The normal Utah ice season ended in early Feb but the recent March snowstorms and cooler temps brought some renewed hope for alpine climbing. Hoping for decently cold conditions I convinced Jake Hirschi to go up Mt. Olympus with me to check out the Great Chimney rather than climbing rock in the sun…big mistake.
The thermometer in the car showed low 20’s while driving to the trailhead. We started at the trailhead for Neff’s Canyon, hiking a well packed but icy trail for about 1/2 an hour before locating the couloir heading up the mountainside. The snow was pretty firm allowing us to move reasonable quickly up 2,600’ of steep snow to the base of the technical climbing. Somewhere around 3 miles of hiking. And by reasonably quickly, somewhere around 2 hours.
I took the first pitch, a tight chimney that had what looked like decent ice in the back. While being 6’ 4” might be beneficial in some spots, tight squeeze chimneys are not one of them. The chimney narrowed enough that I had to turn sideways with my left side up, back and chest compressed against the tight, claustrophobic walls, and slowly inched my way up, all the while being pelted by spindrift from above. I found a decent crack for a yellow C3 and wormed my way above. Once my feet were high above my last piece, I found some great alpine ice and I thought I was home free. Unfortunately the ice was only good for a few feet then another overhang left nothing but air and rock to swing into. Sparks flew from the tip of my axe as I unknowingly swung into rock just dusted with snow, the smell of gunpowder from the metal striking rock filled the air.
A series of committing dry tool moves on the tips of my picks with crampons scratching onto rhime-covered rock lead me to firm snow and frozen dirt. Ecstatic I pulled out of the last vertical section and started a rhythmic swing, kick, swing up 60’ feet of unprotected firm snow until I found a fixed piton to clip. Unfortunately when I clipped it, the weight of the rope and quickdraw caused it to shift. The crack it was sitting in had widened from years of freeze-thaw and it’s holding power was useless. Oh, well, what’s another stretch of unprotected climbing at this point? The only way down now is to go up! Another 90’ of snow wallowing lead to a tree and a bad case of the screaming barfies as the blood returned to my hands.
Luckily, this pitch took great gear and had good rests after each overhang. Not much ice on this pitch but a bit of fun frozen dirt and moss helped out. Jake moved slowly but steadily up, cleaning so much snow off the pitch that his boot tracks in the 30’ of steep snow leading to the rock from the belay completely filled in.
Watching the warm and sunny valley below while I was experiencing the coldest day I had in the mountains this year, I couldn’t help but think “I’m an idiot! This is so dumb!” Jake finally reached the top of the chimney and I started to climb, warming up as I moved. The three-dimensional climbing in the chimney was a blast and helped to erase some of the memories of the suffering I had just endured at the belay.
This short video clip shows just how steep the chimney is. The snow falls straight to the base of the route.
I took over again for pitch three, a mostly easy pitch with a cool transition from the right side of the chimney to the left via a steep chockstone in the middle.
Belaying Jake up from the top of the climb, I couldn’t help but think: “This is so RAD! I love alpine adventure climbing!” While I might not be the best alpinist, I seem to have enough of an ability to quickly forget how miserable/scary/difficult/dangerous a situation was and somehow look forward to the next chance to put myself in a similar situation. Probably not a very good trait in a normal person, but it’s a key one to have if you want climb ice and alpine routes.
Mark Twight summed alpine climbing up well:
"Alpine climbing is hard. The fear up there is more intense than anything short of a drive-by down here. It's not beautiful. It's f@$king war. The struggle is glorious in its own way, but beauty is for the ground, for postcards and for glowing prose written long after the fact.”