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Highway to Hell


by Stephaine Euwema

February 20, 2003

About October a friend of mine and I went up to Silverton, in Eureka, and climbed Highway to Hell. The name I realize sounds a little disheartening. When we get their, nothing else is in good enough shape to climb except for highway to hell. (Word to the wise: first names are not meant to deceive, and second when the only ice existing is the ice your plan to climb be wary of this small fact and re-think the climb.) I feel a little sketched out on-account of the name and the fact that this is my first ice climb. Ian is confident and begins to create a rack.

We strap our gear on; it hangs awkward off of every limb and worthy loop, swinging wildly with each step. Burdened down we kick ourselves in the end when in total the gear used was three ice screws and one Alien (Our motto: better to be safe than sorry). The approach is not at all easy, lying on a huge down hill slant, over scree, loose boulders and sliding snow. The awkward swinging appendages and the sliding rock join together in a scheme, threatening to send me head first down the slope.

Highway to Hell from the base seems an innocent multi-pitch climb (rating? Havenít figured that out yet). So the first pitch goes great, Ian sets one screw and runs the rope out. I venture up, swinging awkwardly getting used to the sharp tools skimming by my head and legs, being careful not to get behind the knife like add adorning the back of the tool. I create my own beginners rhythm and quickly make progress up the seemingly thin ice. I make it to Ian and decide that a rope is not needed, the pitch being more of a slope than a threatening climb. We untie and I begin the next pitch, Ian follows. Our tools make a rhythmical sound, Ian (the experienced climber) hitting every beat, and my tools sporadically fill in between the beats. The pitch was easy, and we get to the bottom of the crux. I frown, this is vertical, it looks hard, but doable I decide in my inexperienced mind, where the thoughts are driven by the adrenaline rushing through my blood (regrettably, I believe adrenaline is what killed the dare devil). Ian remains silent as he ropes up, and continues to look at the climb, later telling me he thought from the beginning the ice looked too thin.

Ian begins, and sets his first protection, a gravel ice screw; it sits well in some solid ice so he continues on. His next protection is an alien he places in some rock about five feet above the screw. All is going well. He moves on. Colliding with some icicles they rain down on me. He pulls himself over the edge and finds no protection. The ice is now too thin to set screws. He keeps going. I can hear him grunting and frustrated, I frown again knowing this climb is going to be hard. He runs the rope out about forty feet, until he finds a nice outcropping of rock. With the rope run out he decides to find somewhere to set some solid protection in a crack. Unbeknownst to him the rock is ALL freeze fractured. He takes a tricky traverse to the left in which I hear a lot of scratching, cursing, and hailing of god, until he eventually makes it to a ledge on the opposite side of the rock (I donít quite understand why, but who am I to question- me a beginner ice climber) There are many cracks in the spot, he takes out a stopper from the full rack and sets it. In a test he yanks down on the piece, both rocks move apart and the stopper falls out. In retrospect where does this leave him, 100 ft above the ground, with a 10 ft traverse to back track (everyone knows that backtracking is virtually impossible, an unwritten rule)

He grabs a hold on a helmet-sized rock and consequently it breaks free falling into his stomach; He drops it. With courtesy he yells rock, I hear is coming and am ready to move out of the way, it rounds the edge and plummets towards me; I move, but not in enough time, it hits my shin, this is a boulder about the size of my head, big, it feels like my leg breaks, I swear I hear a crack. Putting weight on it I expect my leg to buckle and by calf to fold in half, it doesnít and I conclude that it canít be broken. All this time Ian has moved over the dry tool and is hanging on one ax and one crampon. I am tempted to ask him to hold on while I check the damage, but I figure I donít want to be responsible for a death. I bite my tongue.

He pulls himself over the edge, and yells down to see how Iím doing. Iím in so much pain; the sore feels itís draining my blood into my sock. Iím also freezing; the lead that Ian thought would take like 10 minutes is turning out to be an hour lead. Itís so cold, and the sun is going down, it was like 6:30. I grit my teeth and yell, ďNo worriesĒ.

Ian returns to the tricky climb, and sets his pick into some chandler ice. It rains down; I move against the rock helmet protecting my head and neck and try to avoid the falling ice. He tries again, this time pulling up over the edge, onto some thicker ice worthy of an ice screw. He is able to place a screw, which is better, but more of physiological protection. He climbs on and finds some ice thick enough to put up a belay station, Iím grateful for that when I look down at the meager two feet of slack he had left.

My leg is throbbing and it is now about 7:30 so its dark, this is my first vertical ice ever and consequently in the dark, and the temperature has dropped significantly rendering my hands useless in trying to pry the wet frozen rope (builds character).

I get to the first screw; remove it. With reluctance I start climbing again, when I finally get to the rock pro, Iím a little shaky, but not too frightened. I take it out. Now comes the mixed part, with crampons on its not easy at all. The crampons I have on are a friend of mine's, same as the boots, a size 9 on a size 6 foot. The crampons are missing their front points, and are set up for alpine climbing, so I have the wrong configuration on for ice climbing, making it much harder than expected. I grab the rock and let my ice tools dangle, not so bad Iím thinking, I pull my self up. Wrong, the rock Iím hanging on to breaks free and send me hurtling into some chandler icicles, I pull myself back up, and hey (lucky me) wind up back in the icicles. With crampons you can't smear and if you think a foot hold will hold, it won't, so consequently youíre climbing with your arms, at least thatís what I knew for my first ice climb ever (in reality dry tooling is a game of balance and weighting, but I was never taught that). I finally get my axe stuck in good and pull as hard as I can, and pull myself over the edge. I then attempt to stick my crampon in, but miss, instead hitting my bruised, bloody shin against the ice. I swallow the yelp of pain, and return to the task at hand; eventually burying the tips of the crampon. (Memo to self: take up yoga) The last spurt of energy I use and pull myself over the edge and lay on the belay ledge of frozen ice to regain my composer. I apologized for how long it took (who was I to apologize I didnít ask it to take so long) and began the belay ledge dance with him, as he and I moved over, under, and around personals and ropes to replace the nice screws with the hero screws. Then he lowered me down. Lowering off of ice screws in ice not fit for a screw is a rush of panic, the first step over the edge my stomach hit my throat and I closed my eyes. I made it to the ground, untied and sat to wait for Ian.

Remember that we climbed up 60m so that the rope wasn't able to reach the ground if your rapping yourself down, so Ian gets stuck about half way down, where you can't set any screws, he drops the rope and down climbs the rest of the way. Well thatís not the end. Now itís dark weíre both shaking with cold. I feel like Iím going to vomit, a biting throbbing, burning, pain radiates from my hands. I roll over on the ground and moan in agony. Ian laughs, and tells me Iíve over gripped my tools. Over grip, how the hell are you supposed to hang on without grabbing them? I twist around and roll some more, with my hands between my legs, vomit is threatening to yank my insides out. I grit my teeth and stand up, sarcastically remark on his choice for a beginners climb and wrench the horrid tools tight to my wrist to begin the rest of the decent.

We have to down climb the last three pitches that we had previously soloed. Itís not easy to down climb, and in this settings it seems virtually impossible. With some creative mixed climbing and some very awkward risky jumps from hold to hold in the dark, we hit ground. I drop to my knees beside my pack and gulp down a pint of water, relived for the most part that we came down in one piece.

For the next hour we battle spree and snow picking our way down the non-existent approach trail. We arrive at the car, about 10 pm, having started at 2 pm. Weíre freezing, sitting in the car waiting for warmth to return to our numb bodies. I check my leg, to my surprise no chunk is missing, instead I seemed to have grown new bone over the scar, to bad I think, nothing to show off. We leave, content in our cushioned seats, heat blowing on our faces, and pain throbbing through our veins. To say the least, its tower season right now, not ice season. But hey I really do like climbing ice.

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