TAHOE/TRUCKEE — There might be limited ice climbing around Lake Tahoe, but the sport has drawn a dedicated group of athletes throughout the basin. And more climbers are swelling those ranks as more people head into the backcountry.
Ask a veteran ice climber about ice climbing around Tahoe, and the words “small,” “scattered” and even “awful” might come up. But while the Lake Tahoe Basin may not be an ice-climbing mecca, the region’s winter climbing scene is growing as more snow sports enthusiasts head to the backcountry.
People just don’t move to Tahoe for the ice, South Shore climber Bryce Stath said. Stath started ice climbing in Alaska almost a decade ago before moving to South Lake Tahoe last year.
“The Sierra doesn’t produce ice like the other mountain ranges, but something is better than nothing. We go ice climbing when the skiing is marginal,” Stath said.
Epic powder days can make for terrible ice climbing. Feet of snow will cover routes and block access to the climbs, and the length and quality of the ice season varies drastically each winter as temperatures fluctuate. Novices be warned — ice climbing in Tahoe often involves thin ice and lots of mixed terrain, according to Stath.
Yet Stath said the number of strong rock climbers who want to test their skills on the ice is growing. Each year more people ask him to take them up in the winter, but with more climbers comes more risk.
“Being above people on ice is really dangerous. You have to be really mindful of where people are. And the equipment is very spiky and pointy. You just don’t want to fall. It’s such a different medium than rock. Ice can be really brittle,” Stath said.
LEARNING TO CLIMB
The most important lesson a beginning ice climber should learn is how to read the quality of the ice, a level of experience that can take years to master, longtime climber Karl Wallischeck said.
Wallischeck began ice climbing 35 years ago on the East Coast, where the winter climbing seasons are long and the ice plentiful.
He kept ice climbing after he moved to Tahoe in 1987, but the limited terrain, “ephemeral” conditions and two full-time jobs shortened his season.
Wallischeck, who works as both a lieutenant for the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District on the West Shore and as a ski patroller at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, has seen the number of winter sports enthusiasts venturing into the backcountry, and onto the ice, rise.
And the consequences of getting in over your head are severe, he said.
A 23-year-old El Cerrito man fell 125 feet to his death more than a year ago when he was ice climbing at Cascade Falls. Wallischeck said it’s the only fatality he knows of associated with the winter sport in Tahoe, but it’s indicative of the level of experience needed to tackle even beginner routes.
Cascade and Eagle falls as well as other routes around Emerald Bay typically draw many novice climbers. The climbs are easy to access and find, South Shore climber Jenna Stevens said.
Like Stath and Wallischeck, Stevens didn’t get her ice-climbing start in Tahoe. She honed her skills in Ouray, Colo., home of the biggest ice festival in North America.
“In those times that we’re out there, reality just kind of disappears. It’s just you and nature. It’s become a way of life for us,” Stevens said.
HIT OR MISS AT TAHOE
Stevens moved to the South Shore in May. Searching for ice climbing crags in the area is a hit-or-miss endeavor, and she’ll often go out to survey routes without climbing them.
Stevens hasn’t found much data about good climbs around Tahoe, and there isn’t a cohesive ice-climbing community to fill in those information gaps.
“Ice climbers seem to be a little more scarce. A lot of people are still kind of hesitant to get out there are try it,” she said.
The best way for beginners to leap into the sport is to find an experienced partner who’s willing to act as a mentor, Stevens said.
The American Alpine Club annual ice climbing weekend set to take place winter 2014 at Coldstream Canyon in Truckee is another good introduction to the sport.
That event, which organizers describe as more of an informal gathering than a true festival, got its start in 2005. The goal? Bring the disparate ice climbers of the basin together for an annual celebration of the terrain, event founder Dave Riggs said. The AAC wanted to host an ice climbing reunion similar to the gatherings held for rock climbers and mountaineers at other times of year.
The event hasn’t changed much over the past eight years. Attendees still ski or snowshoe into the Lost Trail Lodge on Friday night, and everyone pitches in to make communal meals. Saturday and Sunday are devoted to ice climbing on terrain that’s better than it gets credit for, Riggs said.
“The old saying is that a California ice climber’s most important tool is a fast car because when the ice climbs form, they don’t last long,” he said. “There’s some truth to that, especially for Tahoe. But if you’re attentive to conditions and open minded, you’ll find fun and interesting ice climbing.”
FORMING A COMMUNITY
The AAC’s ice climbing weekend typically sells out within a few days of open registration and Riggs said he expects about 35 people to attend this year. It’s the only organized event of its kind around the lake.
South Shore climber Stevens hopes that the ice-climbing community will come together as more people augment its ranks, and gatherings like the ice climbing weekend might help. The key is to release more information about routes into the mainstream even if there isn’t a lot of ice to publicize, Stevens said.
“People aren’t really vocal about where routes are and it’s really important for a climbing community to get data out there. It’s definitely a challenging activity. Your muscles are going to be really sore, but it’s a blast,” she said.