Kickin’ Axe in California

Ice Climbing in Lee Vining Canyon and June Lake Loop

Story and photo by SP Parker

Nearly 40 winters ago, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Robinson scaled the Main Wall ice route in Lee Vining Canyon, off Highway 120 east of Tioga Pass. A near vertical frozen waterfall, the climb was likely a good opportunity to test some new ice climbing tools Chouinard was developing at the time, including an ice axe with a shortened shaft and a curved pick angle. His innovations helped push the sport past its roots as a subset of mountaineering to become a worthwhile winter pursuit in its own right. Since then, the sport has surged in popularity.

Unfortunately for ice climbers, high-quality accessible ice is in limited supply in California. The most consistent ice occurs in the Eastern Sierra canyons of Lee Vining and June Lake—a reasonably short road trip, depending on conditions. Seepage from Eastside spring and creek flows (and, as local legend has it, a little leak or two from Southern California Edison’s nearby power plant) congeals as the temperatures drop, forming intricate pillars and columns of ice. Climbers can choose between easier routes or sheer, overhanging multi-pitch and mixed-climbing routes to test their crampon skills and ice-axe picking techniques—all in a 40-mile radius of winter fun.

Lee Vining

The eponymous Lee Vining Canyon, situated just southwest of the town of Lee Vining on Highway 395, stays cool in the shadows of Mt. Dana. The 2,000-foot high canyon walls are mostly shaded from the sun, almost guaranteeing consistent winter ice. The canyon has several main climbing areas:

The Right and Central (or “Chouinard”) areas feature top-rope bolt anchors (be careful getting to these since they are right at the edge of the cliff) and offer good test routes for novice ice climbers.

The Main Fall area offers more than a dozen multi-pitch routes to choose from. Routes up the face and to either side are mostly M3 to 8 mixed grade and WI 4 and 5 lead climbs (see sidebar, “Ice Climbing Ratings”). Well-known routes include the mixed lines of “Fischer King” and the intermediate route of “Spiral Staircase.”

The Bard-Harrington Wall demands longer pitches but offers some great mixed climbing lines. But take note that the Main Fall and Bard-Harrington areas are the domain of lead climbers. Be sure of your abilities before committing to these longer routes.

Lee Vining Canyon is located some 100 miles south of Reno. Highway 120 is closed in winter so if coming from the Bay Area it is necessary to loop around to Highway 395 via Tahoe. Road access is dependent upon the county plowing so if there is a big storm, the canyon may only be accessible by skis or snowshoes.

Lee Vining is small! For accommodations try Murphey’s Motel—they offer an ice climber discount. Nicely’s restaurant, the only diner in town, is the sure spot to meet up with other ice climbers and fill your mandatory thermos of coffee or hot chocolate.

June Lake Loop

At June Lake, good ice is just a short but steep amble from the side of the June Lakes Loop Road, just south on 395 from Lee Vining.

The formations at June Lake tend to have less overhang and are therefore friendlier to beginners than Lee Vining Canyon’s routes. However, it is necessary to lead up to the top. Also, because the routes are more exposed to sunlight, the ice here can be shorter-lived and a lot more variable with “chandeliers” and “cauliflowers” of soft ice. So-called easier routes can quickly become tricky. “Horsetail Falls” and “Tatums” are the main climbing areas.

June Lake is 10 miles south of the town of Lee Vining. For lodging, try the Whispering Pines Motel here. For luxury treatment after a day spent picking and kicking, the Double Eagle Resort offers spas and massages. They also offer a tasty breakfast with a fireside view of the climbing area.

Due to the shortage of predictable, accessible ice in California, both of these locales are popular. If you can, avoid weekends and come midweek instead. And when the approach means waiting in line for your turn, avoid spending time at the base of climbs when there are others climbing above, for obvious reasons. For ice updates, visit Sierra Mountain Guides’ website at www.sierramtnguides.com.

If winter camping is your thing, check out Big Bend Campground in Inyo National Forest. For camping info, visit www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/recreation/campgrounds. For current road conditions in the area, visit http://www.monolake.org/live.

Gear

Here are a few tips to ready your rack for winter climbs:

You can get by with general-purpose mountaineering equipment, but dedicated waterfall climbing tools will make life a lot easier and more enjoyable.

For pure ice climbing, a bent shaft tool is the norm. Also, going leashless is becoming more poplar, just watch out for dropping tools—yours and those belonging to climbers above you.

Keep your ice tools sharp and touch them up with a file rather than a bench grinder which can overheat the points. (With all the sharp pointy equipment required for ice climbing, there are numerous ways to put a hole in yourself or someone else. Pay attention to your points!)

Keep your helmet on when you’re on or near the ice.

Bring several pairs of gloves so that as one pair gets wet you can pull on another.

Originally from New Zealand, SP Parker has lived in the Eastern Sierra for 25 years. Certified in rock, alpine and ski disciplines by the American Mountain Guides Association and with international certification through the IFMGA, he runs a guide service based in Bishop and leads trips throughout the Sierra and worldwide. He is also the author of “Eastern Sierra Ice,” available for sale at www.maximuspress.com.

Ice 101: Get Schooled

Ice climbing is a definite step up in danger from most rock climbing so be sure of your skill and ability before venturing out. If you are not confident in your skills, take a class from a guide or guide service. The following companies, all featuring AMGA or IFMGA certified guides, offer Eastside ice climbing seminars and trips:

Alpine Skills International leads Lee Vining and June Lakes trips for novice and experienced ice climbers alike. They also offer ice axe, crampon and glacial ice workshops. www.alpineskills.com; (530) 582-9170

Sierra Mountain Center features several ice climbing clinics in the Lee Vining area from basic skills to advanced waterfall climbing and private waterfall lessons. www.sierramountaincenter.com; (760) 873-8526

Sierra Mountain Guides, based out of June Lake, offer introductory and advanced ice climbing skills courses, with a two-day classic mixed-route course offered to intermediate climbers. www.sierramtnguides.com; (760) 648-1122

Sierra Wilderness Seminars offers basic and advanced ice climbing seminars as well as mixed-ice and rock technical combo courses. They also offer women-specific clinics. www.swsmtns.com; (888) 797-6867

For more info about ice climbing on the Eastside, visit www.sierraclimbers.com. Or get a copy of the guidebook to the area, “Eastern Sierra Ice,” by SP Parker (www.maximuspress.com).

Ice Climbing Ratings

All rating systems, whether for rock, alpine, ice, or mixed climbing, are subjective and dependent on the area, the climbing history, and the opinions of the climbing community. But for ice climbing and mixed ice climbing, ratings are even less precise because the medium of ice can change daily, seasonally, and—as all ice climbers know—hourly.

Remember ice-climbing ratings are nebulous at best and dangerous at worst. Use sound judgment and trust your instincts.

Water Ice Climbing: The Technical Ice (WI) and Mixed Ice rating systems below are based on various established systems such as the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), the New England Ice system (NEI), and others.

  • WI1: Walking on ice with crampons, low angle, up a stream bed.
  • WI2: Up to 60 degrees, good protection and belays. Ice usually thick and solid.
  • WI3: Sustained angle of 70 degrees with short steeper sections up to 80-85 degrees, with good protection, resting places, and belays. Ice usually thick and solid.
  • WI4: Sustained angle of 75-80 degrees with short steeper sections up to 90 degrees with good resting places in between; good quality ice offering secure protection and belays.
  • WI5: Sustained angle of 85-90 degrees, vertical with fewer good resting places, while still offering good quality ice for protections and belays.
  • WI6: Sustained angle of 90-plus degrees, vertical with very few resting places, ice may be of poor quality, thin; protection and belays may be difficult to attain.
  • WI7: Vertical to overhanging, ice quality thin, not well-bonded to surface; protection is marginal or non-existent.

Mixed Ice Climbing: Mixed Ice Climbing ratings (MI) are new and are still being developed. The ratings are related to the Yosemite Decimal System used in rock climbing with a liberal dose of “feels like…” subjectivity thrown in for good measure.

  • M1: “Feels like” 5.5 climbing with occasional dry tool move.
  • M2: “Feels like” 5.6 climbing with couple dry tool moves.
  • M3: “Feels like” 5.7 climbing with several dry tool moves.
  • M4: “Feels like” 5.8 climbing/ WI 4 / with some technical dry tooling.
  • M5: “Feels like” 5.9 climbing / WI 5 / some sections for sustained dry tooling.
  • M6: “Feels like” 5.10 climbing / WI 6/ with some vertical or overhanging difficult dry tooling.
  • M7: “Feels like” 5.11 /WI 6 or WI 7/ 10-15 meters of technical dry tooling.
  • M8: “Feels like” 5.11+ / 8-10 meters of slightly overhanging technical dry tooling.
  • M9: “Feels like” 5.12 / 10-15 meters of slightly overhanging technical dry tooling.
  • M10: “Feels like” 5.12- 5.13 / overhanging, technical, strenuous dry tooling.
  • M11: “Feels like” 5.13- 5.14 / Almost at the upper end.
  • M12: “Feels like” 5.14 – ? / Nearing the upper end.
  • M13: “Feels like” 5.14+ / The upper end.
  • M14: “Feels like” 5. ?? New techniques, creativity … the future?

– Timothy Keating

Timothy Keating is an AMGA certified guide with Sierra Wilderness Seminars Mountain Guides. He has been guiding since 1981, and has spent more than 20 years guiding and ice climbing in Lee Vining Canyon. www.swsmountainguides.com; 888-797-6867

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