A group of friends and I followed the orbs of our headlamps over soggy red logs and through devils club in late February. I had never before worn my crampons through the woods, but the four of us had found the steep terrain along Blackerby Ridge covered in patches of invisible, mossy ice.
Naomi Judd photo Tim Farr ascends a wall of ice at night just before Juneau's warming weather changed the ice back into a rushing waterfall.
"It's only a half hour bushwhack to the drainage," he had said nearly two hours ago.
We decided to check out this "easily accessible" climb at night, when the ice - a waning commodity that month for those of our kind - was more solid. We had to cut farther left, then found our route and scrambled up the 60 degree, partially frozen drainage. By the time we reached the waterfall my heart sunk; it was rotten ice. I swung my ax clear through its base, crumbling it into slushy bits.
"There's a bigger one over this next rise," Tim said. "It might be better."
The next waterfall, though more solid, was dangerously thin on the bottom left side. We stood behind it in a small cave, illuminating it like a sculpture. I swung a pick into its middle section resounding a soft thunk, as I gazed up to where it terraced back beyond our sight fifty feet up.
"I think we could give it a try," Louis said. We nodded and flaked out the ropes, prepared our harnesses. With no time for a full climb, Tim and Louis would lead up to the first platform to set a top anchor so we could climb a few laps for fun. My head began to throb from dehydration, hunger, not to mention I hadn't worn my glasses all day. It was going on 9 p.m.
Chelsea and I watched Tim lead, placing ice screws as he went, Louis followed. The shine of their headlamps grew dimmer as they ascended and we waited over an hour.
"Are you guys still there!" I yelled.
"Yeah, be right down!" a distant, echoing call.
After another half hour, they rappelled down and said the rope was good to go. My headache was turning into a migraine. Spots danced before my eyes.
"I don't know if I want to climb any more," I said. "My head really hurts."
Chelsea tied in to the rope - her first time on ice - she didn't climb long, but watching her crampons cut through the ice, I was itching to climb, I didn't care if my head felt like it was being crunched by a clamp.
I looped a figure eight into my harness and picked up my favorite ice tools, the extra light Petzel Aztarex's.
My axes sunk several easy inches into the wall. This ice was by far the softest I had climbed. The tip of my crampons bent the maleable ice as I swung my boots in for footholds. My head throbbing, I climbed only thirty feet up the wall, but it was thirty feet of the best headache I ever had.
After cleaning our ropes and packing up, we started down. Down-climbing the drainage was far scarier than any vertical ice climb I had done. Crouching low as we carefully placed our steps, my headlamp began to dim. I squinted down the icy drainage only to see Louis fall 20 feet or more, the skid of metal on rock screaming as he tried to self-arrest himself. He stopped just shy of a 15-foot drop.
"You okay!" We all called.
"Yeah, I think I lost an ax though." That is the type of thing climbers think about; not is my hand bleeding or have I lost my way, its "is my gear okay?"
He found his ax, and after that we set up ropes to rappel down the rest of the drainage. The road entered my vision at almost midnight, our bellies aching for something good. I hadn't had a chance to eat since before I went kayaking earlier that day. Southeast Alaska is one of the few places I know where one can kayak and ice climb within the same 24 hours.
With the warming temperatures it was probably my last waterfall of the season here in Juneau. Luckily Southeast Alaska provides the precious hard ice of glaciers for those of us who must climb year round.
If you are just getting into ice climbing or revisiting the sport for the first time in a while you must have your screws in a row. Of course, it helps to have enough water and food packed, not to mention Tylenol. Even seasoned climbers can get kicked in the butt for forgetting the basics on a "quick climb" and I'm not so sure if quick climbs actually exist.