in 1979, and New Engländers Kurt Winkler and Jim Theisen plucked Quebec's ultraclassic La Pomme d'Or (IV, Wl5) in 1980. In the late 1970s Lauchlan and Jim Elzinga put up what at the time was probably the hardest high-mountain waterfall climb in the world- the 2,500-foot Slipstream on Snow Dome in the Columbia Icefields, grade IV, Al5+ by the first ascent line through the upper serac. Slipstream was surpassed in 1984 by the ascent of Gimme Shelter on Mount Quadra by Kevin Doyle and Tim Friesen, This very thin climb ascends a near-vertical and vertical 1,000-foot smear formed by

Citadel Shelterstone

ft* Wast Fan of Patagonia's (errs Tent is en* «1 the finest ke climbs la the world.

(Photo: Jon Krakawr)

Amalgamation water seeping from a hanging glacier and is probably grade V, W16-7. Doyle and Friesen ended their climb under the ice cliff, however, leaving the complete ascent for a later party,


Although technical standards were being set by American and Canadian climbers during the last years of the 1970s, climbers in the Alps, New Zealand, and elsewhere were only slightly behind on waterfalls and equal on the mountain ice routes being done in North America. The Balfour Face (IV, Al4) of Mount Tasman in New Zealand was done as early as 1971 by Bill Denz and Brian Poole, and the Northeast Couloir of the Dru (V, Al4, A7) was climbed in four days in winter 1972-73 by Walter Cecchinel and Claude Jager, fn 1975 Rab Carrington and A1 Rouse introduced Scottish-style mixed climbing to the Alps with their winter ascent of the thinly iced slabs of the North Face of Pèlerins (V, Wl5, M6?). Jean-Marc Boivin and Patrick Cabarrou climbcd the strikingly beautiful Super Couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul (V, W14-5, M6) in 1975, and the following year Alex Maclntyre and Nick Colton climbed the difficult direct line (V, WIS, M6) that now bears their names on the right flank of the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses.

Roughly equivalent climbs were made around the world. Mike Weis and 1 climbed Canada's Grand Central Couloir on Mount Kitchener (V, Wl4, M6) in 1974. Rouse and Carrington did the Citadel Sticil Face combination on Shelter Stone Crag (IV, W13, M6+, Al), one of the most difficult Scottish routes, in 1975 In Africa in 1975, Mike Covington and Yvon Chouinard made a direct climb of the Diamond Couloir (IV, Al5), and the Breach Wall of Kilimanjaro (V, Wl6?) was done by Reinhold Messner and Konrad Renzler in 1978 John Bouchard and Frenchwoman Marie-Odile Meunier made the first ascent of the South Face of Peru's Chacraraju by its most impressive direct line (V, AI6?) in Î977.

In winter of that year, Henry Barber and Rob

Jeff Lowe Ice

lite author'} 1979 solo first ascent of the South Face »1 An« DaUom was a landmark in Himalaya» ice dbnblng. (Photo Jeff Lowe)

Taylor introduced American waterfall techniques to Norway, making the first asccnt of the Vettisfossen, 1,000 feet of Bridalveil-type intricate climbing Norway has some of the longest and prettiest waterfall climbs in the world, and after Barber and Taylor showed the way, such Norwegians as Hans Christian Doseth, Thomas Carlstrom, and Ulf Geir Hansen continued to exploit the potential. Hyndnefossen (HI, WIS?}, Dontefossen (V, WIS?}, Black December (IV, WI6?), and Togfossen (V or VI, Wl6?) are alltime classics of the genre.

By the late 1970s and early '80s, waterfall climbing was well established throughout the Alps. Two adventurous Italian ice climbers emerged during this period: Gian Carlo Grassi and Renatto Casarotto, who, together and with others, developed waterfall ice climbing in their home country and traveled widely. Other Italians pioneered the extensive water ice terrain found in the Alpine valleys of Lombardy. In the Cirque de Gavarnie in the French Pyrenees, many exceptional climbs were made, mainly by Dominique Julien, Rainier Munsch, and their friends, with the 1,500-foot Voie de LOverdosc (V, WI5+) being every bit the equal of the big North American waterfalls.

Continue reading here: Patrick Mcnerthney Climber

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  • Douglas
    Which are the three hardest waterfall ice climbs in north america?
    10 years ago