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Mid-Winter Crisis

I’ve begun to feel the first desperate stabs of this winter’s mortality.

Routes that are only in climbable condition in the early season are, by now, gone until November.  I’m looking forward to friends coming out here soon on their spring break weeks.  I’ve started researching Western rivers and potential rock climbing destinations.  Football is over, and pitchers and catchers report next week.  The ice climbing season is still going strong, but it doesn’t have the “endless summer” vibe about it that it had when I first got out here.  It’s time to pour a little gas on the fire, and there’s only one way to do that right: road trip.

These scenes never seem to get old.

These scenes never seem to get old. This is the green-tinged pitch that gives "Smooth Emerald Milkshake" its name -- Cody, WY

Jason and I left Bozeman on Monday afternoon.  Destination: Cody.  Objective: Smooth Emerald Milkshake and maybe a stopover in the Beartooths on the way home.  Jason had been eyeing the route for a few seasons, but its reputation as being hard to find and hard to reach had steered him toward other climbs in the area.  I assured him the approach was no big deal (remember: climbers don’t lie, we “sandbag”) and that we could do most of it in the dark (which was actually true, as Jamie and I proved on our way back out last time).  We made it to Cody just after sundown and, after a quick stop at Wendy’s, cruised through town toward the South Fork canyon.

We got to the campground around 8:00pm and threw our sleeping bags and pads on a groundcloth right next to the truck.  The 4:30 alarm looked to afford a full night’s sleep, which would have come as a welcome diversion from the three hours I’d collected before my last Cody trip.  Didn’t happen, though.

I woke up for the first time at 11:30 and found my bag covered in a thin layer of frost.  I shivered my way back to sleep for another two hours before the freezing night woke me up again.  The next hour was a ridiculous recital of the classic uncomfortable sleeping bag dance: “it sure is cold here…maybe if I just go back to sleep…roll over…maybe the other side?…alright, eyes closed…wow, it’s cold…um, I guess I could go sleep in the truck…turn on the heat…yep, doin’ it…eh, I don’t want to waste the gas…suck it up, man; how do you expect to survive an unplanned bivy in the high mountains if you can’t handle one cold night at a campground?…still, no reason to be miserable tonight on the off-chance that I’ll have to sleep out somewhere even worse later…alright, eyes closed and back to sleep…roll over again…why didn’t I pull the trigger on those down booties last week?…no, don’t look at it…but it’ll be so much warmer in there…just close your eyes…”

Bluebird day in Cody.  "Bitch's Brew" (WI 5) can be seen on the lower right.

Bluebird day in Cody. "Bitch's Brew" (WI 5) can be seen on the lower right.

I woke up one last time around 3:30 to turn down the heat in the truck.  Totally worth it.

We made it to the base of the climb just before 9:00.  The rest of the morning darkness had been spent thawing out and protesting the frigid night, and dawn had come and gone before we hit the trail.  As is often the case, though, the hours of shivering depression were all but forgotten by the time we stacked the ropes under the initial ice curtain.  I turned one screw in the steep lower step, pulled the bulge, and, just like that, my universe had once again contracted to a twenty-foot-wide ice flow.

Jason tests the ice conditions.  We bail shortly thereafter.

Jason tests the ice conditions. We bail shortly thereafter.

We didn’t make it all the way to the top this time.  Cold, dry weather had left the ice brittle and hard, and the upper crux pitches seemed too full of bad consequences to merit the climbing that would have been more work than fun anyway.  Still, four pitches of alpine ice is worth as many hours of trail-time any day, and we pulled into Bozeman later that night satisfied and psyched for more.

We’ll probably be back some time in the next few weeks.  Spring is looming, but there’s still plenty of ice to be climbed and, as we painfully realized, plenty of cold nights left to keep it around.

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